Armagh actor Ryan McParland: 'I miss my mum Helen... she never got to see me act on stage in London'
Young south Armagh actor Ryan McParland has made playing tortured souls his forte. Now he tells Ivan Little how his latest role as a gay student has left him craving the comforts of home
He's the new darling of the West End, one of the brightest new stars in the firmament of the ever-dazzling London theatre scene, but no matter how good the reviews have been for Ryan McParland, in a play based on a gay man's suicide, the young south Armagh actor can't wait to get home to Mullaghbawn.
Playing the eponymous role in the controversial Teddy Ferrara at the theatrical hot spot that is the Donmar Warehouse for weeks on end has got to Ryan, who's well-known to TV audiences in Northern Ireland as one of the mainstays of the popular BBC series about Belfast students, Six Degrees.
Teddy Ferrara, by Christopher Shinn was inspired by the well-documented 2010 case of Tyler Clementi, a US college student who killed himself after his roommate used a webcam to spy on his private encounters with another man.
Ryan's performance as a suicidal student, who is subjected to bullying and who eventually takes his own life, has been acclaimed by the hard-to-please London critics who've marked him down as an actor to watch for the future.
But for the moment Ryan isn't sure that he wants to take advantage of the open doors that his mesmerising portrayal will invariably bring in its wake.
"I suppose that I've fallen out of love with the theatre," admits the gifted 25-year-old who last year was shortlisted in the best actor category in the Irish theatre awards for his performance - again as a disturbed young man - in a David Ireland play Summertime at the Mac in Belfast. The London play which has been praised by the LGBT community has been even more challenging for Ryan, who says: "That's essentially down to the length of the run and the level of intensity and turmoil I have to keep up. It's like Summertime but for a 10 or 11 week performance period instead of just a fortnight.
"And sometimes after I have put myself out on a limb once or twice a day, I ask myself why I'm subjecting my body and my mind to all this.
"It's an incredibly complex play and it's been a bit like Marmite. Some people leave at the final curtain and say they've enjoyed an incredibly moving and powerful piece of theatre while others don't really like it."
The chance to star in a play at the Donmar, where Colin Farrell got his big break playing a Rathcoole loyalist in an Ulster play, In a Little World of Our Own, by Gary Mitchell 17 years ago, came right out of the blue for Ryan.
He was travelling on a train in England when his London agent rang him to say that the producers of Teddy Ferrara wanted to see him for their new production after watching a showreel of his work.
Ryan, who had a role in the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, recalls: "I wasn't terribly clued up about what was happening in London, but I knew the Donmar was a prestigious theatre so I sat in a park near my flat at Kennington for a couple of days learning the monologues and duologues from the play. It was pretty intense."
The alfresco preparation paid off handsomely for Ryan whose meeting with the award-winning British director Dominic Cooke went well and it transpired they had common ground … in Newry.
"He told me he'd been to see a production in the Sean Hollywood arts centre - long before my time - and he said he knew the area had produced a lot of talented actors. So that helped break the ice."
The more Ryan rehearsed for the play in the five weeks before opening night, the angrier he got at the way his character Teddy Ferrara - and Tyler Clementi on which he was based - had been treated at college.
Ryan, who's heterosexual, says: "Teddy is a dark lonely soul who's trying to be accepted but who has a lot of baggage.
"He ends up going on to an internet site where people can pay to watch other folk performing sex acts and I have to simulate some of them on stage."
Tyler Clementi was bullied by some of the students at his college and ignored by others before he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York.
"The sad reality was that the gay community tipped this young gay man over the edge, one of their own," says Ryan whose character leaps to his death from the ninth floor balcony of a library building. Ryan, who in his younger days went on stage with the Newpoint Players in Newry and who was mentored through the local technical college drama course by actor and lecturer Peter Ballance, carried out extensive research into the Teddy Ferrara role, particularly the impact of the mental illness that plagued him.
But while reviewers have applauded Ryan's acting, some of them haven't been exactly euphoric about the play and its content.
"If you are going to deal with such a strong, topical subject then you have to be prepared for a bit of a backlash," says Ryan, who has resolved that Teddy Ferrara will be his last play "for a considerable time".
"I've had my fill of the theatre for a while. This run has brought me to my knees a little bit. I'd forgotten how much stamina you need and how fit you have to be. And I don't mean just physically, I also mean mentally fit as well.
"I haven't been able to sleep well. I haven't been able to get the play out of my head. I lie in bed going over my stuff and other people's lines as well because this isn't romcom. Mind you, in all my last plays I have been portraying really deep, intense roles and it's had an effect on my life."
Tortured souls have indeed become Ryan's speciality in the theatre. And he's looking forward to a break away from it all at home in south Armagh before starting to look for more work in television or films.
"I think it's fair to say my real interest lies in screen acting but I think it's the repetition of the theatre that has been taking it out of me. With a film or TV it's different every day and you move on.
"But at the minute I just feel totally exhausted and I need to go home to see my family and spend Christmas with them," says Ryan, who lost his beloved mother Helen in June last year.
"I got a huge amount of support from mum Helen and I do miss her immensely. One of the things on my 'to do' list was to come and do a play in London but she wasn't able to see me.
"I can still remember the thrill I got when we were getting a standing ovation in Richard Dormer's play Drum Belly at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin a few years ago and at the last night the lights came up and there was my mother clapping her hands.
"I speak to my dad Seamus on the phone most evenings and I tell him that I hope my experiences in London have all been for something. He came over to see Teddy Ferra ra and he was in his element. And so was I."