'Those 15 minutes with Ruby Murray were like a confessional in which she told me how much she missed the bright lights of the big theatres... she said with the spotlight on her she felt she was all alone and could sing her heart out'
Sam McCready tells Ivan Little how he couldn't resist signing up to direct a brilliant new play about the famous Belfast singer - and his regrets that illness has forced him to hand the Lyric show over to someone else
One of the mainstays of the Ulster theatre, Sam McCready, has been forced to abandon plans to direct a new play about legendary Belfast singer Ruby Murray.
Evergreen Sam, who's 82 and divides his time between Baltimore in America and Belfast, has been told to rest by his doctors after he was diagnosed with a lung condition.
So Sam won't be playing it again with a production with which he's been closely involved ever since writer Michael Cameron came to him with a rough draft of the script in Belfast.
The play, called Ruby!, is now due to open at the Lyric Theatre in February with a new director, Richard Orr, in the hot seat.
And Sam is hoping to be well enough to attend the opening night with his actress wife Joan, who has been cast in the new role of carer for her husband.
Sam's health problems surfaced after he returned to America following a hectic spring in Belfast where he was involved in a one-man show at the Lyric, an art exhibition and a book launch.
He says: "I returned to Baltimore exhausted. Gradually I began to feel breathless doing even simple physical tasks and a pulmonologist confirmed I had lung disease.
"That was in May and despite a severe regimen of steroids, the condition worsened. Having decided on getting a second opinion, I found the most wonderful consultant who over the past weeks has endeavoured to find the cause of the disease and to recommend a cure. He has identified an auto-immune disease syndrome, which he believes to be the cause."
Sam took comfort from an assurance that the condition could be cured with rest and medication. "That is the most wonderful thing I could have been told and we're working to make that happen," he says. And he insists that he will be doing exactly what the doctor ordered and taking things easy.
But anyone who knows this energetic livewire knows he won't be twiddling his thumbs as he recuperates. He says he's in "constant consultation" with Michael Cameron about Ruby! and he insists that the play will still be a great success.
Michael has expressed disappointment over Sam's departure from the director's chair.
"It's very sad news for everyone involved in the production that our guiding light won't be with us," he says.
"There simply would not be a play were it not for Sam, who is a most amazing man who has quite literally changed my life by giving so much of himself to me."
Dozens of well-wishers have sent Sam messages for a speedy recovery. And in a social media reply to them, he says: "I don't plan to let you down. John Donne (the poet) was right - no man is an island. We are all here to support each other when needed."
Sam's admiration for Ruby Murray runs deep. The singer was born and raised in the Village area of south Belfast and became one of the UK's biggest stars of the 1950s, when she once had five singles in the Top 20.
Growing up in Belfast in the Fifties, Sam says he knew all about her chart successes but admits her songs weren't really his kind of music.
However, he says that on a weekend visit to London with friends, Ruby's song Softly Softly was played in a Chinese restaurant. "We shouted to the rest of the clientele - 'she's from Belfast!'. We started singing along with the song and gradually the other patrons joined in. We were all very proud of Ruby, the girl from the Donegall Road."
Sam says that he eventually got to meet Ruby. He was greeting patrons at the top of the stairs in the Lyric Theatre when a frail woman came towards him.
I couldn't believe it; it was Ruby Murray," he recalls. "My knees buckled and I grabbed the balustrade for support. I welcomed her to the Lyric and she leaned close to me. And in that distinctive husky voice, she whispered: "I don't like being in a crowd. Is there some place I could go during the interval?"
Sam arranged it for Ruby to spend the interval in a quiet office.
"And that's how I spent 15 minutes alone with Ruby Murray in the Lyric manager's office adjacent to the entrance to the auditorium", he says, adding that the singer spoke candidly to him.
"For those 15 minutes, it was like a confessional in which she told me how much she missed the bright lights of the big theatres like the London Palladium and the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
"She said with the spotlight on her she felt she was all alone and could sing her heart out," says Sam, who adds that Ruby told him how she hated singing in working men's clubs, as happened in the later stages of her career. "She said the people got drunk and thought they owned her, pawing her, kissing her and shouting dirty remarks.
"As she talked at the Lyric, I saw how vulnerable she was and how much she needed someone to listen to her. But the magic was still there and I understood how much that vulnerability was part of her success."
Sam wasn't to know it at the time, but Ruby Murray would re-enter his life many years later.
He was adapting the book No Surrender by east Belfast writer Robert Harbinson into a stage production when he was approached by a man he'd never met before, Michael Cameron, a friend of singer Duke Special, who's recorded a CD of Ruby's songs.
"Michael told me he'd written a play about Ruby and wondered if I could help," says Sam. "Working on a play about Ruby was not on my radar at that moment, but I couldn't refuse to read the script - I'm like that."
He says that Michael's first draft of his first ever play was "pretty rough" adding: "I'm sure he wouldn't mind me saying that and I thought I would give him a few pointers and that would be that."
But Sam says: "Something happened at that first meeting." He adds: "I was so struck by Michael's passion for the subject, as well as his detailed knowledge, but I was also impressed that he was so open to my suggestions that I ended the conversation by saying we would meet again when he had made the changes.
"And the rest is history. We became a team and together we arrived at a strong, powerful account of the sad, yet exhilarating life of a Belfast icon."
A reading of the play was staged at the EastSide Arts Festival and the response, according to Sam, was "the longest cheering I have ever heard in a Belfast theatre".
"I knew she was back," says Sam, who was "looking forward to restoring Ruby to the limelight in February in her native city".
The play at the Lyric will feature a soundtrack of Ruby Murray's original songs and it tells of the singer's triumphs, such as her London Palladium shows and her tragedies - which included a battle with alcoholism and troubled relationships.
Actress Libby Huntley will play the part of Ruby in the second production about the singer to come out of Belfast.
Marie Jones wrote the first one in 2000, with actress Julia Dearden in the role at the old Group Theatre.
In 2006, 10 years after her death from liver cancer in England, a plaque was unveiled in Ruby's memory in the Ulster Hall beside the Group.
As for Sam in America, he says that resting up has enabled him to indulge one of his other passions, his art.
"Now that I can't tread the boards for a while I am able to concentrate on my painting. I will have an exhibition at the ArtisAnn Gallery on Bloomfield Avenue throughout April."
And indefatigable Sam adds: "I'm also currently working on two new scripts and I plan a repeat of No Surrender and another one-man show about the composer and painter Percy French.
"Tell Belfast I will be back. "