Royal Exchange Theatre provides perfect setting for Keith Waterhouse’s tragicomedy
It may be more than 50 years old but Keith Waterhouse’s play about 1960s northern life is still capable of captivating a modern audience, as demonstrated at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre last night.
Adapted for stage by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, BILLY LIAR first opened in London’s West End in 1960 with Albert Finney in the title role. It has since been produced all over the world and has been made into a film, a musical, a TV series and even a song.
54 years later, an exciting new production directed by Sam Yates has just started its month-long run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, captivating the audience with its funny script, excellent cast and simplistic in-the-round set.
Set in Middleton, Greater Manchester in 1960, BILLY LIAR tells the story of William “Billy” Fisher, a 19-year-old working-class boy who spends his time indulging in fantasies.
Living at home with his parents Alice and Geoffrey and his grandmother Florence, Billy brings a little colour to his life by telling lies – from trifling and inconsequential ones (such as his furniture making skills) to huge and compulsive whoppers (which leads him to simultaneously engaged to two women).
Bored by his job as a lowly clerk for an undertaker, Billy dreams of moving away to London to become a script writer but can he summon the courage to escape his small-town existence or will Billy’s dreams forever live in his head?
Waterhouse’s story of love, dreams and smalltown frustration may be set in the 1960s but the semi-comical play is still capable of captivating the hearts and imagination of a modern audience, as I found out for myself at the opening performance at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre on 17 June.
“For this production, I’m not particularly interested in mining the musical or the film, although they are both great works. For me, the novel is the source material, and the play is a brilliant advancement of this,” comments director Sam Yates.
“There are some things that are wildly different in the novel than in the play, and we’re only taking what’s useful to help us understand the play at a deeper level.”
The three-act play takes place on one Saturday: Act 1 in the morning, Act 2 in the early evening, and Act 3 at night.
For a play that is very much about imagination, the Royal Exchange Theatre is the perfect host with its intimate in-the-round setting – so intimate that the audience can almost reach out and touch the actors – forcing both the audience, and the cast, to follow in Billy’s lead and use their imagination.
David Woodhead’s set was simple but effective, with the majority of the action taking place in the Fisher family’s sparsely furnished living room, comprising of a sofa, chair, dining table and sideboard. A handful of scenes also took place outside with lighting and a soundtrack providing the only atmosphere, once again, leaving the audience to use their imagination.
The production itself is actor-driven; the design is stripped back so we can focus on the acting and focus on the minutiae of these people
Sam Yates, Director
The real gems however, were the cast. Jack Deam and Lisa Millett put in an excellent performance as Billy’s parents Geoffrey and Alice, a family torn between love, pride and frustration. Rebekah Hinds, who played Billy’s fiancée Barbara was also equally impressive, playing the aloof bride-to-be with precision and perfect comic timing.
The star of the performance was undoubtedly Harry McEntire who played Billy Fisher. Charming, witty and funny, McEntire played the troubled and complex lead character with ease, making the audience warm to Billy with every smiling lie. It comes as no surprise that McEntire has been tipped as one of Britain’s most exciting young actors.
Funny, sweet and sad, BILLY LIAR is a story about escape, love and dreams that captivates a generation. It just goes to show, great stories never age.
BILLY LIAR is on at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre from Friday 13 June to Saturday 12 July. To book tickets, visit the Royal Exchange website or call the Box Office on 0161 833 9833.