Written by Gary McNair
Directed by Joe Douglas
How do you distil the entire being of a man, a legacy, into ninety minutes Well, sharing in the stories from the people who know him, have never met him, love him and idolise him, and yes, even detest the man – aye, that might be a place to start.
The Glasgow-born boy who would become a national treasure and an iconic cultural pillar of Scotland; from the shipyards of the Clyde to the small pubs and gig scene and even the glitter of Hollywood – Billy Connolly means something special to Scotland. Whether you love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the impact he has made.
Billy Connolly hit his milestone 80th birthday last year, and Gary McNair with the National Theatre of Scotland sought to pay respect to the man who trailblazed Scottish folksong, cultural identity, and oh yes, maybe had an influence on our comedy. Hitting the road and visiting theatres across the land, Gary McNair and team are collecting as many morsels they can of the Big Yin’s life, but more so, especially as the show gains weight, of the identity of Scotland – and her people’s quirks, struggles, laughter and joy.
Evolving, the intention of McNair’s piece on legacy and impact will continue to grow throughout the touring, culminating in a grand ol’ celebration of the Big Yin in, where else, but Glasgow at the King’s Theatre towards the end of June. The fluid nature of the storytelling is structured to play directly into this fact – the stories shared hugely varied in style, tone, and performance from McNair – shifting time and experience with but a few steps and a mic change.
With a host of tales, anecdotes, and even a few cracks at Connolly’s best-known gags, the People of Scotland have shared their stories to craft Dear Billy, which interlaces these experiences with live music, a more in-direct and authentic patter with McNair, and a few poignant moments which speaks of shared experiences, trials, and hardships. McNair’s natural storytelling shines throughout, even the more shagged and rough edges of the production have a buoyant charm aroudn them. And it’s near-impossible not to see the physical manifestation McNair embodies – both everyday Scots’ he speaks with but of the man himself. There’s a clear control dynamic to the production, McNair has the audience enraptured – eating up every story, hungry for more.
Not alone however, McNair is joined by the production’s composers Simon Liddell and Jill O’Sullivan, providing live instrumentals while O’Sullivan brings the folk-heart of the show to life with ethereally captivating vocals, the audience more than encouraged to join in. There’s a rarity which occurs at the Traverse this evening – the people of Edinburgh find a voice. A more reserved crowd than their west-coast counterparts, Dear Billy draws something out, shattering any reservations or concerns of the self-conscious as the audience laughs, heckle, and engage with the show. If that doesn’t capture the impression the Big Yin has on people, few things will.
Striking, Claire Halleran’s treasure-trove of set design feels cosey, welcoming – like being trapped in a box of memories underneath the bed. It’s full of better times, or so we imagine and imbue faith within. Decked out with some of Connolly’s most iconic imagery – the infamous Banana Boots and his rounded spectacles are burst with a vibrance of neon-clad gallous colouring Kate Bonney and Simon Haye’s lighting.
Everyone has a Billy Connolly story. But more so, everyone has their own story. A strength of the production, which it perhaps will lean into more as the show develops, are the voices behind the Big Yin’s impact. McNair does a tremendous job in demonstrating the diversity and range which Connolly has touched in some form or another, but Dear Billy is at its most potent – not when the tales of bumping into Connolly ring out, but the more heart-warming ones of those facing their daily strife find resilience and drive in the man with a small goatee, a full head of hair, a song on his lips and a joke up his sleeve. Dear Billy is verbatim theatre for the people, by the people, in celebration of the Big Yin; G’aun yersel!
Verbatim Theatre for the People
Dear Billy runs at the Traverse Theatre until May 2oth. Thursday – Saturday at 19.30pm.
Running time – Ninety minutes without internal. Suitable for ages 12+
Tickets from £20.00 (Con. available) and may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Sally Jubb