The award-winning Billy Elliot The Musical danced its way into Milton Keynes Theatre this week although the touring stage production of what was a blockbuster 2000 film left some parents upset by the amount of on-stage swearing.
OK the show is set against a backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain and the political unrest and anger that led to the year-long miner’s strike in the North East.
With the focus on County Durham and Easington Colliery in particular, amid the frustration and emotion of that dreadful strike, we learn of young Billy Elliot, a motherless lad who is forced to attend a boxing gym by his father Jackie to ‘toughen up’… but when the wee lad accidentally stumbles into Mrs Wilkinson’s ballet class, his life suddenly changes forever!
Having picked up so many Tony and Olivier Awards since the show transferred from the big screen to the stage around ten years ago, I originally went to see it in the West End shortly after its opening and was dazzled by the performance and athleticism of the young dancers.
I’d forgotten about Elton John’s musical score which replaced Marc Bolan’s catchy ‘I Love to Boogie, Jitterbug Boogie’. The late T Rex front man’s classic number is easily recalled when Jamie Bell, as young Billy, and Julie Walters as Mrs Wilkinson, cavorted around the dance floor in director Stephen Daldry’s film.
But this touring production is far better than the film and, a decade on, it eclipses the original stage show, for Peter Darling’s brilliant choreography – which involves the whole cast – and Ian MacNeil’s imaginative and clever set design is only matched by the performance of young Billy, played last night by 12-year-old Haydn May.
The song, Solidarity, summed up the village folk’s feelings as the miners declared their strike official while the arrival of the police only went on to antagonise the situation. With the riot shields rattling and the sound effect volume increased, there was a clever choreography tap sequence as the two factions swapped police and miners’ helmets.
Billy’s dad Jackie Elliot (Martin Walsh) declared that no lad of his would become a ballet dancer after spotting Billy attending Mrs Wilkinson’s class, however the teacher – played by Anna-Jane Casey – gives as good as she gets when it came to defending her pupils with some equally ripe language.
There are so many highlights in this show but when Billy and his friend Michael (played by another 12-year-old, Henry Farmer), dress up with items from his sister’s wardrobe, they obviously enjoy the experience.
Then watching the piano-playing Mr Braithwaite (Daniel Page) begin to strip off and dance – including doing the splits twice! – in the ballet studio with Billy and Mrs Wilkinson is a real hoot, being equally matched as tough guy boxing trainer George (Leo Atkin) pulls on a tutu... it’s all good fun.
Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie (Italia Ross, 11) is keen on Billy but it’s dancing first as far as he’s concerned while another highlight is the lad’s wonderful dance sequence and high wire performance along with his older self (Luke Cinque-White) against Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake soundtrack.
Meanwhile some of the first act comedy comes from grandma (Andrea Miller) who likes to hide pasties around the house in unusual places and then can’t remember where they are. Then there’s the arrival of a giant Margaret Thatcher balloon with the cast dressing in ‘Iron Lady’ masks… that really did bring howls of laughter from the packed audience.
There is also some physical action as Billy’s brother Tony Elliot (Scott Garnham) and his dad come to blows when Mr Elliot breaks the strike and attempts to go back down the pit in the hope of paying for Billy’s upcoming trip to London and his Royal Ballet School audition.
There are also several tear jerk moments which really pull at the heartstrings – especially when Billy imagines his late mother (Nikki Gerrard) appearing – while these are followed by moments of hysterical laughter.
There are some clever and passionate lyrics from the book’s author Lee Hall which depict the struggle that the striking miners endured in those dark days, the show itself dealing brilliantly with a really serious part of Britain’s recent history.
Billy Elliot really exposes the exploitation of the working classes and the mistrust of Thatcher’s Tory government, the subject being cleverly dealt with in hard-hitting fashion.
Under musical director Patrick Hurley, the nine musicians keep the numbers coming but I must confess that apart from ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Electricity’, I’d have a job remembering another single Elton John tune which is unusual for me when attending a musical.
It is, however, a great piece of theatre and it plays Milton Keynes Theatre for three hours (less a 20-minute interval) until Saturday, June 17 at 7.30pm each evening with matinees at 2.30pm on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Tickets are on sale from the box office or on 0844 871 7652 (calls are 7p per minute and booking fees apply) or at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes