Review: Billy Liar, Royal Exchange

“You’ll need a clean shirt, they don’t have dirty necks on the BBC”

Hmmm. Trekking my way through this list can prove a little hard-going when it throws up plays like these… Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar might have been acclaimed as a Great British classic but in Sam Yates’ production for the Royal Exchange, its charms weren’t immediately clear to me. Much of it lies in the play itself I feel, a slice of late-1950s northern life from which dreamer Billy frequently escapes through the flights of fancy in his mind.

Trapped by immutable social strictures and parental expectation, he fantasises and lies his way through the day, as he dreams of leaving the day job (at the undertakers) and moving to London to become a writer for comedians. But the excitement is in the dreaming rather than the doing, so a strange state of affairs exists where he spins and invents and even destroys his actual world without any real sense that he might actually get up and go.

Harry McEntire’s Billy inhabits the dreamy nature a little too fully to ever really convince of the darkness and desperation that surely lies beneath the surface of someone who is, no matter how big the twinkle in his eye, deeply disturbed. This tweeness runs through Yates’ production like a treacly river which might as well have a sign over it saying “aw, shucks” as bemusement and tolerance are the watchwords rather than any sort of reality check of working class life.

There’s good support from Katie Moore as fiancée Rita and from Lisa Millett and Jack Deam as Billy’s parents even if they end up being fantastical, but the pace of the play makes it very hard-going and more like a dusty relic that should perhaps be left on the shelf.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 12th July

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