Billy Elliot The Musical – Curve Theatre, Leicester

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall

Music: Elton John

Director: Nikolai Foster

Many will be familiar with the multiple BAFTA-winning 2000 film, Billy Elliot, that won critical acclaim and spawned this musical. Set against the background of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, Billy discovers a latent talent for dance and under the guidance of an ultimately inspirational teacher, develops his love for, and skill in, ballet, eventually overcoming entrenched attitudes and prejudices to win a place at the Royal Ballet School.

But Billy Elliot The Musical is so much more than a feel-good coming-of-age tale. Interspersed with Billy’s journey are themes dealing with conflict, loss and grief, and inclusion and division. These themes are skillfully woven together by Director, Nikolai Foster, into a whole that grips one from start to end, generating strong and powerful emotions until the final release. Scenes that see the conflict between police and miners that was so chillingly recorded by news cameras of the time are juxtaposed with scenes of innocence as the village’s youngsters learn dance. Designer Michael Taylor uses The Curve’s large stage most effectively: his set, like some of the content, is brutal. It’s largely empty with large moveable chainlink fence panels creating both the literal and metaphorical barriers between groups and reinforcing the connections that exist too. A multi-level tower serves as Billy’s home, allowing isolation of scenes. When it is necessary to bring in other elements, for example, in the locker room, movements are so well choreographed that one barely notices there’s been a transition. Integral to the emotions generated by the show is the music, played by a seven-strong band under the musical direction of George Dyer. Pounding beats and brass stir us up alongside gentler, more introspective pieces.

A production such as this, of course, stands and falls on the quality of the young cast. While the adult characters all have their journeys, it is the journey of Billy and his friends that absolutely must be right. At this performance, Billy was played by Jaden Shentall-Lee, with his friend Michael played by Prem Masani. Both bring a childlike innocence to the roles even as they try to understand the changes occurring within and around them. Masani brings both confidence and awkwardness to Michael as he helps Billy to be who he wants to be despite pressures to conform to some stereotype. The scene in which it becomes clear that Michael’s feelings for Billy are rather stronger than just friendship and Billy’s considerate response is quite moving.

Throughout, Billy and his family are grieving the loss of his mother at a young age and, to a lesser extent, the incremental loss of his grandmother (Rachel Izen) to dementia. Izen’s grandmother brings some welcome light relief as she recalls life with her husband in very different times, despite some chilling details of their traditionally (of the time) working-class marriage. Helping Billy through is the spirit of his mother (Jessica Daley) whom he sees as watching over him as he grows into his own skin. A standout scene is where Billy shares a letter left for him by his mother with his dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Sally Ann Triplett) and in which his mother also appears. The Letter is almost painfully moving and one would need a heart literally of stone to remain unmoved. It is followed by the upbeat We Were Born to Boogie which allows the audience’s emotions to regroup. Triplett brings humour to her role as well as passion: it’s easy to see how she is able to inspire Billy and, later, his dad.

Billy’s dad, Jackie, and brother, Tony (Joe Caffrey and Luke Baker), go on their own journeys each as profound as Billy’s. Caffrey shows how Jackie’s gruff and macho exterior is eventually chipped away as he comes to realise that ballet is something that Billy both enjoys and is good at and his epiphany, and difficult decision on how to support him, is especially moving, Baker’s Tony is perhaps a touch two-dimensional as he tries to emulate the older men’s passion while barely more than a boy himself.

Also moving is the community spirit of the miners as they support one another through the strike. The reality of financial hardship – and some of the hard decisions it forced on individuals – is well-documented, for example, as we see proud men, women and children lining up at a soup kitchen. And yet these same people are happy to share what little they have when Billy’s potential becomes obvious, another outstanding moment full of emotion.

Billy Elliot The Musical has it all: great songs and choreography, well-produced music and a powerfully told story that still feels relevant almost forty years after its events. A must-see.

Runs Until 20 August 2022

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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