The stage musical version of ‘Billy Elliot’ is a triumph that doesn’t sacrifice the gritty realism of the original movie even as it amps up the comedy and sentimentality, says Brian Finnegan
Billy Elliot The Musical is that rare thing, a musical that balances staunch realism, spectacular set pieces, sentimentality and caricature, all in one tightly paced, finely tuned package that never lets up. Bar Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, in which a small romance plays out against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, I can’t think of another musical that juxtaposes frivolity with social injustice so seamlessly, throwing plenty of camp antics and commentary in along the way.
Given that this version of Billy Elliot must keep an audience in their seats for two hours and forty minutes, it’s a lot less bleak than the original movie. Written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, who both fulfilled the same roles for the film, it mines a lot more humour from characters that were tragically amusing on screen, such as Billy’s granny and his best friend, Michael, while playing on the emotional strengths of the two central roles, Billy and Mrs Wilkinson by investing them with a dollop of sentimentality.
The story, for those of you who might live on another planet and don’t know it, is set against the bitter, year-long miner’s strike from 1984 to 1985 that pitched Margaret Thatcher’s government against the unions, following the announcement of mass pit closures, job lay-offs and pay cuts. Billy, the son of a widowed miner, swaps his boxing gloves for ballet classes, thereby bringing the emotional conflict of the strike, the devastation of a whole generation of men, into the heart of his family.
In the musical, as in the film, that emotional devastation is represented through the spectre of emasculisation. Billy’s striking father and angry brother (who also works down the pits) cannot accept the boy’s dancing ambition because they perceive it as reflecting badly on their own masculinity, as does the prospective loss of their jobs. Hall’s play really centres on this dichotomy, honing in on the older generation’s fear of being identified as queer, contrasting it with Michael, Billy’s best friend, who is flamboyantly, lovably and triumphantly gay.
In fact, in this production Michael (as played by Samuel Torpey) steals the show. The number he sings with Billy, ‘Expressing Yourself’, is a spine-tingling delight that tips over into rainbow drenched surrealism that couldn’t be further away from the dank pallor of the coal mines. On the opening night, Billy was played by Adam Abbou, who might not be the best singer on planet musical, but can bust a move that will make you sit up in your seat, and plays a motherless boy’s vulnerability with such authenticity it brought me to tears.
Julie Walters played Mrs Wilkinson in the movie, and making one of Walters’ iconic roles your own is no mean feat. Annette McLaughlin does more than this in her performance, which is a little bit harsher and a little bit mushier at the same time, and boy can she dance. Special mention must go to Daniel Page as her sidekick Mr Braithwaite, who emerges into the musical version as a delightful, dancing bear of a man.
Elton John’s music veers from angry to joyful to heartbreaking to redemptive, and catchy songs come thick and fast, peppered with dance numbers that range from jubilant to quirky to sublime. The show’s bittersweet ending is turned on its head by an encore in which Billy’s father and brother, and his community, fully embrace their inner queerness with gusto, turning the narrative on its head in a way that allows the entire audience to do the same.
So many musicals flag in the second half, or have forgettable storylines, or songs that are little more than filler. This is the opposite – a show that is so immersive and emotionally connected, it makes you forget you’re sitting in a theatre watching a show for its entirety, even when Billy is connected to an overhead cable and flies around the stage with such grace and beauty it makes you believe he’s really soaring. Now that’s what I call a musical.
‘Billy Elliot The Musical’ is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until September 3, booking here
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