Singin’ I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim

Controversial Scottish play tackles football, identity and sectarianism

As Jimmy Greaves once sagely intoned, football is a funny old game. There are those who don’t understand it and could happily live for the rest of their lives without hearing about it, and then there are those for whom it is simply a matter of life and death. It is this latter, sizeable section of society that Singin’ I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim hopes to attract.

The controversial play has already taken audiences in Scotland by storm, packing them in from Jedburgh to John o’ Groats, and it is now heading for Northern Ireland.

Adapted by Glasgow’s NLP Theatre Company, Singin’ I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim – or Billy and Tim for short – tells the story of Billy, a die-hard Rangers fan, and Tim, a faithful Celtic supporter, who are locked up in a courtroom cell for non-payment of fines on the day of an important match.

Writer Des Dillon sums up the drama for those CultureNorthernIreland readers who couldn’t tell the Old Firm from the Old Vic: ‘Celtic is traditionally Catholic and Rangers Protestant. Much hate exists between the clubs in the form of sectarianism.’ It is this sectarianism that Dillon hopes to highlight. ‘It’s about finding humanity beneath the bigotry,’ he says.

Bringing such bitter rivals together in a theatre might seem like a recipe for disaster, but Dillon says he has received nothing but positive feedback: ‘One Orange man came up to me – I’m a “Tim”, Catholic – hugged me and said: 'Des, that play brought us all together in there.' Old grannies love it, and young grannies too. Everybody loves it. If you don’t laugh your tights off, we’ll give you your money back.’

Across Scotland, Dillon says, the levels of excitement have varied from town to town, region to region: ‘The more influenced by Irish culture the area is, the bigger the reaction from the audience.’

The production has been publicly backed by the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, as well as by his predecessor, Jack McConnell. NLP Theatre’s artistic director, Scott Kyle – who portrays Billy in the play, alongside Colin Little as Tim – hopes Northern Ireland’s own First Minister and Deputy First Minister might also attend. ‘If they are reading this, they are more than welcome to come along and support our team,’ he laughs.

Kyle, who founded NLP in 2005, had initially taken Billy and Tim on the road using a friend’s borrowed van. Brought up by his single mother in a tough Glasgow environment, Kyle believes he inherited her ‘strength and determination’.

He says: ‘When I went to college, I also worked full-time nightshift in a supermarket. People said that I couldn’t possibly work at night and still have the energy and focus to attend classes throughout the day, but I knew that if I put my mind to it I could. I’ve always believed that it’s never resources but resourcefulness that determine whether or not you achieve your goals.’

Looking back at the past four years, Kyle says he is satisfied with the contribution NLP has made to Scotland’s arts scene: ‘We have taken this play into prisons, schools, theatres and pubs and I am hungry for more.’

In the wake of Billy and Tim’s success, Kyle now runs regular anti-sectarian workshops in schools and youth groups around Glasgow. ‘The workshops focus on the views and beliefs that Billy and Tim hold and voice in the play,’ he explains. ‘We look at where the boys have picked up their views and beliefs – from family, friends, society, the media, school, church or chapel. The participants get the opportunity to play the characters and work with the cast, and we use this exercise to look at the subtext in the play. This gives us a chance to review what certain lines really mean.’

Kyle is looking forward to bringing Billy and Tim to Northern Ireland, with the Ulster connection set to continue with NLP’s next production, The Blue Hen, which will star Charles Lawson, alias Coronation Street’s Jim McDonald.

Kyle feels an important bond with the historically troubled island across the water. ‘In Glasgow, when Celtic and Rangers play, we have bursts of sectarianism for 90 minutes,’ he says. ‘We call them '90-minute bigots', and a lot of people look at it as just banter. However, people in Ireland have had to live with the true consequences of sectarianism.’

Singin’ I’m No a Billy, He’s a Tim is at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on September 16; the Burnavon Arts & Cultural Centre, Cookstown, on September 17; and the Waterfront, Belfast, on September 18-19. For more information, visit the NLP Theatre Company website here.

Andrew Johnston