DIRECTOR Harri Marshall aims to relocate Britain's theatrical mojo from Covid's lost months by staging Patrick Barlow's riotous West End comedy thriller The 39 Steps in York.

From tonight until Sunday, her production marks York Settlement Community Players' return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri's cast of eight takes to the John Cooper Studio stage at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, 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.

More than 150 characters must make an appearance as Marshall's cast tells the fraught 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.

"Rehearsals have gone 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, such as the chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash.

"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 scenes that make it well loved are insane for any director to choreograph and work through.

"I didn't want to shy away from stretching my imagination and creativity, and I also saw it as an opportunity for performers to flex their skill in the form of multi-role playing and working as a disciplined ensemble."

Faced with staging a quick-moving piece with regular changes of location, Harri has settled on a design as relaxed it can be within Covid restrictions. "That's 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, plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and old-fashioned romance, Patrick Barlow's "needs-must" style of comedy in the face of adversity requires completely straight faces from the actors. "But 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. 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."

The lead role goes to actor, singer, songwriter and musician Aran MacRae, who has returned to York after West End, national tour and overseas professional roles, playing Richard Hannay opposite Sanna Buck in three parts and Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Dan Boyle handling everyone else in the guise of The Clowns.

"As soon as Aran walked in the room for the audition, I knew he'd be perfect," says Harri. "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 has broken with his previous practice when preparing to play Hannay. "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.

"I've truly learned what it takes to become a proper 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 and the traditional values the British have, one of which is how ridiculous we are, but also by the cast and by the director, who is brash in such a way that it's so intelligent. Harri is a superhero, she really is."

Aran has given Richard Hannay his own back story, beyond that description of a "man with a boring life", rooted in Hannay's war experiences. "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."

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."

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm. Box office: