Billy Liar, Royal Exchange Manchester

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” – John Lennon

Going to the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester is always a treat for me, as it has been since 1976 when the august institution opened its doors for the first time.  If you’ve never been there, can I recommend it?  Constructed within the very grand Royal Exchange building, the 750 seat theatre-in-the-round sits bang in the centre like an oversized moon module.  I’m very fortunate to have seen many great performer performing many great plays in this setting, such that it can be said to have sparked my love of theatre.  Indeed, the theatre has been a hotbed of innovation and a showcase for great talents over the past 40 years, so what better setting for a new production of a much-loved play?

Billy Liar is, you will recall, a novel written in 1959 by Keith Waterhouse, journalist, broadcaster, TV scriptwriter and professional Yorkshireman.  His book was adapted for the stage by Waterhouse’s long-time collaborator Willis Hall, though it was also transferred to the big screen, into a musical, a TV series and for all I know quite possibly an ice ballet too.

It has been revived at various times, but when Sam Yates chose to direct the play at the Royal Exchange you know it is a production to be taken seriously.  Here is what Yates has to say about his production:

“Billy Liar is a sometimes painfully truthful insight into a northern family. The unmatachable intimacy of the Royal Exchange makes it an home for this play. I’m thrilled to be working with one of Britain’s most exciting young actors, Harry McEntire, who plays Billy Fisher.”

Meanwhile, the simple plot is summarised by the Exchange marketing people thus:

“Billy Fisher is a 19 year-old nobody. He lives at home and has a dead-end job. He’s going somewhere only in his imagination – which he’s furnished with an elaborate fantasy world, from which lie after lie spills forth. Yet while the northern lad harbours dreams of running away to London, Billy’s plans are threatened by missing stationery and pocketed postage money, hoodwinked fiancées and, in the end, his own indecisiveness.”

Billy is indeed a liar, one who would like nothing better than to escape from his roots in West Yorks and to make a life for himself away from traditionally boring and uncomprehending parents.  This might easily be a kitchen sink drama, somewhere midway between Hobson’s ChoiceCoronation Street and Look Back in Anger.  It has serious underlying themes and a few laughs thrown in for good measure, but majors on family life as it existed in that era.

The problem nowadays is that northern dramas and comedies of the 50s and 60s have long since become a cliché in their own right, so the director has to work hard to avoid sounding like he’s sending up the play and the people of the north, commonly portrayed as friendly gossipers (women) and masterful breadwinners who stand for no nonsense (men.)  Since Waterhouse does not stray too far from the stereotypes, nor take elaborate flights of fancy in the same way as  Thurber‘s earlier character Walter Mitty, Yates has the challenge of where to take Billy Liar and takes it…. nowhere.  Instead he takes a fine cast of relative unknowns and extracts fresh reading from the lines in precisely the same setting, albeit in the round, as envisaged by Waterhouse.  In other words, this is a time warp revival rather than a reinventing revival.

As the eponymous anti-hero, one unable to stop himself believing his own fantasies, young Harry McEntire goes for the cheeky chappy routine, one possessed of charm but whose credibility with young ladies Barbara (the sensible one who would bore the life out of you), Rita (the hell cat you would never choose to marry) and Liz (who can turn fantasies into reality) belies the belief – unless two of the ladies are more gormless than they look, though one does appear to see right through Billy.  Does this Billy really know what he wants?  Apparently not, though what he does seem to enjoy is the brinkmanship of getting himself into scrapes before trying (unsuccessfully) to argue his way out of them.

This production is at its best with well-timed dialogue slammed back and forth like a tennis ball.  All the supporting characters are well-drawn, though they are precisely that – supporting characters.  Forgive me for not having all the names at the tip of my tongue (we neglected to buy a programme), but the grandmother does exceptionally well until her unfortunate demise at the end of Act 1.  The chap playing the exasperated father does not have quite the demeanour of, say, a Pete Posthethwaite, so you suspect his threats are empty ones, but nonetheless he achieves the role of frustrated and bewildered member of a generation before rock & roll with panache, preaching the virtues of stability and hard work.

On its own that entertained the audience, much as candy floss would entertain a child at the fair for a couple of minutes, but to be honest it neither fulfilled nor satisfied this viewer.  To my mind there are three main problems with the approach Yates has taken, the first of which occurs to you the longer you watch.  It is that the action proceeds at second gear all the way through. There is nothing of the sense of increasing frenetic pace as Billy’s stories unravel, possibly a fault of the Hall adaptation but I certainly took no sense of the narrative progressing with a sense of purpose.

The second fault slaps you around the chops at the end, since the play ends with an anti-climax. Billy returns home from the station, having failed to depart with Liz for London, and rather than an explanation chooses only to imagine himself as the conductor of an orchestra on the radio.  Is that really it, you wonder?  Is there really nothing to say, no moral to draw, nowhere left for Billy to go?  How sad.

Which brings me to the gravest fault, since it is the essence of all that is wrong.  For Billy Liar to succeed, there needs to be an underlying tension, a sense of depth, a resonance to the play.  And for that matter, we need a three dimensional construction from which to experience the character’s dilemma, his motivations and internal conflict.  Done well, Billy should be exposed like layers of the proverbial onion.  In Yates’s production I got none of this, only events X, Y and Z as the lies are revealed in arbitrary linear succession courtesy of father and mother cross-examining Billy, and the various fiancées appearing in different combinations.  This makes it sound far more like the soap opera than a drama of the quality of Look Back in Anger, to name but one.

You can speculate that Billy does not want to go with Liz precisely because she understands him, and Billy wants to evade reality and being pigeonholed, but there is not the evidence in script or performance to justify any psychological profiling, much to the detriment of the final outcome.  This is perhaps a lost opportunity to combine the surface likeability of the play and equip it with a serious backbone; small wonder that it loses its way and peters out in preference to a more explosive ending.

So there you go.  I’m disappointed since this production could have been so much more, but sadly I think it reinforced the stereotypes it sought to escape – never a great state of affairs.

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