Arts / Stop laughing, this is serious, says West

The cast of “The 39 Steps”… from left, Steph Roberts, Helen McFarlane, Nelson Blattman and, front, Patrick Galen-Mules.

“I’LL have to start yelling at my cast to stop finding it so funny,” director Jarrad West tells me as he takes a break from rehearsing the hilarious upcoming show, “The 39 Steps”.

The script is adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the subject of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most thrilling movies. When the play closed in September 2015 after nine years in London, it was estimated to be the fifth longest-running play in West End history.

Rejigged by Barlow for a cast of four, it traces the Canadian hero Richard Hannay’s accidental embroilment in an international spy ring, which sees him – in the manner of The Fugitive” – chased by policemen on a fast-moving steam train to Scotland and experiencing extraordinary adventures.

Armed with an attractive moustache and an enticing way with women, he has to follow the clues as to what the 39 steps might be and thus save the British scientific establishment from infiltration by dangerous international criminals.

While undoubtedly the idea is to entertain, it’s been causing West, whose last production for REP was “Casanova”, no end of trouble for nothing is more difficult than farce.

Stylistically, West had in mind detective comics of yesteryear and has used that comic artwork in his promotional material, but he is also thinking of film noir and 1980s detective farces. Yes, fun, but oh-so-difficult to pull off.

He has assembled a crack cast. The dashing hero is played by 19-year-old Patrick Galen-Mules, who has just completed year 12 at St Francis Xavier College.

He plays Hannay, with a sophistication that has left West, no mean actor himself, feeling humbled.

Veteran Canberra performer Steph Roberts makes a meal of the three women Hannay gets involved with – slinky Annabelle, Scottish hayseed Pamela and the beautiful Margaret. One of the most memorable scenes shows her falling in love with Hannay while being handcuffed to him.

Helen McFarlane and Nelson Blattman, styled as clowns, bumble their way through all the other characters, around 40 in this production, cross-dressing to perform heroes, villains, men, women, children and even objects. In some productions these characters have performed up to 150 characters.

“The 39 Steps”, Canberra REP, Theatre 3, June 15-July 1. Bookings to or 6257 1950.

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