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Billy the Kid

Adapted by Tony Graham from the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Unicorn Theatre
(2007)

Production photograph

Chelsea fan: "What is the difference between Arsenal and a teabag?"
- "A teabag stays in the cup for longer!"

On the surface Billy the Kid is a play about the shared love of two men for the beautiful game, but there are many other themes.

The two men are very different, Billy is old and habitually drunk and the other, Sam, an energetic youth, is benignly disrespectful. It is Sam's persistent curiosity that causes the old boy's story to be revealed which the audience see though a series of flash-backs.

The story is an appealing one to children because Billy's dream came true - he was spotted playing football as a boy and was apprenticed to his team. He progressed from boot-cleaner and the reserves to be a young striker for Chelsea.

The game was all that mattered to him. It was hard and the pay was small but paradise was to be found at the shed end where the fans chanted, "Billy the Kid, Billy the Kid".

Sam wants the same thing. He wants to get signed up to the academy and play for Chelsea, but Sam is seduced by the idea of "footballers' money" and "footballers' wives". It is the instant celebrity he wants as much as anything.

When he asks Billy if he thinks that he will ever be able to play for Chelsea, Billy sagely replies, "It depends what you are prepared to give up" - one of Billy's many 'pearls of wisdom' that Sam can't or doesn't want to understand.

The role of Sam is taken by Sam Donovan who graduated only last year from the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. He does very well as Sam but he has a hard job here because he also plays a number of other parts in the flash-back sequences. This includes a difficult scene where he has the role of Billy's dad, wheezing from being gassed in World War I, as he makes Billy promise never to fight in battle.

When the second world war starts, and Billy's brother is killed in action, Billy is torn between enlisting and his promise and so joins up as a paramedic. He is captured by the Italians and taken to a POW camp where he meets a fellow football-mad Chelsea fan, another role which Sam Donovan pulls off convincingly. As with the relationship with Sam, the brotherhood of football proves a powerful bond.

Billy is played by Dudley Sutton, known to many older children and adults from Eastenders and Lovejoy. He has to play Billy from innocent child to old dosser which he does with apparent ease. He is funny singing "Hitler has only got one ball" and stirring when remembering the "skeletons in pyjamas" at Belsen.

What is less clear is whether the children were able to follow precisely what turn the story was taking with only a change of accent or the donning of a jacket as a clue to those kids whose attention was wavering. It probably didn't matter hugely.

Tony Graham, who ably directed the piece, has adapted the story from the novel and admits that whilst the story is the same it is told differently - avid Morpurgo readers be warned! The writing is supported by an effectively simple set and minimal props. When Billy is captured during the war, the use of a football goal net to suggest the confines of a prison camp is a delicate irony.

Younger children will pick up on the outline story and enjoy the reference to farts, the football jokes and the cheering. Older children will have this and will get a lot more from this adaptation which had some subtle and moving moments which highlighted the underlying themes of friendship and the cruelty of war.

Until 10th June 2007 - suitable for age 8 and above

Howard Loxton reviewed the 2011 revival

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti