REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
Billy Elliot The Musical first opened in Sydney in 2007, playing for a year at the Capitol Theatre, winning eight Helpmann Awards and enjoying a successful transfer to Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, where it closed in June 2009. Ten years later, Billy Elliot is back on stage in the Harbour City, which is the first stop on a national 10th anniversary tour that will travel to Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
Based on Stephen Daldry’s multi-award-winning 2000 film, Billy Elliot is set in 1984 in a fictional town in County Durham in North East England, where coal miners are involved in industrial action. Their strike (ultimately a year-long dispute) rails against moves by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, committed to closing mining pits it deems as inhibiting economic growth.
Eleven-year-old Billy (played on opening night by Jamie Rogers) lives with his widowed father (Justin Smith), his older brother, Tony (Drew Livingston), and his grandmother (Vivien Davies). Billy’s father pays for him to attend boxing classes; however, he doesn’t care for the sport. A chance encounter with a dance school in the local hall leads Billy to secretly begin attending ballet classes run by Mrs Wilkinson (Kelley Abbey). She quickly realises Billy’s natural aptitude and potential and begins preparing him to audition for the esteemed Royal Ballet School in London.
Soon, Billy’s father and brother, both miners on strike, become aware of the training Billy has been receiving, and they’re far from impressed. Both are unwilling to accept the prospect of a male member of the family becoming a ballet dancer and seek to quickly put an end to any efforts to encourage Billy’s interest in dance. Fortunately for Billy, that’s far from the end of the story.
The 10th anniversary Australian production of Billy Elliot The Musical (led by Simon Pollard) is a testament to why this show remains so revered the world over. It’s a story of daring to be different in a conservative and tough working-class town, where community expectations of what is and isn’t appropriate are deeply entrenched; it’s a story of changing times; and it’s a story that encourages people not to be deterred by others from becoming who they want to become. It is moving and it has enormous heart.
With music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall, Billy Elliot is an utterly satisfying evening of musical theatre. And while the show is heartening and stirring, it successfully avoids mawkishness. There’s a grittiness that characterises it, and that’s the result of the miners’ fight against the establishment remaining front and centre throughout the performance. The gravity of that dispute and the high stakes for the workers are well realised so that it doesn’t feel like a distant background to this story, but rather a monumental event that would itself have coloured attitudes towards Billy’s ambition to become a ballet dancer. This is a key strength of the book. Additionally, the music succeeds in propelling the story forward (the score is reproduced here under the direction of Michael Azzopardi).
Playing the title character on opening night, Rogers (who shares the role with three other young actors – Omar Abiad, River Mardesic and Wade Neilsen) proves he is perfectly cast. His Billy is imbued with a tenacious spirit and is innately likeable from the outset. Rogers invests us in Billy’s journey of self-growth and discovery and has the audience cheering for him to succeed at every opportunity. And while his acting is impressive, Rogers also sings the part delightfully and showcases superior dance ability.
Smith is superb as Billy’s tough but caring father, Jackie. His portrayal gives us a properly multifaceted character that is at once unaccepting and yet sympathetic. As Tony, Livingston is a further standout, infusing the character with a level of anger and dogged determination to resist that seems entirely consistent with a man fighting to save all that he has. And Abbey’s performance as the brash ballet teacher, who emboldens Billy to take dancing seriously, is whole-hearted and completely convincing.
As Billy’s best friend, Michael, who has his own challenges in being accepted by those around him, James Sonnemann is energetic and highly amusing, while Gabrielle Daggar’s comedic skills make her a constant scene-stealer as Mrs Wilkinson’s young daughter.
Of course, a story about a gifted dancer generates high expectations about the show’s dance content, and Peter Darling’s choreography is a highlight of the production. Whether affording Billy the chance to show off his skills, staging the violent clashes between protesters and police officers or even emphasising the community’s antipathy towards Thatcher, movement choices are effective and impactful and there are moments where comedy is successfully incorporated into the choreography.
We may be some distance – both in geography and time – from North East England in the mid-1980s, but there’s no denying that Billy Elliot’s story of striving to achieve where the odds are stacked against you, remains fresh, as do its calls for open-mindedness and change. Terrifically written and wonderfully performed, Billy Elliot offers excellent entertainment to anyone, regardless of age, who enjoys a tale of triumph in the face of adversity. Recommended.
Photo credit: James D. Morgan
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL – AUSTRALIAN TOUR DETAILS
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star
Season: Playing now until 15 December 2019
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: Playing from December 2019
Venue: Regent Theatre
Season: Playing from 20 February 2020
Venue: Crown Theatre
Season: Playing from June 2020
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Season: Playing from July 2020
To purchase tickets for Billy Elliot The Musical, visit billyelliotthemusical.com.au