‘Shirley has to wear a swimsuit...I should stay off the cream horns!’

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Tara Lynne O’Neill, better known as ‘Ma Mary’ from ‘Derry Girls’, will perform the Willy Russell classic ‘Shirley Valentine’ in the Millennium Forum next month.

For the Belfast-native, the excursion over the Glenshane will be a kind of homecoming, and that’s not just because of the phenomenal reception ‘Derry Girls’ has received, as Tara explains.

“Derry was always my second home. I spent all my summers in Derry on the Ballybogie Road. My sister lived up there throughout my childhood so I spent all my summers there. I was even in the ‘Derry Journal’ for a sandcastle competition when I was 7! I still have the photograph cut out from the paper. I was very proud of it. It’s the one and only award I’ve ever won!”

Perhaps best known to local audiences as Erin’s (Saoirse Monica-Jackson) ‘Ma’ in Lisa McGee’s much-loved comedy about a set of hapless teenagers growing up in Derry in the last days of the conflict, Tara boasts an impressive and eclectic résumé. She’s performed for film, TV and theatre roles in works as varied as ‘Disco Pigs’, ‘The Most Fertile Man in Ireland’, ‘EastEnders’, ‘Touched by an Angel’, ‘Fair City’, ‘The Fall’, and ‘Line of Duty’.

Yet Willy Russell’s working-class housewife from Liverpool who sets off to Greece on an odyssey of self-discovery is a role she’s always wanted.

“I did ‘Educating Rita’ [another Russell classic] at the Lyric about 15 years ago and ever since then I wanted to do ‘Shirley Valentine’ but I knew I had to just wait until I got to my 40s. He writes women so beautifully, so complex and so real, and so flawed. It’s two people in a relationship who love each other dearly but have just got bored and used to each other but they still love each other. I think anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can relate to those moments where you just want a bit of excitement or you start to take each other for granted and I think that’s universal.”

The multi-award winning play achieved even greater fame when it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti in 1989. But Tara’s turn at the Forum from Thursday, September 5 to Saturday, September 7, remains faithful to the original and will be performed as what sounds like a rather exhausting one-woman show. Tara’s not whingeing.

“When you’re the only one in the play you can’t have any time off! It’s brilliant. There’s no point in complaining. It’s a dream job. It’s the film. It’s the same story. It’s just I play everyone else.”

Next month’s run will be Tara’s first tread along the Derry boards since ‘Derry Girls’ exploded into popular consciousness last year.

“I’ve done a few pieces up in Derry but nothing since ‘Derry Girls’. The way Derry has embraced every one of us, even the ones who aren’t living there or aren’t from Derry, is fantastic. It feels like I’m going home. It’s great because everyone is so proud of the show. It doesn’t matter about your background or your age. Everyone feels a sense of ownership. It’s great to be part of something that everyone feels proud of,” she says.

While at the Forum, Tara looks forward to popping round for a ‘selfie’ at the mural at ‘Badger’s’ and maybe sampling some of the famous Derry pâtisserie...or buns.

“I can go and get a cream horn in Pump Street every day! I’m hoping to get one that’s free though. I have to wear a swimsuit in the show so maybe I should stay away from the cream horns, you know.”

Tara’s very conscious of having had the honour of playing a true local archetype in the series - the ‘Derry Ma’.

“My mother wasn’t from Derry but she wasn’t far off her. Wooden spoons were about our house as well! Lisa McGee’s writing is just superb. The minute I read it I knew that this was something special. I recognised everyone. Even boring ‘Uncle Colm’ [Kevin McAleer]. Every character was alive. They came off the page even before you met the actors who were playing them.”

Incredibly, for someone who nailed the Derry accent so fluently Tara was only cast a few days before shooting. Those summers in Ardmore and the close proximity of the ‘Derry Wans’ on the cast worked a treat.

“When you are sitting beside Jamie Lee O’Donnell every day you can’t help but pick it up! Jamie Lee’s been in contact. She’s going to come and see it at the Forum. I’m hoping to meet up with my ‘Derry Girls’ when I get there.”

‘Shirley Valentine’ runs from September 5-7 (8pm) at the Forum. Tickets from £12 are available at www.millenniumforum.co.uk or from the Box Office at 02871264455