HARROGATE actor John Middleton is playing a detective in his first stage role since leaving Emmerdale after more than 20 years as vicar Ashley Thomas in the Yorkshire soap opera.

Middleton made his debut in Craig Warner's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 psychological thriller Strangers On A Train in Brighton earlier this week and will head north in Anthony Banks's production for runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, from January 15 to 20 and the Grand Opera House, York, from March 5 to 10.

As you will recall from Alfred Hitchcock's film noir, Strangers On A Train follows the fateful encounter between two men in the dining carriage of a train crossing America. Guy Haines is the successful businessman with a nagging doubt about the fidelity of his wife; Charles Bruno is a cold, calculating chancer with a dark secret. A daring and dangerous plan develops from this casual conversation, setting in motion a chain of events that will change the two men’s lives forever and call on the skills of Middleton's Detective Arthur Gerard.

Ambassador Theatre Group, the production's producers, approached John's agent via casting director Anne Vosser. "They said, 'Do you fancy doing a tour of Strangers On a Train? Do you know the story?'. I just happened to have read it for the first time, and it's such a totally absorbing thriller," he says.

"She said the part I was up for was the detective, not the biggest when the story's about these two men who've made this dangerous contract, but it's such a contrast to what I've been doing for the past 20 years, so naturally playing a hard-bitten American detective appealed to me – and it's got me back on stage for the first time, professionally, in 25 years. I can't remember what the last show was actually!"

In the interim, there was an appearance in a fundraiser for Harrogate Theatre with fellow Emmerdale actor Mark Charnock, Middleton performing a rehearsed reading of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Charnock presenting Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. "It might have been about ten years ago, and we filled the theatre as we were two guys off the telly doing something way off the wall, doing it at night and between our day jobs," says John.

He began rehearsals for his return to the stage on December 4 in London, two days after appearing as the narrator in The Christmas Story at Ripon Cathedral. He had already had sessions in London with a voice coach, working on his accent for Strangers On A Train. "I'm learning an Iowa accent for the play, and it's quite specific because it marks out the detective as different. He's Mid-Western and others are from the East Coast and look down on him," says John. "Guy is much more cultured than Arthur, but in looking down on him, he misjudges him."

Ambassador Theatre Group and Smith and Brant Theatricals present Strangers On A Train at Grand Opera House, York, March 5 to 10. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york. Sheffield tickets are on sale on 0114 249 6000 or at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

Did you know?

Anthony Banks directed the touring production of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, with Kara Tointon and Keith Allen, at the Grand Opera House, York, last year.