Opening with black and white footage of the UK in 1984, with clips of the nationalisation of the coal industry and the ensuing miner’s strike in an attempt to prevent colliery closures, sets the stage for Billy Elliot’s return to Sydney 12 years after its last visit. Based on the modern classic film, class tensions, masculinity and family obligations come together with as much energy as its opening 14 years ago on the West End.
With book and lyrics by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, both original creators of the 2000 films, stage presence is heightened by Elton John’s music, which plays against the story of a 12 year old boy who switches his father’s want for him to do boxing with his own undiscovered dream to be a ballet dancer despite the financial difficulties his family faces and the sexist views of his father and brother.
It’s a very poignant story, still as relevant as it was when it first premiered, particularly as young boys like Prince George are still bullied on television for interest in ballet lessons and a love of dance. Its themes are powerful – both that of the class warfare of the time under Margaret Thatcher as well as the familial tensions of this masculine family. The musical shows the realism of the world at the time, the hatred between the police and miners, the opinion of the downtrodden working class and the social impact this has on the community.
But this is entirely contrasted to the fun performances and flashiness of Billy’s dancing and the antics of his cross-dressing friend Michael. There is optimism in the form of Billy’s dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson’s admiration of Billy’s talent who pushes him to do more, and fights against the intolerance of the community. Another funny moment is the mockery of Thatcher at a Christmas celebration in Act 2 that is brilliant comedy but also inherently dark in its message.
On the music side, I expected more from John’s music. It’s simple and pop fuelled, but lacks the emotional deft that the original film had. The seminal ‘Electricity’ doesn’t take off and it’s much easier to appreciate the choreography and staging over the music. The closing moment of Act 1 has a brilliant tap solo that brings down the house with more sentimentality than any of the songs.
The cast are generally solid. Jamie Rogers, one of our boys playing the role of Billy, dances extremely well and you can feel his emotion during the key moments of the show. Acting left something to be desired at times, but no doubt he will ease into the role post-Opening Night. Kelly Abbey is superb as Mrs Wilkinson, with some key comedic lines and showing her vulnerabilities at time. You can feel the simmering emotion beneath the exterior and gravitas the show needs. Justin Smith, who originally played Billy’s brother Tony in the original Australian production, returns as his family and really brings the show home in his exploration of emotion and eventual embracing of Billy’s aspiration. His solo at the Christmas party is a tearjerker and one of the touching moments of the play. All supporting characters are also strong and work well with the source material.
To critique the original musical, Hall and Daldry drop the ball when taking the film to the stage, downplaying more heartbreaking moment and Disney-fying some moments that were integral to the original. Michael, played by James Sonnemann, is the cross-dressing best friend of Billy and is a bit of a running joke through the show, but we don’t really see a great deal of his characterisation or exploration of who he is beyond his hobby. There are also scenes that rely too much on broad, physical humour that could have been replaced with sharper dialogue, but alas, none of this is the fault of this production by the source material.
The show rings true as when the original film was released. Inequality is growing across the world and the working class continue to be misunderstood and their problems misheard. It’s also a story about tolerance and changing social norms, another real issue facing many communities that may be all too close to home for Australia a few years after the Yes vote. It’s a moving show with human emotion abound that is uplifting and enjoyable for a night out.
It’s a slick and clean production of a classic that has raw emotions and strong storytelling. It stands out for its heart-warming story and I’m excited for a new generation of viewers to learn about this impactful story. This is exactly what art should do.
Elton John’s music isn’t as memorable as some of his hits, with relatively simple parts. It supports the story rather than doing it over the top, but isn’t that part of what being a musical is?
Originally published on Back Row, 24 October 2019.