Vertigo Theatre’s The 39 Steps a fast-paced, expertly executed comic thriller

I’ve been in no fewer than three cities in the last three months where I encountered theatres advertising upcoming runs of The 39 Steps.  The stage adaptation of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, itself an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel, has a lot of fans. I had never seen it, but so many people seem to rave about it that I had lofty expectations for the Vertigo Theatre production.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Hitchcock aficionados will recognize many of the scenes from the film, but presented as if viewed in a fun-house mirror. Richard Hannay is still the debonair leading man, minding his own business one night at the theatre when a villainous spy plot quite literally falls into his lap. Hannay is suspected of murder, and goes on the run, encountering a series of obstacles on his way to unmasking the true killer and keeping state secrets from falling into the wrong hands.

But this isn’t the thriller that you might remember from the film — the story is played for laughs from beginning to end, and expertly so. From the seductive German spy and her comically incomprehensible accent to the shadow-puppet montage that includes a Hitchcock cameo, this is Three’s Company meets film noir.

The play is a collage of Hitchcock references that make it clear that this is homage rather than strictly parody. Movie titles, puns, and visual references to other Hitchcock films fly by at such a pace that they’re into the next scene before the audience catches on, but to their credit, the cast (mostly) don’t pause to ham it up and wait for acknowledgement. There are no wasted moments in Ron Jenkins’ staging, making it a production one should perhaps see more than once in order to fully appreciate it.

Without question, the virtuoso performances are delivered by Andy Curtis and Ron Pederson, playing dozens of characters, ranging from the villains of the piece to a comical pair of Scottish hoteliers to a bog and a brier thicket. This is Curtis’ second go at The 39 Steps, having starred in Vertigo’s first production of the play in their 2010-11 season, and while I would have loved to have seen him play against Christopher Hunt in that version (insert completely extraneous rave sentiment about Chris Hunt here), I can’t imagine better chemistry than that between Curtis and Pederson. Their scenes are a masterpiece of exquisitely choreographed physical comedy. But they manage a feat that is mysterious and wondrous — they do it without drawing focus away from the characters and the central, somewhat thin plot that provide the through line of the play.

Tyrell Crews is suave and cynical as Hannay, the Canadian who, counter to cultural stereotype, triumphs in most situations (spoiler) by simply brazening it out, to the comical puzzlement of all around him. He is often the straight man to Curtis and Pederson and their wild antics, but brings a devil-may-care charm to the role that keeps him where he belongs, in the centre of the action. Anna Cummer, playing all three of Hannay’s female foils through the course of the comic sprint, gives each of them a distinct spiciness that might have been tempting to gloss over in the rush to keep up with the frenetic pace of the show.

It’s easy to see how, in the wrong hands, this play could get bogged down in its own wit, and leave the audience impressed but confused. Vertigo has assembled just exactly the right collection of artists here, and they treat it with a light but expert hand. Plan to see it at least once.

(Photo of Andy Curtis and Ron Pederson by Diane+Mike Photography.)

The 39 Steps runs Nov. 1 -Dec. 16 at Vertigo Theatre. Check out their website,, for tickets and info.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.