THEATRE Billy Liar Liverpool Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
On page, stage, large and small screen, Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar has, since 1959, become a minor proverbial figure in English culture. Some of this is obviously due to Billy's having taken his place among the motley escape committee of Jimmys, Arthurs and Vics who were then breaking out of the oubliette of condescension labelled "provincial" and "working class". Much ink has been, and still is, spilt in analysing the cultural shift of which they were part.

Inevitably, therefore, any revival of the play that Waterhouse (with Willis Hall) based upon his original novel will have some historical interest: one can almost imagine GCSE students noting such arcana as the emptying of ashes and dresses so flounced it's a wonder they could fit through a chip-shop door. But, as Richard Williams's staging shows, the abiding interest is Billy himself and his fascination is beyond the reach of sociology.

At one point, Billy's mother, wondering at the fragile plausibility of her son's fictionalising about mysterious cupboards that have remained locked since he was four or about neighbours who have had their legs off and / or are in the family way, insists that it's not as if he gains anything by his story-telling. This is true. Billy would not be a good accomplice to Face and Subtle, for he is indifferent to the eventual success of his inventions. He will strive to keep his girlfriends from discovering that they share the same engagement ring but, once they do find out, he retreats painlessly into his inexhaustible world of fancy.

Paul Basson is particularly strong at showing how Billy lives, at every second, in a mental world of his own devising. He is, by turns, a ballet dancer, a gunslinger, a legless war hero, a weight-lifter - whatever any incidental prop or passing fancy suggests. His fantasising seems not merely a response to being caught in a house and town of sublunary doggedness, but a kind of autism, at once comically heroic and disturbing. It is not therefore because he lacks courage to realise his dreams that he funks Liz's romantic invitation to take the night-train to London, but because he knows there is no social world that can match the one peopled inside his own head.

With Billy Meall's expressionist version of the Fishers' living-room - disconcertingly raked and apparently made entirely of newsprint - Williams has tried to shift the play from its traditionally realist setting. Some of his stylisations, however - such as the freeze-frames signalling different porkies - are joltingly contrived, although Billy's first scene with his friend Arthur (the excellent Damian Gaskin in his debut season) is a true meeting of like fantasists.

But the expressionism also makes the production too quick and busy. There is enough modulation to be seen in both Stephen Tate's father and Pauline Daniels's mother to make the scene following grandma's death more challenging. Also, the crucial short scene with Liz - though Victoria Gay is a plausible local bohemian - seems snatched and insignificant, thus rendering Billy's solitary return less momentous and moving than it might be.

To 9 Nov (booking: 0151-709 8363)

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