NOTE: CAST HAS CHANGED SINCE THIS REVIEW
Our latest review of this show by Mark Shenton on 13 May 2015 can be found Here
A vision of hell appeared to me last night at the Victoria Palace! A huge effigy of Margaret Thatcher, maybe 20 or 30 feet tall, stood glowering at me from the darkness. And if that wasn’t enough, dozens of smaller Margaret Thatchers gleefully pranced around the larger version like crazed goblin apprentices. I pinched myself with all the strength I could muster to rouse from what surely had to be the worst nightmare of my life. However, it was neither nightmare nor a premonition of hell, but rather a freaky Christmas scene from Billy Elliot, the Musical. Chilling nevertheless.
This show is about a young boy growing up in a mining community in the North East of England during the early 1980s when the Conservative Government under the frighteningly determined Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher – decided to take on the powerful miners’ union, and won. What happened in that period not only changed the UK political climate forever, but also changed the world. Thatcher’s ideas – harsh medicine to cure deep-rooted ills, unbending political strategies, taking on powerful groups, controlling inflation with high unemployment, selling off state-owned assets, all combined with the concept that there is ‘no such thing as society’ – were more revolutionary than even Marx and Engels could possibly have dreamed of. And what’s more, those ideas were eagerly taken up and honed by other Governments right around the globe.
That’s the background, now back to the plot … Billy’s father and brother are miners who are called-out on strike. The harsh reality of a family already living on the edge is thus intensified. The family – at least Billy and his father – still grieve for Billy’s mother, and his grandmother needs constant attention because of apparent dementia.
Billy reluctantly gets despatched each week by his father to attend boxing lessons at the local community hall, but is distracted by Mrs Wilkinson and her ballet class. Gradually, Billy is drawn to dance because of his need for self-expression in the midst of a reality that is almost a cultural desert. But confrontation follows, as Billy’s father and brother are not only fighting for their economic survival but also their dignity as men. They perceive no value in activities like ballet, which they regard as the realm of ‘poofs’ (a quaintly English, derogatory term for homosexuals).
Resolution is effected when Billy’s father realises his son might have talent and make good one day – ‘What if he might be a star’? And the mining community rallies to the needs of one of its young sons. However, as Billy’s brother astutely observes, allowing the individual to flourish and follow his own path, inevitably leads to the downfall of the community. In Billy Elliot The Musical, there’s much more than just song and dance.
First seeing the light of day in 2000 as a BAFTA award winning and Oscar nominated film starring Jamie Bell, ‘Billy Elliot’ is once again directed by Stephen Daldry. Although faithful to the original, Daldry has not rested on his laurels but has taken the story to a new depth of grittiness and reality, producing in many ways a better version.
But being ‘live’ and dealing with a large number of child actors has its pitfalls. Apparently, the show has been in preview for some time, hit by overlong running times and subsequent script and cast changes. But it’s not hard to see that this show was always going to be difficult to stage given the need to find multiple young actors to play the lead roles. In fact no less than 3 youngsters share the title role – on this occasion, it was Liam Mower’s turn in the spotlight.
And he quickly showed that he is a courageous, skilled and acrobatic young dancer. Being hauled into the flies on a wire is certainly not my idea of heaven, but he accomplished it with aplomb to the gasps of a ‘gob-smacked’ audience. But Liam is not really a singer, and his acting certainly lacked that streetwise quality which would be essential for survival in a mining village in the North East. For me, his playing was rather too ‘nice’ to be believable. But he certainly made up for it with his dancing and acrobatics – at one point tumbling in an almost matter-of-fact way from the top of a piano.
I kept my comments about the music rather muted during the show as Sir Elton John and his partner were sitting just three seats away from me. Thankfully, I can be more forthright here. Because the music, though it has some engaging tunes (notably the one sung by Billy’s grandmother) and some stirring dance numbers which get the feet tapping, is largely unexceptional – not what I would call Elton’s best work, and I think if he were asked his opinion in private, he might say the same. Still, it’s good enough to carry the action on at a pace and keep everyone very well entertained.
When you put juveniles on stage and get them to do amazing feats, you’re almost bound to win over the audience. And it doesn’t fail on this occasion – there was a rapturous standing ovation at the end. But I worry when child actors use expletives and the audience laughs. Natural though the reaction may be, it left me wondering what kind of society we are living in when we don’t allow swearing on TV before the 9pm ‘watershed’ and would baulk at our own children swearing in company, but are happy to be entertained by children merrily doing it on stage. Yes, it’s reality and true to life. But it’s also an odd state of affairs. And that in a sense is what Billy Elliot is actually all about – the way communities and individuals interact.
With songs, dance, and more than dose of tragic elements to bring out the handkerchiefs and tissues, Billy Elliot’s got an almost perfect mix of magical ingredients to keep audiences flooding through the doors for some time to come.
What the popular press had to say...
"Billy Elliot succeeds brilliantly because Elton John's music and, especially, Peter Darling's choreography enhance Lee Hall's cinematic concept."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Tougher, bolder and, as my tear-ducts can attest, more moving than its admittedly admirable celluloid precursor. ...If there is a disappointment, it is Elton John’s music, which begins promisingly, with a church-like paean to cameraderie, but never seems either tuneful or original."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Billy Elliot strikes me as the greatest British musical I have ever seen."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Elton John's music is too often formulaic but about half of this show achieves dramatic poetry of a kind rare in any kind of theatre."
Alastair Macaulay for Financial Times
"Funny, touching and shamelessly enjoyable staging."
Paul Taylor for Independent
Billy Elliot - the musical has gained fantastic reviews from the popular press since its stage premiere in May, and remains mostly true to the 2000 film starring Jamie Bell. The music for the stage musical has been written by Elton John with book & lyrics by Lee Hall.
Inspired by the 2000 film Elton John reportedly contacted the producers of the film and its director Stephen Daldry and insisted that this would make a great stage musical and how right he was...
The story is simple, Billy Elliot - The musical is the tale of a motherless boy whose father wants him to take up boxing and gives him 50p a week for the lessons. Instead, the boy discovers a love for ballet that leads him from secret lessons to a potential place at the Royal Ballet School. This musical would be difficult to stage and how on earth would they cast the musical?
Playing the role of Billy's Dad is Tim Healy a noted stage and screen actor who to me gives a wonderful vibrant, witty and charming take on the character which brings a new depth, showing more of this lonely man, a great performance!
The role of 'Grandma' is played with such brilliance by Ann Emery, a very light hearted spin, but spin she does and gives a great performance! It's Joe Caffery who plays Billy's older brother "Tony" in some powerful scenes, he makes the part his own and works well with Dad and Grandma, he gives a strong convincing performance.
Haydn Gwynne a stage TV and film actress was playing the role of Mrs Wilkinson, which was so well played by Julie Walters in the film, but could she put her own stamp on the role? Yes, she is a clever actress and so much energy; she played the role with such conviction and made the part her own. A mention must be made for Steve Elias who gave a great performance as Mr Braithwaite.
The main casting problem would of course be the actor’s who would play 'Billy Elliot' It was decided that the producers would not only need to cast three boys to alternate the main role, but another three boys to play Billy's friend 'Michael' and three girls to play the role of 'Debbie'. Thousands of boys & girls were auditioned and nine were heading for the West End stage for the part of a life time!
At the performance we attended it was Liam Mower who was to take the lead role of 'Billy' along with Ryan Longbottom as 'Michael' and Lucy Stephenson as 'Debbie' all of these amazing child actors gave it everything. I think Liam's 'Billy' had his work cut out when his friend 'Michael' played by Ryan Longbottom made his entrance, he seemed to take the audiences attention away from 'Billy' and dominate the stage if only for a few moments. He gave a really strong comic like performance; however Billy the dancing boy would win back the audience!
As with the film, children swearing seems funny to some people, even the older generation. Its a sad fact that our society today seems to condone it, although the reality is hard hitting with the story set against the backdrop of the 1980's mining struggle and life at that time was difficult, it just seems to be more accepted now than ever before. That said it did give a gritty realistic feel to the piece and I suppose if no bad language had been used we would have criticised it for its lack of realism.
Stephen Daldry has transformed the film to the stage without loosing anything in fact I think its better than the film, he has directed it with great pace the three hours fly by. I must mention the set design which is very cleverly constructed and used, particularly by the young actors. The only thing I don't like is the reminder of Thatcher! But you can't have everything.
As for Billy Elliot himself aka 'Liam Mower' he is a bright and talented young actor, his dancing skills are absolutely amazing and certainly worth the ticket price to be in his presence and to watch his performance. He ends up commanding the stage with or without his tutu, I would love to see him again as he settles further into the role, then again I would like to see the other actors portray Billy, he was electricity when he was on the stage and was for me the star of the show! I will visit the show again.
This is a fantastic piece of live entertainment, the British musical is back. I am sure that this will be a sensational hit and will dance off with numerous awards. The children in the show are enough to bring the audience to its feet, and I think the standing ovations will be a regular sight at the ending of each performance, go on treat yourself to a wonderful, brilliant and uplifting night at the theatre. Its pure theatre magic!