Photographed by Ed Miles for Big Issue at
the National Theatre on March 16
Siobhán McSweeney is a triple threat talent. The star of Derry Girls, Holding and Extraordinary on TV is currently rehearsing her starring role in the National Theatre’s revival of Brian Friel’s classic play Dancing at Lughnasa – fresh from presenting the final of The Great Pottery Throw Down and filming her latest documentary.
As she prepares to throw herself into her favourite job of theatre acting, she reflected on how landing the unexpected Pottery presenting job rescued her ailing mental health during lockdown.
“In Dancing At Lughnasa, we dance through pain but also dance to release our pain. And we have been dancing ourself through it, with lockdown, haven’t we?” McSweeney said. “We Joe Wicks-ed ourselves through it.
“When lockdown happened, I remember thinking, when we can, I just want to dance in the street and lick people’s faces.
“There was a report there a couple of days ago – a stupid report, with no rigour in the research – about how apparently lockdown had no adverse effect on our collective mental health. Did you see that? Atrocious.
“It’s so irresponsible and wrong and morally bad to say that. I personally was deeply, deeply affected. My mental health went to the dogs during lockdown and continues to do so.”
In a wide-ranging new interview – for next week’s Big Issue magazine cover story – McSweeney explained how she herself got through.
“Medication. Meditation. And The Great Pottery Throw Down,” she said. “Once I was allowed to stop shielding, I got the offer. And because Love productions were the first to film during lockdown – they did Bake Off – they had literally written the book on Covid protocols. So I outsourced my anxiety.
“I’m a country girl. We bubbled up in Stoke-on-Trent and in the Peak District there. Oh my god, I think it saved my life. It’s so beautiful. That’s what got me through. But I’m almost not able to look at the dark bits of lockdown yet.”
In the new interview, McSweeney explained how she prepared for hosting The Great Pottery Throw Down by thinking of it as like 10 hours a day of improv – and approaching it like an acting role.
“I don’t know how to be myself. I only know how to play a character. So I thought, why don’t I play the character of a hapless presenter?
“Even now, when we’re doing skits and stuff, I’ll talk about ‘her’ rather than myself. ‘She’ll walk in and she’ll do this’. It’s a weird thing, even though I know it’s me, I need to talk about it as a separate thing. Because the only training I have is as an actor.”
“I think Keith’s tears have done more for modern masculinity than most things,” she said. “My feminism has reached a point now where I feel we need to mind our men. We need to liberate our men from the yoke of patriarchy. Because they’ve been fucked up by the same stuff that has fucked us up, our poor darling men, our gorgeous men. And if Keith blubbering over a fucking jug on telly helps that, then bring it on.”
She also reflected on her diverse career – that has also included a presenting a travelogue around Northern Ireland and a documentary about Sister Brigid.
“There was never any master plan. The master plan was always to be allowed to be an actor. That’s all I ever wanted. And then, because of my luck, I’ve been given all these other opportunities,” said McSweeney.
“It seems to be a time in our society where instead of being told to stay in your lane, it is somewhat appreciated and rewarded if you have more interests. Which is lucky for me. So I’m currently working for the National Theatre, Mickey Mouse and Channel 4 in Stoke-on-Trent! And they’re all linked.
“Why I’m wanted to play Mary in Extraordinary on Disney+ is because of all the training I got here at the National Theatre. The stamina of Sister Michael in Derry Girls comes from doing however many matinees. Pottery comes because of Sister Michael, which came because of this. So everything is interconnected.”
And she has not ruled out adding yet another string to her bow.
“I am also writing at the moment as well,” McSweeney revealed. “I resisted it for a long, long time. And I don’t think it’s any good. But I have brought a bit of compassion to myself and said I don’t need to be excellent. Why don’t I aim for mediocre?
“It is also about expanding the idea of writing because I naturally improvise. With Pottery you see me improvising for 10 hours a day. And that’s writing, which I didn’t know. I thought it was being lonely in front of a computer.
“So I really feel like my life is so mad at the moment. And my opportunities are so immense. And I’m having so much fun. I’m going to end up like Forrest Gump where I’m shaking people’s hands going, How did this happen? I’m very lucky.”
Siobhán McSweeney stars in Dancing At Lughnasa, which opens at the National Theatre on 19 April, with previews from 6 April
The full interview with Siobhán McSweeney is in The Big Issue magazine, on the streets from March 27. If you cannot buy from a local vendor, copies can be bought via The Big Issue Shop
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.