Brilliant Billy! – Billy – The Union Theatre – Review

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Billy Poster

The story of Billy Liar has been a story I’ve been familiar with ever since my early teens. I caught the film version featuring the amazing performance by Tom Courtenay one Saturday afternoon on Channel 4 (and recorded it – so watched it multiple times as a youth). Despite it being set generations before mine and it being a black and white film, I was drawn into the world of Billy. When I got a DVD player way back, it was one of the first films I got for it. It was only a few years ago I found out it had also been a musical in 1974, and I’ve only ever heard Some of Us Belong to the Stars sung by Michael Crawford on the odd occasion Elaine Paige plays it on her Radio 2 show.

When I discovered The Union Theatre were reviving it, I was excited to finally get to hear the rest of the score. I’m perplexed as to why it’s taken several decades for it to be revived. The story is fabulous, and the musical score is by John Barry (arguably one of the 20th Century’s finest composers) with lyrics by the award-winning Don Black. It’s such a shame the original recording is not available, perhaps this cast can get some crowd-funding to get their renditions recorded as these songs need a wider audience. (This version also includes three songs added in the 1990’s for a revival and as far as I can see these haven’t been recorded yet)

The role of Billy is synonymous with Tom Courtenay and the musical version with Michael Crawford (see here for an interview with Michael Crawford in 1974 when he was Billy) , it’s a brave actor that takes it on. Keith Ramsay does so in this production and leaves his own stamp on it. He gives Billy an awkwardness with hints that Billy might just be going onto the autistic spectrum. This makes him a character that you develop a care and concern for, I’d not experienced that previously. When Billy gets to sing out, Keith Ramsey’s melodious voice soars. His two renditions of Some of Us Belong to the Stars were stunning with his I Missed the Last Rainbow giving a melancholic and moving final song. This role has been career defining for previous actors and I have a feeling it will be the same for Keith Ramsay. He deserves it.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsey.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsay.

The Union Theatre may be small but the cast of 17 filled the stage with their personalities, witty lines, dances and voices. Mark Turnbull as Councillor Duxbury gave a tear-jerking rendition of the beautiful song, It Were All Green Hills.

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita.  

The three girlfriends of Billy, are each contrasting characters, played with self-assurance by Rosie Clarkson as “good girl” Barbara, Laura Bryars as mouthy, brash bulldozer Rita and Katerina Stearman as Liz, the only one that actually understands Billy and gives him the chance to break free.

Liz Stearman as Liz the girl that "gets" Billy.

Katerina Stearman as Liz, the girl that understands Billy.

Billy’s interactions with his long-suffering parents are brought to life by Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt as his dad and mum respectively. Their confusion and frustrations come to the fore, but they never let you forget they love their son despite his short comings. It’s an honest and heartwarming show.

Michael Strassen has directed other hit shows at The Union Theatre and it shows, he knows the space and maximizes it to its fullest. The show punches to the wow factor when it needs and comes down to intimate levels as appropriate. He’s aided in this by Tim Deiling’s magnificent lighting. Richard Bates orchestration allows the songs to shine, which they deserve to do. As I’ve said this is a first-class score.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see it, as you may have to wait a decade or two until it’s back again. I don’t know why, but that’s the crazy world of theatre.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★

All photographs by Sam Mackenzie-Armstrong

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One thought on “Brilliant Billy! – Billy – The Union Theatre – Review

  1. I was fortunate to have seen the original Michael Crawford version and have a vinyl recording of the cast album which I love. The songs and particularly the clever lyrics by Don Black are worth listening to over and over. This was on my top ten list of shows I would like to see revived and jumped at the opportunity to see this production at the Union Theatre. I agree that this was a career defining performance by Keith Ramsey with just a bit too much of Frank Spencer as his only Michael Crawford role model. However his singing was far superior and his rendition of ‘I missed the last rainbow’ had real emotion which was so moving. The rest of the cast were also outstanding and the only negative I have is that the theatre could not really provide the space required to do the production justice. I did wonder how they were going to do the iconic balloon sequence and the use of puppets did not quite convey the significance or really make any impact. I really wish that someone has been inspired by this production enough to give the show the full scale west end treatment it deserves.

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