The Theatreguide.London Review
There has been quite a flurry of adaptations of movies for the stage in recent years such as 12 Angry Men - but not many musicals. Memorably The Wizard Of Oz has given us Wicked and there's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang of course, but only one musical of note - Mel Brooks' The Producers - has been personally transferred by its creator from celluloid to the boards. Until now that is.
Billy Elliot was one of those quirky British films that quietly took the world by storm in 2000 with its tale of a motherless miner's son in the strike-torn Britain of the early eighties who battled against the odds to become a ballet dancer. Its sympathetic but no-holds barred depiction of Billy's northern community in County Durham with huge dollop of comedy was hailed as a near revolutionary work - as were the cast of larger than life yet wonderfully believable characters.
Repeating this success with enviable ease, writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry have taken their original hit and completely remoulded Billy's story for the stage. Looking to the strange blend of politics and folk culture of Britain's post-war Theatre Workshop and the streetwise sophistication of Lionel Bart, they have come up with something darker that touches head and heart equally. This therefore is no West Side Story or even Porgy And Bess - more an Oliver! with several nods to Spend Spend Spend, particularly in the staging.
Significantly, there are no stand-out songs here. Elton John has written no torch songs, no big chorus numbers. Well, there are big numbers but not in the classic sense. But you won't find that a problem. With its strong book, vivid Geordie cultural setting, and a political backdrop that limns every word sung or spoken, Billy Elliot works on so many levels that a string of showstoppers would severely distract from the whole picture. Additionally, the decision to avoid traditional chorus numbers becomes a logical one because, in Billy's life, dance is not a magical element of the performances but integral to characters and plot.
Doing justice to all this is a wonderfully energetic cast - from the ballet-class girls right up to the leads this is one of the finest ensembles youll witness. As Billy, Liam Mower (one of the three teenagers rotating the role) makes acting, singing and dancing all look easy. An emotional dance with his Elder Self, an athletic Isaac James, gives him the chance to show off his steps while the quiet burner Electricity, in which he tries to explain what it is that makes him want to dance, shows exactly why this is Elton John's personal favourite here. Another duet has Michael (Ryan Longbottom) almost stealing the show with Expressing Yourself, a bouncy ditty in praise of cross-dressing.
Haydn Gwynn has a dream of a role as the cantankerous Mrs Wilkinson, Billy's ballet teacher, and her clear voice makes neat work of numbers such as the bouncy Born To Boogie, aided and abetted by a feisty Lucy Stephenson, one of the young actresses playing her daughter Debbie. Pitted against Mrs Wilkinson in the battle for Billy's escape from their moribund town is Tim Healy, who makes Billy's grizzled miner Dad a brilliant study of comic pathos, just as Ann Emery does with the doddery yet canny Grandma - We'd Go Dancing is an almost surreally staged number where she sings nostalgically of her dead sod of a husband yet manages to make it raucously funny.
This is Hall and Daldry's first musical but you wouldn't notice it, such is their vision to create one of those rare musicals that entertains and educates. And, after the saccharine pap of Lion King and Aida, Elton must be proud of his work here, certainly after working with a hard-hitting lyricist like Hall - one only has to witness the carousing miners in rubber Thatcher masks at their working men's club gleefully rolling out lines like "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/We all celebrate today/Cos it's one day closer to your death..."
All in all this is not just a great musical (though admittedly not to everyone's taste) but also a fantastic breath of fresh air for British theatre.
[Be aware that long-running shows may have had cast changes since our review was written.]
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Review - Billy Elliot - Victoria Palace 2005