Arts

Actor and director Sam McCready brings Percy French to life in Melodies of Unforgotten Years

Belfast actor, director and writer Sam McCready spends most of his time in the United States now but is back on home turf to perform his play about acclaimed singer and entertainer Percy French. He talks to Brian Campbell

Sam McCready, who will perform his play Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years at the Lyric in Belfast from May 3 to 8.
Picture by Hugh Russell

“I THINK theatre should take us to another place,” says veteran actor, director and writer Sam McCready.

And the Belfast man knows this better than most, as theatre took him to Baltimore in the United States in the early 80s and he never left.

But joking aside, McCready is one of our true theatrical talents and the good news is that he’s back in the north with his show about the late great entertainer and songwriter Percy French.

The show – Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years – premiered in Newcastle, Co Down, last year, then had a run at Belfast’s EastSide Arts Festival. Now it’s coming to the Lyric – where McCready was artistic director before heading stateside.

“I went over to the US in the early 80s. I’d gone to direct plays off-Broadway. A New York producer saw the work and offered me the opportunity to stay on, so I had an apartment in New York and met a lot of actors and really liked the actors and how committed they were.

“I was then approached by the University of Maryland and was appointed as a professor of theatre in Baltimore. I thought I’d stay for a year, but I never left.”

Despite spending most of his time in the US over the past 30 years, McCready still cites the late Mary O’Malley – who founded the Lyric (then known as the Lyric Players Theatre) – as his main mentor.

“The Lyric has always been part of my DNA and Mary O’Malley opened my mind to a whole other dimension and culture of theatre,” he says. “I came from an Ulster Protestant background and she was a nationalist but never at any time did Mary attempt to proselytise or anything.

“Her interest was in theatre and Irish theatre and I imbibed that and it really set me up for all the work that I went on to do.”

And if McCready counts Mary O’Malley as a big influence, you might say that the Belfast man played his own part in shaping the careers of Kevin Spacey and director Danny Boyle.

In the 80s, McCready was a theatre director auditioning hundreds of actors for the play Yeats in Limbo and he chose Spacey to play the role of Judas. He was struck by how dedicated to the craft of acting Spacey was, so much so that the now incredibly famous actor couldn’t pay rent and refused to take a part-time job as a waiter or a barman.

“And when I taught in the University of North Wales, Danny Boyle was one of my students. So I have two Oscar-winners,” he laughs. “People say to me about Kevin Spacey and Danny Boyle, 'Did you know [that they’d go on to have these glittering careers]?’ and the answer is yes. They both had this incredible drive and focus and sense of purpose.”

Another actor that he is a big fan of is Joan McCready – his wife.

“About 10 years ago I stopped teaching and decided to focus on one-person shows. Joan is a wonderful actress, so I wrote a one-woman play for her about Lady Gregory called Coole Lady.

“We performed it all over Ireland and off-Broadway. I’m focussing on plays that don’t require an elaborate technical team. I’ve worked on plays with the most elaborate and expensive sets, but I feel that theatre is essentially about the space and the story and sharing that with an audience. It’s as old as civilisation.”

Joan directs the Percy French play, while her husband acts, narrates and sings – along with musician and singer Kyle Riley, an American who was once taught by McCready but who now lives in Co Cavan with his wife and children.

So how did the actor-director come to focus on French, the Roscommon man who was born in 1854 and died in 1920 and who is famous for writing the song The Mountains of Mourne?

“I’d always loved Percy French and I’d sing his songs at parties and as part of a choir. I was contacted by the Newcastle Arts Festival and asked if I’d do a play about him. So I started researching him and the more I read, the more I thought 'Why did I not come up with this idea myself?’ He’s a natural subject for me. Like him, I sing and paint and I’m an entertainer. It was meant to be.

“He visited Newcastle a lot. He had seen the Mournes from Skerries when he was living in Co Dublin and looked up and that’s when the line 'Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’ came to him.”

The show will feature songs including Slattery’s Mounted Fut and Phil The Fluter’s Ball and McCready says the story is “warm and happy and feelgood but there are moments of pain too”.

“French was trained as an engineer at Trinity in Dublin and he worked in a drainage scheme in Cavan and called himself 'the inspector of drains’. He wanted to write and perform and tell stories and jokes. He was driven and he spent his life performing.

“At one point his daughter said, 'Daddy, why are you always coming and going? You should really stay at home and sit by the fire’ and he said, 'I would if I could find somebody to pay for the coal’.

“He roamed around Ireland. He went to live in London in 1900. The aristocracy were having large parties and they’d invite entertainers to perform, so there was a terrific living to be made. The Prince of Wales invited French to perform for him.

“In this show I’m trying to reveal the person and get behind the story and find out what made him tick. I’m trying to reveal Percy French the man, not just the entertainer.”

Behind his own cheery exterior, Sam McCready has had to deal with real pain in his life too – losing his son Julian to a debilitating diabetes-related illness a few years ago aged just 47.

Yet he and Joan have another son, Richard, whose teenage daughter Margo is a real source of joy and who is, according to McCready, “crazy about musical theatre”.

McCready will turn 80 this November and he recalls that 75 years ago his family home in east Belfast was decimated during the Belfast Blitz, which meant the McCready family had to relocate to rural Co Down.

“That move had a major impact on my life, just like meeting Mary O’Malley. If I had grown up on the Newtownards Road, I would have been a very different person,” he says.

As for Percy French, McCready says he is drawn to him because of his wit and his simplicity and drive. So would he say he has huge admiration for French?

“The word is love.”

Percy French: Melodies of Unforgotten Years runs at the Lyric Theatre (Naughton Studio) in Belfast from May 3 to 8. For tickets (£12 to £15), visit LyricTheatre.co.uk or call 028 9038 1081

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