There’s been a buzz of excitement since the Palace Theatre announced that their present for theatre-goers this Christmas was going to be hit show Billy Elliot. The West End musical has been wowing audiences since it opened over 10 years ago and now the first UK and Ireland tour means more people get to enjoy it without having to travel to London for the pleasure.
Set in the turbulent time of the North East Miner’s strike of 1984-85 Billy Elliot throws light on the hardships faced by a community and their battle against the threat of unemployment. It’s a gritty show which, although based on a fictional story, charts the real-life history of a bleak time in our society and one that many will never forget. Working class school boy Billy is caught up in the heart of the strike action as his staunch socialist family are wrapped up fighting the good fight and are hell bent on him growing up to be just the same. But when 12 year old Billy stumbles across a local ballet class after one of his compulsory ‘lads’ boxing sessions he soon trades in punching for pirouettes and discovers he has a special talent.
Rousing opening number The Stars Look Down sets the tone for what is a mesmerising show full of cleverly staged scenes from director Stephen Daltry. The music in the show has been created by Elton John, who was so moved after seeing the film of Billy Elliot back in 2000, jumped at the chance when asked to help turn the box-office hit into a musical. Along with the original writer of the film Lee Hall, he has created songs packed full of emotion such as Solidarity, The Letter and Electricity –all of which capture the passion of a community struggling to survive and dreaming of a brighter future.
The cast that make up this broken community are an incredible ensemble of both seasoned performers and talented children with the lead role of Billy on Press Night played by 13 year old Lewis Smallman who is one of four young boys who rotate the main role during the tour, which is hardly surprising due to the nature of the rigorous lead role. A star is born in Smallman who pulls off jaw-dropping dance routines packed full of back flips and spins, all carried out with total precision and boyish charm.
Another of the standout child performers is local lad Samuel Torpey who puts in a hilarious performance as Billy’s cross-dressing best friend Michael. Middleton born Torpey is an absolute delight with his cheeky smile, fabulous tap-dancing and perfectly timed one-liners. The scenes and rapport that he shares with Smallman are worth the admission fee alone.
Annette McLaughlin commands the stage from the moment she walks on to it as no-nonsense Geordie ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson. McLaughlin chain smokes her way through teaching kids dance classes and despite her outspoken feistiness reveals a softer maternal side as she secretly tutors Billy and helps turn him into a star against the wishes of his family.
Martin Walsh is just brilliant as Billy’s widowed Dad, a proud man struggling to accept his son’s new found passion but determined to give him the chance of a better life and struggling to make ends meet as the picket lines grow. Special mentions too for supporting actors Scott Garnham as Billy’s older brother Tony and Andrea Miller as Grandma both of whom present well-rounded characters that each have time to shine within this story.
Peter Darling’s choreography is stunning as he accentuates every beat of the music with co-ordinated dance moves and delivers memorable moments such as the police riot scene which is combined with a ballet class to contrast the adult violence against the innocence of youth. Elsewhere Rick Fisher’s use of lighting really captures the dark oppressing mood of scenes with shadows and is especially haunting when the miners enter the liftshaft towards the finale.
In essence this show is an emotional rollercoaster which carries a very weighted political story with the use of an intelligent script, brilliant music and jaw dropping dance routines. Billy Elliot will have you laughing one minute and crying the next and it is without exception one of the best musicals I have ever seen and I don’t say that lightly.
If you get the chance to catch the show whilst it’s here in Manchester over the Christmas season then grab it with both hands.
Runs at the Palace Theatre until January 28th 2017