An education

In rehearsals as Rita in Willy Russell’s play

Shelley Marsden speaks to Gillian Kearney about telly, tots and the need for culture

BUBBLY Liverpool-Irish actress Gillian Kearney is desperately trying to learn some lines in her lunch-hour, so that she doesn’t have to do it when she gets home. There, she has a lively three year old son who is as demanding of her attention as any Willy Russell script.

“He understands what I do for a living”, says Gillian, who has family roots in the West of Ireland, “to the point where he gets all upset if he sees me crying on TV. I have to remind him it’s not real… “

An instantly recognisable telly actress, Gillian started off her career playing Debbie McGrath in Brookside, before migrating to Shameless, then Casualty.  She also starred as Ellie in the BBC’s six-part mini-series Sex, Chips & Rock ‘n’ Roll alongside Sue Johnston, Phil Daniels, and fellow Shameless cast members David Threlfall.

Gillian is returning to the stage at The Lowry, Salford as the lead in Russell’s comedy Educating Rita, about a vivacious, hungry-minded young woman who arrives like a whirlwind into the life of jaded university professor and failed poet Frank (Philip Bretherton).

The two are seeming opposites in Russell’s clever study of character and emotion: Rita is a full-on, 100mph hairdresser who sees returning to education as a way to a more rewarding existence, while Frank is about to have his comfortable life blown apart by his new student.

Her theatre work has taken her to Manchester many times, with roles at the Royal Exchange in King Lear, The Rivals and your Home In the West, and she received rave reviews for playing the title role in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the West Yorkshire Playhouse back in 2006.

Gillian’s favourite role to date was in TV drama The Tide of Life, a Catherine Cookson adaptation which she was cast in at 23, and fresh out of drama school. But she reckons Educating Rita could be a contender for the best job yet.

As one half of a cast of two, it’s definitely a challenge, she admits: “When there’s a gap I just go… is it me, or is it him?! I can really get my teeth into Rita, and there’s so much to do you have no time to get nervous. She’s a great character to play because her personality energises you.

“It’s a joy and a privilege to work on a play for four weeks. We’ve got thirteen scenes, and we can focus on making them as good and as powerful as we can. I always love coming back to theatre. It keeps me sharp.”

Russell’s play is set in 1980, but will Rita speak to modern women? Gillian hopes everybody will connect to her feeling of being trapped in a life she would never have chosen, someone who has reached the metaphorical end of the road at only 29 years of age.

She explains: “She’s found herself, like many, stuck in the wrong circumstances, trapped in a marriage where she just doesn’t grow. Rita feels like she’s got no choice, but by the end of the play she has actually made a choice, and she’s freed herself. Hopefully that’s an impulse that will appeal to everyone.”

For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 28 September 2013).

Educating Rita is at Salford’s Lowry Theatre from Thursday September 26 – Saturday 12 October 12. Call Box office on 0843 208 6010 or see to book.





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