Ask yourself, what would you do if you were wrongly accused of murder and forced to flee from cops, cronies, and the occasional sheep in order to clear your name? How about if you found out what role(s) you were playing just five minutes before curtain? Not sure? A little panicky? Well, you’re in luck because the answer to both is at NextStop Theatre Company as they return to Patrick Barlow’s farcical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in their 10th anniversary season.
It’s 1935 Britain and a handsome bachelor is suddenly swept up into the mysterious and precarious world of international espionage after an agent dies in his London flat. Desperate to clear his name and prevent a national secret from being exposed, Richard Hannay makes his way to the end of the earth (Scotland) — by train, by foot, by plane, by car, and around some sheep — through a labyrinth of mistaken identities, dozens of odd characters, and countless close calls. In a delightful season opener and starring a brave cast of four who don’t know which of the dozen roles they’re playing for that performance until a live coin flip five minutes before curtain, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps invites you to clutch your pearls and laugh in the face of danger.
As fate of the opening night coin flip would have it, the confident Rebecca Ballinger took on the role of the dashing “hero,” Richard Hannay. With a comedic wit as sharp as her mustache and the swagger of a leading man on the silent screen, Ballinger brought a lanky physicality twice the height of her petite stature to each scene.
Her counterpart for this performance was Matthew Shea, taking on the “villain’s” role (along with many others). From the plotting professor with a disintegrating accent to a tempted, unsatisfied Scottish farmer’s wife and even as a crooked crony trying to get the job done for the boss, Shea slipped in and out of accent and dress as easily as a quick change in a Broadway musical, with just as much flair.
Setting the whole deadly plot into motion this fateful night was Sarah Anne Sillers as the femme fatale track. Her agent was slinky and short-lived, her sheriff brogue danced a highland fling, and her innkeeper’s wife was nonsensical, all in the best ways possible. Falling in and out of the most characters of any track in the production, Sillers had sixth sense for pushing the farce right to the edge, and her over-the-top facial expressions in every role she embodied would have made Danny Kaye proud.
Last but certainly not least was Jaclyn Young as the evening’s “ingenue” (and, you guessed it, many others). Every time she took the stage, whether as a malfunctioning window dressing or as the meek, often oblivious Pamela, Young was a treat to watch from start to finish. A standout for me also was her mastery of the many accents thrown her way during this track. I sincerely don’t know how she still had a voice left after preaching her way through her stint as the red-faced Scottish farmer.
Executed wonderfully by the committed cast of four, this production really shines in the fluid orchestration of its many moving, outlandish pieces as directed by Evan Hoffmann. From the bumbling scene changes to the topsy-turvy on-stage prop swaps and the dizzying rotation of characters, this production is a delightful (not so secret) magic trick. The backdrop to this improbable 1930s world was the creative collaboration of Jack Golden (scenic designer), Hailey LaRoe (lighting designer), Johnna Presby (costume designer), and Ivy Martinez (props designer) making the over-the-top twists and turns seem anything but.
Embracing the slapstick from even an impromptu lighting board malfunction on opening night, the rotating combination of characters and actors, scenes, and farcical flair in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at NextStop Theatre Company was a joy. This production is a spy farce with a roulette wheel attached, showcasing just how much this story means to the history of the company. And with a coin toss bringing chance into each performance, every night promises to be an entirely new adventure keeping us all laughing at whatever and whoever comes next.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps plays through October 8, 2023, at NextStop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park, Herndon VA. For tickets ($45), call the box office at (703)-481-5930. Reserved-seating tickets are available online or at the door on performance days.
The program for Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is online here.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
By Arrangement with Fiery Angel Limited
Rebecca Ballinger – TBD
Matthew Shea – TBD
Sarah Anne Sillers – TBD
Jaclyn Young – TBD
Suzy Alden – Understudy
Evan Hoffmann – Director
Jack Golden – Scenic Designer
Hailey LaRoe – Lighting Designer
Johnna Presby – Costume Designer
Ivy Martinez – Props Designer
Zackary Tomney – Sound Designer
Emma Smith – Stage Manager
Jen Katz – Assistant Stage Manager
Jack Wilson – Technical Director
Suzy Alden – Assistant Director
Imari Pyles – Associate Costume Designer
Megan Behm – Intimacy Choreographer
Elizabeth Wiley – Dialect Coach
Suzy Alden, Tina Thayer, Gabriella Trevino-Bandy – Scenic Artist