One guy. Three girls. One ring. The stiflingly (un)romantic tale of a lower-middle-class young man making up stories to escape his own existence. With a sufficient prompt for a night of light comedy, Billy Liar is elevated by an absorbing cast and gripping expressive flair.
Performed by Bebington Dramatic Society, this theatrical adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar returns to the stage over 70 years since its debut.
The man of the night undertaking the role of our Billy had big shoes to fill. Not only was it Danny Myers’ debut for BDS, but previous performances depicting the cheeky protagonist earned widespread praise in both the theatre and film mediums. Tom Courtenay in film and theatrical leading man Albert Finney are imposing figures in British stage-and-screen; film director John Schlesinger cemented the dreamer story as a British comedy classic in Billy Liar (1963).
Having also being reimagined into a TV series and a Broadway-style musical during the 70s, an audience filtering into Gladstone Theatre had to wonder: what more can this story offer?
The curtains are pulled to a vulnerable Florence Boothroyd, Billy’s grandmother, who can only mutter about Billy’s mischief in a way that almost addresses the audience directly. However, this mischief is only what Billy’s imagination produces; Myers pleasing with his energetic first impression to the audience by blurting out his absurd ambitions, adding to the already exuberant personality of the character.
Hannah Lewin’s Barbara, Billy’s fiancée, provides an innocent touch derived from a place further than our main character’s big, hectic, and downright artificial London dream. Further than that cottage in Devon they (or just she, it seems) desperately want. It’s never a promise to be fulfilled, and Acts II and III let us know that with the introductions of the other love interests: a loud, chaotic Rita (Jenny Jones) and a free-spirited Liz (Fiona Williams), the former being another girl Billy is engaged to.
Rita’s belligerent bickering with the rest of the cast coupled with Liz’s impulsive promise to make Billy hers only serve to pile up lie after lie, until the pot reaches its boiling point, creating a gripping family dynamic between the parents Alice and Geoffrey Fisher.
Alice’s changes in her emotional state, from concern to despair, throughout the show are demonstrated superbly by Marie Williams, which clash with a frustrated Kevin Fishwick, playing Geoffrey, to form a convincing portrayal of the effects of their son’s actions. Fishwick’s remarks as Billy’s father along with Jones’ hostility towards the Fishers and Barbara undoubtedly got the crowd cackling the most. Our main character’s troubles with his relationships, work, and then more relationships, now marital, with different ‘lasses’ do evoke a sense of empathy; he just wants his dream life at the end of the day.
Nevertheless, Billy simply conversing with his father who’s amidst the reality of mundane everyday life makes you think back to a time you also had a back-and-forth heated row with a parent about money or lovers more times than Geoffrey said the word ‘bloody’, which was in the hundreds, that’s for bloody sure.
From a technical production standpoint, the show, admittedly, doesn’t pull out all the stops. Most of the two-hour runtime saw the stage being inhabited by the Fisher household’s living and dining room, including the, let’s just say ‘iconic’, wooden wardrobe to the side.
However, a family going through family issues is a constant in every, well, family. Whilst the plot does centre on Billy, a more grounded take on this comedy as opposed to something spontaneous doesn’t negate how well the music and stage direction made for smooth scene transitions into seamless comedy sequences. Going for the spectacular, much like Billy’s attempts to get a breakthrough writing comedy scripts, would be rather haphazard.
Ultimately, BDS have presented a fantastic adaptation of Billy Liar, a classic that needed the utmost care in direction to pull off at such a well-known, vintage theatre.
• Billy Liar is showing until the 18th of November at Gladstone Theatre in Port Sunlight. Tickets and more info available here.
Images from Bebington Dramatic Society.