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The steps to success

Catherine Bailey and Andrew Alexander in a scene from The 39 Steps. Photo: Tristram Kenton

For an actor whose career began at the Old Red Lion, Islington, coaxing reluctant members of the audience, which sometimes barely outnumbered the cast, into playing extras in his two-man version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Patrick Barlow has done rather well for himself.

His adaptation of the John Buchan thriller, The 39 Steps, has not only notched up six and a half years in the West End, but two years on Broadway and a dozen or more international productions. To his disbelief, in 2011 he received notification that he was the most performed playwright in the United States that year.

The last time we met, in 2006, Barlow was about to launch The 39 Steps at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, and he had his fingers firmly crossed that it would have a longer shelf life.

“I think I always had a sneaking feeling it would take off,” he says. “When it first opened in London, I used to pop in and see it every other week, and I still change things even now, but I don’t go to see it so often. The audience is a real mix of tourists, families, couples, school parties, people seeing it for the second or third time. I met somebody recently who’d seen it eight times.

“Once when I went to see it, I was sitting in the middle of a big, lively school party. In the interval I asked them if they were enjoying it. I told them I’d written it and they all started asking me questions. We had an impromptu Q&A thing going for the entire interval which was great.”

[pullquote]I’d written one thriller and I had a note from the producer saying it was too funny, so I submitted a revised draft and he wrote back, ‘What happened to all the comedy?’[/pullquote]

Barlow says its success has enabled him to concentrate on the things he really wants to do – “usually rather barmy projects that may not see the light of day”.

“I used to do dreary old things out of sheer necessity,” he adds. “I was doing a lot of writing for TV which is lucrative but demoralising because it requires so many drafts. By draft seven you’re losing the will to live.

“I’d written one thriller and I had a note from the producer saying it was too funny, so I submitted a revised draft and he wrote back, ‘What happened to all the comedy?’ In the theatre there is far more respect for the writer and the text. I’ve written a five-man version of A Christmas Carol which has just opened in America. The director said to me, ‘I just want to do your words justice’. I nearly fell off my chair.”

Was he happy to rest on his laurels after The 39 Steps turned out to have the Midas touch?

“Not really, it was more of a spur to produce other things in the genre I most enjoy, which is stuff that’s funny but also finds a profounder truth of some kind. It’s what I’ve always tried to do with the National Theatre of Brent.”

Barlow says he was obsessed with acting and putting on plays as a child. “I had a book called How To Put On a Play and I used to rope my cousins in to help me. I’d usually finish up playing a woman. The idea of me becoming an actor seemed ludicrous because I had the most awful stammer. But as soon as I stepped out on a stage it disappeared. I had a brilliant drama teacher at Uppingham School who gave me whopping great roles like Shylock and the Common Man in A Man For All Seasons.”

He founded the National Theatre of Brent in 1980 when he was struggling to find work as an actor. It came about by accident. “I’d been doing children’s shows, playing a character called Desmond Dingle who wore a loud Max Miller-type suit. Then somebody broke into my car and stole the suit, so Desmond suddenly morphed into this rather self-important character in a dinner jacket and bow tie. It was a slow burn, quite painful at times.

“We were playing to a handful of people at the Old Red Lion, eking out our meagre takings, when the critic Ann McFerran from Time Out turned up. I think there were four other people in the audience that night. We got them all involved playing extras, including Ann, and she gave us a rave review. The following week people were queuing round the block to get in.”

Patrick Barlow

Unlike The 39 Steps, which has proved to be universally popular, the National Theatre of Brent is a peculiarly English confection, in which the hopelessly inept and inadequate Desmond has pretensions of being an actor-entrepreneur of stature and significance, only to embarrass himself and his long- suffering assistant at every turn.

Barlow/Dingle has been through a number of “assistants,” including the great Jim Broadbent, and tackled subjects as diverse as the marriage of Charles and Diana, the Messiah, the Brontes and the mysteries of sex. With his NTB partner since 1998, John Ramm, Barlow has of late concentrated mostly on radio projects, one of which, Great Ladies Who Changed the World, a history of the suffragettes, he is currently adapting for the stage.

There is also his very silly take on Ben-Hur, with a cast of four, to be rejigged. “We did it at the Watermill last summer and it wasn’t quite right, too farcical, not enough pathos. I’m hoping to re-do it this year.”

Dominic Cavendish from The Daily Telegraph wrote, “I don’t believe anyone died in the making of this venture but I imagine there was plenty of corpsing in rehearsals.”

He is also hoping his pared-down A Christmas Carol, commissioned by an American producer, will be coming this way soon. “I hope I’ve done something a bit different. It’s about a man who doesn’t know how to love so I suppose, in some ways, it is not dissimilar to The 39 Steps. Both Scrooge and Hannay learn to love through some pretty earth-shattering life experiences.”

The UK tour of The 39 Steps starts at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on January 19. Visit www.love39steps.com for details

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