Adelaide Festival Theatre, 2 January, 2020.
As a fan of the film Billy Elliot, I attended Billy Elliot the Musical with some trepidation. However, it’s easy to understand why this musical has won a swathe of awards since its premiere in 2005, last being seen here with seasons in Melbourne and Sydney in 2009. The adaptation was driven by Elton John, who was overcome with emotion on seeing the film, and features a new score by John, while retaining the original creatives: Stephen Daldry (direction); Lee Hall (book and lyrics); and Peter Darling (choreography). While sticking to the film’s plot closely, the musical develops its key themes — the urge to express oneself through dance, emotionally repressive masculinity and class conflict — in novel and compelling ways.
Surprisingly, the musical is more overtly political than the movie. Set during the 1984-85 miners’ strike in a northern English coal mining village, the story hinges on pubescent Billy Elliot’s discovery of ballet, but also paints a vivid picture of a community under threat. Billy’s dad and older brother Tony are members of the miners’ union, which is on strike in protest against imminent mine closures.
The show opens with black and white film footage of the post-war nationalization of the mining industry, and Prime Minister Thatcher’s subsequent announcement to close it down, whilst the powerful opening number, "Solidarity", shows the strikers and police facing off as girls from the local ballet school weave between them. The relationship between miners and police grows more antagonistic as the strike drags on: in the second act they are ominous in full riot gear, brandishing riot shields and wielding truncheons, as they chase the miners through the village. The brilliantly theatrical community Christmas party that opens the second act draws on traditional choral numbers, dialogue and puppetry to make it clear that the miners are fighting not just for their jobs, but for a way of life.
The tension between respecting the miners’ plight, and acknowledging that the traditions of masculinity they espouse is profoundly limiting, is at the heart of the show. Billy’s love of ballet, encouraged by his incorrigible teacher Mrs Wilkinson, is incomprehensible to the men in in his family who for generations have followed their fathers into the mines.
Four boys alternate in the role of Billy, and on this occasion Wade Neilsen was superb, singing strongly, acting with conviction, and dancing brilliantly in a number of styles from ballet, tap, contemporary and acrobatics, as well as mastering the difficult Northern accent. Lisa Sontag was terrific as Mrs Wilkinson, conveying her tough talking, cynical exterior as well as her warm-hearted investment in Billy’s future. The evolving relationship between the motherless Billy and his teacher gives rise to several moving scenes, such as the one in which Billy reads her a letter from his dead mother. As Mr Elliot, Justin Smith gave us a poignant portrayal of a single dad struggling to hold his family together, and Drew Livingston powerfully conveyed Tony’s frustrations and despair as well as his difficulty in understanding his little brother’s unconventional love of dance.
The use of a wide range of dance styles — ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary — is another deviation from the movie. Billy gets a sensational tap routine to express his frustrations in the first act, as well as a wonderful contemporary/jazz number in his Royal Ballet audition; Billy’s gran’s reminiscences of her youth, and her dead husband’s abuse, are brilliantly enacted by Fred Astaire look-alikes swirling her across the stage and disappearing through windows, and in a bravura performance by Hamish Monger, Billy’s best friend, the cross-dressing Michael, gets a wonderfully over-the-top tap number to assert the value of diversity. Of course, Billy’s struggle to master ballet technique, especially the pirouette, anchors the show, and there’s a beautiful classical duet with his older, more technically accomplished self, danced by Aaron Smyth, in which he gets to literally fly.
Billy Elliot the Musical is a triumph: Ian Macneil’s marvellous sliding set, the script, the music and Peter Darling’s terrifically varied choreography all come together to tell a story that is as relevant now as it was 20 years ago.
- MAGGIE TONKIN
'Billy Elliot' continues its Adelaide season until January 26, then moves to the Regent Theatre in Melbourne from February 20.
Pictured top: Wade Neilsen performing as Billy Elliot on opening night in Adelaide. Photo: JAMES D MORGAN