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A gentle sprint through George Best’s life


Aidan O'Neill in Dancing Shoes

Aidan O'Neill in Dancing Shoes

Aidan O'Neill in Dancing Shoes

“I haven’t had enough of anything in life” says the young George Best, champagne bottle in hand.

Dead at 59, the bottle empty, those words could stand as a testimony to the man with the world at his feet, who kicked his talent into touch far too soon in his rush to seek out other, easier pleasures.

But writers Martin Lynch and Marie Jones turn away from any serious exploration of the flaws in Best’s make-up in this warm-hearted sprint through George’s life.

The story is woven around the terrific, sixties-style songs from JJ Gilmour and Pat Gribben, and begins in the side streets of Cregagh, where the young George spends hours kicking a ball against a gable wall — his personal field of dreams.

This imaginary Belfast of the past is filled with signposts of nostalgia — guiders, TV sets with fuzzy pictures, Ulster fries — a safe haven to which the young Best longed to return during his first, wobbly steps as a professional footballer.

Every iconic image from George’s life is represented: Best in his number seven shirt; holding up the European Cup; that champagne fountain; Eamonn Andrews with his big red book on This Is Your Life; the ‘where did it all go wrong, Mr Best?’ moment. Aidan O’Neill puts in a strong performance as Best, capturing the vulnerability and later the charm of gorgeous George, while Marty Maguire, as scout Bob Bishop and manager Matt Busby, provides the production’s foundation.

But best of all is Paddy Jenkins, both as George’s mild, decent dad Dicky, and as the rasping, cavalier Alex Higgins, who comes to visit a dying Best in hospital.

It’s a poignant scene, rich with dark humour, which segues into an uneasy celebration of the pair’s genius in the song We Had A Ball.

Director Peter Sheridan whisks the audience through George’s best and worst bits, with the emphasis firmly on the former.

Dark corners of the story remain unlit, and some bits — George’s marriage to Alex, for example — are airbrushed off the stage altogether.

A spartan set is underused by the cast, and the story, like Best’s playing career, takes a sharp dip when the action moves to LA.

But never mind. This is a night for celebration — to see that small, dark figure with a football once again, and to remember with affection the magic of the Belfast boy with the dancing feet who charmed his way into countless hearts before breaking them.

The final image of Best in his Northern Ireland strip elicits loud cheers from an audience who remember their hero with pride rather than prejudice.

Grania McFadden

Video: Gala night at Opera House for George Best Foundation

Belfast Telegraph