Review: The Last Song of Oliver Sipple

The King’s Head Theatre
4*

What a fascinating true story this is, and what an excellent job writer David Hendon has done of turning it into an engrossing and enlightening one-man drama. Director Peter Taylor and actor Jackson Pentland complete the creative team, and together they have produced a moving tribute to an overlooked figure from American gay history.

Oliver “Billy” Sipple was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1941. Pentland gives a sensitive performance of a good-hearted but somewhat naïve young man, patriotic and seemingly out of touch with his sexuality. As a young boy, Billy falls in love with music and the joy of singing, but he’s one of those kids who somehow just doesn’t fit in…

Billy joins the marines and serves in the Vietnam War, until hit by shrapnel in his chest and leg. Invalided out of the army, he experiences his sexual awakening at the clubs and bath houses of New York, becoming active on the scene there and in San Francisco, and meeting and befriending activist Harvey Milk. But all this was kept secret from his family back in Detroit, who had no idea of Billy’s homosexuality.

In 1975, Billy was among those in a crowd waiting to catch a glimpse of President Gerald Ford as he left a San Francisco hotel. A lone gunwoman fired at the president, and missed. Billy instinctively grappled with her, preventing the second shot from hitting Ford.

Billy was an instant hero, with talk of an invitation to the White House to be thanked in person by the president. Billy was anxious to keep his sexuality out of the media, but for Harvey Milk the opportunity to have a “gay hero” role model was too good to miss. Billy was outed to the press, and his gayness became the headline. The president was suddenly too busy to meet. The news didn’t go down well back in Detroit, and Billy never managed to rebuild his relationships with his family.

Music serves an important purpose in the play, with scenes punctuated by snatches of songs from the time, to which Pentland dances with simple but joyful grace. There’s something pure about these little interludes, hinting perhaps at a happier state that was never to be. In reality, Sipple spent years trying unsuccessfully to sue for breach of privacy, and died in 1989, a victim of declining health and alcoholism.

There’s real heart in this production, and plenty to identify with. Swept up in a national media storm against his will, there’s a sense that Billy wasn’t really the author of his own story: his frustration as events evolve beyond his control is palpable, and his helplessness in the face of his mother’s disappointment is heart-breaking.

As well as Billy, Pentland expertly portrays an array of other characters, deftly transforming his voice and physicality to differentiate each of them. My one niggle was that Pentland’s accent for Billy himself didn’t sound quite right to my ears, though my companion didn’t find this a problem.

The Last Song of Oliver Sipple ran for just two performances in July. I hope it has a further life – do look out for it, as it’s a beautiful piece of theatre telling a remarkable story.

© Nick Myles 2019

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