Iconic role for star who first took to the stage as a world class Irish dancer, writes Diane Cooke

IN the words of Michael Caine “not a lot of people know that”, but Shameless and Waterloo Road actress Rebecca Ryan was once a world-ranking Irish dancing champion.

It’s the sort of thing her fictitious dad Frank Gallagher would brag about in the Chatsworth Estate pub, The Jockey: “Our Debbie’s the best Irish dancer in the whole world”. In fact, she ranked third at the age of 12, following in the dance steps of her Irish mother Mairanna Ryan, 57, the first World Irish dancing champion.

“I started at age three. I used to enter all the competitions and I loved it. We didn’t have our hair ringletted like they used to – you know, wrapped in rags and left in overnight. We wore ringlet wigs instead to save time. I had to give it up when I got the part in Shameless because I couldn’t fit it all in,” says the 23-year-old north west star.

Rebecca, who also appeared as Vicki MacDonald in the BBC show Waterloo Road has turned her acting attentions to live performance, taking the lead role of Jo in Shelagh Delaney’s 1950s classic A Taste of Honey, coincidentally, or not, based in Salford where the play is to be performed at The Lowry.

It tells the story of a 17-year-old working class girl who gets pregnant to a black sailor. It comments on, and puts into question, class, race, gender and sexual orientation in mid-20th century Britain. It was part of a genre revolutionising British theatre at the time.

She says: “It’s amazing that the issues of race and homophobia are still with us today, although it’s no longer acceptable to behave like that openly. In those days everyone was racist and homophobic, everyone had the same attitude. Obviously the situation has changed, but the issues are still in evidence.

“Being from Manchester this is a role that’s close to home for me.”

Rebecca believes her stage appearances from the age of three have stood her in good stead for a live acting career. “It’s a very different discipline to TV. There’s an awful lot more rehearsal, but it’s so exciting getting that instant reaction from the audience. And, amazingly, I never get nervous or fazed, thanks to my Irish dancing.”

Rebecca made her stage debut in 2008 in the Royal Court production of Fiona Evans’ Scarborough. She also performed for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief in 2011.

Acting runs in the family. Her elder brother Charlie, 27, has appeared in Children’s Ward and Doctors and younger brother Jack, 18, in Jimmy McGovern’s series Moving On and the film Building the Titanic, although Rebecca insists there’s no sibling rivalry.

In fact, it was when Charlie was appearing in State of Play, also written by Shameless writer Paul Abbott, who comes from Burnley, that Rebecca got her break. They needed to cast a younger sister for his character so he recommended Rebecca who was 10 at the time. Shameless followed.

“I was 11 when I started Shameless and I did it until I was 18. I would go into school as normal, but I had a tutor when I was filming. It was the best time of my life, such an experience.”

With no formal acting training, Rebecca found herself combining her natural talent with on-the-job experience, working alongside some of the country’s best actors.

“Just sitting there and watching them all used to be amazing — James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, David Threlfall. It was just a masterclass for me, to sit there and watch all these incredible people.”

Thanks to support from friends, family and teachers at her former school, Rebecca was able to juggle schoolwork with appearing in the series.

In her spare time, she enjoys time out with Daniel, her boyfriend of six years, who is training to be a pilot. Marriage and kids are something she’d eventually like, but not yet. “I’m having a fantastic time just doing what I’m doing,” she says.

  • A Taste Of Honey runs from Tuesday to June 14. Box office: 0843 208 6000 or thelowry.com