Billy Geraghty directs Mamet classic at Lyme Regis and talks to Fanny Charles.
Gabby Rabbitts and Billy Geraghty have known each other since they were young—when Billy and his band rehearsed in a barn at Gabby’s father’s house in Symondsbury. When Billy came back to live in Lyme Regis, with a wealth of experience on stage and television and in films under his belt, it was a natural connection with Gabby, by now director of the Marine Theatre, for him to lead courses and workshops to give young people an introduction to the craft and technical skills of television and cinema. And when Gabby hatched an ambitious plan for the Marine to stage its own in-house productions, it was Billy she asked to direct the first play.
He had returned with his family to live in Lyme Regis after a stage and screen career that included playing the title role in the Buddy Holly musical for three years in the West End as well as tours of Australia, Canada, Europe and the UK. For more than ten years he also had roles in some of the most popular television dramas and soap operas, including East Enders, Casualty, Midsomer Murders and Poirot.
And so the actor-musician, who is best-known to thousands of theatre-goers for his performance as Buddy Holly, is preparing for the opening, on 5th October, of the Marine’s first home-grown production, Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s excoriating black comedy set in the cut-throat real estate world of 1980s Chicago.
Famously filmed with an all-star cast that included Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Arkin and Ed Harris, the original play had its world premiere at the National Theatre in 1983, opening on Broadway the following year, when it also won the Pulitzer Prize. The premise is a contest: whoever sells the most property wins a Cadillac, but whoever sells the least gets fired. The play’s themes of morality and the corrosive effects of extreme capitalism are explored through brilliant dialogue and dark comedy, as four desperate people use every trick in the playbook, from bribery and burglary to threats, intimidation, lies and flattery, to con unsuspecting victims into parting with money for non-existent or sub-standard property.
It is essentially a Darwinian struggle of survival, made all the more riveting in the Lyme Regis production by the decision to have gender-blind casting. Putting women into parts which have always been played by men changes the context and even the meaning of the text, says Billy, as it adds a powerful element of animosity between men and women.
The play is often described as a classic example of toxic masculinity but with his mixed cast, Billy Geraghty has been able to explore its complex themes to greater depth. ‘There are so many metaphors in this play,’ he says. One is the lesson of capitalism taken to its logical extreme: ‘Those who are at the bottom will stay there.’
The real estate agents are latter-day snake-oil salesmen, cajoling and conning, trading off the gullibility and weakness of their victims, fighting to survive like rats in a sack. Billy is fascinated to know how the audience will react to the characters—‘At the end, do you feel sympathy for any of them?’ he asks.
At the time the play is set, the early 1980s, about 45 per cent of real estate agents in the US were women, so Billy feels it is entirely relevant to have women in the cast. The casting of well-known local actress Jodie Glover as the sales manager (the part played by Kevin Spacey in the film) gives a particular edge to the production.
Several of the cast, all recruited locally, have worked in sales, so they understand the pressures; the production manager, Sue Woodruff, lived in the US for a while, working in real estate and training estate agents. She has been ‘a goldmine of information,’ says Billy.
As a boy, Billy went to Woodroffe School, and with a group of friends formed a band that played in Lyme Regis, Bridport and local village halls. He mastered many instruments—including drums and guitar—and took part in local productions including The Reckoning, one of the late Ann Jellicoe’s remarkable community plays. Acting is in his family—his mother acted, and his great aunt was Angela Lansbury.
After training at East 15 drama school, he got plenty of work as an actor, often in very small speaking parts because of his valuable ability as a musician. Eventually he realised the theatres were getting him cheap and he decided to concentrate on his acting. He auditioned for the new musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, initially as the drummer. He recalls the director taking a long look at him, saying: ‘Never mind about the drummer. Go and get a big pair of glasses and a guitar and come back for tomorrow’s audition.’ Six months later, he was starring in the title role in the West End. In all, he spent around ten years playing Buddy Holly, getting to know the singer’s family and widow, Maria Elena and learning about their short life together.
Later he got to know some of the family of Jerry Lee Lewis (who died last year), when he played the bad-boy rocker in Great Balls of Fire—this was a very different experience! Billy was not a great pianist, so he spent three intensive months practising, ‘trying to get close to the ferocity with which he played.’
He also met Jerry: ‘It was terrifying—like being circled by a shark.’
Billy was concerned what Jerry would think of his performance. According to his sister Linda Gail Lewis, the rock’n’roller, who was known as “The Killer,” was apparently impressed—in fact, it was so good, that he said he might “have to shoot him.”
Glengarry Glen Ross is at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis, from Thursday 5th to Saturday 7th October; www.marinetheatre.com