Not a whole lot happens in Billy Liar. The character of the 20 year old dreamer may be iconic, but his world is a static one. Stuck in Bradford living with his parents and engaged to two different girls, he yearns to move to London to become a scriptwriter. Or at least that’s what he says. Even he’s not too clear on what he really wants.
Billy Fisher spends much of his time dreaming of a better life and making up various tall tales (he has a strange obsession with leg amputation), while trying to stop his two fiancees from bumping into each other; he argues with his father and pines for his one true love, of whom his family disapproves.
The beauty of Sam Yates’ production – his debut for the Royal Exchange – lies in the detailed approach to character and the performances. Billy is a wonderful creation, easy to identify and sympathise with, even when he’s inventing a sister confined to an iron lung in order to impress his girlfriend. Harry McEntire plays him with an abundance of the same eccentric charm he displayed in Phil Porter’s excellent Blink; while he’s a compelling presence, it’s sometimes hard to understand why no less than three women are in love with him, as there’s something of the man-child about him – he’s not a conventional heartbreaker.
Of the supporting cast, Lisa Millet gives a touching performance as Billy’s bewildered mother. Rebekah Hinds, Katie Moore and Emily Barber play Billy’s trio of girlfriends, but it’s Moore that leaves the deepest impression, ablaze with angry energy, hurling insults at Billy and his family. Jack Deam, as Billy’s frustrated and bewildered father, gets closest to the darkness inherent in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play; when his irritation at Billy’s lies gets the best of him, he grabs him by the scruff of the neck, and this moment of violence is unsettling and necessarily jarring.
That’s partly because the production is very heavily played for laughs – and there is much to laugh at it here – but there’s also a sadness and bleakness to the writing, a quiet desperation that runs beneath the surface of things, never quite making itself seen. It’s clear that underneath the bluster and fibs, Billy is just a scared kid who’s not brave enough to make the leaps that might improve his life.
There’s an attempt to explore this in the second half, the play becoming darker in hue as Billy contemplates whether the death of his grandmother will spur him to leave for London or simply become another crutch on which to lean on at home. It’s in these scenes that David Woodhead’s ingenious set design comes into its own, the Fisher family living room transforming into an outdoor space, via the use of back projections, for Billy’s pivotal conversation with his returning lover, Liz, who attempts to persuade him to move to London with her.
The play has dated in more ways than one – one of the opening lines has Billy’s grandmother refusing to see a doctor because he’s black, causing an interesting ripple of discomfort in the audience – but while Yates recognises and engages with this, he never quite goes deep enough. Billy’s frustrated fantasies are dark and strange, there’s something uneasy about him, but Yates production plays up the charm and the humour at the expense of something harder and sharper.