Growing up in Durham during 1984/85, as the Miners strike was at its height was difficult for anyone. But for a motherless 12 year old boy who longs to be a ballet dancer, despite being pushed towards a boxing ring, life is damn near unbearable. Dad and brother are on strike, caught up in the terrible times they are living in, but not too caught up to not react with anger and horror when they discover the boy’s secret. This is the story of Billy Elliot, which left me open mouthed with awe at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night. It is, quite frankly, the best musical I have ever seen – a masterpiece.
The scene is set right from the opening, as the Durham miners get the news they are on strike. It is immediately clear that this is no ordinary musical, it is hard hitting and real, with characters, including the children, who can swear like troupers and are volatile in their anger. Early dance sequences juxtapose the awkward innocence of the young ballet dancers, with the violent clashes between the miners and the police as the strike escalates and the violence and tensions increase. And yet this malevolent atmosphere is always tempered by real humour, whether it be Billy’s nan putting up two fingers to the world, Billy’s best friend Michael introducing him to cross dressing, or the brilliance of the scenes where Mrs Wilkinson tries in vain to get the mini ballerina’s to dance with grace, even as they grimace and gurn. She knows they will never trouble Dame Margot Fonteyn, but goes on, all the same, collecting those 50ps and barking instructions through a haze of cigarette smoke. It is a a majestic performance from Annette McLaughlin, more acerbic than Julie Walters in the film version, but still filled with heart.
It was fitting for the press night that Billy was played by an enormously talented local lad, Lewis Smallman from my home town of West Bromwich. He is perfection, his Billy is loveable and capable, in the scene where he reads the letter from his mom, of breaking your heart (my tears flowed freely). This is no saccharine performance, Billy is real, and is the soft heart of the story, which is why it is shocking when he responds to another child with violence. Lewis carries off all the dancing with aplomb and with his faultless accent, and tender scenes with Grandma ( a brilliant Andrea Miller) and best friend Michael, he shows he is a real find and star.
He is ably supported by a superb cast. Martin Walsh plays his dad, first as an oafish character, but he brings so much pathos to the role, particularly when he tries to go back to work to get the bus fare for Billy to get to London. Scott Garnham also gains our sympathy as brother Tony, his future looks bleak and the audience can totally feel his pain. Another standout is Leo Atkin as the hilarious George, quick with one liners as he tries to push Billy and Michael into boxing, whilst Daniel Page delights as the larger than life Mr Braithwaite, surprisingly light on his feet in a Fame t-shirt.
As you would expect from a musical with songs from the pen of Elton John, the songs are exceptional, with highlights being Grandma’s bittersweet torch song ‘Grandma’s Song’ , the heartbreaking ‘The Letter’ and the Dante’s Inferno style staging of ‘Angry Dance’, complete with smoke and red skies. It is also a stunning moment when Billy dances with his older self in Swan Lake, a stunning turn from Luke Cinque-White.
Billy Elliot has been called the greatest British Musical of all. Who am I to disagree?
Thu 9 Mar – Sat 29 Apr
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