Review: Billy Elliot The Musical, Victoria Palace

“What the hell’s wrong with expressing yourself”

Trip number three of my musicals extravaganza to Billy Elliot The Musical, a show that for whatever reason, I had no interest in going to and would never have booked for myself had it not been for this deal. I have never actually seen the film and so it was a brand new experience for me in every sense of the word, but it was strangely apt that I saw it on the day after the miners in Chile were rescued which also happened to be Margaret Thatcher’s birthday.

The other way in which this show pleased me was with its plot. As it turned out, this is another entry into the traditional dance film/show format of which I am much enamoured and which Flashdance reminded me of recently. With music by Elton John and lyrics and book by Lee Hall, the backdrop this time is the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s up in Country Durham where young Billy makes a journey of personal discovery as he trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes and attempts to follow his dream of getting into the Royal Ballet School in the face of huge strife in his family and the community around him.

No one was more surprised than me at how much I loved this show. It is full of a bright energy but also has real emotional depth: the portrayal of the miners’ strike is well done, making its point without being too heavy-handed, but in the depiction of Billy continuing to miss his mother and finding a substitute in the gruff Mrs Wilkinson, it absolutely melted my heart and I bawled my way through ‘The Letter (Mum’s Letter)’ a devastatingly simple song, without even knowing I was about to cry. I particularly liked the fact that the songs are spread throughout the show, there’s a point about halfway through the second half where you could almost forget we’re in a musical but that is because the story is being told so well and is utterly engaging.

Dean Charles Chapman was on as Billy and was simply astounding throughout, in what was a surprisingly demanding role. He has to take us on quite the journey from an uncertain young boy desperately missing his mother to a confident teenager able to see a future for himself as a fledgling top dancer and he does it with such a winning charm it is incredible to think he is only 12. He was vocally strong and had a great rapport with Genevieve Lemon’s superb Mrs Wilkinson as his dance teacher, but it was in his many dancing sequences that he really impressed. There’s so many of them and they are so long and yet each one was delivered with such aplomb whether it was tap with Michael, ballet with his older self or a mix of everything in the Act 1 closer.

Peter Darling’s choreography really is the making of this show, managing capture a range of moods and brilliantly weaving together the strands of the show as best shown in Solidarity which mixed a ballet lesson with a confrontation between the police and the miners. The aforementioned uplifting routine to Swan Lake where Billy dances with his older alter-ego (danced by Barnaby Meredith) is spine-tinglingly beautiful and Born To Boogie where Mrs Wilkinson and a startlingly limber Mr Braithwaite (the bearish Phil Snowden) come up with a routine for Billy in a sustained comic masterpiece.

Joe Massey’s Michael was brilliantly played, nicely comic but sensitively played in his cross-dressing antics and bright-voiced in his singing (though I did find it an odd directorial choice to have the show end on a slow falling curtain on Michael alone) and I also liked Emily Smith as Debbie. But there were no weak links throughout the ensemble which is all the more remarkable considering the possible permutations of the cast with multiples actors playing the three young parts and jaw-dropping to consider that there’s five young boys who can deliver the goods as Billy. So a long time coming for me, but I am so glad that I finally got round to seeing this show and have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending it to everyone, not least to see one of the cutest little roles in the world in Small Boy.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval and extended dance finale)
Programme cost: £5 (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a programme so aggressively marketed!)
Booking until 9th April 2011 at the moment and info about Billy Elliot matinee tickets available here
Note: strobe lighting, smoking, smoke effects and bad language

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