Joe McGann the New Billy

English actor takes over from Sir Kenneth Branagh in the fifth instalment of Graham Reid's beloved Billy plays at the Lyric Theatre in May

The excitement has been building since Belfast's Lyric Theatre commissioned playwright Graham Reid to write a fifth instalment in his beloved Billy plays series in 2012.

Love, Billy will run at the Lyric from May 1 - 25, and it has been announced that English actor Joe McGann will step into the shoes of Sir Kenneth Branagh to lead the cast.

First televised by the BBC in the 1980s, as part of the infamous Play for Today series, Reid's Billy plays launched the career of Branagh and made a huge impact across the island of Ireland and the UK.

Love, Billy sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years living abroad, having left mysteriously without telling anyone. He comes back to a city that he hardly recognises and family grudges to resolve.

'I’m extremely pleased to be taking on such an iconic role and stepping into such big shoes,' said McGann. 'It’s a big challenge and I have to admit I’m a little bit scared but I’m really looking forward to it.

'I recognise the fact that the Billy plays were very big locally and I hope to rise to the challenge. I know the writer, Graham Reid, and I have worked with Jimmy Ellis, who was in the original plays. I love Belfast and have a lot of friends who live there.

'I’m also really looking forward to working in the new theatre, as I remember the old Lyric well. I shall come to Belfast before the start of rehearsals because I want to do some research on the character and the city as I think it definitely helps with a role like this.'

McGann, who became a household name in the 1990s after starring in the sitcom The Upper Hand, was most recently in Belfast when he toured with Calendar Girls.

The playwright Graham Reid said: 'I’m looking forward to working at the new Lyric and am grateful to the theatre for giving me the opportunity to revisit the Martin family. The real challenge of the writing has been to pick up the family story 25 years on, but this time for stage rather than screen.'

McGann will be joined by celebrated Irish actress Maggie Hayes, who is playing Lorna. Originally from Downpatrick, Hayes has had roles in Seacht (Seven) on TG4, ITV’s The Bill and a string of theatre productions, including Pumpgirl at the Lyric.

One of the original cast members of the TV series, Tracey Lynch, reprises her role as the twin Ann Martin, whom she first played at the tender age of 10. The full cast line-up is completed by George Shane as Norman, Ger Ryan as Mavis, Sarah Lyle as Maureen and Ciaran Nolan as Ernie Greer.

Director, Roy Heayberd, said: 'It's been a long time since I have worked with Graham and I'm looking forward to renewing the experience, especially with such a talented cast, and a beautifully crafted play as Love, Billy.'

The Lyric Theatre will be screening three of the Billy plays on April 20 in the Naughton Studio in association with BBC Northern Ireland and the Belfast Film Festival.

Love, Billy runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from May 1 - 25.