It’s 1981 and legendary Manchester United footballer George Best, aged 35, was still athletic and handsome, despite his alcoholism, playing for the San Jose Earthquakes, checks into rehab. As George battles his demons, his wife Angie, 29, gives an overly frank interview to a journalist. Through a series of flashbacks, we hear of George’s rapid rise and fall and its devastating effect on Angie and, worst of all, his own mother.
My memories of George Best are far removed from yours. I remember a haggard old man who was a walking advert for why you shouldn’t drink. Selfishly depriving someone of a liver transplant, I could not reconcile this supposed ‘genius’ with the then contemporary Cantona or Giggs. So it is with a combination of ignorance and interest I sat down to watch The Best – an unused screenplay from the pen of Jack Rosenthal.
Maureen Lipman (who we spoke to last week) commented that she didn’t expect it to “turn her heart” and she is completely right. Crucially, you don’t need to follow football or be a United fan to enjoy this moving piece. The Lass O’Gowrie’s Salmon Rooms have been transformed into changing rooms with performers ‘benched’ until required in an innovative move by director Colin Connor. The set is split by the two football shirts ominously hanging on the wall – one to represent Manchester United, one to represent Northern Ireland.
Indeed, The Best is a play of two halves as we go from success to sobriety as we flit between Best’s demons coming to the fore in rehab and his wife’s relationship unravelling. Cracking lighting helps to set the scene perfectly from the bleached rehab centre to the sunswept beaches of California.
Ian Winterton has sensitively adapted Rosenthal’s screenplay, rounding it into a wholly-satisfying theatrical experience. This is a cruel story, one that the audience knows the end of before it’s even begun. The word ‘cure’ is banded around throughout the play as an ironic solution to Best’s alcoholism. But the problem runs back to Best’s home in Belfast and the intense shame felt by his mother (in a stand-out performance from Sinead Parker). What builds up is a surprisingly sympathetic picture of a flawed Lothario, the Peter Pan party boy who just never grew up. Rosenthal’s atmospheric and touching script enlightens you to this genius.
Certainly, my opinion of Best changed, in part down to the writing, but mostly down to Dickie Patterson’s portrayal of Best. An unqualified success with his swagger and boyish looks, he completely embodies the part. Patterson superbly plays Best’s ignorance or refusal to take his situation seriously and balances it against moments of intense anguish and guilt and shame threatens to drown him.
“Heart of Glass” could not be more appropriate for Charlotte Dalton’s Angie Best to dance to. A shockingly vulnerable performance, she finds an unlikely confidant in Hannah Ellis’ shady journalist. But is Angie clutching at straws as her life falls apart around her? Dalton’s shattered performance is a highlight of the piece. In love and broken in equal measure, her narrative is arguably the more compelling.
Everyone else starring takes on multiple roles. Of note are Lee Joseph and Amy Gavin as a nasty double-act imploring Best to take his treatment seriously. Gavin’s sweet nature belied is by the foul language erupting at Best, and Joseph switches from genial to evil in a heartbeat. Special mention must go to Catia Perry’s wonderfully acerbic and bitchy portrayal of Cher – a moment of delicious light relief.
The Best is yet another example of how Manchester’s Lass O’Gowrie is pushing the boundaries for diverse and high-quality performances. A thoughtful piece, it still has resonance for the legion of supporters for Manchester’s adopted son. Humbling and triumphant in equal measure, The Best is unlikely to be bettered.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Best four strokes out of five:
The Best runs until March 18 at the Lass O’Gowrie. Performances are likely to be sold out with extra dates to be added. Keep your eyes on the Lass O’Gowrie Twitter feed for further information. The simply iconic photography by Shay Rowan.