Billy Liar: How to play Rita in her first scene

I have been using the Nelson Thornes Dramascripts edition of Billy Liar. I will discuss how I would play Rita in the selected scene. In this particular scene, I think it is important to show how aggravating the character of Rita is to everyone else on stage, and while I want the audience to understand this too, it is also a scene rich in moments with comic potential. For most of the section, Rita is pushy and aggressive; however there are occasional moments when she almost lets her guard down. I wish to explore the subtextual side of Rita’s personality including the motives for her wanting the engagement ring from Billy.
I view Rita as more complex than she may appear on first impressions, and instead of solely wanting the ring to show off, she may desire the ring to give her a feeling of belonging, to prove to herself and those around her that she can be loved, as in places, she could be seen as a deeply insecure character. At the beginning of the selected section, when Rita first makes her entrance, I want the audience to see how Rita does anything to get what she wants, even if it entails storming into a stranger’s house.
I would also want the audience to see that she is a formidable character, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. I would enter onto the stage by striding from the back of the room, through the gap in the middle of the seating, walking quickly with clenched fists to show aggression. I would pause at the entrance to the stage at the end of the walkway, to allow time for the audience and other characters to take in what has happened. During this pause I would narrow my eyes, as if locking in on a target, and adopt a posture with one hip jutted to the left with my hand placed on it, and one knee slightly bent.

I would have a menacing, and almost snarling facial expression, and my breathing would be heavier and more exaggerated to show that Rita is angry, but is trying to control herself. After this, I would strut quickly and purposefully down to the main area of the stage, where I would pause again centre-stage, while scanning the room. This would give an intimidating impression to the audience as well as the rest of the cast. During the 1950’s, the Domestic Revolution took place and people began taking more pride in their homes, as they had more money to spend on new appliances for the house.
By storming into someone’s house at this period in time, it highlights the rudeness Rita displays in this section. As the scene progresses, Rita’s anger is exacerbated by other people’s reactions to her entrance. Billy tries to “guide Rita towards the door” which would aggravate her, as she is trying to appear as assertive in front of people which she wants to unnerve. While I want to let the audience know who is in control at this point in the scene, I still want to keep the fast-paced and chaotic atmosphere which prevails through most of this act.
I am interpreting Rita’s stage direction “shrugging him away” as something more violent, and when Billy tries to lead her away, I would respond by grabbing Billy’s outstretched hand by the wrist and firmly pushing it back to his side. I would then deliver the line “take your mucky hands… toffee-nosed get” starting on a high inflection to show Rita’s indignation at being dragged around the room. I would let the inflection fall towards the end of the line, and practically spit out the last words “rotten toffee-nosed get”, over-pronouncing each consonant.
During the next part of the line, “you didn’t think I’d come in, did you? ” I would slowly saunter over towards Billy, as if teasing him for not foreseeing my reaction. I would say the last two words “did you? ” in a patronising tone of voice, almost mocking him. In the 1950’s, when this play is set, it was not the norm for a woman to be superior to a man in any way, such as in the home or at work. By showing how Rita is overpowering Billy, it conveys the rebellion and self-confidence Rita possesses.
The moment in which Rita notices Barbara for the first time is full of dramatic potential. At this point, Rita has been dominating the argument and when Barbara tells her that she is also engaged to Billy, Rita is taken aback and possibly even stunned into silence for a moment. I would want the audience to register this sudden change in the atmosphere. Barbara would say the line “Billy’s grandma… ill in bed”, at which point Rita first turns to Barbara and, after a sharp flick of her head in Barbara’s direction, says “Oooh, look what the cat’s brought in… in a rotten iron lung”.
This would be said in a high pitched voice, to sound like I am imitating Barbara and with a varying intonation to add to the childish connotations of imitating someone. Barbara’s line “for your information, I happen to be Billy’s fianci??” is the one thing during this scene which alters Rita’s otherwise constant mocking tone. After her line is said, I would initially begin as I said the previous line, saying the words “Oooh, for your information” in the same condescending tone as before, and the realisation of what Barbara really said would hit me after this part of the line.
I would pause after these words, and slightly furrow my brow in a confused manner and purse my lips plaintively. I would slightly stutter on the next part of the line, as if I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Through the rest of the line, my intonation would rise higher and higher, and I would begin to accelerate my speech as Rita loses control and becomes more agitated, at being lied to by Billy, about someone which she would consider less desirable than her.
This also reveals that Rita might care more about the engagement than she outwardly shows, and she might really be hurt that she couldn’t make her relationship work. At the end of the line, I would straighten out my clothes as if ashamed of myself for letting my control on this situation momentarily slip. As this section goes on, the audience learns that Billy has given Barbara the engagement ring which was meant for Rita. This induces Rita’s short monologue on the subject of the ring.
Barbara’s one-word line of “Billy! would be sharply cut into by Rita curtly scoffing, and then beginning her line, by saying, “Yeah, well you’ve got another think coming if you think I’m as daft as she is”. This would be said with a heavy inflection on the word ‘she’ to indicate that she places herself above Barbara. The next words of “You gave that ring to me” would be said much slower, with pauses in between each 2 words to highlight her frustration. In each group of three words, I would point firstly at Billy, next to Barbara, and then finally to myself.
This would include most of the people onstage in her rage to show that no one is immune to her outbursts. As Rita launches into an anecdote about ‘Shirley Mitchem’ seeing Billy give her the ring, I would pace up and down the centre of the stage, with dramatic hand gestures on key words such as ‘witness’ or ‘I’ve got two’ to make her point clear to everyone watching. Again, as Rita is quite irate and despairing over Billy at this point, she would have an ascending intonation, but would sound quite flustered. This could be achieved by making her voice slightly breathy, and by sighing deeply at the end of her line.
Rita, by this point in the section is aching for control again, and to come back to her usual cheeky self. She sees this opportunity when Alice tells her “you know as well as I do he’s under-age”. After this line, I would pause slightly, turn my head to the audience and raise my eyebrows, in a sceptical fashion, as if letting the audience know that something interesting is about to happen. Leading with a turn of my head, I would begin to sashay gleefully over to Alice, and say the line “ask him… over-age more like” with a relatively quiet voice, and edge ever closer to Alice, as if taunting her with this information.
I think that Rita would be enjoying this particular moment, and so I would let a half-smile play across my face, almost as if I couldn’t help but have fun with torturing Alice. I feel this would be a good way to act this line as this is Rita being able to be aggressive in a much more underhand manner, which shows her being a much more intelligent and scheming person than is often outwardly shown. This is in contrast to what a normal 1950’s young woman would act like, as in this period, women were still expected to stay at home, look after children and not be as intelligent as men supposedly were.
By Rita exercising a clever, sneaky side of her personality, she is opposing the norm in the 1950’s, and even taking on the role which was seen as more masculine. At the end of this section, Rita has asserted herself again in the pole position in this dispute. I still want the audience to see the predominant, pushy side of her. As she rudely cuts into Billy’s tired explanation, I would hold up my hand in an outstretched stop sign, almost pushing it into his face, to show just how sick of his convoluted excuses she is.
After this I would return my hands to my hips and strut downstage while saying “well she can have you… very much doubt” and during these lines, I would have a smug expression on my face. However, this would quickly change to a scowl with a furrowed forehead, as I begin to reel off the list of insults which Rita throws at Billy. These successive slurs would result in me repeatedly prodding Billy on his chest while quickly walking in his direction, almost chasing him. The volume in my voice would increase, and end in me shouting in Billy’s face as I would be closer to him by now.
This will end the section with Rita being the leader in the argument, and she has had the satisfying last word, which suits her firm and aggressive nature. In conclusion, I hope I have created a picture of Rita being a forthright and belligerent character, full of determination to achieve what she wants with little or no consideration for anybody else in the situation. However, I feel that her frustration and, at times, slight desolation over the fact that she couldn’t make her engagement work with Billy, or she was in some way not all that he wanted, was also displayed in some sections.

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