The Union Theatre's revival of Billy proves a somewhat underwhelming experience, says David Phipps-Davis
Billy is an adaptation of the novel Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, which was written as a star-vehicle for Michael Crawford. And after seeing the revival at the Union Theatre, I can only imagine that it was his performance which kept it filling the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for two years.
It tells the story of William Fisher, a Northern working-class 19-year-old still living with his parents. Bored by his job at the local undertaker's, Billy spends most of his time indulging in fantasies and dreams of life in London as a comedy writer. Good fodder for a musical, you'd imagine, with plenty of opportunity for dream sequences, and with a score by the late, great Bond composer John Barry, lyrics by Don Black and a book by the sit-com writers Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, you'd think it couldn't fail. Yet why does it?
Maybe in a huge production the flights of fancy can be given full flight, but in the tiny Union Theatre all we are left with is a flashing light and then it's all down to the cast. They give it a good go, but without sets and costumes to back them up, we're left begging for more. The cast are generally very good, lead by Keith Ramsay in the title role, who gives a stunning performance as a clearly mentally disturbed young boy.
My only problem with this is that I didn't believe this boy could manage to seduce one girl let alone three, and the constant distant look in his eyes didn't help him connect with the all-too-close audience; a missed opportunity. I presume Ramsay was doing as he was directed to do and he was certainly doing it with total commitment, but, if so, the directing choices (of Michael Strassen) were a pile of wrong decisions.
The most fitting performance in a generally strong cast comes from Ricky Butt as Alice, Billy's down-trodden mum. She has a lovely, contemplative duet with her husband, Bill (Mark Carroll), and is hilarious in the dream-sequences. Katerina Stearman as Liz, the love of Billy's life, gives a touching performance, but too often resorts to crying to demonstrate emotion.
Also touching is Mark Turnball's rendition of the reminiscent "It Were All Green Hills" - just a shame that the rest of his performance as Councillor Duxbury seemed to be somewhat 'phoned in'. There's a lovely cameo from Laura Bryars as the boisterous Rita in the sweet duet "Any Minute Now" (with Rosie Clarkson).
There is also some great lighting from Tim Deiling, but, overall, I wished I had been watching the play or the film which are far better adaptations of Waterhouse's excellent novel.
- David Phipps-Davis