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Book Report: The Thirty-Nine Steps (play)

So. Your Humble Blogger is considering auditioning for a production of The 39 Steps. This is a stage adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation of the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The history of the adaptation itself is kinda whatsit, evidently, with the basic idea (do the movie on stage with only four actors playing all the parts) being the genius of two people implausibly named Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. That idea was turned into a madcap spoof of a script by Patrick Barlow, of the National Theater of Brent, whose shtick was goofy adaptations in which Mr. Barlow played the lead and one other actor played everybody else. However, Mr. Barlow did not produce The 39 Steps with the National Theater of Brent, or play the lead himself. The script (and presumably the posters and the playbills) credits Mr. Buchan, Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Barlow, Mr. Corble and Mr. Dimon, but not, bizarrely, Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, who wrote the screenplay for the 1935 film and thus wrote the bulk of the actual sentences said in the play. Including the immortal exchange: What are the 39 Steps? The 39 Steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of—aaaargh!

As it seems that playing multiple roles is becoming my shtick, I am hoping to be cast as one of the two clowns (as Mr. Harlow calls them) who play dozens of supporting characters. I haven't the physical dexterity I once did, alas, but I can still clown a bit, I hope. At one point, in a footnote to a bit of stage direction, Mr. Harlow writes: This will depend entirely on your design, amount of wing space, and the actor's level of Olympian fitness. Quite a lot of this show depends on the actor's level of Olympian fitness. It has proved an invaluable aid to weight loss. My Olympian level of fitness is… not Olympian. Funny voices, funny faces, even costume quick-change I think I can manage. One pratfall a night, no problem. Two at the absolute maximum.

Digression, I suppose: I wish that I had trained properly at physical comedy in my youth. I wouldn't have kept it up, as I haven't the discipline, but it would have been helpful. Lately, my experience with physical comedy bits in shows is something like this: I get an idea for the possibility of a bit, then I try it out at rehearsal, where it gets lashings of laughter from all and sundry and the director says to keep it (we will pass lightly over those that do not get lashings of laughter). The next time we run that scene, I do the bit slightly too late, having missed the cue. The director gives me a note, and I assure him or her that it will not happen again. The next time, it's at the right time, but stiff and awkward, and not funny. The time after that, it's late again, and also stiff and awkward and unfunny. Then I get it just right! Once. Then it's early, but still funny. The next time, I do it so wrong that I injure myself, but shake it off. The next two or three times, it's hard to tell whether it's funny, because everyone is focused on whether I will plummet to my hideous doom or not. Wagers are presumably made, and lost. I survive. By this time I can't remember what exactly was funny about the bit in the first place, but it's too late to ask to take it out. In dress rehearsal, the bit goes smoothly and silently. On opening night, I am surprised by the audience's laughter. Depending on how many performances we have, it's likely that one night (or even more likely, one matinee) I do it late and it gets a laugh anyway; one night it gets no response whatsoever despite my doing it perfectly. Ah, well. End Digression.

What concerns me, though, is that the audition notice says that All the roles in this play are performed by a small ensemble of actors (eight, possibly more.) Much of the fun of the play is predicated on the two-clowns conceit. Scenes are structured to draw attention there being no way to bring a fifth character on-stage without one of the clowns going off and changing clothes. In one scene that strikes me as particularly clever, one of the clowns changes character onstage in character (sort of, it's hard to explain) which makes sense only if the audience is constantly aware that there are no other actor to play the other parts. For instance, Our Hero is in a railway car with two salesmen:

Salesman 1: Wonder what won the two o'clock at Windsor.
Salesman 2: I'll get a paper.
Salesman 1: I'll go to the lavatory.
(They get up. Squeeze round each other.)
Salesman 1: Excuse me. Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 2: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.
(Salesman 1 exits. Salesman 2 sticks his head out of the window. Whistles through his teeth. Salesman 1 immediately back on as a Paperboy in a flat cap.)
Paperboy: Evenin paper! Latest news! Evenin paper! Latest—
Salesman 2: Evenin paper please?
Paperboy:Evenin paper sir? Thankoo sir! (gives him a paper)
Salesman 2: (gives him a penny) Thankoo.
Paperboy: Evenin paper! Latest news! Evenin paper! Latest—
(Exits. Immediately back on as Salesman 1)
Salesman 1: Excuse me. (Squeezes past) Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 2: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.

And then after the exposition from the paper has happened, we get another scene:

Salesman 2: Think I'll pop out to the buffet car. Finished? (Snatches paper from Hannay) Fancy anythin'?
Salesman 1: No thank you.
Hannay: No thank you.
Salesman 2: Right you are. (He leaves the compartment. Squeezes past.) Excuse me. Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 1: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.
(Salesman 1 glances out of the window.)
Salesman 1: Good Heavens! Place is stiff with police!
(Hannay freezes. Salesman 1 pulls down window. Calls out.)
Salesman 1: Excuse me Constable! Caught the West End Murderer yet?
( Salesman 2 appears in a police hat)
Policeman: We'll catch him. Don't you worry.

…and so forth.

If the Paperboy isn't played by the same person as the Salesman, his appearance isn't funny. Even if he is played by the same actor, if the audience knows that there's someone else standing around in the wings, his appearance isn't funny. And while that's among the most explicit of those sorts of moments, the play is made up of a whole succession of such, and a cast of eight would, it seems to me, ruin it.

On the other hand, I must admit that a community theater would have an easier time selling tickets to a show with a cast of eight than with a cast of four. Ah, well. We'll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,