Billy Liar - November 2023

Billy Liar

DATE 25th November 2023
SOCIETY Hoghton Players
VENUE Hoghton Village Hall
DIRECTOR Jonathan Mallinson


Author: David Slater

The delightful Hoghton Players presented this familiar modern classic to a packed house on a decidedly chilly November evening: fortunately, the traditional warm welcome from everyone at Hoghton dispelled the shivers and the gloom immediately upon arrival!

As those in the know will know, the good folk at Hoghton Players make a speciality of producing excellent productions in the round at Hoghton Village Hall and ‘Billy Liar’ was no exception to this rule. Directing a successful show in the round is fiendishly difficult and full marks must go to Jonathan Mallinson - and all the cast - for presenting an immersive and thoughtful theatrical experience. You’ll allow me a personal comment here I hope… I’ve yet to see a show at Hoghton which didn’t impress in the way it was staged and the thoughtful care which goes into making sure that the audience is treated to an immersive experience and this was certainly no exception.

‘Billy Liar’ began life as a novel, has been adapted for both stage and screen - and even as a (criminally underrated) musical - and has firmly imprinted itself into the cultural landscape. Often lumped in with the ‘Angry Young Men’/ ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the 1950s and ‘60s, ‘Billy Liar’ offers us something rather different from the boorish misogynistic moaning of much of the rest of that particular canon and deserves a place of its own in the cultural history of the period. 

Billy Fisher is an idle, feckless dreamer who yearns for an easy life away from the drudgery and boredom of his Northern working class roots. Billy’s dreamworld unfortunately bleeds into his real life, as he is a compulsive liar and makes life a constant misery for those around him. His family bear the brunt of this fibbing and being engaged to two girls at once doesn’t endear Billy to either of them; add a third girl to the mix and things get even more complicated…

Josiah Thorp as Billy mastered the acres of dialogue with skill - it’s a tough role for for any performer to get on top of - and flounced around petulantly with aplomb. I’ll mention more of his characterisation later… His put-upon parents were presented in fine style by Robin Brown and Sarah Nolan - two performers who always impress - dad Geoffrey having no time for his wayward son’s antics and mum Alice always providing motherly support, while at the same time despairing of Billy’s carryings-on. Grandma Florence was brought to life with befuddled charm by Irene Ingham - a character whose bewildered ramblings are ironically more grounded in reality than her mischievous grandson’s spiteful inventions - and Billy’s pal Arthur was brought to life with realistic, earthy charm by Simon Butterworth.

The ladies in Billy’s life were also superbly well realised by a trio of performers who really know their business. The class war burst upon the stage as we are introduced to Billy’s two fiancées: Jackie Green was a wonderful Barbara - the family’s preferred choice of girlfriend as she seems much more middle class and refined - with Aimee Gallagher setting the stage alight as the feisty Rita, the no-nonsense working class girl who won’t have any of Billy’s nonsense. Billy’s true love, Liz, was sensitively handled by Eleanor Smith. It’s a shame that the script doesn’t give Liz more stage time but Eleanor really added a rounded and sympathetic characterisation which impressed. 

A few gripes to follow here I’m afraid - those of a nervous disposition, look away now! Although Josiah worked tremendously hard as Billy and mastered the dialogue and blocking with great skill, the character of Billy came across as thoroughly unlikeable, spiteful and nasty with no redeeming features whatsoever. At no point did I warm to Billy or find him even in the slightest bit silly or endearing: something which I think should be a part of the character’s DNA. This Billy was a pain in the neck from start to finish; spiteful, selfish, crass, lazy, self-important, manipulative and aggressive. Billy Fisher’s feckless daydreaming and desire to avoid the harsh realities of life came across instead as being a particularly nasty form of narcissistic personality disorder. Perhaps Josiah’s very ’2023’ haircut had something to do with it but the play came over to me as a kind of revisionist take on the problems of mental illness as a result. At no point did his dream of going to London to become a comedy writer ever look like anything but yet another of his twisted fantasies: his completely humourless behaviour throughout the play made Billy a pantomime villain rather than a likeable rogue and his ‘real-life’ ambition could be treated as just another of his quickly dreamt up and then easily discarded fibs. As a result, the piece morphed into a would-be ‘serious’ dissertation on how society might cope with the mentally troubled, rather than an enjoyably knockabout slice of fun. As a result, the ending - I won’t spoil it here dear reader, fear not! - fell rather flat and had the opposite effect from that which was intended.

The glacial pacing of the production didn’t help in this respect either - instead of the lickety-split thrust the play needs in the more farcical sections, we were instead treated to really very slow and ponderous scenes which didn’t merit the time spent on them. With excellent characterisations from some of D3’s best performers being stranded between two stools, the production didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. In short, I thought that the source material of the play was something of a square peg being forced rather uncomfortably into a round hole…

Sorry for the moaning there but it did have a big impact on my appreciation and enjoyment of the production. I’ll happily admit that this is of course just a personal opinion and very easily ignored (after all, who am I to come over as the big ‘I am’?!)

There was much to enjoy in this production however. All the cast gave of their best and there were some great moments throughout the show. The period costumes were very well chosen and, as always, the set dressing and staging which go into an effective presentation in the round was pin-sharp: congratulations here again to director Jonathan Mallinson. Our actors had clearly invested in the piece (the audience waited with bated breath for Aimee’s every appearance on stage for example!) and the fantastic welcome from everyone at Hoghton Village Hall is worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately (for me!) this will be my final NODA show report but I would like to both extend my thanks to everyone at Hoghton Players for your dedication to consistently bringing top notch entertainment to District 3 and also, to urge as many of you to sample the next offering at the Village Hall. Keep up the good work!

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