“I very much connect to the story because I’m from Scarborough and I couldn’t wait to leave the bloody place.” This is director Nick Bagnall on his production of Billy Liar, showing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 50 years after the play first appeared onstage.
Set in Leeds, the story tells of Billy Fisher, the 19 year-old working class, grammar school lad who escapes the frustrations of his tedious existence as an undertaker’s clerk by spinning tall tales and dreaming of a life script writing in London.
“I left at 16,” Bagnall continues, “and it just feels like I was very lucky to do that. And so I think absolutely every single one of us understands the story, and have a version of it in our own heads.”
Billy Liar is definitely a much loved story. Adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall from Waterhouse’s 1959 novel of the same name, the play was later made into a film starring Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, before being turned into a musical, a sitcom and spawning numerous references in popular culture.
The longevity of Billy Liar is due, perhaps, to how well it captures the shifting mood of the times and how, as the prudent fifties turned into the swinging sixties, some people got lost in the gap in-between.
As this production opens, the era is effectively evoked by the excellent set; the brass hearth ornaments and pot dogs transport me immediately back to my grandma’s house. The language adds the next layer of authenticity. Described by Bagnall as having a “beautiful bouncing muscularity”, Waterhouse’s note-perfect prose captures the northern colloquialisms in all their rough, daft lyricism.
With Billy’s grandma, mother and father all onstage before the title character, we first come to know Billy by the weary, well-worn judgements of his family so that when he finally arrives, unwashed and in his pyjamas, his role as a misfit has been established.
If his family and his two fiancés (the prudish, orange-eating Barbara and the mouthy firebrand Rita) perfectly fit their time and place, Billy’s near-hysterical fabrications are his way of saying he doesn’t belong.
Actor Paul-Ryan Carberry has a hard act to follow, with many people’s definitive Billy being Courtenay. I haven’t seen the film, but I found Carberry’s portrayal delightful.
Carberry’s energy immediately engages the audience in Billy’s rapid-fire inventions, while his teenage appearance and slightly receding hairline help depict the duality of the character: Billy is a shameless liar, a sophisticated cheat and a thief but he’s also a kind of innocent; a dreamer; a man-child who lies as a reaction to his stifling life, but by doing so only seems to bind himself more closely to it.
As the production progresses and Billy’s lies start to close in on him, the balance between humour and pathos is skilfully played, particularly by Garry Cooper as Billy’s Dad, Geoffrey - like a more volatile Jim Royle from the Royle Family.
Charlotte Mills, who plays Barbara, also impressed. Plump and chaste, Barbara’s great lines would be easy to play for big laughs. Instead Mills’ performance reveals flashes of fear coupled with an almost pathological determination that, no matter how outlandish Billy’s lies, she should not lose her chance of the cottage in Devon with the wishing well.
This brings us to one of the more serious themes of what is, throughout, a very funny and enjoyable play; that in this hard, repetitious and unrewarding life, nobody wins. Everybody wants to escape. Billy is simply more honest about his unhappiness than the others.
The one spark of happiness for Billy is found in the character of free-spirited Liz (Rebecca Whitehead); their too-brief stage time together showed a delightful affinity, a childlike sense of adventure that could, the audience is led to hope, be Billy’s ticket out of his stultifying life.
A success for Bagnall then, as this tightly written, well-acted 50 year-old slice of northern life proves that tales of people daring to dream of a better life never really date.
Billy Liar, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to 2 October, 0113 213 7700 www.wyp.org.uk