Billy Liar (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

Sam Yates finds the sadness beneath the humour of Keith Waterhouse’s celebrated text and it works wonderfully well.

Harry McEntire as Billy Liar.
Harry McEntire as Billy Liar.
©Jonathan Keenan

Billy Liar doesn’t deliberately tell fibs.. he just lives in a fantasy world. You can only conclude his life is so unsatisfactory that day dreams are his only escape.

It’s not very exciting to still live with your parents at the age of 20 not to mention having a mundane job as an undertaker’s clerk. Added to this, his dad is an overbearing male chauvinist. But Jack Deam who plays him, gives insight into the reasons why as he squabbles with wife, Alice (Lisa Millett).

Surprisingly, Billy, a charmless big kid in trousers, is the apple of many eyes, two of whom think he’s their fiancé. These three are frigid Barbara, brassy Rita and soft natured former girlfriend Liz.

Rebekah Hinds, Katie Moore and Emily Barber play these typically naïve 1960 girls as less knowing than their modern counterparts. But they never over play it.

Likewise, Sue Wallace’s grandma could easily be played over the top yet Wallace manages to keep her character this side of sane.She gives an amusing portrayal of an old lady dreaming of the bad old days.

The humour and observation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play largely centres on Harry McEntire's performance. He successfully unravels the layers of Billy’s character. He plays the comic side of the character incredibly well, taking hilarious steps to keep his womenfolk apart and when Barbara and Rita do meet, there's unforgettable fireworks.

Deep down Billy’s a pathetic figure weighed down by family interference. He is going nowhere and will never realise his dream of being a script writer.

Director Sam Yates brings out the laugher of the piece but he's also aware that beneath the comedy, is a tragic figure and the poignant moments creep up on you and leave a lasting impact.

Billy Liar is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 12 July.