Though set in the '80s, 'Billy Elliot The Musical' is the definitive narrative for now.
There is nothing genuinely as incongruous as steel toe boots and ballet slippers, hard hats and tutus, coal mines and Tchaikovsky’s 'Swan Lake' or coal dust and glitter freely cohabiting the same space. But, as we know, without the pressure, coal cannot become diamonds. And we all recognise the journey it takes for this magical transformation to happen.
Strange as it might be, Billy’s story of challenging social constructs runs parallel to the struggle of miners during the infamous UK Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985. Both are oppressed and restricted – one by social, the other by government – and both angry and smothered by prejudice yet desperate for escape.
Lee Hall’s story for both the screenplay and musical in all its starkness, captures the mind, body and spirit (who, after all, can’t relate to personal struggle in the face of incredible obstacles?) and emerges, triumphant – to then be musically reimagined by Elton John and directed by Stephen Daldry with all the glitz, Geordies and coal dust imaginable.
The set is ingeniously designed by Ian MacNeil as a tribute to spatial cognition; interlocking, weaving and sliding in and out of each other with all the finesse of nesting boxes. Peter Darling’s choreography is especially masterful – though perhaps slightly tremulous thanks to opening night nerves.
Set in County Durham in North East England – cobble stones, cold temperatures, working class and Geordie accents inclusive – 11-year-old Billy Elliot struggles to pursue his unlikely but beloved passion of ballet – or ‘belly’ in Geordie-speak – set against the turbulent counter-story of family and community dissension.
Everywhere he turns, young Billy is met by street brawls, misogynist friction, broken class elitism, government dissent, neighbourhood division and gender squabbles. 'Billy Elliot' is a tale that reeks of annulment of the sexes, where traditional gender roles are overturned in the face of tolerance and acceptance. This is sensationally glitter, sparkle and boldness while confronting homophobic and class bias – an education in itself. The tagline 'Always Be Yourself' is a profound statement we can all aspire to.
Set against a chorus of police and striking miners amidst a close-knit community, the political backstory sets a very bleak and raw scene – very different to what we have come to love and appreciate in a musical where boy meets girl, boy and girl break up, then boy and girl come together again.
Image © James D. Morgan
Opening to the strike, the musical does a full circle to close in on the dark depths of a miner’s working life, interspersed by a disparaging send-up to Margaret Thatcher that successfully vilifies and roasts her leadership and personage. Dodging the stark cussing and swears in Northern Eastern accents, Billy pirouettes throughout with all the twinkle of a fairytale. It’s a personal fulfilment that struggles to achieve dreams of dance as Billy’s father and brother stand defiant against a government devaluing their services and way of life.
Jamie Rogers is particularly sublime in his role of Billy. His onstage anger is palpable; a character only the very precocious can achieve. Imagine, ballet dancing, tap dancing, singing in tune and acting with a North East English accent: improbable. But like his character, Rogers rises to the challenges and overcomes.
Kelley Abbey in the role of Mrs Wilkinson is phenomenal – she traverses easily between the elitist higher class of the ballet teacher alongside her nurturing curt soul of the Geordie dance teacher with an abundance of hair, smoke, pink dance aerobic socks and expletives.
Justin Smith as Dad balances her churlish care with an unexpected pleasing misanthrope aplomb well-suited to the role. Drew Livingston as Tony has all the cuss words and interjections only the best of 'Geordie Shore' can appreciate, overwhelming the masculine spaces with his presence, while Vivien Davies wonderfully offers grand feminine sustenance as Grandma to the profoundly manful story of conflict, clash and tug-of-war.
However, it is James Sonneman in the role of Michael who utterly captures the heart and soul of the spotlight – the gender-bending, bright and sassy sidekick best friend – skipping his way through cobbled streets as glitter rains in his wake. Together, Sonneman and Rogers steal every single scene, the dynamic between the two clearly a match made in Broadway heaven. The standing ovation on opening night was a testament to the sublime performances and wonderful tale this musical proudly displays.
Given we’re globally musical-crazy, 'Billy Elliot The Musical' is one for a new age; one deftly captured alongside such aplomb narrative musical mistresses as 'Kinky Boots' and 'Wicked'.
While denuded of the glitz and glamour of the conventional musical, 'Billy Elliot' is indeed a musical for today, capturing the depth and rawness of a world lost amidst intolerance while desperately seeking and retaining its individual authenticity.
'Billy Elliot The Musical' plays Sydney Lyric Theatre until 15 December, and Adelaide Festival Centre from 29 December until 8 February 2020.