Quick Change Review: Billy Elliot - The Musical
The musical about the bairn who wants to dance is an absolute knockout!
In a small mining town in the mid 80s, things are bleak. Parents scrape together 50p’s to send their boys to sub-par boxing lessons and their girls to dance ballet. A year in to the miners’ strike, frustrations are turning to upset and anxiety about the future of their community at the helm of the infamous Maggie Thatcher.
This Made at Curve production tells the story of Billy Elliot - a wee lad who swaps his class down the village hall – with grit, determination and respect that channels working class spirit. Under the direction of modern visionary Nikolai Foster the production is as dimensional as the characters we grow to adore.
These of course, include, potty mouthed Geordie kids (Team Dennis) that swagger with short-sighted ballsy attitude to disguise that they’re really sharp as a tack about the looming stark reality. It's heartbreaking to experience this through a child's eyes, and what makes Prem Masani’s Michael so joyous. His ‘Expressing Yourself’ is positively feverish fun with expert comedic timing that mixes salt and sugar.
Michael Taylor’s set makes the most of the vast stage. Scaffolding sits lowly in the background whilst industrial multi-storey frames are ascended to reveal distinct locations: the Elliot family kitchen, Billy’s bedroom and the loos.
Within these walls, life resumes. Grandma (a devilishly charming Rachel Izen) searches for mouldy pasties on the landing and sits watchfully at the kitchen table overseeing the action, 80s clothing becomes more muted fading from neon pinks to washed out denim, but rigid family packs continue to desperately seek safety in numbers.
Throughout, four cautionary yellow metal grid fences are pushed and pulled to represent the mounting division and barriers in County Durham and its families.
Elton John’s music paired with Lee Hall’s book and lyrics are as powerful as ever. ‘Solidarity’ is a rousing anthem for standing up for what you believe in. Choreographer Lucy Hind gives the number room to explode. She fills the stage with a scarf waving gaggle of girls welcoming the novelty of a boy to their group, boxing boys in the shadow of their father’s expectations, and the men who struggle to fill their expected duties to provide for their family; sectioned off in pens, tension mounts and friction burns.
Punches are choreographed as expertly as the pirouettes.
Ben Cracknell’s lighting fills the stage as if it were a stadium. Colliding in devastating passion with Adam Fisher’s effective sound design of terror-filled screams and cries, the two create a rock concert of mounting emotion.
Of which, Billy (Jaden Shentall-Lee) is the greatest star. Giving a relentless performance, Shentall-Lee is a force to be reckoned with powered with ‘Electricity’. His Billy is strong as steel and hella mighty, but crucially, with the naïve innocence of a young child. Dream-like unions with his older self and his mother (Jessica Daley) are that of vulnerability and calm vulnerability.
This is elevated in shared scenes of triumph with his teacher, the cig smoking, no shit taking, Mrs Wilkinson (Sally Ann Tripplett), who executes her role as confidant as sharply as her one-liners. Joe Caffrey’s portrayal of Jackie Elliott is moving, as his tough shell exterior cracks and softens with support for his son (‘Deep Into The Ground’).
Curve’s Billy Elliot – The Musical is a devil for the detail. Foster has taken a much-loved and devastating story and told it through the eyes of many, considering those who were affected and continue to be.