‘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.