The Stage: Billy Elliot the Musical Review

"Powerfully Relevant"

By Dave Fargnoli

Set during a period of social and economic upheaval, with key workers striking against unlivable conditions and a belligerent Tory government cracking down on protest, Billy Elliot the Musical feels even more powerfully relevant now than it did at its West End premiere in 2005.

Based on the popular British film, the original show – with book and lyrics by screenwriter Lee Hall and music by pop icon Elton John – was a huge hit, telling the offbeat but relatable story of a working-class schoolboy learning to express himself through ballet. Fun, funny and poignant, it’s a moving tribute to the power of a close-knit community to embrace individual differences and collectively lift up its members.

Produced by Leicester Curve as part of its Made at Curve programme, this is the first new, full-scale production to open in the UK since the original closed in 2016. In terms of cast and crew size, it’s one of Curve’s biggest shows. The ambitious undertaking has certainly paid off.

Artistic director Nikolai Foster handles the piece with confidence, creating a busy, boisterous world where protesters stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of state oppression and the whole town turns out for the scant comforts of the working men’s club’s Christmas party.

There’s plenty of humour mixed into these lively stage pictures too. Kids flap, squabble and scurry around in infectious excitement, while strike-breaking coppers kick up their heels cartoonishly, right before they kick the stuffing out of striking workers. If the show’s infrequent scenes of violence feel a little too stylised to have the impact they should, it’s a choice to emphasise the feel-good factor rather than dwelling on the bleak brutality beneath the surface. The pace here is brisk and the tone is upbeat, and while Foster doesn’t shy away from the show’s more melancholy beats, they’re quickly glossed over.

Musical director George Dyer attacks the poppy score with energy. Choppy electric guitars cut through brassy, bright melodies, while massed ensemble choruses gives the big numbers the sense they’re swelling up, organically, from the community. At times, the tracks can feel a little too formulaic in their rotation from heartstring-tugging to feel-good piece to rousing group number, but there’s still enough variety to keep the audience hooked.

New choreography by Lucy Hind often feels exhilaratingly breathless, mixing in contemporary steps – well, contemporary for the 1980s – with classical pieces to create something that feels fresh, unforced and properly unrestrained.

First-act centrepiece Solidarity is an impeccably staged slice of chaos, its overlapping vignettes effectively telling the show’s whole story in an instant. Expressing Yourself is explosively joyful and exuberant, a brilliant showcase for the youth ensemble, which is clearly having a great time, bursting out of lockers and forming a kick line along the changing-room benches. Billy’s key dances – Angry Dance and Electricity – are every bit as ecstatic as they need to be, forming the emotional climaxes to both acts, respectively. The first is passionate and loose-limbed – the physical manifestation of a primal scream. The second is an exercise in precision as much as a demonstration of uninhibited self-expression.

While the principal children’s parts are rotated as you’d expect, on press night Jaden Shentall-Lee makes a confident lead, investing his Billy with a compelling, rough-edged surliness that convincingly captures the bottled frustrations that drive his desperate need to break free.

Rachel Izen walks a fine line between comic relief and downtrodden-but-irrepressible as Grandma – her memories and inhibitions starting to slip. She belts out her solo number, Grandma’s Song, with startling, unexpected ferocity – letting out the accumulated anger of an unhappy life, but still clinging to a few, brief moments of happiness. Sally Ann Triplett stands out as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, conveying her short arc with great clarity as she regains a little lost pride by nurturing Billy’s talent.

As Billy’s Mam, Jessica Daley haunts the space from the sidelines, hanging out on gantries or framed in doorways, but always picked out in a bright, saturating spotlight. An angelic figure, she only sings occasionally, but makes every appearance count with a powerful range and movingly expressive voice. Joe Caffrey – who played Billy’s older brother Tony in the original West End cast – returns here as Billy’s Dad. Utterly shattered by his wife’s death, he barely seems to be holding together at the best of times, and breaks down in believably gutting fashion during drunken singsong Deep Into the Ground. Though he provides many of the show’s most sombre moments, he also does a nice line in fish-out-of-water awkwardness while waiting backstage at Billy’s dance school audition.

Thought the cast is undeniably solid, a commitment to affected Geordie accents – clearly seeking to ground the show in its County Durham setting – ends up achieving the opposite due to some ropey dialect work.

Michael Taylor’s bold set has a suitably industrial aesthetic, all exposed girders and scaffolding in blackened steel and hazard-stripe yellow. Lighting rigs descends from above, pushing in ever closer as Billy grows increasingly confident in the spotlight. Four interlocking fences are used to demarcate space, sometimes separating arguing factions, sometimes trapping them together in claustrophobic cages. Domestic scenes, meanwhile, take place in cramped rooms set in a square-sided tower evoking a collier’s lift shaft, a striking visual representation of the coal pit that runs straight through the heart of Billy’s community.