Curve Leicester – until 20 August 2022
Following the success of recent productions such as Beautiful, A Chorus Line, and a summer run in the West End for their 2016 production of Grease, Curve is currently setting the standard for post-Covid theatre, with a cleverly curated season that’s captivating audiences nationwide. Their latest delight is a timely revival (the first since the original production) of Lee Hall and Elton John’s Billy Elliot The Musical. Nikolai Foster’s vision beautifully evokes a sense of community against a delicately balanced backdrop of political and emotional turmoil.
The story of a young boy pursuing his passion for dance, while battling prejudice and the hardships suffered by working class families during the 1984 Miners’ Strike is a modern classic, yet Foster’s production mines new depths, creating a moving and visually imposing piece of theatre.
Michael Taylor’s set exploits the sheer expanse of Curve’s stage, upon which looming scaffold structures and mine shaft-yellow cages evoke a perilous playground of industrial dangers and suburban class hostilities. Foster juxtaposes this adult world in which tensions frequently escalate into bone-rattling violence with the exuberant world of the young boxers and dancers.
Edd Lindley’s colourful costumes and Lucy Hind’s playful choreography featuring the children jumping out of lockers during ‘Expressing Yourself’ is a perfect example of such youthful innocence which is completely at odds with the social suppression of the external political landscape of the time. These worlds collide even further during the thrilling ‘Solidarity’, as the ballet dancers become surrounded by warring strikers and policemen in a whirling crescendo of commotion.
Yet such juxtaposition is also used to great effect to emphasise the theme of community in Billy Elliot. The children and adults frequently share the stage, inextricably fusing the political with the personal, as families struggle to make ends meet. A fine example of this is the opening of Act 2 which sees the locals gather for a shoestring Christmas celebration; the audience resume their seats while the characters sing, laugh and dance together in a tableau of nostalgic warmth.
The fact that Foster and co have once again harnessed the talents of the Curve Young Company to bulk out the group scenes adds an extra layer of authenticity to the communal quality of the piece. The jaunty medley of 80s festive hits soon gives way to the cracking satirical number, ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’ which combines family-friendly pantomime aesthetics with a biting undercurrent of bile. Subsequently the comedy descends into more heartfelt sentiment with Jackie Elliot’s folksy ode to his lost wife and lost livelihood, ‘Deep Into The Ground’. As such this scene traverses the gamut of human emotion and exquisitely encapsulates the thematic complexities of the show in a single ten-minute sequence; from the communal heart and resilience, to political fury and personal grief – all delivered with a deliciously traditional British timbre ranging from irony to pathos.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Sally Ann Triplett was born to play the acerbic yet maternal Mrs Wilkinson, and she relishes every exasperated rebuke levelled towards her gaggle of giggling dancers and has a ball with the Chicago-inspired choreography for ‘Shine’. Joe Caffrey’s earthy portrayal of Billy’s Dad, Jackie Elliot, grounds the show in a realism that makes the audience care for the family and mining community. Ethan Shimwell shines as Billy’s best friend, Michael, displaying natural comic timing and infectious enthusiasm.
And finally, Alfie Napolitano gives the performance of his life as young Billy. He captivates the audience from the get-go, but it’s his performance of ‘Electricity’ that especially wows; his grasp of the choreography is superb, as expected, but it is in the small emotional nuances that Napolitano really tugs at the heartstrings – for example, the brief pause and glance towards his Dad before taking his final series of pirouettes – the performance elicited a rare and deserved mid-show standing ovation.
Curve has created a production which affords Billy Elliot both the immense spectacle and touching intimacy it deserves. The image of Billy dancing alone, dwarfed upon the vast metallic tangle of the stage, is unexpectedly moving, while the group numbers involving the miners singing for their lives are rousing yet prophetic in their ominousness. Foster and co have injected the musical with new vitality and far-reaching impact that will affect young and old alike. The revival comes at a time in history where Britain faces a similar state of economic and political crisis, and it admirably demonstrates the capacity of the arts to truthfully reflect the cultural climate while transcending social, physical, and linguistic boundaries to express both individual and collective anger, grief and joy.
Billy Elliot plays at Curve until 20thAugust 2022.
The cast of Billy Elliot
Credit: Marc Brenner