BILLY ELLIOT
Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Opened 11 May, 2005
*****

Iím not sure that even writer Lee Hall realises what he may have achieved with the stage musical of his screenplay.  I think this might be the successor, a generation on, to Blood Brothers: a musical that combines entertainment and feelgood with a moving sense of social and class commitment to certain ideals.  That sounds off-puttingly earnest, but let me reassure you that the show is a big, plain-speaking, heart-warming hit.

If you havenít seen the movie (whereíve you been?), itís the story of the young son of a Durham miner. Billy wants to become a ballet dancer, but has to face both individual prejudices and the hardships of the 1984-5 minersí strike.  Hallís screenplay skilfully set the story of personal fulfilment against the background of community strife.  On stage, itís more evenly balanced, almost telling two parallel stories.

Itís become a play about change, about moving on from long-ingrained ways and assumptions. But thatís not by any means always the same as ďprogressĒ.  Sometimes, as with the destruction of the mining industry, itís malicious, callous and utterly devastating.  But sometimes Ė as with Billy showing that thereís life beyond the pit, and ballet isnít just for upper-class poofs Ė itís warm, welcome and affirming.

Of course, Lee Hall has the benefit of one or two skilled collaborators.  Stephen Daldry directed the film, but long before that he had a reputation for big, bold, impressive theatrical productions. He hasnít lost his touch.  Elton Johnís score contains a number of ďEltonicĒ chord changes, but thatís good as it doesnít sound like every other recent musical. It also ranges far beyond pop in its musical scope.

I must admit I wasnít sure for a lot of the show whether it was really working, or whether it was using the minersí strike as a quaint historical backdrop.  What convinced me was Act Twoís opening singalong number, a big, rousing belter that looks forward to Thatcherís death!  Itíll never play Broadway unless the dialogue is thoroughly sanitised. Even the kids are effing and blinding. But such defiance is something to relish.

Tim Healy and Haydn Gwynne shine as Billyís father and the no-nonsense ballet teacher who first oppose each other then join forces for the lad.  The three young leading roles Ė Billy, his cross-dressing friend Michael and the teacherís daughter Debbie Ė have a rota of three kids each to play them. The press nightís cast was outstanding.  Only once in a blue moon do I rave about a musical. Itís blue tonight.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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