Patrick Barlow 39 Steps Interview

May 30, 2010


There are those of us in the theatre world that like to reside up our own holes and take a poor view of commercial theatre. Our face curdle like gone off milk at the thought of being caught at Dirty Dusting, we dry up at thoughts of Menopause The Musical and sneer at the producers who treat a source material like their very own Babushka doll. My nose rose like the Titanic’s rear end when I was first asked to preview The 39 Steps.

But if ever there was a show not to be judged cause it’s a cover it’s this. Four actors bring to life 250 parts, escaping from trains, crashing planes and being chased across the Scottish Highlands with a death-defying finale at the London Palladium, all done with minimal props. “There is a rather beautiful love story in there so I had to be careful to be true to the thriller and the romance.” Says writer Patrick Barlow. “To keep the audience in suspense and keep them engaged with the romantic entanglement of the characters. If I got that right it should work as the comedy goes without saying once you have four people up a ladder.”

Even though the piece is very comical there is a semi-serious underlying theme. Do you think that that is essential for comedy to have any real effect? That it needs to be about something?

Oh god yes. I mean you can have an out-and-out farce but I think to really make it work you must have the heart there. The great comedies, the Shakespeare’s, the Checkovs, they have very funny moments but they are about real people in real predicaments. If it’s to really work  so that you are genuinely touched you need to move from galls of laughter to being very touched.

Do you think this is something many productions forget about? They play for the laugh rather than let it be the product of some underlying tragedy or mishap?

That’s my particular passion with this piece is that there is a real flesh and blood story a real love affair. Hannay at the beginning is a very depressed man. He’s about to give up. But then he decided to go to the theatre. But on this adventure he meets these women who complete him. It’s quite the journey. It’s like in Shakespeare you don’t just meet someone and that’s it. You argue and battle and win each other over.

Four actors in this production play 250 roles. How early on did you decide to keep it that small?

The producer came to me because he knew my work where you do big epic shows with two people. So he came to me with a script that wasn’t really working because it was based on the book. They hadn’t thought of using the film so I decided to use that as it was more challenging and more people knew it. People love seeing how you adapt their favorite bit for the stage.

How do you not lose the audience’s sense of reality?

It was very hard to cast this play because you must have people who are very good at playing straight, as the hero and the girlfriend have to be very straight, play it with passion and heart and a romance. And at the same time for her and the two other guys who play all the other arts have to be brilliantly versatile. I write the words, Alfred Hitchcock and me. But if you don’t get the actors who can do it…

What will one get out of the staging of this work that they wont get out of a screening?

It’s live theatre, where the audience draw together in the laughter and the pleasure of being there. It’s a communal act, which is why I do theatre. There are not very many things you can do that where an audience finds themselves working like that.

The script calls for an escape from a train, a police chase across the Scottish Highlands and a finale at the London Palladium. It’s challenging to stage. Do you think that’s a problem with theatre? People don’t just think outside the box?

You’re absolutely right, I absolutely agree with you. I Did the Zulu war with two actors, pens and a packing case that’s all we needed to do the whole movie of Zulu, just with two actors. My character goes “Look there is ten thousand Zulus on the sky line” and we pictured them behind the audience. And, I swear to you , the audience all turned around because WE could see them. Peoples imagination is an amazing thing.It’s the challenge and it’s also the ingenuity that you need.

The 39 Steps will run at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Tue 25th, Wed 26th, Thu 27th, Fri 28th, Sat 29th May 2010 and Mon 31st, Tue 1st, Wed 2nd, Thu 3rd, Fri 4th, Sat 5th June 2010.

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