by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.
Manchester Athenæum Dramatic Society
Billy Liar is a very well-known play and, whilst being nearly 60 years old, one which is still very relevant today for modern audiences. In this social-media age in which we live, often the line between dreams and realities, for fertile imaginations, can easily be blurred: as seen in the story of Billy Fisher, who believes that ‘Some of us belong to the stars.’
Although difficult sometimes to extract the right amount of humour and pathos from the script, Manchester Athenæum Dramatic Society’s production certainly did a sterling effort to bring new life to an old favourite.
Based on the original novel by Keith Waterhouse, and written with Willis Hall, Billy Fisher is an undertaker's assistant who daydreams, lies and steals to and from all those around him. He wants to leave his dull, middle-class home in Yorkshire and in his mind, his dreams become reality for him: from being the President of the mythical land, Ambrosia, to being both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
Whilst staying faithful to the original set design, some nice touches were incorporated into Sue Maher’s design of the set, altering the perspective of the Fisher’s house from the audience’s view. We were peering through an imaginary fourth wall with the lovely element of a fire grate down stage centre to achieve this illusion. A sturdy staircase and internal doors were well constructed, with the clever impression of a hallway leading to the front door worked effectively, especially the scenery beyond the front window. An apron down-stage left allowed the extension of a garden but did not detract from the main playing space, which was well demarcated by planter boxes and foliage to create an ‘outside’ space for Billy’s private conversations in Act 3.
The half-real, half-imagined internal walls worked well, except the time when one actor accidentally walked through an imaginary wall. It was punctuated by the fact that all other actors took great pains to move behind the sofa to open the door to go upstairs. We also had moments of someone backstage being very visible in the outside window on numerous occasions, to the point that I thought we had an extra character waiting for their cue! This is something to think carefully about in the future
Lighting worked efficiently to show the progression of the 24 hours of the play, with even a hint of different moods inside the house. I particularly liked the slick cross-fading and snappy light switches which were perfectly timed. Even with the different working spaces, the lighting switches were executed perfectly and with ease despite some problems due to space limitations in the garden scene, and the static positioning of the limited lighting available. High praise must be given to Sue Maher, who was not only the set designer of the show but also the Stage Manager, Lighting Designer and operator!
There are not many sound cues in the script, apart from the occasional telephone which was timed perfectly. However, the use of the Beatles, ‘Nowhere Man’, at the beginning of each act was a perfect choice of music, linking to Billy’s character excellently. Attention to detail in Ian Dark’s lighting plot was skilled, for example, moving outside with the distant barking of a dogs, passing cars in the distance, and other nocturnal sound effects.
Perhaps a more creative lighting and sound cue could have been made to signify Billy’s fantasy sequences, which seemed a little lost in this production, but this could easily have been a direction choice by Bea Turner to play down the ‘fantasy’ element and focus on the grittiness of a ‘real’ situation.
Pamela Darke and Joel Austin’s set dressing was superb and provided a ‘lived in’ look to the lower-middle class house. The society must be complimented on their attention to detail of all the period dressings to create an authentic, mid-century, family home, with all the paraphernalia and nick-knacks necessary. All props were authentic, including bottles (which can often be a set pitfall). Not only was the look visually pleasing but instantly told us where and when we were, from insurance book and teapot to Billy’s hoard of calendars.
(Did Grandma have a pint pot of tea, though? I didn’t notice this amusingly ridiculous plot detail even though it was alluded to, but perhaps this was simply masked on stage).
Florence Boothroyd was played by Doreen Robinson, the first of five guest players for Manchester Athenæum’s production, whose fragile performance of the ailing old lady worked exceptionally well. Immediately we were endeared to her character, which was all the more heart-rending when she took ill in Act 2, and her demise in Act 3. Her depiction of Florence’s attack was very subtle and underplayed, and which worked effectively.
I know that it’s rude to ask a lady’s age, but having seen Angela Lansbury professionally play Madam Arcati at the age of 89 (and have her lines piped in an ear-piece), a huge round of applause must be given to Doreen for her work in Billy Liar. Whilst we had odd lapses in dialogue, they most certainly were forgiven by a very appreciative audience!
Geoffrey Fisher, presented as a loud northern father, was played by Marl Lees. A very natural and earthy presentation, it is easy to make this important character one dimensional, but which was avoided in this production. With a convincing accent and nonchalance to his son’s daydreams, I do feel that sometimes there could be more attack to show his frustration at his son. It was lovely to see the caring and gentle side of Geoffrey’s nature in Act 3, and ultimately his anger at his son.
Jane Parker played Alice compassionately, with a hint of vulnerability. Her life is completely turned around in the space of 24 hours at the death of her mother, and her ability to handle these difficult scenes was sensitive and emotional. Whilst still retaining humour, (tinned milk), Jane played Alice precisely and convincingly, with natural intonation, to deliver the dialogue with ease. Her scenes in Act 3 were simply heart-rending, and had the audience itself on the brink of tears.
Whilst there are no big monologues or real dramatic moments for Billy, the challenge for Joel Mallen was the fact that Billy is an exceptionally difficult and complex character to play. Lying and deceit coming naturally to Billy, and he bamboozled those around him with his quick-thinking lies and make-believe stories. The presentation of Billy worked effectively with just the right amount of panic when he was ultimately exposed, and excellent facial expressions which gave truth to his lies. There were times as I was watching this production, when I thought that Billy could be lapsing into a pathological condition - other than just his compulsive lying and thieving, which I think the director was trying to show by Billy’s regular running of hands through hair, holding head as if in pain, and his final outburst. It certainly had us questioning Billy’s motives and whether or not he had control over his situation. A great performance from Joel. Well done.
Billy’s relationship with the three girls was markedly different, which worked well leaving the audience wondering whether he had ‘real’ feelings for them, or anyone around him. The ‘passion pill’ scenes were most amusing and handled brilliantly.
Arthur Crabtree’s changing opinion of Billy was developed well, with meaning extracted from his dialogue and a pacey ‘letter’ scene and chase that did not lose momentum. (How many audiences could remember Godfrey Winn today, but a laugh was gained nonetheless!) The ‘Trouble at t’mill’ exchange showed effectively the pair’s friendship and provided a great contrast in Act 3 when they disagreed about Rita, which showed some well-developed characterisation from Alastair Brewsher.
Billy’s lying extends to his three girlfriends, played completely differently by Jennifer Jones (Barbara), Chezzelle O’Neill (Rita) and Jennifer Savill (Liz).
Barbara, ‘the one with the oranges,’ was played diminutively and meekly. Fantasising about their cottage in Devon, and their future family together, Jennifer’s portrayal of Barbara was saccharine in the perfect amount – an important contrast to the two other women. Her reactions to Billy were excellent, with some lovely one-line putdowns to his advances, and a carefully considered mannerisms and subtle humour -just how many oranges does Barbara eat in the show?
Chezelle’s portrayal of Rita was markedly different, and rightly so. Brash, loud and rough (with ‘that skirt’) her no-nonsense, angry-from-the-word-go portrayal was perfectly pitched to instil fear into Billy -and quite a few of the audience too. Although a fool for Billy’s lies, the audience certainly sympathised with her – which is again difficult as it’s so easy to make this character (and all the girls, actually) one dimensional, and, in Rita’s case, ‘just shouting.’ Her abrasiveness was pitched just right and much subtler when with Arthur. A great job.
Liz’s character is more of a cameo role, but an important one, nonetheless. I’ve previously seen Jenny play Rita in a production of Billy Liar elsewhere but her portrayal of Liz was completely different: and different from Billy’s other two girlfriends here. Kind, softly spoken, caring and seemingly wanting the best for Billy, Jenny’s characterisation in Act 3 was lovely and teased out a different side to Billy than the audience had seen before. A small role which Jenny made the most of.
Thank you to everyone at Manchester Athenæum for looking after us, and for a lovely evening. Your welcome was most warm, and I look forward to my next visit.