Billy Liar on stage in Bury St Edmunds

Billy Liar is on all week at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

POOR old Billy Fisher. He’s engaged to Barbara, a girl with a 20-a-day orange habit, and there she sits on the settee, talking to his mother as she peels another one.

Meanwhile, his bit of rough, Rita, is tottering up the street in six-inch heels, determined to seize back the engagement ring that Billy insists is being resized at the jeweller’s. But of course the ring is on Barbara’s finger.

You know what’s coming next. A great big explosion which will shake the street, let alone the sitting room and the audience.

Billy Liar is part-farce, but that’s only a small slice of this classic tale of 1960s northern England, by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.

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The farcical elements are played down a little in this Middle Ground production, allowing the more thoughtful notes to be heard. Not that there’s a lack of comedy: the talented cast hit the punchlines with regularly fine timing.

Billy Liar is an iconic slice of English theatre and this production is painstakingly faithful to the period in which the original story was set. A faintly well-to-do Yorkshire home circa 1959 is brought to life by a set which manages to contain downstairs, upstairs and the front garden, too.

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The performances are without exception excellent, revolving round Nathan Hannan’s distracted Billy. Such a compulsive liar is Billy, so offbeat his behaviour that these days it would probably be summed up in a fancy-sounding syndrome.

His parents are played with great warmth by James Morley and Helen Fraser, who has form in Billy Liar, playing Barbara opposite Tom Courtenay in the film. She’s also a familiar face from seven series of the Dick Emery Show, Bad Girls, Coronation Street and a range of other TV appearances.

Now she’s graduated to playing Billy’s mum Alice, she invests the character with a warm humanity, like many mothers refereeing between a stern father and a wayward son, being called on to forgive them both time after time.

Morley makes a fine dad, hard-working, conscientious and unable to understand his son’s flightly behaviour, which is “beyond reason”.

But can Billy escape? It seems soulmate Liz (Lucy Evans) may be enough to lure him to London, the third woman in the triangle with Barbara (Julie Mallam) and Rita (Janey Lawson).

There’s a Likely Lads-style partnership with Arthur Crabtree – the impossibly handsome Chris Grahamson looking like the fifth Beatle and combining with Hannan for comic set-pieces – and the whole play in a way revolves around gran, Sally Saunders as Florence.

It’s a very solid and enjoyable re-creation of a time and setting which seems as distant and alien to the modern world as some plays which are much older.

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