Billy Elliot the Musical
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
Universal Stage Productions, Working Title Films and Old Vic Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester
In the programme, writer Lee Hall writes of his first year at secondary school in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher was elected. I too moved to the big school in 1979, but, whereas in my town in the North West most of the coal mines had been closed for a century (the last soon after the 1926 General Strike), many lives in the North East still revolved around and depended upon the pits when Thatcher took on the unions in 1984.
So while I learned about the events of the Miners' Strike through not entirely unbiased news reports, Hall saw it happening all around him, as does the hero of his screenplay, now a stage musical.
Although it may be a commercial West End hit, it is still unashamedly political, with Thatcher as the figure of hate that unites them all; she is first mentioned in the opening radio news report and returns again and again, ultimately in the song "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" which celebrates "one day closer to your death".
However, this is really just the backdrop to a story about a son wanting to break away and do something not considered respectable to the men in his working class family—not uncommon as an idea; Monty Python's Flying Circus parodied it in 1969 in its "Working Class Playwright" sketch. The strike setting raises the stakes for Billy and the anger in the community, making his ambition to be a dancer seem impossible.
However, Mrs Wilkinson, who runs the dance class for which Billy accidentally stayed after his unsuccessful boxing lesson, is persistent with her talented but reluctant pupil, fighting with his father and brother to get him to the auditions for the Royal Ballet School.
Dad is eventually won round, but the only way he can think of to get the money to take Billy to London is to turn "scab" and go back to work, turning his back on his colleagues and risking ostracisation. But the community rallies round to help the boy in the end.
Hall script is funny but hard-hitting with the politics, the harsh realities of living during the strike and the brutality within some of the families. The language, even from the children, is rather fruity to say the least and uses non-swearwords that many people now find offensive, but to clean those up would have been inauthentic and disrespectful.
Elton John's songs sound remarkably unlike Elton John songs, bringing in the sounds of northern folk music and brass bands together with modern rock and even a bit of Tchaikovsky. However they aren't particularly memorable, and I actually wondered whether the songs were necessary at all as I'm sure the show would have worked just as well without them.
Annette McLaughlin gives a great performance as Mrs Wilkinson. Martin Walsh as Dad gives a wonderfully wide-ranging performance, from the man you want to slap out of his macho pig-headedness at the start to the hilarious fish-out-of-water at the Royal Ballet auditions. Scott Garnham plays perfectly the fired-up young man, Billy's brother Tony, who clashes with his dad but will probably end up just like him.
On press night, Lewis Smallman gave an impressive performance in the huge part of Billy (the part is shared with Adam Abbou, Matthew Lyons and Haydn May). Evie Martin was superb as Mrs Wilkinson's foul-mouthed brat of a daughter Debbie (also Lilly Cadwallender and Italia Ross), but one of the biggest stars of the show had to be Samuel Torpey (also Henry Farmer and Elliot Stiff) as Billy's cross-dressing little friend Michael with a show-stopping performance of the song "Expressing Yourself".
Every element of the production comes together perfectly, from Stephen Daldry's politically astute direction married to Ian MacNeil's set design to Peter Darling's choreography, which goes from the quirky marching of the police to the spectacular routines of the young dancers and even integrates the ballet routines with the clashes between police and miners in a way that cleverly contributes to the message of the show as a whole.
It's a long (more than three hours, including interval) but fantastically impressive and enjoyable show, perhaps not for those who still worship Thatcher and all she stood for or for anyone offended by colourful, non-PC language, but in a city that has been radically anti-establishment since before the Civil War it should go down a storm.