Becoming Bill (Old Fashioned Production Company)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
August 14 – 25
“Becoming Bill” is a new musical from first time writer/composer Bradley McCaw. The story centres around the life of struggling 25-year-old actor Bill (McCaw) who can’t seem to get his life together. His years-long relationship with Kimberley (Stephanie Long) is clearly strained, including by Bill’s dedication to his mother Jane (Rachael Beck) and defence of his lay-about younger brother James (Oliver Sampson) whose spends his life gaming on the couch.
When Bill is asked to write a musical, he follows the advice of writing what you know, basing the work on himself and those around him. Although this creates upset of his family and relationship dynamic as his ‘ordinary’ but slightly off-beat family faces the ghosts of their past, it is confrontation without much insight. Indeed, there are some noticeable gaps in backstory and motivation that stand out amongst an otherwise seamless experience. Thankfully, writing what you know isn’t about events so much as emotions and in this regard the show works well. Its soundtrack especially is effortless in its emotional observations, enhanced by the live band’s inclusion of strings to soar the sentiments of McCaw’s orchestrations in numbers like mother Jane’s revealing reminiscence ‘When We Were Younger’.
The titular ‘Becoming Bill’ is paced, shaped and melodied to linger long after the show’s end. Its placement as the opening number is not just appropriate by its contextual establishment, but allows the show’s writer/composer to take the spotlight at the front-of-stage. Unfortunately, it also separates him from the initial action with arrival of his mother, however, once he joins the others, things settle. Similarly, early meta-theatre mentions make for some funny moments, but are perhaps unnecessary given that they only top and tail the work rather than serve as an integral component.
National musical theatre treasure Rachel Beck is perfect as mother Jane, presenting her as realistic blend of quirky, emotional, oblivious and, in musical numbers like ‘Are You Happy’, honestly heartfelt. McCaw is a charming Bill, relatable so that we share his frustration with his not-necessarily likable brother’s lack of application. His vocals have a smooth, comforting quality and his keyboard skills are first-rate. The most outstanding vocals, however, come from Long. ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ serves not only as showcase of her effortless vocal range, but is an early highlight. In fact, in all instances Trevor Jones’ vocal arrangements create some wonderful harmonies in full company numbers like ‘What Do I Want?’
There is a lot to like about “Becoming Bill”; the thing I liked best was that it is not dominated by a typical romantic focus, but rather a story about a finding your feet and writing your best life, for the promising new Australian work is quite heart-warming in the everydayness but also thoughtfulness of its themes. Seeing new theatre is often a privilege, especially so when it is as quality as this, because “Becoming Bill” is a strong work whose music never disappoints, well on its way to being its own best self.