Michael Morpurgo is well known as the original creator and writer of the theatre sensation that is War Horse, but it isn’t the only one of his tales to reach the stage. Mind you there are plenty to choose from – the former Children’s Laureate has published well over a hundred books – and The Butterfly Lion, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful, An Elephant In The Garden and The Mozart Question have all been successfully staged. Billy The Kid was produced at the Unicorn Theatre in 2007 (and revived in 2011) in an adaptation by Tony Graham and is now available online via a couple of the major theatre streaming services.
Although the play is ostensibly about football this just a hook on which to hang the story; it is actually more concerned with one of Morpurgo’s constant themes throughout his work – that of war and its effects on humankind. The central character, Billy, is a dishevelled elderly man who inhabits a garden shed though has dreams and memories of the rather more famous Shed – one of the stands at Chelsea. For it transpires that Billy was once a star prospect for the club but failed to make the grade after World War 2 intervened and derailed his potential career. He has now fallen on hard times and lives on his memories and out of a bottle which he carries in his pocket. He has, however, struck up a relationship with young Sam; they have bonded over their passion for the “beautiful game”. Sam is just about to have a professional trial but doesn’t want to listen to Billy’s advice, regarding him as past it. They are also at odds over the potential rewards from making the big time. Billy’s passion is for the game itself while Sam sees it as a path to fame and riches
So, Billy tells Sam his personal history and it is one that spans the decades. Despite warnings from his own father (who succumbs to wrecked lungs from fighting in the First World War) Billy finds himself caught up in events in the North African campaign, imprisoned by his Italian captors and survives this only to become embroiled in the liberation of the German death camps. He has seen life in the raw and is hopeful that Sam will learn valuable lessons. Gradually the two learn to understand and appreciate each other across their intergenerational divide and Sam, particularly, finds new resolve to help him meet his goals.
There are only two actors in this adaptation. Dudley Sutton plays Billy at various points in the character’s life from the young wide eyed child he once was to the grubby alcoholic of his late years. Sam is played by Sam Donovan who also fleshes out all the other roles as the people who Billy interacts with throughout his life. Sutton and Donovan, though separated by decades of experience, give convincing and well-rounded performances which bring the story to life; there’s an interesting scene of role reversal where the younger actor plays the father of the 78 year old who is playing Billy as a young boy. Donovan particularly manages a number of convincing characterisations with the aid of some changes of costume integrated into the action. The set is a clever composite from Adam Wiltshire which along with Tony Graham’s direction encourages the audience to use its imagination as when a park bench becomes the front of an ambulance; a particularly good touch is the use of goal netting for the Prisoner of War camp.
Billy The Kid packs a lot into its 50 minutes and would make for a thought provoking choice of viewing for younger theatre goers over the upcoming Easter break. It also contains several worthy messages about respect for one another which are not rammed home and are all the better for it. It might disappoint football fanatics as there’s actually very little of that going on and some of the then topical references to famous sportsmen have passed their sell by date. But as outside sports open up from today you could always have a post watch kick about with this powerful story as a background.
Billy The Kid is available on the Digital Theatre platform – click here and the Broadway HD platform – click here
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