The 39 Steps: A Note from the Artistic Director

The 39 Steps: A Note from the Artistic Director


Bill English, Artistic Director

From the back seat of my parents’ Country Squire station wagon at the local drive-in theatre, I watched Cary Grant dodge a crop-duster and hang off Mount Rushmore and my life-long love of Alfred Hitchcock was born. Years later, while working a graveyard shift summer job at a state mental hospital it was cemented by watching twenty Hitchcock films on TV in a summer-long late-night festival. And discovering The 39 Steps decades later has put the icing on the cake.

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps effortlessly blends comedy, suspense, and farce. Set in pre-World War II England, it details the adventures of Richard Hannay, a dapper but clueless everyman who becomes caught up in a spiraling intrigue. Barlow has brilliantly condensed the original novel and film into a breakneck-paced tour de force for four actors playing over 150 roles, each performer skillfully jumping between characters with lightning speed serving as a tribute to the versatility of the actors.

Filled with sight gags, puppetry, slapstick and meta-theatre and using ordinary props to create multiple locations and employing classic clowning techniques, The 39 Steps also serves as a great showcase for a director, choreographers, lighting designers, and sound designers. It is an affectionate tribute to the spy thriller genre, as well as a playful satire of its cliches. Through its scintillating dialogue and tongue-in-cheek references to classic spy films, the play both celebrates and parodies the genre, inviting audiences to revel in its absurdity and poke fun at its stereotypes.

As with so many films from the noir genre that Hitchcock set in motion, we are presented with a protagonist who is alienated from himself and others, whose ennui prevents him from having empathy for anyone else. And his journey takes him out of alienation toward a capacity for compassion. But the greatest power of The 39 Steps comes from its ability to appeal to such a wide audience regardless of age or culture. With its universal themes of adventure, romance, and heroism, the play has staked out its own place as a thrilling rollercoaster ride of laughter, suspense and sheer theatrical virtuosity.

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Bill English is Artistic Director and Co-Founder of San Francisco Playhouse, and in twenty years with Susi Damilano, has guided its growth from a bare-bones storefront to the second-largest theater in San Francisco.

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