If there’s one thing Billy Elliot the musical (and Billy Elliot the film) isn’t, it’s subtle. Set in Durham during the miners strikes of the 1989s it centres on a boy named Billy, who against the wishes of his father chooses ballet over boxing.
For the most part the musical follows the same formula as the 2000 film, focusing on Billy but with a very strong political subtext and healthy dose of Margaret Thatcher jokes. And it works well. Pushing the three hour mark, the running time whips by at a surprising speed, jumping between the community hall, Billy’s home and the odd pub or audition room as needed.
There’s been much made of the current cast, and there were strong performances from them all. Ruthie Henshall has been drafted in as Mrs Wilkinson (presumably in time to feature on the September live recording) and Deka Walmsley is playing Billy’s dad. At the performance seen, Matteo Zecca was on as Billy, and gave an almost flawless performance. While his singing wasn’t the strongest throughout, his acting and dancing were spot on.
And in the roles of Billy’s brother, Michael, Grandma and Debbie, Chris Grahamson, Freddie Butterfield, Ann Emery and Dayna Dixon all provided solid support, rounding off a brilliant cast.
While not conventional musical theatre, this is an incredibly varied soundtrack by Elton John and Lee Hall, who have done a solid job of turning heavily political content into score ready for a west end audience. And the tone is set with the opening ‘The Stars Look Down’ which sees the primarily male ensemble stand at the front of the stage and invite the audience to ‘stand as one’. That’s then followed by a mixture of upbeat, motivational dance songs (here slightly lacking in the hands of Ruthie Henshall’s deeper vocals – although her acting more than makes up for it), softer ballads and one satirical Christmas song.
For the staging it’s a bit of a mixed bag but it works well together. For the most part the same three walls are reused to represent the different locations, with two main lifts bringing in the Elliot’s kitchen, Billy’s bedroom and a number of small pieces of scenery from the depths of the stage. In the second act we are treated to a bit more variation during the audition scenes, but altogether the approach is minimal rather than showy, which works very well with the material.
This has to rank as one of my favourite musicals. While this was the first time I’ve seen it, the combination of the powerful music, smaltzy tugging of the heart strings and solid performances mean that while it’s not in any way subtle, you really will struggle to leave without having shed a tear (or ten).
The main surprise of the night though had to be the language. While not an issue for me, there were a lot of small children in the theatre, and that’s not always the best combination when you have four year olds on stage shouting “wanker.”
Billy Elliot is currently booking until 19th December 2015. Tickets can be book at the Victoria Palace Theatre website. Approx. running time is 3 hours, including interval.
And the seat…
Stalls, row D, seat 4. After changing from a week day evening to a Saturday matinee, the ticket price went up from £20 to £50 but this was still a great bargain. Close to the action, relatively comfortable and with only a few second of action not within view, I’d sit here again in a flash. Note: the stage in the Victoria Palace is incredibly high and may be uncomfortable for some but this was far enough back to not be an issue for me or those around me.