Michael Cox reviews 'a wonderfully staged musical that works a treat'.
The fact it’s taken over ten years for the West End production of Billy Elliot to reach the Scottish stage is frankly asinine. This is a production that has toured the world over, and there have been a few amateur productions in Scotland already. Heck, even the video recording of the production has been readily available for years.
Belatedly as it is, the professional production still makes a very welcome entrance: it is a wonderfully staged musical that works a treat.
For those who haven’t seen the film it’s based on, the story is set during the 1984 Miners Strike in a North-East English town. Billy’s life is full of strife: his mother has died, his gran shows signs of dementia and both his father and brother are in the thick of the strike. His only escape is to take the 50p his father gives him for boxing lessons and instead go to Mrs Wilkinson’s ballet class. Billy’s a natural, and he shows great promise, promise that might see him accepted into a top dance school—if he’s able to convince his family to give him the chance.
Rather than using the film’s soundtrack (mostly T-Rex tunes), original music is used, with writer Lee Hall writing the lyrics and Elton John composing. These original songs, however, are actually the production’s weakest aspect: most are either forgettable ditties or oversentimental numbers that practically dare the audience not to cry. Hall has adapted his own screenplay into the book, expanding the scope of the film with some success—the Strike is much more upfront and centre and the community are given more prominence, but at over three hours it is just too long and muddled, and the ending here is a pale comparison to the emotional wallop the film gives.
However, the production has several aces: director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling. Both worked on the film so have an intimate familiarity with the story and characters, but rather than rehashing the film on stage they have created a thoroughly theatrical experience. Hall and John’s songs may be inconsistent, but Daldry and Darling’s staging is nothing short of phenomenal. The fluidity of the text-heavy scenes is juxtaposed with complicated choreography throughout the musical numbers, making for a visually thrilling production.
And the performances are uniformly great. The roles of Billy and pal Michael are shared between four performers apiece; on the night of press, Lewis Smallman played Billy and Elliot Stiff was Michael, and both were terrific. Most of the excellent ensemble do what they can with shell characters, with Scott Garnham and Andrea Miller standing out as Billy’s older brother and grandmother. Both characters are flimsy caricatures, but Garnham and Miller manage to slip enough humanity into their roles to make them interesting.
But it’s the two lead adults who are both stellar. Annette McLaughlin is wonderful as Mrs Wilkinson, a jaded middle-aged woman who finds inspiration within herself when given the chance to help Billy. Martin Walsh really shines as Billy’s father, a hard man who slowly realises the potential his younger son has and the emotional toil it might cost his family to see it fulfilled.
All of which culminates into a great evening out. It might be overly sentimental and simplistic in its politics, but with such wonderful performances and staging, it’s hard not to get swept up into its emotional embrace.
Billy Elliot—the Musical is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until October 22 before continuing its tour.