Theatre review: Asylum Theatre's The 39 Steps is a delightful climb

In Asylum Theatre's second outing, The 39 Steps, Englishman Richard Hannay finds himself getting much more than he bargained for when a visit to the theatre somehow morphs into a cross-country espionage mission, complete with high speed train chases and shady policemen.

Asylum Theatre takes this Olivier Award-winning gem of a play, which English playwright Patrick Barlow adapted from Hitchcock's 1935 film, and delivers it with polish, punch and gusto.

The play, which was written for a small stage with four actors, is extremely demanding of its performers, but the quartet more than live up to the task.

They have to tackle snappy back-and-forth exchanges, a plethora of odd European accents, and a vast range of ages, transforming themselves with the switch of a hat, and sometimes doubling or tripling parts in the same scene.

Fortunately Asylum Theatre's cast are all gifted physical thespians, with a knack for perfect comic timing.

They had the audience in stitches right from the opening announcement - if you enjoy the show, tell your friends; if you don't, tell your enemies.

Tim Garner and Paul Lucas, in particular, were a hoot and a half. They were also part of Asylum's maiden production, Holiday In My Head, last September.

They each played so many roles in The 39 Steps that the programme booklet lists them as simply Man #1 and Man #2.

Lucas was incredibly versatile and embodied his characters with the stoop of a shoulder or the tremble of a hand.

He was vulnerable and childlike as Mr Memory, a memory trick performer who turns out to have a surprisingly important role later on, and he was equally convincing as anything from a grumpy farmer to a buxom wife.

He was a great foil to Garner's boundless energy, on-the-spot comic timing and pitch-perfect accent work, which went from French to Scottish to German and back again.

Together, the pair brought an incredible energy to the stage, and it seemed to be a lot emptier without them.

Andrew Mowatt as Richard Hannay and Victoria Mintey as Annabella/Margaret/Pamela also turned in credible performances, although their roles did not give them as much opportunity to shine.

While the first half of the production raced along merrily, the beginning of the second half did begin to flag.

With scenes such as when Hannay gave the police the slip and accidentally ended up at a political rally, or when he and Pamela struggled to get past a fence because of their handcuffs, the buffoonery did begin to feel overplayed.

Fortunately, the pace picked up again as more layers of the plot began to be revealed, and the show ended with a bang.

Asylum Theatre must also be lauded for their risk-taking. Lundquist writes in the programme that "there is a great deal of theatre in Singapore that very few people get to see" because of the high cost of renting a venue for long.

So The 39 Steps has an almost three week run, when most shows by small companies usually run over the weekend, or a week at most.

Hopefully, they will be rewarded for their gamble.

What: The 39 Steps by Asylum Theatre

Where: Drama Centre Black Box

When: Now until May 10. Tues to Fri, 8pm; Sat and Sun, 3pm and 8pm

Admission: $37 for other shows and $42 for Sat and Sun 8pm, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)