Theatre review: Billy, Union Theatre, London

5.00

 

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea