The Times: Billy Elliot the Musical Review

"This revival will have you dancing for joy"

By Dominic Maxwell

It’s a flat-out masterpiece. And if you had any worries that a humble regional revival of a musical that played in the West End for 11 years and on Broadway for three would come off second best, believe me, there is nothing humble about Nikolai Foster’s luminous production. I say Foster’s production. It’s his all right, but the original creators, including the director Stephen Daldry and the choreographer Peter Darling, as well as the writer Lee Hall and the composer Elton John, all get bigger billing than anyone working on the 2022 show.

A radical reinvention it isn’t. From the opening moments, though, when the lights of the miners’ helmets shine out of a Co Durham pit in 1984, to the point when those humbled miners finally sink back into the ground in 1985, Foster makes Billy Elliot amuse, sadden, soar. He, the set designer Michael Taylor and the choreographer Lucy Hind use this wide-open space to ensure that work and home and school and leisure are all vividly drawn yet inseparable. The band, too, is visible, on the top of a three-storey scaffolding upstage. And has any recent British musical unlocked the tear ducts so effectively?

Billy’s widowed dad — an excellent Joe Caffrey — starts off boorish, ends up a sweetheart, his pain palpable throughout. Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs Wilkinson, the dance teacher who changes Billy’s life, with a winningly sweary mixture of the rambunctious and the tender. (In fact, unless informed otherwise, assume everyone plays their roles with a winningly sweary mixture of the rambunctious and the tender.)

Boys don’t do ballet, Billy’s dad insists. What can boys do, though, without a job to go to? Billy’s discovery of his nascent talent is juxtaposed, in solidarity, against strikers clashing with police. His eventual triumph (not too grievous a spoiler, surely, 22 years after the film, 17 years after this musical debuted) is juxtaposed against the 200,000 miners whose future looks dim. “We can’t all be f***ing dancers,” Billy’s brother tells him. It is a fairytale, though, a rags-to-riches story that excavates humanity and musicality by the tonne.

First time around, I thought John’s tunes more functional than memorable. Here, I admired the variety, the anthemic quality as much as the balladry, the adroit mixture of rock, brass, cop-show funk and orchestral. There are four sets of child actors. On opening night, Jaden Shentall-Lee was an outstanding Billy, dancing with skill and aplomb without being overpolished.

A large cast is filled with local youngsters such as Prem Masani, terrific as Billy’s gay best friend Michael. Every character gets their moment, but the story keeps moving forward at pace even as it addresses class, gender, aspiration and Margaret Thatcher — plenty of Margaret Thatcher.

It’s epic but intimate. Heavens, even the swearing is gorgeous. Several of Foster’s Curve musicals have gone on to have a life elsewhere. This, his biggest yet, will surely, hopefully, be one of them.