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Four actors, 139 roles and 39 Steps – 'it's absolute madness'


Just four actors play 139 roles in the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s new production of ‘The 39 Steps’ – a classic comedy/noir thriller that creates a cocktail of fun, action and invention.

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The 39 Steps is English actor, comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation of John Buchan’s classic novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller film. The English playwright replicated the entire film on stage, embellishing it with his keen sense of humour.

It’s described as a “wonderfully deranged comedy” by the State Theatre Company, whose new production of the play opens at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Friday.

“Barlow made The 39 Steps into a comedy by assigning each cast member around 63 roles each and writing classic theatrical errors into the script,” says Adelaide actor Charles Mayer, who is playing a share of those roles.

“If you had no sense of humour, what you would see is a representation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film on stage, but Barlow is a wildly talented, crazy genius – not unlike Barry Humphries – so for most people it’s a really funny, fun story.

“It’s a celebration of some of the classic dramas that can happen in theatre.”

Mayer was born and trained as an actor in the UK, but now lives in Adelaide after meeting and marrying his Australian partner, Cate Fittock. He has performed in recent State Theatre Company productions The Popular Mechanicals and Othello, while his film and television credits include Shanghai Calling, Spooks and ANZAC Girls.

The actor is not new to multiple roles and lightning-fast costume changes, having played 45 characters in the one-man play I Am My Own Wife in the 2013 Adelaide Fringe.

“It takes quite a bit of experience before an actor can manage roles of such challenging transitions – it’s taken me at least 10 years to get to that stage,” he says.

“It’s absolute madness. The way we deal with it is by being absolutely precise so we don’t end up duplicating any mannerism, voice, speed and tone quality. And we have an amazing team of assistant stage managers and wardrobe staff who make it as slick as possible.

“The mistakes that are written into The 39 Steps make it even more complicated – the pressure to meet the speed of the cues is enormous and you’ve just got to fit into it as an effective cog in the works that doesn’t miss a tooth.”

'The 39 Steps' cast: Anna Steen, Nathan Page, Tim Overton and Charles Mayer. Photo: James Hartley

‘The 39 Steps’ cast: Anna Steen, Nathan Page, Tim Overton and Charles Mayer. Photo: James Hartley

Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps ran for 10 years in London’s West End (see trailer below), before touring globally and running for an extended season on New York’s Broadway. The new production from State Theatre is directed by Jon Halpin and also stars Tim Overton (The Popular Mechanicals), Anna Steen (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Nathan Page.

Page is originally from Adelaide and the star of popular Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Cast as the dashing Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, he is the only actor with one role to play and who remains on stage for the entire performance.

“The audience knows Nathan and recognises him for being a bit of a smoothie,” says Mayer.

As the plot unfolds, Hannay is pulled into a web of intrigue and deceit after attending a vaudeville show in London. He is pursued by a shady organisation, entranced by women, and finds himself at the centre of skulduggery and suspicion. He must solve the mystery of The 39 Steps to save his skin.

“In his role in The 39 Steps, Nathan is in the most difficult multi-layered predicament and he’s just so dynamic, so kind and so very good at acting that the audience is just going to adore him,” says Mayer.

The 39 Steps is a really fun story. It’s an absolute joy.”

The 39 Steps is showing at the Dunstan Playhouse from August 19 to September 11. See a trailer from the 2009 West End production below.

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