Entertainment

Tara Lynne O'Neill: From Derry Girls to fairy tales

With Tara Lynne O'Neill's Christmas family show Hansel & Gretel delighting audiences at the Lyric Theatre, the actor and playwright talks to Jane Hardy about Derry Girls, the difference between writing and performing and why the Brothers Grimm fairy tale still packs a punch

Tara Lynne O'Neill and her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Tara Lynne O'Neill and her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Tara Lynne O'Neill and her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

You can't help wondering whether actors turn dramatist to create decent parts for themselves. Not so in the case of Tara Lynne O'Neill. She has great parts written for her, notably the hilarious Ma Mary in Derry Girls. The acclaimed TV show has just won an Emmy for its writer, Lisa McGee. O'Neill, meanwhile, is on her second playwriting exercise at the Lyric Theatre with this year's Christmas show, Hansel & Gretel.

O'Neill admires what McGee has achieved with Derry Girls – "I am thrilled for her, she's won every award going with Derry Girls, so deserved" – but says she can't easily regard her as an influence on her own writing: "Her jokes come thick and fast and I can't compete with that."

We agree that O'Neill's Derry Girls alter ego Ma Mary is portrayed as ditzy in a totally unpatronising way, including the scene where she says she wonders if her daughter and friends are off to see the band Take This.

Concerning the 1812 Grimm – and grim – fairy tale O'Neill has adapted for Christmas 2023, she says she was inspired by the touching story of the original 19th century authors, the Brothers Grimm.

Tara Lynne O'Neill. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Tara Lynne O'Neill. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Tara Lynne O'Neill. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

It's hardly surprising their output was grim as their lives were far from easy: "They lost both parents when they were about nine and two siblings also died. This was a terrible time yet they became very successful."

The narrative arc of loss to empowerment fires O'Neill's Hansel and Gretel which is framed in the story of the boy who was bullied and scared and dreams the dark fairy tale we know so well.

Hansel and Gretel escape from their wicked aunt (brilliantly played by Christina Nelson) and uncle, then are seduced by the candy house owned by the witch who wants to add them to her diet.

In O'Neill's version, they all – including the witch – escape from the cooking pot and our narrator, Monty the Mouse learns to stand up for himself.

Tara Lynne O'Neill is an optimist, definitely a glass half-full sort: "We can all change our lives."

The musical, created with Katie Richardson's songs and lyrics, is pacey and fun, although O'Neill inserts some slightly Disneyfied positive thinking sentiments. At one point a character sings to our timid hero that "you can achieve anything you want with a good heart" – and why not? It is Christmas...

And the witch Myrtle who seems to be grappling with her little problem with wanting children on a plate is a glorious creation. One little boy in the audience reported with enthusiasm that he'd loved the moment the witch disappeared legs last into the fire...

Read more:

  • Derry Girls' Tara Lynne O'Neill ready for one-woman show at Grand Opera House
  • Tara Lynne O'Neill on new football play Rough Girls and the return of Derry Girls
  • Derry Girls star rules out spin-off series as creator has 'moved on' from hit show

So does O'Neill prefer writing to acting? "They're quite different. Writing is isolated, just you. But theatre is collaborative." As if to make the point, the director of Hansel & Gretel, PJ O Reilly, appears before getting back to a technical run-through.

"He is brilliant," says O'Neill. "So are the team and I like being part of it. If the director says something doesn't work, I trust him and it's not a problem."

The cast of Hansel & Gretel, this year's Christmas family show at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT
The cast of Hansel & Gretel, this year's Christmas family show at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT The cast of Hansel & Gretel, this year's Christmas family show at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT

O'Neill did star in her own play Rough Girls. This took the Lyric by storm in 2021, and was the theatre's first major production after the Covid pandemic. She played the MC, a slightly Sally Bowles figure, as the female footballers the play is about kicked their stories into touch. She says now the role was meant for somebody else: "If you think the character sings and dances, then it obviously wasn't for me."

Rough Girls – which takes its title from the Oscar Wilde quotation: "Football is a game more suited to rough girls than to delicate boys" – is a positive drama in many ways.

We discuss the superb Caroline Curran who played Gertie, a character whose abusive home life requires her to reach breaking point then find release via the beautiful game and female support: "I loved Caroline as Maggie Muff but wanted to give her the chance to do something else, something more emotional."

Before Rough Girls, O'Neill cut her playwriting teeth by co-writing Christmas shows about errant elves with friend and actor Chris Robinson.

Odhrán McNulty, Orla Gormley, Catriona McFeely and Christina Nelson in Hansel & Gretel at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT
Odhrán McNulty, Orla Gormley, Catriona McFeely and Christina Nelson in Hansel & Gretel at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT Odhrán McNulty, Orla Gormley, Catriona McFeely and Christina Nelson in Hansel & Gretel at the Lyric Theatre. PICTURE: CARRIE DAVENPORT

In the business, the actor and dramatist says one of her greatest mates is Ian McElhinney, who plays her father in Derry Girls: "We love each other and are turning into a double act."

This dates from their first chemistry read, the script run-through when producers discover if actors click, and they recently appeared on Celebrity Antiques Road Trip.

McElhinney had a convincing win but O'Neill has forgiven him. She laughs then disappears for a technical run-through accompanied by her patient pooch, Snoop (as in Snoop Doggy Dog...).

Tara Lynne O'Neill with her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Tara Lynne O'Neill with her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Tara Lynne O'Neill with her dog Snoop. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

O'Neill has only ever missed performing in two panto seasons since turning professional: once because of her mother's death a few years ago; then because of Covid.

"I remember being the front end of a River Dancing cow in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Waterfront one Christmas a while ago. People say the back half is harder work but it was sitting down, I did all the work. And that's why I am writing this Christmas."

:: Hansel & Gretel runs at The Lyric Theatre until January 6. lyrictheatre.co.uk