Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall
Royal Exchange, Manchester
13 June 2014 to 12 July 2014
Three generations, living under one roof, in a time of austerity . . . as if you needed any excuse to revive Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s 1960 stage play?
Billy Liar still fizzes with energy, fun and youth – and that’s the truth.
He’s the Manchester undertaker’s clerk whose thinking outside of the box creates a make-believe world that cushions him from the grey reality of post-war Britain.
Quite apart from any contemporary relevance anyone cares to attach to it, this is a production bound to make a star out of a young Harry McEntire, whose talent has already been glimpsed here in previous work.
TV viewers have frequently seen the face but now’s the time to remember the name.
In the title role he makes audiences care deeply about the fate of a serial liar, thief and philanderer. And he does it all with the lightest of touches in a performance where movement director Ann Yee must take some of the credit.
With director Sam Yates they rein the play in from becoming physical farce and instead concentrate on its brooding satire. Some of its dark comedy is pitch-black brutal in places but the laughs are always coaxed, never signposted.
The moment at which Billy, lost in his fearful imagination and with only a stick for company, becomes juggler, conductor, soldier and officer connects us all to the safe place of a thousand childhood daydreams.
Fine care has been taken with casting throughout, and around Billy are family and girlfriends rooted in all-too-apparent reality. Grandmother and mother (Sue Wallace and Lisa Millett) are totems of their respective generations, father (Jack Deam) erupts in uncomprehending violence while Emily Barber, Rebekah Hinds and Katie Moore give three deeply contrasting cameos of young womanhood. The latter makes an especially heavy-ordnance blonde bombshell out of Rita in another eye-catching performance.
Without word of a lie a Billy true to itself.
Reviewer: David Upton