Bohemian Bap City: What if Freddie Mercury grew up in Belfast?
The performers in Bohemian Bap City are members of the Action Ability drama group. Ahead of the show at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, this Tuesday, two of the stars tell Leona O'Neill why they have relished getting the chance to perform on stage
The image of musical icon Freddie Mercury belting out We Are The Champions on stage is seared into most of our memories - and now a group of disabled actors is set to bring that mantra to life with the staging of a quirky and vibrant musical on the Queen star's life ... with a Belfast twist.
Bohemian Bap City has a cast made up of members of the Action Ability drama group and the UK's leading Queen tribute band Flash Harry starring in a satirical comedy which explores Freddie Mercury's journey to rock stardom, while growing up on the streets of our very own Belfast.
And although the official tribute band will sing 'We Are The Champions', there is no doubt who the real champions of this show will be.
Action Ability promotes the social inclusion of people with a disability into the social, economic and cultural life of their community.
Group member Sean Brown (25), from the Whiterock area of Belfast, who lives with a learning disability, plays the lead role in Bohemian Bap City. He says it has been an honour to be cast as Freddie Mercury.
"It makes proud that Joe from the Action Ability drama group believed in me enough to put me forward for this role," he says. "I've been involved in the group for over 10 years and this is a big deal for me.
"All of the cast are brilliant. I don't see disability, I just see inspiring people. I don't see the disabilities because they all just crack on despite their challenges. And we've all become really good friends, we are all so close. My girlfriend's in the play too."
Sean (25), who has autism, and sings a rousing rendition of Crazy Little Thing Called Love in the show, has been singing from a young age.
"I would have sung at school," he says. "I was in the school choir. I wouldn't be a huge Freddie Mercury fan, although I do love some of his songs. I'm more of an Elvis man. I've got an Elvis costume. My sister got it in Las Vegas for me. I put it on whenever there's a need for it, like at Halloween or in competitions or when I need to do an impersonation of him. So I'm no stranger to taking on the role of a big, iconic music star."
Nor does he think his autism has stopped him from achieving his ambitions. "I don't think autism has held me back in any way," he says. "I just worked through it, I still work through it. It hasn't stopped me from doing anything, I just push on through it and don't let it hold me back."
Unsurprisingly, Sean says that his family will be looking on proudly from the front row, although one person will be sadly missing.
"My dad passed away 23 years ago, when I was two," he says. "He had a heart attack. I hope he's looking down on me and being proud. My mum is chuffed to bits about me being in the show. There will be a whole group of my family going. They will be sitting up the front watching me perform, cheering away. I can't wait."
Sean is unsure what direction he'll go in after he gets his first taste of stardom, though he would love to continue performing either on stage or TV. "I'm not sure what I'll do next," he says. "I would definitely do TV next, if I was asked. I'm an easy going kind of guy. Nothing really fazes me. So we'll see what happens."
Fellow cast member Caragh O'Neill (28) lives with spina bifida and hydrocephalus - a condition which sees an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain. The Lisburn woman has been a wheelchair user all her life. She says being a part of such a huge production means 'everything' to her.
"The show is about Freddie Mercury growing up in Belfast," she says. "He has to deal with trying to get famous in the city, trying to get a band together, dealing with a lot of things and meeting with a lot of people.
"I play Freddie's friend Caragh Bunga and my character has to tell Freddie that he is to get a full band together and to go and live his dream.
"It means everything to be taking part in the show. I found Action Ability through the Cedar Foundation, last September. I thought I'd give it a shot and see if I liked it. And I have loved it. It's great fun and I've met loads of friends and I have really enjoyed learning about the play. It's a brilliant project to be involved in. Just to be part of it is amazing. And I found love on the stage too. I have been going out with my boyfriend for two months now.
"I am chuffed with myself for taking part in this show. Being able to do something like this and being able to get on with things makes me really, really proud. It shows that nothing can stop me.
"In the show I tell Freddie's character that nothing should stop him living his dream. That would be my motto in life also, just get on with things and don't let anyone or anything stand in your way." Caragh says that life as a wheelchair user has not been easy, but that she is thankful that she has never faced any discrimination because of her condition.
"The biggest challenges I've faced in life as a wheelchair user have been getting in and out of buildings," she said. "No-one has ever said to me that I couldn't do anything because I was in a wheelchair, or thought I couldn't do anything because of the chair. I have never faced any discrimination like that, thankfully."
And while life as a wheelchair user isn't always easy, Caragh (below) evidently has let nothing hold her back and leads a busy life. As well as rehearsing for Bohemian Bap City, she is a proud staff member of Sainbury's supermarket in Lisburn.
"I have been a wheelchair user from birth," she says. "It has given me a lot of challenges over the years. I had to deal with a lot of things.
"I have always had my great family and friends to help if, for example, I have trouble getting in and out of shops, or with transport and things like that. In my teenage years I suppose some things were difficult, going out with friends and maybe they wanted to do something and I couldn't do it. But overall there have not been that many challenges really. I have had a great life. Nothing holds me back.
"I always wanted to get a proper job, and that is what I did. So I am really, really happy about that. I started working last November as a Christmas temp and after the New Year they asked me if I would stay on. I do two days a week on the tills.
"I love it. Sainsbury's are fantastic. When I got the job they got a ramp put in for me before I started.
"People think that whenever you're in a wheelchair life and things will be more difficult. But I like to push against that.
"I let them see that I can do whatever I want. I want to show everyone that people in wheelchairs can get really good jobs and I've got one."
And the stage star has this advice for other disabled people hoping to pursue their dreams.
"I would say to others who are on the same journey as myself, to keep trying," she says. "Fight on and you will get what you want. Try your best and keep on going. There will be difficult challenges on the road, but try your best to get through them.
"Push for what you want and your dreams will come true."
Happily, the cast of Bohemian Bap City have no stage fright issues and are really looking forward to belting out the Queen classics this Tuesday.
Caragh says: "I wouldn't have been a massive fan of Queen before I started working on the play, but during rehearsals I've heard their music played so many times and have come to really like it. They are great tunes!
"Now I'm really looking forward to the show. We have all worked really hard in rehearsals and everything is going well. We are all really confident, we are just going to get up there and belt it out as best we can."
Bohemian Bap City is at Belfast's Grand Opera House on Tuesday, June 26. For more information log on to www.goh.co.uk