Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Billy Liar

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

Comments

Comment by Robert Beale

I agree entirely. The reason it's so funny (and ultimately quite tragic) is that it's not 'played for laughs' but all the focus is on making the characters three-dimensional and real. Harry McEntire, Katie Moore and Jack Deam are outstanding in an excellent team.

Comment by David Chadderton

I agree about Harry McEntire being superb in the role of Billy, and that the script, while portraying events and characters very much from a different era, still stands up for a modern audience.

However beyond that I found it entertaining but nothing special, either production or cast. There are some decent performances but most characters are fairly insubstantial and occasionally stray into comic types. The timing of the dialogue wasn't quite there on press night—especially when there were different conversations going on at the same time.

It was fine, I laughed quite a few times and I saw just how great a writing team Waterhouse and Hall were, but I can't say I was filled with enthusiasm for the production.

Comment by Carmel Thomason

I agree. This is a thoroughly enjoyable production, which works all the better for not being played for laughs, because they just hit us naturally. Waterhouse and Hall's script has some wonderful turns of phrase, and all the characters are brought to life beautifully by a solid cast. The central performance by Harry McEntire is terrific, bringing such a likable quality to Billy's fanciful life, that you can forgive him the most ridiculous of lies. It's a must see.

Comment by Michelle Eagleton

A superb cast and a great production from Sam Yates - I love what he has done here, instructing the actors not to 'play for laughs' but instead focus on the realism. 

Harry McEntire's 'little boy lost' act gives him an endearing quality despite the fact you couldn't ignore he was a complusive liar. Katie Moore was a gem as gobby Rita, wiping the floor with prudish Barbara and providing some hilarious antics as she wrestled to get her engagement ring back.

Shameless actor Jack Deam also deserves a mention for his portrayal of Billy's father Geoffrey which fizzed with a timb bomb tension that was destined to explode.

A thought provoking tragi-comedy that entertained from start to finish.

Comment by Paul Genty

I think many people will have the idea that this is a comedy; it can certainly be played for comedy. But the way it is done here is far more satisfying and brings out the skill of Waterhouse and Hall in creating a character for his time and for all time.

The play is one of the best views of that dangerous age at which youth becomes adulthood, when the choices made reflect on the rest of one's life. If Billy stays at home he is lost, despite his obvious imagination and intelligence, to boring reality and his conformist family and friends. If he goes with Liz - who is truly brave -  the world is open to them both.

Watching McEntire and Co work through this perennial teen diiemma is evocative and saddening - while also being, at times, touching and very funny.

Comment by Alan Hulme

I'm more with David C on this, it's OK, entertaining enough but nothing special.