A fantasy world away from it all

Timothy Ramsden previews a revival of a 1950s success, and lists the set books and plays on stage round the country this term

Billy Liar By Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall Liverpool Playhouse February 3-25 Tel: 0151 709 4776

Liverpool Playhouse asked Phil Wilmott to direct their revival of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's late 1950s story about a 19-year-old northern-town dreamer because they reckoned he is the right person for its mixture of realism and a slightly fantastical element.

He has found the play a lot bleaker than he recalled. Billy Fisher may seem to have an exciting fantasy life, says Wilmott, "but a lot of the fantasy is quite mundane".

There is a big gap between the 1950s and now, when everything seems possible to young people. The play expresses the contemporary feeling that ordinary people far from London could not expect to succeed in the wider world. This is the background for Billy's fantasies. He also uses them to do what so many young men do, spinning stories to impress the girls.

Wilmott points to the title: Billy is a liar and it needs an actor who can charm audiences for the character to remain sympathetic despite his lying.

Though Wilmott adds: "It is a matter, too, of how much Billy believes these things as he says them. And how much he wants to make a woman happy in the moment."

His relationship with one of these women, Liz, is strikingly different from the others. She belongs to a different world from Barbara, "bovine, rounded, sensuous; someone who wants simple things but is not stupid," and the emotionally violent, sharp-tongued Rita (Wilmott names a south London supermarket where today's Ritas can be heard verbally whip-lashing their husbands any Saturday morning).

Liz sees through Billy in a way the others cannot. Wilmott speaks up for the Fisher family too.

Casting Billy's parents raises an intriguing point. They ran away and married young so could still be in their late thirties or early forties.

Yet there is a need to show a distinct difference between the generations.

For all their antagonism, there is a definite link between Billy and his father, someone who broke the family mould and set up his own successful business, while his wife is definitely the power behind the throne, making sure things work "There is a lot of love and affection in the marriage when they are together," Wilmott says. Even Billy's grandmother has her dignity as someone who speaks her mind plainly, even if it is in soliloquies to the sideboard.

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