Sunday, 31 January 2016

'Billy Elliot the Musical' at Victoria Palace

Last week I finally saw 'Billy Elliot the Musical' at the Victoria Palace, a theatre I walk past most week days on my way to Victoria Station. It's been on there forever and it's quite surprising that I've never been in there - when I say forever I mean 11 years. All of the buildings around the theatre have been knocked down for a new development but it's still standing there, alone. The show continues in April when it finally closes so it's a case of see it or miss it.

Billy is growing up in Easington in County Durham, a small pit village during the miners strike in 1984 and his dad and older brother are both out on strike. Billy's mam has died but his grandma lives with them. He goes to boxing lessons in the village hall every Saturday morning but he'd rather be doing something else and then he accidentally gets involved in the ballet class that happens after the boxing and he gets hooked on dancing. That becomes his way out of his humdrum life with a future of going down the mines like the rest of the men in his family.

His dancing teacher gets him an audition on Newcastle for the Royal Ballet School but he misses his appointment when his family find out about it and he's banned from dancing. But he can't help it, he's a dancer so he must dance. His dad relents and even breaks the strike to get the money to take Billy to London for the audition and there's an emotional scene when his brother persuades his dad not to break the strike since they'll find the money another way. They go to London and Billy auditions, both him and his dad feeling very out of place. Back home they wait for the letter and Billy gets in just as the miners lose the strike and have to return to work. But Billy packs his case to head off to a new life as a dancer. And then there's the grand finale with the whole cast doing an elaborate dance number wearing tutus.

If you've seen the film then all of that will familiar. Where the musical differs is with all the new scenes such as the big song and dance number when the grandma reminisces about her youth with her long-dead husband or the dream where the young Billy dances with his older self. It's also a bit more political than the film with references to communitues dying if the mines close and a Christmas sequence during the strike with a giant Maggie Thatcher puppet a la Spitting Images with Michael Heseltine in a box. There's enough familiar territory to feel comfortable but the new scenes help to make it work as a stage musical.

The adult leads were Ruthie Henshall as the dance teacher and Deka Walmsley as the dad but neither really impressed. The sound wasn't too good and they were sometimes almost drowned out by the music. It felt like going through the numbers rather than inspired acting bringing characters to life. The real star of the show is the lad who plays Billy and when we were there that was Euan Garrett putting his all into the dance and the drama and deservedly got a big round of applause at the end. The energy and stamina needed for the Billy role is incredible and it was nice to see from the programme that some of the past Billy's over the last 11 years have gone on to bigger things.

I really loved the show and am very pleased to have finally seen it - there's enough of the film in there to make it familiar but sufficient new scenes to keep you guessing. There's the whole nostalgia bit with the 80s and the miners strike and the miners lodge banners but the hope and dreams shine through and make it look to the future. The kids in it - especially Euan - were great and deserve all the credit they get. We don't see Billy go on to become the Swan but I can live with that. It's going on tour so if you get the chance to see it then do so for a great night out - you might've seen the film but you haven't seen this show.

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