In a time when the people of the small town of Port Talbot are fighting to save their most prominent industry in the 21st century, their livelihoods and even their identities, the Welsh premiere of Billy Elliot: The Musical may well strike an all too familiar chord. The story has even deeper resonances with the plight of the Welsh miners of the mid 1980s, when a UK-wide dispute took place against Margaret Thatcher’s government’s proposals for pit closures and reduced subsidies for the nationalized mining industry. The most notable areas affected included Scotland, Lancashire, Wales and, Billy Elliot’s home region, the north-east of England.
Audiences may well be familiar with Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film Billy Elliot, which the musical is firmly based on; and in essence the story stays pretty much the same. The musical also directed by Daldry, like its cinematic predecessor, tells the story of 11-year-old Billy, a boy from the village of Easington in the north-east of England. He lives with his father, a miner, his older brother, a miner, and his senile grandma (not a miner). We quickly learn that Billy’s mother has passed away in recent years and throughout the show it becomes clear how this has affected the whole Elliot family.
Billy’s new passion for, and subsequent triumph in, dance nurtured by Mrs. Wilkinson, the local ballet teacher, becomes the central narrative and is, almost jarringly at times, juxtaposed with the ruination of the pit community around him. It is the kernel of hope that Billy evokes within his community, and the clashing of narratives between this hope and the fear that plagues the town that makes this musical one of the grittiest and gripping nights of entertainment going.
The regional vernacular in the music (Elton John) and lyrics (Lee Hall) take away the potentially superficial nature of this being ‘just another musical’ and give it an integrity that serves the people it seeks to represent. However, it is Peter Darling’s choreography that embodies the mood (or moods) within the story to its core; from the arrogance of the police officers bragging about the overtime cash they are making policing the picket lines, to the impassioned miners desperately trying to sneer back at them. Going from the spectacular ‘Expressing Yourself’, where Michael (Elliot Stiff) teaches Billy (Lewis Smallman) that there is nothing wrong with ‘being who you want to be’ to the beautiful ballet sequence between Billy and his older self (Luke Cinque-White) it is clear that Peter Darling was totally in sync with Daldry’s vision.
The cast on the night does not disappoint at all in terms of song and dance, with particular mention going to the ensemble – as a whole they were never less than sublime. The acting at times leaves a little to be desired I’m afraid with no one entirely coming to terms with the north-eastern lilt – I would go as far to say that Scott Garnham as Tony perhaps even being the wrong choice on this occasion (although he has a better second Act than first). Martin Walsh as Billy’s Dad starts off weak but then comes very much into his own just a couple of scenes in where losing his temper seems to energise him to the end of the show (leading me to suspect this initial weakness is a once off). Annette McLauglin’s Mrs. Wilkinson was very good in the main, showing a natural comic timing which befits the role. Despite being ‘smaller roles’, Mr. Braithwaite (Daniel Page) and Debbie (Evie Martin) spark a little bit of magic into the scenes of the ballet classes – the players were both incredible. Elliot Stiff as Michael impresses, particularly with his big number ‘Expressing Yourself’. Lewis Smallman as Billy, inevitably, provides the most memorable moments. His poise and grace in singing the more emotional moments of the night, such as ‘The Letter’ are beautifully executed. It is his dancing in ‘Electricity’, however, that provides the greatest moment for me and had me grinning all the way home – it was simply sublime.
People of Cardiff, I urge you not to miss what is one of the best, most intelligent British musicals that there is – it is vulnerable, funny and heart wrenching for a multitude of reasons. Just go!!!
Universal Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions
Wales Millennium Centre until July 16th