Billy Elliot at The Playhouse Theatre sees the Scottish premiere of the multi award winning musical based on the 2000 hit film. Set against the back-drop of the miners’ strike of 1984, a young boy from a mining community discovers by accident almost that he has a burning desire for dance and potentially the talent to audition for a place at the prestigious Royal Ballet School.
Although obviously an adaptation, Billy Elliot the Musical still manages to capture the essence of the film, and augmented with some great songs from Elton John, the musical production manages to be a stand alone product in its own right as Elton’s creativity takes us into new areas and emotion with songs like “Solidarity”, “Expressing Yourself” and of course “Electricity”. For me though, the two outstanding songs of the show are Grandma’s “We’d Go Dancing” and Billy’s “Dear Billy (Mam’s Letter)”…both great examples of how well a gifted writer like Elton John understands people’s emotions.
Book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who wrote the film's screenplay, so there is that creative continuity between the two that if anything expands on some of the earlier film elements, and is perhaps even more politically direct than the film itself. On stage, the musical somehow manages to take us into the emotions of our principal characters even better than the film.
Great writing and wonderfully creative songs though are never going to be enough to make this project work if the cast are not up to the task, and the load bearing weight of so much of this musical lies firmly on the shoulders of whichever young talent is playing the title role of Billy Elliot. Tonight that role is played by Lewis Smallman, and he does the job in wonderful style. To do this role, you not only have to have the obvious dancing ability, but also be able to sing, and act the dramatic scenes where he has to show a vast range of emotions ranging from everything to the anger at times against his father and older brother to tender moments with the memory of his deceased mother. A lot of talents for anyone this age to possess, and Lewis certainly has them all, and hopefully will continue to grow and develop into a major star of the coming years.
This is a story of human spirits reaching for their dreams, but also one of the harsh realities of the day, and Martin Walsh is a pleasure to watch as the father who must choose between his principles and his son’s potential future. Also an interesting dynamic tension between a father forced to abandon his principles and his older son Tony (Scott Garnham) who refuses to move on his at all. Interesting contrast here too between Billy’s father and the almost accidental dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson – a part brought to life on stage so well by Annette McLaughlin.
Some fine scene stealing moments here too from Andrea Miller as Grandma- who gives a great performance of “We’d Go Dancing”, and Billy’s cross-dressing friend Michael (played tonight by Elliot Stiff). Michael does get some great one-liners here.
Billy Elliot pretty much has everything you would want from a show – sharp script, songs, dance routines and real emotion at all ends of the spectrum. It is easy to see why this show has been a huge hit for so many years.
Also of course credit to Luke Cinque-White for his portrayal of the older Billy in the ballet dream sequence.
Impressive set designs in this production too from Ian MacNeil that changed so slickly from one to the other when required and of course slick choreography from Peter Darling.
If there is one thing that I would have liked to have seen here though it is the inclusion of the final scene from the film where an older father, brother and Michael go to see the adult Billy perform on stage in a principal dance role. It would have been nice to know that young Billy did achieve his dreams and break free of his surroundings.
Billy Elliot the Musical stands on its own as a performance work without taking anything away from the earlier film, and if the rights to the work ever allowed it, I am sure that a straight dramatic performance of this story would be a huge hit too. All three could easily co-exist without impacting on one another in any way.
Review by Tom King