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***** Jenny Ell
Billy Elliot is one of the most anticipated UK touring productions to come to Birmingham in many years, following its superbly successful and award-winning eleven years in the West End. Many people have seen the film starring Jamie Bell and after having seen the show, you can see why over 10 million people have flocked to see the musical. Set against the miner’s strike in 1984/85 in County Durham, Billy Elliot centres on a strong willed 12 year old boy who blasts through the stereotypes of the time to pursue ballet, rather than his Dad’s chosen hobby for him – boxing. With a little help from his feisty dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, he fights to get an audition at the Royal Ballet School – a world away from what he (and his local community) knows.
Lee Hall wrote the original film screenplay and has also adapted this for stage. There are many correlations between the two but the live stage show element with Elton John’s score and all of the visuals make it so much more powerful and emotive than I remember from the film alone. John’s score is a real jukebox of styles throughout the show; from the gritty opening number ‘The Stars Look Down’ (where Hall drew inspiration from A.J. Cronin’s 1935 novel of the same name) to the toe-tapping ‘Born To Boogie’ and the soaring ‘Electricity’.
Stephen Daldry directs imaginatively; working incredibly well with Peter Darling’s tight choreography and Ian McNeil’s ever changing set design. The way the scenes intertwine, particularly between the picket line and ballet class really shouldn’t work, but it’s perfection and the height of cleverness. The set is relatively basic with just a couple of moving walls and set pieces but Rick Fisher’s lighting further enhances the setting. There are many visually stunning moments but highlights include the dramatic lighting changes during ‘Angry Dance’, the flying LX bar with moving lights during Billy’s audition and the miners going down the pits at the end of the show.
Lewis Smallman, a local boy from West Bromwich, takes on the role of Billy on press night. It must be one of, if not the most, challenging roles for a child to play in theatre. Not only does he have a Geordie accent to contend with, he must act exceptionally well and dance brilliantly. All of these things Smallman does with ease. He is also able to capture the dry wit needed in the piece; especially during the scenes with his cross-dressing friend Michael (Elliot Stiff). ‘Expressing Yourself’ brings the house down early on in the show and emphasises the empowering song by Elton John and Lee Hall. Smallman commands the stage for the three-hour show and never seems to tire; an astonishing achievement for any performer, let alone one at the beginning of his career.
There are not a great deal of female authority figures in this show but Annette McLoughlin makes a fine one with her Mrs Wilkinson. Although fiery and slightly scary on the exterior, she has a heart of gold and really cares about Billy. Although there is the occasional appearance of Billy’s mother who previously passed away, Mrs Wilkinson fills a void for the young boy and this is very apparent. Martin Walsh and Tony Garnham as Billy’s Dad and brother Tony respectively also give great performances as the hard-faced, masculine counterparts. It is lovely to see their characters mellow as the show progresses and warm towards Billy’s chosen path.
There really are no weak links in this production and as a whole, cannot be faulted in any way. It is absolutely electrifying!
Billy Elliot shows at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 29 April and currently has touring dates until June 2017.