Heartbeat star Niamh Cusack is going back to her Irish roots for her appearance at the Crucible Studio from tonight – although the play she’s in is set in Russia.
Niamh, who played Dr Kate Rowan in Heartbeat from 1992 to 1995, is appearing in Afterplay, part of a season celebrating the plays of Irish dramatist Brian Friel.
She says that not many people recognise her from that role now. “I think most of the kids who watched Heartbeat are well and truly grown up now!
“It was a great role for me. It gave me a TV profile that I’d never had before.
“I loved being in Yorkshire and working on the moors. We were very a close-knit lot because we did half our filming away in Goathland, so everyone was on location.
“We went out together and ate together. It was a big thing to leave but it was time and it was a great programme.”
Niamh said she decided to go when she found out she was pregnant. She turned down an offer to have her pregnancy written into the role as decided she wanted to take on new challenges.
She said she is looking forward to exploring the Peak District while she is in Sheffield with her border terrier, Martha.
Niamh’s character in Afterplay is Sonya, a woman who is passionate about the Russian country estate where she lives.
She said: “Although Sheffield is a city, all around there’s a sense of land. Land is very much part of my character.”
Sonya is a character that was originally in Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya.
In Brian Friel’s play, set in the 1920s, Sonya comes to Moscow to get the bank to give her a loan for the family estate, which is in a state of disrepair.
Niamh said: “It’s a last-ditch attempt to keep the estate. She is kind of at the end of her tether, sat in a cafe trying to figure out how to make the figures balance, when she meets this guy and they strike up a conversation.”
The man is Andrey, who was in Chekhov’s play The Three Sisters. Andrey has fallen on hard times and the couple discuss their lives over vodka.
Niamh says of Sonya: “She’s a kind of hero. There’s a bit of everyone in her. She has a huge spirit and a huge heart.
“It feels to me that Brian Friel loves both these characters. Both the Chekhov plays have eight to 10 characters.
“He wanted to give these two a further life and they have a lot of heart and humanity in them. People will respond to that.
“It’s a sort of love story between two unlikely people.”
She added: “I always wanted to play her in Uncle Vanya. It’s bliss for me that Brian Friel has given an actress of my years a chance to play that character. He has remained incredibly loyal to Chekhov’s Sonya.”
Niamh said she appeared in Brian Friel’s play Dancing in Lughnasa about five years ago at the Old Vic in London and was in a touring version of The Aristocrats. “I’m a real fan,” she added.
There are four generations of actors in the Cusack family, that includes Niamh’s late dad, film actor Cyril Cusack, Niamh’s sisters Sorcha and Sinead. Many have appeared in Friel plays.
Niamh’s niece Beth Cooke is playing Maire in another Friel play, Translations, at the Crucible from February 13.
The family connections continue. Niamh and the playwright are actually second cousins by marriage. Her mother was a cousin of Brian Friel’s wife.
She said of Friel: “I think he’s Ireland’s greatest living playwright. He’s part of everybody’s theatrical map.
“I think he’s writing on universal human themes of people’s aspirations, disappointments, resentments, dealing with those blows of life and getting through. It’s something everybody will respond to.
“Up north there are quite a lot of families that have Irish connections. I think there’ll be a response to that as well.
“For anybody in the university who is studying English or drama, he’s one of the greatest playwrights ever.”
Afterplay starts at the Crucible Studio tonight and runs until Saturday, March 1.
Box office: at the Crucible, online at www.sheffieldtheatres.c.uk or call 0114 249 6000.