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UK Review - Billy Elliot the Musical


Billy Elliot is a textbook case of how to do musical theatre and succeed. If you take a popular, much-loved film, lace it with music from one of Broadway's most profitable living composers, assemble a creative team all of whom have had a wealth of success in their field and - just for good measure - have an expensive marketing campaign, extensive press coverage and hype that's only found with Harry Potter films, then you're bound to have a commercial and critical success. I am elated to report that, in this case, the textbook wins.

Where other new musicals from screen to stage have been pleasant enough, Billy brings the prospect of films on stage to exciting new levels, even though it's adapted and directed by the original film's creators. Gone from the film is the unique British pop soundtrack, gloomy cinematography and hundreds of protesting extras. In are chorus lines of dancing police, pantomimic send-ups of the government and dance numbers where surreality comes a standard.

If you're not familiar with the story, and apparently some still aren't, it goes like this: a mining community, ravished by strike amid mass unemployment fears, protest from the picket line. But life goes on for the children of the town; the boys go to boxing, the girls go to ballet. Except for Billy. Hopeless at boxing, he tries his hand at dancing, and gradually a talent emerges. Needless to say, the masculine community is rocked at the news of the 'poofy' sport of ballet, and from there the story develops.

Liam Mower - who took the title role for last night's press performance - deserves to have his, and I'm sure his joint stars George Maguire and James Lomas, in lights outside the theatre. It is on the strength of their performances, with breathtaking energy and astonishing maturity, that the show excels. It's hard to believe that at just twelve years old Mower holds the performance in the way he does. A breathtaking SwanLake sequence - performed as a duo with his older self - is one of the most exhilarating pieces of dance on stage, especially given the age of the performer. It starts with the graceful twirling of a chair and proceeds to send Billy soaring through the air. A remarkable achievement. I have no doubt at all that one, if not all, of the boys will be young award nominees; their dancing talents alone deserve this accolade.

Surprisingly for a show set amid great depression, laughs are plentiful. First it comes from Billy's grandma, disparaging the memory of her dead husband ("I hated the sod"), then from a series of act one sketches intended to lighten the tone; a dishearteningly hopeless boxing lesson and a terrifyingly amateur dance class. But the show-stopper is a cross-dressing number called Expressing Yourself, where Ryan Longbottom - as Michael - completely steals the show, drawing a long mid-performance applause with whoops and cheers, though one wonders the effects on the child of cross-dressing nightly to such great response..

Hadyn Gwynne, as the bitter, sarcastic dance teacher, develops her relationship beautifully with Billy, becoming the mother figure he longs for as his own mother has died, a parallel director Stephen Daldry explicitly presents with regular flashbacks to his mother. Tim Healy, as Billy's Dad, perfectly represents the mining community's hard times; rough and unshaven, brave yet still afraid. Like Gwynne, Healy's relationship develops remarkably in the space of three hours.

The programme is brave enough to print the lyrics of the show, usually the first thing a critic looks to attack with new musicals. But it's not so much the lyrics that diverts your attention first, it's Elton John's bland score, which is instantly forgettable, even with the lyrics attached. A fusion of different styles; rock, classical, disco, etc, is a brave choice to make and it works in the context of the show, but there are no big memorable melodies. One number is exempt from this - Electricity, the show's signature number, and others, such as the overtly political Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher ("they're privatising Santa this merry Christmas time") - with a 20 foot blow-up caricature - work brilliantly, it's just a shame they're not more memorable.

Initial amusement comes from adjusting your ear to the Northern drawls of the Geordie accent, there's even a guide to the language in the programme. But Englishness is the key to success here, and is one of the reasons why the New York transfer of The Full Monty - even with David Yazbeck's electric score - failed to ignite British audiences. Whilst that show, relocated in Buffalo, didn't work here, I suspect this show wouldn't work well on Broadway - for Billy is British, and he's certainly in good hands with the thoroughly British Daldry, who makes the show a real family affair, though if taking children remember that much of the fifteen certificate film language remains.

Peter Darling's choreography is physically masculine, and Ian McNeil's set design appropriately bleak, with a nice piece of automated set for Billy's house, rising dramatically out of the stage. Billy on stage captures the essence of social despair and eternal hope far more than a film ever could, with regular nods to the social situation around them - a dance class takes place between rioting - and one of the final images of Billy rising above the community, a pillar of success and pride, sent a shiver down my spine. This deserves to be a big success, and I have no doubt that it will be.

For more information, including audio clips and images from the show, visit

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From This Author Jake Brunger

Jake is currently studying at Bristol University and hopes to eventually pursue a career in the theatre industry as a writer/director. His favourite writers include (read more...)