Edinburgh Playhouse - until 22 October 2016 - then touring
Reviewer: Martin Gray
Five stars and ten tissues as the smash hit musical of a working class boy’s battle to do ballet comes to the Playhouse.
We Love to Boogie
, a standout sequence from the film version of Billy Elliot
, isn’t in the musical version of Lee Hall’s story of a miner’s son for whom ballet offers a chance to escape a dying community. You probably won’t miss it, though. This version has something better – a clutch of original songs with lyrics by Hall and music by Sir Elton John, perfectly pitched and placed to move the action forward, reveal character or simply relieve a bit of tension.
And there’s tension aplenty, around the needs of the individual and those of the community, as a County Durham village is gradually torn apart during the Miners’ Strike of 1984. The story opens just as Margaret Thatcher declares war on Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers. Young Billy is being raised by his widowed dad Jackie in a home also shared with big brother Tony and their grandma.
Billy is dragged along to boxing class every Saturday and hates it, but one day he’s still around when the next class fills the community hall. A bunch of soppy girls doing ballet. And he is spellbound.
Soon he’s skipping boxing to give his 50p to tough teacher Mrs Wilkinson, and both parties are surprised to find he has natural talent. But when the truth comes out about Billy’s weekend habits, his dad is furious, despite his son’s protest that ‘it’s not just puffs that do ballet, look at Wayne Sleep’.
Jackie bans Billy from further classes, but he sneaks out for private lessons after school, and four months on Mrs Wilkinson encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School. Meanwhile, the adults are growing ever more desperate as relief and savings run out, and Thatcher’s police bully boys tighten their grip.
Annette McLaughlin (Mrs Wilkinson) and Ballet Girls. Photo Alastair Muir
Chances are, you know the story – the Jamie Bell/Julie Walters film was a big hit back in 2000. But if you’ve not seen this show, you’ve only had the tale in 2D. Because the songs, the choreography, the thrillingly intense staging, pierces the heart.
Oh yes, I cried. Again and again. Hall recaptures a dark time with insight and a fine ear for dialogue. He cuts to the poignant core of his characters: the proud single dad; the young radical; the teacher who won’t accept that people have to live down to expectations and, most of all, the ordinary young boy finding the extraordinary within him.
Lewis Smallman – one of four actors on rotation as Billy for the month-long Edinburgh run – is pretty extraordinary himself. He’s hugely comfortable among the powerhouse adult cast, not just holding his own but owning the stage.
Even sitting quietly at the side of a scene, you can’t help watching to see what he does; mostly, he keeps Billy’s body language contained, small, but when he has a chance to dance, the character truly lives.
spare me the stage school toffs
He gives Billy bags of charm without making him the perfect child, he can do tap as well as ballet, stuns with his acrobatic flips, sings and – thank God and spare me the stage school toffs – does a pretty decent Co Durham accent.
Scott Garnham (Tony), Martin Walsh (Dad) and Adam Abbou (Billy). Photo: Alastair Muir
Smallman captures Billy’s fury and frustration brilliantly in Angry Dance,
aided by Ian MacNeil’s dramatic set, Rick Fisher’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound designs. And when Billy’s big number, Electricity
, comes, pocket dynamo Smallman earns an ovation that lasts about two minutes.
Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson also handles the dialect well. She has a heck of a singing voice, dances like a dream and conveys the rough-hewn warmth the role demands. When the motherless Billy drops his rufty tufty guard and hugs her, it’s lovely.
As Jackie, Martin Walsh runs the gamut of emotions from outrage to shame, pride to goofiness and nails them all, Scott Garnham’s Tony is touching, Daniel Page’s prancing pianist Mr Braithwaite a hoot and Andrea Miller has a ball with Grandma’s hard-centred ‘tribute’ to her late husband, Grandma’s Song.
This last number features some of the best choreography in a show full of dazzling sequences by Peter Darling, as shadowy suitors from the past slink across the stage, pausing occasionally to dance with the old lady. It’s sexy and tender, menacing and haunting.
Other highlights include Expressing Yourself
, as Billy and crossdressing pal Michael get some unusual dancing partners; the wittily grim Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,
anthemic Once We Were Kings
, and rallying cry for miners, police and small ballet dancers, Solidarity
And then there’s an extract from Swan Lake
, as Billy dances with an older version of himself, on a fog-shrouded stage. Seeing boy and man interpret the same moves, their very different physiques informing the results, is beautiful.
The only off-note is the addition of a harness to let young Billy fly – Smallman and Luke Cinque-White interacting on the ground is special, but Peter Pan-style special effects actually take away from the magic.
Still, it’s just one unfortunate decision in a show which is a joy from beginning to end; director Stephen Daldry’s production has won awards aplenty and it’s set to win even more hearts in its capital stay.
Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Tuesday 20 September – Saturday 22 October 2016.
Daily, not Sun: 7.30pm. Matinees Thurs & Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and booking details: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/billy-elliot/edinburgh-playhouse/
Tour Website: billyelliotthemusical.com
The Original Cast Recording and a DVD of the stage show are available on Amazon. Click on the images below to buy.
Billy Elliot the Musical on tour:
20 Sept – 22 Oct 2016
0844 871 3014
25 Oct – 26 Nov 2016
0844 871 3012
29 Nov 2016 – 28 Jan 2017
0844 871 3019
07 Feb – 4 Mar 2017
The Mayflower Theatre
07 Mar – 29 April 2017
0844 338 5000