‘It’s good to dream’ – True love, socialism and screen tests in coming-of-age true story from Tony Macaulay

Get nostalgic for the 1980s as the Belfast author’s memoir All Growed Up, billed as ‘what Breadboy did at university’, hits the stage

Tony Macaulay speaks to The Irish News.
Tony Macaulay speaks to The Irish News about the stage adaptation of his third memoir All Growed UP PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

“BELIEVE it or not, I looked a bit like Paul Young back in the day,” laughs Tony Macaulay, as we chat at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, the venue for The British Youth Music Theatre (BYMT) stage production of his coming-of-age memoir this summer.

Touching, funny and nostalgic, All Growed Up is the story of 17-year-old Macaulay leaving west Belfast for life as a student at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, described in his novel as a “cement skyscraper in a big field beside a lovely river”.

“It’s set in Portstewart, Coleraine, a bit of Belfast, Bellaghy and Derry. Has there ever been a musical that has featured all those places?,” he laughs.

Getting ready for All Growed Up at Belfast's Lyric Theatre are Tony Macaulay and Shauna Carrick, composer and
musical director
Getting ready for All Growed Up at Belfast's Lyric Theatre are Tony Macaulay and Shauna Carrick, composer and musical director

Bringing the production to life this summer with a cast of young people from all over Ireland and the UK are creative team Dean Johnson (writer/director), Shauna Carrick (composer), Gyasi Sheppy (choreographer) and Adam Darcy (musical director).

“It is such a privilege to be part of this amazing journey. We had an introduction to the cast a couple of weeks ago on Zoom. The director, Dean, invited me to come along and introduced me by saying: ‘This is Tony - Eva Perón only had one musical written about her, Tony’s had three’.

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“It’s surreal. I’ve never got used to it,” adds the 61-year-old, whose wife Lesley - whom he met and got engaged to at university - will also feature in the musical.

“Lesley’s heard the songs and seen the script and is getting to understand how strange it is to see yourself portrayed on stage in that way.

“I keep joking, they need to have a bigger budget for costumes this year, because Lesley was always into her style, even back at university.

“And the funny thing is, Hope Macaulay does legwarmers,” he says, referring to his fashion designer daughter, whose handmade knitwear has taken the fashion world by storm.

 Hope Macaulay modelling her in-demand knitwear
Hope Macaulay modelling her in-demand knitwear

Whilst there is a little creative licence and fictional writing contained within the script, some of it is the couple’s actual words. Macaulay admits there are “a few cringe moments” where he will be watching through one eye.

“There’s one bit in the book where I recall trying to become an intellectual, when in fact my reading was limited to the Doctor Who annual.

“When somebody said, ‘Anna Karenina is superb’, trying to impress them I said, ‘Yes, she was always one of my favourites’,” recalls Macaulay about his ignorance of literature in 1985 and the work of Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Whilst handing creative responsibility over to BYMT, Macaulay often pops into rehearsals and is called upon to give some personal and historical context to scenes.

Tony Macaulay speaks to The Irish News.
Tony Macaulay speaks to The Irish News. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

“They might ask me things like how you danced in those days, or more conceptual details about the Troubles,” he explains.

A highlight of their rehearsal process is the day off to go on ‘Tony’s coach tour’.

“For [previous memoir adaptations] Paperboy and Breadboy, we went up the Shankill and down the Falls. This year we’re going to the Giants Causeway, Morelli’s in Portstewart for an ice cream and then onto Coleraine university and the Riverside Theatre, where I performed very badly in Hamlet in 1983.”

Another embarrassing and hilarious tale contained within the musical recalls how Macaulay managed to get his father’s new Simca car stuck in the sand on Portstewart Strand.

“I had to run to the old Strand Hotel, where a receptionist phoned a local farmer to pull me with his tractor,” laughs Macaulay, whose family has lived in Portstewart for over 20 years now.

Macaulay, who used to host his own Downtown Radio show and is regular contributor to BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought for the Day, studied media at Coleraine – the exact same course his second daughter Beth studied 30 years later.

However, it is conflict reconciliation – at home and abroad – where Macaulay has dedicated much of his life to.

While in the past he has acknowledged that growing up in west Belfast at the height of the Troubles shaped his life, he adds that university “challenged all my certainties” and promoted his “acceptance of difference”, thus preparing him for a career as a peace builder.

“There a chapter in Paperboy called Goodies And Baddies, where as a 12-year-old boy from the Shankill Road, I talk about all the goodies and the baddies in the world, with complete certainty.

“Deliberately, there’s a parallel chapter in All Growed Up where I discover all of the goodies were really baddies.

“I discovered that Ulster Protestants were the same as white South Africans and I discovered that there’s more to politics than orange and green.

“They’ve done a brilliant song in the musical about this called Left is Right and Right is Wrong,” enthuses Macaulay.

As well as original music, there are snippets of hits from the era, including those by Human League, Pet Shop Boys and Paul Young – all musicians still on Macaulay’s playlist.

Pressed to choose the soundtrack of his life, Macaulay picks the 1984 Limahl hit Never Ending Story, which featured on the soundtrack for Stranger Things Season 3.

“I really only started writing in my 40s. I wrote my own story, I’ve started writing other stories. But now I’m also helping other people tell their stories,” says Macaulay, whose other books include Little House on the Peace Line and Belfast.

“I always knew that using the arts was a very powerful tool, but not just how powerful until my books were published.

The impact of me telling my own story has probably gone beyond all the peace building work I’ve done on the ground. It’s remarkable and demonstrates how powerful storytelling is.

“I was just an ordinary paperboy from Belfast growing up during a period of conflict. It’s convinced me there’s power in telling your story and especially untold stories,” adds Macaulay, who co-authored the book Kill the Devil: A Love Story from Rwanda.

Tony Macaulay and Juvens Nsabimana
Tony Macaulay and Juvens Nsabimana co-authors of Kill the Devil: A Love Story from Rwanda

“The stories around reconciliation in Rwanda are just remarkable. I’m involved in an NGO there that runs reconciliation workshops there and we are trying to establish the Ubwungo Peace and Reconciliation Center to collect these stories for future generations.”

He also met recently with a young refugee from Yemen, who contacted him on Linkedln about getting help writing his story.

“He’s an amazing story to tell, and he’s living on the Ballygomartin Road where I did my paper round.”

I discovered that there’s more to politics than orange and green.

—  Tony Macaulay

Macaulay is also collaborating with a Nigerian writer about an idea for theatre about Nigerians who have come to live in Northern Ireland, and he’s started his next fiction novel.

“It’s a time travel adventure set in Belfast. It goes from 3000 BC to about the year 2000. I’m writing in the style of Paperboy, so I’m calling it like a science fiction fantasy memoir.”

Whilst his future book may offer a warning from the past, what does he hope audiences take away from the production of All Growed Up?

“I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer and university was the first time where the dreams get challenged. At times life can knock us, but I think it’s important to hold onto our dreams, both in our own lives but also our dreams for our country. It’s good to dream.”

All Growed Up runs at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre from August 2 – 4. Tickets and showtimes via lyrictheatre.co.uk. A screening of the production will be show at Coleraine’s Riverside Theatre on August 23, see riversidetheatre.org.uk for details.