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Matt Forsythe spent 15 years as a joiner before taking up acting... tonight he takes centre stage in A Night In November

Matt Forsythe can't wait to take on one of the most daunting and thrilling roles of his career, as Linda Stewart finds out

Matt Forsythe rehearses at the Lyric for A Night in November
Matt Forsythe rehearses at the Lyric for A Night in November
Marie Jones with son Matthew McElhinney

By Linda Stewart

With most actors, you hear about their zeal for performing from an early age - the school plays, the impromptu skits in the garden and the performances in front of the bedroom mirror with the hairbrush as a prop.

But not Matt Forsythe. He freely admits he never had a notion about performing when he was growing up and that he didn't train as an actor until the age of 28. In fact, he spent 15 years working as a joiner before he decided to switch careers and head to London to enrol in drama school.

Now 39 and with plenty of performances under his belt, he's about to take on one of the iconic modern challenges in Northern Irish theatre - east Belfast playwright Marie Jones' show A Night in November, which bowled over audiences and infuriated football fans when it was first performed by Dan Gordon 25 years ago.

"This is probably the first play that really blew me away the first time I saw it. I read it beforehand and loved it and I thought 'I've got to do that play - I could do something great with it'," Matt says.

The Lisburn-born actor is looking forward to translating A Night In November for a new generation at the Lyric Theatre from tonight, not least the challenge of playing a host of different characters on stage.

"You're on stage by yourself for an hour-and-a-half, playing more than 20 characters from America and Ireland," he says.

"That is the challenge, that's what drew me to it - it's a play that if it's done right, it's amazing.

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"It's one of the best plays ever to have come out of Northern Ireland and a lot of big names have played it. Dan Gordon has played it, Patrick Kielty has played it. So there is that pressure of doing the play justice and getting it right. There is that pressure to make sure I don't mess it up."

The play was famously inspired by the bitterness that surrounded the clash on November 17, 1993 between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers and charts the journey of east Belfast Protestant Kenneth Norman McAllister after he witnesses the shocking scenes of sectarian chanting at Windsor Park that night, particularly those alluding to the Greysteel massacre which happened just a couple of weeks before the game.

Following the match, Kenneth is forced to take a long, hard look at himself and embarks on a journey of discovery that leads him to some very unexpected places.

Matt Forsythe with director Matthew McElhinney
Matt Forsythe with director Matthew McElhinney

Incredibly, Matt was one of the supporters present at the Windsor Park that night, as part of a group of schoolchildren from Thornhill School in Lisburn.

"It's quite ironic," he says. "Looking back, it's quite frightening that those sorts of chants and songs and bigotry were going on. It just amazes me that a school could take a lot of boys and girls to a football match like that - but that was normality then."

Matt plays a man who is shocked to the core by what he witnesses at the match. "As the play goes on, he finds out who he is and he tries to shed that skin of hatred. He tries to play it down, he tries to fight it off, but his desire to change is too strong," he says.

"It's funny because I see a lot of him in me because I would have seen a lot of bigotry growing up. In the school system there was that segregation - I didn't like that and I've moved away from that. I do resonate a lot with what Kenneth is dealing with."

Twenty-five years on, the script has been adapted to reflect how things have changed, particularly on the terraces, with new 'bookend' scenes to reflect the changing times.

At that time, Matt says, the play was seen by many as republican propaganda, even though Marie Jones is a Protestant.

"It just shows how far Northern Ireland fans have come in 25 years. At the Euros, the Republic of Ireland fans and the Northern Ireland fans were both given awards for being the best fans. It really shows from then how far we've come and how far we've changed and developed."

Matt beat off competition from 300 other actors to win the coveted role and it's a far cry from his former trade as a joiner.

"I was never into performing, never did it at school. After school, I didn't know what I wanted to do and performing wasn't on the agenda - I was one of those people whose head was in the clouds," he admits.

Matt with his wife Michelle and daughter Isla (3)
Matt with his wife Michelle and daughter Isla (3)

He began playing the guitar at 15, before singing for a small cover band and it was when he started taking vocal lessons that he became involved in Northern Ireland's amateur dramatic scene.

"I started at the New Lyric Operatic Company and that's where I met my wife Michelle. We first met in 2003 when we were doing Guys and Dolls on the Opera House stage - I was one of the extras and she was the lead. But we didn't start dating until 2012. She was coming over to London for work and I was still there and we kept meeting up," he says.

Matt averaged a couple of 'am-dram' shows a year, performing with Belfast Operatic Company and the Ulster Operatic Company, but the light bulb moment didn't come until someone asked him when he was going to head to drama school - up until then he had never even considered it.

"From that moment, I began to look into it and I started to get excited about it - and then I was hooked," he says.

Matt took a two-year drama course at the Drama Studio in Ealing and performed roles across the city.

"I was picked to open the new stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford along with up-and-coming actors from other drama schools. We got to say the first words on the new stage, performing in front of 1,400 or 1,500 people," he says.

His first professional role was in Our Boys at the Duchess Theatre, performing alongside the likes of Arthur Darville, best known for Doctor Who, and Harry Potter alumnus Matthew Lewis. He also set up his own theatre company - Mercurius Theatre Company.

"By then, Michelle and I were going out, so I came home and I've been performing throughout Northern Ireland in television and theatre ever since," he says.

The couple admit they are ships that pass in the night at the moment with all the rehearsals for A Night in November.

These days, Michelle works for the Ulster Orchestra as marketing director, but she also sings as a soloist, performs with The Leading Ladies and even teams up with Matt from time to time in her 1950s swing band The Soda Popz (left).

"We get probably a good number of shows per year and they're good fun. It's music we all love - bits of Johnny Cash, Elvis, Connie Francis and some more modern ones," Matt says.

The couple have just celebrated their first anniversary and they have a little girl, Isla, who just turned three in April.

"She keeps us all entertained," Matt laughs.

"She's always looking for a stage, which is quite frightening. If there's any sort of platform, even a step, she's standing on it and singing, which is quite frightening - even though I don't promote it. I want her to stay away from it as it's such a frightening industry."

This play is a major break for Matt, although in the past 11 years he's appeared in many roles, playing characters on TV in The Fall, Come Home, My Mother and Other Strangers and The Pardoner's Tale.

He's also performed in Cabaret and Mydidae at the Mac and Three Sisters at the Lyric Theatre, a performance which delivered pretty much the weirdest experience of his entire career.

"Mydidae was myself and another actress in a working bath - it was quite challenging because you've no clothes on in a bath with another female," Matt says. "As part of the play, I had to go to the toilet on cue in a working toilet and there were a lot of time issues to make sure I drank enough water, but not too much water. There's a lot of nudity but it's quite a sad story.

"Because I was timing that, I was taking cups of water at a certain time to make sure I was fuelled up, but on the last night I drank extra water and I didn't go to the toilet when I should have and I was busting! So I went to the toilet before I went on stage and then I had to tell the stage manager that they would have to hold the show because I'd just been to the toilet.

"So the audience was told that there was a technical issue and the play would start 10 minutes later - and I proceeded to drink two litres of water in 10 minutes flat. It was definitely one of the weirdest moments of my life."

The 25th anniversary production of A Night in November by Marie Jones will be performed by Soda Bread Theatre Company at Lyric Theatre Belfast from today until Friday, June 21, with an Irish tour in August. Book tickets now at www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 028 9038 1081

Director reveals pressure of staging one of his mum's most acclaimed and controversial plays

It's the first time that director Matthew McElhinney has ever staged one of his mum's plays - and certainly the most challenging.

"It's a bit daunting," he says. "It's getting to that point in rehearsals where it has got quite intense but I'm enjoying it."

It's the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Marie Jones play inspired by the Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland clash in 1993 that was famous for its aggressive and politically charged atmosphere.

"My mum saw the match and it was kind of the last straw that broke the camel's back," Matthew says.

The main character struggles with his own identity after being profoundly shocked by the sectarian atmosphere at the match and is forced to rethink everything he is.

"It tears his whole life apart because of this profound experience he has," Matthew says. "But it's very much a period piece now because after 25 years, Northern Ireland has come a long way, especially in football. Nowhere has Northern Ireland changed as much as on the stands at Windsor Park.

"So our idea of framing it is performing the play as it was written, but within that context. It's almost framing it on looking back to see how far we've come. The tagline is 'Is it possible to change?' and this is the angle we are looking at it."

Matthew has free rein over the performance and script changes - in fact, his mum Marie has been in Greece for the last month and hasn't been involved at all.

"It was very controversial at the time. It was acclaimed in the theatre world but there was a lot of controversy as well," he says. "But it wasn't an attack on the community. It was my mum's journey and that man was my mother. It was her take on how she felt and what she saw going on at the time - so it's one man's journey."

This is the first time in the history of the play it's been backed by the Northern Ireland Supporters' Club, Matthew says.

"It's the first time it's had their support. It's now seen as a period piece. It's played by a new generation of actors and directors and it brings this production forward to a generation who were all children at the time of the event."

Matthew was only five when it was written and describes how then PUP leader David Ervine came to see the play in Crossgar where it was attended by relatives of victims of the Loughinisland killings.

"He said 'Marie, you are an artist and you can take sides - I'm a politician and I can only take baby steps. But when you look over your shoulder I'll be right behind you'," Matthew adds.

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