By Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
Director: Michael Lunney
Reviewer: John Roberts
In 1959 Waterhouse had created a hit that swept away the post war blues, a novel that centred around the highly likeable character Billy Fisher: a bored undertakers assistant who is a compulsive liar, a true ladies man, hoarder of all things including over 300 of his boss’ calendars and the home to a hyper imagination.
In 1960 Waterhouse had joined forces with Willis Hall and in 1960 a production starring Albert Finney as Billy opened in London’s West End, receiving only lukewarm reviews, but it was the 1963 film version directed by John Schlesinger and starring Tom Courtenay proved that it did have an audience and that dramatically it did have legs and real comic potential.
Unfortunately this production by Middle Ground Theatre Company seems to be clouded by the fate that bestowed the 1960 London production, fantastic performances from the majority, but the play just sits there like a damp squib, where nothing really resonates with today’s audiences, the dreams of going to the big smoke t’do good, just doesn’t have the urgency to provoke a reaction any more…So what we are left with is a slice of Social commentary which leaves you with a small crease where one would hope a huge smile should be firmly placed as you leave the theatre. Nathan Hannan (please note that during the tour two actors will share the central role) as Billy Fisher gives a charming performance that is full of warmth and character, but one always feels not matter how hard he tries he is just too old to be playing a teenager, especially when there are some fantastic young actors out there who fit the bill more comfortably.
Sally Sanders as Florance the hard to do by grandma, is a delight and captivates the audience with her every wince and grimace, but it is Helen Fraser and Dicken Ashworth as Mum & Dad that really set the stage alight with excellent comic timing, and a demanding stage presence brings a much needed weight and authority to the proceedings. Credit must also be given to Victoria Hawkins as the strong and slightly menacing Rita.
Director Michael Lunney (who has also designed the fantastic cross cut two up two down set.) just doesn’t seem to find his stride with this production, each part, (yes that’s right, 2 intervals!) of this production feels like it has been directed by a different person, the first part seems to go smoothly but with no real attack of pace, the 2nd part was in this reviewers opinion the strongest section providing the audience with most of the laughs, but why couldn’t these two parts have stayed as one half? with no set change needed or shown, artistically one struggles to find reason. In the 3rd section Lunney starts to use theatrical devises which hasn’t been used so far and thus makes the play lose momentum and confuse the audience.
This production provides a pleasant enough night at the theatre, but it doesn’t set the world alight like one would hope.
Billy Liar runs at the Yvonne Arnaud until Sat 23rd May