‘It kind of feels like I’m coming back to myself’
Lisa Lambe is best known for her music, but recent stints in the national theatre have given her the chance to flex her acting muscle. The Dublin native tells KATIE BYRNE about the difficulties of juggling both and how easy it is to become pigeonholed
Dublin was under a blanket of snow the last time Lisa Lambe performed in the Abbey. Schools were closing, shops were running out of bread and the opening night of The Unmanageable Sisters was delayed as the Beast from the East took its toll.
This time she has replaced the snow boots for flip-flops. The actress is rehearsing for Jimmy’s Hall during the very welcome heatwave, and she’s musing on the mercurial Irish weather when we sit down to chat on an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning.
Jimmy’s Hall, an adaptation of the Ken Loach film of the same title, is back in the Abbey by popular demand. The play tells the true story of Leitrim farmer Jimmy Gralton who was deported from his own country for building a dance hall, and Lisa is delighted to be playing the role of Jimmy’s love interest, Oonagh, once again.
“This is a heartfelt production on so many different levels,” she says as she settles into a couch next to me. “And the process of making it has been extraordinary. Every process is different but I especially enjoy these processes where you get to be physically so alive.”
Scottish director Graham McLaren adapted Paul Laverty’s film script for the stage and this boisterous retelling gives the music a leading role.
“We had nights last summer where people were dancing in the aisles!” she remembers. “The audience are toe-tapping the whole way through.”
Lisa says the cast first came together this time last year. The majority of new productions begin with a table read but the director decided to take a different tack.
“We sang the songs and shared those joys, and we heard each other in a different way,” she explains. “Then the text came organically out of that.
“For the first few weeks we really focused on the music and finding the heartbeat of the show,” she adds. “And it’s great to go viscerally into those places and dance it out of you.”
Lisa also enjoyed the director’s paredback approach to character-building.
“The way Graham works is that he’s interested in the real — the stripping back,” she explains. “What are you trying to say? What is your action here? What is this sentence saying? What are you trying to do to the other person?
“And the main thing for him is that we all just look like ourselves — not too much make-up; hair is raggy. Just real. I kind of feel like I’m coming back to myself. It’s stripping away any masks that you wear over time.”
Lisa’s wild mane of copper curls is loose and free-flowing for this role. “[My hair] can be really part of what I’m doing and really not part of what I’m doing,” she says. “I love pieces where it’s not part of me so people can see me in a different light. People always ask, ‘Would you cut your hair?’ Yes, of course I would, but I’ve never had to.
“You can be easily pigeonholed,” she adds. “That’s what you look like, that’s what you are. But I have so many things that I want to say, and that’s coming through in my new music.”
Most people are familiar with Lisa’s work as a singer. She’s a former member of the multi-platinum juggernaut that is Celtic Woman and a solo artist whose debut album, Hiding Away, reached the top spot in the iTunes Ireland Vocal Charts.
But theatre, she says, is equally important to her. She describes it as a “muscle” and she’s glad to have had the opportunity to flex it with some challenging productions over the past couple of years.
Lisa grew up in Fairview, Dublin, as the youngest of 10 children — seven boys and three girls. Her father was — and still is — heavily involved in St Vincents GAA Club, and hurling and football dominated most of the family’s downtime.
Lisa was different, though. She was singing as soon as she could speak so her parents enrolled her in the Billie Barry Stage School when she was three. ‘Little Lisa’, as she became known to the late founder of the school, made her stage debut in Madame Butterfly in the Gaiety Theatre a few months later.
Stage-school children are sometimes thought to be precocious. The actress doesn’t agree with the stereotype.
“I worked with Billie and I think I owe a lot of my craft to being around her,” she says. “She was extremely respectful of the theatre and she gave us a great work ethic. She was a beautiful, graceful lady and I just loved her.”
While Lisa attributes her work ethic to Billie Barry, she attributes her skill to her Bachelor in Acting Studies at Trinity College. “We really connected,” she says of her classmates, who included Ruth Negga, Aaron Monaghan and Aonghus Óg McAnally. “I think that class was really special.