The 1960s still stand as one of the most musically exciting and inventive decades in history. While England had The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and America embraced the melodic mastery of The Beach Boys, in
Ireland, the showbands reigned supreme.
None shone brighter than the Miami Showband. They notched up numerous number ones, appeared on British television, had a Las Vegas residency and performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
But the Miami Showband would become forever associated with tragedy, when in 1975, three members of the band, Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy, were killed in a UVF ambush on the way back from a gig in Co Down. The attack sent shockwaves around the country, and left the victims’ families and remaining members devastated.
Now the band’s story is coming to the stage in The Miami Showband Story, written by Belfast playwrights Martin Lynch (Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story) and Marie Jones (Stones in His Pockets).
The show follows the band’s trajectory from its origins in Dublin and Belfast beat groups to one of the country’s most popular acts, and the aftermath of the horrific ambush, up to the band’s reunion for a memorial concert in 2005. It is told through the eyes of best friends and song-writing partners Fran O’Toole and Des Lee, who survived the 1975 attack.
The show came about when Lee approached Lynch to write the band’s story for the stage. From the start, the music was the main focus. “Des insisted he didn’t want it to just be a play about the tragedy. When people hear the words ‘Miami Showband’ they think of the massacre, but he wanted to go beyond that, to tell their story — to show Ireland in the ‘60s ‘when we were young and had the world at our feet’, as he put it.”
From a vantage point where streaming has transformed the music industry and live venues struggle to attract audiences, it is perhaps difficult to grasp just how successful the Miami Showband were, packing out the numerous ballrooms and dance halls that were a mainstay of social life in Ireland.
“They were called ‘the Irish Beatles’. Dickie Rock was mobbed everywhere… and they had great music, seven number ones in Ireland. Des and Fran wrote songs together and he wanted us to show that talent and music. And that’s what we’ve done.”
In the process of writing the play, Lynch interviewed other surviving members of the band, including bassist Stephen Travers and Rock, who had left the band in 1972 to pursue a solo career. But it is the relationship between Des Lee and Fran O’Toole which forms the central element of the show. “They were the only band members who went right through from 1967 to 1975. What I’ve learned over the years as a playwright is that if you have too many characters, the audience can’t get invested in them,” says Lynch.
When it came to portraying the tragic events of the ambush, Lynch says he and Jones were aware of how it had to be handled in a sensitive manner. “Facts are at the core but you have to be allowed to use artistic licence. We don’t have the tragedy exactly as it happened, we think we’ve created a poignant, even poetic version of what happened with the core truth of what happened. We’ve used the theatrical experience to heighten that.”
There were other challenges when it came to depicting real-life people, especially Lee, who was profoundly affected by the attack; beset with survivor’s guilt, he turned to alcohol and eventually moved to South Africa.
“Des was very apprehensive about showing him on stage as an alcoholic but he came around,” says Lynch.
“And Fran’s daughters and family have said they’re happy enough for us to do it. Rachel, his daughter, has three or four strong images of her father and she’s afraid they might be damaged by seeing the play, though I’ve told her she will get a lot out of how we have celebrated him.”
When it came to the musical element of the show, Lynch and Jones wanted to avoid having musicians in the pit and actors on stage, instead casting performers who could multi-task.
“Everyone is on stage is playing music and acting as well. I have been blown away by the talent of the actors. Niall McNamee, who plays Fran O’Toole, sings like an angel. He has us breaking into applause at rehearsals.
"The whole band play brilliantly together, doing the Miami material, it’s a great sound. We have a big cast, which is challenging — these days most theatres only want a cast of three or four because of economics. Having a cast of nine on stage has been a big risk but we’re willing to take it.”
The story of the Miami Showband was recently in the limelight once again, with the airing of a Netflix documentary delving into the political elements of the attack and claims of collusion between the UVF and the British security service.
While Lynch has seen the documentary, which he says contains “powerful testimony”, he says he and Jones were more interested in the human element of the story, rather than the political one.
“Marie and I spent long hours debating all of that but early on we decided we wouldn’t get into the politics, we’d let others deal with that in whatever way they wanted. We’re telling a human story.
"Nevertheless, there were controversial aspects of it… Stephen Travers is the most sincere person, and in the Netflix show he was very powerful on getting to the bottom of what happened. He was never the same after the attack.”
While the show will be a huge draw for those who came of age with the showbands, dancing and falling in love to their energetic blend of musicianship and showmanship, Lynch says it also has a universal appeal.
“It is such a great story and it will be a powerful night out. Strong stories transcend every medium. It is an emotional roller-coaster with some of the greatest music of the ’60s and ’70s.”
The Miami Showband Story is touring nationally including in the INEC, Killarney, on Aug 28, UCH, Limerick, Sept 7; Theatre Royal, Waterford, Sept 10 and 11, and The Gaiety, Dublin, Sept 17-21.