Saturday, February 19, 2022

The McCooeys – recreation of Joseph Tomelty’s popular radio serial from a simpler time (Grand Opera House until Saturday 26 February)

I’m old enough to remember much more senior relatives raving about The McCooeys, a must-hear weekly radio sitcom written by Joseph Tomelty that was first broadcast in May 1949 on the BBC Home Service. The comings and goings in the working-class Belfast home of Granda, Maggie, Sally, Willie and Aunt Sarah entertained hundreds of thousands of listeners over six years, becoming the biggest show in the country.

Centre Stage Theatre Company (cofounded by Tomelty’s daughter Roma and son-in-law Colin Carnegie) revived four of the episodes during lockdown, performing them in a live stream for care home residents. Now their production of The McCooeys is being restaged in the Grand Opera House’s Studio Theatre (ye olde ‘Baby Grand’).

Standing behind old-style microphones fashioned out of polystyrene, the cast re-enact the process of recording episodes of the radio play. Stage manager Dean McHugh doubles as the on-stage foley artist, lighting matches, stirring teacups, climbing up and down stairs, and opening and closing the drama studio’s tiny sound effect wooden door.

Dressed to the nines, Carol Moore’s stern Maggie McCooey chats to Christina Moore’s Aunt Sarah, while Mary Moulds pops in to defend the honour of Henrietta ‘Henny’ Toosel’s light-fingered husband. Hannah Carnegie (Tomelty’s granddaughter) plays Sally, the youngest of the McCooey clan. White-bearded Dan Gordon plays old Granda McCooey while Colin Carnegie pops up as Bobby Greer and Derek the window cleaner. On press night, Mark Claney was resplendent in his tuxedo and bow tie, playing the BBC announcer.

The older members of the audience love the nostalgia as the cast bring the studio set to life and deliver the lines from their printed scripts. (The fluorescent highlighting of lines is a bit of an anachronism!) As you’d expect from a recorded read through, the actors wave their arms about as they deliver the lines, shifting between microphones as scenes develop, all the while synchronising their words with the foley artist’s sound effects.

Nelson and Gordon inject most energy into their performances, while Moulds gives Henny a likeable aura that compensates for her husband’s actions.

Director Michael Quinn conjures up an admirable recreation of the original recordings, albeit without any mistakes or directions to run a section again with more gusto. Perhaps reel to reel tape hadn’t reached Belfast and they were still recording single takes onto vinyl?

What stands out is how much the pace and ambition of drama has changed. While there’s some good wordplay, and the dialogue is riddled with great Ulster Scots words and phrases, Tomelty’s much-loved scripts are wordy and the plot is terribly mundane. The characterisation is simplistic: “You’re a comedian” retorts Henrietta again and again and again in every scene across multiple episodes. It’s remarkable conservative, perhaps reflecting the BBC of the time.

Aside from the sound effects and Christina Nelson’s fine wig, if you sat back, closed your eyes and listened, you’d miss remarkably little of the action.

I can’t help wondering if there’s an even better version of this production hiding in the wings that could have introduced an extra layer of drama on top of the original episodes.

There’s room for petty rivalries and off-mic squabbles between the radio actors; disparaging looks at their rivals’ fashion sense; gesticulations of animosity and frustration – we get just one funny ad lib from Dan Gordon when a special effect genuinely misfires – and many more raised eyebrows as the cast needle each other, nearly miss their marks, yet pull of perfect performances for the recording despite everything going on behind the scenes.

It wouldn’t need to achieve the level of farce in The Goes Wrong Show, but something extra sprinkled on top of the 70 year old lines would inject some life into what otherwise becomes a well-polished museum piece. 

The McCooeys is being performed nightly in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 26 February.

Photo credit: Brian Thompson 

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