Hull Literature Festival 2001 8th - 18th November
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Northern Theatre Company presents:
'Dan Billany: Hull's Lost Hero'
The Book and the Play
Wyke College
As reviewed by Pam Wilde
Wednesday 14th November

The evening began with a delightful and informative talk and presentation by Valerie A. Reeves and Valerie Showman, co-authors of the acclaimed biography "Dan Billany, Hull's Lost Hero". With the help of projected images and readings from cast members we were taken on his life's journey: his humble beginnings on Hessle Road, holidays spent at Leven and on to college. He became an inspired teacher, using unusual methods to lift his pupils out of their surroundings and into a new and exciting world. This led to him publishing his first book "The Magic Door". We learnt of his love of classical music, poetry and of his strong left wing political views.

In 1942 he was called up and sent to Egypt, later captured and interned at a P.O.W. camp in Italy. It was here that he fell in love with a fellow prisoner, David Bowie. Although this love was unrequited Bowie and Billany became great friends and together wrote "The Cage". This and "The Trap" were published posthumously after the war. Both men were to die while on the run after escaping and although their deaths remain a mystery it is thought they died together in the Italian mountains. The two authors, with their insight, depth of knowledge and passion for their subject, succeeded in making us feel we knew this 'Hero of Hull'. The introduction was very useful in putting into context the play that was to follow and interested me enough to ensure the books are now on my Christmas shopping list!

" Dan Billaney was not a hero in the traditional sense of the word. His heroism came from his belief in himself and his fight for justice and truth in this world."

Barrie Wheatley - programme notes.

The play itself concentrates on the relationship between Dan Billany and David Bowie. As the play opens the two men are hiding in a mountain hut, struggling to come to terms with their plight and their feelings for one another. Dan's past life is illustrated by imaginative and varied flashbacks. The staging was simplistic: one half of the stage was the mountain hut, the other bare apart from a small rostrum which, when used in conjunction with other props, became a blackboard, a speakers box, step, bed and even a toilet. The lighting and sound effects were superb, adding atmosphere and depth to the many and varied scenes. There was a cross-fade to die for as Dan's sister Joan sits reading a letter she has sent him and Dan is slowly lit reading the same letter.

In this moving and finely observed play there were many memorable scenes. One of these, at the beginning of the second act, was almost surreal bringing together such diverse characters as Dan's friend Dorothy Warner, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Saint and Captain Hornblower. It was played delightfully - 'over the top' acting, a quick dance and a touch of Noel Coward. Representing Dan's dislike of popular fiction heroes of the day, the scene ended suddenly and we were back in the despair and reality of the mountain hut.

The talented young cast was led by Danny Sproats as Dan Billaney and Richard Healy as David Bowie. Both portrayed the treatment of the two men extremely well apart from the very beginning where I felt they rather rushed the delivery of their lines, perhaps through nerves. Nevertheless, on the whole they brought great sensitivity to their roles and had learnt the difficult art of complete stillness when the action moved across the stage. The whole cast performed well but a special mention must go to Lucy Hopkins who played Joan, Katy Burgess as Dorothy Warner and Chris Gruca who played the sarcastic, taunting Bill in the P.O.W. camp with great gusto and venom! The acting in one scene stood out and deserves special mention. As Dan's alter-ego, Alan ( played by Matthew Stathers ) tells David of his deep love and longing for him. The sensitivity and raw emotion shown by these two actors was electric, creating a special theatrical moment that I will remember for a long time.

With his play "Hero" Barrie Wheatley has created a moving and powerful tribute to this very special man.

Pam Wilde has had over 50 years experience of acting and directing in Amateur Dramatics, both in this country as well as in Singapore and the U.S.A. A member of the All England Theatre Festival Committee, she has won several awards for her work.

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