Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall
Music: Elton John
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: James Garrington
Billy Elliot has been a long time coming to Birmingham – but now it’s on its first tour after a lengthy run in the West End, and it’s certainly been worth the wait. This is a show that ticks all the boxes.
As the 1984/5 miners’ strike fades into history, for some it remains a stark and painful memory. Communities dependent on the coal mining industry were devastated as pits closed down, and violence erupted. Many families spent months living from hand to mouth as they fought against the closure of the pits.
That is the background to Billy Elliot. Struggling to make ends meet on strike pay, Billy’s father manages to scrape together the money to pay for boxing lessons – but Billy is not keen. Then one day he finds himself surrounded by a ballet class, and discovers that he much prefers to go there – to the surprise of his family, who strongly disapprove and stop him when he gets a big opportunity.
The show has a strong message of hope shining through adversity, of compassion finally overcoming prejudices, and the promise of better things in the future – and it has a universally strong cast to match. Annette McLaughlin shines as the straight-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who spots a spark of potential and encourages Billy to pursue his dream. Despite the hard exterior, Mrs Wilkinson has a heart of gold and McLaughlin’s nicely-judged performance lets it peek through the shell.
Martin Walsh also gives a strong performance as Billy’s Dad, a man steadfast in his union allegiance and determined to fight to the end. His transformation from hard-line striker to compassionate father comes across well. There is also some notable work from Andrea Miller as Grandma with some well-timed comedy moments and Scott Garnham as Billy’s brother Tony who is determined to fight on regardless until he starts to realise that the tide is turning.
This show is all about Billy, of course, and who better to play the role on press night in Birmingham than local boy Lewis Smallman. This is a massively challenging role for a youngster to play, and Smallman gives a far more mature performance than seems possible for his age. He is a strong actor, convincingly portraying the care and compassion he feels for Grandma and his best friend Michael, with the confusion at finding himself drawn to ballet and disappointment turning to anger when it seems his dream is to be snatched from him. Alongside all that, he has to sing, which he does very well, and carry off a number of lengthy and challenging dance routines – and this is where he really shines, with a combination of energy and control including a wonderful dream sequence.
Choreography is key, and Peter Darling’s work is spectacular and clever. As well as Billy’s big numbers, there are several good ensemble routines too – and where else would you get to see a choreographed group of girls in tutus and a fight between miners and police taking place at the same time? Good use of lighting and the clever set makes the whole show flow slickly from start to end.
The frequent use of bad language means that this is not suitable for the budding young ballet dancer in the family, but the blend of comedy and poignancy, and spectacle and tenderness makes this one show you won’t want to miss. Take your tissues, sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster of emotions.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll love it.
Runs until 29 April 2017 | Image: Alastair Muir