39 Steps delivers new Yukon hero

Move over James Bond. Forget about Jason Bourne. Whitehorse has a new hero: Richard Hannay. Hannay is the strong, silent type at the centre of The 39 Steps, the Guild's latest production.

Move over James Bond. Forget about Jason Bourne. Whitehorse has a new hero: Richard Hannay.

Hannay is the strong, silent type at the centre of The 39 Steps, the Guild’s latest production. And judging from the audience reaction last Friday night, the Guild has a hit on its hands.

The play is a rollicking adventure-cum-farce in which Hannay, back from the colonies and a bit bored in London, suddenly finds himself enmeshed in a fiendish plot involving foreign agents, baffling secrets and beautiful spies with knives in their backs. A sort of “theatrical love child of Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock,” as the program puts it.

Hannay is played by George Maratos, who delivers both punches and one-liners in the finest tradition of the genre.

Hannay is, in fact, the prototype for Bond, Bourne and a dozen other action heroes. Scots-born writer John Buchan invented him in 1915, penning The 39 Steps while laid up with an ulcer.

Watching The 39 Steps brings home just how many of Hollywood’s favourite tricks can be traced back to Buchan, or to Hitchcock who did a classic film version of the novel in the 1930s.

Hannay is a reluctant hero, an innocent man on the run. What he knows could save the Empire from a shadowy network of conspirators, but no one will believe him. There’s a beautiful woman but she despises him, at least at first. I could go on, but you should see for yourself.

Equally engaging performances are given by Carrie Burgess, who plays all three of Hannay’s love interests with verve, as well as Eric Epstein and Anthony Trombetta. Epstein and Trombetta play over 40 different characters, with rapid-fire costume changes and an audio library of accents that delighted the audience.

The whole production, based on Londoner Patrick Barlow’s adaptation which won the Olivier Award in 2007, is crisply directed here by Clinton Walker. Walker manages to keep the action going at a break-neck pace, while still giving the cast the right openings to deliver the laughs.

The backstage team deserves recognition too. It’s not often you can go to a live performance and watch a chase on a train, a biplane crash and a man fight off not one but two savage dogs. And in a tiny space like the Guild. You need to see it to believe it.

John Buchan probably would have been pleased to know The 39 Steps was on the stage in Whitehorse. Like his creation Hannay, Buchan was a gentleman adventurer at home across the British Empire, from Cape Town to the Canadian North. Later in life, as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was the governor general of Canada and created the Governor General’s literary awards.

He also showed rather more interest in the North than most Canadian-born GGs, which is probably why they named the Tweedsmuir Glacier on the Alsek River after him. His 1937 boat trip down the Mackenzie River to the delta reads today like a royal procession, complete with dinners, speeches about the enormous potential of the North and a media entourage.

Buchan’s novel begins with Hannay thoroughly bored and sick of the same-old-same-old. “The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun,” says our hero.

We all know the feeling, especially after a few weeks of minus-30 weather. But the Guild has produced an antidote for us, and if you’re feeling in a rut then I suggest you proceed straight to the box office and buy yourself a ticket to The 39 Steps.

The play runs until Feb. 25.