Thursday, September 28

Whatever Happened to Billy Kenny? – Liverpool Theatre Festival

The 2023 Liverpool Theatre Festival once again sees writer, Ian Salmon and director, Mikee Dickinson united for another poignant and emotional piece about the complexities of life and regret. Whatever Happened to Billy Kenny? is a one-man show performed by Jay Johnson which rockets at breakneck speed through the short and dramatic career of an Evertonian footballer who was derailed by his heavy use of alcohol and cocaine.

The play opens with voiceovers talking about Kenny and everything he has thrown away. The disembodied voices disintegrate into Johnson’s creation of a club scene where he does a remarkable job of creating the illusion of a crowded nightlife alone on an empty stage. The voiceovers then repeat with overlap and distortion, creating a real sense of anxiety and panic.

Johnson then narrates Kenny’s life story, from what he calls his rough upbringing as a passionate Everton supporter, up to training for a future of professional football putting him on the straight and narrow. There are plenty of breaks in the fourth wall and Johnson does a good job of interacting directly with the audience and creating a personal experience for the people watching.

There are some poignant moments where Johnson is reflecting Kenny’s father, himself a former Everton player, teaching him the art of play and technique. Tragically ironic comparisons with Paul Gascoigne and George Best create parallels of both footballing skill, and life with addiction and mental health issues.

There is also plenty of comedy with references to home life, school life and irreverent reflections on nights out. As often in a one-man show, Johnson plays several characters and is able to switch between different personas very well. His representation of teachers and doctors are particularly good and create a level of authority and support outside of Kenny’s direct connection to football. Commentary style narration in places makes good use of the football theme and creates a real sense of the tension felt during football matches.

In addition to the high and low points, the writing and Johnson’s performance of it also does a particularly good job of creating a sense of apathy which increasingly took over Kenny’s life as it spiralled out of control.

Clever use of red and blue lighting reflects the banter of a two-team city and references to Merseyside Derbies had good reactions from the crowd. Repetition of terminology is a clever way of creating tension and allows the mood to be built up over the course of the show. What neither Salmon’s writing or Dickinson’s direction could have done however, was achieve the pathetic fallacy achieved when the heaven’s opened and Kenny’s darkest days were told as the rain poured into the open-air venue of Liverpool’s Bombed Out Church. Johnson is to be commended for continuing his performance unaffected and indeed enhanced by the unseasonal weather.

Whatever Happened to Billy Kenny? is a powerful drama which reflects the passion of football and the environment of the nineties binge drinking and drug taking culture associated with sports stars. There’s a real sense of what it means when someone’s dreams come true when they’re barely old enough to know who they really are and what it’s like to live a life where your career can be made or broken in ninety short minutes.

Whatever Happened to Billy Kenny was performed as part of the Liverpool Theatre Festival. Information and tickets are available here

Reviewer: Donna M Day

Reviewed: 21st July 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.