KARACHI : After delivering productions like Chicago, Mama Mia and Grease previously, Nida Butt is back with her latest offering The 39 Steps, currently running at Karachi Arts Council up until December 9. The plays has been is written by John Buchan and is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.
The most interesting aspect of the production, one will notice, is that there are only four actors in it. However, these four actors play more than 40 characters in a span of a couple hours, all by themselves.
The 39 Steps revolves around a civilian in London named Richard Hannay (Faraz Lodhi), who accidentally gets involved in a spy mystery after being mistakenly accused of murder. Sanam Saeed plays the three characters who Hannay gets romantically involved with, while Zeeshan Shah and Ali Hashmi play everyone else. Saeed is consistent in her limited but important role, mostly taking a backseat to let the other stars shine – especially Lodhi. He is apt in his portrayal of an innocent man accused of murder, trying to expose the spy organisation while on the run, and comes off as totally at home in this noir mystery.
While presenting a musical may be difficult, the real challenge for Butt here was how to make so many character transitions smooth and believable. Lightning-fast costume changes, variations in accents, and the different body languages of each character made Shah and Hashmi the real MVPs of the night. There’s a reason Butt relied on them to do the heavy lifting as they played each of their roles to perfection, be it as Professor Jordan’s wife, the policemen, Hannay’s companions on the train. The two actors neatly hold together the entire play.
The production design is also on point, with relatively minimalistic sets and props as compared to Butt’s previous productions, used to create an era mostly unbeknownst to the audience. What makes The 39 Steps even more fun to watch is how the transitions, which could’ve easily turned awkward and time-consuming, become part of the spectacle and are incorporated in a fun and creative manner. For instance, when Saeed points in the direction where a window is supposed to be and then moves the window to that location. It’s the small things that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have seemed out of place.
Personally, The 39 Steps would be a treat for Hitchcock fans as it makes several references to his films, such as Vertigo, Stranger on a Train, and North by Northwest.
But that’s not all. Buchan’s use of the Hitchcock-ian suspense technique, what he called ‘MacGuffin’ is also brilliantly used here. Even for someone not familiar with the classic Hollywood cinema, Butt gives you more than enough to keep you glued to the seat and enjoy the ride.
Overall, The 39 Steps is a rich and hilarious experience with two-hours of pure entertainment and a ton of references to smile and nod to (if you get them). Besides, any day is a good day to be transported to England of the 1930s…
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