Our Verdict: Entertaining, gritty and emotional. A Must-See.
Our Rating: 10/10
I wasn’t the one who spent three hours dancing on stage last night and yet by the end of Billy Elliot, currently on at The Bristol Hippodrome, I was emotionally drained and shattered.
This is the original talent ‘journey’. The kind that is usually contrived on TV talent shows. Yet somehow despite being fiction, the musical stage version of Billy Elliot is far more genuine than the saccharine sob story Real Deals discovered by Simon Cowell on a Saturday night.
Billy was played in this performance by Bath based Haydn May. He was stunning. A brilliant actor, gymnast and of course dancer. It’s a big role for young children but he never faltered and the beauty of his dancing in Swan Lake with Luke Cinque-White as Billy’s Older Self was such that it made me cry.
In fact, the entire cast is brilliant. Talented, believable and guess what? No celebrity names to drag the standard down. What a difference this makes and what a joy to watch. I watched the film once some years ago, but I enjoyed this stage version so much more.
The story is set against the real and all too recent history of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, specifically the Durham strike – the longest trade union dispute in British history. Class war runs through the heart of the story from the beginning.
Lee Hall’s book and lyrics are both very realistic. They catch the essence of the time and get the 1980s right, which in theatre, film and TV can be difficult. Ian Macneil’s set and Nick Gillibrand’s costumes are spot on and both avoid nostalgia.
The show is billed as being suitable for children aged 8 years upwards. There are discussions rumbling across the internet that it’s not suitable for such a young age due to the nature and amount of swearing. Yes there is a lot of it. It’s all in context and is a fair reflection on what I remember early 80s working class communities and parenting to be like.
Eight years upwards is a perfect guideline. It’s ideal for children who are more politically aware, it’s perfect for introducing an important historical event in British History and of course, many children will be able to draw comparisons between Tory rule then and Tory rule now. Times aren’t always so different. We are just not covered in coal dust. Weigh in the fact that some communities still feel the ramifications of mine closures today that a few swear words during the course of 3.20 hours is nothing.
Occasionally, characters express homophobic opinions. Hardly a surprise when even in 2016, boys going to ballet raises an eyebrow amongst the uncouth. They are regularly shot down, and of course, balanced out by the marvellous Henry Farmer as cross dressing Michael.
There are fantastic scenes juxtaposing the middle class ballet lessons against police riots and miners defending picket lines. Children talk about ballet and go to school against a backdrop of riot police and fighting with Scabs.
There’s also lots of comedic relief amongst the gritty working class heroism. Yes it was tough for the men. But it was equally tough for the women. Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma was hysterical. It was also a refreshing moment to hear her singing about her drunken soak and arse of a husband. Not quite the recollections Billy was expecting when asking about his deceased grandfather. And actually, retrospectively, thank the Good Lord that we have at least one musical theatre show with no ridiculous love story winched in. Grandma’s Song painted the realistic picture of men spending the week’s wages in the pub whilst the women waited at home with the rolling pin.
Annette McLaughlin as chain smoking ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson didn’t slip into a two dimensional comedy figure. She was tough, sassy and brutal. Absolutely not afraid to stand up to the bullying tactics of burly men when it came to a child’s best interests. Perhaps with the exception of her own long-suffering daughter Debbie, played to great effect by Lilly Cadwellender. But perhaps this is all down to Annette’s Mrs Wilkinson’s self preservation method. The cracks begin to appear in the facade when saying goodbye to Billy at the end. She was as much a part of Billy’s family as domineering brother Tony (Scott Garnham) and Martin Walsh as Dad.
And of course, that’s not forgetting her brilliant ballet girls who nailed all the characters I remember from 80s church hall ballet lessons.
Despite the importance of solidarity to the mining community, isolated moments are equally powerful. Angry Dance at the end of Act One seeing Billy throwing himself against the police riot shields was one.
Elton John’s music and the score is enjoyable but somewhat forgettable though saved by Peter Darling’s choreograhy. Perhaps the exception would be Once We Were Kings. Lee Hall’s lyrics and Stephen Daldry’s original shrewd direction provides one of the all-time strongest West End stage moments as the miners go back to work in the pits.
It’s a long show at three hours twenty minutes including an interval. But, it’s perfect. The long first half doesn’t drag and is full of action so you never feel the need to look at your watch . It’s not a toe tapper if that kind of thing pleases you, but it’s a highly entertaining musical with the perfect blend of hard drama and dialogue that most musicals totally lack these days. It won’t be one of my all time favourites due to the weak Elton John score. But it’s exceptionally good and one of the best I’ve seen.
Billy Elliot is at The Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 05 November 2016