“I don’t want a childhood. I want to be a ballet dancer.”
Many of the audience at Billy Elliot the Musical were not there for the first time – they were bona fide fans and had been at least once before. It’s a feel good musical but with a real heart, and one that evokes tears from many. Billy Elliot is the story of a struggle – of a boy trying to be true to himself in a harsh world in the north of England, where the backdrop is the miners strike of the mid-1980s.
The musical of the 2000 Stephen Daldry film of the same name premiered in London in 2005 and later came to Sydney for the first time in 2009.
The long and bitter miners strike of the mid-80s has become a more distant part of history – and many Australians attending the show would have no recollection. However, the strike still packs a punch as the hardships of the men being out of work for a year is not something that is totally foreign. It’s very much a working class story of someone triumphing and escaping their hard lives – which is the basis of so many musicals from My Fair Lady, to Evita and Kinky Boots and so many in between.
Screenwriter Les Hall and star Elton John both overcame their working class origins to find success in the arts so working along the Billy Elliot project was personal to both of them. The passion which delivered the musical has carried on, more than a decade later. The film’s director Daldry had an even more personal attachment to the project. “My first professional paid job was working as a director in a pit (mining) village during the strike. That strike was one of the most important events in my life”, he said.
Billy Elliot is a dancer in a mining town full of hard men who have a hard core masculine culture which ridicules anyone who is different. His father has sent him to boxing lessons but he drifts towards dancing and then finds he has a real and innate talent. This is the most universal theme, and one which is perfectly executed here.
Elton John is responsible for the music and songs – he cleverly weaves bars of Swan Lake into the score and most songs have a simple beat to give a working-class touch, with a complex melody. The songs are memorable and several are quite touching, much like The Letter. This ballad is about a letter his now dead mother left for him to open on his 18th birthday. Billy reads it with his dance teacher – it’s one of the most touching moments of the show.
Other strong songs include Solidarity – a stirring anthem-like number, where the children in ballet class are shown juxtaposed against the police with shields and the miners with pickets.
There’s also The Stars Look Down, Electricity and the most unforgettable, Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher. “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher. We all celebrate today ’cause it’s one day closer to your death.” It seems quite harsh now, but in reality, it captures the hatred of that time. Once We Were Kings reflects the transition from sure victory to sullen failure – the devastation the miners must have felt when the battle was lost.
The first half of the show is long and sets the scene, the second half boasts most of the dance numbers and this is where I’m fully won over. For me, a musical does not earn its stripes until the tap-dancing number so there is great relief when the tapping starts.
Four boys alternate as Billy: Jamie Rogers, Omar Abiad, River Mardesic and Wade Neilsen. The first three are 12-years-old, and Neilson is just 10. It’s young to carry a show, but assuming they are all as adept as Jamie who played Billy on opening night and was Billy – incorporating both the accent, dancing and the singing confidently and competently as the star of the show – they are a talented bunch.
The young boy who played Billy’s best mate Michael on opening night, James Sonnemann, really owned the stage when he appeared. The scene with the dancing dresses was delightful.
Justin Smith, who plays Billy’s dad, must be one of Australia’s hardest working actors and in this role shows that he has a fine voice too. He played Billy’s brother Tony in the original Australian production in 2009.
Other standout performers are Vivien Davies as grandma and Kelley Abbey as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson. These are strong women holding their own as vital characters in the drama.
The ensemble of both adults and children is strong and for anyone who enjoys watching dance, Billy Elliot the Musical truly is a treat.
For more information and tickets: Billy Elliot the Musical.
Feature image: Billy Elliot the Musical. Photographed by James D Morgan. Image supplied