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A review by Vanessa Bunn for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Unicorn Theatre Presents


Billy the Kid


by Michael Morpurgo


Adapted and directed by Tony Graham


Unicorn Theatre


24 September - 30 October 2011


Billy the Kid was written by Michael Morpurgo and first published in 2000 prior to his post as Children's Laureate. First staged four years ago, this rousing tale has been adapted for this production by Tony Graham in what will be his 32nd and final production for the Unicorn Theatre.

In an interactive opening scene children from the audience are invited to take shots at a goal chalked onto a red brick wall which forms a key part of the set. An atmospheric painted sky will lend itself to everything from an evening under stars to Europe at war. The park bench that Billy (Dudley Sutton) sits on will later represent seats at a dining table and a car. An old wire bin holds some of the many costumes Sam Donovan will wear as he represents impolite young upstart Sam, Billy's father, his brother Joey, his comrade at war, an Italian referee, a doctor and a Liverpudlian policeman. His constant transformation between characters is no mean feat and he performs each role with equal enthusiasm and admirable focus.

The play follows Billy and Sam in intermittent conversation as Billy's mind wanders back through the past to include his heyday at Stamford Bridge as a young superstar for Chelsea Football Club and his traumatic time at war. Sam has his own dreams of playing for Chelsea Football Club and much is made of the alternative values both characters place on football careers. This makes for both comic and tragic comparisons; the children in the audience are delighted by recognisable names and places, including those of other football teams, while football's descent into materialism is well illustrated for the more nostalgic adult audience.

This dual role of Billy the Kid, delighting with humour while managing to portray the sad history of Billy comprehensively and with some tenderness is one of the play's strengths. When Billy is captured by the Italians as a prisoner of war he is restrained in what appears to be a giant goal net. Donovan, as Italian referee in a football game at the prison, raises the roof with his faux-Italian rant which lists everything from Super Mario to mocha. An eventful evening on the run while at war includes some convincing dancing with invisible partners and the consumption of imaginary dinners.

Bursts of singing and chanting about war and football spontaneously erupt from the characters at intervals throughout the production and Billy provides the odd melody on harmonica. These cleverly arranged moments serve a dual purpose in holding the attention of the young audience members, many of whom seemed to be duly affected by the production. Sam's intention to attend Chelsea Football academy forms a thread which can be followed throughout the play, and although some transitions between characters may not initially be entirely clear, this does not adversely affect the story as a whole.

Wonderful lighting by Phil Clarke blends the scenes and illustrates time, location and atmosphere using the sky-painted backdrop to its full potential and subtly spotlighting characters at key moments. Sound effects by John Avery provide similar atmospheric enhancement - highlights include a rowdy football crowd and the initial flashback to war which pulls the audience from a soft harmonica melody by Billy into all out chaos. Costumes are basic but effective and conducive to continuing action, while some of the costume changes are as novel as the clothes themselves.

Billy the Kid is an entertaining and moving observation of a tumultuous companionship between two characters with similar ambitions played out in different generations. It is also the tender tale of one old vagrant's descent into hardship and provides ample food for thought as to the reasons why people “end up” in distress. Dudley Sutton and Sam Donovan are both commendable in their roles and an excellent chemistry between the two makes the friendships and exchanges portrayed all the more convincing. With an appropriately redemptive ending and a mixture of fun and storytelling Billy the Kid offers a terrific evening of entertainment for all ages.


Box Office: 020 7645 0560
Unicorn Theatre
147 Tooley Street, Southwark, London, SE1 2HZ
Tickets: Full price £13-£19 / Concessions £8-£12 / Family Ticket £34-£54

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