I don’t readily recall Elton John having a hit with “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” – but he gives Lee Hall’s lyrics a rollicking setting in “Billy Elliot, the Musical”… including rock guitar riffs from Swan Lake.
The Iron Lady looms large in this show. Hers is the first voice we hear; and at the start of Act Two a giant blue-suited Thatcher puppet rises above the Durham Miner’s Christmas Gala Concert; desperately raising money for the strike – which started with such jubilation 8 months previously but is now wearing thin.
Hall does not pull any political punches in this stage adaptation of his original screen play…and the Musical format opens up some fabulous dance opportunities.
There are dancing ballerinas, prancing pitmen and pirouetting policemen. The sight of a calm kiddies ballet class taking place between opposing lines of violent bobbies and miners (the girl’s starch white tutus in stark contrast to the dark blue serge and dirty overalls) sums up the stupidity of the 80’s situation. Whilst the violence is underlying and understated, the ballet, at first gawky, acquires true, contrasting grace. And in the midst of it all is the bewildered but determined 12-year-old Billy…innocently proving that art can conquer aggression. He’s one boy … in the shadow of 200 thousand men.
This is a spectacular show; well worthy of the hype. The set pieces are sensational and the individual performances heart-warmingly memorable.
On Thursday, Haydn May played the boy boxer who is better with his feet than his fists. He’s a fine un-self-conscious young actor and his dancing is sublime. The show really kicks in with a particularly brave drag vaudeville routine, shared with half a dozen dancing coat hangers and his best mate Michael; played with rumbustious, jokey, effeminacy by a brilliant debutant Elliot Stiff. With such a wonderful attitude to theatre (and a name like that) this boy will go far.
Later we see young Billy execute an amazing Swan Lake duet with his older self (Luke Cinque-White). Albeit with a wire to help him, May cartwheels through the air to becom a spinning star on high. It’s a show stopping scene; cleverly brought forward from the end of the film (it’s best not to compare the realistic screen and stylised stage versions) to express Billy’s burning ambitions and to allow Hall to finish the show with a political statement and a personal point about childhood love.
The show fizzes with fun and games. Kids being rude in front of adults is always entertaining, and each budding ballerina has her own personality… none more so than the dance teacher’s daughter Debbie (on Thursday it was a very lippy Lilly Cadwallender) who was deliciously dirty on her professional debut. And Elliot Stiff’s ‘Nutcracker’ joke on doing the splits is one of the funniest moments in the history of musical theatre.
The grownups don’t let the sided down either. Andrea Miller’s grandma is a gloriously nutty cameo as she drives Billy ‘mental’ … and Martin Walsh, as his struggling dad, is a turmoil of pride and indignation as he comes to terms with Billy’s unstoppable dream. At the big audition the class divide is healed as The Royal Ballet wish him good luck with the strike.
It would be easy for the producers to simply re-open old wounds; but now, more than 30 years on, this wonderful work of art is more an act of compassionate reconciliation. Not to mention being great entertainment.
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