A young clerk in a gloomy North Country undertaker's office, Billy's humdrum job, wild imagination and unhappy family life, leads him on frequent flights to "Ambrosia," a mythical kingdom where he is crowned king, general, lover or any idealized hero the real situation of the moment makes him desire. His vacillating commitment and immaturity have created situations which make Ambrosia all the more attractive.
He's succeeded in becoming engaged to two different girls simultaneously, while in love with a third, Liz. He's in hot water with his employer, having spent a rather large sum of postage money on his personal frivolities. And last, but not least, his dream of becoming a highly-paid, famous scriptwriter in London seems doomed to failure. The only person in his life capable of bringing him down to earth is Liz, and she's having a difficult time of it.
Finally, he gets his life sufficiently in order to leave for London with his true love. Billy still hasn't come to grips with the real world by the end of the film. He leaves the train to buy milk from a vending machine and watches the train slowly pull out for London with Liz aboard. He returns to the more comfortable shelter of his parents home, Ambrosia and his imagination.
Billy Fisher – Keith Ramsey
Geoffrey, his dad – Mark Carroll
Alice, his mum – Ricky Butt
Gran – Paddy Glynn
Cllr Duxberry – Mark Turnbull
Shadrack, the Undertaker – Michael Adams
Liz – Katerina Stearman
Barbara – Rosie Clarkson
Rita – Laura Bryars
Arthur – Adam Colbeck-Dunn
Based on “Billy Liar” by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
Music by John Barry
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Director: Michael Strassen
Musical Director: Richard Bates
Costume: Elle-Rose Hughes
For chrissakes be well-behaved if you decide to go and see this, because the Director is a real cow, and you are liable to get a slap (or, at the very least, a detention and 250 lines) if you misbehave in any way. I KNOW that audiences these days have little consideration for performers and fellow audience members and are liable to either forget to turn their mobile phone off (so that it generally goes off during the quiet bits) or, even worse, sit there fiddling with it because nobody has an attention span of more than 7.3 minutes any more, but I really don’t expect to be treated like a naughty schoolboy while sitting waiting patiently for a show to start. I know that preview performances are an anxious time for a director, who has probably not had a decent night’s sleep for a week or so beforehand, and it can't have helped that someone very audibly complained to their companion that they thought it was going to be Billy Elliott but I don’t expect to be told “Right everyone, turn your mobile phones OFF and NO sitting there texting or updating Facebook or whatever, OK?”. The audience cowered slightly and collectively and Herr Direktor stalked off towards the wings, trailing a nervous stage manager in his wake like an anxious tugboat bobbing around a cruise liner. It was then that anxious tugboat pointed out to HMS Direktor that there had been a spillage of some kind in one of the voms (luvvie-speak for vomitorium, ie one of the places where the cast make their entrances and exits and access backstage) and he was off again: “WHO spilled this drink here? Has someone spilled their DRINK HERE??!!!” (pointing). The audience sat there in that slightly dangerous silence you used to get when everyone knew that someone had put a fake dog turd in the teacher’s drawer, most of you knew who had put it there but nobody was about to own up and wouldn’t point the finger for fear of being called a Grass for the rest of term. Tugboat steamed off for a mop and HMS Director sailed off into the sunset covered in outraged righteousness. So just be warned, OK, don’t upset the director or you may find yourself spending the rest of the evening in A&E at Guy’s just down the road.
I hope that HMS Director had a word with his cast afterwards. C’mon people, this is supposed to be a professional show. There are standards, even at the Union. It doesn’t take much to give your trousers a quick press, make sure your shoes are clean, find a pair of socks that aren’t more hole than sock and think ahead and wear a white jockstrap under your white Y-fronts if you are going to take your trousers off in front of the audience, because a black jockstrap under white Y-fronts really don’t look classy. If your leading man’s tie is outside his collar and at half mast, put it right for him rather than leaving him looking like a reject from the gallows. And, Mr. Tugboat, if your cast are sitting round a table with a cloth on it which is referred to in the score as being stripey, have a bit of a rummage around for a stripey tablecloth rather than chucking on a plain one and hoping nobody will notice. Give it a rinse through in the sink first. If one of your props is a coffin, for Pete’s sake at least DUST IT even if you can’t be bothered to give it a wipe over with a damp cloth and a squirt of Mr. Sheen. If one of your cast has to dress as Marilyn Munroe and you have a limited budget for wigs, either learn to dress your wig yourself or take it to a good hairdresser and say “This currently looks like a dead gerbil that died after a long and protracted struggle with mange but I need it to look like Marilyn Munroe”.
In its first professional incarnation, this show apparently filled the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for nearly two years. God only knows how, because it seems such a little show. I really can’t imagine it on an enormous stage – there just doesn’t seem to be enough of it. Most of the settings are domestic – the dining room of a small terraced house, an undertaker’s office, a provincial nightclub – and even in the confined space of the Union they didn’t seem to fill all the available space. Perhaps its just this production that makes it seem small. Even the fantasy sequences, set in Billy’s mythical kingdom of Ambrosia, look and feel cramped. The show itself feels horribly dated, yet not yet old enough to feel period. Its quaint, homespun, almost parochially English, with comedy Northerners being jolly and singing ditties about “When a’wur a lad”. Fortunately no whippets, cloth caps or brass bands, but I can’t see this show ever making it on Broadway. It would need a glossary in the programme or simultaneous translation.
It really doesn’t help when your leading man, playing an unsympathetic, gormless character, plays it so gormless that you would gladly get up and throttle him with his own underpants. Keith Ramsey as Billy has a terrible habit of tilting his head, adopting a strange leer and looking out of the top corners of his eyes. Whether this attitude is supposed to represent dreamy indecision or sheer gormlessness I don’t know, (or even whether it is merely done to avoid making eye contact with any of the audience) but it’s done to excess and it drove me fecking mad. Rosie Clarkson as Barbara does a nice job of repressed virginity, and Ricky Butt gives a sterling performance as Billy’s harassed and bewildered mother (and she can tap like a dream, too). Katerina Stearman, in her first acting role as Liz, seemed really, really hesitant and unsure at first but seemed to warm up towards the end and possesses the rare and amazing ability to make herself cry (properly, mark you) on demand.
So there were a few (a very few) bright points in this production but its general lack of polish, coupled with a dreary plot, unsympathetic lead character and major downer of an ending made me relieved when it was all over. I know that the Union works on a budget that wouldn’t even keep The Mousetrap in fake snow but I’ve seen shows here that knock Billy out through the window and into the street in terms of production values, and certainly I’ve never been harangued by a director before. There must be better shows to do than resurrect this dreary old museum piece.
The highlight of the evening, undoubtedly, was finding a pair of RayBan sunglasses down the side of my seat as I got up to leave. Thank god that HMS Director didn’t see me put them in my pocket or I’d be in detention from now until Michelmas.