This is strange. Although over the last few months I’ve revisited several online productions I had already seen on stage, it was never with quite as much enjoyment as the live experience. And yet I probably appreciated the musical version of Billy Elliot more than when I saw it in the West End. I don’t remember being knocked out by it, as so many people were, to the point where reviewing this only just made it onto the ever evolving shortlist. But somehow the show seems to have grown in stature and it came across as a real zinger; perhaps we had bad seats or something.
I was struck by how political this musical was – again, I think I knew it, but just not by how much. With its backdrop set against the 1980s miner’s strike I suppose it would be hard put to be anything else. The second half opener Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher with its cheery seasonal tune and its vitriolic lyrics (“We all celebrate today, cos it’s one day closer to your death”) is long on fun but short on political balance. It recalls the misery and heartache that the dispute caused for whole communities but the show also demonstrates how local neighbours rallied round to protect each other and, as they do here, help young Billy to realise his ambitions of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Ultimately it is a triumph for the whole community, not just the boy.
For first and foremost this is a show about dreams, ambitions and following your heart which is what the young hero learns to do overcoming initial mockery and disbelief and even bringing round his dysfunctional family who have fallen apart following the death of Billy’s mother. If some of these characters seem a trifle stereotyped (the non-coping dad, the hard line brother, the eccentric grandma) then they are so with a purpose … and of course, they all come round in the end. The catalysts which help to fire Billy’s determination are threefold: the memory/ghost of his mother and the heart of gold dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson provide emotional and practical support. And then there’s “don’t care what anyone thinks” best friend Michael who likes dressing up in his sister’s clothes and shows Billy that it’s what you think of yourself that really matters.
Elliott Hanna as Billy is simply sensational; the lad can dance, sing, act, do comedy and seems full of boundless energy. The usually quoted dance highlight of the show is the song Electricity where Billy expresses how dancing makes him feel; the more visceral Angry Dance though is perhaps the more thrilling of the two. At the opposite end of the spectrum as an outpouring of pure fun is Express Yourself performed with an equally brilliant Zach Atkinson as Michael and a chorus line of giant clothing (it does make sense in context). Atkinson like Hanna seems fearless but I guess if you’ve made it into a show like Billy Elliot then you probably are.
Because of the way the show is constructed (the film’s screenwriter Lee Hall does the honours for book and lyrics) the character of tough cookie Mrs Wilkinson more or less disappears in the second half. As she is played by the fabulous Ruthie Henshall this is a crying shame and she really needed to have been given more to do somehow. Deka Walmsley as Dad Jackie conversely gets more to do as the show progresses and his “Sophie’s Choice” decision of his son’s ambitions or loyalty to the miner’s cause is heart breakingly rendered. Chris Grahamson as older brother Tony seems to have been entirely based on the similar character in Kes; Ann Emery makes a fabulous Grandma but again the character feels underdeveloped.
Elton John’s music contributes significantly to the show and, I think, has more depth and passion that that used for The Lion King with both subtle and flagrant nods towards the classic ballet numbers with which we are all familiar. Quite rightly the original film’s choreographer Peter Darling also adds a whole heap of flair to proceedings with the number Solidarity being a particular highlight when dance, singing, production and ensemble work all come seamlessly together. All this is under the, as ever, masterly direction of Stephen Daldry, who also directed the original film. He is careful not to simply retread old ground and makes a real cracking spectacle to sit back and enjoy. The show was famous for rotating the leads between groups of four youngsters; in a touching moment one of the original quartet, Liam Mower, appears in the dream sequence ballet as the older Billy. And if you really want to see stupendous then stick around for the various curtain calls when 25 Billy alumni bring things to a barnstorming close; electricity, indeed!
Billy Elliot: The Musical is available via streaming service Broadway HD. Click here
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