“I think I’ve found you a genius.” Bob Bishop’s telegram to Man U boss, Matt Busby, in 1963 launched Georgie Best onto the world stage and into the realms of sporting legend and international notoriety. And so it is with a skip in the step that I attend the second night of Dancing Shoes: The George Best Story.
After a record-breaking run in 2010, Belfast’s Grand Opera House buzzes with anticipation before curtain rise. With Marie Jones and Martin Lynch at the helm, music and lyrics by JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben, and direction from Peter Sheridan, surely this packed house is in for a quality show.
The set is simplicity itself: a door each side of the stage; steps, centre stage, up to a second tier, and interchangeable backdrops transports the action from Belfast’s backstreets to Old Trafford, Sunset Boulevard, the Costa del Sol… the list goes on. With nine actors playing 102 characters, 11 musical numbers and countless costume changes, such simplicity is the key to the cleverly orchestrated chaos reflecting the life and times of Best.
From the off it is clear rewrite after rewrite have brought the story and the memory of the wayward maverick back to sparkling life. Comedy, ambition, and an abundance of Belfast’s unique annunciation of the word ‘f**k’ kicks-off the night as Jones and Lynch chart Best’s rise from Burren Way obscurity to local, national and finally international fame. Spatulas serving as tele aerials, a plastered Billy Bingham f’ing and blinding in a Belfast chippy and the Irish-smothering-mother-syndrome are toyed with delicious delight.
The cast is led by Tyrone’s Aidan O’Neill, playing Best for the second run. His presence is essential to the flow of the play, as he’s the sole actor not playing multiple roles. O’Neill’s vocals may be called into question during the earlier numbers, but as the show progresses, his singing, understated charm and vulnerability bring gravity and consistency to a manically entertaining performance. His keepy-uppy skills aren’t too bad either.
The support cast, all veterans of the 2010 production, reads like a who’s who of Northern Irish talent spanning the generations. Paddy Jenkins as Best’s father Dickie and Alex Higgins; Conor Grimes as fanatical neighbour Mr Harrison and steadfast friend and mentor Harry Gregg; Packy Lee as Jo Jo, Steve McQueen and Eric McMordie; Alana Kerr as Sinead Cusack and Cher, and Kerri Quinn as first wife Angie all deserve due credit. Arguably Maria’s Connolly’s portrayal of George’s mother Anne Best stands out above all others due to her soaring vocals and poignantly played, prophetic slip into alcoholism.
The ’68 European Cup is won, Best is crowned European Footballer of the Year and a Day Tripper era Beatles plays to the interval. Like the Titanic or the story of the Gospel, we all know the ending before we return.
A packed foyer reveals the metaphorical rainbow of theatre goers bitten by the Best bug. Old, young, suited, Man-U-shirted, men’s men, high-heeled women, musical lovers and everyone and their dog seem to have turned out for the show.
Knowing the destination, and getting there, are two different things. After the break Jones, Lynch and the musical skills of Gilmour and Gribben manage to find black humour in the demise of Ireland’s most loved player. Sacked by Tommy Doherty, mother dead, wife and baby gone, and drinking two bottles of Vodka a day, Best’s life is slowly ebbing away.
The music and lyrics through-out are outstanding. Reggae, flamenco, rock-n-roll, and big-band ballads all get an airing. From the naivety of I Think I Found You a Genius; the joviality of Boot-room Boys – with the cast adding percussion by slapping the boots they’re cleaning against the benches – to the recurring and oft and aptly tailored Dancing Shoes, everyone seems entertained. But it is the We Had a Ball duet between Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Georgie which takes the crowning glory. A morbid bedside vigil turns into a game of suicidal one-up-man-ship: who has had the most booze, girls, woes, money, fame, infamy, talent; the argument runs on before culminating in a four-to-the-floor romp of a song. Best’s out of his bed, Higgins struts and slurs, recklessly waving a snooker cue, the pair spin in and out of control, each clinging to an end of the cue.
And then it’s over. George is wheeled away. Dickie Best shakes the hands of mourners. Dancing Shoes starts again. The cast, minus one, sing their hearts out. A silhouetted figure appears kicking a ball on the upper tier.
One by one, the audience stands. The ovation lasts for minutes. The woman beside me has mascara running down her face, the brute behind screams, yahoos and wolf-whistles me towards tinnitus. All in all, not a bad wee night out.