She’s come a long way since her Cork Opera House debut, aged 11, as Little Red Riding Hood. Next week, the actress tells, she returns to the same stage in Angela’s Ashes.
Norma Sheahan is not one for resting on her laurels, nor anything else for that matter. The actor’s determination was there for all to see when last year her team won a celebrity special edition of the hugely popular RTÉ TV show Ireland’s Fittest Family, taking home €10,000 for Cork ARC Cancer Support House. What viewers didn’t see, however, was the injury that Sheahan was carrying for all of it.
“Basically in the first few seconds of it, I fell off a container and on to my coccyx (tailbone), and we’ll never know but I reckon I fractured something because I wasn’t right for about eight weeks. But there’s nothing you can do with your coccyx, it’s literally just keep moving.” Luckily, her team coach, fellow Corkonian and rugby legend Donncha O’Callaghan was on hand to offer his own special brand of encouragement.
“Donncha just screamed at me: ‘get up off your hole and keep going’,” she laughs.
When we speak, Sheahan is on a short break from her latest role in Angela’s Ashes, The Musical, in which she plays moneylender Mrs Finucane but she is squeezing every minute out of her free time, polishing her new one-woman stand-up show. She says the show was inspired by the coccyx incident, and is called, appropriately, Heal Your Hole.
“It’s about the ways you can heal all the holes in your life, whether they’re mental, physical, whatever. As my dad said to me when I was young and in my bedroom moping, ‘stop fecking thinking and start fecking doing’.
Sheahan is based in Sallynoggin, Co Dublin, where she lives with her husband Scott, and three daughters, one aged nine and twins aged 11. She grew up in Whitechurch, Co Cork, which she still visits regularly.
I’m absolutely a Northsider, but pure bogger like. One pub, one church, one shop, that was it. I was back there last weekend for a neighbour’s 50th. My kids are pure city kids, and they were out pulling apples off trees, mucking around, picking blackberries. It’s literally like you’re taking them down to Eurodisney, taking them down to Granddad’s farm
The 42-year-old has had roles in a huge variety of TV shows on Irish and British TV, from The Clinic to Moone Boy, and has only recently returned to the stage following a long break.
“I gave up doing theatre for 12 or so years when the kids were born. It wouldn’t cover childcare so I couldn’t. Now they are a bit older, I’ve started back in theatre.”
Sheahan has already starred in The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Gaiety and A Day in May, Colin Murphy’s stage adaptation of Charlie Bird’s book about the Marriage Equality Referendum.
As part of the Angela’s Ashes tour, Sheahan will be returning to Cork Opera House, the location of what she still considers her greatest achievement.
I was 11 when I played Little Red Riding Hood in the Opera House. That was the highlight of my life, I’m still waiting to match that. It was so special, there were a lot of auditions and recalls, it was a big deal
Sheahan studied drama and singing at Cork’s legendary Montfort Academy and also at the Cork School of Music, and, at one point, a stint at London’s famous Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts was on the cards.
“My mother said not a chance was a 12-year-old going off to London. It could have been brilliant but I didn’t go that road.”
Instead, she went on to do a commerce degree in UCD, honing her skills in the drama society there before she did make it to London, where she got a place at the prestigious RADA. While her initial ambition was to combine her love of acting and singing in musical theatre, it wasn’t long before she was disabused of the notion.
“I used to think I was the best singer in Ireland. I presumed I would go on to represent Ireland in the Eurovision. Then, when I got outside of Ireland and actually went to drama school, they went, ‘you can sing, but you’re not a singer singer’. My first day at RADA, I was like, ‘I want to be in musicals’ and they said ‘you’re in the wrong school, girl’. They weren’t mean to me or anything.”
Now Sheahan has finally got her chance to be in a musical, and is thoroughly enjoying herself, even if she admits it’s challenging.
“I jumped at the chance to be in Angela’s Ashes but it has been a lot more difficult than I thought. I didn’t realise how hard they work in musicals — you have the movement, the harmonies, the scene changes, the costume changes, all of that. My part is small but it’s an ensemble piece, even Jacinta (Whyte), who is playing Angela, is pushing beds on and off the stage.” Sheahan is also grateful for the opportunity to tread the boards once more and the camaraderie that comes with it.
“I love being back on stage because it is getting the muscles going again. It’s a real team effort but we all get on great, thankfully. The director Thom Southerland is mind-blowing, he runs the Charing Cross Theatre in London; the musical director, David Hayes, is also amazing. And when I’m on stage with the lead singers, Jacinta, Eoin (Cannon) and Bridget (Shine), I literally have to focus to stay in character because I am in such awe of them, what is coming out of their mouths.”
While the bestselling book by the late Limerick author Frank McCourt is often described as the original misery memoir, Sheahan says the musical makes the most of the joy and humour inherent in McCourt’s storytelling. “I absolutely love Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Once, and this show is like a combination of those three. I wouldn’t have been cast if there wasn’t humour in it. It is dripping in humour, and Thom Southerland won’t stand for too much sentimentality.
“I think it is the perfect show for Broadway — I’m not saying that to push myself because it could get completely recast but it deserves to go to America.”
Sheahan has a particular talent for comedy, which has been utilised most recently in her recurring role in RTÉ’s Bridget and Eamon. She says being funny wasn’t exactly something she was known for growing up.
“I was always told by my family ‘you’re not funny’. If I started telling a story, someone else would finish it for me. But my sister said: ‘Norma, you’re weird and that is funny. The minute you try to be funny, it doesn’t work. Never try to be funny’. I always try to remember that, so if I’ve got a funny line in something, I just try to deliver it as authentically as possible, which is kind of what you should do anyway with a script,” she laughs.
Sheahan has also had roles in the TV comedies Women on a Verge and Finding Joy, written by fellow Irish actors Sharon Horgan and Amy Huberman, respectively. Would she be interested in following their example and doing more writing?
“I’d give anything a go. I’m constantly looking for angles and ideas. I’m always trying to generate other streams, which is why I’m doing this one-woman show. With acting, you are back on the shit heap after every job. I know actors who are endorsing products or doing voice work, and the reason is you can’t live off screen or stage jobs.”
Sheahan has lent her dulcet tones to ads for everything from tampons to Tesco Mobile to this very newspaper, and such work has been a financial lifeline.
“They’re the only reason why I haven’t opted for another line of work,” she says.
“When I did the commerce degree, I had friends who very rapidly were earning a lot of money. I was going, ‘why am I not doing that, why am I putting myself through this?’ But Sheahan says the many other compensations of her job means she never regrets following her dream.
“For me, being on stage or filming or doing voiceovers isn’t work. If someone gave me the choice of going on a holiday or going on a film set, I would go on a film set.
“The hard work is generating the work and always delivering so you will get hired again. The work itself, I adore it, I’m addicted to it. It’s not work.
“You get driven to a set, you get fed, you get your hair and make-up done, you say a few lines and you get to not be yourself for the day.”