Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Billy Elliot, Dec 31, 2008 ****1/2

 Billy Elliot 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
 Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from Dec 31, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:  ****1/2

Billy Elliot is a rare, inspirational musical with a powerful narrative that triggers laughter and tears. (Take tissues.) It weaves the gritty and achingly sad story of the Northern England Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 with the joyful tale of Billy, a miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer. 

The contrast between ballet and mining is stark but the message is clear: fight for what you want and you might change your future.

Lee Hall’s book, based on his screenplay, captures the dignity, courage and foolishness of the miners’ resistance, the violence of the police and the bloody-mindedness of Maggie Thatcher. Against this tough struggle for survival, Hall sets the playful world of the ballet class and the creative ambition of 12-year old Billy.

Elton John’s music captures the vitality and humour of Northern England. He sets Hall’s potent lyrics to styles including anthems, marches, folk ballads, boogie-woogie, jazz and more. The show begins with the rousing workers’ anthem, The Stars Look Down, a revolutionary song that expresses the pain and commitment of workers.

Hall and John continue the revolution with Solidarity, a confrontation between police and miners. The visionary director, Stephen Daldry, with choreographer, Peter Darling, overlays this pitched battle with the Billy’s hilariously chaotic ballet classes. The show’s style cunningly incorporates slapstick, British workers’ theatre, silent movies and more. One wacky scene even features giant dancing frocks.

But the show is nothing without Billy, played on the New Year’s Eve opening night by Dayton Tavares (OK) although five boys share the role. Dayton had the crowd standing and shouting. His dance technique is exceptional and he can sing and act too! Electricity, Billy’s halting but poetic attempt to describe how it feels to dance, wrenches the heart and there is not a dry eye during Dear Billy with his dead mother (Samantha Morley). When he flies above the stage the crowd is mesmerised.

Richard Piper is both funny and moving as Billy’s dad, the simple miner trying to hold his family together during the strike. Mike Smith is impassioned and engaging as his older son and Lola Nixon is deliciously wicked as Grandma. Genevieve Lemon is tough but lovable as the brassy, ciggy-smoking ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson and John Xintavelonis (OK) is hilarious as her pianist, Mr. Braithwaite.

The chorus of adult dancer-singers is exceptional, the ballet class girls are cute and comical but several scenes are stolen by the cheeky, captivating Thomas Doherty as Billy’s nearly gay friend Michael.

Billy Elliot pushes all the right buttons and is a show that you could happily see again and again.

By Kate Herbert

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