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'When I was 12 a mate's brother killed himself. No one knew why'

The 28-year-old actor starred in cult movie Man About Dog, TV's London Irish, and alongside May McFettridge in the Grand Opera House panto. From next week, he will perform in one-man play Man In The Moon at the Waterfront Studio. He lives with partner Paula and two-year-old son Cian in Belfast

By Ivan Little

It's virtually impossible for anyone who has, like me, grown up in recent times in west Belfast not to know someone who's died by suicide. Obviously the area doesn't have a monopoly on the tragic deaths, but suicide has become like an epidemic.

So when Pearse Elliott told me he'd written what he said was a comedy about mental health and suicide, I was stunned. After all, there's nothing remotely funny about suicide.

However, when I read Pearse's script of Man In The Moon, I knew it was a play that I had to do. It tells the story of Sean Doran, a man who's at a real low in his life. We find him at the Half Moon Lake in Lenadoon after he's lost his job, his wife has thrown him out and he can't see his children.

Sean spent a lot of his childhood at the lake and remembers that many of his youthful companions have taken their own lives. He wonders why they did what they did, though he comes to realise he never will now and that he must look after himself.

Pearse reckons 20 people he knows died by suicide. And I've known quite a few too. When I was 12 or 13, a brother of one of our mates killed himself and we never found any answer why.

Some people find it strange that a play about suicide has so much humour in it. We're definitely not trying to make light of it, but it shows how in the darkest of days the typical Northern Irish spirit comes through. I think the overriding message is hope and that the play helps people to open up and talk.

After the first night of the play, several people affected by suicide shared their experiences with us. One who stands out was the woman who came to see the play six weeks after her husband's death and said it had given her strength to carry on. That was humbling for me.

Health professionals have worked with us and they've said that it's good that arts practitioners are tackling such a sensitive subject which is sometimes ignored by the media.

The response to the play when we first put it on at the Baby Grand in the Opera House last year was very encouraging and that's why we're reviving it at the Waterfront Studio. I hope it may go to London and New York later in the year and the film director Jim Sheridan, who's the patron of the Brassneck Theatre Company, has offered us his support too, which is fantastic.

I've always wanted to be an actor. I started off as a kid at the old Arts Theatre in Botanic Avenue in shows like A Winter's Tale, but my favourite play was The Merchant of Venice. Later, I was lucky enough to get a few breaks in TV and movies.

Man about Dog has become something of a cult hit and even though it's 10 years old, I still can't go anywhere, north or south, without someone coming up to me to talk about it.

One of the other actors in it was Allen Leech, who's done very well. He plays the widower of Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey.

Another actor, Tom Murphy, died a few years ago. He was a lovely guy. We all had great fun making that movie.

I'm currently working with another actor, Gerard Jordan, and historian Philip Orr on a play we are hoping to produce about the start of World War One and how it changed the lives of ordinary people.

I've also been getting a bit of national exposure recently with the Channel 4 series London Irish, but nearer home I've also enjoyed acting for the past two years in the Opera House pantomimes alongside May McFettridge and Paddy Jenkins.

I used to go to see May and wait for the sweets to be thrown out – and I sometimes have to pinch myself that I'm sharing a stage with her!

Understanding a tragic issue ...

* According to the NI Statistics and Research Agency, of 14,204 deaths registered in Northern Ireland in 2011, 289 were suicides, the vast majority men.

* Research at Queen's University, Belfast, revealed in 2012 that people who grew up in the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more prone to suicide, with the highest rate among men aged 35-44.

* This equated to those who grew up in the worst years of violence, between 1969/1977-78.

* Recent years have seen increasingly high-profile campaigns to tackle the issue, with services like Lifeline (tel: 0808 808 8000) and the website www.mindingyourhead.info, as well as the establishment of community-based groups.

* Help and assistance is also available from the Samaritans, tel: 08457 90 90 90.

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