LONG BEFORE Ronaldo and Beckham there was Best, the Manchester United number 7 an iconic figure whose star burnt bright for nearly seven years before crashing to earth in an alcholic haze, such heights never reached again.
George Best, who played in Limerick in later life for Cork Celtic, was one of the most celebrated of all Man United players – a hero for his amazing talent, irreverent attitude, rock star good looks – but yet became nearly more famous in later life for his drinking and womanizing, the former which eventually killed him in 2005 at the mere age of 59.
A new musical celebrating Best’s life and exploits opens in Limerick’s University Concert Hall at the end of the month, “Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story”,one that comes with exceptional pedigree, a production dreamed up in Best’s home city of Belfast, with his family’s approval and involvement, and boasting the writing talents of Marie Jones – writer of ‘Stones in His Pockets’ - the musical talents of JJ Gribbens and most excitingly, the directorial abilities of ‘I Keano’ director Peter Sheridan, brother of movie director Jim, quite rightly hailed as one of the finest theatre directors in the country.
It is Sheridan’s involvement that rescues this critically acclaimed production from any suspicion of being a lightweight one and he assures this writer that the production “doesn’t pull any punches, it is certainly not afraid to go to the dark places”, noting that Best’s “drinking story is brilliantly handled”.
As an alcoholic himself, who grew up in awe of Best in Dublin in the early 1960s, the life-long Man United fan saw so many things that resonated with him in the script, and simply could not refuse an offer to get involved with the production from an early date.
Interestingly, while acclaimed playwrights Marie Jones and Martin Lynch wrote the script for the play, the inspiration came from the music and lyrics written by JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben.
“The idea for the show came from the music. JJ Gilmour was working on these songs for nearly ten years, and was looking for someone to write the script around them. Somebody told him to contact Marie and he tried to get her to listen to the songs about ten times, but she kept saying it wasn’t for her,” explains Peter.
“One night he met her in Belfast and put the CD in her hand and she went home and listened to them and called him the very next day to she would be delighted to be involved.
“I got a call in February of last year to say Marie and Martin were working on script and were holed up in a house in Donegal, they called me and said they were working on a George Best story, would you be interested?”
Sheridan, a veteran playwright, theatre and film director who directed Borstal Boy
recently the stage adaption of the Shawshank Redemption, did not even hesitate.
“I was interested straight away, wanted to have a look,” he says. “I knew with Marie being involved it would be funny. The humour was immediately the most striking thing about it, it was funny. Marie writes tremendous dialogue and had me laughing on the opening page.”
The musical tells of Best’s turbulent and colourful life and was a huge success on its opening run in Belfast, selling out to the point where it was renewed for a second run this year, as well as a stint travelling around the country.
It imaginatively tells of Best’s life from a seven year old boy kicking a ball in the streets of Belfast to his life and success at Manchester United, right to the tragedy of his later life.
Sheridan had no interest in a story that avoided this part of Best’s life, he explains.
“I love that it doesn’t avoid the difficult stuff, I certainly didn’t want to do a saccharine version of the story. People were really annoyed with George when he drank after receiving that liver transplant, and the show confronts all of that, but it is really well done, it is done with great taste,” he says.
Crucially, Best’s family were involved, and Aidan O’Neill, who plays Best, says that involvement reassured him when it came to taking up the role. There were still nerves on opening night, however.
“We were nervous to say the least before it opened, because he is such an absolute icon and a legend and to take on somebody like that and portray their life, you are taking a big risk because people are coming to see it, many of whom would have actually known the man,” he says.
“I knew wholeheartedly the challenge I had ahead of me, but it was an opportunity and I took it on as much as I could. I think from the feedback from his family, I seem to have done ok. I met his son Calum, his wife Angie and sister Barbara McNarry - they all raved about it and Barbara came back again this time. Calum loved it,” he adds.
While offering a warts and all look at Best’s life, it is not all downbeat, says O’Neill, whose family hail from Donaskeagh, outside Tipperary Town.
“It is not all downbeat, but we certainly don’t shy away from the dark side or moments. It is a fast moving, uplifting comedy,” he says.
Sheridan explains that he felt an affinity with Best, growing up in an era when the Northern Irish wizard was quite simply iconic.
“He was the best footballer in the world,” says Peter simply. “He was something totally new, no-one had seen the like of him before, he didn’t look like a normal footballer, he looked more like a rock star. He was as associated with The Beatles as much as Man United - he was part of that 60s explosion of popular culture. he was unique, and the fact that he was Irish, from Belfast, that he came out of that place before sectarianism exploded, brings all sorts of dimensions to the story, and makes it really interesting, just fascinating.
“I also knew that the alcohol story and George’s problems with drink were a feature of the story, you can’t run away from that, he became as famous as a drunk as he did as a football player. I had my own battle with alcohol, I stopped over 20 years ago, so I am very conscious of that story, so it was very important for me how it was handled. I think the dark side of George’s character is brilliantly realised here, and that would have been something that drew me immediately into this,” he adds.
Judging by the response that this production has received in Belfast and Dublin, it seems that audiences all over are being drawn to it in their droves, just as so many were inexorably drawn to Best throughout his life.
Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story opens in the UCH on September 27 until October 1. See www.uch.ie.