Fionola Meredith finds faults aplenty in Lynch and Jones' ode to a damaged national hero
The name of George Best has been overlaid with so much blind adoration and mindless sycophancy that it’s hard to remember that there was a real man there once. Now he’s gone, we’re left with a kind of deodorised, sanctified figurehead, a cartoon ghost – Our Own Tragic Football Hero.
Understandably enough, the Best family guard his memory fiercely, but in this town it sometimes feels like blasphemy to speak frankly of the footballer star’s failings as a human being. The only way we’re allowed to refer to him is as a tortured genius, a flawed hero. In short, he has entered the realms of folk myth.
One of the ways you know this has happened is when writers start using reverent, quasi-Biblical language when describing him. Presumably that’s why Martin Lynch, the co-writer and producer of Dancing Shoes, intones in the programme’s introduction: 'He is of us. Let us not be slow to speak his name.'
In fairness, there is little of such silly talk in the performance itself. This is simply a big, noisy, colourful and generous (possibly too generous) tribute to George Best. Yes, it isn’t subtle or nuanced, but then again you don’t really expect that of a musical. The best you can hope for is a fast pace, catchy tunes, decent characters and a bit of humour.
I certainly can’t fault the vigour of the performers themselves, and their high-kicking energy carries Dancing Shoes along at times when it feels like the wheels are precariously near to coming off. They show great versatility in slipping lightning-fast between characters: in particular, Maria Connolly is impressive as Best’s querulous, alcoholic mother, Anne; as gruff football coach Jimmy Murphy, chewing a piece of gum the size of a grapefruit; and as an amusingly over-the-top parody of 1960s star Cher.
The audience is taken on a whistle-stop tour of Best’s life, from his earliest days kicking a ball against a neighbour’s house in Burren Way, through European cup glory, marriage and fatherhood, to the messy descent into illness and premature death. Aidan O’Neill brings a charming, boyish innocence to the title role, though he seems more comfortable playing George in the early scenes, as a wet-behind-the-ears east Belfast bumpkin; he is a little less convincing as the latter-day snarling boozer and lothario, strutting around in a sheepskin jacket and guzzling champagne.
As you’d expect, all the mythological moments were here: that excruciating Cookstown sausage ad, the appearance on This is Your Life and, of course, the well-known moment when a bellboy enters Best’s hotel room in the early 70s. Seeing the footballer in bed with Miss World, a magnum of champagne and several thousand pounds of cash won from a night’s gambling, he asks (with uncanny prescience, it turned out): 'George, where did it all go wrong?' That moment got a song and dance routine all of its own.
Ah yes, the songs. You don’t go to a musical about a footballer and expect Puccini. And many of the songs here are perfectly serviceable, in a simple, good-hearted kind of way. But some of the lyrics are just pure doggerel. 'I saw this magic wonder boy / I can’t describe my words of joy' made me squirm in my seat, as did the Manchester United players’ song, 'We are the first team boys / Weeugh! That’s our noise'. I mean, come on...
There is plenty of the bawdy humour that Belfast audiences love: Packy Lee, as footballer Eric McMordie, has them hooting with glee at his quip that he is so hungry he could eat 'chips out of a hoor’s knickers'. Of course, we have the comedy gays too – you can’t have a Belfast show, it seems, without a crude and borderline offensive dig at someone on the LGBT spectrum – in the form of a pair of ultra-camp, pastel-clad LA hipsters.
But it is the moment in the closing scenes, when Alex Higgins (nicely played by Paddy Jenkins) shows up at the ailing Best’s bedside that has people completely enraptured. This is due, in part, to the fact that Higgins has himself just been buried. 'My liver’s permanently damaged,' says Best; 'I haven’t had a liver since 1973,' parries Higgins. (Even I laughed at that one.) 'Two working-class Belfast boys... we were fucking good,' they conclude.
Minutes later, as Best ascends to the great stadium in the sky – made young and new and wholesome again – the entire audience rises to their feet, in a long and emotional standing ovation. People clap and cry and sway along to the final farewell song. This is more than just a response to a fairly primitive musical. It is about pride and nostalgia and regret and loss. What is it with this country and our national heroes?
Dancing Shoes runs in the Grand Opera House until August 14.