The independent *****

michael coveney

Forget Billy Elliot the musical and remember Billy Liar, the novel by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, template for all northern working-class, aspirational escape stories in the 1960s, the Tom Courtenay movie and, in 1974, this marvellous, resonating and utterly authentic show written by “Bond movie” composer, the late, great John Barry, television comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais (The Likely Lads, Porridge, etc) and Tin Pan Alley and Lloyd Webber lyricist Don Black.

Black, making his West End debut – and daring to rhyme William Thackeray with a vodka daiquiri -- stuffed more lyrical wit and brio into the music than a sardine packer ever stuffed oil into those tiny fish-filled tins: it’s a fabulous distillation of the best Yorkshire re-telling of the Walter Mitty fable ever written (“Some of us belong to the stars”), and Michael Crawford glittered like gold – and descended a light-up staircase -- in the West premiere in a cast that included Diana Quick, Elaine Paige and Timothy West’s dad as an old town councillor,. 

Lockwood West, in flat cap and raincoat, sang “It were all green hills” (when I were a lad) and it’s a mark of Michael Strassen’s feisty, intelligent, sensationally well lit (by Tim Deiling)  production, that Mark Turnbull as Councillor Duxbury can sing that song, and move us to tears, in a barathea blazer with gold buttons on it.

There’s a big second act shift, too, towards one of Billy’s more ambitious girlfriends – Liz, played in the film by Julie Christie – who almost, but not quite, inveigles him onto the York train south to King’s Cross. She’s got two new songs (added after the premiere when the show went on tour), and Katerina Stearman, mouth as wide as the Hull estuary, makes the most – and then a bit more -- of them.

Billy himself is played with a provocative, coltish charm by Keith Ramsay, first seen dreaming in pyjamas in a stand-up bed before facing the kitchen table reality of mum, dad and grandma – all brilliantly cast and very well played (and sung) here by Ricky Butt, Mark Carroll and Paddy Glynn.

The acrid wit and irony stemming from Billy’s employment at the undertakers is boundless; it’s the show’ greatest strength that it becomes a musical by transcending the ordinary, making the everyday, immortal. Billy dreams in a land of milk and honey, ie, Ambrosia. The first act is extraordinary and the second, like Gypsy’s, tapers off into mere brilliance. 

the stage

mark shenton

The Union Theatre was recently reprieved from a threatened redevelopment of its site beneath railway arches in Southwark by its landlords Network Rail, and its revival of Billy is proof positive of just why the venue is so essential.

First of all, it gives musical theatre fans a chance to see a show that has unaccountably disappeared from view since its 1974 West End premiere - this is its first London revival since then - despite a pedigree that includes music by the late John Barry and lyrics by the indefatigable Don Black. But it also gives its performers - veterans and newcomers alike - a brilliant showcase for their talents, especially as staged here with the kind of integrity and showmanship by Michael Strassen that gives both this show’s loving book (by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais) and lovely score equal dramatic weight and impact.

On a virtually bare stage that only defines its shifts from reality to fantasy with changes in Tim Deiling’s creative lighting, we once again encounter the strange, moody but oddly compelling world of young Billy, the compulsive liar who works as an undertaker’s assistant in Yorkshire but dreams of life as a writer in London.

“Some of us belong to the stars, and that is where I am going. I will soar all over the sky, and I won’t need a Boeing,” sings Billy, played by Keith Ramsay, and it could be an autobiographical note on both character and actor. As one critic noted of Michael Crawford in the original production, “There is no magic quite like being right there when a star is born”, and here, Ramsay lends Billy a lonely charisma that means you can’t take your eyes off him.

But he is far from the show’s only revelation. In a superb ensemble, Katerina Stearman - playing one of three women Billy is juggling - also surprises in a striking musical theatre debut, while veterans of the genre Mark Carroll, Ricky Butt and Paddy Glynn lend Billy’s parents and grandmother respectively a sincere heart.

TIME OUT ****

MATT TRUEMAN

'Michael Strassen – master of the micro-musical...His secret is simply playing for truth and, thanks to Tim Deiling’s stellar lighting, Billy’s colourful headspace still explodes like a firework.'

'Keith Ramsay is a thoroughbred treat as Billy, all twinkle and tremble...when he falls in with Katerina Stearman’s Liz, particularly for ‘My Heart is Ready When You Are’, it’s meltingly affecting, while Ricky Butt and Mark Carroll play his long-suffering parents with tender affection'

daily express ****

Simon Edge

'With saucer eyes, slack jaw and rubbery, jack-in-the-box neck, high-voiced young Keith Ramsay is mesmerising…'

'This twitchy, disconcerting portrayal of a sociopathic liar is several shades darker than Tom Courtenay’s screen Billy, but his combination of jiggling, eye-rolling charisma with brute selfishness gives director Michael Strassen’s production an authentic, gritty edge… He is well supported by a 16-strong cast (huge given the size of the venue) including a tap-dancing Ricky Butt as Billy’s mother and Katerina Stearman as Liz, the one girl who truly ‘gets’ him.'

WEst end frame *****

Andrew Tomlins

'Michael Strassen's direction is mesmerising...This revival is hard to fault'

'The cast are outstanding…Keith Ramsay is absolutely sensational in the title role'

The Upcoming *****

andrew collins

'Michael Strassen handled the direction expertly'

'Keith Ramsay…a tour de force: his bouncing, energetic and borderline manic performance was cheeky in all the right places, while womanising and dishonest in the rest.'

Broadway World

gary naylor

'…the Union Theatre have another musical revival hit to pack in the punters.'

'Director Michael Strassen is well served by plenty of Union Theatre favourites and some new faces. Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt break off from bemoaning their feckless son to recall the delights of parenthood - fleeting though they are - in "Remembering". Mark Turnbull's no-nonsense councillor poignantly reflects on post-war urban development in "It Were All Green Hills", with its lament for the advent of the multi-storey car park. And Billy's three girlfriends deliver their setpiece songs with lovely voices, as homely Barbara (Rosie Clarkson), brassy Rita (Laura Bryars) and wannabe Chelsea Girl Liz (Katerina Stearman) vie for Billy's attention.

one stop arts ****

johnny fox

'Flawless ensemble: Katerina Stearman as the girlfriend Liz who actually "gets" Billy and Adam Colbeck-Dunn as best mate Arthur stand out, and a trio of bouquets for the stalwart centerpiece mum, dad and gran of Mark Carroll, Ricky Butt and Paddy Glynn.'

front row dress *****

toni heath

'There’s another northern musical Billy in town and he’s every equal to the other…an almost forgotten gem has been unearthed and is newly polished and sparkling.'

'Keith Ramsay…an outrageously accomplished, incredibly physical performance'