By Conor O’Neill
Photography courtesy of Brian Thompson
Joseph Tomelty’s The McCooeys radio play ran from 1949 to 1955 and at its peak was listened to by a weekly audience of 600,000. Now, some 70 plus years later, almost 100 of us sit with bated breath to see what all the fuss was about.
The stage and set is simply a radio recording studio with the actors moving to and fro reading their lines from scripts – though well all know they know them by heart. Produced by Centre Stage Theatre Company and directed by Michael Quinn, this two hours of comedy flies by. We’re treated to a visual view of why this radio comedy compelled such vast audiences to tune into a post-war Northern Irish way of life. The technology may have been basic but the human condition is constant and naturally relatable.
The McCooeys are a strange bunch, supposedly led by patriarch Granda (Dan Gordon – pictured below) who is constantly at the mercy of both the women who surround him and by fate itself. Unfortunately, actor Patrick McBrearty couldn’t make tonight’s show due to illness, but his boots are filled by Colin Carnegie who plays both Bobby and Derek the window cleaner.
Act one focuses on the burglary of the McCooeys’ home and features Maggie McCooey (Carol Moore) and her daunting, upcoming interview with the law, Granda, who’s a constant through the two hours, Aunt Sarah (Christina Nelson) and the fabulous Henrietta Toosel superbly played by Mary Moulds (pictured below). Her constant screams of, ‘You’re a comedjiaan’, will stay with me for quite some time.
What is quite perplexing is that as the scenes are being introduced by the cut-glass-voiced announcer Mark Clary’s introduction of ‘This is the Northern Ireland Home Service’ – notably a stark constrast to the native tongue of or protagonists – is that none of the stories reach their conclusion. Maybe this is a narrative trick but to me it at times spoils the dramatic flow of set-up, conflict and resolution.
The second act again sees Granda in a twist as his winning raffle ticket for a two week holiday is somehow put through the wash. As a side plot we meet Sally McCooey (Hannah Carnegie) and her never seen beau Lesley. In fact so many of the characters who play pivotal parts to the dramas are only named, create conflict and cast the imagination far without being on stage. Henny Toosel’s wayward husband Ernest (Ernie) being the main focus of of our collective imagination.
So what is it about this radio-come-theatre-play that touches us Northern Irish so deeply and deservedly gets a standing ovation? Put simply it’s Tomelty’s writing, deft of touch when it comes to dialect and turn of phrase, equalled by a cast one would be hard pressed to find fault with.
Whether you’re from Strabane, Coleraine, Belfast or Bellaghy, though our accents may differ a little, there’s a common Northern Irishness about us that’s universal. And guess what, two hours of quick-witted writing and acting and not a swear word nor even a euphemism to cause a blush.
The McCooeys runs at the Grand Opera House’s Studio Theatre until February 26th, 2022.
To book your ticket visit http://www.goh.co.uk or simply phone the box office on 02890 241919