What sets Billy Elliot apart from some other musicals is that it is comfortable with being British. There's nothing vague about its Britishness either: set during the miners' strike of 1984/5, it tells the story of a boy growing up in a small village in the North East of England and what happens when he trades his boxing gloves for ballet pumps. The musical (now in its eighth year) is based on the 2000 film, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, who wrote the original screenplay. Though if you fell for the film's punchy 80s soundtrack you might be disappointed. Elton John's score is fine, if a bit dull at times, but some excellent performances by this mixed cast of adults and children more than make up for it.
A musical about dance is a hard thing to pull off: not only do the actors needs to be able to sing and immerse themselves in some really quite sophisticated characters, they also have to be able to dance elegantly enough to impress all of the ten-year-old ballerinas in the audience. Choreographer Peter Darling – who won awards for his choreography of the film – is startlingly original throughout. In one especially moving sequence an ambitious young Billy, untrained but talented, is joined by an image of his future self as he practises for his entrance audition for the Royal Ballet School. The boy and the man dance together in pools of light in the Miners' Union hall. Contrast this with Billy's punky, clattering dance on the wall of police shields. Darling's choreography takes unexpected turns throughout, and is playful and powerful in equal measure.
Luckily, many of the witty one-liners from the film have made it into the musical. So has the character of Billy's friend Michael, a cross-dressing enthusiast, and his chain-smoking, sarcastic – but supportive – dance teacher, Mrs.Wilkinson, played by Gillian Bevan. They are all great parts, even if the tunes are a little lacklustre compared to the script and dancing. At times it can feel as though the action has slowed in order to fit in another song. Lee Hall writes idiomatically, but the words of the songs tend to get lost in slightly sludgy tunes that don't live up to the high standards set by the writing, choreography and direction. Indeed, there are some bold moves by director Stephen Daldry. The second half opens with an abrupt shift in tone, with the miners' Christmas party. There are Thatcher imitations, and some massive Spitting Image-esque heads paraded across the stage. It's very funny, and a tongue-in-cheek, catchy Christmas number, Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, gets away with some biting lyrics, culminating in a chorus of little girls singing: “Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Heseltine, / You're a tosser, you're a wanker, and you're just a Tory swine.”
Billy Elliot tells the story of a specific time and place and the people who live there, and if the plot is fairly straight-forward, the characters are what bring the story to life. Of course, West End kids never stay the same for long, and there are currently five Billys sharing the hugely demanding part, but the quality of the child actors is notable. Not only are they all skilled dancers, but they come across as charmingly gauche rather than precocious, and maybe I got lucky, but the Geordie accents of the Billy and Michael I saw were convincing. In terms of straight-forward acting, Deka Walmsley gives a solid performance as Billy's dad. He is down-to-earth, and at times, when the kids look a bit lost and squeaky on stage, he does a good job of holding the piece together. All in all, the combination of an excellent cast and a rich script makes this unlikely subject for a musical an entertaining and engrossing West End hit. And for a family show it is pretty hard-hitting too.
Name of Show: Billy Elliot the Musical
Playwright/Book: Lee Hall
Composer/Music: Elton John
Lyrics: Lee Hall
Premiered: 11 May 2005 (Victoria Palace Theatre)
This Production Opened: 11 May 2005
Tweet: Against the backdrop of the 1980s miners' strikes in the North East of England, Billy Elliot trades his boxing gloves for ballet pumps.
Synopsis: After his wife's death, Billy Elliot's father is struggling to make ends meet and, like any self-respecting member of this small mining community in the North East of England, he is on strike. The miners' strike of 1984/5 is in full swing, but once a week Billy is given 50p to go and have a boxing class. When one day he finds himself in the wrong class, surrounded by girls in tutus, he discovers a talent he never knew he had, and with the support of the sarcastic but kind-hearted Mrs Wilkinson, he manages to convince his father to let him try out for the Royal Ballet School. There's no way they can afford it, and Billy's father must weigh up the prospect of becoming a “scab” in the eyes of his fellow strikers or denying his son this one chance to make something of himself.
- Billy's triumphant dance with his future self.
Why See It: Peter Darling's choreography is strikingly original throughout, and the dancing certainly lives up to the high precedent set by the film. This cast of adults and children works well together in bringing alive a moving and hard-hitting script by Lee Hall, the writer of the original screenplay. There is certainly enough going on to appeal to all ages, with plenty to look at and plenty to think about too.
Caveat: Elton John's score is not hugely exciting. If you are after the punky soundtrack of the film you might be disappointed, though songs like "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher", with Lee Hall's witty lyrics, largely make up for it.
- The original film was inspired by The Stars Look Down, a novel by AJ Cronin about the mining community in Northern England.
- Originally called 'Dancer', but issues at Cannes (where the film premiered) with it being confused with the Bjork biopic Dancer in the Dark led to it being renamed Billy Elliot - a move Lee Hall describes as 'pretty lame'.
Billy Elliot - The Musical is a rare example of out-and-out Britishness in the West-End. Based on the 2000 film of the same name - one of the most critically and commercially successful exponents of UK cinema - it also boasts added music from one of the most iconic figures from Britain’s popular culture, the incomparable, Elton John. The magic of the film is present in every scene of the stage show. With the creative talents of Stephen Daldry (Director), Lee Hall (Book and Lyrics), Peter Darling (Choreography), and Jon Finn (Producer), all reuniting to replicate their award winning contribution to the 2000 original. With Elton John’s music we are able experience Billy’s journey in a whole new way, and the Academy Award winning musician adds a completely new dimension to this much loved story. It’s Thatcher’s Britain, and men of the North East mine for work, and box for hobby. They do not dance, and they certainly do not harbour ambitions of attending the Royal Ballet School - but Billy is different. Brought up by a single father, without a mother's touch, Billy does not want to fight, but is enthralled by the grace and wonder of ballet. With gritty determination he attempts to prove doubters wrong by going all the way. Winner of the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Audience Award at the 2013 Olivier’s, Billy Elliot’s magnificent cast deliver an electric spectacle that hooks you from the first note. With incredible breakthrough performances from the young Billy’s, this is a show that overflows with talent. Although highlighting the contrast between the bleakness of 80’s Britain, with the magic and escapism of the Ballet, this is certainly not exclusively for a British audience. 10 Tony Awards for its Broadway transfer confirms that we have a shining example of home grown excellence loved the world over. Billy Elliot - The Musical, is now in its seventh year and, still delighting audiences in their thousands. Book now and re-live the inspirational story live on stage.
Victoria PalaceVictoria Street
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1E 5EA
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm
Duration: 2 hrs 30 mins
Older Billy (Barnaby Meredith) and Billy Elliot (Ryan Collinson) © Alastair Muir
Harrison Dowzell (Billy Elliot) © Alastair Muir
Adam Vesperman (Billy) and the cast of Billy Elliot © Alastair Muir