New play tells untold story of George Best's 'lost weekend'
Belfast actor Robbie Martin has co-written a play about George Best's famous 1971 'lost weekend' in London. Here, he tells Gail Bell why he was happy to grow his hair, lose some weight and wriggle inside the head of the flawed footballing genius
IT IS a cold January day in 1971 and Manchester United are heading to London for a critical game away against Chelsea – but their star player is nowhere to be found.
George Best was, as those familiar with the life and loves of the maverick footballer will know, discovered hiding out in the Islington flat of Irish actress Sinead Cusack.
While a media scrum quickly developed outside, what exactly happened behind the front door has been a source of fascination for fans ever since – among them Belfast actor-turned playwright, Robbie Martin, whose play, Hello Georgie, Goodbye Best about that so-called 'lost weekend' is currently enjoying its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe.
After a couple of runs in London in March and a Belfast premiere at the Strand Arts Centre in May, Martin – who stars as Best in the drama co-written with London-born actor girlfriend, Rafaela Elliston (who plays Cusack) – believes they now have "the best version" and has been pleased with the response thus far.
"I feel it has built up nicely and we have fine-tuned a few things here and there," he says in-between their nightly performances at the Greenside Venues in Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, which continue until Saturday, August 25.
"People have been very positive and it's just great to be here, to be part of this massive event which has around 3,000 acts. We are in a small venue, which suits the claustrophobic setting of the story.
"It's exhausting, but I'm surviving on adrenalin and enjoying the buzz."
The play gives what he hopes is a sympathetic hearing for Best, whose downward spiral is inversely proportional to Cusack's rising star.
"We know exactly what happened before and after the events based on autobiographies and TV footage, but with regards to what happened in the flat, no one knows," Martin says.
"All we had to go on was that Sinead said that George was distressed and upset.
"We carried out extensive character studies on both Sinead and George and we think the play is a good illustration of what they were like at that time.
"I feel sorry for him, really. George had his demons and was a distasteful person at times, but he was only 15 years old when he left Belfast for Manchester and hadn't been further than Bangor for a holiday.
"And, even with all his flaws, people still remember him kindly and those who knew him will tell you what a nice person he was. I think that speaks for itself."
With empathy as a starting point, the actor didn't find it too difficult to get inside the complex mind of Best and, just to underline the point, added a symbolic goldfish bowl (with goldfish) to the stage set depicting Cusack's flat.
It can't do any harm, either, that he is not dissimilar to the footballer in looks, although in preparation for the role, the 27 year-old grew his hair and lost around 10kg.
He and Elliston met while honing their craft at the The Poor School in London and, after leaving drama school, did the rounds of auditions without any real success.
"We both had agents but in the end decided to create our own work," Martin adds.
"I don't think we could have picked a more interesting subject as the reality leaves what happened that weekend open to interpretation.
"It was great, though, that before the play opened we had a good luck message from George's sister, Barbara, while the real Sinead told us she liked the script and is just letting us do our own 'thing' with her story, which is brilliant.
"I love this career, no matter how difficult or unpredictable. I spent a gap year working in a bank for three years and it was soul-destroying."
So, what actually happens on stage? The actor is not giving much away, but he doesn't have to kick a ball around, so there's no pressure to emulate Best's legendary 'touch'.
"There is plenty of talking, drinking and arguments, and hopefully some chemistry and humour as well," he says.
"I wanted to get across all aspects of Best's character, the vulnerability, the likeability, as well as the alcoholism and the womanising.
"He had so much talent and, at the same time, was so prone to self-destruct. Are those two things linked? There are deeper issues at work within him and I think he is a great example of human nature.
"That is what drew me to the project in the first place. His life is like a Shakespearean tragedy. "
:: Hello Georgie, Goodbye Best is running at the Edinburgh Fringe until August 25. For information and tickets, visit Tickets.edfringe.com