Derry Girls' Tara Lynne O'Neill ready for one-woman show at Grand Opera House

Tara Lynne O'Neill has become a familiar face on TV as Ma Mary in Derry Girls but the Belfast actress is going it alone for a new one-woman show at the Grand Opera House next month. She spoke to Gail Bell

Belfast actress Tara Lynne O'Neill appears in the one-woman show Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield next month
Gail Bell

TARA Lynne O'Neill is slightly worried that she's turning into her mother as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, activating mixed signals about who is staring back...

But, turning into your mother is something that happens to the best of us – female children, at least – reasons the Belfast actress when explaining her latest role: playing a similarly confused daughter in one-woman show Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield, which opens at the Grand Opera House next month.

Undoubtedly, standing alone on the stage with just the lighting and "all the ghosts of the theatre" for company, will seem a long way from the comfort of the Derry Girls "family" and the chaotic domesticity that seems to drape itself round O'Neill's alter ego, Ma Mary Quinn, like one of her cosy, oversized 1990s jumpers.

It will, she admits, be a "little bit daunting", going on stage and holding it all together herself when usually part of a wider cast, although the actress, whose impressive CV stretches across film, TV and theatre, has nonetheless spent a large chunk of her career on local stages, engaging directly with a live audience.

"I became an actor because I wanted to work with people and in Derry Girls it's like one big family, so this is definitely something different for me," says O'Neill, who was also a regular in The Fall and Line of Duty. "But, I'm very lucky; I will be surrounded by a brilliant lighting designer, brilliant designer and brilliant director. And, hopefully, all the ghosts of the theatre will be there with me. I'm very excited."

She describes her new project as a "very dark" black comedy but, having acted in several stage plays where the humour is dark and sticky as treacle – including Marie Jones's irreverent Fly Me To The Moon – she is instinctively familiar with the tone, the timing and often the mystery of what makes us all laugh.

"Me, Mum and Dustry Springfield is a really lovely, heartfelt, funny, one-person show," she explains. "It's a story about a woman and her mother, but also a story about how we try all our lives not to become our mothers and how, one day, we look in the mirror, and there she is. I look at Ma Mary in Derry Girls and I can just see my mum at that age. It's the hair, it's the jumpers....

"This girl in the 'Dusty' show – her name is Mary as well – is preparing to scatter her mum's ashes and there's a letter she has left which I have to read; a letter which contains her dying wish and will explain some things.

"The 'mum' is a Dusty Springfield impersonator so, in a way, doing this show has been a musical journey of discovery for me as you forget just how wonderful Dusty was as an artist. And, yes, I get to sing – the character's not a great singer, so I get away with it."

O'Neill first "fell in love" with the script after seeing it performed by its author, Stephanie Ridings, during a visit to the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago and afterwards couldn't get it out of her head.

"I thought the humour was so similar to our sense of humour in Northern Ireland and that it would transfer here with utter ease," she says. "I didn't rewrite it or anything – Stephanie's writing is beautiful – I just changed a few words for local audiences, such switching 'little' to 'wee', you know, the usual wee colloquialisms."

A writer herself, the actress – who started working in the industry while saving money to go to the drama school – senses a bold and rising confidence among women in theatre today.

"I think it's a very special time for women in theatre at the moment," O'Neill enthuses. "There's Claire McMahon's I Am Maura, showing at the Lyric, and Carol Moore's The Experience of Being in the Grand Opera House; many of these women are writing their own shows and I think that's brilliant.

"There is a new confidence, a new sense of fearlessness out there and also, from an audience point of view, paying customers are willing to embrace it. What I also love is the fact that we portray women as powerhouses of the north, but also women with heart."

Currently, she has a play on commission with the Lyric – Rough Girls – and she will be again writing the Christmas Show for the Mac, while, performance-wise, there are "a few wee things in the pipeline" that are "very exciting", but she can't talk about them yet.

"I'm just happy to be able to work at what I love doing, right here in Northern Ireland," O'Neill adds. "Creating work and telling stories about where I come from is the dream for me. And, you don't have to look very far in this city – there is a story on every street corner."

:: Me, Mum and Dusty Springfield runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, May 13-18.

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