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Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Riding the Midnight Express

Billy Hayes

Genre: Storytelling

Venue: La Monde


Low Down

Billy Hayes appears in his one man show that relates the story of an epic journey of self-discovery. In October 1970, American Billy Hayes was caught trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hash out of Turkey. In this intimate performance, he describes the events leading up to his incarceration, his time in Turkish prisons, and the events that force him into riding the midnight express – the term for a jail break- one of the most thrilling prison escapes ever achieved.


Billy Hayes walks onto the stage a slight man. He looks healthy, glowing, and though you’d probably walk past him in the street, there’s something about his eyes that hold your attention. He nervously smiles as he begins to tell the story of his life. In his early twenties, he discovers what appears to be a failsafe way to smuggle quality hashish out of Turkey. After several successful trips, a recent spate of airplane attacks by the PLO increases security checks at the borders. It’s inevitable that his luck eventually runs out and he is caught and imprisoned in the Sagmalcilar Prison, Istanbul.

What follows is a gruelling four years of learning to live within a violent and corrupt prison system. Money buys him everything and everyone can be bought. He entertains the thought of escaping, but his father reasons with him – four years isn’t that long and Hayes is now counting the days. With 58 days left to serve, he is suddenly retried and sentenced to a further 30 years. Having kept his sanity up until then by practising yoga and searching for inner peace (hey, it’s early 1970’s) all bets at this point are now off.

His father takes a great risk to help his desperate son and Hayes hatches up a plan to escape. It takes nearly 18 months to set the wheels in motion and involves a transfer to another prison and a secret workout programme to build up his strength. Eventually Hayes knows he is ready and his quest for freedom begins.

Le Monde’s upstairs theatre venue is a subtly lit midnight blue cabaret bar. The spotlights hone in on the lonely figure of Hayes, behind which smaller lights sparkle. He’s a natural story teller and I’m reminded of one of those stolen moments when I am listening to a really enjoyable piece of radio, with the added treat that the narrator is animated in front of me. His voice draws you in as his story unfolds and he begins by laughing at himself – his own cockiness- at thinking he had everyone fooled when his earlier smuggling ventures had been successful. His manner and his delivery changes though when the reality kicks in – he describes having to write a letter of explanation to his parents and that’s when it hits him. He’s not the only one going to suffer in prison, so do his parents, family and friends because of what he’s done. Billy Hayes has lots of energy and impeccable timing. His delivery subtly changes, from the complacent youth to guilty son, then calmly, he is accepting spirituality seeker to man with a mission.

The different nuances colour his story telling but the changes are never obvious and it’s only when the performance is concluded that I realise that I’ve experienced all these emotions. I’m there with him as he describes the first night in prison, the horror of the cell door closing and being cast into a dark room of unknown men. He depicts an earlier failed escape plan that causes the death of a valued friend. He’s reliving the whole adventure, and I’m with him all the way, but it’s not like watching someone trapped in a nightmare, it’s more like the Bourne Identity! The truly remarkable revelation for me though was the sense of calm that comes from him. In prison he found himself, and reached an epiphany. Prior to the 30 years sentence, he embraced a deeply spiritual life with a daily yoga discipline that he still follows. Being trapped in a Turkish prison or the five years stolen from his youthful life for a foolish mistake has not even remotely embittered him. His joy at life when he escapes is breath-taking; he describes wandering around Amsterdam like someone who has just been given the gift of sight, and he spends time in a hotel switching the hot water tap off and on – all the things we take for granted.

There’s a question and answer session after the performance which inevitably focusses on the successful Oscar winning Alan Parker/Oliver Stone biopic version of his life- Midnight Express. It also manages to eke more emotional and humorous detail from him which Mr Hayes is more than happy to elaborate on. Great Stuff. They don’t make them like that anymore!


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