Friday, 12 May 2017

Theatre Review: Billy Elliot: The Musical

Image Source: ATG
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: May 11 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

Billy Elliot: The Musical has become one of the bigger hits on the theatre stage in recent years. It began in the West End in 2005 and has toured all over the world since then, but of course the story of Billy Elliot comes from the movie of the same name, which was released in 2000. Expectations were high as the production made its debut at Liverpool Empire Theatre, and I'm pleased to report that the show as a whole was a big success.

With the coal miners' strike just about to begin in County Durham, eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Adam Abbou) is left to fend for himself in some respects, as he goes to boxing class while his violent, outspoken father (Martin Walsh) and brother Tony (Scott Garnham) are preparing to clash with the police. It quickly becomes obvious that Billy is not cut out for boxing, but he soon discovers after happening to witness a ballet dancing class, led by Mrs Wilkinson (Anna-Jane Casey), that he has both a passion and a flair for ballet. After initial reluctance, partly due to the feelings (held by many at the time, unfortunately) that a man or a boy wanting to dance and practice ballet must have been gay, Billy soon gives it a try, replacing boxing training with ballet classes. It is obvious that he has real talent, and Mrs Wilkinson notices how much potential Billy could have if he were to pursue ballet in an upper-class private school, especially given the economic turmoil at the time.

Sadly, Billy's father and brother do not share this belief. In fact, they are outraged that Billy would sooner pursue ballet than boxing, or a similarly "manly" field. Billy feels isolated, with his mother having died years earlier, but a letter from his mum convinces the previously-harsh Mrs Wilkinson that Billy has a genuine chance at success, and after noticing the reactions from his family, she provides private tuition and lands him an audition at the Royal Ballet School. This only leads to further problems, though, as Billy's family force the issue, forcing Mrs Wilkinson away and denying Billy the chance to follow his desired path in life.

Months later, after a drunken song at a Christmas party makes Billy's father emotional, he soon realises that Billy (who had abandoned dancing for months after being upset by his family, but is revitalised one evening and practices ballet again, watched by his father unbeknownst to him) deserves a chance to follow what could be his true calling. He eventually decides to return to work so that he can pay for Billy to audition for a private ballet school, which infuriates the striking miners, not least the increasingly-aggressive Tony who considers the struggling miners' cause to be more important than watching his brother strive for his dream. Finally, Billy receives the opportunity to audition in London for the Royal Ballet School, but questions remain as to whether he can deliver on his potential in front of a completely different, and far stricter, panel of dancing experts, and how the risk of paying so much for his audition could backfire on Billy and the family, in the event that his audition is not a success.

The show is a blend of several elements. It is part-comedy and part-drama. It has a lot of dancing (as you would expect), and many original songs as well. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (many provided by the surprisingly large amount of swearing by the kids as well as the adults, with some lines by the young 'uns being a real eyebrow-raiser), and also some more emotional scenes which may draw a few tears from those in attendance. The story is easy to follow, and is logical and true to the traditions and beliefs held by working-class people at the time, particularly males, and during one of the more difficult and trying periods in modern British history in the form of the coal miners' strike, brought about by the questionable leadership of the country under Margaret Thatcher.

The production is spectacular. Some early scenes place the emphasis on the actors and their dialogue as opposed to the backdrops, but later scenes bring the stage and the theatre to life with lighting effects that are bound to wow the crowd, excellent costumes, incredible special effects and some very unusual props (such as a huge Margaret Thatcher puppet which overpowers the stage during a song based around deriding her and her government). There are quite a few surprises thrown in as well, so the audience should never feel like they know what is coming, and the story itself is a gripping one, one that many in attendance may relate to, having lived through the coal miners' strike and similar problems themselves.

It's the performances which stand out the most, though. Adam Abbou is fantastic as Billy Elliot, from the dancing to the singing to the acting, along with comic timing and a talent for expressing raw emotion when appropriate, resulting in one of the most impressive theatre performances from a child that you are likely to ever see. The supporting cast are not too shabby, either: Martin Walsh is excellent as Billy's father, with his stubborn and dated opinions eventually morphing into the consideration and care that he should be providing for his son. Anna-Jane Casey is believable and entertaining as Mrs Wilkinson, and she delivers some brutal one-liners that should have the audience in raptures of laughter. Finally, Bradley Mayfield also delivers an outstanding performance from a child actor as Michael; in particular, his comic timing is exceptional, and can be compared to that of most adult actors and actresses that I could think of off the top of my head.

The main drawback to this show is that it comes in at just over three hours, which is a very long time to be sat in a theatre (the original movie only lasted 110 minutes). Granted, most of the show is utterly compelling, but certain scenes could have been trimmed or removed altogether, resulting in a less bloated production and a generally more enjoyable theatre experience. In addition, some scenes which were important to the movie (including the very last scene, which I won't spoil) are not present in the show, despite its overly-long length, and some minor story arcs are not really resolved. On a personal note, I felt a little uncomfortable, partly due to some overly-excited attendees who wanted to make their voices heard whenever possible (I believe they were from London, which may explain why they inexplicably booed the mention of Liverpool during a transitional scene, at a moment when everyone else in the Empire, of course, cheered), and partly because, presumably for a laugh, some wolf-whistled the kids on occasion (during scenes where the costumes were deliberately absurd), which felt a bit weird to say the least. None of these could spoil my enjoyment of the show as a whole, however.

To conclude, Billy Elliot lives up to its immense hype by delivering one of the strongest theatre productions that one could possibly see, and I would highly recommend the show to all theatregoers.

Overall Rating: 9/10 - Outstanding

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