BWW Review: BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL at Adelaide Festival Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 2nd January 2020.
The multi-award-winning production, Billy Elliot the Musical, on its tenth-anniversary tour, is adapted from the 2000 film, Billy Elliot, the screenplay for which was written by Lee Hall, who also wrote the book and lyrics for this production. The film was adapted from his earlier play, Dancer. The music was composed by Elton John, and the performance features choreography by Peter Darling, with the direction by Stephen Daldry. Musical direction is by Michael Azzopardi, who leads the small orchestra from the keyboard.
It is 1984, Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister, and coalminers, Jackie Elliot, and his eldest son, Tony, are on strike in the fictional town of Easington, in County Durham, often clashing with riot police in a bloody campaign that will continue into 1985, when it will finally end unhappily with the miners returning to work. The miners went on strike, led by Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers, against the planned closures of pits and ongoing pay restraint by the National Coal Board, all fuelled by Thatcher's attempts to reduce the powers of the unions. Jackie is tough, rough, and gruff, and has decided that his younger son, Billy, will learn to be a boxer, like it or not. He does not like it, and the unforgiving attitude of the coach, George, another miner, does nothing to encourage him, but has no choice, even though he has no aptitude for the violent sport.
Given the task of returning the keys of the boxing hall to Mrs. Sandra Wilkinson, he discovers her ballet class, and is instantly fascinated by the grace and delicacy of the art of dance. She invites him in, and his lessons begin, but he must keep this secret from his father. Practicing at home is not a problem as his grandmother, who has Alzheimer's Disease, is the only one there most of the time, and she reveals that she once loved to dance, but her abusive husband stopped her. Billy proves to be a talented and dedicated student and progresses well, until his secret is discovered and his father takes Billy out of the class, telling him that ballet is for girls and that he is never to return. Mrs. Wilkinson then offers to teach him privately and secretly, readying him for an audition for entry to the Royal Ballet School.
On the day of the audition, Billy fails to turn up, as Tony has been injured in a struggle with the police. Mrs. Wilkinson goes to the Elliot home, reveals what she has been doing, and explains the opportunity that Billy faces. His father is furious, but they all have to flee when the police arrive. Billy stops dancing.
Months later, after the miners' Christmas party, Billy is left alone in the hall and, hearing the music that had been left playing by his cross-dressing young friend, Michael, he begins to dance again, unknowingly watched by his astonished father. Jackie goes to Mrs. Wilkinson to discuss Billy's future, and the rest deals with raising the money to get Billy to London, and the eventual audition, all set against the ongoing background of the strike.
The children's roles are shared and, on the night that I attended, Billy was played by Wade Neilson. He did a phenomenal job in the eponymous role, exhibiting a full range of emotions in a solid characterisation, coupled with superb dancing and strong vocals. Although Billy studies to become a ballet dancer, Peter Darling's choreography is not so limited in scope, with several tap numbers and a good amount of contemporary dance included, not to mention some acrobatics.
Hamish Monger, as his friend Michael Caffrey, offered an equally fine performance and their duet, Expressing Yourself, was a showstopper, the two young triple-threats bringing forth the biggest audience response of the show. In the role of Debbie, Mrs Wilkinson's daughter who develops a crush on Billy, Chanel Charles, was a delight and as bright as a button. Like the role of Billy, those of Michael and Debbie also require the full range of performance skills, including high levels of ability in a range of dance styles.
The adult principal roles are generally more focussed on acting and singing, but still require considerable dance skills. The biggest influence in Billy's life becomes Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Lisa Sontag, who recognises his potential and is willing to nurture his talent, freely giving her time and energy to his development. Sontag gives a superbly powerful performance in the role, her Mrs. Wilkinson standing strong against the male ignorance and winning on behalf of her protégée.
The other beneficial influence in his life is the spirit of his late mother, named simply as Dead Mum, who is mentally created by him through a letter that she left for him before her death, to be opened when he turned eighteen. He didn't wait that long, which proves to be very fortunate. She is portrayed by Danielle Everett who gives the role an almost ethereal sense of serenity.
Billy's Dad is played by Justin Smith, who achieves a good balance between missing his wife and maintaining a degree of anger and resentment over his loss which, coupled with his outdated ideas of what it means to be a man, colours his interaction with Billy. Smith's performance gives authenticity to Jackie's realisation times are changing, and that Billy has a chance to escape the cycle of hard work and poverty, that he could be a symbol and an inspiration for the entire community.
Drew Livingston plays Billy's brother, Tony, a hard-line striker, an 'angry young man' who is the bully-boy for the union, and who has no time for what he perceives to be Billy's ridiculous fantasies. He shows little respect for his father, either. Livingston brings great strength to the character and conveys Tony's eventual change of attitude with a nice touch of understanding.
There is considerably more humour in the musical than in the film, and a fair degree of it is contributed by Vivien Davies, who is wonderfully quirky as Grandma, making the most of her every appearance. More humour is injected by Dean Vince, as Mr. Braithwaite, who accompanies Mrs. Wilkinson's ballet lessons on the piano, eventually displaying some impressive dancing ability, too. At one point, there is a glimpse of Billy's hopes for the future, as Aaron Smyth joins him as his adult self in a stunning pas de deux.
The Pitmatic (or Pit Yakker) dialect of Durham, not entirely unlike the Geordie dialect of the Newcastle area, is particularly difficult to understand in its full-blown form that includes many mining references and, consequently, it is also hard to impersonate. By and large, the cast make a very good effort, with only occasional slips giving them away.
The role of Billy is shared on other nights with Jamie Rogers, Omar Abiad, and River Mardesic, while the role of Michael is shared with James Sonnemann and Mason Kidd, and the role of Debbie is shared with Gabrielle Baggar and Ella Terbutt.
The production values are also extremely high, with set design by Ian MacNeil, costume design by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting design by Rick Fisher, and sound design by Paul Arditti combining with the various performance components to create a sensational production that earned every bit of applause, and there was plenty of that throughout the sold-out performance.
It is easy to see why this musical has amassed a vast number of awards and received great critical acclaim. Be sure to get tickets before it sells out the entire season.
Photography, James D. Morgan