Billy Elliot: The Musical holds a special place in my heart. I come from the region in which this musical is set, and my great-grandparents were miners like those whose way of life is under threat in this show. It’s strange, but also rather exciting, to hear the place names I’ve been familiar with all my life bandied about on stage.
Even stranger is the idea of singing miners at all; it’s one of those mad musical ideas that shouldn’t work, but does. In part this is thanks to the evocative score by Elton John, which combines hummable musical melodies, Eighties pop and brass band elements reminiscent of miners’ bands. Lee Hall’s lyrics and book, with down to earth and often witty dialogue, lends an authenticity to the characters and their lives. In addition, the choreography is inspired, seamlessly blending a children’s ballet rehearsal with violent clashes between the miners and the police.
The story is familiar: young Billy is a talented ballet dancer who hopes to pursue his love for dance professionally, but he is hampered not only by circumstance – the infamous 1980s miners’ strike and his family’s poverty – but by prejudice: in a old-fashioned male-dominated society, a male dancer is seen as a big problem. For the show to succeed, you need a strong actor in the role of Billy. Four boys currently share the role; at the performance I attended, Brodie Donougher played Billy and was fantastic: his dancing was brilliant, and his singing and acting completely believable.
There was excellent support, too, from the other child actors, notably Connie Fisher as Debbie and Bradley Mayfield as Billy’s friend Michael, who encourages him to follow his dreams in “Expressing Yourself”, one of the standout numbers in the show. The adults don’t let the side down either, with Deka Walmsley giving a poignant and sympathetic performance as Billy’s struggling, grieving father, and Ruthie Henshall very strong as Billy’s ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson. As Billy’s grandmother, Gillian Elisa delivered one of my favourite songs of the show: entitled “Grandma’s Song”, it is about her regrets in her life – mistakes it is to be hoped Billy will not repeat.
The show strikes the perfect balance between humour and seriousness: one minute there is a satirical song about Margaret Thatcher (complete with larger-than-life puppet), the next a folk song from Billy’s father about how much he misses his dead wife. It’s incredibly poignant and emotional, but ultimately uplifting, as Billy’s passion in dance overcomes the odds.
In April, Billy Elliot will close after ten years in the West End. It’s had an impressive run, but the London theatre scene will be the poorer for its absence. I’d already seen the show once, but I wanted to experience it one more time before it closed. If you haven’t done so, please do – it is so worth it.