There seems to be a trend of northern plays doing the rounds at the moment, from A Taste of Honey at The Lowry to Hobson’s Choice at The Octagon. Now it’s the turn of The Royal Exchange as they play host to another famous Lancashire drama Billy Liar.
It’s been over 50 years since Billy Liar was penned by Keith Waterhouse, since then it has been made into a film, musical and TV series, proving it to be one of the iconic plays of our time.
Director Sam Yates brings the revival, adapted for the stage by Waterhouse and Willis Hall, to the round in this latest production, which runs until 12th July.
Changing the location from the original Yorkshire this version sees the action set in Middleton, Greater Manchester in 1960 where 19 year old Billy Fisher lives his life telling tall tales and indulging in his overactive imagination.
Working as a lowly clerk for an undertaker and still living at home with his parents, Billy decides to spice up his mundane existence by lying to all and sundry and suffering the consequences as they find out the extent to which he has been spinning the truth.
When Billy has the chance to fulfil one of his dreams and take up a job as a comedy scriptwriter in London it looks like he might finally be able to break free…but is this just another of his lies?
Billy Liar is a tragi-comedy that makes a social comment on the family dynamics of the era – a time when women were expected to stay at home and look after their brood, men were the breadwinners and children were to abide by all their parents rules. There’s some strong characters; Billy’s exasperated Mum Alice (Lisa Millett) who doesn’t know what to do with her son for the best, tea-loving Grandma Flo (Sue Wallace) who is still living life like it’s the wartime and patriarch Geoffery (Jack Deam) who feels like he’s wasted his time and money putting his son through private education only for him to end up a disappointment.
The majority of the action takes place inside the Fisher home, an authentic time piece created by designer David Woodhead, full of chintzy ornaments, patterned carpet and tassled lampshades. Rather than hinder the production the static set proves there doesn’t need to be elaborate set changes to make this work. The clever use of subtle lighting transforms scenes from indoor to outdoor and helps echo the sense that even when Billy leaves his house he is never fully able to escape from its trappings.
There’s a great cast here led by Harry McEntire as mixed up enthusiast Billy, providing heaps of charm and energy to play out his fantasies. McEntire’s little boy lost act helps to display how Billy is like a child trapped in a young mans body, not wanting to face the stark reality of growing up and tackling the ‘real world’.
Billy’s frustrated dad Geoffrey is expertly played with a time bomb tension by Jack Deam, exploding at the end of the first half as he gives his son the ‘bloody good hiding’ he says he deserves.
The comedy is mainly provided from Billy trying to keep his 2 fiancées apart, prudish Barbara (who is more interested in oranges than doing anything ‘fruity’ with him) and fiery Rita with her good lucks and gutter mouth outbursts.
Katie Moore injects a real kick into the action with her passionate performance as gobby Rita. Moore lights up the stage with every scene she is in, despite there not being many of them, and excels at taking Billy to task when she finds out he’s been wooing boring Barbara. Watch out for a great moment when she decides to try and claim back her engagement ring by pulling it off Barbara’s finger.
Director Sam Yates has succeeded in serving up a great production here, achieving what he set out to do – create an actor-driven piece which isn’t played for laughs but instead pursues the truth of the text. The result is a thought provoking and accomplished piece of theatre.
Billy Liar runs at The Royal Exchange till 12th July