Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall
Music: Elton John
Director: Stephen Daldry
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The movie, Billy Elliot, was so close to perfect as to raise doubts as to whether adding songs could enhance the audience experience or result in a show that is bloated and unwieldy. Besides, musicals, by their nature, tend to be feel-good and so Billy Elliot, which concerns the destruction of an entire community, does not fit the format.
During the 1984/1985 miners’ strike 12-year-old Billy Elliot (Lewis Smallman – one of three young actors who takes the role), living in the Newcastle mining community accidentally enters a ballet class run by the borderline burnt-out case, Mrs Wilkinson (a wonderfully acerbic Annette McLaughlin). Billy discovers an unexpected talent for dancing which is something of a problem as ballet is contrary to the macho culture of the North East and, in any case, his desperate Dad (MartinWalsh) cannot meet the costs involved in dance training.
Any reservations about Billy Elliot- The Musical are quickly resolved. No effort is made to sweeten the material – the first words barked at a child on stage are ‘Siddown!’ Stephen Daldry’s direction of the large number of young actors in the cast is masterful. They are anything but cute dashing around the stage shrieking like demons and generally getting underfoot. Each is, however, very clearly an individual – for everyone who covers her ears when swearing occurs (and there is plenty) another listens avidly.
No effort is made to romanticise the desperate situation in which the characters find themselves. Lee Hall’s lyrics for Solidarity are less an anthem for the working class and more a cry of conflict between the miners and the police with savage sneering put-downs between all involved. The miners are driven to such depths of loathing that one song celebrates the inevitable demise of Margaret Thatcher.
The pacing is perfect. Scenes bleed into each other so there is no danger of tedium. Mrs Wilkinson’s ramshackle dance class merges with a violent confrontation between the police and miners with the combatants falling into dance steps. Peter Darling’s choreography makes great use of the cast working in unison to create spectacular scenes. He also cheekily undermines the macho culture with butch miners and police falling into mincing dance steps.
In many ways, Daldry is a tease. 13-year-old Lewis Smallman drip-feeds Billy’s growing dance skills to an eager audience. His performance builds gradually to two big showstoppers. Smallman closes Act One with an outburst of pure rage – in a stunning sequence tap dancing and contorting against a background of menacing police riot shields. There is a sense of Smallman relating closely to the character of Billy Elliot; certainly, after his acrobatic audition piece in Act Two, he looks amazed by the audience response. Smallman is excellent but then he has to be as the cast features a lot of terrific young actors chasing at his heels. 10-year-old Samuel Torpey (one of three actors taking the role of Michael) confidently steals every scene as Billy’s cross-dressing friend.
Author Lee Hall does not flinch from the bitterness of the ending. Not only do the miners lose their battle they have to forgo also their principles and accept financial contributions from those who broke the strike to help Billy fulfill his dreams. Hall avoids depressing the audience by portraying this beautifully as a sacrifice rather than shabby pragmatism so that the community’s response becomes heartrendingly dignified.
Billy Elliot is a throwback to previous generations (well, to mine anyway) when it was routinely expected that working class children would exceed the achievements of their parents. Now, of course, children are hamstrung and told they should learn to accept less than their parents. That development is a tragedy; Billy Elliot- The Musical, on the other hand, is a triumph.
Runs until 28 January 2017 | Image: Alistair Muir