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Intrigue runs in the family

PUBLISHED: 11:54 20 April 2010 | UPDATED: 09:52 02 July 2010

Abigail Saltmarsh

It may be a comedy version of The 39 Steps but it still has all the intrigue of the original story, and, as ABIGAIL SALTMARSH discovers, lead actor Dugald Bruce-Lockhart has a fascinating tale of his own to tell.

It may be a comedy version of The 39 Steps but it still has all the intrigue of the original story, and, as ABIGAIL SALTMARSH discovers, lead actor Dugald Bruce-Lockhart has a fascinating tale of his own to tell.

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Espionage and intrigue runs in the family, jokes actor Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, the man who has taken on the guise of Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps.

As he prepares to arrive in Norwich to perform the lead role in the touring version of the hit West End show, he reveals one of his relatives had a life that could have leapt straight from the pages of a thriller.

“My great-great uncle Bertie was framed for an assassination attempt on Lenin,” he reveals. “He was in effect a Russian spy, a naïve romantic who backed the wrong side.”

Robert “Bertie” Bruce Lockhart, who also knew The 39 Steps author John Buchan, was, in fact, a contact of famous spy Sidney Reilly.

And when a plot to assassinate Lenin was uncovered, he was blamed and the event was dubbed the “Lockhart Plot.”

Later, in 1932, Bertie wrote a best-seller himself called Memoirs of a British Agent, which was filmed by Warner Brothers. Then his youngest son - Dugald's great uncle, Robin Bruce-Lockhart - wrote Reilly, Ace of Spies, in 1967, which became an award-winning TV series starring Sam Neill.

“It is all interesting but Uncle Bertie was framed,” stresses Dugald. “The assassination attempt was actually nothing to do with him.”

Adapted by Patrick Barlow and directed by Maria Aitken, the version of The 39 Steps in which Dugald stars, is rather more light-hearted than his great-great uncle's tale.

Complete with stiff upper lip, British gung-ho and pencil moustache, it follows the adventures of handsome hero Hannay as he encounters dastardly murders, double-crossing secret agents, and, of course, devastatingly beautiful women.

The multi award-winning production contains every legendary scene from the 1935 classic Hitchcock movie thriller, including the chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape on the Forth Bridge and the first theatrical bi-plane crash ever staged.

It also features the sensational death-defying finale in the London Palladium, as well as the “stockings and suspenders scene,” considered controversial at the time of the film's release.

“This is a brilliant version of the story - a wonderful spoof,” says Dugald, who was last in Norwich when he starred at the Theatre Royal in the Deep Blue Sea alongside Greta Scacchi.

“It takes the essence of The 39 Steps and has four actors playing more than 100 roles between them. It is a very dynamic play.”

Dugald, who is joined on stage by Katherine Kingsley, Dan Starkey and Richard Braine, said the play was fast-paced because it embodied all the original thrilling action.

“It is a mock serious version of the well-known spy thriller story but it is also a very physical comedy, which is very much a play in its own right.

“I have never done anything quite like this before and have found it hard work. Much of it is down to the timing - there are gags that rely on precise timings with sound effects, for example, and we had to work hard to get them just right,” he admits.

Dugald, who has appeared in a number of TV shows, including Walter's War, Alien Western, Foyle's War, Hotel Babylon, Trust, Midsummer Murders, Brookside, The Bill, Rockface, The Demon Headmaster, Bugs II and Wycliffe, as well as films From Time to Time, Hart's War, Simon an English Legionnaire and Alive and Kicking, loves the thrill of appearing live on stage.

Most recently he played Teddy Lloyd in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Edinburgh Festival but his other work includes Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at the Old Vic and in New York, and Faust and Dangerous Liaisons at The Royal Lyceum.

“I do enjoy television and film work as well as theatre,” he goes on. “But I do think there is a lot of very good work being done on stage at the moment.”

Norfolk is a part of the world Dugald knows well. Despite having a diplomatic upbringing abroad, he often visited the county, where he has connections as another uncle, Logie Bruce Lockhart, was headmaster of Gresham's.

But at the moment, as he dons his Trilby and trench coat, it is his ancestor with the more cloak and dagger past that is of most relevance.

“The story of Uncle Bertie is fascinating and having the chance to do what he would have done - even though it is on stage - is fun,” he admits.

“I suppose it must be in the blood!”

t The 39 Steps, Norwich Theatre Royal, April 19-24, £20.50-£5, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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