I have a confession to make. I tell lies. I have told them often and without regret. Whether they are teeny, tiny lies to save a friend’s feelings, big, fat ones to get myself out of sticky situations or, the worst kind of lie, the ones we tell ourselves to repair our ego when we’re bruised and in the gutter, these many, many lies have saved me from embarrassment, from despair or from a thump many times over. So it goes without saying that a play about this subject is, for me, an attractive evening out.
A book, a play, a film, a musical, several adaptations, a TV series – references to Keith Waterhouse’s anti-hero in the songs of The Decembrists and Yo Le Tengo certainly makes Billy Liar one of the most popular and well-loved stories in the British canon.
Set in 1959, the play adaptation by Waterhouse and Willis Hall follows the triumphs (of which there are few) and troubles (of which there are many and self-inflicted) of young fantasist and compulsive liar Billy Fisher (Harry McEntire), a lad who lives at home with his parents in what he perceives to be a hum drum life in a Northern town.
He’s engaged – twice and at the same time – and has several family members with missing limbs, war wounds and sob stories. It’s a wonder he hasn’t tied himself into knots by now because they’re all lies. Lies to better himself, lies to impress and lies to comfort and shield himself from monotonous boredom.
The cast are sublime under the direction of Stockport-born Sam Yates and, although there is the equal measure of comedy and pathos, the script is meaty and characters robust enough to have ramped up the pace and injected heightened character to this colourful script. The set is true to the original intentions of the writers and there’s clever sound design giving the piece delightful authenticity.
Why does Billy lie, though? That’s what is at the very nub of this story and, 50 years on, it’s still a pertinent question. In a Western world where we’re told to aspire, achieve great things and, dang, become famous if we can manage it, the notion that Billy’s lies are maybe just a distraction from real problems is something which could be construed as a modern disorder.
By 1959, there were no more heroes. Billy’s father and grandfather would have fought in the war but by the late 50s the country was awash with moody teenagers all-disappointed with their lot. For a generation of young men, all that was waiting for them was a crappy job in a crappy town and nowadays, if we’re not tweeting, texting or status updating our every mood, motive and milestone (however insignificant), we may as well not exist at all.
It is finally the great lie Billy tells himself which is his undoing. The lie that he is meant for great things and that he has the bottle to really reach for those stars he bangs on about. His fear gets the better of him and the sad, lamenting ending is a terrible punch to the guts. There is, after all, a fine line between a lie and an ambition, no?
Yours, Lucia Liar.
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
Until: July 12, 2014
More info: http://www.royalexchange.co.uk