Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
The Everyman Playhouse have chosen to start their Spring Summer season with a sort-of-standard from 1959; a play about dreams and the crushing power of conformity. An interesting choice, a play rooted in its times and not generally considered a classic.
Curiously Phil Wilmott's direction is rather low key; it seems to be aiming for a subtlety and psychological realism the text simply doesn't possess. Christine Ozanne is wasted as Billy's grandmother, Florence. An actress of tremendous talent and experience handing in her batty old lady #4 and left to mug, distractingly, at the photo on the sideboard looking like a sweet old dear they've dragged in off the street. It's to her credit that Ozanne has done as much as she has with such an empty part; Florence seems to be there purely as a cipher, trotting out little old lady clichés in a caricature of old age.
The low-key approach hamstrings Michael Immerson's Billy; without a sense of embattled will or playfulness he seems less the hopeless romantic and more the mildly autistic. Without a sense of the trapped poet, of the crushed dreams, when Billy says that he belongs in the stars we simply don't believe him. Without that belief there can be no tragedy, and there is no belief here. One longs for charisma, for aggression, for comic panache, and without it Immerson is left looking like he's playing a part too big for him.
Much of the weakness of the production lies with the writing. After building Natalie Gumede's Liz to be the spirit of wilful freedom her entrance has her sitting politely while the men do all the talking. It's a weak entrance, and one she never recovers from, especially as she seems determined to play Liz less as a demimondaine frequenter of coffee bars and jazz clubs, and more as a children's TV presenter.
Jessica Harris, as Rita, bellows her part in a very impressive sweater. Of the younger actors only Victoria Gee seems comfortable with the broad brushstrokes of Waterhouse's writing. Her Barbara is a glorious and relaxed comic creation, awful in her ordinariness.
Kerry Peers manages to wring subtlety out of her part; her Alice Fisher, Billy's mother, is a convincing creation, in turns touching and exasperating but never unwatchable.
David Hounslow does his best with Geoffrey Fisher but again the writing seems less concerned with character than in creating a convenient place to launch clichés from. It's a credit, actually closer to a small miracle, that he brings as much humanity to the part as he does.
Christopher Wood's set is certainly an impressive bit of woodwork; a suburban house is flayed like a laboratory frog while around it other houses tower oppressively. While it didn't, frankly, add that much to the play it's a very fine piece of work and it'll give the GCSE students something to write about.
Dramatically Billy Liar is a clash of two cultures; the passionate dreamer versus the iron fist in the chintz glove that is Middle-England conformity. There is no passion here, no battle of wills, no sense of cultures colliding. In Phil Wilmott's passionless production Billy Liar is not a romantic hero. He's just a liar.
"Billy Liar" is at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 25th February.