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Being Alex

Richard Dormer, who played Alex Higgins on stage, on how the Hurricane took over his life — and left him with some unforgettable memories

In 2002, commissioned by Belfast's Ransom Productions theatre company, I wrote and performed a one man show that celebrated the life of Alex Higgins. The show was entitled Hurricane and was directed by Rachel O'Riordan.

It started out in the OMAC, a 100 seat theatre in Belfast and ended up at the Edinburgh Festival, on Broadway and the West End stage. It played 300 performances, received as many standing ovations and won a host of awards and five star reviews.

It has been described by theatre practitioners, audience members and critics alike as one of the best one-man shows in theatre history. Well, if that's true, it's all thanks to Alex Higgins.

Alex ‘Hurricane' Higgins was and always will be The People's Champion. He was one of the true geniuses of sport. A true legend. On and off the snooker table he was one of the most colourful and charismatic characters that Ireland has ever produced.

I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing and feel honoured and privileged to have known him. Portraying him was without a doubt the most physically exhausting and emotionally draining experience of my professional life. It was also one of the most rewarding.

As an actor you crave good parts, a complex character you can get your teeth into and role that can seriously flex your acting muscles. Alex Higgins is such a character.

I got so under the skin of the man that I felt I was looking out at the world through his eyes. I developed a restless energy, little nervous tics, the weight dropped off me, I couldn't eat properly, I developed insomnia, I became quick to anger and intolerant of ignorance and rudeness in people, my moods fluctuated constantly, I started thinking at a lightening speed, seeing hidden slights in conversations and paranoid at every meeting that someone was trying to exploit my talent. I started to think I was turning into Alex.

It was exhausting, so much so that I was unable to perform the play in the dozens of British Council world venues that wanted to put it on. I was simply exhausted.

I said so to Alex. He just looked at me with those big blue eyes and said: “How do you think I feel? I've been playing me since before you were born.”

Playing Alex on stage was a rollercoaster ride, an adrenaline storm of joy and rage. One night during a performance at the Soho theatre in London, I had to bodily remove a drunken heckler from the audience.

The guy was ruining it for the rest of the audience so I jumped off the stage grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and lifted him up the stairs of the auditorium and threw him into the foyer.

I got back on stage and continued the show where I left off and the audience rose to their feet in appreciation and applauded.

One of them was Sir Peter Hall, the godfather of theatre. He wrote me a lovely letter saying that my portrayal of Alex was the best performance he had ever seen. All thanks, I hasten to add, to the genius and exuberance of the man I was portraying.

I phoned Alex the next day to tell him about ejecting the heckler from the show. He laughed and said: “You really are turning into me!”

I have so many memories of my time spent with Alex. All of them colourful.

Two instances that stand out, that I recall most vividly happened in London and at home here in Belfast. The first was after a performance of Hurricane at the Arts theatre in the West End.

Alex had finished signing autographs and was in a vibrant mood. He'd just met Val Kilmer, Hugh Grant and John Hurt who had been to see the show and to his delight The Times had just published an article naming him as the sexiest sporting hero of all time. “Still got it.” He beamed and did a little pirouette.

He was in the mood to celebrate and wanted me to go to a club with him for a drink, but he wanted to do it in his own inimitable style.

Outside the theatre, with a dramatic flourish, he hailed a rickshaw, one of those bicycle contraptions with a hooded carriage attached and we both piled in.

So there we were peddling through Soho in Leicester Square in the back of a rickshaw, the rain teeming down, cars beeping at Alex and people cheering him as he passed. It was surreal.

I remember looking at Alex and he said with a mischievous grin: “Well, this is alright.” It was an understatement.

This was amazing. And we both knew it. We sang Frank Sinatra's New York, New York all the way to the club.

Alex was a gem. Mischievous, charming, unpredictable, disarming. There was never a dull moment when he was around.

One other memory I have of him is in Belfast in 2005. We were having a pint in the Empire Music Hall and Alex insisted I come and see the hall upstairs as he thought it might be an ideal space to do the play.

So up we went led by a barman. The place was empty apart from a band warming up on stage. There was a huge glitterball hanging from the ceiling and it cast thousands of little spinning points of light.

Then the band began playing Come Up and See Me by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel.

All of a sudden Alex swept into the middle of the dance floor and began to dance beneath the glitter ball, a balletic kind of waltz.

Recovering from laughter I joined him and the two of us waltzed along to the song, Alex leading. God knows what the band up onstage made of this spectacle.

But that was Alex. He lived moment to moment and would give his soul to whatever particular emotion he happened to be feeling. His life was a kind of free style dance, a free spirited one man show.

And that's how I'll remember him, beneath a glitterball dancing alone, in his element, lost in the moment.

Higgins smiled. Only one more ball stood between me and a shock upset

Ivan Little on the day he thought he was about to blow out the Hurricane

It’s the story which has taken me over 30 years to write — the story of how I came face to face over the green baize with Alex Higgins — and almost beat him.

The reason it never saw the light of day back then was that it didn’t fit the bill of what my newspaper bosses had ordered.

What they wanted was an article about the Hurricane blowing me away in a challenge game in a new pool hall which was opening in Belfast’s North Street.

My story was to write itself. I would throw down the gauntlet to the 1972 world snooker champion and he would wipe me off the table.

All I had to do was to make sure the article matched a headline like ‘The day awesome Alex Higgins snookered me at pool.’

Mind you, I resolved that I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I had played the odd — the very odd — game of snooker before.

But I’d dived into the new pool craze with the conviction that the bigger balls on the smaller table were tailor-made for me.

My extra-long arms definitely gave me an advantage but I was still certain that Higgins would make short work of belittling me.

And even though I was star-struck, there were no nerves that afternoon because I was sure I had no hope and that I would be an innocent bystander who wouldn’t get a single visit to the table.

But Higgins played safe with his opener — or so he thought.

He nudged his white into the pack of striped and solid balls but one of them broke free and to my astonishment I realised I had a chance to despatch it into the top corner.

I quickly rewrote the article in my head to add a line about how I had, at least, avoided a pot black whitewash.

Truer to form, I made a complete balls-up of my second shot and the 30 or 40 spectators roared as Alex wound himself up like a gladiator to finish the game.

But maybe Higgy was playing to the crowd just a little bit too much and he smashed his next shot into the rest of the striped and solid balls in anticipation of one of them disappearing into a pocket.

The Hurricane’s whirlwind shot looked spectacular but all the balls stayed on the table. And I felt a rush like Moses must have felt as he parted the Red Sea when I realised the position of Alex’s striped balls had opened up a path to glory in front of me.

My solids just had to go down, I reckoned.

I can’t remember the precise order of our pots but I know that eventually only the black stood between me and a shock upset which I now craved even though that wasn’t supposed to be in my script.

Alex smiled a smile of indifference as I walked round the table to rattle home the black.

I think he said good luck but in the same breath he told a bystander that my shot wasn’t as simple as it looked.

Suddenly, the self-doubt kicked in. My hands which had been dry began to perspire and my throat which had been lubricated with lager started to go dry as I realised I was on the verge of victory.

I told myself I couldn’t miss. But in the midst of the maestro’s mind games, I lost my composure and the black stubbornly refused to fall into my nominated pocket.

Higgins consoled me. But his sympathy didn’t last long. Like a flash, he proceeded to sink everything before him — including the black.

I didn’t know which was more galling — my defeat or my failure to get the story of my Hurricane devastation.

But later a second chance of a thrashing presented itself to me.

That night Higgins was playing all-comers at pool, in an open session at Balmoral.

I queued up to take my cue. But as I readied myself for round two against Higgins, he walked over and told me to go away. Or words to that effect.

I never found out why he didn’t give me a rematch.

And several years later in the penthouse in the Europa Higgins again told me where to go when I asked him for a quick chat.

But in 2003 he gave me his first TV interview in years, just before actor Richard Dormer’s superlative portrayal of him in his one-man play in Belfast.

Higgins was charm itself that night. But it wasn’t long before he unmasked his nastier alter ego in a row over something and nothing.

But that was the epitome of and now sadly an epitaph for Alex Higgins — an easy man to like; an even easier man to loathe.

The greatest underdogs in sport

? Eddie ‘The Eagle' Edwards Although Eddie became famous by coming last in the 1988 Winter Olympic ski jumping, people forget how it all came about. Eddie was the British ski jumping record holder as well as being ranked ninth in the world in speed skating. Largely self-funded, he used second-hand equipment.

?James J Braddock (AKA Cinderella Man) Braddock's boxing record suffered damage after several fractures to his right hand forced him to work as a longshoreman in 1930s America. In 1934 he was given odds of 10:1 and caused one of the biggest sporting upsets ever when he beat World Heavyweight champ Max Baer.

? Mohammed Ali He was expected to lose against both Sonny Liston in 1964 and George Foreman in 1974 as they were both undefeated World Heavyweight Champions. The Rumble In The Jungle fight against Foreman was immortalised in the 2001 film Ali.

?James 'Buster' Douglas Douglas faced odds of 42:1 when he came up against the titan Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1992 and stunned the world when he handed the previously undefeated Tyson his first ever professional defeat.

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