Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake has touched a nerve with audiences. It startles them by daring to look at the effect of poverty on individuals, as a result of extreme cuts to benefits. Even though the stage version of Billy Elliot is a musical, it has the same effect. You stare into the faces of people in a Newcastle mining community who are angry at the pit closures but, more importantly, their fear is what stuns you into submission.
I have booked for a return visit in January
The reason why ‘Billy’ has become an even bigger on hit on stage than it was on film is obvious from the minute it begins. Stephen Daldry juxtaposes the plight of the miners and their families with the dreams and aspirations of our young protagonist – who chooses to ditch his boxing gloves in favour of ballet shoes, with songs that veer between fight and flight.
In a run-down community centre, Billy becomes the diamond in the rough for hard-nosed dance tutor Mrs Wilkinson, played with panache and grit by Annette McLaughlin. She sees his talent, and in a similar theme to Billy Casper’s Kestrel in Ken Loache's Kes, dance becomes the boy’s escape from the harsh reality outside.
Lee Hall’s stunning songs Solidarity and Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher contain a humourous edge to the anger, and each tune moves you with its sardonic edge. That is the USP of this show: in a world filled with ‘nice’ musicals, Billy Elliot is edgy, the characters speak like real people and this everyman appeal is what propels the production.
Elton John’s music provides the epic quality that the musical needs to reach out the back of the stalls and beyond. And the performers run with this, particularly Lewis Smallman who has talent to spare. This boy is athletic, yet delicate, bold yet humble and has stage presence to burn.
Local lad Samuel Torpey who plays Billy’s best friend, Michael is a genuine scene stealer and has none of the pretensions that you sometimes see from a young performer. He is a complete natural and covers every inch of the stage, with the comedic prowess of an actor three times his age.
Scott Garnham plays Billy’s older brother, and his performance has many layers. Beneath his aggression and anger, lies a deep seated sense of despair, as he knows the community is crumbling. This performer has been in many West End productions, and you can tell by the way he holds your attention constantly.
Peter Darling’s choreography is beautiful, moving and has a magical quality, as we watch Billy begin to realise his dreams are within reach. Martin Walsh as Billy’s father grounds the piece in reality, and steers it away from mawkishness with ease.
When Billy Elliot opened in the West End, many critics called it “the best British musical” they had seen. I’d go one step further, this is one of the best musicals period. It does something your standard show does not do; it makes you damn angry one minute and blub like a baby the next.
I have booked for a return visit in January. My advice, get a ticket pronto, as Billy Elliot is bloody brilliant!
Billy Elliot is at the Palace Theatre until 28 January.