THEATRE / PFacing up to the truth: Paul Taylor reviews Billy Liar at the Oxford Playhouse.

As we know from film of the period, life in the north of England in the late 1950s was conducted exclusively in dingy black-and-white. Colour, like the principle of international modernism or the idea of having dinner in the evening, had yet to be invented up there. So, once you've read the book and seen the film, it's always a slight shock to be confronted with a polychrome version of Billy Liar, many though these have been over the years.

The 18-year-old hero of Keith Waterhouse's 1959 novel - a lower middle-class lad with big ideas of fame and fortune (but a smaller endowment of guts or gumption) and a compulsive habit of retreating into compensatory daydreams - has graduated into all kinds of other modes, from a West End musical starring Michael Crawford to an American TV sitcom. Since it was premiered in 1960, with the young Albert Finney in the title role, London has not, however, been treated to a revival of the Waterhouse / Willis Hall stage version. This situation is due to be remedied in December when Tim Supple's National Theatre mobile production, which has now embarked on its tour, opens at the Cottesloe.

A sense of drab pre-Sixties constriction is under-conveyed by Bunny Christie's quite jauntily coloured set, which (since the play disappointingly confines the action to Billy's parents' home) is forced to give the kitchen, living room and hall an aerating open- plan look. The living room curtains part to reveal, like an inner stage for some of the fantasies, a strip of white-fenced garden, while through a giant letterbox- shaped gap high up in the wallpaper, you get a fairly romantic glimpse of a dark, threatening sky. You wouldn't want to live there, admittedly; on the other hand, the design doesn't do much to help you empathise with our hero's habitual fantasies of escape.

Billy cannot resist lying, even when there is no need for it and he has nothing to gain thereby. His stories have hardly a leg to stand on, a condition shared, if you were to believe him, by most of the neighbours (amputation is a big, recurring theme in his fibs). The fact that he can't leave reality alone is a function of how much he hates it. Paul Wyett's performance has several virtues (he has a mischievous, rather sexy charm and, for once, you can just about believe that Billy has three girls fighting over him). But until the well-acted showdown with his father (James Grant), the disaffection is too reined in and there's not enough to distinguish between the cocky, complacent Billy of the fantasies (such as the delightful spoof of the Last Post he stages after his grandmother's death) and the cocky, frustrated Billy of humdrum real life.

The oppressive, nagging atmosphere of home is skilfully created, though, by the older actors. Dressed as if she was expecting to be called to a funeral at any moment, Elizabeth Bradley's Grandmother sits and scowls, a seasoned grenade-lobber with the stray, purely destructive remark. Arousing some sympathy for the character, June Watson's fine performance brings out all the mother's dour lack of imagination and, in the heavy, down-turn lines of her face, the perplexity and concern. Both sides are nicely epitomised when she tries to stop her irate husband from manhandling Billy with the wonderful 'Don't pull 'im round. That shirt's clean on.' There's pathos as well as comedy in that remark, and these are ingredients which Supple's enjoyable production keeps adroitly balanced.

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