Billy Elliot

Edinburgh Playhouse

23 September-22 October

19:30

Stagecraft: 5  Book: 5  Performance: 5

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Winner of over 80 international awards, with a long and highly successful run in the West End as well as around the world, this Scottish premiere seems well overdue. This huge undertaking, not just transporting and caring for such a young, talented cast, a highly elaborate set, and flawlessly executing such a mammoth, top quality production, fully deserved the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation. Music by the legendary Elton John gave it enough of a range of musical style to express a vast range of many emotions and scenes in such a simple yet multi-faceted story. Although it has all the hallmarks of an exuberant West End musical, it uses many classic theatre techniques to fully deliver the serious story at its heart.

The writer of the book and the lyrics, Lee Hall, is himself from Northumberland, and the gritty but humorous Geordie realism of the script keeps the show very much anchored in the particular place and time of the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 in Darlington, Northumberland. This is the tense backdrop for the story of Billy Elliott, the 11 year old boy desperate to break out of his disintegrating, macho mining community to follow his dream of being a ballet dancer. The heart of the show is the struggle of the community to survive under threat of total decimation from Margaret Thatcher’s decision to dismantle the coal mining industry with no regard for the lives of across vast areas of the north of England.

There have been more than a hundred boys playing the lead role in the many productions staged around the world. It’s such a huge, demanding role for a young person, but Lewis Smallman, one of four possible young actors on this tour, did not disappoint. He stood beaming as he deservedly drank in the wild applause of the crowd. Multitalented, his gymnastic background shone through the versatile dance performances which spanned tap, contemporary and ballet. Two performances were particularly stunning. His dance to ‘Electricity’, explaining the power of dance to viscerally articulate his rawest emotions, was spellbinding. Imagine taking Riverdance, blend it with Flashdance, throw in some dazzling gynmastics to a funky version of Swan Lake, you will have a idea of what he unleashed on the audience. An outstandingly touching and uplifting scene was Billy dancing with a version of his ‘future self’, played by the brilliant Luke Cinque-White. Both stars under their own spotlight, expertly twirling chairs in tandem, as they performed to Swan Lake, had everyone transfixed.

This is such a varied and multi talented cast, that everyone deserves a mention. However, the cranky but dedicated ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson was particularly powerful. Annette McLaughlin was perfect for the role, bringing her powerful singing voice, stage presence and acting ability to create a comanding performance.  She was able to evoke strong emotions in us as she displayed everything from impatience to anger to vulnerability and love for Billy, becoming a kind of surrogate mother to him. We were all touched by the poignant scenes with Billy talking to his dead mother and it was hard not to cry when he pleaded with her not to go, leaving him alone with an array of aggressive and unsympathetic men.

The blatantly non PC attitudes and slang of the era, like poofter and spastic seem positively archaic in retrospect, but had to be included to create a realistic environment of a working class community in the 1980s. There is a clear warning in the promotional literature that the liberal profanity may not be suitable for young children. Even the youngest characters in the show swear like troopers; the sheer shock value rousing some laughs along the way, especially in the exchanges between Billy and Debbie, played well by Lilly Cadwallender, who along with Michael, has a crush on him. Both set and costumes were really outstanding, and moved around seamlessly to create endless variety, from the mines, to a fairy tale inspired three dimensional house. The costumes and props were thoroughly of the era, down to the glittery legwarmers, Rubik’s cube and the Bunty magazine in the hands of one of the ballerinas. The police costumes, miners outfits and white tutus brought a singularity to the choruses and the garish puppet dresses of Michael’s cross dressing scenes kept the visuals popping.

Elton John’s rock inspired numbers really brought to life the feeling of horror and oppression by the police and the government during that time in our history. As we became familiar with and sympathetic towards the struggling characters in the play we were inspired by the community pulling together in solidarity. The use of carnivalesque puppets, in both senses of the term made the symbolism of their Christmas party that much more powerful. A giant puppet of ‘that witch’ Maggie Thatcher symbolised their common enemy in a humorous but sinister way, as we could feel the impending tragedy of defeat was on its way.

There were many comic moments throughout the show to lighten up the mood, and especially enjoyable were the scenes in the style of classic farce with his forgetful grandmother, played convincingly by Andrea Miller and his flamboyantly cross-dressing gay best friend Michael, that night played by the irrepressible and likeable Elliot Stiff.  Billy becomes the hope of the entire community, as they gradually follow his grief-stricken and aggressive father in putting aside their prejudices to support his talent. We share in his hopes and fears as he goes to the Royal Ballet School, seemingly alone and isolated, his feelings amplified by the dramatically lit backdrop, until we are treated to a dazzling display of vibrant song and dance from the entire cast. Bravo Billy, and bravo to the entire cast!

Reviewer : Lisa Williams 

five-stars

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