The McCooeys: Live! – Grand Opera House – Review

The McCooeys: Live! – Grand Opera House – Review
by Cathy Brown

Presented by Centre Stage Theatre Company
Dates: Wed 16 February 2022 – Sat 26 February 2022

In today’s world of Netflix and YouTube, where every form of entertainment is only a click away, it’s hard to imagine the cultural impact that the radio show ‘The McCooey’s’ had on the population of Northern Ireland in the 1950s.  As I sat in the newly refurbished Grand Opera House waiting for the show to begin, I overheard a lady behind me telling her companion that she vividly remembered listening to The McCooeys as a child and how each episode brought everyone in her house to a standstill.

The ups and downs of the McCooey family were followed closely by listeners across Northern Ireland for just over 7 years. Thousands of people tuned in to the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service every Saturday night between 1949 and 1955 to listen to the exploits of characters such as Granda, Maggie, Sammy and Aunt Sarah amongst others.

First broadcast in May 1949, ‘The McCooey’s’ radio series was based on the life of an ordinary working-class family and had such an effect on its listeners, that they would ring in to the BBC to offer advice to these fictional characters. The show spawned a series of catchphrases – ‘you’re a comejjan!’ and ‘stickin’ out’ – and gave a career start to legendary Ulster performer James Young and a young Stephen Boyd, who would go on to Golden Globe success in Hollywood playing opposite Charlton Heston in Ben Hur.

‘The McCooeys’ was the work of renowned Portaferry playwright and actor Joseph Tomelty, who makes a fictional appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated ‘Belfast’. This production is a family affair in more ways than one. It is presented by Centre Stage Theatre Company, which was co-founded by Tomelty’s late daughter Roma, and stars both Roma’s husband Colin Carnegie and their daughter Hannah.

This production features episodes unheard since they were first broadcast over 70 years ago, with tales of a burglary, a lost raffle ticket, a fortune teller and some potential romance. Given the age of the material, it is no surprise that it feels a little dated, and the fact that the two featured episodes don’t follow on from each other means there is a lack of narrative flow. However, Tomelty’s deft ear for dialect as performed by a cast of some of Northern Ireland’s finest acting talent, means that there are laughs still to be had.

It’s a shame that Patrick McBrearty, always a strong comic presence, was not able to perform on opening night due to sickness, but Colin Carnegie admirably steps into both his roles at very short notice. Christina Nelson brings an easy, knowing humour to her performance as Aunt Sarah, while Mary Moulds (recently so impressive in Distortion at the MAC) sparkles as the feckless and self-absorbed Henrietta Toosel. Dan Gordon’s Granda is pleasingly grumpy and put-upon by all the women in his life, and he gets the biggest laugh of the night with an inspired ad-lib when a sound effect goes wrong.

Special mention must also go to Stage Manager and Foley Artist Dean McHugh whose sound effects enliven what is a relatively static and uninspired staging. A few more of these interludes would have brought added interest to proceedings, but the material doesn’t lend itself to dramatic interpretation.

The McCooeys is undoubtedly most successful as a piece of nostalgia, a reminder of a time when families across the country came together to listen to the same thing, and judging by the whispers and giggles of recognition from the audience, and the impromptu sing-along at the curtain call, its enduring appeal is in the very ordinariness of its ever relatable characters.

Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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