Review: The 39 Steps (Gin Soak’d Productions)

39 Steps - by Dahlia Katz -1203 Crop

Run to catch The 39 Steps on stage at the Rear Window Theatre in Toronto

You’ve heard of The 39 Steps, the Hitchcock thriller? Before James Bond was even a twinkle in Ian Fleming’s eye, this story of foreign agents,  dalliances with beautiful women, sinister criminal masterminds and Hitchcock’s greatest MacGuffin thrilled audiences and held them on the very edges of their seats.

The modern staging, developed around 2005 in the UK, keeps it taut and exciting, but adds a heaping dose of irreverence: there are still exotic women, airplane chases, strangers on a train and a dangerous man with a peculiar injury, but everything is played by a company of four actors, working on a stage the size of a postage stamp, climbing over each other to chew the scenery.

When the cast comes at it with loads of energy and chutzpah, it works. And lord, does this Gin Soak’d production work.

39 Steps (secondary)

Kelly Penner, as the straight-man protagonist, is perfect down to the pencil mustache. He’s in every scene from top to tail, and he wears it beautifully, although lord knows how he jogs so much under stage lights while wearing two trenchcoats over a tweed suit.

And Anna Wheeler, playing every woman in the piece — Slavic femme fatale Annabella, Margaret the simple Scotswoman, and blonde, doe-eyed Pamela — throws herself into a bunch of roles where nothing less than excess will do.  The worst thing about The 39 Steps is the slow start (the first act is pretty much all exposition;things take off in the second), but having Wheeler around to ginger things up helps speed it along beautifully, especially in several improvised portions.

But while those two get the leads, it’s the two supporting actors, billed as “Clowns”, who do most of the heavy lifting: M. John Kennedy has a fey look to him, perpetually hovering above the rest of the cast, while Jeff Hanson’s frenetic energy and willingness to make an ass of himself really get to shine.

That energy, along with a perceptible edge of professionalism, is what makes this show click. Even when it drags, you know good stuff must be coming, so you forgive the sin. With the sole exception of a few overlong gags towards the end (we’ve been in the LOT’s painful folding chairs for two hours, drawing out a gag at that point is literally agonizing), director Charles Roy consistently hits the right pace, blowing past the boring business and drawing out the good bits, careening from highlight to highlight.

And there are so, so many highlights, especially when the cast merrily fuck with one another. I’d love to see stage manager Tamara Protic’s show reports — and she deserves the shoutout for the sheer volume of props, costumes, cues and monkey business Roy makes her contend with, the better to stage the mayhem.

Bring someone you like, bring $5 for a namesake Gin Drink, and bring a few bucks to tip the Titine Trio (Rachel Abramoff on viola; Roberto Ercoli on guitar; and Zachary Knowles on double bass) who provide high-quality live music throughout, from their wee aerie atop the set. The 39 Steps is a blast: don’t miss it.


  • The 39 Steps plays through June 14th at the “Rear Window Theatre”. (Actually the mainstage at the Lower Ossington, 100A Ossington Ave, just south of Dundas.)
  • Performances are nightly at 7:30 PM Tuesday to Saturday; Sunday matinee at 1:30 PM.
  • Tickets vary from $29 to $59, see website for details.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (416-915-6747), or in-person from the venue immediately before showtime. (Walk-up sales are cash-only.)
  • This show features simulated gunshots and sudden loud noises.
  • This show’s subject matter is suitable for all ages, and would be appropriate for a family outing.

Production photography by Dahlia Katz. Headline photo, L->R: M. John Kennedy; Kelly Penner; Jeff Hanson. Secondary photo, L->R: M. John Kennedy; Kelly Penner; Anna Wheeler; Jeff Hanson.

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