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Hugo Duncan: Multi-talented Michael English dares to dream as he turns his hand to writing musical drama

Firm favourite: Michael English loves playing Ulster venues
Firm favourite: Michael English loves playing Ulster venues
Cliona Hagan

By Hugo Duncan

In more recent times, the versatility of some of Ireland's leading country singers has become much more pronounced. From the time The Three Amigos first took to the road some years ago, we have been treated to the humour and slapstick of Jimmy Buckley, Robert Mizzell and Patrick Feeney as they brought a new element to their concerts, which certainly found favour with audiences.

In much the same way, Derek Ryan's renowned ability as a songwriter has seen him pen some particularly successful numbers that have highlighted his creativity and flair.

Additionally, earlier this year, Cliona Hagan added another string to her bow by reaching the final of RTE's hugely popular Dancing with the Stars series, which showed her in a new light.

Along with her partner, Robert Rowinski, Cliona delighted television audiences and, previously this month, she featured in a re-run of Dancing with the Stars at the INEC Killarney.

Now it's the turn of Michael English to underline that there is even more depth to his talent by helping to write a musical drama Who Dares to Dream in tandem with well-known Irish playwright Tommy Marren.

Not only is the music from Who Dares to Dream entrancing, but the narrative is captivating, set as it is both in Ireland and England in the Sixties.

This spectacular stage show tells the story of Joey McCann (Michael English), who dreams of becoming a star of the world of music.

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However, he is torn between his own dream and the aspirations of his father, who wants him to continue with the family tradition of making shoes.

Joey heads to England to pursue his dream and faces a series of challenges that threaten his ambitions of ending up in the bright lights of show business.

This two-hour show features a spectacular musical score and an intriguing storyline that will have audiences on the edge of their seats.

With romance, comedy and determination the underlying elements, we follow the ups-and-downs of Joey's adventure as he struggles to turn his dream into reality.

Michael English is, of course, one of Ireland's most popular country stars, who packs out venues all over this country and the United Kingdom.

Michael and his supremely talented band are renowned for their energetic performances and the singer's superb piano-playing earned him a number of accolades, such as Entertainer of the Year and Songwriter of the Year in the past.

But, then, should we really be surprised? I have always been impressed by Michael's range of musical talent, which includes performing as a pianist with orchestras in the UK and Europe.

"I have always wanted to be involved in writing a musical - it has been a passion of mine for some time now," Michael informs me. "Along with Tommy, I think I have come up with something that will strike a chord with audiences.

"Everyone has his or her dreams, but not everyone gets the opportunity to live their dream."

Michael is taking the show on a nationwide tour in the April-May period next year and dates are already confirmed for many of the major concert venues throughout the country.

"The uptake on the show has been very encouraging and we are delighted about this," he adds.

"Obviously, it's a big challenge, because it is a departure from my usual form of entertainment.

"But I am certainly looking forward to giving it everything!"

Why lots of touring can be a real pain

I just wish I had a pound for every mile I travelled over the course of the past week.

My marathon started when I went from Belfast to Cairnryan and then on to Dumfries to appear alongside Derek Ryan and Louise Morrissey last Saturday night. Then it was back to get the six o’clock boat to Belfast again and home to Strabane.

On Monday and Tuesday, it was a more straightforward run from Strabane to Belfast, but Wednesday took the biscuit altogether.

Having made my usual morning journey to Belfast, I travelled to Enniskillen in the late afternoon to appear at the Ardhowen Theatre, before journeying back to Newtownabbey for a Theatre at the Mill concert and then home to Strabane.

I can say without fear of contradiction that I had sores where I never had sores for a lifetime, but I will spare you the gory details.

At both concerts, I performed some of the tracks from my new album, Heart Of The Country, and when asked what kind of material I had on it overall, I replied: “Well, it’s like this. It’s a bit like a bride getting ready for her wedding. On the album there is something old, something new, something borrowed, but nothing blue!”

Surprise guest performers give us even more reason to cheer Children in Need

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Vocal support: Donna Traynor performs during Children in Need
 

In advance of the Children in Need broadcast from the Blackstaff Studios in Belfast last Friday, I had been singing the praises of entertainers such as Michael English, Declan Nerney, Susan McCann and Jamie Donnelly, who were among those featured on the show.

But there was a pleasant surprise in store for us all when Donna Traynor, John Toal and Kerry McLean stepped up to the mark in fine style to show how well they can put a song over.

I was also delighted that Vinny Hurrell took time out from his busy schedule to drop in for a chat.

And I would also like to say a big thank you to Big T, who not only came along, but also gave a generous donation to Children in Need.

They certainly created quite a stir and, while I know that Donna was a singer in a former life, she showed that she has lost none of her touch.

Both she and Kerry displayed their versatility, while Susan McCann brought her granddaughter along and she, too, showed that she has considerable singing talent. It was, of course, great to hear Michael English and Declan Nerney perform, while Jamie Donnelly underlined that she is a young lady who is certainly going places.

She may be only 19, but she is an assured performer who looks to have a very bright future indeed.

Once again, we managed to raise a huge sum for Children in Need, with the public at large showing their generosity by their donations.

We, of course, had Pudsey Bear with us and he certainly did his bit in helping to bring the money in.

I am delighted that so many performers contributed to the show and helped make the occasion go with a swing.

To all the people who came to the studio, thank you for being so lively and generating such a happy atmosphere - and for being so generous.

It was another memorable occasion when the people of Northern Ireland supported a worthy charity.

Well done - and thank you to all!

There's nothing quite as special as a country Christmas

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Right note: Justin McGurk
 

It's that time of year, when what is normally a trickle of new releases can be transformed into a flood.

There is certainly no shortage of new numbers on the market right now and while competition is keen, there is still room for everyone.

I had the pleasure of performing with Derek Ryan at a sold-out concert in Dumfries, Scotland last Saturday night and his new song If You're Going To Be Bad (Be Good At It) was accorded a rapturous reception.

Robert Mizzell also looks to have hit the jackpot with his new track, while Justin McGurk is hoping to create an impact with Three Chords And The Truth, a song written by Harlan Howard, who was one of the biggest names in Nashville in the Fifties through to Seventies.

By the way, the Wee Man from Strabane also has a new album out. I'm delighted to reveal that my own new album, Heart Of The Country, is now available.

In tandem with producer Owney Smith and with the help of Gerard Dornan and Sharpe Music's dynamo Raymond Stewart, I have put a lot of effort into the album and I am very pleased with the finished product.

I have included a couple of original songs, which were written specially for me by Gerard Dornan and Johnny Kielty, as well as a lovely gospel composition from Crawford Bell.

In addition, there are songs which have been regularly requested on my programme on BBC Radio Ulster.

Obviously, singers tend to target the pre-Christmas market, so we will see how things pan out.

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