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In Review: Billy Liar

John Freeman
Andrew James Buckley as Billy Fisher
by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall
directed by Simran Babra
performed by University of Cumbria Final-Year Drama Students
review by Jane Sunderland

Based on Keith Waterhouse’s novel of 1959, Billy Liar is the story of one day in the life of Billy Fisher (Andrew James Buckley), a bright but bored and immature young clerk, who indulges in fantasies, produces melodramatic untruths, gives two young women the idea that they are engaged to him, and dreams of life as a script-writer. On this particular day, the two fiancées, Barbara (Jenny Daniels) and Rita (Louise Greenwood), encounter and confront each other; his grandmother Florence (Paula Jane Riley) dies; and Liz (Fiona Jane Rhind), the one girl he cares about at least a little, reappears in his life and persuades him to take the night train to London with her. He leaves home with a suitcase, but... The play’s ending (accompanied by ‘The Great Pretender’) does not disappoint.

Billy Liar is dated in several ways. In the era of date-rape drugs, it’s hard to find Billy putting ‘passion powder’ into a drink intended for the straight-laced Barbara amusing. Although Waterhouse and Hall are obviously critical of this, it’s equally hard to believe in Barbara and Liz valuing an engagement and a ring so much that they are prepared to ignore the huge deficiencies of the person they’re supposed to be engaged to.

Yet some issues still resonate: parents’ expectations of their children and disappointment when they do not live up to those same expectations; resentment by children of their parents’ expectations and indeed of their sacrifices; young people’s dreams. Billy’s parents Alice (Laura Anne Wilkinson) and Geoffrey (Matthew Watts), and grandmother, in many ways constitute a close-knit family, but one in which tensions are not hidden, and the family dynamics created by the actors are convincing. 21st century snobbery may not be about brown shoes (which Billy insists on wearing) but class consciousness has not gone away. And the confused racism articulated by the elderly Florence is dismissed or at least not encouraged by the rest of the family.

Occasionally the acting proved a little disappointing and wooden (Matthew Watts is an exception here, alternating between tenderness, grumpiness and no-holds-barred criticism of his son), although less so as the story develops. In contrast, the gestures, exaggerated movements, physical interaction and choreography are smooth and impressive, and this is where Andrew James Buckley really comes into his own. Director Simran Babra is to be congratulated here.

This show is genuinely funny and, towards the end, moving, as we see Billy finally struggle (if only a little) with who he is and who he might be.

Billy Liar runs until Saturday 17 January, 2009. All performances begin at 8pm and tickets are £8 full price/£6 concessions. To book, contact the Dukes box office on 01524 598500 or email For more information, visit their website at

University of Cumbria Drama students will also be producing and performing Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here, from 21 to 24 January, 2009.

Related Web Links
University of Cumbria drama productions

The Book
A brief review

The Play
By Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse
Script on Google Books

The Film (1963)
Starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie

IMDB Entry

Channel 4 Overview
Film Trailer (on YouTube)
Film locations for Billy Liar (it was largely shot in Bradford and Baildon, although the final scene, supposedly set on ‘Central Station, Bradford’, with Liz leaving for the Big City was actually shot in London itself on Marelybone Station!)
Film critique
Appreciation of Julie Christie' work in the film on Criterion Confessions

The TV Series (1973)
This ran for two seasons on ITV and starred
Jeff Rawle as Billy
IMDB Entry