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Billy Elliot the Musical - Review

Updated on August 30, 2016
Marisa Wright profile image

Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.

5 stars for Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot is a musical you’ll remember for a long time, with unforgettable scenes that will keep popping back into your head – but they may not be the ones you’d expect. The moments I’ll remember most belong to the miners, especially the final chorus.

Of course there are some great scenes featuring Billy himself – but it’s the intertwining of the two stories, Billy’s and the miners’, that lift this musical head and shoulders above the movie version, or many other current musicals for that matter.

I would normally expect a musical to be more superficial and light-hearted than a straight film – but in this case, the opposite is true. The musical combines serious social commentary with the well-known story of the boy who realises his dream.

Be warned, if you’re a Brit who lived through the miners’ strike of the 1984, and you were a fan of Maggie Thatcher, you may find the sympathetic depiction of their struggle objectionable. But anyone else will find themselves empathising with a town threatened by the loss of their livelihood and their community.

The miners' story is wonderfully explained, starting with the black-and-white old movie news which opens the show. And it gives the adult actors, especially Billy’s brother Tony (played passionately in the Sydney production by Justin Smith), some meaty parts to get their teeth into.

Grandma's Song

In fact, all the supporting cast are very good and really get under the skin of their characters. Billy’s scatty old grandma is a treasure, especially her show-stopping song about her late husband, Billy’s grandad – whom she doesn’t exactly miss!

Another serious – and poignant - element of the plot is the character of Billy’s late mother, who appears to him occasionally to offer encouragement. I guarantee there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when his dance teacher read (actually, sang) a letter his mother wrote him before her death.

Billy

All four boys who play Billy in the Australian production (they have to take turns, due to regulations about children working) are terrific. To sing, dance, and act while maintaining what (to an Aussie kid) is a funny foreign accent at such a young age is a major achievement, and Billy is on the stage for a very large chunk of the show. If these kids are this good now, what will they be like when they’re grown up?

As you’d expect, Billy gets more opportunity to dance in the musical version than in the film, and more of it is ballet/contemporary (in the film, it annoyed me that the only time we really saw Billy in full flight, he was tap-dancing – yet we never saw him learn to tap!).

"Electricity"

Billy’s climactic song, “Electricity” gave me chills. I’d love to know where the lyricist got the words, because the song truly expresses how it feels to be a dancer:

“I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are

And at the same time something makes you whole ..."

In fact, there were plenty of good lyrics in the show, including many comic lines. The music is enjoyable and melodic, although I can’t say I came out of the theatre humming any catchy tunes.

Mrs Wilkinson

The only character which jarred for me was the ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (as it did in the film).

In both cases, the director chose an excellent character actor to fill this part, not a dancer, and both actresses have received praise for their performances. So I’m probably in a minority in feeling that’s a problem. But given the nature of the story, I’m sure there will be many dancers, ex-dancers and would-be dancers in the audience for Billy Elliot, and they’re likely to feel the same way I do.

No matter how old a person is, you can always tell if he or she was a dancer. Put on some music and you’ll notice a certain something in the way they move – even if they’re so old that all they can manage is to wave an arm or nod their head. It’s a natural rhythm, a sense that their body is instantly at home with the music.

Genevieve Lemon, who plays Mrs Wilkinson, doesn’t have that. She’s a good singer and plays her character well, but she’s clearly no dancer. And in a production where so much trouble has been taken to explore the characters, it means a big chunk of her character’s motivation is missing.

Mrs Wilkinson should be a dancer who could have had a dance career, but something – perhaps, like Billy, her social class, or money – meant that it never happened. That’s why she’s so ready to fight for Billy to have his chance. We should get a glimpse of that when she dances. I don’t mean she should be able to do high kicks or even proper ballet steps – but she should at least have been able to dance as well as the man who played piano for her classes, who was remarkably light on his feet for such a big beefy miner. It was easy to tell he’d tripped a few light fantastics in his day!

Billy Elliott - Language

They’re not kidding when they say Billy Elliot contains bad language! If you’ve lived in a community like Billy’s, you’ll know the F-word is so common it barely counts as swearing, so I understand why the writers have peppered it through the dialogue and lyrics so liberally for the sake of authenticity.

Personally, I think they could have toned it down, because it means some young people – as well as some adults – will miss out on seeing this wonderful musical because they object to bad language.

Instead, we got a woman who seemed uncomfortable with the simplest steps, which was a shame. As well as missing a chance to show her character, it meant the choreography for her dance routine with Billy and her accompanist had to be simplified to disguise her limitations, and it could have been a terrific number.

But that’s only a small niggle in what was otherwise a fabulous production. I’d rate it as “unmissable”!

*

All text copyright Marisa Wright.

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