DRUG running cost Billy Hayes his liberty... or would have, had he not made one of the most famous prison breaks ever.
At the age of 23, Hayes, the author of Midnight Express, was arrested at Istanbul Airport with two kilos of hashish taped to his body. Originally imprisoned for four years and two months, his sentence was later extended to life, as a deterrent to others.
In 1975, Hayes did the impossible, escaping from horrific conditions in Imrali Island Prison by rowing 17 miles across the Sea of Marmara in a raging storm. A year later, he wrote Midnight Express, which, in 1978, became the basis for Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning movie.
It’s a story that has long fascinated local pub tycoon Billy Lowe, and one that has given him the opportunity to tread an unexpected path - as a theatre producer.
The owner of Le Monde and The Angels’ Share Hotel explains, “As a huge fan of the film Midnight Express, when I saw in last year’s Fringe programme that there was a one-man show called Midnight Express, starring Billy Hayes, coming to the Gilded Balloon, I had to see it.
“Being my usual obsessive self, I bought tickets for all three performances and took different groups of friends each night. On the Saturday, I met Billy himself after the show. We got chatting and I invited him and his company for brunch the next day.”
That was the start of a friendship that would find Lowe in New York, mixing with Broadway’s finest.
On Thursday, those Stateside visits come to fruition when, for one night only, 66-year-old Hayes performs his new one-man show, Riding The Midnight Express, at The Dirty Martini, in Le Monde.
“It tells the real story, not the Hollywood version of what happened,” says Lowe, who admits to being captivated by the cautionary, yet uplifting tale. It has also given him the opportunity to develop his venue as a theatre space.
“The Dirty Martini has brought in some big names; people like Ray Wilson, former lead singer with Genesis, and Curtis Stigers, but I want to stage theatre here too. So when Billy said he wanted to come back to the Fringe, I invited him to perform here. Both he and his producer Barbara Ligetti agreed it was a great venue. So we kept in touch.”
As their friendship grew, Lowe was asked if he’d like to become involved in the show when it opened in New York.
“Now, I have had a lifelong love of film and theatre, but didn’t know how I could contribute,” he says. “For me, the thought of being involved in an off-Broadway show was interesting.”
Invited to a press launch in the famous New York restaurant Sardi’s, Lowe was introduced to the show’s other co-producers, people who, like him, had been inspired by the film.
Before he knew it, Lowe had the title co-producer to add to his CV.
The fascination with the story is simple, he says. “People empathise with Billy because after he had served his time they moved the goalposts. There then comes this triumphant story of human spirit over adversity and I admire the fact he has come out of such a horrific situation with a real zest and passion for life.”
Tickets for Thursday’s performance are free, subject to availability, and can be obtained from reception at Le Monde. The evening will close with a Q&A with Hayes and a book signing.
“It’s good theatre,” promises Lowe, “and I can’t wait for the week- long run in August.”
Riding The Midnight Express, Le Monde, George Street, Thursday, 8pm, free