Dancing Shoes - the George Best Story
Marie Jones and Martin Lynch, music and lyrics by JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
Review by David Chadderton
Sport isn't a common subject for musical theatre, but "the beautiful game" plays a significant role in this musical story of one of its greatest exponents, George Best, which this week is playing within sight of Manchester United's Old Trafford ground where he made his name.
With a script by Marie "Stones In His Pockets" Jones and Martin Lynch and a 60s- and 70s-influenced rock score by JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben, Dancing Shoes- the George Best Story tells the story of one of the greatest-ever footballers from being a kid kicking a ball against a neighbour's house on the streets of Belfast through his rise to fame on Matt Busby's Manchester United team, his retirement from the game at the age of 27, his famous off-the-pitch encounters with alcohol and girls and finally his death from the effects of excessive drinking. Best was the first football superstar who found he could earn much more fame and money outside football than doing what had brought him into the spotlight in the first place, a path that many others have followed since.
Unfortunately this isn't anything like as charming, witty, intelligent or entertaining as the man himself. The script is serviceable to move the story along with some entertaining scenes but skips lightly past anything that would produce conflict. Best was a man from a working class background with a great talent but who was unable to resist the lure of fame, glamour and money, which we see, but the consequences were a string of failed relationships and a descent into alcoholism which eventually killed him at 59, which we are told about but is glossed over.
There are hints from time to time of a greater story, such as when Best looks in horror at his mother's drunken behaviour and then takes a bottle of whisky out of his pocket, but this is left hanging and even made a joke of. The songs are pleasant but forgettable with very simplistic lyrics whose rhymes you can see coming a mile off, except for the rhymes that don't actually rhyme.
Aiden O'Neill is charming and charismatic as Best, and it is largely his performance that holds together the weak material. Paddy Jenkins gives a strong and moving performance as Best's shipyard worker father Dickie, as does Maria Connolly in the smaller role of his mother Anne. There are some other decent performances from others in the nine-strong cast, such as Conor Grimes as former goalkeeper and hero of the Munich plane crash Harry Gregg and Alana Kerr as Best's girlfriends actress Sinead Cusack and Miss World. However most of the characters are rather underwritten and many are comic caricatures, although some of these are made more significant by great performances such as Maria Connolly as Cher and Paddy Jenkins as snooker player Alex Higgins who makes a surprise appearance at the end in perhaps the most entertaining scene in the show, even if it doesn't really fit with the rest of the script.
Frank Hallinan Flood's set is a mixture of house fronts and platforms which serve their purpose if not in a particularly striking or imaginative way, but the sets look unfinished as they seem to be covered with unpainted lining paper, starting to peel at the seams, and the heads of some of the screws holding the set together show through and glisten in the lights.
It has to be noted that the audience was on its feet applauding at the end of the opening performance at The Lowry. A significant proportion of the audience appeared to be football fans and former footballers rather than regular theatregoers, which is a very good thing, who were applauding a celebration of their hero. However it's hard not to think that both they and the great Georgie himself deserve a better tribute than this.