The excitement has been building since the Lyric Theatre commissioned Graham Reid to write a fifth instalment of the successful Billy plays. Now the Lyric can reveal that popular star of TV and theatre, Joe McGann will step into the shoes of Sir Kenneth Branagh to lead the cast of Love, Billy this May.
First televised by the BBC in the 1980's, as part of the infamous Play for Today series, the Billy plays launched the career of Branagh, a then young Belfast-born actor, and made a huge impact across the island of Ireland and the UK.
Love, Billy, which has its world premiere at the Lyric, sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years, 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 the actor Joe 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.”
Joe revealed that his brother was at RADA at the same time as Branagh and he recalls how he left the course slightly early to film the Billy plays.
“I recognise the fact that the Billy plays were very big locally and I hope to rise to the challenge,” he said. “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 locally. I’m also really looking forward to working in the new theatre as I remember the old Lyric well.”
Joe, who became a household name in the 1990’s sitcom The Upper Hand, was most recently in Belfast when he toured with Calendar Girls and described how he has been on almost “permanent tour” for the past few years.
“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,” he said.
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. I also look forward to working again with Roy Heayberd and I think we have assembled an excellent cast.”
Joe McGann will be joined by celebrated Irish actress Maggie Hayes who is playing Lorna. Originally from Downpatrick, Maggie is a famous face on TV with roles in Seacht (Seven) on TG4; ITV’s The Bill and a string of theatre productions including most recently Pumpgirl at the Lyric.
One of the original cast members of the TV series, Tracey Lynch reprises her role as the twin Ann Martin, which made her a household name at the tender age of 10.
The full cast line-up are 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,”
There is a chance to see three of the Billy plays on screen again on 20 April as part of a season of free films about Belfast in the Naughton Studio in association with BBC Northern Ireland and the Belfast Film Festival.
Lyric Artistic Director, Richard Croxford said: “I’m delighted that we have been able to commission renowned playwright Graham Reid to rekindle the iconic Billy plays on our Danske Bank Stage with this fifth and potentially final Billy play. We are looking forward to discovering what happens to Billy Martin and his family a quarter of a century after he abruptly left Belfast and why he has stayed away for so long. This is definitely one of the highlights of our Tales of the City season celebrating the city’s 400th anniversary.”
Gilly Campbell, Drama and Dance Officer, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented:
“The Lyric has provided an outstanding cultural programme over the past 60 years and has continued to generate some of the most ground-breaking and innovative theatre in its new state-of-the-art home. The Arts Council enjoys a strong partnership with the Lyric Theatre and we look forward to another exciting year ahead.”
Love, Billy runs on the Danske Bank Stage from 1 to 25 May (previews 28 & 30 April). Tickets from £10 - £24.50.