Theatre review: Billy, Union Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Forget Billy Elliot the musical and remember Billy Liar, the novel by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, template for all northern working-class, aspirational escape stories in the 1960s, the Tom Courtenay movie and, in 1974, this marvellous, resonating and utterly authentic show written by “Bond movie” composer, the late, great John Barry, television comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais (The Likely Lads, Porridge, etc) and Tin Pan Alley and Lloyd Webber lyricist Don Black.

Black, making his West End debut – and daring to rhyme William Thackeray with a vodka daiquiri -- stuffed more lyrical wit and brio into the music than a sardine packer ever stuffed oil into those tiny fish-filled tins: it’s a fabulous distillation of the best Yorkshire re-telling of the Walter Mitty fable ever written (“Some of us belong to the stars”), and Michael Crawford glittered like gold – and descended a light-up staircase -- in the West premiere in a cast that included Diana Quick, Elaine Paige and Timothy West’s dad as an old town councillor,. 

Lockwood West, in flat cap and raincoat, sang “It were all green hills” (when I were a lad) and it’s a mark of Michael Strassen’s feisty, intelligent, sensationally well lit (by Tim Deiling)  production, that Mark Turnbull as Councillor Duxbury can sing that song, and move us to tears, in a barathea blazer with gold buttons on it.

There’s a big second act shift, too, towards one of Billy’s more ambitious girlfriends – Liz, played in the film by Julie Christie – who almost, but not quite, inveigles him onto the York train south to King’s Cross. She’s got two new songs (added after the premiere when the show went on tour), and Katerina Stearman, mouth as wide as the Hull estuary, makes the most – and then a bit more -- of them.

Billy himself is played with a provocative, coltish charm by Keith Ramsey, first seen dreaming in pyjamas in a stand-up bed before facing the kitchen table reality of mum, dad and grandma – all brilliantly cast and very well played (and sung) here by Ricky Butt, Mark Carroll and Paddy Glynn.

The acrid wit and irony stemming from Billy’s employment at the undertakers is boundless; it’s the show’ greatest strength that it becomes a musical by transcending the ordinary, making the everyday, immortal. Billy dreams in a land of milk and honey, ie, Ambrosia. The first act is extraordinary and the second, like Gypsy’s, tapers off into mere brilliance. 

To 29 June (020 7261 9876)