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The first new UK version of Elton John and Lee Hall’s musical – telling the story of a boy who just wants to dance, set during the 1984 miners’ strike in the North-East – bursts exuberantly onto the stage in Leicester, in the largest in-house production that Curve has ever mounted. Hall’s original film is itself now a period piece: it was released in 2000, and the musical followed in 2005. But as this production’s director Nikolai Foster notes in the programme, its relevance may feel newly sharp in the current climate, with strike action once more making headlines.
The hearty, rousing central number Solidarity is more spine-tingling than ever. That said, the show assumes a decent understanding of the miners’ situation, which perhaps can be taken less for granted today. Some explication of their struggle could add greater depth to the first half. And the reliance on the fairly cheap joke of young kids swearing like troopers feels overused, if typical of its original Brit-comedy era. But at its heart, this tale of a boy who loves ballet – despite opposition from the macho culture around him – is still a heart wringing one, achieving the perfect balance between feel-good and weepy.
The message of being true to yourself, and the suggestion that individuality and creativity are worth celebrating, will never age, plus they neatly suit both the musical form in general and John’s score in particular. The moment when Billy reads a letter from his dead mother soars perfectly into song. And Hall really knows how to turn the screws on the old tear-ducts, especially in the moving second half, when Billy’s dad – and then the whole community – get behind his dream to go to the Royal Ballet School. Solidarity may take many forms.
Joe Caffrey is well cast as Billy’s tough dad, sparking off‚ Sally Ann Triplett’s marvellous Mrs Wilkinson, the hard-bitten but big-hearted dance teacher. Four actors play Billy; on press night, Jaden Shentall-Lee gave a spirited, upbeat performance. His big set-pieces have a slightly scrappy energy that, on the large Curve stage, convey Billy’s vulnerability as much as his passion. This is necessary; one of the odd things about making a musical of Billy Elliot is that, when everyone around him sings and dances too, it potentially lessens the sense of Billy’s outsider status. This staging helps us feel his isolation. But such numbers are also simply show-stopping, John giving full rein to his most bombastic 1980s rock flourishes. The audience goes duly wild.
The design ensures that this production feels painted on the grandest canvas possible: a stripped-back approach reveals the breadth and depth of the stage, musicians visible on scaffolding at the back. Ben Cracknell deploys huge lighting rigs to lend scale and drama that is anything but kitchen sink, and Michael Taylor’s suggestive set includes moveable fencing and a three-storey mine-shaft that functions as the Elliots’ home.
Some of the most famous sequences from the original musical are remounted, and are still theatrically thrilling – as in a sequence where police officers and miners clash around a ballet lesson, or when a riot intersects with Billy’s own internal turmoil. It may have a touch less flash than the West End version, but Lucy Hind’s exhilarating choreography is performed with great energy throughout, in a production that proves that this story still very much has legs.