How can you tell when an audience is laughing with someone or laughing at them? There is a moment in Sam Yates’s production of the 1960 classic Billy Liar which made that clear.
The writers, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, called the play a tragicomedy and the first sign of that comes when, in the middle of a high-octane farce of a row between Billy and his two fiancées, his grandmother dies. Billy’s mother, embroiled in the row, missed the death, which has to be described to her later by her husband. Some of the audience carried on laughing.
In one sense it’s easy to see why. Throughout the first half of the play the laughs have been stacked preposterously high on old style Northern stereotypes: the grandma locked in the past, the bull-headed father, the soft doting mother. Shameless-veteran Jack Deam blusters on as Billy’s unyielding father, Geoffrey, but a subtle gear-change has taken place. Beneath the gruff northern humour a pit of pathos has opened up and husband and wife teeter on the edge of it, using bluff clichés to prevent themselves from falling in.
Those who kept laughing failed to perceive this and continued to guffaw at the incongruity of Geoffey’s language as he vividly depicted the “slavering” of the dying woman. But most of the audience fell into an uneasy silence as Billy’s mother quietly but emphatically repeated: “You should have told me.”
There is some pitch-perfect acting from Deam, and Lisa Mallet as Billy’s mother and Sue Wallace as the grandma. The comic timing beautifully conveys the family’s demotic banalities which the production transfers from Yorkshire to Lancashire. As anyone who has lived in both places will attest, this jars slightly as there is a bluntness and fierceness about the cold side of the Pennines which sits oddly on the warmer rainy side.
But Waterhouse and Hall are alchemists when it comes to transforming the commonplace into something disturbing and profound. The bravura performance of Harry McEntire as Billy – by turns charming, witty, urbane and disquietingly self-deluded – is a reminder that Billy does not inhabit the world of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim but that of the stifling anger of John Osborne tinged with the black humour of Joe Orton. Katie Moore’s performance as the hard-as-painted-nails fiancée Rita recalls that too; there is a callous menace about her as well as a breath-taking vulgarity.
Across the board there is something subversive about Waterhouse and Hall’s gags. They conjure a claustrophobic world from which Billy’s pathological fantasies allow him momentary relief but never real escape. His final girlfriend, Liz – who, here, was too modern, for she should be a beatnik not someone from the New Age ahead of her time – offers the true way out of that. But Billy is unable to take it. Sam Yates’s ending to the production offers more ambiguity as to why Billy remains trapped than Waterhouse’s novel does. The ending feels bleaker. But it makes it a Billy Liar for our times.