Musicals, Reviews, Theatre

Billy Elliot review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)

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Imagine singing a song. In tune. Pretending to be an entirely different person. Who speaks (and sings) in a foreign accent. From a different era. While dancing. In multiple styles. In time. In front of 2000 people. Who’ve paid at least a hundred bucks to be there.

And you’re yet to hit puberty.

Watching some precocious tyke entertain you to exhaustion is part of the fun of Billy Elliot, the screen-turned-stage, working-class-boy-made-good musical that returns to Australia 11 years after the West End and Broadway hit first put dozens of starry-eyed little Aussies to work.

But there’s even more to the bargain. Billy Elliot doesn’t rest on a songbook of pretty ballads — there are, in fact, surprisingly few earworms in Elton John’s score — but does the hard work of good storytelling. It had an excellent start with Lee Hall’s film script, and his adaptation (book and lyrics) for the stage sanitises nothing.

The story of a kid who wants to dance, and a striking mining town in Margaret Thatcher’s England, is sincere, wonderfully profane and surprisingly sparing in its sentimentality, at least by musical theatre standards. Billy might get his happy ending, but the town gets kicked in the guts. If we’re to imagine for a second this remount isn’t simply a money-making exercise, Billy certainly speaks to the moment — the idea of union-busting governments and redundant coal workers could hardly be more timely. Even if the gender politics, at times, feel a little dated.

And it’s that I found most moving in this Billy. The boy who escapes, yes, but the stories of those who won’t. On this the musical, directed like the film by a real visionary in Stephen Daldry, is even more unflinching than the original.

Yes, this being a musical, tough-as-guts miners will dance. Well, sort of. The physical language in the piece, choreographed by Peter Darling, is a big part of the show’s success. There’s one lavish production number (Expressing Yourself), a sort of imagined Broadway parody, and a spectacular dance sequence from Billy and his older self set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake strains. But the really electrify scenes are more regimental: grandma (a feisty Vivien Davies) reminiscing about first love as an army of men from the bygone era sweep across the stage and out the window, or the stirring number Solidarity where Darling meshes striking miners with a children’s dance class. It’s fine-spun work and so powerful as a storytelling device.

As well-oiled as the machine is, it still asks for grounded, emotive performances from its key cast. This new production has it in spades.

Four boys share the Billy role over the run, with 12-year-old Jamie Rogers from Canberra winning the opening night honour. No pressure. Producers couldn’t have asked more of him. Of the gaggle of children on stage, James Sonnemann (Billy’s cross-dressing pal Michael) and Gabrielle Daggar (clumsily willful ballerina Debbie) also stood out.

Justin Smith played the role of Billy’s brother during the last Australian run and returns to the show as his dad. There’s a lovely symmetry to that, and a lived-in feeling to the performance.  He’s an entirely sympathetic figure, grieving for a lost wife and terrified he’s losing what’s left of his life. Similarly Drew Livingston, as the boorish brother, whose path to acceptance is much slower. Livingston doesn’t look young enough to be Smith’s son, but it’s well-played all the same.

Stalwart performer and choreographer Kelley Abbey takes up the role of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, watched on in the opening night audience by Genevieve Lemon, who starred in the first Australian run and cleaned up awards before playing the role in London. No pressure. Abbey’s a good fit in many ways, perhaps not as funny, but certainly full of pathos watching her protege walk away from his broken town.

These identikit musicals from Broadway and the West End always arrive in Australia well polished, but few tell stories as considerately as Billy Elliot. It’s a film adaptation as worthy as its source, and a story as quietly radical and relevant as ever.

Billy Elliot plays the The Star’s Lyric Theatre selling until December 15. The production tours to Adelaide (from December 29), Melbourne (February 20), Perth (dates to be announced) and Brisbane (dates to be announced). Image by James D. Morgan.

One response to “Billy Elliot review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Billy Elliot was as good a musical as I have ever seen.

    Lisa Sontag stole the show. Her performance was mesmerising. The chorus and each and every actor, ballet dancer and singer was superb. I loved every minute.

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