Mary Woodward Review

Dear Billy: a Love Letter to the Big Yin, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

***** (5 stars)

“Perfection of the storytelling”

The Traverse bar is abuzz as the audience comes out – everyone has something to say, to share, to tell someone how much they’ve loved the show, and share their own memory of the Big Yin as they head out into the night or, like me, stay for a glass of wine and the chance to recall some of the multitude of gems we’ve been presented with the night.

It’s a very simple idea – Gary McNair and his story gatherers have been the length and breadth [and width] of the country collecting stories about Billy Connolly, aka the Big Yin, and presents some of them to us.  This is not a chronological canter through his life, though the memories are arranged sort of chronologically, and if you didn’t know anything about his life you might find some of the references in the show pass you by. 

It’s not all a paean of praise – there are the people who don’t find him funny, and the people who don’t know who he is.  There are the people who claim to have known him, people who think they could be just as funny if they’d left the shipyard, people who think they sound just like him, people who say “well, he’s not written anything, he’s just used stuff we’ve told him” …

I don’t want to run through a ‘this person said this, this person said that’ – that would destroy the magic of the show.  What struck me most was the love that was palpable – a love joining those on stage with us in the audience as we united in a celebration of the larger-than-life personality who has impacted so many people’s lives in so many different ways. 

It’s obvious that Billy has had an enormous effect on all our lives – changing so much of the way we think and act, showing us that it’s possible simply to be oneself without apology or excuse, and without going on a crusade, encouraging us to live life to the full and enjoy everything that comes our way.

What is so amazing about this show is the perfection of the storytelling.  Gary McNair doesn’t just tell the anecdotes: he becomes each person who’s sharing their experience of the Big Yin.  Each person comes alive in front of us – voice, posture, mannerisms perfectly presented – it’s brilliant!   His movement around the stage is very impressive, and keeps our interest alive – a number of mikes at different levels facilitate the rapid changes of character.  It’s a very complex feat of choreography which adds another layer of interest to an already riveting show.  It’s an impressive feat of memory too, to get the huge variety of body language, facial expressions and vocal delivery so spot on.

Composers and musicians Jill O’Sullivan and Simon Liddell play a variety of instruments – I spotted two guitars, a violin, a melodeon and a strange accordion-like box whose proper name I don’t know.  There might have been more…  Their instrumental music and Jill’s haunting vocals provide a subtle background to all the characters who come to life on stage. 

Mention must also be made of the creative and production teams, whose work behind the scenes made the show the success it is.  And huge credit must be given to the People of Scotland who contributed their stories, and Robbie Gordon, Jacqueline Houston, Genevieve Jagger and Jamie Marie Leary who gathered all the stories – heartfelt thanks to you all!

As you’d expect, it’s a very funny show: ninety minutes of virtually non-stop laughter, with some serious moments along the way.  There’s no attempt to present Billy’s material or ‘do’ his sketches.  There is a patchwork kaleidoscope picture of a man seen through other people’s eyes – a love letter to Billy.   I’m so glad Gary McNair didn’t wait for Billy to die before giving us this show – allowing us to celebrate the Big Yin and the joy he’s brought to so many people’s lives.

What comes over most clearly is the enormous love people have for Billy Connolly, and how we would all love to be able to go to him and say “Dear Billy, thank you so much for all the joy you have given us – we love you so much”…

National Theatre of Scotland, Dear Billy: a Love Letter to the Big Yin, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 20th May for tickets go to: Traverse Theatre | Traverse Theatre

The production then tours across the length and breadth of Scotland.


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