WHITECHURCH actress and comedian Norma Sheahan, who is starring as Shirley Valentine at Cork Opera House on September 24, says the classic story has got a Cork twist.
“Absolutely I put my own stamp on the role,” says Norma, who is the mother of three teenagers.
“ I couldn’t put anyone through 90 minutes of me doing a Liverpool accent! We had a zoom call with the writer Willy Russell to localise it. He’s a genius,” says Norma.
“He wrote Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and loads more. He even wrote the music for Blood Brothers and he was very particular about any changes.
“‘Langer’ did make the cut, and the Coal Quay, The Imperial, Knocknaheeny, Mayfield, etc, but Shirley still heads to Greece.”
It wasn’t so much that Norma embraced Shirley Valentine...
“Yes, Shirley embraced ME, to be fair,” says Norma.
“It’s one of the best characters of all time. The play won Tony awards before it was ever turned into a film. People have come back a second and third time to see it, bringing friends, mams, daughters and the odd fella! Not only are they guaranteed laughs from start to finish, it’s also a real heart wrencher when she reveals how she’s become lost, purposeless, and afraid to live life to the max.
“Shirley has resorted to the wall for the chats now that her husband and kids see her as an old doormat. She says, ‘Most of us die long before we’re dead and what kills us is the weight of all the unused life we carry around!’”
Lots of people will identify with Shirley getting away to an idyllic island away from the humdrum of life.
“Yes everyone needs to get out and stop talking to the wall after over two years of lockdowns,” says Norma, adding a modern twist.
“Lots of people are afraid to live again. Shirley is similar; afraid to start living, avoiding adventure, but everyone has their boiling point.
“Her husband goes one step too far in disrespecting her chips and egg. She implodes, she’s done, so she re-invents herself!”
Norma enjoys the role of Shirley Valentine.
“I’ve had some craic on stage cooking the meal though! I’ve dropped quite a few on tour. My kids won’t even eat my cooking. The crew started out eating the meal at the interval but they stopped fairly lively!”
Does Shirley find romance on the island or does she stay true to her husband?
“Hmmmmm... you can make up your own mind,” says Norma, keeping mum.
“When her husband is hounding her to come home from Greece and calls her a disgrace, she says, “The only holiday romance I’ve had is with myself and I think I like myself. I won’t be there in the history books, but I’m there in the time I’m living in. I’m ALIVE!”
“Yes, she had an adventure with a Greek man, Costas, and yes, he discovered a few ‘spots’ with her, but I’d call it more of a visit to a sex therapist rather than a romance.”
Norma’s domestic life is hectic.
“Feckin mental! And yet totally grand. Three teenage daughters. They’re capable, brazen and happy. Can’t ask for more.
“Isabelle and Jessica are doing Junior cert. Jodie started first year. They are now Dubs that are half Cork, half Aussie. We live near Dun Laoghaire so we’re spoilt with beaches, hills, piers, etc - all good.
“I told my dad’s friend, Mickey Burns recently the ages of my girls and he says, ‘Oh, you need to turn your brain off for a few years!’ He’s right! My girls are loving their teen years and may the craic continue.
“Life shovels sh**e at you as you age! As Shirley Valentine discovered; she says ‘When I was a girl I used to jump off our roof for fun, now I get vertigo standing on the pavement’!”
Did Norma always have a grá for acting, growing up in Whitechurch?
“Well, my mother Nora threw me and my four sisters into the Montforts, so I blame that for being addicted to this lunatic career,” says Norma. She paid tribute to the founder of the school, which marked its 60th anniversary recently, Eileen Nolan.
“She’s a special Cork legend. Through her I ended up in the Opera House playing Little Red Riding Hood in the panto and ploughed on from there. I did extra drama classes in Cork School of Music with a powerful teacher, Mairin Prendergast. Then, after St Angela’s and a UCD commerce degree, I miraculously got a place in RADA in London for three years.
“I always knew I wanted to do acting and wrote essays at the age of seven about acting jobs I’d do when I grow up. Luckily, I made a decent career through film, TV, theatre, voiceover, podcasting and radio.”
Norma wants to get back to treading familiar boards.
“I can’t wait to get back on the Opera House stage,” she says.
“Ashley, Elaine, Sally, Saoirise and all the other staff are doing mighty to keep the Opera House soaring after Covid. We’ve even added a second Shirley Valentine performance on the same date, September 24, due to demand. It’s flying!”
Norma may not live in Cork anymore, but her heart is still here.
“I’m down to Whitechurch all the time,” says Norma. “Two and a half hours door-to-door with barely a traffic light in sight! Whitechurch is fab, minutes from Cork, but still a small village where people give a s**t about each other. Buckley’s pub is unreal there now. My sister, Bláthnaid is married to Dan Buckley. And brother John Buckley is doing a mighty job with the pub. John and Catherine’s son, Jack, even has a barber’s shop upstairs!
“Yeah, Whitechurch is thriving after the feckin’ pandemic. Sometimes I drive all the way from Dublin to Whitechurch just to have a Jameson in Buckleys with my dad, Joe.”
Norma is a busy lady. She has just finished a tour of The Matchmaker, with Jon Kenny.
“I’m on a Netflix series at the moment with Pat Shortt, Denis Conway and loads more. Denis is from my direction, Whitechurch. He’s just brilliant!
“I just finished a fun American movie, ( The Problem With People) with Colm Meaney and Paul Reiser. Colm is the most adorable, hilarious grumpy bol**x and Paul is a star in every way!”
Catch Norma as Shirley Valentine, (Cork version) at the Cork Opera House on September 24.
For tickets and times see corkoperahouse.ie