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Billy Young: A Life On Death Row – Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham

Writer and Director: Nathalie Bazan

Reviewer: Sam Chipman

The story of a man living life on death row is not a new one, the 1999 film The Green Mile famously explored the theme, but it is one that has captured the imagination over the years. There is something of a fascination about what goes on in the mind when death is expected, the waiting game so to speak, and this piece of theatre explores that with a deal of success.

Billy is serving a life sentence for murder and is due to be executed. As the audience, we act as the “imaginary friends” that he talks to in his final days when hallucinations have kicked in. We see his cellmates come and go, as we also track the story of the events that led to his imprisonment.

There are three Billy’s in the production at ages 23, 33 and 51 – although one feels that just using two actors for the part would have been viable and may have worked marginally better.

Perry Jaques is very engaging as Billy at 23. He has a marvellous ability to pull you in with his eyes and portrays the man affected by war and his own crimes confidently. His wife, played by Kate Swan, slips into alcoholism and self-destructs: a much nuanced, warm performance given by Swan, who makes us feel for the characters plight despite her impulsive decision-making. It takes John Cleaver as older Billy a little time to grow into the rôle, his physicality could be stronger in the opening, but his performance grows as the piece progresses. The scene where his son Benjamin (Ben Mitchell) visits is touching and the audience is gripped from this point to his execution.

There are nice turns from Oliver Stanley as the Prison Guard, who gives a strong, thoughtful interpretation, Dom Hartley-Harris as the ever calm meditating Hugo Daniels and James Edge who gives a strong physical character-driven performance as the psychotic rapist Jacob Wiley.

The set design is minimalistic, essential furniture comes on and off neatly as required. The lighting design is equally neat, and lends itself well to the location of the scenes. The staging, though fine in sections, is not particularly ideal. A rather long traverse means we are mostly tight to the action, although some scenes in the corners are rather obscured from parts of the audience – your neck may need a good stretch afterwards.

More work could have been done to make the character of Billy more consistent between the actors, especially with the accent, in which there were variations between the ages. However, there is a strange facial likeness between Jaques and Cleaver which certainly works. Also depth could be added to the characters, you get the feeling some of them are never fully rounded and bordering on being archetypal. But character writing comes with experience, and there are positive signs of all the ingredients being there; just a little spice needs adding to the recipe.

There is more to be found in how the waiting affects the mind and the consequences of being part of such a horrific war. We see Billy slip into hallucinations towards the end of the play and are told he still hears gunfire, but one feels seeing more of the trauma would elevate the play and make us feel more for his downfall.

A strong writing debut for Nathalie Bazan. Yes, refinements can be made and layers added, but very compelling work with strong acting performances.

 

 

Writer and Director: Nathalie Bazan Reviewer: Sam Chipman The story of a man living life on death row is not a new one, the 1999 film The Green Mile famously explored the theme, but it is one that has captured the imagination over the years. There is something of a fascination about what goes on in the mind when death is expected, the waiting game so to speak, and this piece of theatre explores that with a deal of success. Billy is serving a life sentence for murder and is due to be executed. As the audience, we act as…

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