Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Miami Showband Story – a promising new piece of musical theatre stuffed full of popular tunes and great live performances (Grand Opera House until 17 August plus Irish tour)

Marie Jones and Martin Lynch’s new project – The Miami Showband Story – is an ambitious musical theatre production that takes audiences on a studious but winding journey from 1950’s skiffle bands to the emergence of better instrumented showbands (omitting the downsizing big bands), explaining about the exciting transfer market between popular groups, the tragedy that tore apart The Miami Showband when their minibus was attacked and three band members killed along with two of the perpetrators, and the impact that had on one of its surviving players.

It’s a lot to squeeze into a couple of hours of theatre, probably too much. After a great improvised skiffle version of Puttin’ on the Style, the story jumps forward to 1963 and we pick up the story of Fran O’Toole (Niall McNamee) in Bray and Des Lee (Gary Crossan) in Belfast. The first half bulges with excerpts from songs (including the hit From the Candy Store on the Corner) that warm up the vocal cords of many in the audience who can’t help themselves but join in. They cheer at mentions of The Orpheus Ballroom, shout “he’s my favourite” when Joe Dolan gets a mention, and the defection of big names from one band to another still garners tutting 50 years on.

What’s really impressive is the live music. Ever-changing subsets of the six young male actors play drums, keyboards, guitars and brass to recreate the 1960’s hits with a strong beat and good harmonies. The wonder of in-ear monitors and wireless mics keep the stage free of cables. A serious concert-level speaker stack means that the music and vocals can be heard clearly across the Grand Opera House.

Chris Mohan makes a great upright Dickie Rock with the stage presence needed for the lead singer of a band. Connor Burnside provides a lot of the heavy lifting on drums during songs, while Gavin Peden nimbly jumps between bass, electric and keyboards. Gary Crossan’s expressive saxophone together with Gareth O’Connor on guitar and Niall McNamee on keys and vocals (great falsetto) make them into a credible band who have clearly practised with musical director Garth McConaghie as rigorously as they have rehearsed their dialogue.

What’s less good is the differentiation between the musicians. The second half becomes the story of Des, but there’s little signposting before the interval that he is the one to watch. In retrospect it’s obvious that Des and Fran are the only two with family, but with most cast members playing a couple of different roles across the simplified history of showbands, the script and direction (Ruth Carney) tends to allow the lads to merge into a sea of coloured jackets.

There’s a bit of gear-crunching with some overly-abrupt and functional dialogue and a rather clunky first mention of the politics of the island (the civil rights march in Derry) which becomes important in later scenes. The show’s handbrake turn which switches from musical celebration to response to tragedy of 31 July 1975 (which killed Tony Geraghty, Brian McCoy and Fran O’Toole) and and the immediate grief is sensitively-handled, though an extraordinary and bizarre mashup of Zulu classic The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Paul Brady’s The Island probably works better on paper than on stage as it tries to capture Des Lee’s trauma, years after the loss of his bandmates.

The honesty of telling Des Lee’s story and battle with alcoholism is commendable and adds a real human touch to the story that for so long is about a collective rather than focussed on any individual. The writers wisely steer clear of piecing together the background to the UVF attack and the investigations, allegations and convictions.

The two female actors have the dance moves of the 60s and 70s down to a tee but don’t get much story or dialogue to work with. At times they are left providing backing vocals hidden off-stage, though Fiona Carty’s demonstrates her wonderfully warm voice with Have I the Right? early in the first act, and Aileen Mythen belts out a fabulous R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the final medley. Enda Kilroy completes the cast as the hard-to-trust Miami manager Tom Doherty and UDR patrolman.

The show’s repeated premise is that The Miami Showband “didn’t change the world with our music but we brought people together”. The efficacious recreation of the music and vibe means that The Miami Showband Story is the most musically-ambitious show on a Belfast stage since last summer’s storming Good Vibrations at the Lyric Theatre. As a piece of audience-pleasing nostalgia, the show is a great success; but the music ends up tighter than the dramatic aspects.

The Miami Showband Story runs at the Grand Opera House on Saturday 17 August and will then tour through Armagh, Derry, Killarney, Castlebar, Galway, Drogheda, Limerick, Waterford, Meath and finishing up with a week in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.


Unknown said...

I hace just read your article on the Miami Showband story,and I would very much like you to explain to me your comment on my father Tom Doherty,who you say was ,THE HARD TO TRUST MANAGER ..What are the reasons for that comment Did you know him?.As my father is no longer here to defend himself ,I will be only to happy to do so in his name.


Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Carmel - Comment based entirely on the characterisation in the play which I was reviewing - I've no idea if that's based on reality or entirely fictionalised for dramatic effect. I make no judgement on reality, just the two hours of theatre.

Unknown said...

Great show story well told the band were great.after they finish touring with this show.The band should go on tour playing the music of the 60s and 70s

Unknown said...

What a brilliant show from start to finish the cast were absolutely brilliant the music could have listen till all night one of the best shows I have seen x