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Mary-Frances Doherty: ‘I’m the youngest of nine girls, so there were plenty of drama queens in our house, but I’m the only actress’

Mary-Frances Doherty has a busy time ahead, with her wedding and her new solo stage show

By Una Brankin

Life is sweet these days for Mary-Frances Doherty. Engaged to an eminent surgeon, the 29-year-old from Ballymena is emerging as the Angelina Jolie of regional theatre - acting, directing and writing her own plays and short films.

And if that wasn't enough, she is based in sunny Singapore, where her handsome fiance, Dallan Dargin, specialises in intricate hand surgery.

Currently back in frosty Belfast to rehearse Katie's Birthday Party, her interactive one-woman-show for the upcoming Belfast Children's Festival, of which the Belfast Telegraph is media partner, Mary-Frances also has a major personal production to organise: her Valentine's Day wedding.

"We travel a lot. Dallan has to go to Dallas for work sometimes and I'm on tour a lot, and we wanted to get married at home," she says during a break in rehearsals. "We met in Belfast at the kids' festival after-party five years ago. He turned up with his flatmate who had a step-brother in the festival and I was smitten with him from the first time I talked to him.

"He's a surgeon but he is also a musician - he played violin in the Ulster Youth Orchestra. We both love going to see shows together and visiting museums and art galleries. He's been 100% supportive of my career. And it's nice for him to be able to come home and talk about something other than his work."

She has retained a slight North Antrim twang in her softly spoken voice, but does a very convincing Belfast accent on her website showreel. The youngest of 12 to a former matron and a pig farmer (the eldest, Marian, is 44), Mary-Frances began to take an interest in drama at St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena.

"I've eight sisters so there were plenty of drama queens in the house, but I was the only one who went into theatre," she giggles. "We all did Irish dancing but I wasn't good at it. I got the interest in theatre from Mum - she's my main inspiration. She's such an incredibly strong person and keeps going, and would do anything to help someone. She used to create plays for local festivals and Dad would be very involved in running them."

Unfortunately, Dan Doherty won't be there to walk his youngest down the aisle on February 14, as he sadly died 10 years ago, a decade after being diagnosed with dementia.

"It was a very slow, cruel way to die," Mary-Frances recalls. "To have to watch him decline over that period of time was very hard. Mum looked after him - she was the matron of Karina Lodge nursing home in Kilrea and she used to take him to work. Dementia really is the long goodbye."

As Mary-Frances was only 19 when she lost her father, he didn't get to see her graduating from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) with a Degree in Contemporary Theatre Practice in 2007. Given his support of local cultural events, he would have been proud to see her go on to create a name for herself in regional theatre productions. After graduating, she worked in Glasgow for a year before coming back to Belfast to work with Tinderbox Theatre Company and the Ulster Association of Youth Drama. Impressively, she got the backing to perform Home Sweet Home, a 50-minute autobiographical one-woman show directed, produced, promoted, written by and starring herself.

"It was basically about me growing up in a traditional country Irish home as the youngest of 12," she says. "Me and my three brothers and eight sisters used to entertain our guests, so there are a lot of stories along with a lot of singing and dancing in the first part of the show. The second part is about my Dad, the memories I have of him, and my struggle with his illness and eventual death. And the third is about me being a young woman and wanting to have a home sweet home of my own."

Ambitious and driven, this creative dynamo went on to perform the play with another solo project, Fragments of Love - she has obviously been far too busy multi-tasking with her own masterpieces to bother with acting roles in other people's productions. With her dark hair and pretty face, she's sometimes likened to New Girl actress Zooey Deschanel, and would have been right up Paul Spector's murderous street in The Fall.

"I know!" she exclaims. "I'll have to get around to auditioning for the third series."

So it's not too grisly for you?

"I thought it was great, I really enjoyed it," she says. "It was surprisingly good. Really intense. Exploitative? No. It's kind of a double-edged sword when it comes to roles for females. Drama reflects reality, after all."

The themes of Katie's Birthday Party will resonate with the majority of us who found themselves making an uncomfortable transition from primary to secondary education, particularly those who went from a small rural school to a big scary urban one. Performing in-the-round, Mary-Frances uses games and question-and-answer sequences to show how her pre-pubescent protagonist deals with the challenges presented by a new schooling environment, including getting lost at extremely inconvenient moments.

"I did workshops in schools for research but it's mostly based on my own experience - and THE most embarrassing thing that could happen to you on your first day at a new school," she explains. "You weren't allowed to go to the toilet during class and there were all these long corridors to go down to get to it. I had to hold on all through the last class of the day and then I couldn't find the bathroom.

"To make matters worse, I had to run to catch the bus home. I don't want to give it away but you can imagine what happened!"

As she's taking the show around schools in February and March, there won't be much time for honeymooning for the newly-weds-to-be. After the run, it's back to the 30 degree heat of Singapore for the couple, and more writing and short film-making for Mary-Frances.

"Singapore is very, very hot - something I'm not sure I'll ever get used to," she says. "But it's very safe and clean and there are a vast mix of cultures there.

"It's fantastic to have the chance to live there and experience all the different cultures - Chinese, Indian, Malay and so on, and we're enjoying visiting the surrounding areas too, like Bali and Bangkok."

So how about starting an Asian-born family as big as the Ballymena Dohertys?

"Well, I love being the youngest of 12 as there is always someone to talk to and do things with; the disadvantage growing up was that you had to be fast or you could get left behind.

"I used to think I'd like a big family like ours when I was younger, but I think one or two might be enough!"

  • The Katie's Birthday Party schools tour runs from this Sunday, February 1, until March 31, for details visit www.maryfrancesdoherty.com. For details on Belfast Children's Festival, which runs from March 6-13, visit www.belfastchildrensfestival.com, or tel: 028 9024 3042

Feted by the critics

Described by one reviewer as "a magical, unforgettable performance packed with wonder and possibilities", Katie's Birthday Party encourages children to let their creativity flow and to meet new friends.

The one-woman show by Mary-Frances Doherty is one of the highlights of the 2015 Belfast Children's Festival, an international cultural and arts event for children and young people, of which the Belfast Telegraph is again the proud media partner. Organised by the non-profit company Young At Art, festival events take place both in and out of school time for schools, groups and families to attend.

Formerly the Young at Art Festival, the annual event began in 1998. Over the years, the breadth, diversity and imagination of its programme has attracted praise and support from the general public, schools, and from artists and other festivals both locally and internationally.

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