In the current political climate, the big topic of the day is the UK’s decision to exit the European Union, i.e. “Brexit”. This has got people across the nation talking about what lies ahead for the future of UK. But not long ago, the bigger political debate of the time concerned the UK Miners’ Strike; the standoff between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Thatcher Government in the 1980s. Such is the backdrop to Billy Elliot the Musical, adapted from the 2000 film, which focuses in on a miner’s family whose son has a passion for ballet. The show is a terrific showcase of young talent and a testament to how musicals can grapple with gritty subject matter yet remain accessible to large audiences.
On the surface, one would be misled into thinking that this show is just about a boy who prefers to prance around in a tutu rather than pick up boxing gloves. Rather with thanks to the brilliant writing of Lee Hall and direction of Stephen Daldry, the musical has different interesting elements worth reflecting on. Firstly, there’s the harrowing political commentary on the events of the miners’ strike as it unfolded and the impact it had on communities across the North of England. Secondly, there is the inspiring message in how you should be brave in pursuing your passions even if the odds may be against you. The musical is also a love letter to dancing and how the gift of dance should be for all people in all corners of the world regardless of gender, class or age. The richness in what you can take away from this musical explains why it is so well loved and enjoyed a healthy eleven year run in the West End.
There’s no doubting that it is a large show: the cast is big; there are complex set changes and quick costume changes; there are multiple standout dance numbers and smoke machines and flashy lighting designs. The big production numbers include well-known songs such as ‘Electricity’ and ‘Expressing Yourself’ written by English singer-songwriter and musician, Elton John. Although I’m not typically a fan of big musicals, I found myself enjoying each number as it aided the storytelling to some degree rather than distracting from it. However I am curious what a scaled back production with a minimal set would look like.
One of my favourite numbers was ‘Solidarity’. The song depicts Billy’s experience in tackling the different technical movements in ballet and in parallel to this we see the heightening tensions of the miners’ strike. The choreography is clever in the way that it interweaves the two events to demonstrate how the conflict was an inescapable part of Billy’s reality and his childhood. The other aspect I found interesting was the strong bond between the miners and their talk of solidarity. Despite the changing times and the eventual outcome of the strike, the fundamental bond between the miners does not waver. It is a spirit which I feel is now long gone from our current labour market in a world of zero-hour contracts.
The entire ensemble was strong and delivered convincing performances of fairly foul-mouthed Northerners with an undeniable sense of working class pride. In particular I have to single out Haydn May’s performance as Billy Elliot. The leading role requires the ability to perform physically demanding dance routines, belting out ballads and portraying a character who is dealing with a whole host of issues which most young boys would have difficulty sympathising with. But Haydn was able to pull it off so masterfully and left me on my feet for the entirety of the finale. I was also impressed with Henry Farmer who was hilarious as Billy’s eccentric friend Michael. He clearly enjoyed himself while on stage and cheekily jeered on for an extended applause at the end of his big number. However I am curious how the child actors, after receiving so much attention at a young age, will handle the shock of staying away from the spotlight and routine once they inevitably move on.
Overall, I’m glad I had the chance to catch the touring company in Bristol and would definitely suggest that anyone who has the chance to see the touring production to do so too.
As always you can catch my On the Spot Review below: