A journey of elf discovery may seem unlikely for the first lady of the Irish criminal underworld, but when Love/Hate's Aoibhinn McGinnity swaps Dublin's mean streets for a fairy tale of New York next month it will represent a return to more familiar territory for her.
Elf: The Musical, based on Will Ferrell's festive film from 2003, is coming straight from Broadway to Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Ben Forster is taking on the Ferrell's role as Buddy, a young orphan who crawls into Santa's sleigh before being inadvertently transported back to the North Pole.
Buddy grows up huge – and really terrible at making toys – so he travels to New York City to find his roots and help Gotham remember the true meaning of Christmas. His grumpy sidekick, Jovie, a real elf, will be played by McGinnity.
“I did musical theatre in London and then went into straight acting, so I feel really lucky and excited right now,” she says. “I love the way everything is going at the minute, but I trained so hard for the other thing – for musical theatre – and I was watching it slide because you can’t plan your career.”
No sign of Trish
Sipping sparkling water in the sunlit Bord Gáis Theatre foyer, McGinnity is barely recognisable from her Love/Hate character, Trish, the beaten-down and increasingly terrified wife of Nidge. She is softer and laughs more, for a start. And her Monaghan lilt is a world a way from the hard Dublin accent we got used to hearing every Sunday night as the winter drew in.
McGinnity has no doubt the audience will forget about Trish and focus on her as Jovie instead. "I don't think people will come to the show with preconceived notions about me. If I'm out with the cast of Love/Hate and a bunch of girls come over to the boys and they're, like, 'Hey Nidge and blah blah blah' and the lads are, like, 'That's Trish', sometimes the girls don't believe them, which is brilliant.
“I’m sure some of them will have Trish in their heads coming in, and that’s fine, but I wouldn’t be overly worried about it, because it is such a different character.”
It could scarcely be more different. Forster is also playing a rather different character to the one he is best known for. He made his musical debut on the West End when he was 18, but his fame magnified in 2012 after winning the TV show Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV talent search for Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Billy Elliot comparisons
It seems to be impossible to read about Forster without seeing the phrase “real-life Billy Elliot” somewhere in the text. How annoying is that on a scale of one to 10? “It’s probably like 34,” he says.
“It happens all the time. The weird thing is, it really does parallel my life. I watched it in the cinema with my mum and dad, and I felt like someone had sat next to me on a train and heard my life story and then made it into movie.
“We were born at the same time, we lived through the coalmine strikes, I went to karate instead of boxing. Then I went to dancing, loved the dancing, hated the karate. It was exactly the same, so I do get the comparison but it can be a bit annoying to hear it all the time.”
Ferrell has a special place in the hearts of Irish audiences, and his Buddy is beloved. Is Forster concerned about filling such big shoes?
"Well, I did come from doing Jesus Christ," he says, laughing. "But, even so, I'm petrified. It's a really hard thing to do. It's my part and I have to create that, but I have to give the audience everything they love about Ferrell too. But it has to be mine: I can't just do an impression of him."
Forster seems comfortable with his celebrity status but McGinnity is still finding her feet. “I get incredibly awkward, especially when I am caught off guard and am wearing no make-up and genuinely legging it somewhere. That’s always the time someone asks if they can take a picture and I’m, like, ‘How do I try and pose for the photo?’ I just hope I never come across as standoffish but it is not something I am overly used to.”
The women in Love/Hate play second fiddle to the men, and live miserable lives as a result.
“There have been complaints that the women are unhappy, but they are in that world. In order to write something and commit to the truth and keep it as real as possible, you can’t leave everybody comfortable. The fact that all the women are pretty messed-up emotionally and everything is just a credit to very good writing.”
She rejects criticisms that the Love/Hate women are two-dimensional.
“I think the women have an arc, and this year especially the place where Trish has gone is really where she had to go. She has nothing left. She is exhausted. And it is the same with Siobhán. You do see different colours to them; it is not flat. Sometimes I hear people calling Trish a bitch because she can look like she has all this attitude, but she has so many more dimensions than that,” says McGinnity.
“She is unbelievably strong, resilient and loyal. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you have to take things on board, but, Jesus, if there is one thing Trish is, it is strong. She is also vulnerable, and people are only seeing that now because of that pure exhaustion. There is nowhere else to go.”
The new Biddy and Miley
In the 1980s, Sunday nights meant one thing for Irish television audiences: Glenroe. At 28, McGinnity is barely old enough to remember the programme, but she knows who Biddy and Miley were. Are herself and Nidge the Biddy and Miley of the 21st century? She laughs.
"I don't know how I feel about that, but just look at the way the world has gone. Did he have an affair at some point back in the day? And somebody wrote in to RTÉ being really concerned for Biddy's happiness, and said that it was outrageous and that it was dirty that this was on television. So what a change, eh? Hookers and coke. It's a very long way from Glenroe. Where do we go to next? Elf, I guess."