views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Billy Elliot
Victoria Palace Theatre
10th June 2014

★★★☆☆

Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson

Photography © Alastair Muir

Having opened in 2005 and boldly continuing to take bookings until at least next year, Billy Elliot is a very long-running musical, which these days is all the more impressive, with new shows like Viva Forever, Stephen Ward and I Can't Sing closing woefully early. However, do sustained sales alone mean it's any good? OfficialTheatre.com invited us to find out and kindly provided our tickets.

Well, once again, in the words of Catullus (who doesn't love a dead Latin poet?) odi et amo. The acting is disappointingly weak in many places (there are of course a few exceptions), but the choreography is absolutely magical. At three hours including one interval, you do want to absolutely adore everything for it to be worth your time, but it's perfectly engaging enough as a whole. It's just a shame that the dodgy accents do sometimes make you wish fervently they would skip to the next dance number.

Lee Hall's book is adapted from his screenplay of the 2000 film of the same name, and sees a young Durham lad called Billy (Bradley Perret) secretly ditch his boxing lessons for ballet classes. Dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall) - surprisingly gritty for someone regarded as middle-class by Billy's family - sees his potential and encourages her new charge to apply for a place at the prestigious London Ballet School.

Set in the 80s with the lurid legwarmers to prove it, the idea of a boy doing a stereotypically girly activity horrifies Billy's father, Jackie (Deka Walmsley) and his older brother, Tony (Chris Grahamson). However, the older Elliots have bigger issues to worry about, they're both miners under the Thatcher government, and the threat of unemployment is becoming uncomfortably real. They're not just mouthing off for the sake of it, they can sense a desolate future on the cards.

Much of the humour is driven by the very young and the very old effing and blinding. There's nothing shocking about bad language - more fool you if you bring your young children to the evening performance of an incredibly long West End musical - but it frequently feels like a lazy device to get the laughs. Director Stephen Daldry initially focuses on comedy, presenting Billy's Grandma (Ann Emery) as a doddery old lady who keeps hiding illicit snacks around the house in foreshadowing as to how Greggs would eventually conquer the whole of the north-east of England. However, Grandma's Song is an incredibly bleak tale of domestic violence ("he'd swing and he rarely missed") combined with a lack of women's rights ("your life ended when you had a ring around your finger"). Emery swears and cackles, but there's a hint of sadness always in the background.

Bradley Perret as Billy

Photography © Alastair Muir

This attempt to keep things relatively light is contrasted by the deliberately manipulative use of Claudia Bradley, who only joined the show in May this year and is credited - no lie - as "dead mum", In The Letter (Mum's Letter) and the reprise, The Letter (Billy's Reply), the ghost of Billy's mother is used to try to make us weep and hope for a happy ending ("In everything you do, always be yourself"). It's a cheap trick, and doesn't work. It's no criticism of Bradley who is perfectly sweet and hits all the right notes, rather it's Hall who should hold his hands up for this.

Ignoring the variable Durham accents (having spent several years right bang in the middle of DH1, I do know what the cast should have sounded like), the direction and choreography in Solidarity makes for a visually impressive scene. Mrs Wilkinson's dance school, the miners' strike and the angry police all come together in one claustrophobic tangle which shows all the different strands of Billy's life coming together. He can't keep them separate, he can't ignore them, the strike will have its conclusion, police brutality will threaten his family and his passion for dance will out. The pressure on such a young boy is overwhelming and both Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling really capture this in a deeply shocking image.

The choreography between young Billy and his older self (Barnaby Meredith) is also simply stunning. As they dance together to Swan Lake, mirroring the other's carefully measured movements, the spell is only broken when young Billy is repeatedly spun around the air on a wire so many times that you begin to wonder if the real reason why there are three other Billys credited is because the company needs a string of replacements for if the one circling around the stage gets motion sick and can't make it to the end of the show. That's a long sentence, but it's a long, long spin. There's no call to use Meredith elsewhere, it doesn't fit with the book, but he is a fantastic dancer and you do wish there was more of an opportunity to see him twirling around the stage.

Ian McNeil's set design is sharp and well-executed - of the usual high standards you do expect from such a big production. Particularly worthy of note is the giant puppet in Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher - it's a disturbingly creepy grotesque, in the style of a Spitting Image character. The sheer size makes it loom over the miners, evoking humour but also more intelligently mirroring the fears and worries of the men, who cannot get the (then) prime minister out of their thoughts. Even when they are cruelly mocking her, they're still terrified deep down - it's all bravado and bluster covering up deep-rooted fears. As typical macho men, they want to provide for their families and unemployment is an understandably difficult prospect for them to handle.

Deka Walmsley and Ann Emery as Jackie Elliot and Billy's Grandma

Photography © Alastair Muir

Regardless of your stance on Thatcher and the pit closures, you can't help but feel utter sympathy for the miners in ensemble piece Once We Were Kings ("The ground is empty and cold as hell, but we all go together when we go"). A the men all sing in unison, there's something desperately sad about Hall's lyrics and Elton John's score. As unsatisfying as earlier number Solidarity is, suddenly it does feel like they are genuinely all in it together, broken, but still standing shoulder to shoulder. It's a tragically moving moment - but again, it's when the cast are singing or dancing that the show draws you in.

The failure of the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar to include any real acting between numbers frequently made it difficult to engage with the story, but cutting down some of the spoken dialogue would in this case actually be beneficial. It's the music and the movement which make Billy Elliot the Musical successful, if you want to see good acting, buy the DVD of the film.

The majority of the male cast resort to snarling and growling to show emotion, with the Elliot men particularly guilty of doing so. However, Henshaw is unsurprisingly strong, imbuing her performance with a genuine desire for Billy to unlock his full potential and lead a better life. You do believe that she wants only the best for Billy - she's not living out her dreams vicariously, it's just that she spots someone she can help and goes above and beyond to make sure he has at least a shot at the big time. It makes you genuinely nostalgic about whichever teacher first made you want to do something with your life.

It is however the dance which makes this show. Whether it's Perret and Meredith soulfully pirouetting around against a moody background or Peret and Tomi Fry boogie-ing with giant dresses, when the performers move, you can't help but be transfixed. A real mixed bag of a show, but one ultimately worth seeing.

Billy Elliot opened on 31st May 2005 and is currently taking bookings until 16th May 2015 at Victoria Palace Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Victoria (Victoria, Circle, District)



Follow us on Twitter

Leicester Square

West
End

Southbank

London

comedy

theatre

music

performing arts

culture