Stage success means it's all smiles for Belfast actress Kerri Quinn

Kerri Quinn is fast becoming one of Northern Ireland's most compelling actresses on stage and screen. She tells Joanne Sweeney how she is grateful every day for her career

Actress Kerri Quinn at home in north Belfast with her daughter Libby (4) Picture: Ann McManus
Joanne Sweeney

AS THE hip-swaying, killer-heel-wearing Elaine in Gary Mitchell's new play Smiley, actress Kerri Quinn doesn't take any prisoners. However, the 33-year-old Belfast woman, whose star is very much in the ascendant at the Lyric Theatre, is much more delicate and softer in real life.

In the comedy, set in the loyalist estate of Rathcoole in Belfast, Elaine wants much more out of life for her teenage son and herself in a post-Troubles era. The ex-wife of Smiley, the local Jack the Lad with a gambling debt bought over by loyalist leader Tara, she knows what she wants and how to get it – even if it is a tad shady.

Quinn's professional life is on a roll – this is her third major role at the Lyric this year, having already played played Rita in the highly acclaimed Belfast-set Educating Rita by Willy Russell (directed by Emma Jordan) and Mary Gallagher in Here Comes The Night (directed by Jimmy Fay) alongside fellow Smiley actor Michael Condron.

While Smiley is based on a five-a-side football tournament, it's really about the desire for individuals and communities to normalise post-conflict. If that sounds heavy, it isn't – the play is actually a fast-paced comedy, laced with Belfast humour and put-downs and with enough swear words to make your granny blush.

"Smiley is a heightened, laugh-out-loud comedy," Quinn tells me at her home in her native north Belfast, where her little girl Libby dances happily around us.

"There's so much in it and it's not really about football. It does what it says in the tin; it's a good night at the theatre. It's great for a girls night out; it's got music, an Elvis impersonators and a drag act.

"The feedback has been great but I think a lot of people have come expecting a more dramatic piece since it's written by Gary [Mitchell] so it can take the audience a while to relax and enjoy it as a comedy. Nothing should be taken too seriously, we are literally taking the p**s."

Quinn is a triple threat when it comes to the stage and the screen – she can act, sing and dance – and after 13 years as an actress, her resume is impressive. She is brilliant in Smiley.

Her speciality on stage seems to be portraying strong characters; she played the enigmatic Sally Bowles, a role made famous by Liza Minnelli, in Cabaret at the MAC several years ago and was a tour-de-force as a feisty Belfast hairdresser who goes to university in Educating Rita earlier this year.

But her professional success is coming on the back of a tough time in her private life. Just over a year ago the windows of her home were smashed after her family were wrongly blamed for a loyalist flag being taken down.

"I bought a house in a mixed area as I was brought up in a mixed area," she tells me. "I had a cracking childhood growing up without any sectarianism and I thought that's what I want for my child."

Initially intimated by the loyalist flags which appeared in the area for the Twelfth, she approached her local DUP office to see what could be done as she was terrified to the extent that she was experiencing panic attacks.

She adds: "Everything settled for a year and I thought everything was put behind me, but the flags went up again and I thought I could tolerate this but then they put our windows in instead.

"It was actually a hate crime that happened to me and my family. It was one man with a shovel who went out and put all the windows in. It was absolutely terrifying.

"It shook me up for so long. I was full of anxiety which is the last thing you need when you do what I do. I was so afraid for my family and I thought 'Where does this end?' It was a tough year for me and my family, but it's onwards and upwards."

Family is important to Quinn, a single parent who maintains a good relationship with four-year-old Libby's father. The daughter of Cathy and Gerard Quinn, she has an older sister Roisin and a younger brother Gerard. Another brother, Kevin, died as a child.

Her relationship with her daughter is everything to her and, as a single mum, she sometimes finds herself juggling work with parenting commitments.

Quinn initially found it hard to get into the 'acting circuit' in Belfast and Dublin after she finished her drama qualification at Queen's University.

"A good friend, Patrick J O'Reilly, the director and actor, was with [theatre production company] Red Lemon and he started employing me," she says. "Then [Belfast playwright] Martin Lynch started to employ me and after that my name began to get known. So it's about someone being willing to take a chance on you and I'm so thankful to them and [the Lyric's executive producer] Jimmy Fay.

"I feel so lucky that I've had three jobs more or less back to back and I count my blessings every day."

While she would love more regular work at the Lyric, Quinn may look to television in the future.

"I would love to do a television drama series and more TV generally if I could free up some time down the line. I was meant to be in The Fall loads of times but I was already committed to theatre work.

" I couldn't turn down the theatre work as there is a loyalty there to people like Jimmy Fay and Martin Lynch who have been loyal to me. I think that I could make a commute work to England or Dublin for a certain job as my family are a brilliant support to me."

:: Kerri Quinn appears in the Smiley by Gary Mitchell at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until July 2.

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