Saturday 23 June 2018

Billy the kid will dance his way into your heart

Whether you love musical theatre or utterly loathe it, Billy Elliot is a must see

Billy is caught up in the bitter miners' strike in the early 80s.
Billy is caught up in the bitter miners' strike in the early 80s.

Anne-Marie Scanlon

Billy Elliot the Musical is musical theatre for those who love musical theatre. Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling have pulled out all the stops to create a spectacular. At the same time this is also musical theatre for people who don't like musical theatre, with story, dialogue and acting being as important as song and dance.

For anyone unfamiliar with the show, or the film released in 2000 on which it is based, Billy is a 12-year-old working class boy in the north of England. His father and brother are both miners, as are most of the men in his town. His mother is dead and his Granny is senile. It's the 1980s and lines are firmly drawn between sexes, classes and sexual orientations.

Billy is sent to boxing class every week which he hates. By accident he comes across the 'girls' ballet class and shows enough talent for teacher Mrs Wilkinson to start tutoring him for an audition for the English National School of Ballet. Billy keeps his dancing life secret from his father and brother who are both traditional 'hard men'. When Billy's father finds out he reacts violently because only 'poofs' do ballet. Billy's brother goes further and threatens Mrs Wilkinson "I'll smack you one you middle-class cow."

The music and dancing cover all sorts of genres. The first half kicks off with the miners singing a traditional song of solidarity with their Union tapestry in the background as they prepare to strike the next day. The end of act one is, by contrast, violent, with heavy metal-style music as Billy is enraged by not being allowed to dance. The riot scene at the end of Act 1 is the perfect metaphor for Billy's anger and frustration. The barriers of class and prejudice that Billy can't get past - he is physically pushed back - are represented by both miners and police riot shields. This is theatre at its most powerful.

Act 2 kicks off with the miner's Christmas celebration and anyone who has a Thatcher phobia should be warned to avert their eyes at this point - I won't give away what happens, but it's highly entertaining. Irish people who remember the 1980s will no doubt enjoy all the Thatcher-bashing. (I know I did.)

The atmosphere of the 1980s is conjured up with subtle costumes and constant cigarettes - Mrs Wilkinson puffs away while teaching her ballet class. The sets are wonderful and though I have never been a fan of Mr Elton John, the music is testament to his audacious talent. There are few flaws in Billy Elliot but even with the amazing sets, costumes and fags it is the performers who must get most kudos, especially the kids who are just too ridiculously talented. This is not one of those pieces where children shuffle on, the audience go 'Awwww' and they shuffle off again. These kids work just as hard as the adult performers (who are working pretty damn hard).

Be warned, you will need to go with a good supply of tissues and wear waterproof mascara. When Billy departs for his new life leaving his cross-dressing pal Michael behind in front of the Union tapestry it is truly heart-breaking. Doubly so because we all know what happened to those tight-knit communities after the 1980s. There's plenty of laughs to be had as well, more than plenty. As I said, this is a show that will please everyone. There is a great deal of swearing (a lot of it done by the kids) but please don't let that put you off taking your children to see it. This isn't feel good. It's feel fantastic.

Billy Elliot the Musical will be in Bord Gá is Energy Theatre from July 26 - Sept 3. For tickets

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