Theatre review: Billy, Union Theatre, London
Monday 03 June 2013
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)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'