Words by Clementine Pruvost
Musical theatre fans had been waiting for a revival of Billy Elliot: the Musical since the original production closed at the Victoria Palace in 2016.
The musical is a coming-of-age story based on the 2000 film of the same name. The music is by Elton John, and the book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The plot revolves around Billy, a motherless British boy who begins taking ballet lessons in the midst of the 1984/1985 miners’ strike. This new Made at Curve production directed by Nikolai Foster and choreographed by Lucy Hind. Upon arriving at Curve Theatre, we were surprised to find that most of the audience were people of a certain age who might have lived through the Thatcher years. Surprisingly, there were not that many children present…
If you have seen the original production or – like me – have seen the pro-shot you may notice some differences in the staging and also a completely different set. Michael Taylor has created a three-stories tower to represent the Elliots’ house and a big scaffolding that takes up most of the back of the stage. The orchestra is on the very top of the scaffolding but otherwise it isn’t that much used during the show. Chain-link fencing was the most interesting piece of set in my opinion, easily moved as mounted on wheels, it could represent the ballet studio/ the boxing room, the entrance to the mine… It is also operated during ‘Angry dance’ to literally – and figuratively – cage Billy in. When Billy’s dad (Joe Caffrey) found out that his youngest son was doing ballet he forbids Billy to dance which leads the boy to go into a rage and at the end of the number Billy finds himself caged in by the fences which can also signifie he is trapped in his small town.
If I were to list the highlights of the musical, I would be listing 85% of the songs. I will do my best not to do that…
The show opens with the miners coming up on a platform that rises from under the stage, the strike is just beginning (The Stars Look Down). Right from the start, I had chills, the harmonies were breathtaking. Fabulous way to start the show! To me, another stand-out moment in the story was “The Letter (Mum’s Letter)”, which made me properly sob even though I knew what was coming and I knew the song by heart! However I did not think ‘Grandma’s Song’ brought anything to the story and I am sorry to say that I thought Rachel Izen was shouting more than she was singing.
In Billy Elliot the Musical, comedic moments follow up more serious events. Myself and the rest of the audience particularly enjoyed it when Jackie Elliot meets a “posh dad” at Billy’s audition for the Royal Ballet School. As someone whose English is not their first language – and missed some of the jokes because of the characters’ accents – I particularly identified with the posh dad who couldn’t understand Billy’s dad. Solidarity was another ensemble song that was beautifully staged. Billy’s first ballet lesson intertwines with a clash between striking miners and police. The little dancing girls’ colourful tutus stand out on stage compared to the policemen black uniforms. By the end of the number we did not know where to look as so much was happening on stage.
Four teenagers take the part of Billy Elliot on different nights – Samuel Newby, Alfie Napolitano, Jaden Shentall-Lee and Leo Hollingsworth. The performance I was at, Napolitano adorned Billy’s ballet shoes, and I was impressed by his acting, stage presence and performance in general. Billy is a big role, the actor seldom being off stage. There are two stories in one: Billy’s wish to dance and the miners’ strike. To me, both parts have equal importances and work hand in hand and progress together but with different results. Whilst Billy learns in a letter that his audition for the Royal Ballet School was successful, the miners learn that their union has caved in, they lost the strike.
It is shameful that a show that empowers the working class and questions gender roles is not more diverse. Yes, if you look at the whole cast, there are people of all races. However if you look at the main actors, there isn’t much diversity: all four Billy and all four Debbie are played by white children…
I have talked at length about the songs I loved and now I want to spend some time talking about the performers themselves. Joe Caffrey plays Jackie Elliot, Billy’s father, who has probably the biggest emotional journey and character growth of everyone in the show. Caffrey ‘s interpretation of Deep Into the Ground is heart-wrenching. Luke Baker plays Billy’s strong older brother, Tony. This isn’t Baker’s first “bad-boy” role, he was previously seen in Everybody’s Talking Jamie in the role of Dean Paxton, Jamie’s bully.
The show ends on a bittersweet note, even though Billy’s dreams will come true, the miners, including Billy’s brother and father will become ‘dinosaurs’ – as Tony puts it. The same way that the show opened with the miners coming up from the mine, they are now going back in. Once We Were Kings is a powerful song that will give you goosebumps and make you shiver in your seat. I will never get over the sheer force of the words :
So we walk proudly
And we walk strong
We will go as one
The ground is empty
And cold as hell
But we all go together when we go
We will go down but our heads are proud