BWW REVIEW: BILLY ELLIOT Is A Celebration Of Dance And Having The Courage To Follow Your Dreams No Matter What Society Says
Friday 18th October 2019, 7:30pm Sydney Lyric Theatre
BILLY ELLIOT, Elton John and Lee Hall's multi award winning musical theatre adaptation of Stephen Daldry's movie of the same name returns to Sydney for its 10th Anniversary Australian Tour. In a world where prejudice and stigmas still exist, and are possibly regressing, this piece is a wonderful reminder that old stereotypes should be thrown away and people should be allowed to follow their passion, free from fear of judgment.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the 11 year old Billy (role shared by Omar Abiad, River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen and Jamie Rogers) is the youngest son of widowed collier Jackie Elliot (Justin Smith), in a small coal mining town in County Durham, north east England. The timeframe is 1984, at the start of the Coal Miners' Strike that saw Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stand with the National Coal Board to reduce the power of the Trade Unions that had undertaken industrial action to try to save mines from being closed. With workers on minimal strike pay times are tough but Jackie still manages to gather the money for Billy to attend boxing lessons at the local community hall. The problem is, Billy doesn't really like boxing and is more drawn to dancing as he finds himself accidently included in Mrs Wilkinson's (Kelley Abbey) ballet class, much to his father's disgust.
The revival of Stephen Daldry's (director) original production with Peter Darling's original choreography is not only a wonderful chance for new audiences to see this work and return visitors to revisit the story but also a chance to celebrate the type of musical theatre staging that doesn't need to resort to LED screens and high tech tricks to deliver an engaging evening of emotionally connecting entertainment. An initial montage of archive images and video quickly sets the scene then makes way for Ian MacNeil's (Set Design) more traditional sliding set pieces that make up the community hall, village streets and the Elliot's home that Billy shares with his father, brother Tony (Drew Livingston) and Grandmother (Vivien Davies).
While the story takes a while to warm with the initial union song of The Stars Look Down showing a more subdued side to the protest movement, once the focus shifts to Billy's story the energy lifts with brilliant humor and physical comedy. The challenges the boy faces are presented with a honesty showing the reality of the world in which Billy exists where nothing is sugar coated but moments of joy and fun are found in the harshness and poignant interactions occur like the care he shows to his aging grandmother and fun he has with his best friend Michael (role shared by Mason Kidd, Hamish Monger, Oscar Mulcahy and James Sonnemann). The real world is beautifully contrasted with expressions of Billy's imagination and emotions, from the fanciful dancing dresses that accompany Michael's raiding of his sister's wardrobe (Expressing Yourself) and the beautiful dream sequence of younger Billy dreaming of growing up to dance Swan Lake, presented as a breathtaking pas de deux with his older self (Aaron Smyth), to the moments of anger in Angry Dance and passion in Electricity.
For opening night Jamie Rogers took on the role of Billy. The 12-year-old from Canberra was compelling as the gifted youngster, delivering a moving performance from a dramatic standpoint and an incredibly energetic and precise sequence of dance pieces that ranged from ballet to tap and the odd fight piece. As Jackie, Billy's father, Justin Smith captures the spirit of a man torn between needing to be a strong force, maintaining the community's expectation of a tough collier and holding a continuing quiet grief for the wife he lost 3 years ago. His expression of Jackie's shift from forbidding Billy from dancing to actively supporting him is wonderful as he draws on the best of his endearing goofiness to present the fish-out-of water father surrounded by snotty rich housewives at the London audition.
Kelley Abbey's expression of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson conveys a world-weariness of a woman who once hoped for more for herself than to be teaching predominantly hapless girls, including her own, to be graceful. She gives the repressed prima donna a grittiness that covers the care and concern she can exhibit when she wants, particularly when she sees potential in Billy. Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie (role shared by Chanel Charles, Gabrielle Daggar and Ella Tebbutt) is presented with amusing cheek by Gabrielle Daggar on opening night as she ensures the audience realize that the child, seen as a disappointment to her mother, is desperate for attention. For opening night, James Sonnemann presents Billy's best friend Michael, the little boy with a taste for women's fashion who later comes out to Billy. Sonnemann gives a delightfully free and joyful performance as the camp child who seems more comfortable in embracing who he is than his dancing friend.
With strong song and dance numbers presented by a wonderful cast of adults and children, this presentation of BILLY ELLIOT is a wonderful reminder to everyone that society needs to move away from the outdated views on what boys and girls should and should not do. While society has come a long way to making it more acceptable for boys to take up dance and girls to play sports the issues of gender stereotyping and bullying of those that deviate are still perpetuated by media and marketing as seen in the recent bullying of a royal youngster for taking dance classes and the plethora of pink and blue things in shops, making stories like Billy Elliot even more important. Well worth seeing, or seeing again as it tours Australia.
Photos: James D Morgan