Billy with his Boots on
Middle Child Theatre Company
Hull Truck Studio
Billy with his Boots on marks the first production by Middle Child since becoming an Associate Company of Hull Truck. Since its founding in October 2011, it has quickly become part of the cultural scene of Hull following a number of successful productions. Billy with his Boots on is premièred at Hull Truck prior to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Tom Needham’s script imagines an imminently futuristic Britain which has re-introduced capital punishment on the back of a popularist tabloid campaign. Billy Jones (Mungo Arney), a movie-fixated teenager from an impoverished and troubled background, is accused of the murder of a police officer. His life story, trial and eventual execution are shown through the means of a crude reality TV show with a smug Jeremy Kylesque host Jack (James Stanyer) introducing the action and orchestrating the audience response.
He is supported by ‘expert comentary’ from street poet and drug addict Roxy (Sophie Thompson) and film director Bernard (Matthew May). Billy’s inability to grasp the reality of his situation is highlighted by his well meaning but, ultimately, ineffectual lawyer Miss Brewer (Ellen Brammar), while his criminal brother Ryan (Marc Graham) cares only for the money-making opportunities the situation offers him.
The play is timely enough with the antics of the popular press under scrutiny as never before, and contemptible “documentaries” such as Channel 4’s Skint reflecting the suburban prejudices of certain types of film-maker rather than any particular social blight. This is an area that is ripe for merciless satire; the shame of it is that Billy with his Boots on doesn’t really provide it.
Part of the problem with the play is that in choosing the reality TV show format it is limiting itself in its scope. We already know that Kyle and his ilk are odious and that the judgements they make are crass and simplistic. In a sense the format is already a parody and it's difficult to make it any more ridiculous than it already is. It’s a bit like trying to send up the Eurovision Song Contest; you can’t parody a parody.
The frequent interactions Jack has with the audience serve to leave them more bemused than shocked and the re-working of popular songs ( eg "Changes" and "In the Ghetto") more baffled than either amused or enlightened. There is nothing shocking, outrageous or disturbing in this piece, no matter how hard the company tries to deliver.
As one might expect, Middle Child approaches the work with its usual energy, commitment and creativity. Sophie Thompson is particularly impressive as the increasingly deranged Roxy and Mungo Areny as the hapless Billy invests layers of characterisation in his performance that enable us to feel for his fate.
Paul Smith directs with his usual decisiveness and clarity, while the music composed and arranged by James Frewer effectively charts the changes in tone of the piece. However, they are up against a script which is too confused to be the satire it purports to be.
Reviewer: Richard Vergette