Message of This Sh*t Happens All the Time still relevant

Derry actress Caoimhe Farren is taking on the challenge of performing a one-woman show, telling a true story of homophobic hate crime in 1990s Belfast. She tells Gail Bell why it is still a story for our times

Caoimhe Farren has been training like an athlete to prepare for the rigours of her demanding one-woman performance at the Lyric Theatre this week
Caoimhe Farren has been training like an athlete to prepare for the rigours of her demanding one-woman performance at the Lyric Theatre this week

ACTRESS Caoimhe Farren is training like an athlete - but not for the marathon you might think.

In preparation for going solo on stage in Amanda Verlaque's debut This Sh*t Happens All the Time - part of this week's Imagine! Belfast festival of ideas and politics and the Lyric theatre's new writing programme - she is leaving nothing to chance.

"It's a very physically demanding role," says London-based Farren, best known for her television appearances in BBC's Doctors - Derry Girls fans might also recognise her as the severe-looking Janet Taylor, head teacher of a Protestant boys' school in the hit Channel 4 series.

"There are parts where I'm running about, jumping in the air, [expending] lots of energy and because it's a one-woman performance, you don't have 10 seconds to get your breath back when someone else is saying a line," she explains.

"So, basically I've been taking lots of vitamins, drinking gallons of water with honey, ginger - all that. I'm in training and treating myself a bit like an athlete building up to a marathon. I've been careful in rehearsals, not to push myself too much because I could burn out - and I'm not in my 20s any more."

In fact, Derry-born Farren, who trained at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) in London, hit the 40 milestone last year and, being "a late developer" - not formally training until her late 20s - says her 40s are already shaping up to be the best decade yet.

One of the reasons, she says, is this brave new role direct from the heart of the writer whose deeply personal autobiographical monologue about homophobic hate crime in Belfast in the 90s has struck a chord.

In the production, which explores misogyny, coercive control, and queer-baiting, Farren portrays a young woman who falls in love with another young woman, whose jealous ex-boyfriend "responds with murderous intent".

"In 2022 he would be arrested, but in 1992 Belfast homophobic hate crime law doesn't exist," says Farren, who feels strongly that the monologue (directed by Rhiann Jeffrey) should still make audiences in 2022 sit up and take notice.

"The fact that we're looking back to 1992 doesn't make it any less relevant," stresses the actress who also features in new Disney+ fantasy series Willow, due for release this year.

"There are still frequent attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and a lot of my friends from that community would say that just because the laws change, it doesn't mean that attitudes change too. This idea of, 'Well, it's better than it used to be...' is still not good enough.

"The play - which is essentially a love story - speaks to everyone and it is also everyone's collective responsibility to contribute to social change. There is still a long way to go."

To demonstrate this point, she relates how she was recently being driven to the Lyric for a photoshoot and got chatting with her taxi driver about the theatre piece in question.

"He asked what I was doing and when I told him about the play and that it was about a gay experience in Belfast in the 90s, he kind of just looked at me and laughed and said there were no gay people in Belfast in the 90s," she says, sounding flabbergasted.

"He didn't stop to think that of course they were there - they were just all in hiding."

Although harrowing in places, she says Verlaque's story is also very funny with "big peaks and troughs", but what attracted her most to the part was the honesty of the writing.

It is something she can relate to after penning her first play, Hello Charlie, during lockdown - also based on a harrowing story of her own; her journey to recovery from alcoholism.

"I was on the Lyric's New Playwright programme myself last year and had a rehearsed reading of my play last October," explains Farren, whose partner is Doctors actor Ian Midlane.

"Hello Charlie is inspired by my journey to sobriety - I'm three years into my sobriety now - and it's a story about trauma, sisterhood and breaking those familial addictions. It was a cathartic thing to do.

"It's something I have been threatening to do for many years - I used to write a lot when I was younger, but was stopped by anxiety, crippling perfectionism and other things which got in the way.

"Then, in lockdown, I suddenly had the time and when I started, I found I couldn't shut up. I put myself in the position of the audience, looking at it from that way and even though alcoholism is a serious matter, Hello Charlie is essentially a comedy - a deeply black comedy."

Away from the stage, she feels it is a situation all too familiar in Northern Ireland, silently being played out behind closed doors.

"In this part of the world, I feel alcoholism has such a grip on so many people and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn't know someone directly or indirectly affected by it," she says. "It's part of the culture; it's everywhere.

"I just decided to stop [drinking] and then, being sober and having that clarity, I thought, 'I'm an actress of a certain age and I'm just going to write myself a part that nobody will give me'. It was also that thing of being able to laugh in the face of your own misery."

That ability to laugh, no matter what else is happening, predominates in Derry Girls of course, and as a natural-born Derry girl herself, Farren was delighted to play the head teacher of the fictional Londonderry Boys' Academy.

There are still faint traces of a Derry accent, but the Farren accent today is decidedly neutral, I venture. She laughs.

"I really pride myself on being 'Derry', but then I meet a Derry person and they're like, 'Where are you from?'," she admits.

"I was a teenager around the same time as the girls in the show, so it was all so relatable, having grown up in Derry in the era in which Derry Girls is set.

"This sounds really bad, but we loved it if there was a bomb scare because it might mean the bridge would be closed and we would get a day off school.

"There was all this mayhem going on around you, yet we were still obsessed with the boys we fancied and the fact your mammy wouldn't let you get your hair permed..."

It goes back again, she says, to the Northern Ireland sense of humour - often very black - which is something "quite specific" to countries that have a turbulent past.

"It is something that Amanda has captured really well in This Sh*t Happens All the Time and, more than anything, I feel so privileged to be able to tell this story on stage," she says, before dashing off to replenish her vitamins.

"It's a big responsibility and I'm really grateful to Amanda and Rhiann, the director, for trusting me to tell it."

This Sh*it Happens All the Time is at the Lyric Theatre's Naughton Studio from tomorrow until April 2. lyrictheatre.co.uk