Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange

Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange

Published in The Telegraph, 19.06.2014

Is Billy Fisher, Keith Waterhouse’s iconic woolly-headed anti-hero, an outright fantasist or is he more frustrated? He’s often lumped in with the angry young men of the late-1950s, but this idle daydreamer, 19 years old and stuck at his parents’ home in Bradford, with a dead-end job and two dead-end fianceés, rarely holds a candle to Jimmy Porter and co.

Instead of ranting, Billy retreats into his imagination. Actor Harry McEntire gives him an old familiar twinkle; mischievous but gentle. He larks about, bemusing his grandmother and irritating his parents, and spouts constant lies – almost daring himself to get out of another fine pickle. Even his overlapping relationships are intended to enliven proceedings: fiancée one swallows his stories whole, while fiancée two sees through him every time.

In Sam Yates’s production, Billy’s Bradford is boring. His parents are prim and uptight, with grey furniture, grey clothes and grey lifestyles. Even the sky overhead, a panorama encircling the entire Royal Exchange, is grey – not overcast, mind, just snapped in greyscale. McEntire’s Billy is meant for brighter, better things in brighter, better places. He aspires to London and a job writing jokes for television comics. The irony is that he’s too escapist to ever escape.

The trouble is that there’s something much darker bubbling beneath the surface of Waterhouse’s adaptation, co-written with Willis Hall, and McEntire misses it. Billy’s inventions aren’t just fondant fancies. He paints his family-members as amputees – letting mum off with a broken leg. He invents a sister, then confines her to an iron lung, and exiles his father to the merchant navy. Subconsciously or otherwise, Billy wants to destroy his home life. He’s a small-time kleptomaniac and a compulsive liar.

Yates and McEntire let him off the hook too easily, but his parents get an easy ride as well. Their outlook is small-town, but it’s never truly stifling. Lisa Millett plays Mrs Fisher with a saint’s patience, while Jack Deam misses her husband’s priggishness and the callousness of someone more concerned with keeping his suitcase than his want-away son.

Without a critical eye on the petit-bourgeois values, Billy Liar teeters into Roald Dahl territory; a fable about a colourful child in a monotone world. It’s sharper than that: Billy can’t let himself love one of his fiancées, Liz, a scruffball in a stained skirt, tenderly played by Emily Barber, because she doesn’t meet those ingrained middle-class standards. In sticking to naturalism, without anything more expressive, Yates can’t find the pent-up anger beneath.

Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

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