A Friday press night and a Monday deadline is a luxury which means I may have “liked” Billy on first sight, but appreciated it more at two days’ distance.

Combining Yorkshire grit and utopian fantasy, it pictures 19-year old dreamer Billy Fisher who escapes the monotony of his family life and clerical job at an undertaker’s for an imaginary dictatorship of Ambrosia and Hollywood fame. In real life, he’s simultaneously dating three local girls: homely Barbara, gobby Rita and soulmate Liz.

It’s amazing that with such pedigree the show hasn’t been revived: the original novel by Keith Waterhouse was on the O Level curriculum, his stage adaptation with partner Willis Hall was a success for the young Albert Finney, and Tom Courtenay played Billy in the new wave movie directed by John Schlesinger and ranked 12th in the greatest British films of all time by Total Filmmagazine.

At the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1974 it was a spectacular production, and in retrospect I feel lucky to have seen the show that both made a star out of Michael Crawford and, despite the fact she was featured convincingly as the loudmouth scrubber Rita, that also catapulted a little-known Elaine Paige back to her mum’s spare room in Barnet until she was “discovered” four years later by Hal Prince for Evita.

It was therefore surprisingly generous of Paige to play on her Sunday Radio 2 show a clip from the Union’s own production featuring Mountview graduate Keith Ramsay as Billy. Hearing it again on the radio confirmed for me what a remarkable talent he has, and a lovely voice uncorrupted by artificial techniques.

The script is still sharp: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, writers of The Likely Lads, did the adaptation, with music by James Bond-theme composer John Barry and “Diamonds are Forever” lyricist Don Black, and although some of Black’s lyrics feel tortured, there’s little dust on the show’s 40-year vintage.

Director Michael Strassen’s challenge is to shrink a musical he’s too young to have seen from Drury Lane to the Union and, in the same way he wrested Call Me Madam from the deceased maw of the Merman, he’s cast a convincingly youthful Billy with a freshness and naivete that neither Crawford nor Courtenay evinced.

Ramsay’s hand-clenching and eye rolling are too modern and too far along the autistic spectrum (this isn’t The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time), but his gentle yet supported voice and the innocence of his musical expression colour the songs beautifully. He even manages to understate some of the relentlessly overworked lyrics, like “I’ll hang my hat in every part of the atlas. Most of the time I will be hopelessly hatless”, whose Wensleydale cheesiness would stick in many a lesser singer’s throat.

You may feel shortchanged by the scenery: there is none, and Billy’s fantasies are realised with lighting changes (bravura work by Tim Deiling) and cardboard cut-outs, although the opening anthem by the population of Ambrosia is ferociously good and has some melting harmonies, courtesy of musical director Richard Bates. Strassen is also his own choreographer and the movement is electrifying too, although I couldn’t work out why only the women have tap shoes.

Elaine Paige played the title song on the radio, but it’s a shame that the even-better “Some Of Us Belong To The Stars”, with its Cole Porter-esque intro, never made it as a standard.

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.

Date reviewed: Friday 31st May 2013

Image © Sam Mackenzie-Armstrong

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.