Downpatrick woman stars on the West End

Downpatrick woman stars on the West End

6 June 2018

FIONA Mulvaney has a message to anyone still hoping to make it in their dream career — it’s never too late.

The Downpatrick woman has had several careers over the years, including a spell as an RE teacher in an inner-city London comprehensive.

However, a niggling ambition to act never left her. So in her forties she signed up to drama school, taking on a hectic schedule of evening and weekend classes around her day job.

But the hard work has paid off. Graduating last summer from the The Poor School in London’s Kings Cross, Fiona has been quick to notch up some coveted roles — including a recent West End debut in ‘The Ferryman’, working alongside Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.

Despite relocating to England in the 1980s, the burgeoning TV and film industry in Ireland is one the reasons why Fiona would also love the chance to take on some acting roles closer to home.

The former Assumption Grammar student explained how she made the turnaround from timid student to treading the boards at London’s Gielgud Theatre.

“I do remember in the Assumption there was always a big Shakespeare festival every year and I did love it,” she said. “I only ever had very small parts as I was very, very shy when I was young and I did not really put myself out there. But I loved the idea of acting.

“I was very much discouraged by my parents. Even though they took us to the theatre and thought it was all wonderful, I was encouraged to pursue more stable careers.”

So a theology degree is what Fiona ended up signing up for.

“I did eventually do stand-up comedy on the London comedy circuit for a while but I gave this up when I started teaching as the two weren’t really compatible,” she laughed.

The experience of standing up in front of a room of hard to please teenagers would, however, stand Fiona in good stead.

“To me, teaching was like a sort of performance — in front of a different audience,” she said. “You have to show confidence even if you don’t feel confidence. You have to put on a show every single day.”

Most recently Fiona worked for Wandsworth Council in London as a youth adviser helping disadvantaged young people, before taking the plunge and auditioning for drama school in 2015.

“I secured a place at a school called The Poor School, in London’s Kings Cross, which was unique in that it delivered full-time drama training in the evenings and weekends,” said Fiona. “So for two years, I was working full-time in my youth adviser role, and then spending every evening and most weekends at drama school.”

While it was a big commitment, Fiona was relatively unfazed.

“Mostly because of the age I was, and because I had waited so long, I really had that drive. 

“Some young people were doing it for a bit training and to see where it took them but did not necessarily have the commitment.

“For me, yes physically it was tiring doing it every evening but I loved it.

“I graduated from The Poor School last summer having secured a leading London agent, and a few weeks later found myself shooting a commercial for a well-known beer brand with the former footballer Eric Cantona. 

“I also appeared as a brothel madam in ‘Hello from Bertha’, a Tennessee Williams play, at the Hen and Chickens fringe theatre in London. I then made my recent West End debut in Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’.

“It has been a fantastic experience being part of this astonishing play, set in rural County Armagh in 1981, which recently won three Olivier awards including Best Play and Best Director.”

Fiona’s taste of treading the boards was even sweeter as she was the understudy for the two roles of Aunt Maggie Faraway and Aunt Pat. 

With just a few hours to spare one day, Fiona was told she had to step into the breach as the actor due to play Aunt Pat had taken ill.

While naturally nervous, Fiona said she was also “very, very calm”.

“You are so well prepared as an understudy,” she said. “Sam Mendes has very clear ideas about what he wants and it is all to a really high standard.

“Sometimes an understudy can go a whole run without getting to perform so it was wonderful to get that chance.”

The only thing that would have been the icing on the cake for Fiona would have been the attendance of her parents. Sadly both have now passed away, but their unconventional daughter said they would have been very happy to find out their fears had been unfounded.

“My parents would be absolutely thrilled by this,” she said. “They would be the proudest people in the world.”

Fiona continued: “I would ideally now love the opportunity to undertake acting roles in Ireland, North or South, as there are so many exciting TV and film projects thriving across Ireland.

“Derry Girls would be fantastic. I can see myself as a crazy nun.”

Fiona also has a message of hope for any other unconventionals out there who fear they may have left it too late.

“I really wish someone had said to the younger me in Assumption — it’s never too late to follow your dreams. To women, in particular, some of whom may have had a family, there is still opportunity if you want to do it.”

Pointing to her own situation, and the relative ease with which she secured a top agent, Fiona added: “In drama schools there are thousands of young blonde girls in the early twenties all competing. An agent can only take one person of each type. In my case, there are very few women coming out today from drama school in their forties. So it’s really good.”