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Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
EVERY once in a while a critic needs to drop apparent neutrality and admit to any underlying prejudices, so I have to confess that I’ve detested Billy Liar ever since I was forced to read the novel at school — Michael Gove, take note.
I hated the film too and for over 40 years have strenuously avoided anything to do with the book, play or musical.
Yet out of loyalty to our great paper, I was prepared to eschew the balletic skills of Neymar, Alves and Oscar and head over to the Royal Exchange to cover their staging of the Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall play.
Over two hours later I left the theatre with those deep-seated prejudices shattered because this is a remarkably good night’s entertainment. While not hugely taxing, it is a beautifully understated and somewhat touching production.
What caused the dramatic conversion? Simply, the play is much better than the novel and I suspect this is to do with the contribution of Willis Hall who wrote the excellent play The Long, The Short And The Tall in the 1960s.
But mainly it’s down to Sam Yates’s excellent direction and a brilliantly engaging cast.
Harry McEntire is a wonderful Billy, making what could be an obnoxious teenager into a vulnerable, scared and sad character whose dream world is neither feckless nor malicious. He is a boy who is frightened of growing up and moving on and is terrified at the prospect of being stuck living in the claustrophobic atmosphere at home.
Jack Deam and Lisa Millett are excellent as his frustrated and exasperated parents and there’s a marvellous performance too from Sue Wallace as the complaining, condensed milk-hoarding Granny.
Anyone searching for an antidote to wall-to-wall football could do worse than grabbing a couple of hours at the Royal Exchange.
Runs until July 12. Box Office (0161) 833-9833
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