Musical Review – Billy Elliot

Apr 16 2010 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩      Gritty

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 20-Sat 24 April 2010
Review by Thom Dibdin

Concentrating on the tough background to the story of how young Billy Elliot unexpectedly becomes a dancer, the first of Edinburgh’s Billy Youth Theatre productions opened at the Church Hill Theatre last night with the house full signs already up.

The LYAMC production gets right under the nails of life in a Northumberland pit village during the long winter of the miner’s strike in 1984: the solidarity of the miners, fighting for a community and livelihood; and the antagonism between them and the police brought in from London to protect the scab miners who broke the strike.

Half the Billy Elliot cast. Photo LYAMC

Half the Billy Elliot cast. Photo LYAMC

On top of all this, eleven year old miner’s son Billy has to cope with the loss of his mum, his increasingly senile gran and his enforced, weekly trip to the village hall for Saturday morning boxing club. Made to stay on after boxing one week, he and discovers that the girl’s ballet class is on next – and a whole new world opens up.

With simple broad strokes the hard but humane background is given a strong grounding by the 102-strong company. The opening number, The Stars Look Down, is big and emphatic, putting the community values centre stage.

And whenever the plot returns to it, the production picks up and allows the whole company to shine. So that in Solidarity, with the police and miners at loggerheads while the boxing and ballet pupils are stuck between them, it is obvious that the children are the real losers in the whole vicious battle, without it ever being said.

It is not until the Act II opener, however, with the deeply ironic Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher that the real cause of the strife is made explicit. There is light comedy in the creation of an uncannily Allan Stewart-esque Thatcher, and real feeling from the company as they celebrate every day as another day closer to Thatcher’s death.

quick feet

Throughout, the singing and dancing is exemplary in the big ensemble numbers, which require quick feet and nimble brains to stop any collisions on the small stage.

When the focus comes down to the small-scale scenes the production does not hold the attention as it might. Which is partly due to the wandering furniture – pieces of set that get moved mid-scene – but the scenes in the Eliot’s house, in particular, need either to be bigger and own the whole of the stage, or have more focussed lighting that confines the action, instead of leaving it rather stranded in the middle of nothing.

The other half of the Billy Elliot cast. Photo: LYAMC

The other half of the Billy Elliot cast. Photo: LYAMC

The real difficulty for any company staging the show is to find a lad to play Billy. He needs to be a strong singer who can hold a big number on his own, a capable dancer with a wide range of moves under his belt and someone who can act convincingly.

In Owen McHugh, LYAMC have found a lad who fulfils most of the criteria. He might be a little tentative when it comes to the more advanced dance numbers, particularly when he dances Swan Lake with Billy’s older self (Iain Fisher), and his singing voice would welcome more power for Billy’s big solo number, Electricity.

When it comes to acting, however, he is a natural fit for the naive lad, sometimes lashing out blindly at those around, at others immersed in that particularly mysterious and tangential world which boys on the cusp of becoming a teenager inhabit. And he is particularly strong in the dance classes, going from clunky novice to  best in class quite naturally.

Indeed, the ballet classes stand out. There is a strong individual performance from Lauren Burnett as Mrs Wilkinson, the ballet teacher who recognises Billy’s natural abilities. Around here the whole ballet class work to create a realistic vibe of a Saturday morning class packed with recalcitrant kids sent by their parents – like it or lump it.

Billy’s best pal Michael is excellently played by Ronan Burns and Jenna Lee ensures that the ghostly appearance of Billy’s dead mum is neither tacky nor maudlin.

One of the constraints of Billy Youth Theatre is that all the on-stage performers have to be under 19. This doesn’t hold back the ensemble, but puts those playing Billy’s family under a less-forgiving spotlight.

A thoroughly enjoyable production which doesn’t just go through the motions, but engages strongly on many levels, particularly the emotional.

The Ensemble

Run continues to Saturday
All performances are sold out

LYAMC Website

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Comments (2)

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  1. Dawn says:

    Brilliant show, brilliant cast. The boy who plays Billy Elliot is fantastic – he has technical dance skills of a professional dance student – I can’t believe that he is only 12! Blown away by this production and I think that it deserves much more that 3 stars!

  2. Gillian Fewster says:

    Just got home from seeing this – the best show yet. Billy was fabulous and to think he choreographed his own dances – well, the kid’s got talent!
    Well done to all the front-of-house staff who welcomed everyone, the backstage staff who worked in darkness mostly and of course the cast. Brilliant. Finally the production team who made it all possible