Ripon Operatics serve up the best of Billy

NADV 1204177 RAO cast of Billy. Wil Eley (Billy) picture : Adrian Murray (1204177AM5)
NADV 1204177 RAO cast of Billy. Wil Eley (Billy) picture : Adrian Murray (1204177AM5)
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IT MAY not be as well known as some of the high profile musicals, but Billy is a show that deserves to be seen more of.

Written as Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse in the late 1950s, the story was later made into a play, a successful 1963 film and popular TV series.

The musical is written by TV sitcom writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, of Likely Lads and Porridge fame, music comes from the late composer John Barry famed for his film scores and lyrics are by well known English lyricist Don Black.

Thanks to RAOP’s fine interpretation in the capable hands of Phill Ruddy as director/choreogrpaher and Phil Redding as musical director with an 11-piece band (placed at the back of the stage), the show moves along at a speedy pace.

Stage settings are kept simple with a backdrop of silhouetted buildings, and moveable stage pieces convert easily from Billy’s home, to the Roxy club, the park, the station and funeral parlour.

The story, set in Yorkshire in the late 1950s, centres on young Billy Fisher, a compulsive liar and undertaker’s assistant who daydreams and lies about his life. He’d like to leave his dull, middle-class life behind though and dreams endlessly of a better life.

Dream sequences, and there are many, are depicted with a lowering of the lights, and the array of characters in Billy’s mythical land of Ambrosia, where he is President and Captain of the football team, works beautifully. In one particular dream, he dances his way to fame and fortune and the ‘Hollywood-esque’ sequence with tap dance and tango at the end of Act One is superb.

As Billy juggles three girlfriends and talks repeatedly of a imaginary London job offer as a comedy scriptwriter, reality ultimately kicks in. As his despairing, long-suffering parents played to perfection here by Vanessa Horwell and Ron Ainsley stand by watching and worrying for Billy, the ending when it comes is perhaps not surprising.

Will Eley is astoundingly good in the title role and conveys likeability, fun and enthusiasm with a very real empathy for his character that augers well for this young actor’s future. He carries the show with ease and with singing and tap dancing skills alike, it was very easy to warm to the character.

Adam Makepeace also turns in a fine performance as friend, Arthur, but as with all teenagers, it’s Billy’s relationship with his parents plus three girlfriends that is central to the plot.

Each girl has her own inimitable style from the rough, common bluntness of Rita (Jenny Brown), the sweetness and light of homemaker and orange lover Barbara (Helen Johnson) to the ideal qualities of Liz (Kay Bartlett-Young). Their singing voices blend well too both as ensembles and in duets with Billy.

Comedy highlights include Billy’s intentions to resign from the funeral parlour with boss Shadrack (Andrew Swarbrick) forever ‘wanting a word’ and though a funeral isn’t the time for laughs, the coffin bearers scene was hilarious.

There’s nice northern characterisations throughout, particularly from Albert Day as Councillor Duxbury as he reminisces in ‘Green Hills.’

What works so effectively though is the contrast after the departure of Gran (Mary Day in fine form here) and the effect it has on the family. Not wanting to give more away in case you plan to see Billy, there’s a very moving ending.

RAOP chose well here so if you’re looking to escape the wet weather this weekend, you’d be well advised to book your tickets and escape to Ambrosia with Billy et al!

Maggie Gell

l Performances continue tonight and tomorrow, including Saturday matinee. For tickets, call 01423 502116.