Union Theatre, London
Book by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by John Barry
Directed by Michael Strassen
Billy at the Union Theatre is the most sparkling celebration of talent currently to be found in an Off West End show, as this musical adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Billy Liar makes its first London revival since Michael Crawford made the role his own at Drury Lane in 1974. (A production that this reviewer attended.) Musicals that comment on social issues and life's complexities are more often than not to be found set in the USA and it adds to the joy of Billy that the show is resolutely rooted on this side of the Atlantic, an infectiously glorious snapshot and celebration of 1960's England.
Set over the course of one day in the typical Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, the show follows undertaker's assistant Billy Fisher. An incorrigible liar and fantasist, he chases the town's girls having deceitfully gotten engaged to at least of two of them, in pursuit of adolescent fumbling sex whilst lacking any sense of emotional commitment to anyone else at all.
His family and friends make up the show's company and avoiding complex staging or scenery, Michael Strassen has elicited the most eloquent performances from his cast, who with the use of skilful lighting and sound effects, create tableaux that range from bedroom to a crowded commuter bus to busy mainline train stations.
Keith Ramsay is Billy who we first encounter in flannel pyjamas as he daydreams a wartime aerial conflict. Ramsey is an inspired casting as he nails both the comedy and the sadness of Billy's pursuit of fantasies at the expense of any jot of responsibility. He is but one of a handful of outstanding actors in a troupe that is never less than excellent. Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt are his much put upon parents. Carroll's frustration at his son's indolence is almost palpable and Butt wraps up a convincingly worn down mother and wife, who in one of Billy's fantasy sequences also shows that she remains very hot on her pins in a nifty tap routine. Paddy Glyn's Gran is a treat of a performance of understated perceptive ageing, whilst amongst Billy's cohort of fiancées Katerina Stearman breaks our hearts in her un-reciprocated devotion to the young man, Laura Bryars' Rita all cocky feisty mouth and open legs is a northern gem and Rosie Clarkson's Barbara, who has her wholesome dreams of a married life with Billy roundly shattered by his double-dating immaturity, is an exquisitely voiced soprano.
|Rosie Clarkson and Laura Bryars|
It is no wonder that the show is so poignant yet also so brilliantly observed. With a book by comedy giants Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and lyrics by Don Black, the creative talent that underlies the work is impeccable, supported by John Barry's melodies.
The tight space of the Union Theatre is brilliantly exploited by Strassen's intelligent handling of the piece and Tim Deiling's lighting highlights the transition between fantasy and reality seamlessly. This near-faultless production is another example of British brilliance in both writing and performance and should not be missed.
Runs to 29 June 2013