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Gillian Kearney - strangers, babies

Family matters are at the heart of Gillian Kearney’s life just now. On television, the Liverpool born actress has just appeared in two series of Shameless as Sue, the slightly stuck-up true love of Tourette’s sufferer Marty. As a proxy member of the extended Gallagher clan, Sue left the series with Marty and a baby smuggled into the country in suitably shambolic fashion via the confines of a hold-all. Having only fleetingly considered selling this latest acquisition on Ebay, Sue and Marty duly did a flit, having opted instead to take on the baby as their own.

Such acquired maternal callings date back to Kearney’s very first television role, as a runaway teen and gym-slip mum in Scouse soap Brookside and its spin-off series, Damon and Debbie. In real life, with her own large family of three brothers and a brand new nephew and niece on the go, as a doting auntie, Kearney tries to visit her home town from where she now lives in Crouch End at least once a week, work permitting.

Whether such nurturing displays of nest-building, professional or otherwise, will influence May, the woman Kearney plays in strangers, babies, Linda McLean’s new play which opens at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre this coming weekend, remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that, as May meets in turn the five most important men in her life, Kearney will be onstage throughout, and will have to hold the play together in a way she hasn’t done since her mother had to teach her how to smoke when she played the title role in Hedda Gabler for director Matthew Lloyd at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

“It’s very intense,” says Kearney of strangers, babies in her sing-song Liverpool chirp. “It’s about redemption and absolution, and each scene is about May knocking down obstacles and checking she’s okay. You never leave the stage, and you’ve got to get changed onstage, so you’re up there for an hour and a half without an interval. So, apart from what’s going on in the play,” she says with what sounds like surprised optimism, “that’s a feat in itself.”

Such physical and mental exertions are a far cry too from Kearney’s early childhood ambitions while growing up in Aigburth, on the city’s leafy south side, to be either a solicitor or else follow in a family tradition of becoming a teacher. Only when she joined Liverpool Playhouse Youth Theatre, initially to take part in a play by Heidi Thomas, did she ever consider that the party pieces she entertained family do’s with could ever lead to a career which, even though still only in her mid-30s, has already spanned two decades.

As well as high profile television work, Kearney has worked at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre where she played Cordelia opposite Tom Courtney in King Lear, and been directed in Moliere’s comic romp, The School For Wives, by former National Theatre head, Peter Hall, on a tour which took in dates at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre.

“We’d read about Peter Hall at drama school,” Kearney recalls, “so it was an honour. We used to hear that he never looked at the actors, but just listened to the poetry. So I remember having a little thrill, because I noticed he wasn’t watching, and then remembering that we’d read about him in a text book doing that, and now hear I was being directed by him and seeing it for real. That was exciting.”

Despite such star-struck humility, one could argue that Kearney needn’t have bothered going to drama school at all. Having enrolled in youth theatre aged 12, by the time she was 14 she was cast in Brookside, then still in its first flush of controversy, in a storyline that would grip the nation. As Debbie McGrath, underage girlfriend of Brookside Close’s chief scally, Damon Grant, Kearney spent more than a year in a role that would end in tragedy. Even after leaving the programme to do her GCSEs and A Levels, she was cast, first as the younger incarnation of the eponymous heroine in the big-screen version of Willy Russell’s play, Shirley Valentine, then in seasons at Liverpool Playhouse’s neighbouring Everyman Theatre, and at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Having been shielded from the pressures of such an early brush with fame both by her mother, who chaperoned her on the Brookside set at all times, and by the simple fact that she was simply too young to go carousing round any late-night haunts where she might be recognised, Kearney appears cheerfully unaffected by her prematurely high profile. Rather than indulge in any precocious wild child behaviour a la Drew Barrymore, she continued attending youth theatre all through her time on Brookside, and, rather than take advantage of her small screen fame, eventually opted to learn properly what she now realised was her chosen craft.

“I did four plays at The Everyman after Brookie,” she says of her decision, “and on Othello, in which I was playing Desdemona, met an actor called Ray Fearon, who was playing Othello, and who you’ll recognise now from Coronation Street. He advised me to go so I could learn about everything, and have a full bag of trick under my belt. I was still only 19, and instead of just diving straight in, I wanted to get a degree and find out if it was what I really wanted to do. It was the best thing I ever did, because I’ve got that kind of personality where I always thing there’s something new to learn. If I hadn’t gone to drama school I think I would’ve only ended up going a quarter of the way. My mum always worried, because we weren’t showbiz, and she guided me as well. She recognised the dangers of things happening when I was too young, and shielded me from that.”

Somewhere between Brookside and Shameless, Kearney has become a quietly familiar but vibrant and captivating face in quality TV drama, with a turn in Shameless creator Paul Abbott’s factory floor-set Clocking Off. She also played opposite Joe McFadden in 1960s-set mini series, Sex, Chips & Rock n’Roll, written by another writer who cut her teeth at Liverpool Playhouse, Debbie Horsfield. More recently she has appeared in a just-screened episode of Trial And Retribution alongside Annabel Mullion, who she first worked with at The Royal Exchange a decade ago, and who, Kearney observes, has since had four children. Kearney has also just appeared in Lilies, the post-World War Two Liverpool-set family saga written by the same Heidi Thomas who first cast Kearney all those years ago at The Playhouse.

Post-Brookside, Kearney has remained a soap fan, and if she could choose any to go into, it would have to be Coronation Street. Corrie isn’t just her favourite. It’s the one she grew up with, and recalls a childhood where its theme tune’s familiar slow shuffle signalled her bedtime.

“It reminds me of my nana and granddad and my mum and dad sitting watching it in the living room,” she says, confessing that, if she were ever offered a part, she’d be “too starstruck to do it.”

Kearney returned to her Liverpool living room before Christmas to appear at The Playhouse in The Flint Street Nativity. Working alongside Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please star Natalie Casey was, she says again, “like family, and it meant I could see my niece and nephew every day.”

While working on Shameless, Kearney looked at Rebecca Ryan, who plays teenage Gallagher sibling, Debbie. Ryan is about the same age now as Kearney was when she made her debut on Brookside, and, character name aside, Kearney could see a little bit of herself in her. Ryan’s mother too is on set at all times, and you get the impression that she too will come out of her time on an iconic television series as unspoilt as Kearney has.

“I love the kids,” she says, warming to an ongoing theme. “They’re just normal kids, and they’re lovely to be around. It was like a real family working with them, and having her mum around, Rebecca had the best chaperone she could have.”

strangers, babies, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Previews Friday-Sunday, 8pm, then runs Tuesday February 27-March 17, 8pm, Sundays 5pm, March 17, 2.30pm and 8pm

The Herald, February 20th 2007



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