Imaginative sets, clever actors, inspired lighting… evam's ‘39 Steps', was an engaging comic tribute to Hitchcock

Four actors playing 140 characters. And no, it wasn't the recession that made evam do it.

It's London, 1935, and Richard Hannay (Navin Balachandran), with a hitherto insipid life of 37 years behind him, is unwittingly dragged into the midst of a plot to steal Britain's military secrets. What follows over an hour-and-a-half are his attempts to simultaneously disentangle himself from the scheme, get romantically involved with three women (all played by Renu Abraham) and a quest to answer that all-important question — what are the 39 steps?

In a comic tribute to Hitchcock, evam and Radaan presented the Monty Pythonesque take on the originally grave film, “The 39 Steps”, adapted for West End by Patrick Barlow. Directed here by Bhargav Ramakrishnan, it is a farce that laughs good-naturedly at not only itself, but at some of Hitchcock's most successful films, filled as it is with allusions to “Rear Window”, “Psycho” and “North by Northwest”.

Surreal humour

It was a play that required you to engage constantly and consistently, because almost nobody returns as themselves, and was propelled by instantaneous changes in costumes, mannerisms and voices. They need to recreate almost an entire film onstage, without the benefit of cuts and retakes. Most props were set on wheels, so for instance, by merely rolling a solitary doorframe around, houses changed direction, actors moved from room to room by not walking at all, or suddenly found themselves outside, shivering in the cold. A podium from a political meeting was upturned to make a car; armchairs and sofas rolled onstage from the wings, in perfect position to catch actors, who, heart-stoppingly, have already begun to sit.

Using sometimes only lights (Victor Paulraj and Pritam Kumar), and dramatic music (S. Ved Shanker), we're at once within and without, right-side-in and inside out.

Then there was the truly surreal humour that the Pythons were famous for. Professor Jordan, the villain, with a resplendent green velvet jacket and a suitably sinister cackle, tries to win the hero over to the dark side while holding a gun to his head, with a dramatic proclamation of, “We will give you love Hannay! You've never had enough love before!” (He almost says yes.)

At one point, Hannay and Pamela, a woman he meets on a train, are on the run from the police. But oh, getting away is not easy. There are vicious forces of Nature, lakes, bushes, vines, creepers, trees and well, sheep in their way. (Till Nature is scolded away by Hannay, who has had enough.) All played by Sunil Vishnu and T.M. Karthik Srinivasan.

Though sometimes, as is wont to happen with plays of this complexity, the performance was exhaustively rehearsed, sometimes to the point of predictability. And once in a while, the humour was weighed down by the need to make everything a little too obvious. A scene in a train would have not only the background sounds, the characteristic back-and-forth swaying, and even dialogue stating that they're on a train; but someone physically pushing a toy train along the edge of the stage.

Satirical script

Undoubtedly, it was the parts in which they used less that they accomplished more. Like the brilliant scene in which Hannay has been banished to the couch by the mysterious Annabella Schmidt. The light flicks on and off, each time showing a Hannay cramped into a different sleeping position — easily, effectively showing the night progress. Or the scene in a train, where two men, by merely changing the kind of hat they're wearing, become almost six characters in less than a minute — including a newspaper boy, a policeman, a passenger and a train boy.

Though parts of the dialogues were lost in the quagmire of varying British accents, the strength of the satirical script kept it together. “Are you married?” asks Hannay of the milkman. “Yes, but don't rub it in,” he says. An angry purple-faced “Do you want me to shoot you dead?” from a thug gets a thoughtfully considered, “Not particularly, no,” in response.

But the evening truly belonged to Sunil and Karthik, who, over and above being those forces of Nature, were policemen, women, ticket collectors, farmers, evil henchmen, passengers, a parade, inn-keepers in kilts, and wives with fox-red hair — sometimes, commendably, all at the same time.