Staged in the intimate surroundings of the Nuffield Theatre Studio, this workshop production of Billy Bow, a new musical written by Dr Andrew Fisher, from the University of Southampton, and naval historian Dr Ian Friel, is very much work in progress, and gives the audience a rare chance to be involved the evolution of what is certain to become a fine piece of dramatic musical theatre.
The production is the result of an exciting collaboration for the Creative Campus Initiative - a consortium of 13 universities, whose aim is to provide wider access to world-leading, practise based research in the creative and performing arts, by opening up the cultural resources of south east campuses – and between The Nuffield Theatre, The University of Southampton and Solent University.
The company - comprising 4 professional actors, a supporting cast of 15 music and performing arts students and a production team from The Nuffield Theatre – have been working intensively over the past week to develop Friel and Fisher’s work into the current hour-long workshop performance, and hope, with input from the performers, crew and audience, to develop it further into a full-scale musical production.
So who is Billy Bow? Wilhelmina Standing, is a Portsmouth inn-keeper’s wife, and the daughter of a freed slave and former sailor. Disguising herself as a man called ‘Billy Bow’, Mina enlists in the Royal Navy during the closing years of the Napoleonic War, in order to escape her murderous husband Robert. Billy has naïve expectations of finding freedom, adventure and riches in the navy, ideas soon dashed in the harsh and dangerous world of HMS Cormorant. Billy's extraordinary story is a universal one - of heroism, survival, and the enduring strength of women.
Full marks must go to Amanda Wilkin who, as Billy, manages to portray the character’s strengths and vulnerabilities in a believable and surprisingly mature performance, considering the amount of rehearsal time afforded to date. Stephen Fewell as brooding bully and racist Miller, and Jon De Ville, as Standing the violent and desperate husband from whom Billy has to flee, are both strong and imposing, and David Burrows as Borrow, provides some much needed empathy and kindness in Billy’s otherwise harsh and friendless world.
The clever set design, and large supporting cast – with a standout performance by young Liberty Buckland, as Portsmouth Poll, the prostitute who uncovers and keeps Billy’s secret – gives the performance a claustrophobic feel, which well suits the life Billy would have experienced on board ship in the early 1800s. Under the skilful direction of Tim Ford, and with Fisher’s atmospheric and powerful score, this production deals effectively with dark and difficult issues, and shows great promise for the future full-scale production.
With an audience feedback session at the end of the performance, Billy Bow presents a fantastic opportunity for audiences to play a part in the creation of an important piece of musical theatre. With tickets at just £5, this is an opportunity too good to miss!
Billy Bow plays at The Nuffield Theatre Studio until 8 July