Gary Mackay talks of appearance in The Thirty Nine Steps

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EASTER Road, or to be precise, an old church hall off Easter Road, is where Gary Mackay made his stage debut. The actor, who attended Leith Walk Primary and Drummond High, was eight at the time.

“My mum and dad were never big on professional theatre, but one of the guys who worked with my dad at Aikman’s Electrical Warehouse was a committee member of The Bohemians amateur musicals society and occasionally gave us free tickets for their shows,” recalls Mackay, who returns home this week to appear in The 39 Steps at The King’s.

“That’s how my sister, brother and I got into drama and when I was eight, we’d go to Lockhart Memorial Church drama group, on Albion Road - the first thing I did was a pantomime, playing a weird alien called a Quirk.”

That debut came quite by accident, Mackay taking over the role when another kid caught chickenpox.

“They asked me if I would like to take his part and gave me 48 hours to learn it,” he laughs, recalling his sister running his lines with him late into the night.

Although he did a few more shows in his youth, Mackay gave up his dream of being an actor when he turned 16.

“It was never the family ideal for me because that didn’t bring in money,” he explains. “So I joined the GPO. I was one of the last telegram boys, delivering messages to the likes of Peter Usitinov and all the famous people who stayed at the Caledonian Hotel.”

By 18, he had left the Post Office and fallen into youth work, then in 1984 he moved south to became a social worker, specialising in child and adult psychiatry.

“I qualified as a psychiatric social worker and that led me into working with young offenders, special educational needs and child psychiatry,” says the 48-year-old.

“The last job I had was working in a children’s hospice. I’d stopped doing drama by then but eventually got roped into doing an outdoor Shakespeare. A local amateur company were looking for spear carriers for a production of Julius Caesar - I ended up staying with them for five years, off and on.”

In his early-30s by now, Mackay rediscovered his love of acting after a ten-year break, but it was a heart-breaking encounter that led him to turn professional.

“While I was working at the children’s hospice, I met this 12-year-old called Josh, who was dying. He had always wanted to go to the Pyramids but couldn’t because he was so ill.

“I said to him, ‘You do realise you won’t be able to get to the pyramids...’ He went quiet for about 10 minutes, then he looked at me, and said, ‘But you never stop dreaming Gary.’

“He died about two weeks later. I just thought, ‘Do you know what? I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I’m now 39 and I don’t know why I’m doing social work.’ So I decided to give it a go and applied to drama school.

“I’d rather be on my deathbed not getting anywhere but knowing that I’d tried, than never ever knowing what might have been. Josh was the catalyst that set me on the path to fulfil my dream.”

This week, Mackay returns home to perform in the very theatre he watched The Bohemians as a child. He plays Man No 1 in the smash hit touring version of The 39 Steps.

Based on John Buchan’s 1914 spy thriller and adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, the award winning production follows handsome hero Richard Hannay, who must solve the 39 steps to acquit himself of murder and save King and country.

A comedy thriller, the piece features four fearless actors playing 139 roles in 100 minutes - complete with stiff upper lip, British gung-ho and tongue firmly in cheek.

“It’s so physically - that kind of Monty Python humour - that I’ve lost about a stone and a half already,” he smiles, “Still it’s a dream come true. I remember watching Fiddler On The Roof, Annie Get Your Gun and stuff like that there, all the time thinking, ‘I’d love to be on that stage.’

It’s going to be quite a nostalgic trip for me.”

The Thirty Nine Steps, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000