Writer: Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
Director: Sam Yates
Reviewer: Laura Maley
Billy Fisher is an office clerk, living with his parents and grandmother. He stays out too late, and dates multiple girls. He doesn’t get on with his father and his mother is frequently told she is too lenient with him. So far, so humdrum. But Billy lies. Whether tiny or a whopping great big one Billy’s lies are covered by more lies (including a particularly sick though amusing obsession with peoples’ legs being chopped off).
His father’s exasperation with Billy is obvious. Jack Deam is excellent as a man who can not understand or communicate with his son. When they fight it’s a short sharp shock of violence. Geoffrey can’t understand why Billy isn’t more grateful for his grammar school education, or why he can’t simply knuckle down and settle into a job for life as generations did before him.
In this production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s 1959 story is taken into 1960 by director Sam Yates, and moved from Yorkshire to Greater Manchester, tiny alterations which make little material difference to the production.
Billy Liar needs a strong central performance, and Harry McEntire brings that. He has the requisite comic ability, and the mental dexterity of Billy’s lies being second nature, together with almost childlike vulnerability. McEntire is convincing and likeable but without being greasily charming, so that the audience feels the frustration of those around him, but also sympathises with him.
David Woodhead’s set design for Billy’s little world is static, with a familiar 1960s family living room. This feels unusual in the Royal Exchange, where the audience is used to ingenious set changes. At first it feels confusing to see Billy leave the house through the front door only to walk straight back through the living room claiming it as the garden. However, effectively, this shows the extent to which Billy is trapped.
The three women in Billy’s life appeal to different aspects of his character. Barbara is middle class, homely and with a handbag full of oranges – the fiancée his parents expect. Rita is wild and aggressively determined to get back the engagement ring she unwittingly shares with Barbara. Katie Moore bubbles with energy and indignation as Rita, and Rebekah Hinds is an understated gem of comic timing as Barbara. Finally there’s Liz, with her grubby skirt and big dreams. From early reactions to her name, the audience knows that it’s Liz Billy really wants but it is a long time before Emily Barber appears, as a fleeting, almost dreamlike presence, floating in and out of Billy’s life. While they share the same dreams, Liz seems more mature than Billy and is capable of grasping the freedom Billy wants.
In a tragicomic story, it seems – especially in the first half – as though Sam Yates highlights the comedy more than the tragedy. There are, though, glimpses of the expectations heaped upon Billy, his father’s perceived bitterness, and both his parents’ exasperation, coupled with a typical teenage desire to live his own life, his way, shine through when they get the chance.
Billy is ultimately a restless young man. He dreams of being a scriptwriter and claims to have a job offer in London. The lure of freedom seems to overwhelm Billy – communicated excellently by McEntire as he rushes and blusters towards the end of the play. He seems to have everything he wants within his grasp. Billy invents a whole country for him and Liz in his imagination and dreams of being lost in London – but the audience understands, with sadness, that he is already lost.
Photo: Jonathan Keenan | Runs until 12 July 2014