Graham Reid's latest Billy play is uncomfortable viewing for Malachi O'Doherty, who sympathises with the returning hero's familial struggles
There is an underlying flaw in Graham Reid's Billy plays, which I cannot reconcile myself to. It is the celebration in them of the idea that the real man is a fighter with a heart of gold. This is nonsense, yet it is never really challenged in the storylines.
The father, Norman, was and is a bully and a thug. Legend has it – we are reminded in the first scene of the fifth installment, Love, Billy, which is currently running at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast – that he once felled 14 police men who tried to tame him. This is a relic of the influence of John Wayne and the Western, all of it expendable in any effort to create character.
Still, before long we are in territory similar to that of John McGahern’s Amongst Women, a family reunion organised by sisters for an insufferably cantankerous patriarch, waiting for Billy (here played by Joe McGann rather than reprised by Sir Kenneth Branagh) to arrive home to Belfast after many years of self-imposed exile.
There is Lorna, played by Maggie Hayes, who has been in the RUC as a detective, but who left disillusioned by the sell out that brought terrorists into government. (If that sounds like how Jim Allister might phrase it, then that’s how Lorna sounds at times, though Jim Allister could probably borrow some lines from her. He’d like the joke about PSNI standing for... well go and see it yourself.)
There is Maureen, the wee smug Christian who gets a brilliant tirade to deliver that will make her shine in an argumentative family, though Sarah Lyle doesn’t quite have the stamina for the full thrust of what Reid has written for her.
There is the tippling Ann, played by Tracy Lynch, who is warm and funny and boisterous. And then there is that grumpy Da, played with subtle echoes of the original Jimmy Ellis by George Shane. Big bad Norman has been tamed a little by his English wife, Mavis (Ger Ryan), but not really.
When father and son meet, the mix can only be inflammatory. The Martin's are a family that argue all the time. They may have moved out of the tiny house and nasty community which had cramped them into some kind of excusable desperation in the original plays, but now middle class, employed and matured into an understanding of the world, they still can’t sit at peace with each other. It isn’t just the men, it is all of them.
But quarrelling provides scope for great jokes and high drama, oratorical flourishes and flashes of violence. Reid has the imagination, the humour and the gift for a succinct line that can feed all this tension where another writer may have dried up.
The difference between the squabbling sisters and the men is that they recover and are nice to each other again. The father and son can’t do that. 'For God’s sake, Billy,' says one of the girls. 'Everyone has rows.' It is an incredibly ironic line to deliver in a play based on argument.
So the question is, can Billy face his father without the old curmugdeon having a heart attack, or one of them hitting the other? At the interval I have conversations with people speculating on where it might go next, with Billy at home and Norman so volatile in his rages that Billy is, perhaps, best kept away from him. Suffice it to say, none of us get it right.
And there are indications that Reid had difficulties working through this himself. There remain in the script remnants of ideas that don’t work, or don’t go anywhere – one of them, an account of Billy’s secret life, would have been better uprooted altogether.
This account creates the expectation of further trouble that doesn’t materialise – a bit like the gun that, once introduced into a plot, has to be fired and isn’t. In fact, there are two apparently aborted storylines whose origins are left unexplained, and unresolved. A script editor may have sent Reid away to write another draft, lose Billy’s army career and his old girlfriend.
None of this is to say that Love, Billy is a bad play. It is a wonderful play. I have tears in my eyes at times. Rather, so much of the domestic tension is familiar, and, judging by the reaction of the audience, it is familiar to them too. It isn’t only me and Billy and John McGahern who had a da like that.
Love, Billy runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until May 25, 2013.