Billy Elliot – Just Brilliant!

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?

Billy Elliot

Thu 9 Mar – Sat 29 Apr

Click here for ticket information.

 

The New Season Launch at the Birmingham Hippodrome PT 1

On Monday I was a guest of the Birmingham Hippodrome for the new season launch. It was a very special night with Q&A sessions involving people involved in some of the most exciting shows coming to Birmingham this year, as well as a preview of the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella, which is coming to the Hippodrome next month. It was a fascinating night which has certainly wet my appetite for the fantastic season ahead.

The evening started with a performance of the Pas de deux from Cinderella, danced by Karla Doorbar and Lachlan Monaghan. This is a beautiful dance, made all the more iconic on the dark, sparse floor stage of the Patrick Centre.

Birmingham Hippodrome. New Season Launch. 16th January 2017. Picture by Simon Hadley. 07774 193699 mail@simonhadley.co.uk www.simonhadley.co.uk

Birmingham Hippodrome. New Season Launch. 16th January 2017.
Picture by Simon Hadley.

Michael Harrison

The first Q&A session of the evening took place between Birmingham Hippodrome CEO Fiona Allan and Michael Harrison, the producer of ‘Funny Girl’ and the famed Hipp panto’s. Michael raved about panto, saying passionately:-

“Panto goes from strength to strength…It is an art form in itself. I class it in the same way as opera, ballet etc.”

The much anticipated ‘Funny Girl’ starring Sheridan Smith will be at the Hippodrome for just one week.  Harrison says of Sheridan’s performance as Fanny Brice that it is “one of those great performances.” and describes Sheridan of having “Comedy Chops.”

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As well as directing ‘Funny Girl’, Harrison is also at the elm for a very different musical based around a strong female character. ‘Beautiful’ is the Carole King musical, which will be coming to the Hippodrome at the end of 2017. Harrison says of King:-

I didn’t realise how many songs she had written for different people. We are looking now at who will play Carole for the touring run. Funny Girl and Beautiful are two musicals this year that represent strong roles for women.”

John Finn

John Finn is the producer of both the film and theatre version of Billy Elliot. Finn says that the Billy Elliot film script was one of the first he ever read, and that it made him laugh and cry. It become the first film that he produced – he jokes that “…nobody really wanted to touch it, it was the story of a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer set against a backdrop of the miner’s strike…”.

5 years after the film became a smash hit, it was adapted for the stage. A screening at Cannes saw a very famous fan emerge. John said:-

“…Elton John watched a screening of the film at Cannes and it touched him, think it reminded him of his own father. He decided it must be turned into a musical.”

Finding a Billy was more of a challenge. John explained:-

“In the live shows the kid has to be an amazing dancer. Jamie Bell in the film version could only tap dance, but it can’t be faked on a stage. The play is a whole monster based around a single performance…Billy.”

There have now been ore than 100 stage Billy’s.

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Diego Pitarch

The Q&A session then took a different approach as Fiona chatted to Diego Pitarch, the set and costume designer for upcoming shows ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘Crazy for You.’  The Addams family is going back to its roots as a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker. Diego said of the cartoon that “…They reveal a dark side, but one that can also be positive, I could find inspiration in the world of Charles Addams, but could still put my own spin on it…”

Diego acknowledges that the aesthetic value must come from the cartoons, that certain elements must be adhered to, as the characters are so loved and established. There was an initial set design on stage that could be examined,  but, as this is a work in progress, it was definitely a case of watch this space.

Birmingham Hippodrome. New Season Launch. 16th January 2017. Picture by Simon Hadley. 07774 193699 mail@simonhadley.co.uk www.simonhadley.co.uk

Birmingham Hippodrome. New Season Launch. 16th January 2017.
Picture by Simon Hadley.

The second show that Diego is working on is ‘Crazy for you’. Pitarch says of ‘Crazy for You’:-

“I framed the play in an abandoned theatre in Nevada that the rich boy lead (Tom Chambers in this case) tries to bring to life. But this is very different from where the musical was last staged, which was the Watermill in Newbury.  The Watermill is a tiny, narrow theatre, so now the set needs to be expanded and stretched for the Hippodrome stage.”

 

Next week I will complete my preview with highlights of Q&A sessions with Birmingham Royal Ballet Artistic Creator David Bintley, and Kash Bennett from The National Theatre.