"Sheer enjoyment and musical theatre magic meet social realism in an inspirational night out." Pic by James D Morgan.
Billy Elliot The Musical has romantic, inspirational beginnings. Elton John, awash with emotion after seeing Stephen Daldry’s film, contacted the director. Years down the track, Sydney's Lyric now hosts the the magical experience on its stage. The fundamental plot sees Billy Elliot, a young boy in Durham, northeast England, form a passion for ballet dancing. Seemingly insurmountable social and cultural barriers stand in his way. His dad and brother are miners, and the story takes place during the 1984-85 nationwide coal miners’ strike. Money is nonexistent, and masculine normativity is pervasive.
Jamie Rogers opens the Sydney production as Billy Elliot. His proficiency and heart are bewildering to see in such a young performer. Justin Smith plays Billy’s dad with mix of manly stoicism and fatherly sensitivity that will win over every audience. Drew Livingston as Billy's older brother Tony embodies the angry impulsivity of the young and disenfranchised. One of the more odd but touching moments of humanity comes from the scene between Billy and his grandma, played by Vivien Davies. Grandma’s Song is about her memory of her late husband – while he was often drunk and violent, they’d go dancing, and she remembers being swept up by him as often as she was left battered. It’s a heart-splitting aside that resonates with clarity and insight. Kelley Abbey’s portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson, the dance teacher, shines on stage. Wearing garish aerobic patterns and faux-glamour robes, a cigarette never far from her fingers, she embodies pizzazz.
The music, directed by Michael Azzopardi, and choreography by Peter Darling and Tom Hodgson helps the show soar. After a big number, there were three occasions when the audience cheered and clapped with such vigour that the performers had to patiently wait and wait, holding their positions, until the clamour died down enough for them to continue. This speaks volumes about the show’s audience engagement. Under technical director Cass Jones, the set, lighting, and all the other essential elements of musical theatre shimmer with flair and are executed with precision.
While at the end of the film, Billy is the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, there's not the same kind of happy ending to the musical. The miners' union gives in. They return to the hole in the ground. Billy gets out, he flies, he transcends, but the collective workers are trampled under Maggie Thatcher’s iron boots. This shift in focus heightens the impact of the musical, and permeates its action. Never are we permitted to use Billy’s incredible story as a vehicle for escapism. The image of riot police smashing through a British Coal sign held by the ensemble is a lance that drives through the action, through the message of solidarity, showing the threat to human dignity that leaders like Thatcher present. This is the reason that Billy Elliot The Musical should be watched now and again. Sheer enjoyment and musical theatre magic meet social realism in an inspirational night out.