Josef Locke – A Grand Adventure in Derry

Felicity McCall dramatises the life of controversial singer and Derry hero Josef Locke at the Playhouse

Talk to anyone of a certain age in musical, golf or pub circles in the North-West of Northern Ireland and they will invariably have their own Josef Locke story, anecdote or reminiscence.

The voice, brio, kindnesses and antics of the celebrated tenor – born as Joseph McLaughlin, son of a butcher, in the Creggan area of Derry~Londonderry in 1917 – still remain a talking point whenever his name is mentioned. ‘Living Memory’, they call it.

Yet there is no comprehensive biography of Locke, who was, at one time, the highest paid singing star of post-war Britain, packing them in nightly on the Blackpool pier and elsewhere. He was, it could be argued, a 1950s Daniel O’Donnell, but – if the stories are to be believed – with a love of showgirls rather than the ‘Mammy’.

Josef Locke - A Grand Adventure is the Derry Playhouse’s autumn headline production commissioned by director, Pauline Ross, to showcase young musical talent in the city.

For Ross, Locke is such a musical icon in Derry – his memorial statue was unveiled by Phil Coulter outside the City Hotel in March 2005 – that his story is an ideal vehicle to allow a new, younger generation to enjoy his songs and find in his career something that will have resonance for the North-West community post-City of Culture.

Playwright Felicity McCall takes on the commission – or should it be the challenge? – to construct a full-length musical play in which we see and hear Locke from his childhood in Creggan Street to his return to the stage in the later 1960s and beyond.

McCall is better known as a children’s writer and journalist. Her last novel, The Pigeon Men, focusses on the thorny issue of child sexual abuse, a far cry from the apparent show-biz frivolity of this new Locke extravaganza.  

‘This musical represents a new departure for me in both subject matter and genre,' McCall explains. 'But I enjoyed the challenge of constructing a rounded portrait of Locke, especially as the show is being premiered in the tenor’s home town.'

McCall’s journalistic skills have helped. She spent several months in preparation, researching Locke’s life through newspaper archives and talking to the people of Derry, all the time attempting to separate fact from fiction.

Locke’s local celebrity means that all sorts of tales have grown up around him, shielding him from closer scrutiny. But, instead of simply assembling Locke’s story from these snippets, McCall has set out to deconstruct ‘Locke the showman’, to illustrate the different strands and contradictions within ‘Locke the Man’.

Locke always remained a local hero, McCall says, 'but he was driven to succeed and rise above his humble background’. There is a duality in Locke, the policeman known locally as ‘The Singing Bobby’, who became a million-selling recording artist but never lost touch with his roots.

McCall hopes that her bio-portrait does justice to Locke’s colourful career, both on and off-stage, his meteoric rise to fame and riches, the subsequent unpaid taxes that he did have to stump up eventually, his enforced exile in Burnfoot, County Donegal and later in Dublin, and the excitements of his race horse and pub-owning years.

The show has a young and small cast, and an equally young directorial team – hardly anyone over the age of 30 features on or off stage – exactly the age envisaged by Ross when she commissioned the play.

Props too are kept to a minimum, with the focus instead on the singers and their interpretations of Locke’s better known songs, ‘Hear My Song, Violetta’, ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘Danny Boy’, of course, among others, under the supervision of musical director, Kristin Donnan.

Like Locke, Donnan is a Derry-born musician with a church background. Donnan’s links are with Christ Church, where she is deputy organist and choir member, whereas Locke first sang as a treble in St Eugene’s Cathedral, where – so the story goes – he was sacked from the choir for ‘spitting on the bald heads of parishioners below’.

Director Kieran Griffiths, a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and no mean singer himself, relishes the opportunity to direct friend and fellow-singer, Karl McGuckin, as the adult Locke. He purrs admiringly: ‘McGuckin’s strong baritone voice is ideally suited to this role. Close your eyes and you might imagine that you were actually at a Locke concert.'

28-year-old McGuckin is no stranger to the Northern Ireland musical stage, and here plays the aspiring and mid-career Locke. This presents a challenge in that Locke’s voice ages in the course of his 30-plus years at the top, from the brash young policeman in his early 20s gate-crashing an audition in Dublin’s Gate Theatre, to the mature, but still charismatic – and by the late 1960s thrice-married – singer in his return to the stage.

10-year-old Brenn Doherty makes his professional stage debut playing Locke as the boy Joseph, and Peter Davidson plays Locke in his elder years. McCall views all three roles as complementary and yet strongly contrasted in highlighting the three faces – or rather, the three voices – of Locke.

There is the young singer full of fire and ambition to escape his deprived background. There is Locke in mid-career whose swagger, smile and debonair charm endeared him to audiences in Britain and Ireland. And finally the older man, still in thrall to show business and nostalgic for his past triumphs.

McCall thinks of Locke as one of the first, and most successful, examples of the cult of ‘celebrity’. Although puzzled at first by the shortening of his name to the ‘stage name’ of Josef Locke to fit across a 1944 playbill, Locke came to revel in its quasi-operatic associations. In tune with his new name, he created a deliberately exotic stage persona.

McCall has had to tread a careful path in her script, so as not to upset Locke’s fourth wife, Carmel – still living outside Dublin – nor any of his children. So we are spared the more lurid aspects of Locke’s career, his love affairs, his fondness for pink gin and stories of his crazy antics. ‘In the meantime,' adds McCall, 'these tales must remain in the realm of anecdote.'

The story McCall tells is, with those limitations, wide-ranging and comprehensive, and goes beyond the episodic, award-winning 1992 film Hear My Song, woven fictionally around Locke's return to give a gig in the Midlands when he was still on the run from the Inland Revenue.

Failing a full-length biography, Felicity McCall’s narrative musical gives us revealing glimpses of the man. No easy task given that many in the city will have memories – at either first or second hand, and some undoubtedly mythical – of Josef Locke the celebrity singer par excellence, the local hero made good, the pub and race horse owner, the ruffian, chancer and, for all that, lovable rogue.

 Josef Locke – A Grand Adventure runs in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry, from October 1 – 4.