‘When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile,’ says Aran MacRae as The 39 Steps opens

Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay: A man contemplating a boring life at the outset of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

YORK actor, singer, songwriter, self-taught guitarist and percussion player Aran MacRae is playing his first lead role since returning to his home city in March 2019.

From tonight, he takes centre stage as Richard Hannay, “the man with a boring life”, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Patrick Barlow’s West End hit comedy thriller The 39 Steps at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

Whereas Aran was breaking in a new character when he originated  the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017, Hannay has history aplenty on stage and screen.

Aran has broken with his previous practice, however, when preparing to play Hannay, whose state of torpor changes when he encounters a woman with a thick accent at a theatre who says she is a spy. He agrees to take her home, whereupon she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

“This is the first project where I haven’t looked at any previous material, and that’s partly because I want the character to come from me,” says Aran.

Wanted by the police: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay, whose his face splashed on the front of the papers

“I’ve truly learned what it takes to become a proper, conscious working actor during this project, with all the highs and lows that come with that, so I’ve been inspired not just by the play, its timeless appeal and the traditional values the British have, one of which is how ridiculous we are, but also by the cast and by the director, Harri Marshall, who is brash in such a way that it’s so intelligent. She’s a superhero, she really is.”

Aran has given Richard Hannay his own back story, beyond that description of a “man with a boring life”, one rooted in Hannay’s war experiences. “The trauma of war in Hannay’s time contrasts with how lucky I am to have been born in a country where we’ve not had to experience that, and we take it for granted, whereas across the world, wars and conflicts still happen,” he says.

“That’s something I realise as a millennial. It’s really pushed me to the edge of thinking about things, in the cause of going close to the edge of distress, but in doing so I’m showing my passion for the people, which is a great passion I have as an actor,” he says.

“When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile, and then I realised that if I’m going to make everyone laugh, I’m going to have to learn a lot – and I’m still learning.”

Hannay is driven by a desire for truth, for knowledge, says Aran. “It’s that ancient thing of the human spirit, the curiosity to bite the apple; it’s something that powers him on,” he notes.

Arms and the man: Aran MacRae in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

In his own desire to reach that point in his performance, Aran has applied a technique he learnt from York, Leeds and Bradford drama teacher Matt Zina. “I sought him out for some acting classes a little while ago, and he talked about the ‘Seven Levels of Why’,” he reveals.

How does it work? “I realised that Hannay is searching for knowledge and truth, and then I asked the question ‘Why?’. The answer I arrived at is that Hannay wants to keep the peace, and then, at the end, when he’s kept the peace and found the truth, he gets the opportunity to be in love,” says Aran. “Maybe it comes by chance, but that’s the beauty of love.

“I set myself a super-objective with each piece I do, and there were many I could have set with this play because it demands that I make many decisions. I question ‘why?’ seven times, so by the time I go on stage, all that questioning is in my body and it all goes on stage with me. That means, if I have a moment of doubt, I remember my super-objective.”

Aran continues: “With each role, I’m trying to learn if I’m an actor-performer as an individual or as part of a collective, and that depends on the style of performance you’re doing” he says. “If it’s television, it’s about the individual, but with theatre, it’s collective: it’s like when birds take off together, you see them flying in formation, and then they move within that formation. It’s almost like a dance.”

Aran, who trained in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting and built momentum in his career in the West End, on tour and overseas, is part of Harri Marshall’s cast of eight tasked with the breath-taking challenge of combining John Buchan’s 1915 novel with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film scenes in a blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.

Aran MacRae’s Hannay and Sanna Buck’s Arabella in a scene from the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

He is playing Richard Hannay opposite Sanna Buck in three parts and Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle handling the rest of the 150 characters in the guise of The Clowns.

“Sanna is the most supportive actor to play opposite, and I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Aran. “The support and listening ear she has offered me has been priceless. The spirit she has shown during rehearsals has pulled me close to being a better actor and a better human being.

“All the rest of the cast are gentlemen and scholars, and again, the love for theatre and the support we have shown each other, when coming back to theatre and coming back to social interaction, with all the changes that have gone on, has been fantastic.

“One thing I’ve noticed is our desire to be happy, to have a laugh – though my personal thing is to create a feeling of peace with that lovely cool-down after all the laughter, but that doesn’t mean the clowns should be in charge!”

The pursuit of laughter is all important in Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps, but so is the authenticity of characterisation, not least in Hannay’s military disposition.

Handcuffed: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay at a loose end in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“I’ve used YouTube for a really useful video on the ‘Attention’ and ‘At Ease’ positions, watching soldiers on parade, and I also visited Elvington Airfield a couple of time, talking to people around the air base, and studying planes,” says Aran.

“I’ve also done some movement to music, working to the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town. Music, as I’m still learning, is a great healer and has the ability to take you back in time, so it’s a very useful tool for an actor to use.

“For Hannay’s accent, I was very lucky to have had good training at Guildford [School of Acting], where I had this amazing teacher, Chris Palmer, who taught me Received Pronunciation, so I have a good grounding in that accent.

“Overall, the performance comes down to the body, the mind and the voice; they are the three crucial things to study when you’re developing a character. But I’ve also realised that an actor is like a  magician, because we don’t want to show you the rabbit in the hat, revealing our secrets.”

Amid all the seriousness within this analysis of the art of performance, Aran smiles at the thought that these discussions are in the cause of a comedy being funny.

“He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required,” says director Harri Marshall, recalling Aran MacRae’s audition

“The script is genius,” he says. “The lines are so funny, it could work just as a radio play, but then you add the physicality and the awareness of the need to be able to laugh at yourself  and to connect with that on stage,” he says.

Aran is an advocate of thinking on your feet as an actor when performing in a comedy. “Instinct! That’s where a lot of comedy comes from,” he says. “The ability to see something that might hurt and then finding something funny in it.

“Comedy makes us question ourselves, which is something we’ve all been doing in the pandemic, when other people keep you going through these moments. Family and a good cup of tea.”

Instinct applies not only to comedy but to casting too, hence the last word will go to Harri Marshall, as she explains her choice of Aran for Richard Hannay. “As soon as he walked in the room for the audition, I knew he’d be perfect,” she says. ”He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Director Harri Marshall overjoyed as York Settlement Community Players return at last with The 39 Steps comedy thriller

Aran MacRae and Sanna Buck in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

PATRICK Barlow’s riotous West End comedy hit The 39 Steps marks York Settlement Community Players’ return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri Marshall’s cast of eight takes to the John Cooper Studio stage at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

“For the past 18 months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m so excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who previously directed the Settlement Players in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at the Monkgate theatre in October 2019.

Settlement last trod the boards early last year, presenting Helen Wilson’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull a week before the first pandemic lockdown locked in, since when the York company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Now, at last, Settlement’s players can breathe in stage air once more as they take on the breath-taking challenge of performing a two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller that seeks to combine John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, in a blend of virtuoso performance and wildly inventive stagecraft.

More than 150 characters must make an appearance as Marshall’s cast re-create both the book and film scenes, telling the story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who encounters a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

Aran MacRae as Richard Hannay: “As soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect,” says director Harri Marshall. Picture: John Saunders

“Rehearsals are going very well,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director. “We started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that make The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash! I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and Settlement shows such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

Aran MacRae, who has returned to York after West End, national tour and overseas professional roles, will play Richard Hannay; Sanna Buck will split herself in three as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret; Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle will handle the remaining roles between them in the guise of The Clowns.”

Harri was attracted to directing The 39 Steps in this crazy comic caper format – adapted by Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon – by “the challenge of the play and how it could entertain an audience, drawing them back to the theatre after the venues have been shut for so long”.

“I really wanted to sink my teeth into something where my approach was a wild ‘how an earth do I do this?’. So many of the iconic scenes that make it well loved are insane for any director to choreograph and work through,” she says.

“I didn’t want to shy away from stretching my imagination and creativity. I also saw it as an opportunity for performers to flex their skill in the form of multi-role playing and working as disciplined ensemble. It’s the ultimate play that everyone can enjoy and revel in!”

Director Harri Marshall

Faced with staging a fast-moving piece with regular changes of location, Harri has settled on a design as relaxed it can be within Covid restrictions. “It was important to me to ensure that the audience and performers could feel relaxed at all times,” she says.

“This is why we’re going for a cabaret-style set-up, ensuring people are welcome to come and go as they please, get drinks from the bar whenever they like, and the performers can really interact and play with the space.

“It’s so fast paced that massive sets just weren’t going to work. Our performance will be a rollercoaster of activity that I have no doubt the audience are just going to love! “

To pull off this whodunit, with its multitude of characters, a plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and old-fashioned romance, Barlow’s “needs-must” style of comedy in the face of adversity requires completely straight faces from the actors. “That’s easier said than done!” says Harri. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of hidden smiles and giggles. In rehearsal this is one of my biggest notes ‘to not corpse’!

“The cast are just so playful and entertaining, it’s hard not to be swept up in the comedy of it all. They’re gradually getting there. The more we rehearse, the more everyone gets better at staying blank-faced. Although I do think this is half the joy of doing a comedy performance, if the cast and crew are having great fun and the audience can feel that everyone is going to have an excellent time.”

Have Buchan’s juicy spy novel and Hitchcock’s thriller been important research tools for Harri? “The novel not so much, but the film certainly, to find how the thriller elements of the play can be transcribed to the performance,” she says.

Squeezing out every inch of humour: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay and Matthew Lomax’s Clown rehearsing a scene from The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“My biggest research tool was having the privilege to chat to Simon Corble, one of the writers of the original stage adaptation. I took on a lot of Simon’s advice and, in a lot of ways, our version has ended up nodding to the original performance that was done before the show took to the West End in Patrick’s version. Elements such as focusing on the storytelling, the ensemble and how less can be more in terms of set, lighting and sound.

“In its original form, this play was meant to tour regionally to studio spaces, so it feels very much like a homecoming for The 39 Steps to be staged at Theatre@41.”

Further research tools involved making set and props to enable Harri and her cast to learn to play with objects so that they could have multiple purposes. “That way we could really stretch the parameters creatively to discover what worlds we could build within the play,” she says.

“The performance itself should be an adventure, a challenge, and a lot of fun for both the cast and myself, and we’ve certainly had fun in the last couple of months bringing this play to life.”

As the director, Harri must achieve the balance between the comedy and the thriller elements. “You have to find those human moments within the play that can get your heart racing or that will make you lean forward in your seat. Where the audience are desperate to listen and discover the secrets of The 39 Steps,” she says.

“It’s wonderful, once we’ve found those moments, to tease the audience into believing they know what’s going on and then subverting expectation. Balancing it against the comedy is certainly no easy task; it takes careful timing, pace and energy.”

Matthew Lomax, left, Jim Patterson and a stuffed cat in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

The lead role goes to actor, singer, songwriter and musician Aran MacRae, who made a low-key return to the York stage as a sonneteer in York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in July, but now steps centre stage once more.

“I’d heard about Aran when he was playing Tink in the Bat Out Of Hell tour, so I was delighted to know that he wanted to audition,” says Harri. “It was one of those cheesy moments when I just knew, because as soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect.

“This was confirmed during his audition: he had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things. Aran, as with the rest of the cast, is so so talented and as a director it’s been a dream to work with them all.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, November 11 to 14; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday; 2.30pm, Sunday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Please note, all performances will be captioned via the Difference Engine from Talking Birds (with captions delivered to audience members’ own mobile devices via a free app).

Sanna Buck, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae look on as a prone Daniel Boyle takes centre stage in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

Actor, musician and now sonneteer, Aran MacRae joins York Shakespeare Project for Sonnets At The Bar in ‘secret garden’

“Secret mission”: York actor Aran MacRae looks forward to making his York Shakespeare Project debut as a sonneteer in Sonnets At The Bar in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre

ARAN MacRae joins Lindsay Waller Wilkinson, Luke Tearney and Josh Roe in the four new sonneteers corralled for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021 from this evening.

Not that Aran is “new” to the acting scene. Far from it, the York actor, singer, songwriter and self-taught guitarist and percussion player returned to his home city in March 2019 after building momentum in his career in London, Europe and beyond.

After training in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting, post-graduation in 2017 he had originated the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of the Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum, following up with the Canadian run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

“If you shave off your beard, you’ve got the part,” he was told at the last audition: a wonderful start to life on the professional boards.

“We did the show for 13 months and it gave me such an insight to musical theatre and to rock’n’roll too, going to Toronto and falling in love with a beautiful woman who’d just joined the cast there,” he says.

Aran then appeared in the immersive promenade production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent at the world’s oldest working paper mill, Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley, Hertfordshire, in July 2018 and sang in Midas’s Twelve Tenors tour across Europe and South Korea in 2018 and early 2019.

His profile on Mandy states he is now “busking in my hometown of York, playing acoustic covers and putting together lyrics and music for solo material”.

Sonnets At The Bar brings him back to theatre work in the city where, in York College days, he had starred in York Stage Musicals’ The Flint Street Nativity and Mayhem, NUEMusic Theatre’s Bare, Bat Boy The Musical and Rent and Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita, Che Guevara beard et al. If memory serves, he was the singer in The Frizz too, in even younger days.

“I’d been living in Potters Bar in London, plying my trade as an actor, when I decided to come back to York in Spring 2019,” says Aran. “I was aware of York Shakespeare  Project and got in touch straightaway to join their mailing list because I knew that Macbeth and The Tempest were coming up and I was really up for directing The Tempest.  

“Then ‘the Cloud’, as I shall call it, came along and slowed things down; Macbeth was put back, but then I saw they were doing Sonnets At The Bar and I jumped on to it.

Aran MacRae originating the role of Tick in Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017

“I’m a fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets: not that  they need a lot of investigating, but they explore the concept of love in a manner full of thought and consideration, and what is very special about them is the answer that’s given to any Shakespeare question: they are timeless and you can find modern-day parallels in them.”

Directed by Emilie Knight and produced by fellow company regular Maurice Crichton, Sonnets At The Bar 2021 will be staged in the “secret garden” of the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, in Blossom Street, from tonight to August 7.

Emilie, who played a Covid nurse in last year’s Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard in Goodramgate, has come up with the conceit of the Bar Convent being in use for all sorts of community centre-type activities, some of them outdoors in the garden on account of Covid, with the sonneteers either hosting classes or groups or attending them, all under the watchful eye of the caretaker, Mr Barrowclough.

In YSP’s now time-honoured fashion, each character has a sonnet to set up, the pairing of character and sonnet opening up unknown sonnets in an accessible way or giving well-known ones a new angle.

Aran will be performing Sonnet 25, Let Those Who Are In Favour With Their Stars, in the role of Paul, clerk to the parish council in this age of new awareness of parish-council machinations after the explosive Jackie Weaver and Handworth shenanigans on Zoom went global.

“He’s a little bit righteous, I think,” he says. “He’s not got a point to prove but when he witnesses injustice, he takes it on his shoulders to deal with it, leaving him between a rock and a hard place.

“He has to have a lot of integrity and non-bias and that’s an incredibly lofty responsibility, when you’re dealing with care for the community and injustice, though what he’s witnessed is more to do with internal parish [council] matters, rather than the community.”

Analysing Sonnet 25, Aran says: “My sonnet is about idol worship, and I can certainly find modern-day resonances within it. I’m sure Shakespeare wasn’t thinking of me 420 years ago (!), but I’m thinking of him 420 years later, taking me to an emotional place. It’s like time travel.”

Aran has relished rehearsals under Emilie’s guidance. “It’s been really free spirited, and that freedom has been wonderful, especially in ‘the Cloud’,” he says. “Not only does everyone jump in and sound ideas off each other, but Emilie basically gave each of us a small piece of text to set up each sonnet and said, ‘if you’d like to ad-lib the lead-in to the sonnet, go for it, or if you’d like to add to it, do that’.

Che days: Aran MacRae’s Che Guevara with Robyn Grant’s Eva Peron in Pick Me Up Theatre’s Evita at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, in April 2013

“That was quite testing for me because I then had to look at the structure of what the character was going to say, working out how the parish clerk would communicate in a way that was more astute and level-headed than I would be in that situation!”

Initially, Aran had envisaged “just performing the sonnet and walking off with my chest out”. “But doing it this way, building up a character, allows me to test my writing skills too…because if I’m going to be in a film, I’m going to have to write it myself!” he says.

Where does Aran see his future? “Doing Bat Out Of Hell gave me an insight into where I want to direct my abilities. I loved being in a musical, with all that high energy and lots of post-teens diving around saying ‘this is it’, ‘it’s punk!’, but sometimes I wanted to be thinking more about the task in hand, when it was on stage.

“I want to pursue my career by continuing to work in musical theatre but also look to break into theatre, even though it’s such a closed circle.

“Coming back to the city where I’d lived from the age of three to 21, suddenly there was that ‘Cloud’ and a lot of solitary confinement, so I’ve been reading the classics after I’ve not had the time to read for years, in order to consider it as a career when it’s your heart that calls you to this profession.”

One classical role Aran will not be giving us is his Lady Macbeth in York Shakespeare Project’s promenade production of Macbeth in October, staged at Theatre@41 Monkgate by director Leo Doulton in a “corrupted world of moving forests, daggers from the dark and cyberpunk dystopia, falling from civilisation into a civil war between darkness and light”.

Lady Macbeth, Aran?. “I put my two-penneth in at the auditions to play her as I thought, ‘what better chance to play one of the great string-puller roles, like in The Hunger Games in a past of such apocalyptic brutality, with suave sophistication,” he says. “I gave it a good shot…”

The role has gone to Nell Frampton instead, but Aran can still apply to direct The Tempest, with no production dates set in place yet for York Shakespeare Project’s final play.

York Shakespeare Project presents Sonnets At The Bar 2021, Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, Blossom Street, York, today (30/7/2021) until August 7; no show on August 2. Performances: 6pm and 7.30pm nightly, plus 4.15pm on both Saturdays. Tickets: 01904 623568, at yorkthreatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the YTR box office.