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Billy Elliot the Musical

4 stars

Based on the masterful film of the same name, Billy Elliot the Musical is a striking tale of a young aspiring dancer set against the backdrop of the 1984-5 Coal Miner’s Strike in County Durham.

The opening video helpfully informs Melbourne audiences of this dark moment in British history, quickly targeting Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the National Union of Mineworkers. There is no mercy for Thatcher in this show, with repeated jokes at her expense and even a clever satirical dance number to open the second act. The devastating effects of the Coal Miner’s Strike leads to other anti-heroes, such as Billy’s father (Justin Smith) and brother Tony (Drew Livingston) who passionately fight for their cause, albeit at the expense of the Elliot family’s wellbeing. ‘Solidarity’ masterfully weaves together the dance and strike worlds.

Billy’s new-found passion and talent for dance is poignant, thanks to increased contemporary awareness of gender stereotypes. This is also sensitively shown through Billy’s best friend Michael, who gently explores his sexuality and fondness for dressing up in his sisters’ clothes (in the whimsical ‘Expressing Yourself’). Billy’s sense of self is inspiring, as he suffers ridicule from his family, townspeople and even tough love from his dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (in a career defining performance by Lisa Sontag).

At a hearty running time with less than half the song catalogue of your traditional musical, Billy Elliot the Musical is an epic tale, loaded with a historical content and crafty scene work, nicely peppered with comedy. This is at its peak in Billy and Michael’s scenes masterfully presented on opening night by River Mardesic (Billy) and Oscar Mulcahy (Michael). It is astounding to think two children have such a handle on timing and nuance, not to mention the challenging choreography.

Justin Smith skilfully conveys Dad’s complex emotions, and Vivien Davies is a charming presence as Grandma. Lisa Sontag is a tour de force as Mrs Wilkinson, in a wonderfully developed performance coupling warmth with deep resentment for what her life has become. She is well paired with her adorable daughter Debbie (Ella Tebbutt) and the joyful Mr Braithwaite (Dean Vince). A tight adult and children’s ensemble work cohesively to further tell the narrative.

Peter Darling’s choreography deftly represents the dichotomy of Billy’s ‘real’ and imagined lives through the use of tap and ballet – the latter beautifully realised in the Dream Ballet, featuring the breathtaking Aaron Smyth as Older Billy.

Stephen Daldry’s direction develops a richness of characters more likely to be seen in a full-length play. Settings (Ian Macneil) do not feature the remarkable automation of the production when it was last here (that required a significant renovation of Her Majesty’s Theatre!), but still fittingly supports the interwoven narrative with symbolic pieces.

Although lacking the pace of the modern musical, Billy Elliot the Musical is a well-crafted and well-executed adaptation of a beloved film. Now showing at the Regent Theatre Melbourne.


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