George Best show returns to Belfast stage

Scarves and hankies at the ready as Dancing Shoes, the play about the life of George Best, returns to the Belfast stage. Playwright Marie Jones and her actor son Matthew McIlhinney chat to Jenny Lee about working together, and the enduring appeal of one of the city's most famous sons

Dancing Shoes playwright Marie Jones and her son Matthew Mcilhinney who stars in the show Picture by Mal McCann

TEN years after the death of Northern Ireland football legend George Best and five years after it's premiere, Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story returns to the stage telling the story of Best's colourful life on and off the pitch.

Among the nine-strong ensemble cast is Matthew McIlhinney, who plays numerous characters including the Elvis who married George and Angie in Little Las Vegas, the director from the famous Cookstown sausages ad and Manchester United manager Tommy Doherty.

As a huge Manchester United and Northern Ireland football fan, McIlhinney, son of Marie Jones and her actor/director husband Ian McIhinney, was delighted to be part of the cast of Dancing Shoes: The George Best story, even when it meant working with his mum.

While his two brothers choose alternative career paths – Darren is an engineer and younger brother David has just graduated with a degree in criminology – Matthew always seemed destined to follow in his parents' footsteps. His first show was Scenes from the Big Picture by Owen McCafferty in the Waterfront Hall back in 2007 when he was just 17.

"Even during his first year in Methody he came home and said they were putting on Bugsy Malone and he would be playing Bugsy. He did," says his proud mother, who co-wrote Dancing Shoes with Martin Lynch.

So, are expectations higher, given his mum and dad are such luminaries in the industry? "No, not at all, it doesn't bother me. Acting was always just something I enjoyed," the quietly spoken, yet confident 26-year-old tells me.

And did his parents try to dissuade him?

"You can't stop anyone if they have a passion and hunger. What we advised him was to have another string to him bow as the worst thing about being an actor is the downtime," says mum Jones.

McIlhinney has filled that gap with music. He sings, plays guitar and writes his own music, describing it as "a mix between blues and hip hop" and is shortly planning to record his debut album.

He will be singing in Dancing Shoes. It was the songs of JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben that persuaded Jones to write the "play with music". When first asked to write the script, her response was "Are you out of your mind? We can't take on a legend." However, she and her good friend Lynch were won over by the powerful lyrics and agreed to work together on the play.

"We watched the old tapes and plunged into the numerous autobiographies. Every time George ran out of money he wrote another book. His life was out there for us, it was public knowledge. The hard decision was choosing what to put in the play."

Jones was no stranger to the subject of football and for the past 15 years has attended Northern Ireland matches with her sons.

"My play Night in November was about sectarianism but the setting for the drama was football. Years after that my eldest, Darren, asked me to come with him to a Northern Ireland match saying that the IFA have worked very hard to take sectarianism out of football and it was my duty to go after writing a play that was so negative," she explains.

"It was fantastic. It had drama, community spirit, humour and as season ticket holders we've since travelled abroad to places such as Poland and San Marino."

Jones does regret not seeing Best play live and her son believes he was the world's greatest footballer. "Maradona was good, Pele better but George Best was the best," he says.

Almost a decade since Best's death, emotions are not as raw, that is "until you get into that theatre, which brings it all back – from that very first moment when you see this kid with a ball".

"It's got all the elements of great theatre – fantastic music, great acting, comedy and a tapestry of emotions. When the football died, George's soul died and the drink took over because he could never hit that high. The women had to be Miss World and he had to drink more than anyone else, but nothing could compare to walking into that theatre of dreams. George's life had the drama and the colour and this really gets into the story of that Belfast boy who became one of the best footballers in the world."

Audiences will see Best's life protrayed from his childhood days kicking a tennis ball against a gable wall on the Cregagh estate to a fame, fortune and eventual downfall due to his abusive relationship with alcohol – which killed him at 59.

The relationship Best, played by Aidan O'Neill, had with his mother Anne, and his amorous encounters with various Miss Worlds are explored, as is a poignant, yet humorous encounter with Northern Ireland's other wayward sporting genius, Alex Higgins.

"Alex was another big sporting hero was was destroyed but he ravages of alcohol because he couldn't cope with the world he was catapulted into. The two were friends and one of the most moving and funniest scenes takes place in hospital as Best lies on his death bed as they compare illness and have a dance together."

:: Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story runs at Belfast’s Grand Opera House from August 19 to 29.


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