Co Down writer who's bringing Shirley Valentine back to the stage, Belfast style

With his own 'Belfast' adaptation of Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine about to make its stage debut, followed by Play for Ireland winner The Alternative and a TV dramatisation of My Left Nut, both of which he co-wrote with Michael Patrick, life has never been busier for Co Down man Oisin Kearney. He took time out to speak to Gail Bell

Oisin Kearney, whose adaptation of Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine will hit the stage at the Lyric at the end of August
Gail Bell

SHIRLEY Valentine, the winsome, working class heroine created by award-winning dramatist Willy Russell of Blood Brothers and Educating Rita fame, is to be uprooted from her familiar Liverpudlian terrace and rehomed in the middle of Belfast.

Bringing her vibrantly to life on stage of the Lyric at the end of the month will be actress Tara Lynne O'Neill – best known as 'Ma Mary' from Derry Girls – with local writer and director, Oisin Kearney, having been charged with the formidable task of rewriting the script with a distinctly local flavour.

And, while purists may fret over the apparent need to paint over every Mona Lisa with a hard-edged 'Norn Iron' brush, with Kearney, who has already deftly handled a reworking of Educating Rita (after being given permission and guidance by Russell himself), we can be assured that the eponymous Shirley Valentine has been left in a safe pair of hands.

The talented Warrenpoint writer, whose coming-of-age tale, My Left Nut (co-written with Michael Patrick from Finaghy) is now being drammatised for a new BBC3 series, admits to feeling a "huge responsibility" to the text and also to the audience – many of whom may be familiar with actress Pauline Collins's definitive titular role in the 1989 film version of the bitter-sweet comedy drama.

So, will the worn-down, weary housewife who goes "off to Greece" (for two weeks), still be found talking to the wall and feeding her husband's Thursday night steak to the 'vegetarian' bloodhound next door?

Kearney is not divulging all the 'tweaks', but says balance is key.

"The aim with Shirley Valentine is to create a Shirley who sounds undeniably of this place and whose problems are, nonetheless, universal," he contends. "Shirley isn't defined by where she is from – her story is about transcending the stereotypes and the expectations and becoming herself again – Shirley Valentine.

"People pay good money to see shows, but I do think adapting a classic with a local flavour can make it more relatable in some ways, and, with Willy Russell on board, it has been an artistic adventure which we hope audiences will enjoy. The world has never seen a Belfast 'Shirley' before, so it will be great to hear what she has to say."

As with 'Rita' [played by Belfast actress Kerry Quinn, currently appearing in Coronation Street], the challenge, he says, was to create a Belfast 'Shirley' authentic to Belfast, while also staying true to the text and ensuring the world and socio-political context that she grew up and lived in feels 'real'.

The Cambridge-educated Kearney (he studied Politics) has a strong back catalogue of work to rely on when it comes to ensuring authenticity, having started his career through the BBC's 'Aim High' production training scheme and then going on to work with Fine Point Films on several Oscar-nominated and Emmy-nominated documentaries which, he says, imbued him with "a real understanding" of storytelling.

He has since worked on factual productions for BBC and RTÉ, authored his own feature documentary, Bojayá: Caught In The Crossfire, which follows a community leader fighting for peace in a jungle region of Colombia, and written for theatre – notably My Left Nut, a comedy which tells the true story of a young Belfast man coming to terms with the death of his father while coping with a hugely swollen testicle.

It became a surprise stage hit at the Dublin and Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, spawned an Irish tour and has now been adapted for television – BBC3 is currently filming the series in Belfast with Sinead Keenan (Being Human) and newcomer, Nathan Quinn-O'Rawe, starring in leading roles.

"Michael and I have been delighted and also a bit shocked that this story, based on Michael's true life experiences, has now made it to television," Kearney enthuses. "We just started this journey two years ago with Irish theatre company, Fishamble, so everything has happened very quickly. It has been a bit of whirlwind to say the least."

His many, varied projects thus far – he also worked as assistant director on the Lyric's highly acclaimed production of Good Vibrations last year – have changed him in some way, which, he maintains, is always a good thing.

"Every piece of art should challenge our own narrative so that we learn and grow, and this is what I try to do when I make something," he says. "Filming 'All For Show' (BBC True North), for instance, definitely changed my view on female bodybuilders, as I came to understand what drives them.

"I have always been interested in how people consume information and stories, as this shapes their perception of the world and their identity. Ever since I was a member of Newpoint Youth Group in Newry, I was fascinated with imaginative storytelling, especially the myths of the landscape, the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, which we could see in the rocks, mountains and loughs around Warrenpoint where I grew up."

With latest work, The Alternative – written again with Michael Patrick whom he met at university – the duo have turned to political satire as "an antidote" to current political upheavals.

Chosen from hundreds of submissions as the 'Play for Ireland' by Fishamble – the Olivier award-winning Irish theatre company that discovers and develops new work – The Alternative (also at the Lyric) depicts an alternative reality where Ireland was never partitioned, the Republic never became independent and "Ireland had only one soccer team".

The year is 2019 and the scene is a BBC Dublin debate studio on the eve of the referendum for Irish independence. British prime minister Ursula Lysaght is returning to her hometown of Dublin to convince voters to 'Remain'...

"Michael and I were extremely lucky to have our play chosen again by Fishamble and we wrote it because we felt like there needed to be some political satire as an antidote to events, which the majority of people of Northern Ireland and the south seem to have no real control over," Kearney concludes.

"We look forward to the play going on a tour around Ireland and we hope people connect with it. Perhaps, it could even go further afield – audiences across the UK might find something useful in its themes."

:: Shirley Valentine opens at the Lyric Theatre on August 31and runs until September 1. There will also be performances at the Millennium Forum, Derry, from September 5-7, after which the show returns to the Lyric until October 5. The Alternative is showing at the Lyric from October 8-13. Details and tickets:

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