WHEN Billy Geraghty went to audition for a role in the new musical about Buddy Holly, he had the part of the drummer in mind. As a keen musician from childhood, he could play many instruments – including the guitar. But the talented young actor from Lyme Regis didn’t dream of playing the leading role of the singer from Lubbock, Texas, who had died, tragically young, in a plane crash on 3rd February 1959, when he was at the top of his career as a pioneering rock’n’roll star, aged just 23.
The director of the new musical Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story, took a long hard look at Billy and told him: “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.
He played Buddy for three years in the West End, and on tour in Australia, Canada, Europe and around the UK. 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.
As a boy, Billy went to Woodroffe School and played with friends in bands in Lyme Regis, Bridport and local village halls. He mastered many instruments – including drums and guitar. Acting is in his family – his mother acted, and his great aunt was Angela Lansbury. He took part in local amateur productions, including The Reckoning, one of the late Ann Jellicoe’s remarkable community plays. Later, he trained at East 15 drama school and 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.
Two years ago, he returned with his family to live in Lyme Regis after a stage and screen career that included not only the Buddy Holly musical but also more than ten years in some of the most popular television dramas and soap operas, including East Enders, Casualty, Midsomer Murders and Poirot.
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.
So now the actor-musician 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.
Buddy is not Billy’s only rock star stage role – he also played the hard-living, hard-drinking, bad-boy rocker Jerry Lee Lewis (who died last year), in Great Balls of Fire. This was a very different experience from the clean and endearing character of Buddy Holly, and it needed a lot of practice for Billy, who was not a great pianist. 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
Pictured: Billy Geraghty; Jodie Glover as office manager Joan Williamson, Chris Denne as the ruthless salesman Dave Moss – cast photographs by Rob Jayne.