Billy Parva: A True Story – Camden Fringe, Hen and Chickens Theatre

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Michael Mulqueen

Director: Robert Adams

Writer and Performer Michael Mulqueen has had a neat piece of serendipity in finding a North London pub to launch his take on the iconic ‘60s novel and film, Billy Liar. Because it is in this type of local drinking establishment, albeit one a lot less charming and salubrious than the admirable Hen and Chicken, that one might bump in to a lagered-up loudmouth fantasist like Billy Parva.

Billy, whose surname in Portuguese slang means ‘jerk’ or ‘moron’, has possibly done a line or two in the pub toilets, and consequently has a mouth set on maximum bullshit autopilot. Formerly Prince Andrew’s much-loved bodyguard, he is also an Iraq war veteran with multiple kills to his name, a Camden Town Casanova, a business genius who wins £7 million at a casino, and a hero who successfully sees off a gang of 40 muggers.

It is all fantasy of course. Rather like an awkward hour standing next to a tiresome (if humorous) pub bore, the audience for Mulqueen’s monologue has the challenging task of detecting what grains of truth lie beneath all this utter bosh.

Here lies the problem. While ‘don’t spell it out’ is a solid rule of thumb for a writer, so maddeningly brief and hazy are the glimpses Mulqueen gives us into Billy’s real life that the audience never has a chance to get to grips with who the character really is. That is a shame, because where the play works best is not in its recounting of ever more unreal comic imaginations, but in the harder-to-reach and sadder story of how Billy ends up where he is.

The hints are there: an absent mother, a father who cannot bear to be told he is loved, a damaged childhood, a brutalising army experience, a hectoring wife, failed marriage, and disastrous career. But these elements never come together coherently enough to explain why the character’s life so tragically submerges into fantastic disassociation. Billy begins and ends as a conundrum. He is funny, but he is not real.

Mulqueen is a skilled actor and able writer who is clearly invested in the character he has created. At times Billy Parva is both clever and laugh-out-loud funny, and the well-camouflaged twist-in-the-tail ending sets up a quality final punchline. But some more thoughtful character interrogation in place of easy laughs would make for a more convincing 60 minutes.

Runs until 10 August 2022

The Camden Fringe runs from 1-28 August 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Funny but thin

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