Long before Billy Elliot chasséd his way out of Etherington, Billy Fisher was trying to escape another fictional Northern town, Stradhoughton, to ply his trade as gagsmith to the stars in London. But Billy keeps pulling his punchlines. Every time he tries to leave the house, he boomerangs back, terrified of falling short. Far safer to be brilliant in your own bedroom than risk everything for real success. We’ve all felt that.
Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s classic 1959 novel made it to the stage and screens big and small before John Barry and Don Black’s delightful little musical came along 15 years later. Back then, Michael Crawford played the eponymous fantasist, who keeps retreating to a world of his own imagination called Ambrosia, and Elaine Paige was one of his three girlfriends-on-the-go.
With its show-stopping fantasy sequences, the obvious route is to go for glitz. But doing so risks overwhelming what’s actually a rather slight story with gorgeously delicate songs and some dazzling lyrical gymnastics. Fortunately, Michael Strassen – master of the micro-musical – needs only a table and chairs for this revival. 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 Ramsey is a thoroughbred treat as Billy, all twinkle and tremble – imagine Puck with Aspergers Syndrome – even if he lacks the sexual swagger to set three women squabbling. But 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.
By Matt Trueman