Book and lyrics: Lee Hall
Music: Elton John
Director: Nikolai Foster
Many are familiar with the 2000 BAFTA award-winning film, Billy Elliotcritically acclaimed and gave birth to this musical. Against the backdrop of the 1984 miners’ strike, Billy discovered a latent talent for dancing and, under the guidance of an ultimately inspiring teacher, developed his love and skills for ballet, eventually overcoming ingrained attitudes and prejudices for win a place at the Royal Ballet School.
But Billy Elliot the Musical is much more than a coming-of-age tale. Billy’s journey includes themes dealing with conflict, loss and grief, inclusion and division. These themes are expertly woven together by director, Nikolai Foster, into a whole that grips you from start to finish, generating strong and powerful emotions through to the final release. Scenes that see the conflict between police and miners that was so coldly recorded by news cameras at the time are juxtaposed with scenes of innocence as village youths learn to dance. Designer Michael Taylor uses The Curve’s big stage most effectively: its setting, like some of the content, is brutal. It is largely empty with large movable chain-link fence panels creating both literal and metaphorical barriers between groups and reinforcing the bonds that also exist. A multi-level tower serves as Billy’s home, allowing the scenes to be isolated. When other elements have to be involved, for example in the locker room, the movements are so well choreographed that you hardly notice that there has been a transition. The music, played by a group of seven musicians under the musical direction of George Dyer, is an integral part of the emotions generated by the show. Percussive rhythms and brass make us vibrate alongside softer and more introspective pieces.
A production like this, of course, depends on the quality of the young cast. While the adult characters all have their journeys, it’s Billy and his friends’ journey that absolutely has to be right. During this performance, Billy was played by Jaden Shentall-Lee, with his friend Michael played by Prem Masani. Both bring a childlike innocence to the roles even as they try to come to terms with the changes taking place within and around them. Masani brings both confidence and awkwardness to Michael as he helps Billy be who he wants to be despite being pressured to conform to certain stereotypes. The scene in which it becomes clear that Michael’s feelings for Billy are rather stronger than mere friendship and Billy’s considerate response is quite moving.
Throughout, Billy and his family mourn the loss of his mother at a young age and, to a lesser extent, the gradual loss of his grandmother (Rachel Izen) to dementia. Izen’s grandmother brings some welcome relief as she recalls living with her husband in very different times, despite some chilling details of their traditional (then) working-class marriage. Helping Billy through is the spirit of his mother (Jessica Daley) who he sees as watching over him as he grows in his own skin. A standout scene is when Billy shares a letter his mother left for him with his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Sally Ann Triplett) and in which his mother also appears. The letter is almost painfully moving and it would literally take a heart of stone to remain impassive. It is followed by optimism We were born to boogie that allows the audience’s emotions to come together. Triplett brings humor as well as passion to her role: it’s easy to see how she is able to inspire Billy and, later, his father.
Billy’s father, Jackie, and brother, Tony (Joe Caffrey and Luke Baker), embark on their own journeys, each as profound as Billy’s. Caffrey shows how Jackie’s gruff, macho exterior is ultimately chipped away as he realizes ballet is something Billy loves and is good at both and his revelation, and his tough decision on how to back it up. , is particularly poignant, Baker’s Tony is perhaps a two-dimensional touch as he tries to emulate the passion of older men when he is little more than a boy himself.
The community spirit of the miners is also moving when they support each other during the strike. The reality of financial hardship – and some of the tough decisions it has imposed on individuals – is well documented, for example, when we see proud men, women and children lining up in front of a soup kitchen. And yet, these same people are happy to share what little they have when Billy’s potential becomes apparent, another exceptionally emotional moment.
Billy Elliot the Musical has it all: great songs and choreography, well-produced music, and a powerfully told story that still feels relevant almost forty years after its events. A must.
Until August 20, 2022