Mary Peters – 40 Golden Years

Patrick Kielty, Jackie Fullerton, Van Morrison and a host of Olympians share the stage at the Grand Opera House

Organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the Lancashire-born, Ballymena-raised sporting superstar’s 1972 Olympic gold win in Munich, Mary Peters: 40 Golden Years is as swish and star-studded as events in Northern Ireland come.

Not many people can bring the likes of Patrick Kielty, Van Morrison and May McFettridge together under one roof. Indeed, not many people might want to. But there’s no arguing with the fact that everyone in the Grand Opera House tonight, on stage and off, shares a genuine respect for Peters and her many achievements.

On September 3, 1972, Peters, then 33 and already more than a decade into her sporting career, triumphed in the women’s pentathlon, after finishing fourth in 1964 and ninth in 1968. As actor Dan Gordon, who kicks off tonight’s proceedings, puts it, she 'set a world record, wrote herself into the history books and into our hearts'.

Gordon, in top hat and oversized cigar – a nod to Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Isambard Kingdom Brunel at this year’s Olympic Games opening ceremony perhaps – sets the grim scene for the year of Peters’ win. There seems to have been an atrocity for almost every day of the week in 1972 – Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Bloody Monday…

But tonight isn’t about the Troubles – it’s about celebrating all that is good about Northern Ireland. ‘We’re the bit that comes after Team GB that isn’t Scotland or Wales,’ Gordon puffs. ‘We’re better than you at boxing, rowing and golf.’

The pomp continues as Gordon hands over to Gerry Kelly, who turns the spotlight on the 15 gold, two silver and five bronze medal winners in the audience, while Dame Mary herself is dragged down from the safety of her box to take pride of place on a chat show-style stage set. Then it all becomes a bit This Is Your Life.

A succession of the great and the good file out to pay tribute to Dame Peters and the sterling work of her eponymous foundation. Sir Steve Redgrave and Dame Kelly Holmes take a while to adjust to Kelly’s brusque interviewing style, but that’s nothing compared to the subsequent master of ceremonies, Jackie Fullerton, who alternates between flirting with and unleashing his raw wit on Sue Barker.

As for Peters, who 'enjoys' a protracted kiss with the BBC man, she has ‘left my lips raw flesh’, Fullerton vamps. 'Our Jackie' also stuns Duncan Goodhew – and the audience – into silence by suggesting the famously bald athlete is actually wearing a swimming cap.

If this isn’t risqué enough, cue Patrick Kielty, who treats the assembled ageing Olympians to a series of rapid-fire gags about John Terry, Rihanna and the size of Northern Irishmen’s members.

Some may sniff, but this reviewer is loving it, and Peters seems game for a laugh, too. The same cannot be said of Pat Jennings, who refuses to play ball – pun intended – with Kielty’s schtick. Lynn Davies, though, gives as good as he gets with a saucy anecdote about Peters in Soho that leaves even the comic speechless.

But funniest of all is Kielty’s repeated mockery of Van Morrison. Describing the musician, who is due up next, as ‘a cross between Bob Dylan and Father Jack’ is either very brave or very stupid. ‘He’s on in the second half,’ shrugs Kielty. ‘I don’t care.’

Nor, it seems, does Van – about anything. The singer launches into his set with the curtain barely up and people still returning to their seats. Morrison is a bizarre character at the best of times, but tonight, as he clambers about in a too-tight suit, singing hits, barking commands at his band and giving his roadies the run-around, he crosses the line from idiosyncratic to pathetic.

There’s no argument with the songs. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’, ‘Here Comes the Night’, ‘Have I Told You Lately’ (a duet with daughter Shana), ‘Moondance’, ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and ‘Gloria’ is as close to a greatest-hits show as Morrison is ever likely to grimace through. And his saxophone, harmonica and keyboard skills throughout are not in question.

But why no acknowledgement of where he is or why he is here? Can’t he drop the 'troubled genius' act for one night, for the sake of Dame Mary Peters? The evening’s other musical guests, Phil Coulter and Brian Kennedy, might not be as gifted or as revered, but at least they seem to care.

Still, the evening gets back on track with some antique jokes from May McFettridge and more anecdote merchants including Dennis Taylor and Jane Torvill. There’s also a slightly awkward appearance by four of this year’s Northern Ireland Olympians, who are perhaps still more comfortable on the sporting field than on the theatre stage.

Strangely, despite all the big names and gushing testimonies, the most affecting words come not from a sporting legend or a musical icon, but from BBC presenter Colin Murray, who sends a pre-recorded video message. Noting that Dame Mary has ‘the respect of the whole community’, he adds: ‘In this part of the world, that’s some trick.’ Amongst all the black ties and glasses of bubbly, these are wise words to take home.