REVIEW: The Miami Showband Story at the Grand Opera House, Belfast

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“It was so sad but they left us happy in the end, like they always did.”

That was the snippet of conversation I overheard as the audience poured out of Belfast’s Grand Opera House on Saturday night after seeing ‘The Miami Showband Story’ - and it sums up the show better than this reviewer ever could.

Having grown up in a household with parents who both loved the music of the phenomenon that was the Irish showband scene, I was pretty well versed in the songs of Dickie Rock and his counterparts - despite the generation gap.

And, of course, I knew about the the shocking murders of the Miami Showband members in 1975 so my initial reaction to hearing that a show had been written about the band was: “How do you tackle such a sensitive subject in the course of an evening’s entertainment without being crass or hurtful?”

The answer is - you let Marie Jones and Martin Lynch write the piece. After all neither of them has ever been afraid of tackling the subject of Northern Ireland’s bitter past head on e.g. A Night in November, The History of the Troubles (according to my Da).

The Miami Showband Story is a celebration of the joy of the heady days of the showband’s success. The Miami were so popular the length and breadth of Ireland that they became known as the Irish Beatles and it seemed as if many of their real-life adoring fans were in the Opera House on Saturday night.

The atmosphere was more like that of a reunion gig than a play and the actors are to be commended for their concentration during some pieces where the audience seemed intent on singing ALL the verses of ALL the songs!

The first act tells the story of how the band came together from various arts and parts - giving us snapshots of home life for the band members with some fantastic minor characters like Bap and Squeak; the skiffle bands playing on tea chests and make-shift double basses; the worried mothers who were concerned that their sons didn’t have “real jobs”; the adoration heaped upon (and enjoyed by) Dickie Rock and the fan girl who brought the house down when she delivered the famous line “Spit on me, Dickie!” (Dickie Rock fans will get it).

The musicianship and showmanship of the actors really brought the songs alive and their audience needed no encouragement in singing along to hits like “The Candystore on the Corner”, “Simple Simon Says” and “Clap Your Hands”.

Act One took us up to 1974 by which time the band had reorganised following the departure of Rock and the hugely popular Fran O’Toole had stepped up to the mike as lead singer.

Given the exuberance of the Saturday night Belfast audience in Act One, I was concerned at how the second act, which would inevitably take us to 1975 and the horrific roadside massacre of three of the band members, would be received.

There was no need for concern.

Once the line “I will see you when you get back from Banbridge” was delivered, there was total silence.

The actual scene at the roadside - when Des Lee, Brian McCoy, Tony Geraghty, Fran O’Toole, Stephen Travers and Ray Millar were stopped at a check point by gunmen dressed in British army uniforms - was handled incredibly sensitively but did not shy away from portraying the horror of what unfolded.

Brian McCoy, Fran O’Toole and Tony Geraghty were murdered that night.

The play also tells the story of survivor Des Lee’s struggle to return to the stage and perform after the ‘Miami massacre’ and his subsequent battle with alcohol.

Gary Crossan’s portrayal of the once wise-cracking Lee unravelling as he tried to cope with the shocking events of 1975 was, for me, the stand out performance of the show. Other favourites for me were Niall McNamee as the talented and adored Fran O’Toole and Chris Mohan as the swaggering Dickie Rock.

The Miami Showband Story recreates the true, unifying spirit of the showbands of the 60s in this troubled part of the world and while “we didn’t change the world with our music” says the Fran O’Toole character, “we brought people together”.

The Miami Showband Story plays at the Grand Opera House in Belfast util August 17, visit www.goh.co.uk for booking details.