Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
Gala Theatre, Durham
Considering the financial troubles which beset it, the decision by Durham's Gala Theatre to have a rep season, albeit a short one, is risky. They have hedged their bets somewhat by co-producing with Charles Vance who, after 42 years, does have a pretty good idea of what the public like.
Like Vance, Billy Liar celebrates its 42nd anniversary this year. Has it dated? is the obvious question.
To some extent we have to say that it has. It's a period piece: 1960 is much more fifties than sixties. If nothing else, the fact that Billy has plenty of offers of jobs really puts it firmly in the past! However Billy still exists today - we all probably have a bit of Billy Liar in us. And of course today's teenagers are far more worldly-wise than Billy, and at a much earlier age, but the themes of the contrast between dreams and reality, of the conflict between adult and teenager, of the stresses and strains within family life are as relevant now as they were in 1960.
As befits a traditionally "well-made play" in three acts, we have a pretty standard box set, more or less exactly as set out in the text, with some delightfully kitsch furniture: the cocktail cabinet which plays a music box tune when opened was cringingly appropriate.
The difficulty which faces director and actors with this play is the temptation to play caricatures rather than characters, for the writing verges on caricature but never steps over that fine line. Geoffrey (the father) and Florence (the grandmother) are most open to this. Nick Barclay's Geoffrey avoided the trap and showed us the basically decent and caring man beneath the bluster and constant repetition of "bloody" (which so upset some of the audience at the first night in the West End in those much more innocent times!).
Louise Falkner (grandma) was much too young for the role and was clearly made up to look old - too clearly! Her movements were slow (fair enough: she was 82 in a time when people of sixty considered themselves old) but she was given some very slow business at the beginning which seemed to go on for ever and screamed at the audience, "This is a very old woman!" but added little else.
The humour came through gently and the predominantly middle-aged and older audience clearly enjoyed the play, but I doubt that it will bring the audience streaming in to the theatre. It's safe in every theatrical sense of the word - a safe choice, a safe production - and was rewarded with a half-full house on its first night.
Week one of the season was Coward's Hay Fever and it concludes next week with Ayckbourn's Taking Steps. No one is going to go home full of "You must see!" but that's what the Gala needs, particularly if it wants to hit the large university population and attract theatregoers away from Sunderland and Newcastle.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan