Picture: Simon Santi

The Queen's former private secretary has a special link to the Catalpa escape, one of the most audacious jail breaks of all time.

Sir William Heseltine, born in Fremantle and now living in York after retiring from Buckingham Palace, is the great-grandson of a warder who worked at Fremantle Prison in 1876 when six Fenian convicts were sprung in an international conspiracy involving the US, Ireland, England and a disguised American whaling ship called the Catalpa.

He will be in the audience at the Subiaco Arts Centre when the award-winning play Catalpa opens on Saturday night in the lead-up to St Patrick's Day next week and the 135th anniversary of the incident on April 17.

Irish-born actor Des Fleming plays the American skipper of the Catalpa, George Anthony, Fenian leader John Boyle O'Reilly and 26 other characters in Donal O'Kelly's solo play.

The production hits Perth for the first time after being performed around the world since its premiere in Edinburgh 15 years ago.

Sir William said the escape was "a ripping yarn" ripe to be turned into a feature film.

His great-grandfather George Canham Payne was a warder who testified at the inquiry after the escape.

"He said things that would not have made him best friends with some of his fellow warders," he said.

Sir William, 80, who also was a private secretary to former prime minister Robert Menzies, knew little of the story until he returned to WA in the 1990s and started researching his family history.

"It is such an exciting story," he said. "I have always thought it was a play, or indeed a movie, waiting to be made, so I am delighted to have the chance of seeing it on the stage."

The escape also has inspired an exhibition at the scene of the crime - Fremantle Prison - which is showing original convict diaries, photographs, other rare material and interactive touch-screens until August 7.

Catalpa runs until March 19.

The West Australian

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