I admit, having only ever participated in one ballet dance class many moons ago, and failing miserably, I never felt as if I’d missed out on much (all that Plié-ing was never meant for someone with such a severe lack of agility). Or at least, that’s what I thought until I saw the West End’s touring production of Billy Elliot in Plymouth. I left the theatre in awe, and just a little envious of the sheer talent on-stage. Admittedly using the word ‘talent’ is a cliché, and it’s a characteristic of London’s West End, yet it wasn’t just the stupendous skill of the performers that evoked near-tears, but the production’s ability to present the powerful history of the fall of Britain’s coal mining industry through theatrical expression.
Set in 1984, a time of particularly significant political and social strife for Britain’s working classes, the show’s juxtaposition of Billy’s journey alongside the Durham coal miners’ plight to save their pit from closure worked to emphasise the importance of community, at a time when Maggie was declaring, “there is no such thing as society”. Having won several awards for his choreography, Peter Darling certainly doesn’t disappoint with his dynamic interpretation of the struggle and violence that ensued between the miners and British police force, particularly in the lively ensemble dance number ‘Solidarity’, where the class divide is echoed both in the ensemble’s movement, and also the music: “we’re proud to be working class”, the miner’s sing.
Yet, Billy Elliot is as much about one young boy’s dream to dance, as it is about class struggle. Having recently lost his mother, young Billy (Adam Abbou) finds a maternal figure in the form of Mrs Wilkinson, played by Annette McLaughlin, who sees and nurtures Billy’s talent for ballet. The tenderness between Abbou and McLaughlin is warm and natural, so much so that the growing tenderness between Billy and his dad (Martin Walsh) is sometimes overshadowed. However, Billy’s dad soon comes round to the idea of giving his son opportunity in a time of disparity for the working-classes, and along with the entire community, sacrifice all he has to enable Billy to pursue his dream.
The tenderness between abbou and mclaughlin is warm and natural
With music composed by none other than the brilliant Sir Elton John, some rather spectacular numbers include ‘Shine’ and ‘Expressing Yourself’. Whilst the lyrics of the latter number presents the risk of becoming too farcical, with huge headless dresses dancing on-stage, it is pulled back by its presentation of the show’s key theme: individuality. Adam Abbou stuns in his performance of Billy throughout, but in this number it is Michael (played by Elliot Stiff) who shines the brightest, both in his brilliant awareness of comic timing, and unique character.
One particular highlight is the dance sequence between young Billy and older Billy (played by Luke-Cinque White). Performed to Tchaikovsky’s classic ‘Swan Lake’, the stunning orchestral sound only further accentuates the magnificent, stunning execution of White’s performance. It’s a shame that at times the synchronicity between the pair is lost, yet such a small hiccup is soon replaced with fixated admiration, as older Billy flies his young counterpart round the stage in the number’s climax with ease, perfectly symbolising Billy’s extraordinary journey to come (and giving me a slight case of goosebumps).
Filled with spectacle, tenderness, and an abundance of insults (a personal favourite being “fuck-fanny”), what’s particularly striking about Billy Elliot is its real, raw, yet brilliantly-executed message: not only about the importance of community, but most importantly, having the courage to be you in a world that constantly seeks to knock you down. And, as Michael brilliantly sums up whilst dressed up in his mam’s best frock, “what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself?”.
Billy Elliot the Musical is playing at Theatre Royal Plymouth until 2 April 2016. Tickets are available from www.theatreroyal.com.