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On its release at the cinemas, Billy Elliot – the story of a working class Northern lad with a talent for ballet, set against the miners’ strikes of the ’80s – touched a national nerve. And this new musical version, also directed by Stephen Daldry, with music by Elton John and lyrics by the original writer Lee Hall, is if anything more enjoyable than the film, cranking up the camp factor and engaging more wholeheartedly with the politics of the period.
Daldry and Hall have fully embraced the theatrical potential of the original narrative; while some scenes play out in a very similar manner to the film others draw on all the resources of a big budget musical, there’s a lot of smoke and wires and, in a highly poignant moment, Billy gets to converse with his dead mum. None of the political rawness is lost by these changes; in fact the collapse of the mining industry, which sometimes felt like background colour in Daldry’s film, is driven very much to the fore. On one occasion police officers and picketing miners form a chorus line and mingle with Billy’s dance class, with all the little girls in tutus. In another scene a line of riot shields, bathed in red light, provides a sinister backdrop to an angry Billy’s frustrated outburst. A cracking ensemble and Peter Darling’s constantly inventive choreography ensures that this all works incredibly well.
There are three boys sharing the role of Billy and it was Liam Mower’s turn on the night we attended (James Lomas and George Maguire are the other two). The show depends upon the performance of these boys, and though he lacked some of the rough charisma of Jamie Bell, Mower was nonetheless fantastic. Of the three he has the strongest ballet background plus excellent gymnastic skills and it was a joy to watch him spring and spin around the stage. He proved to be an equally accomplished actor, dealing well with the emotional subtleties of the story, and the standing ovation he received was very well-deserved. Though for spot-on comic timing and winning stage presence the plaudits have to go to the eleven-year-old Ryan Longbottom as Billy’s tutu-sporting friend Michael.
Michael bags one of the shows funniest musical moments as well. A number that starts out as a hymn to what Eddie Izzard would call ‘equal clothing rights’ (What the hell’s wrong with wearing a dress?) and ends up in as a reminder of the importance of individuality and expressing yourself. It’s seems hugely appropriate that it’s this song that is reprised as the closing number. It also features a surreal moment when the clothes in the wardrobe start dancing with the two boys, which might be pushing the theatricality thing a bit too far.
Of the adults, Haydn Gwynne is excellent in the Julie Walters role of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson. A kind of Northern Joyce Grenfell figure with a fag and legwarmers, she injects a poignancy and a warmth into her character. Tim Healy, as Billy’s gruff father also gives a strong performance, though his soft-hearted side is poorly concealed. Elton John’s score, however, is rather workmanlike with no real standout melody; its Lee Hall’s funny, honest lyrics that make the music memorable.
The show thankfully dispenses with the film’s schmaltzy epilogue and rounds things up in a subtler manner. We can’t all be dancers, Billy’s brother reminds him and it’s a point that resonates stronger on the stage than it did on celluloid; as Billy’s star rises the mining community he grew up in is in permanent decline. There’s change in the air for all concerned and, with the exception of Billy, its unlikely to be for the better.