You would be forgiven for thinking that Billy Elliot is the much-loved but tired old workhorse of the West End: still pulling in the crowds but maybe lacking a little of its previous magic, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a musical with enormous heart and soul, one that still has the power to move an audience and remains as thrillingly alive as the day it bounded on stage, almost ten years and 10 million ticket sales ago.
More serious and therefor ultimately more satisfying than the usual musical theatre fodder, it resists the urge to sanitise the issues it touches upon, not least the effect of the miners’ strike of the 80’s which is at the heart of the tale, but it also features: Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, feminism, the loss of a parent, the class system, domestic violence and missed opportunity.
Based on Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film, it is, of course, the story of 11 year old Billy from a beleaguered mining village in the North East of England and his battle with his striking miner father to pursue his dream of becoming a dancer.
Lee Hall’s raw, vivid and expletive filled script is as uncompromising as the times in which it is set. It is written with a sharp wit and an even sharper intelligence, and takes the audience on a genuine emotional rollercoaster ride. There’s no schmaltz here: every laugh wrought or tear shed by the audience is heart-felt.
The music by Sir Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall are a veritable smorgasbord of musical styles: there’s a glitzy show tune beside a powerful anthem next to a jaunty folk tune next to a heart-wrenching ballad. There’s much to delight and keep the ears pleased throughout. A particular stand-out is the stirring “Once We Were Kings”.
Ian MacNeil’s set design evokes life in a beleaguered mining village in the 80’s and is cleverly ragged around the edges.
The choreography from Peter Darling is inventive and energetic, and is a clever balance between the rough edged: in the burgeoning talent of Billy and the burly miners and police and the refinement of the big show stopping numbers. Darling’s originality is particularly well showcased in the astonishingly clever “Solidarity” sequence.
Elliot Hanna is an outstanding Billy, his beautifully judged acting matching his sublime dancing skills perfectly. It’s easy to forget that this is a child carrying the weight of this show on his tiny shoulders, the maturity with which he pitches his performance is astonishing and is no better demonstrated in the touching relationship between Billy and best pal Michael and in the interactions with Granny. Deka Warmsley is particularly menacing as Billy’s dad and his transformation from prejudice to acceptance of his gifted son is touchingly done. The ensemble, rare for a long-running musical are of a particularly high quality, it would be churlish to single out any particular member as they are all first rate. The only gripe with the cast would be Ruthie Henshall, a West End veteran of many years standing, who is a tad vocally underpowered and has one of the dodgiest accents onstage (only to be surpassed in dodginess by the horrific attempt at a Scottish accent by one of the ensemble). One delightful and moving touch though, is the casting of the first ever stage Billy Liam Mower, now one of the country’s most highly regarded dancers with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, as the older Billy. The scene between the two has the audience weeping on their droves.
This is a musical that leaves an impression long after the curtain has fallen and it certainly leaves you with no mascara by the end, it is real and relatable and this DVD release is a perfect representation of a perfect show.
The DVD comes with a charming backstage introduction from Elliot Hana and there’s a behind the scenes ‘making of’ video too. There’s also the magical and moving ‘Billy mash-up” where 25 of the actors who have previously played Billy, including the original trio Liam Mower, James Lomas and George Maguire dance together.
The Billy Elliot Live! DVD will be released on Monday 24th November 2014
Title image Adam Sorenson