We live in something of a golden age as far as Fringe productions of music theatre are concerned. At least three venues (Union Theatre, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Walthamstow, The Gatehouse in Highgate) devote a large part of their output to musical revivals or UK premieres. And all of extremely high professional standards. However, their obsession with American works has to some extent crowded out the many fine British musicals which are crying out for revival.
All credit then to the Union Theatre for reminding us what a fine piece of work is ‘Billy’, a musical based on ‘Billy Liar’ which first appeared in London in 1974 and provided Michael Crawford with his first star vehicle.
But it is much more than a star vehicle. It has a supremely intelligent and funny book by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, best remembered for their TV work – ‘The Likely Lads’, ‘Porridge’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’. Their comedy has always been noted for its attention to character and the ability to draw pathos and substance out in a sitcom situation; ‘Billy’ is no exception.
The story of Billy Fisher, a Walter Mitty in clogs trapped in a dead-end (literally) job at an undertaker’s parlour and dreaming of going to London to be a script-writer, is well-known from being a novel, a play and a cult movie of the early 1960s starring Tom Courtenay. In the course of a day he juggles with the affections of three girls – domestic Barbara, bossy Rita and his dream girl, Liz, who represents the freedom he hasn’t the courage to seize. Every compulsive lie he comes up with digs him deeper into the pit.
In other hands – in the film, for example – this could have been a parade of Northern stereotypes. But one of the effects of the sparky score and of this humane production is to give depth to all the minor characters. For example, where Councillor Duxbury, the sleeping partner in the funeral business, was in the film seen through Billy’s eyes as a long-winded cliché-ridden bore, here he gets a haunting and haunted ballad, ‘It Were All Green Hills’. In Mark Turnbull’s quietly affecting performance, vistas open up of a past life and a lost sense of community. The hinterland opens up equally for Billy’s parents in sections of ‘Remembering’, a vision of a happy family before Billy turned so odd.
But it is on the character of Billy that the show stands or falls, and Keith Ramsey plays a blinder. There are shades of Rick Mayall in the popping eyes, of Leonard Rossiter in the nervous energy, but this remains a unique – and uniquely convincing – creation which lives in every moment. Rarely in musicals does an audience go so completely behind the eyes. Thanks to Ramsey the play is rooted in the reality of adolescence: the chafing at the limits, the alienation from mundane surroundings, the yearning to be different coupled with the secret knowledge that actually one isn’t. There is a moment when, after his grandmother dies, he cries out in anguish, “Why can’t I feel something?” and in this moment we get a stunning glimpse of the real hell which Billy lives in.
Ramsey also has a terrific voice. If the original production made Michael Crawford a star, this one deserves to do the same for Ramsey. At the very least this is a name to look out for in future.
John Barry demonstrates what a gifted and varied composer he was away from Bond themes, and Don Black’s lyrics are affectionate, character-driven and witty, if occasionally straining for cleverness (do people really have ‘handfuls of ink’?) The production by Michael Strassen is a joy, with the best lighting I’ve seen in a Fringe show in years. This and the soundscape move the show on at a lick, constantly inventive and surprising. Wisely the musical fantasy numbers have been scaled back – little of the Broadway pizzazz of the original – and this has the effect of focussing more on the story and its essential sadness.
There is however one failure of nerve in the writing, which is right at the end. Billy commits himself to going away to London with Liz, and then at the last minute his courage fails him and he creates an excuse to ‘miss’ the train. This should be a big moment of decision; it’s a conflict crying out to be properly musicalised. By failing to do so, by contenting themselves with a little self-pitying ballad after the event (‘I Missed the Last Rainbow’) Barry and Black, the audience is left with a vague sense of anticlimax. As a result, the applause is slightly more muted than this brilliant production deserves.