Dear Billy

May 20 2023 | By More

★★★★★   Joyous

Traverse: Thurs 18 – Sat 20 May 2023
Review by Thom Dibdin

Everyone has a Billy Connolly story. Ask around on any Scottish High Street, and folk will have a story about the Big Yin. Which is both the premise and the promise of Dear Billy, at the Traverse for three nights only.

In this National Theatre of Scotland production, on an extensive tour round Scotland, writer and performer Gary McNair has collected a whole bunch of anecdotes and uses them to reflect Connolly’s life in what is, as the subtitle says, A Love Letter to the Big Yin.

Gary McNair in Dear Billy. Pic: Sally Jubb

The clever bit about Dear Billy is that there are no impersonations of the man himself – well, not directly – just McNair bringing life to the anecdotes which he and his team of researchers have elicited from high streets, pub alcoves and front rooms around Scotland.

Which means it is no biopic, although those remembrances are arranged in such a way as to reflect Connolly’s life. Starting with people who say their wee brother was in a class with him, those who worked with him in the Govan Dockyards or saw him perform his early folk music gigs and watched him break tradition.

Switching purposefully between a quartet of microphones ranged across the front of the stage, McNair conjures up these un-named raconteurs. Recreating them and their voices faithfully – or so it feels – is enough to drive a narrative of man who is bigger than life, a man who gives old JC a run for his money in some quarters.

beautifully observed

It must be said that they are beautifully observed. Whether it is someone who sneaked behind the sofa to watch when Connolly was on Parkinson that first time, unable to confront his dad who scorned Parkinson and all his works, lest he turn over, pretending to be watching by accident.

Or whether they reckon they can do the best impersonation of Connolly ever and proceed to garble their way through his Crucifixion routine – the one time an actual impersonation of a Connolly joke is allowed to appear. Indeed, the only impersonations of Connolly are second hand.

Gary McNair in Dear Billy. Pic: Sally Jubb

The point being that each story is so much more than the bald anecdote. It comes wrapped up in a reflection of the teller’s background, becomes a snapshot of a time and place; and even a demonstration of Connolly’s storytelling style, the riffs on different subjects, going off into tangents letting the waves of comedy build until it all winds round to the punchline of his original joke.

So there is room here for every kind of Connolly recollection, from the caustic and cantankerous even, to the reverential. And when it becomes joyous and life-affirming, from people who met Connolly and have interacted with him on a personal level, it is a truly moving experience.

It’s strung together by McNair under Joe Douglas’s direction with the lightest of additional narrative. Enough to frame the stories, always there to nudge them into place but never overpowering them of making them secondary in importance, all the while emphasising the different aspects of what Connolly has done.


Jill O’Sullivan and Simon Liddell’s live musical support is just enough of an underscore to emphasise what is being said, helping McNair’s love of the long, long pause not to become too self-indulgent and bursting into full-blown song at the right moment.

The collaboration of Claire Halleran (set and costume design) and Kate Bonney (lighting) is a work of installation art in itself, using neon tubing to create iconic elements of Connolly’s image: a pair of specs, an abstract half-pealed banana and a boot. All arranged like a cartoon of his face.

Beyond being a personal triumph for everyone concerned in the production, this is something of a triumph for the NTS itself. It is hard to think of another production since Black Watch which has struck such a universal and intimate chord across Scottish society, an invitation for those who don’t usually go to the theatre.

Running time: One hour and 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED.
Thurs 18 – Sat 20 May 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm (Traverse 1)
Tickets and details:  Book here.

Glasgow King’s Theatre, 297 Bath St, Glasgow G2 4JN
Thurs 22 – Sat 24 Jun 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details:Book here.

The Dear Billy Set, designed by Claire Halleran and lit by Kate Bonney. Pic Thom Dibdin


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