Centre Stage: Robert Portal

Published April 17, 2008

A black and white film about a man on the run after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit isn’t an obvious choice for a comic stage adaptation. But Patrick Barlow thought so and his farcical comedy based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film noir, The 39 Steps (based in turn on John Buchan’s original novel), has just extended its stay in London after winning Best New Comedy at the Laurence Olivier Awards in February. Currently playing our hero, Richard Hannay, is Robert Portal, who took over the role in April. He spoke to Caroline Bishop…

Portal only has three co-stars in The 39 Steps and yet between them they play the numerous characters (some say 150) that Hannay encounters on his nightly escapade at the Criterion. Fleeing from London to Scotland, Hannay evades policemen, murderous farmers and evil members of the mysterious spy ring The 39 Steps, and he does it all with a twinkle in his eye and hardly a hair out of place.

Well-used to playing comedy roles, Portal has previously starred in Noel Coward’s Private Lives and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. But he is no stranger to more serious fare either, having recently appeared in the drama Tom And Viv at the Almeida and television dramas including Rosemary And Thyme and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. For now though, he is delighted to be trying his hand at Hannay…

What attracted you to the role of Richard Hannay?

RP: Well it’s a story I’ve known since I was a boy really. I loved the book. Then I saw it at the Tricycle and just fell in love with it and just thought, I’d love to be a part of it.

How would you describe him?

RP: He’s an honourable man I think. He’s just ordinary, there’s nothing particularly special about him. He’s just thrown into this extraordinary situation which is what I like; he’s not James Bond. But he’s resourceful, more than he perhaps knows, and he’s quite good at getting himself out of tricky situations. And he’s sometimes fairly incompetent, he tells anybody he meets what’s going on and he trusts the wrong people and mistrusts the right people, but it all works out in the end.

What would Hitchcock have thought?

RP: I hope he’d like it. It might not be his cup of tea. Every line that we say is in the film, it’s only made comic by the fact that four actors are in it and those two clowns playing all those wonderful parts, and that’s the thing I found quite hard in rehearsal, trying to find that extra bit, that twinkle, that turns it from thriller to comedy thriller.

Was it hard to take over the role from Charles Edwards?

RP: Charlie’s a mate of mine and, you know, as every actor is, we’re very different and bring different things to the role. I saw it way back in August when it was previewing [at the Tricycle], so I haven’t really got much of a memory of Charlie’s performance as such, but I just remember loving the play, the event, and when I got the script I never really thought about Charlie’s Hannay. Of course there were a couple of gags that I thought were great so I kept those in.

Did it make it easier or harder that you were joining existing cast members?

RP: Bit of both really. It was easier because they were very, very generous with their time and they made it a joy to rehearse in that sense, but it was hard because I didn’t want to waste their time – they had a show to do that night so I wanted to make it as painless as possible for them.

It must be a difficult show to rehearse without an audience?

RP: Yes, and it made for an interesting first performance. Discovering what the audience liked and what they’re up for. The audience tell us what’s working and what isn’t, and it did take a few performances to work that out. Maybe a line that I hadn’t thought was particularly laugh-worthy would get a roar. It was really [about] getting to know the audience and the play.

Ever got in a muddle with the quick scene changes?

RP: Yes, I did run off [stage] early on in the run – not a clue until somebody very kindly shoved a torch in my hand and then I knew where I was, and ran back out!

What is the most difficult thing for you in the show?

RP: It’s very hot, I get very warm, it’s a two-suit show for me. We had a wonderful movement director who’s brilliant at mime and all that stuff which I’m not particularly adept at, but I’m giving it my best shot. Running down the compartment of the train, getting the map out and being blown off stage by this wind, all that stuff is new, but it’s wonderful to have a bash at it.

Did you find it hard not to laugh?

RP: I was far too worried in rehearsal to laugh at all. I was laughing at the others but the stuff I had to do just filled me with terror.

…but have you ever cracked up laughing in a performance?

RP: I have actually. Yes I have to say, very unprofessional! But the audience are on your side, just screaming and guffawing. It’s just a happy and warm place to be, the Criterion theatre at the moment. I think I was watching Jimmy Chisholm being the emcee at the political meeting, which did make me laugh a lot. I can sort of get away with it.

Some of the scenes struck me a bit like The League Of Gentlemen…

RP: Yeah, I know what you mean, me too. They did show an interest in [being in] it, The League Of Gentlemen. I think it came to nothing.

You have done comedy and farce before – do you prefer it to straight drama?

RP: I did Noises Off, but before The 39 Steps I was at the Almeida doing Tom And Viv which was very different, not funny. So I love doing both, going from one to the other, if I can. That’s a great delight to me and it was high time I did another comedy so it fitted in marvellously.

Is farce very difficult to perform well?

RP: Well, yes, but it also helps if it’s a good farce; if it’s a wonderful script, which this is. Patrick [Barlow] got the Olivier for his adaptation, and Maria [Aitken] is a wonderful director. And also, there’s been some money splashed out on it so it looks classy. So all that helps and gives an actor confidence. And the fact that I’d seen it myself and knew that it worked so well, that was an enormous help. Not knowing what you’re going into can sometimes be a scary thing.

What particular talents/characteristics do you need?

RP: You need to have lots of energy, you can’t sit back on anything. There’s no real time for too much subtext, unlike a serious play. Farce is what you see, it’s fast and it’s mad. The 39 Steps is mad! But if you get bogged down in really what they’re thinking and reading between the lines then I think you’re in trouble. Just play it fast and have fun, and let that transmit to the audience.

If you were on the run, where would you go?

RP: Well Scotland isn’t a bad choice. Yeah, because you haven’t got customs. I think customs would find me out pretty quickly if I tried to go abroad, so maybe Scotland’s a good idea – get in my car and go as far north as I could!

CB