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Anne Hailes: The McCooeys are back in town - and on the Grand Opera House stage

The endlessly versatile Christina Nelson stars in The McCooeys as Aunt Sarah

I don't take salt on my food, haven't done so since I was about 11. Why? Because Derek the window cleaner said it hardens your arteries. I didn't understand what he was going on about but I knew if he was a friend of the McCooeys it must be right.

If you're a young thing you might not know what I'm talking about; if you are more mature you'll recall Saturday nights on the BBC Home Service. Families would gather round the wireless at teatime waiting for Havelock Nelson's arrangement of My Aunt Jane and another story of the McCooeys, thanks to the pen of Joseph Tomelty; an ordinary working class family, maybe Catholic maybe Protestant; there was no reference to religion or politics but there was a lot of everyday life there - paying bills, saving for repairs, romances and occasionally a bit of scandal.

Those were the days when doors were left open, neighbours came and went at will, but dear help them if they arrived during the McCooeys. Apparently even in the highest house in the land at that time, Lord Brookeborough's staff petitioned him to delay dinner long enough for them to tune into the 20 minute 'soap opera'.

This Belfast family have been brought back to life a couple of times thanks to Roma Tomelty and since her death in April 2020 her husband Colin Carnegie and her daughter Hannah have established this legendary radio programme as part of modern day theatre without loosing any of the original ethos or the lovable characters.

The Family Come To Town

Rehearsals begin next week and the family will be back again in the Studio at the Grand Opera House from Wednesday February 16 until Saturday February 26 with episodes unheard since they were first aired on the Home Service between 1949 and 1955. Now there is an opportunity of making new friends and catching up with old faithfuls.

Aunt Sarah will be played by Christina Nelson, a role she has played before and now feels very much at home as the spinster with a big heart.

"Yes, she's the heart of the family. She can mix the pot, she has a great sense of humour, no nonsense and although mature she loves the young ones and they come to her for advice, she's firm but fair and full of fun."

When Sarah was originally played by Min Milligan, she even got a proposal through the post addressed to 'Aunt Sarah, Broadcasting House, Belfast'.

People wrote in when the family were doing up the front room advising them to get an estimate before making up their minds and telling them the best place in Belfast to buy wallpaper. Hollywood heart-throb Stephen Boyd played the part of a policeman and got one foot on the ladder of success and the author himself played the local grocer Bobbie Greer.

Sarah is much like Christina herself - people gravitate to her and audiences love her. Although in her early 50s and mother to four children, this most versatile of actresses hasn't stopped working since she first set foot on stage at the age of 10 in the Lyric production of Oliver.

Since then she has gone from the chorus line to leading lady, she has played a nun, a ghost, a garden gnome, a cabbage, a risqué dancer in Cabaret's Kit Kat Club, Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Man, woman or child, Christina will find joy in every part.

With this latest reincarnation of the McCooey family there is drama as well as fun; they are burgled, comedy when Henrietta Toosel (Mary Moulds) makes her first appearance, and then there's Granda's (Dan Gordon) lost raffle ticket.

In a top flight Centre Stage Theatre Company cast, Carol Moore plays Maggie, Joseph Tomelty's granddaughter Hannah Carnegie is Sally, Patrick McBrearty is Bobby Greer and Colin Carnegie is the plummy BBC radio announcer with Michael Quinn directing.

Gone But Not Forgotten

"We were overwhelmed by the support we received when we revived The McCooeys online for audiences during lockdown," Hannah said.

"It really struck a chord with such a wide range of ages that it encouraged us to bring it back for a live stage production."

Christina, who has much experience in street theatre and bringing the stage to car parks outside nursing homes over the last two years, loves Tomelty's writing, the Ulsterisms and the catchphrases.

It reminds me of that saying which might well have come from Tomelty's pen: "Says she to me, 'Is thon you?' Says I, 'Who?', says she, 'You', says me, 'Naugh.'"

Or maybe the two women about to cross the road at the front of the City Hall. A cat runs out in from of them and dashes through the traffic to the other side. Says one to the other: "If that cat was our dog it would be a done duck."

More details at www.goh.co.uk

Out With A Bang

Watching Casualty last week, Dr Dom's mother's ashes were fed into a firework and shot into the sky in a fantastic display of colour and sparkle. What a brilliant idea - that's for me.

The company is Heavenly Stars. There are a variety of options which are described on the web page heavenlystarsfireworks.com and the cost quoted varies from £250 upwards.

"Our compassionate and caring staff will help you with arranging all aspects of your special firework tribute and can liaise with yourself, family member, the funeral directors over the carriage of your loved one's ashes, the incorporating process and return of your ashes firework or the set up of your memorial fireworks display." A novel send off with a smile...

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