A decade on from its Australian premiere and 15 years since it debuted on the West End (where it ran for 11 years), Billy Elliot still stands proud from the ever-expanding pack of musicals spun from movies.
Set against the background of the UK miners’ strike of 1984-85 and charting the artistic aspirations of a working class 11-year-old boy, director Stephen Daldry’s gutsy, inventive and politically aware staging (under resident director Jacinta John’s eye for its Australian revival tour) has lost little of its edge, even as the events, political personalities and culture it depicts recede even further in our memories.
Propelled by Elton John’s eclectic score and choreographer Peter Darling’s inventive showstoppers, Billy Elliot is an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment with a heart as big as a bus and a book (by Lee Hall) that goes the extra mile to honour the world the story springs from and imbue the show with palpable anger and sadness.
It wouldn’t be a musical if Billy didn’t overcome the obstacles in his way. But Hall ensures we never lose sight of the fact that the community he leaves faces an even less certain future than Billy himself.
Opening with a brief newsreel-style history of the post-WWII British coal industry and its decline, and a stirring hymn to brotherhood in The Stars Look Down, the show takes us into the heart of a pit village – Easington, County Durham – and a family that, having lost its mother, has become oppressively masculine.
Billy (played by the very talented Jamie Rogers on opening night) must escape both these environments to have even a shot at fulfilling his potential.
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The agent of change is dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Kelley Abbey) and her introductory number (Shine) is typical of the show’s raucous appeal.
Watching her class of balletic no-hopers hoofing their way through a display of naff steps is merely funny. Seeing it morph into a full-blown Busby Berkeley fan dance is a delight.
Similarly, Solidarity, plays with genres and expectations as what begins as a deft parade of preening policemen turns into a violent comic melee that engulfs the stage.
The Act II opener, a shabby working men’s club panto emceed by Billy’s grandad (Robert Grubb) that expands into a Spitting Image-inspired extravaganza, remains a highlight.
The young cast is excellent with James Sonnemann very sharp as Billy’s cross-dressing buddy Michael and Gabrielle Daggar – playing Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie – nailing a line that releases an audible gasp of surprise from the audience.
The adults are richly drawn. Justin Smith – who played Billy’s older brother Tony in the Australian premiere season – is touching and funny, this time playing Billy’s Dad. His beery Deep Into The Ground is a musical highlight and he brings a deft comic touch to Billy’s audition for Royal Ballet School.
Abbey is very good as the tough but tender dance teacher and Dean Vince shines in the relatively minor role of her shambling accompanist. There’s good work also from Drew Livingstone (Tony) and Vivien Davies as Billy’s dotty grandmother.
The Durham accent wanders the length and breadth of the UK sometimes but everyone maintains a workable compromise between the authentic and the intelligible.
Were it written now, I think Billy Elliot might be a slightly shorter show than it is – but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a richly entertaining show.