There sure was some hootin’ and a-rootin’ and plenty of a-shootin’ when Off The Ground Theatre rode into town…well to be precise Royden Park, Wirral. In the beautiful setting under threatening skies we sat, as the cast of ten, successfully multi-roled, in their version of Billy the Kid. In fact four Billys, hence the plural title of ‘Ballads’. Off the Ground are known for their excellent physical approach to theatre and interesting storytelling with plenty of audience participation- all that was in abundance tonight.
This is a professional touring show with many of their troupe newly graduated actors but still with familiar faces who have been touring with them for a good few years. With a superb, really interesting soundscape designed by Mat Oliphant, well executed with every pistol shot, spit and slap timed to perfection. A simple but really effective set – saloon doors and array of shelves and poles which displayed all the props and hats made an aesthetic and practical backdrop.
Connor Wray’s well-written script wants to make the point that Billy’s reputation was bigger than he was, and that history has placed him into the mythologies of the Wild West: before they had Hollywood the Americans invented stories of “The Kid” and like many other characters, he fell into folk legend. The real Billy was born in the slums of New York to Irish immigrants and when his mother died the orphan boy fell into crime from necessity. It begins at the end with Sheriff Pat Garrett killing the twenty-one-year-old boy, then goes back on the story with some deviations from the truth. Wray includes all the famous wild-west names in the gang – Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, Doc Holliday and more and that works for the fun of it, we’re all familiar with them, but of course none of them were there.
Act 1 was fast-paced and creative with plenty of theatrical techniques. The three directors, Meigh, Wray and Oliphant presented physicality and movement, tight ensemble work and some laugh out loud comedy. The horses were funny without actually doing anything but the highlight was the introduction of Melquiades Segura, who was actually part of Billy’s story. Here, we almost toppled into pantomime and the audience lapped it up – Matthew Gradden’s performance was captivating and hilarious and will long be remembered I’m sure.
Act 2 was a little more drama than comedy with more poignancy to the narrative but If I am honest, a tad too long. Maybe a few small edits would have helped the flow and keep to the important points of the story. Nevertheless, this cast did a ‘pretty fine job’ with some great accents from most of the cast and excellent characterization and commitment from them all.
Phil Rayner as Garrett was strong, clear and commanding as the narrator to the piece. Kathryn McGurk as Jesse Evans was honest and convincing in her character and for me the most natural performance. Ben Currie is a super character-actor, playing a handful of roles including the mean Governor. Hannah Laithwaite as Annie Oakley and Josephine was delightfully watchable. Amy Hope-Thompson as the calamitous, accident-prone Calamity Jane was convincingly humorous. The four Billys all brought something different to the role as they handed the baton over to the next. Beginning and ending with Joe Stott showing us the more mature man he’d grown into; Mollie Eadsforth, the young boy who has to find his way in the world; Anthony Hamilton, the confident, rather brash and comical figure and Laura Greenwood, who got the lion’s share, as the more sensitive and intelligent Billy. When they weren’t Billy they skillfully took on other roles in the ensemble.
All in all, a funny, high-energy and entertaining slice of the wild west.
Reviewer: Bev Clark
Reviewed: 4th August 2023
North West End UK Rating: