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Review: Love, Billy at Lyric Theatre

It's been 30 years since we last saw Billy Martin, the hero of Graham Reid's much feted television trilogy. He left us without warning or forwarding address. And he left a Belfast punctuated with bullets and bomb blasts.

Three decades later, he has returned to a very different city. The security gates and bomb scares have for the most part, gone. Belfast is trying on its new, smiley face for size, waiting to see what happens next.

 

The Martin family are waiting, too - for the homecoming of the angry young man, who's coming back to celebrate their father Norman's 73th birthday.

 

Joe McGann slips easily into the leather jacket and jeans left behind by Kenneth Branagh's Billy. He’s got a lot of explaining to do - about where he’s been, what he’s been doing, and why he never came home.

 

Graham Reid’s drama begins promisingly, the opening filled with unexpected Belfast comedy. But the mood darkens when the action moves to Lorna’s house - the large, detached home she hoped to share with fiance Michael. The rest of the family have flown in from Manchester - sisters Ann and Maureen, father Norman and step-mum Mavis. They’re all waiting for Billy.

 

When the family is once again reunited, we hear - again and again - about all that has gone before. Old grievances and old wounds have never healed. The Martins don’t forgive or forget. But while their back stories are familiar, these characters have taken unexpected roads through life.

 

Reid endeavours to bring this disparate bunch together to tell a new story, set in new times. But like Belfast, the Martins seem to feel more comfortable forever facing the past, and the overlong script fails to propel us into the future. Almost all of the exchanges concern events which occurred in the previous Billy plays.

 

Director Roy Heayberd has sprinkled the live drama with audio from the original Billy trilogy: Ken Branagh and James Ellis at loggerheads, Brid Brennan trying to keep the peace. These snippets raise unhappy comparisons with the story on stage.

 

Like father like son, and Billy is unable to forgive his Da just as Norman was unable to forgive Billy’s mum. That much we learn.

 

But despite some strong performances within the cast - Ger Ryan is underused as understanding Mavis, and Tracey Lynch manages to capture the character of the cheeky girl she portrayed all those years ago - Reid has added little to his original creation.

 

Maybe it is too late to talk to Billy.

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