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Belfast-born actress Emma Beattie returns to her roots as new play opens at the Grand Opera House

As she begins a run of her new play at the Grand Opera House, Belfast-born actress Emma Beattie tells Lee Henry why she loves coming back to the city and of her adventures sailing the high seas

It's actually really fortunate that I'm going to be back in Northern Ireland this week,' says 43-year-old actress Emma Beattie, who left for England in 1980 after her parents, John (66), a university lecturer from Bangor, and Janet (68), a nurse from London, separated when she was aged five.

"I need to see my granny [on my father's side], Cathleen, who still lives in Belfast, near to where we used to live on the Beersbridge Road. The poor thing fell down the stairs on Mother's Day and actually broke her neck!" says Emma.

"She's 86 and we all thought the worst, as you do, but she survived it, despite gashing her forehead as well. She's quite a lady. She was sitting up in bed in hospital the next day. I'm really pleased that I'll get to see her for a week before we move on to Dublin."

Emma is starring as Judy, a concerned matriarch figure, in the National Theatre's current production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a stunningly visual play which tells the story of a gifted boy "with behavioural problems".

This multi-Tony Award winning adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel was described by the Times as "a phenomenal combination of storytelling and spectacle", and runs at the Grand Opera House until Saturday.

"I still get nervous about going on stage," admits Emma, as the show's tour begins. "It's the excitement of it. I'm playing Judy, mother to the central character, an amazing boy named Christopher, and it's a hard performance for me, emotionally speaking.

"But it's a fantastic play, it really is. I've seen a few different productions of it in recent years, in England and in Belfast, and it's really made for the big stage. I can't wait to bring it to new Northern Irish audiences."

After leaving these shores along with her older sister Jessica to live with her mother in England, Emma spent her childhood years in Peterborough and York before studying for a career treading the boards at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in London.

Currently single, she is now resident in south-west London, Streatham Hill to be precise, a bustling part of the city that she regrets is now being "taken over" by the seemingly unstoppable spread of 21st century gentrification.

"London has adopted me. I love to just potter about my area of the city," she says. "Go for coffee, go to the cinema, meet friends. But I feel that people are being pushed out. I rent in Streatham Hill, but lots of people can't afford to these days.

"Thankfully, the area still has a really strong community identity."

Though London is now home, interestingly the actress considers her own cultural identity as Northern Irish. She visits her dad in Bangor once or twice a year and relatives in and around Belfast as often as possible. On those occasions, Belfast is the "home" in which she spent her formative years.

"I love going back," she adds. "When I do, one of my favourite things is to go to the bakery to get some proper bread. It's just not the same in London. Proper bread and going for a pint are two of my favourite things in Northern Ireland," she laughs.

She grew up in a flat at the bottom of Cyprus Avenue, made famous, of course, by the Van Morrison song. Her father attended Orangefield High School, a year below Morrison, and Emma was enrolled at Dundela Infants' School on Wilgar Street.

It's the "little things" that bring back memories of Belfast life for her.

"The last time my sister Jessica and I went, we walked to my granny's house from Belfast City Airport, past Dundela and Strandtown, and we had all these childhood memories come flooding back.

"For example, I remembered standing on the corner of the Beersbridge Road when my mum came to pick us up from school one day. She had just separated from my dad and had, understandably, gotten her hair redone, a perm, just like Barbara Streisand. It made me cry. Apparently I just burst into tears. That was a particularly vivid recollection."

The inner city has changed immeasurably since Emma would venture into the shops with her parents as a child, but she knows enough of the rejuvenated, reinvented modern Belfast to show her fellow cast members around in between performances. Unsurprisingly for a thespian, the Crown Bar will be her number one stop off point, conveniently located just across the street from the Grand Opera House.

"When I go back to Belfast I think, 'God, it's tiny'. In comparison to London, anyway. It's a different place completely to the city in which I was born. Every time I go over, I always get my dad to take me out. I love going to see the murals for a trip down memory lane. He points out pubs and places that you wouldn't have been able to go into in previous years but it's much more accessible these days. There are a lot of jobs there now, which is great.

"You invest so much of yourself in the company that you're performing with at given any time, and with this show there are maybe 30 of us, including stage management, wardrobe, actors. We've become a little family. I hope to take everyone out for a drink, definitely to the Crown. I absolutely love it there."

Television audiences will perhaps recognise the actress from an appearance in the hit ITV series Mr Selfridge, but she is happy to confirm that to date her career has mostly focused on theatre. It's a medium that she prefers to television, and since graduating she has acted alongside the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and for acclaimed director Michael Grandage.

"Working on a show like Mr Selfridge was nice. Jeremy Piven was such a rogue with the ladies in that show. I enjoyed my time there. I had my little trailer, my costume, hair and makeup. You go and do your scene and that's about it. What you really want is a career across the board, but theatre is much more my thing."

Away from the stage, she enjoys keeping fit. She is a fully-fledged black belt in karate, no less, and regularly runs half marathons. She is currently "very much enjoying" British Military Fitness, an increasingly popular group regime that involves "running around the park with scary people shouting at you".

"I got my black belt when I was 33, but I don't practice karate so much now. I'm not aggressive at all. It was much more of a protective sort of thing for me. The reason I did it was because I wanted to get fit but the idea of the gym appalled me. I fell in love with it. It was a really important part of my life for several years."

Emma also spends time on the high seas, having learned the ropes with her father, a keen amateur sailor who bravely attempted a round the world voyage in his 35-footer, the Warrior Queen, after taking a sabbatical when she was a teenager.

Unfortunately the voyage had to be cut short due to lack of finances, but Beattie Senior recorded the adventure in a book, The Breath of Angels, which details a dramatic sea rescue of Englishman Martin Simon, who had been adrift off the coast of Venezuela for 11 days.

"Even before that, I had been on the boat with dad lots of times," Emma remembers. "Our first voyage was from Whitby to Amsterdam, across the North Sea. I was so sick but I did see a whale, which was amazing. I've loved sailing ever since.

"We sailed across the Atlantic to the Azores, my father, my sister Jessica, my cousin Simon and I, about eight years ago. It was incredible. You get through the days by playing games, you potter, you sunbathe, you cook, you clean up.

"We took it in turns to keep watch at night, in case we threatened to enter another boat's course. And the stars were unbelievable. Normally, when you see shooting stars, they shoot across, but they were just going in every direction. It was as if the sky was on fire, and we were just gliding along softly taking it all in."

Nowadays, however, the biggest thrill in her life is performing. Despite her success in recent years, she never takes her job for granted, and looks forward to her Belfast run with a refreshing sense of humility.

"The other day I was in Southampton and went for a run before the show. I ran past the theatre and I saw a couple standing outside, dressed up for a night out, and I thought about how much of a privilege it is to be able to entertain people through theatre," she says.

"People work so hard during the week and spend their money on tickets, and you want to give back to them. That's what I love the most about the theatre. Giving something back."

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at the Grand Opera House until Saturday. For tickets and more info go to https://tickets.goh.co.uk

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