Billy Liar, Royal Exchange, Manchester, directed by Sam Yates (13 June-12 July 2014).
It’s probably fair to say that – if you think of anything when you think of Billy Liar – you think of the 1963 John Schlesinger film starring Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie and Wilfred Pickles. Keith Waterhouse’s original novel, and its sequel Billy Liar on the Moon, the TV show in the 70s that starred Drop the Dead Donkey’s Jeff Rawle, the musical fronted by Michael Crawford and Elaine Paige – all of these other things have dwindled in the popular imagination. The film is what we know – and the familiarity of the film loiters like a ghost around the periphery of the Royal Exchange’s production of the play.
Where the film opens with Billy, lying in his bed, dreaming of Ambrosia, the country that exists only in his imagination, his mum and dad’s voicing calling him to get up for work seemingly from a long way away, the play opens in the living room, with his family: his nan (Sue Wallace), his dad (Jack Deam) and his mum (Lisa Millett, last seen in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin). The three of them are united, to a greater or lesser extent, in complaints about Billy. The dynamic of the play is firmly established when Billy (a terrific performance from Harry McEntire that riffs on the Courtenay, no doubt, but with a healthy dose of Michael J Fox) finally makes an appearance – in pyjamas and a raincoat – sparring, ducking and weaving among the brickbats thrown his way.
The family dynamic is quickly extended to include Billy’s mate, Arthur Crabtree, and two girlfriends, Barbara and Rita – one of whom has an engagement ring and one of whom, the mouthy Rita (played with wild exuberance by Katie Moore who secures a great many of the laughs in the play), wants the ring back. Arthur gifts Billy some passion pills and he tries them out, with scant success, on Barbara who is more interested in peeling and eating oranges. But it is the lies more than anything else, lies about his father’s military career, lies about a dead sister, lies about the furniture in the house, that define Billy.
Where the movie Billy is a winsome dreamer, the play Billy is a darker creature, someone for whom stories of amputated limbs are almost a default opening conversational gambit. In some ways, the play struggles with the dark knots that Billy ties, particularly in the second act. There are fall outs, there is a death, there are angry scenes in the living room and on the street outside the house. Where the film manages to ensure Billy remains a sympathetic figure, even as he is hurting those around him, the play Billy draws away from us. Part of this occurs as a result of the diminishment of the Liz figure (played here by Emily Barber). In the film, the Liz character is a free spirit who presents Billy with the idea of possibility. In the play she is a ‘dirty girl’ with a mucky skirt, a figure who appears rather late in the day given to making demands of him, just as Rita and Barbara do. She isn’t different enough to make us care about her as much as we should.
Liz isn’t allowed to come into her own because the play is more claustrophobic. We don’t really leave the living room. There are no nightclubs, no office scenes. We don’t see Liz walking through town swinging her handbag. We just hear from Arthur that she’s back in town. The scenes that Liz and Billy share are plaintive and sweet but we don’t know enough about her to really feel the importance of the bond. It’s up to McEntire to make us feel that bond – and he works hard to do it, tentatively enquiring after her with Arthur in a way that suggests he couldn’t care even as we know Liz is the girl he cares about, the girl who has hurt him by leaving before. But Barber isn’t given enough to do. And the lack unseats the climax of the play somewhat.
There are scenes we know were written for the film – the scene in which Billy attempts to give his resignation to Leonard Rossiter’s Shadrack, the scenes in the train station – that do not appear in the play. This occasionally works in the play’s favour, when lines that are familiar appear in a different setting, or from the mouth of a different character. Transplanting the rows with Rita, for example, from her place of work to Billy’s front door give them an added frisson. An argument Billy has with his mum and dad is spliced with a conversation that occurs in the film between Billy and his mother alone. But there are also times when bridging scenes are missed (Billy leaves the house with a case, Billy returns with a case) and you can’t help but think an extra scene would greatly benefit proceedings. It does work the other way too though – with scenes included in the play that never made the film. One particular example of this – Jack Deam’s description of a deathbed scene that we are not privy to – is worth the price of admission alone.
For the most part, though, it’s a strong production with an exemplary cast. What misfires there are (the play version of Arthur Crabtree is an adumbration of two characters from the film and the swift shift from friendship to disloyal entanglement with one of Billy’s girlfriends feels jarring) are more the fault of the play itself than the production. All told, it’s good fun. There are a lot of laughs. It’s the kind of play you come out of with a smile on your face. And McEntire is good enough to have you wanting to check out whatever it is he chooses to do next.