Lewis Smallman as Billy Elliot before a wall of
riot shields in what miners saw as police against people. Pictures:
- The Musical
A TALE of the son of a widowed miner wanting to be
a ballet dancer, all set in the midst of the 1984 miners' strike is
hardly the stuff to get the pulses racing.
But then again writer
Lee Hall has a knack of turning unlikely subjects into brilliant drama
with the likes of The Pitmen Painters
or the intensely moving Spoonface
Steinberg, and, with music by Elton
John, he has adapted his smash hit 2000 film into a superb musical, an
emotional rollercoaster of a ride which has taken the world by storm.
Now on its first UK tour it is easy to see what
all the fuss has been about – it is a show that has everything - kids
who have far more than their fair share of talent, a raw, emotional
story, a gritty setting, magical choreography, music that saddens or
soars and acting that cannot be faulted.
The story is simple. We are at the start of the
bitter miners' strike of 1984-85, a conflict which left wounds that will
never heal in many a mining community.
Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot spends Saturday
mornings, with little enthusiasm, at a boxing class in the Miners'
Welfare. One week, he is told to stay behind to hand the key to Mrs
Wilkinson, who follows boxing with a ballet class.
Marvellous Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson with her ballet girls
So Billy, with, at first, only marginally more
enthusiasm, swaps punching for pirouettes, which goes down really well
with the miners who see boxing as proper and manly while ballet is a
pastime for girls with any male dancer being obviously gay.
Se we are presented with the twin struggle. The
Miners against the police and Margaret Thatcher, a battle they and their
entire industry was about to lose, and Billy's battle to follow his
As the hardships endured by the striking miners
increase, and some question the point of the strike at all, they find a
new focus for unity away from industrial strife - Billy. The strike is
being lost but his dream becomes their symbol of hope.
Four young actors share
the part of Billy and on Press night it was Lewis Smallman, aged 13,
from West Bromwich who has appeared in an English Youth Ballet
production of Swan Lake
at the Grand and as Kurt in The Sound
of Music with Trinity Players in Sutton
Coldfield, and, for good measure, has won both gymnastics and dance
He has a long dream ballet sequence with his
older self, played by ballet dancer Luke Cinque-White, which includes a
spectacular flying section, showing fine talent for his age.
The lad can dance, act and sing as can Elliot
Stiff as friend Michael, again a part shared by four actors. Michael likes
dressing in his sister's clothes and hardly hides his sexuality. Not
only can Elliot, from Tyne and Wear, dance but he has immaculate timing
and delivery for comedy in a remarkably accomplished performance for a
10-year-old. One of the stars of the show. Michael's big tap dance
number with Billy brings the house down.
Andrea Miller as the
And let us not forget Lilly Cadwallender, an
11-year-old, from Cleveland, as Mrs Wilkinson's bolshie, and then some,
daughter Debbie. She is one of three Debbies and it is another superb
performance, full of humour and wonderful timing. Like Elliot, this is
her first professional show.
Three names to watch out for. They have the
talent but only the theatre gods know how far they will go.
There are other magical performances too from the
likes of Annette McLaughlin, a West End, Broadway and RSC star. She
plays the world-weary Mrs Wilkinson, with her second-rate teaching in a
third rate ballet class in the welfare – but she knows enough to see
She is part of perhaps
the most moving moment of the show as she reads the letter to Billy from
his dead mother which turns into a sad, emotionally charged duet, The Letter,
which strikes a chord with any parent in the audience or indeed anyone
who has lost parents.
And there is her
pianist, Mr Braithwaite, played by Daniel Page, a big bear of a man, but
so light on his feet when the shackles are off in another fun dance
number, Born to Boogie.
Leo Atkin is George,
the boxing coach, who sees the noble art simply as you hit him and he
hits you while nearer to home we have Martin Walsh, well known as a TV
actor, as Billy's dad, struggling to bring up his son in the three years
since his wife died. His is the second poignant moment as he sings the
sad lament Deep into the ground
at the welfare Christmas party as he remembers his late wife.
His is the real drama as he breaks the picket
line to get the funds to give Billy a chance in ballet, putting family
before fraternity. Only someone who has been a union member in a strike
will know the courage and heartache that that took – if only for a day.
But that is a catalyst for new hope, something beyond the pit and an
uncertain future – Billy and his ballet. A lovely performance from
Walsh, full of humour and the uncertainty of a father struggling with
emotions and a long way out of his comfort zone.
Scott Garnham gives a
powerful performance as Billy's older brother Tony, a union firebrand
who puts principle before practicality while there is a magical
performance from Andrea Miller as the grumpy, with a capital G, Gran.
Her marriage to her dead husband gets a caustic, bittersweet airing in
There is also a sadness
in that Billy still sees and has conversations with his dead mother,
played by Nikki Gerrard, in moments of crisis or doubt. When she says
goodbye with a reprise of The Letter
you know Billy is finally being himself and has a chance of a future.
There are powerful
moments throughout the musical with the opening salvo in the strike with
The Stars Look Down,
the clashes with police and the final moment as the defeated miners,
helmet lamps on, pack into the cage in darkness to descend into the
bowels of the earth, defiantly singing
Once we were kings. A lovely staging.
There is good support from a hard-working
ensemble and the tutu clad girls in the ballet class who all take on
Peter Darling's choreography which is at times powerful and always
inventive. Darling, and director Stephen Daldry, incidently, are in the
same roles they undertook in the film.
The technicals are also first class from Rick
Fisher's dramatic lighting to Paul Arditti's solid sound, all on a
clever and remarkably flexible set from Ian MacNeil with sliding trucks
and even a giant Durham miners' banner - Easington Lodge – which keeps
everything flowing without a pause.
And it is all helped
along by an excellent nine-piece band under musical director Patrick
Hurley and still on music, the choral work, at times, was quite
exceptional turning Once we were kings,
for example, into an anthem.
It was a hard sell to raise the £3 million to
make the film in 2000 and what a bargain that turned out to be as it
earned £70 million and growing. The musical, which opened in 2005, has
won more than 80 international awards including 10 Tony awards and five
It takes a big show to fill the Hippodrome for
eight weeks and they don't come much bigger than this. It's moving, it's
funny, it's spectacular, it's heart-warming and above all it's
entertaining - British musical theatre at its best and one not to miss.
A spontaneous standing ovation said it all.