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Billy the Kid

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Tony Graham
Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

Billy the Kid production photo

You don't have to be a Chelsea supporter, or even a football fan, to enjoy this adaptation of Michael Murpurgo's novel about a lad who fulfils his dream of playing for Chelsea and what happens to him afterwards, but for those youngsters with a passion for "the beautiful game" it will be an especial treat; some of them will even get the chance to take a penalty kick before the play proper starts with the referee's whistle. A reworked revival of Unicorn's award-nominated production of 2007 with the same cast and on designer Adam Wiltshire's worn grass sward, I found it totally engaging..

It presents us with Billy, an old feller drinking on a park bench, and Sam, a youngster who's already demonstrating football skills and is up for a trial for Chelsea FC's Academy. At first you might think they were grandfather and grandson but Billy is actually dossing in a shed in Sam's family's garden.

Could washed-up old Billy really know anything about football? Gradually Sam realise that he does and begins to show him a little more respect, but how did this man who was once a Chelsea champion end up like this?

Billy not only tells Sam his story but becomes his mentor as Sam reveals both his dreams and doubts. "Do you want to play football or be a famous footballer?" Could there be a more telling way of contrasting attitudes between the generations?

Tony Graham shapes the adaptation in his own way and in just over an hour does not attempt to pack in every detail but creates a clear story that, in his deft production, moves smoothly from Billy's reminiscences into re-enactment

Dudley Sutton, as Billy, plays the old man and his younger self, from teenager through his service in the Medical Corps, prison camp and the mine that put an end to his playing days and descent into despair and does it magnificently. Perhaps he is just a little too likeable; it comes as a surprise when, late in the play, Sam calls him smelly, but through the kindliness you also get a sense of his own awareness of how his obsession with football made him ill equipped for life without it, as well as share his reaction to the tragedies of war and of the concentration camps.

Sam Donovan plays not only today's young footballer Sam but all the other characters in Billy's story, doing so with little more help to distinguish them than a change of jacket, often made in a way that marks the transition. He is Billy's World War One survivor Dad, wheezing from the persistent effect of being gassed, Billy's younger brother, killed at Dunkirk soon after enlisting, his team mates and army muckers. It is accomplished playing. These two actors make an excellent team; with discreet support from what I presume is the stage management as the referee and the unicorn.

It is recommended for eight years old and over. Though they may not pick up on references to Hitler and his henchman in snatches like the singing of "Hitler's got one ball" or know how much 12/6d was when his wage in the 1930's trainee squad is compared with the £50k a week of today's big stars, there is plenty to hold their attention, include a possible handshake with the theatre's own emblem, a unicorn that invades the pitch.

It will give older children and grown-ups quite a lot to think about in its comparison of the grassroots football of pre World War Two with the multi-million pound business of today and balances the pacifist viewpoint of Billy's father, gassed at the Somme, against the patriotic fervour of his brother but there is nothing preachy about Morpurgo, it is all part of the story.

Billy the Kid is Tony Graham's thirty-second production at the Unicorn and his last as Artistic Director, a post he had held since 1997. We wish him well with whatever challenges face him as a freelance director. His successor, Purni Morell, has a hard act to follow.

"Billy the Kid" runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 30th October 2011

Sandra Giorgetti reviewed the 2007 production

Reviewer: Howard Loxton