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.
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.
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.
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