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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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    • profile image

      Julia 

      6 years ago

      Im 13 and I absolutely loved Billy Elliot. I saw it in New York.They do say f**k, shit, hell, tosser, wanker, etc. but the language really just added to the show and it was nothing I haven't heard before. The music was wonderful and I would love I go see it again.

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      7 years ago from Sydney

      What a good idea, Jeff! I think the swear words are there because the writers are trying to create a realistic view of the "rough and ready" English working class atmosphere, so I can understand they'd be reluctant to sanitise the whole thing.

      However, a 'swear-free' children's version at matinees would be an excellent idea.

    • profile image

      jeff 

      7 years ago

      Oh, how I would love to take my son to this show as he is a focused 7 yr old gymnast/dancer...

      Why would these producers/writers/directors,choreographers, and Sir Elton John himself (Big Fan Here!) appear to be so far removed from a large population that abhores swearing in front of their children.

      They have obviously done a wonderful job w the show but to think they cannot execute a solution to parents who don't use the F and S word is unfortunate.

      Why not something simple like "no swearing" versions of the show at the matinees?

      Also, if anyone knows this story why would they not click a few times to learn about the language content in the show before buying tickets for their children?

      I had my AMEX ready to go at around $100 per ticket but wanted to find out if words like the F word would be in the show.

      It took me about 2 minutes to (apparently) uncover that there is some swearing. I look forward to the show as I may still without my son. If those of you with influence can move on my suggestion to have a matinee or two of this show without swearing I will buy and pay you the same $200 on top of my ticket prices...In other words, I would pay twice as much for a version without the F and S word.

    • profile image

      Aleatha 

      7 years ago

      Well, I thought the gay/crossdressing subplot was brilliant. It's so easy and comfortable for us to watch a show and judge the community as bigots and backward, because they can't accept a boy taking ballet. It's not so comfortable when you juxtapose that with our own prejudices. It was holding up a mirror, and I thought it was very strong.

    • profile image

      ARhea 

      7 years ago

      The tap in the film bothered me too! I may just be an old woman computer programmer now, but I certainly know that ballet lessons don't automatically translate into knowledge of tap! Ok, I took ballet, tap & modern jazz in college, but I don't think you have to be a dancer to realize that tap skills are very different. And it bothered me that his shoes sounded like they had taps on them. Boy, I sure would love to see the live show.

    • profile image

      James B 

      7 years ago

      I took two seven year olds and have to admit I do regret and feel more than a little guilty. I had no idea they would be exposed to such a lot of bad language. OK so they wanted to keep it "authentic" but then I think they should simply make it VERY clear that the show is not appropriate for young children. I guess they feel that because there are very young children swearing in the show that they feel its fine that very young children go to see the show. Shame

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      7 years ago from Sydney

      Thanks Margaret for the feedback on the London production. How anyone can mount a production based on dance and not get good dancers, beats me.

      Sounds like the music was cranked up way too loud - I notice this is becoming a problem in a lot of musicals, do the producers think we're all deaf? It's a pity especially for Billy Elliott, because the lyrics are so important.

      The children using rude words isn't meant to be funny, just real - but I can understand some people will be alienated by the bad language. That's why I mentioned it in the review.

      I also disliked the gay/cross dressing sub-plot for Michael, it seemed unnecessary, but it's a small part of the show.

    • profile image

      Margaret Smyth 

      7 years ago

      Just been to see "Billy Elliott" in London and HATED it. Hated the language - dont think young children using the words "tosser" and "wanker" are funny no matter now "Authentic" it is. Also hated the scene of the young boy Michael as a cross dresser, hated the young girls sitting on the laps of the miners at the end of one song, hated the feeling that everyone in cast was shouting at me, hated that I could not hear the song lyrics through the loud music, thought the dancing was mediocre at best, not a good show overall. Had seen "Blood Brothers" the night before.........director and producer take some notes as to how it should be done

    • balletomanehk profile image

      balletomanehk 

      10 years ago

      Thanks for this wonderful review. I haven't seen the musical but I agree with you that in the film version the person playing the teacher should have been a real dancer. I also agree with you about the tap dancing part. It is a bit incongruent.

      The video of "Electricity" is awesome! This boy has so much talent in both singing and dancing. There is no limit as to how far he can go in the future.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      Mike your 8 year old probably uses that language in the playground - just not in front of her parents!

    • profile image

      Mike 

      10 years ago

      What a shame, such a wonderful experience for my 8 year old daughter it would have been, as she lives for dancing. We bought the tickets as a christmas present for her, but the language is a showstopper for us. We won't be going. Authenticity? What a load of garbage.

    • Caregiver-007 profile image

      Margaret Hampton 

      10 years ago from Florida

      Ah, the words in "Electricity." I can not think of a better way to express the feeling of dancing. Throughout my private life, just letting myself dance to music (or music in my head) has been one of the best outlets of my emotions, and expressions of joy and hope, I couldn't help dancing everywhere as a pre-schooler even, before my years of ballet...

      I am one of those, though, who must miss this sterling show because of the foul language. The language we hear rings in our ears over and over, and sometimes erupts without warning from our mouths. (How embarrassing!) So we are warned in the Bible effectively to guard the eye-gate and ear-gate... very practical warnings! Guard what goes into our bodies, not just the food we eat and air we breathe... And with impressionable youth, we certainly don't need to feed the awful trend toward coarseness and lewdness in society (which is so negative, degrading, disgusting), instead of beauty, honor, cleanliness (which uplifts and draws instead of repels). There's too much ugliness to have to deal with without adding to it. So that's my aside on the language issue. (Even though I understand the "reality" nature of it.)

      Your review makes me very sorry to miss the poignant moments (such as the mother's moving letter) and human drama, the joy of triumph, and the artistic skills of any exceptional young actor. You have a skill. This is one of the best written reviews I have seen!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Nice review, Marisa. I'm not a prude, but I think foul language detracts from a play, a book or a movie.

    • MM Del Rosario profile image

      MM Del Rosario 

      10 years ago from NSW, Australia

      Hi Marisa,

      This is what I need, my daughter is asking me if we could see Billy Elliot this school holidays, I think this hub has convince me to get a ticket....... Well done.

      We have seen Miss Saigon and it has coarse language too. Looking forward to see Billy Elliot.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for this great review Marissa. I hear that it may tour to Perth - so hear's hoping otherwise we will have to get a cheap flight over

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