Musical Review – Billy Elliot

June 5, 2010 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩    Exuberant

Festival Theatre: Fri 4-Sat 5 June 2010
Review by Thom Dibdin

Bright, exuberant and boasting a cast that mixes the singers from the Edinburgh Gang Show with the dancers of the Manor School of Ballet, the second Billy Youth Theatre version of Billy Elliot to hit Edinburgh is a thoroughly entertaining production.

This is a show which plays straight to its participants’ strengths. Having made a big name for himself by giving the Gang Show’s variety-style format a 21st century outlook, director Andy Johnston now brings those abilities to a full-blown musical on the vast expanses of the Festival Theatre stage.

Matt Hall as Billy Elliot, Louise Hunter as Mrs Wilkinson and ensemble. Photo credit: company publicity

It sets off with great deliberation and a big, strong telling of scene-setting number The Stars Look Down, which speaks of the unity in the miners in the face of adversity – now standing together against Thatcher in the great miners’ strike of 1984.

The whole company is in fine, clear voice. First hearing of Matt Hall as Billy Elliot with Ian Sutherland as his best pal Michael confirms that singing has been Johnston’s priority in casting the lead roles, while the direction and choreography of the ensemble set the story up perfectly.

Indeed, this makes great use of the Festival Theatre throughout. Whether the scene is in the Elliot family’s County Durham miner’s cottage, one involving the massed girls of the ballet class that Billy inadvertently joins after being late for boxing class one Saturday, or the dream sequence – complete with flying – in which Billy dances with his older self, the stage never looks either empty or overcrowded.

And those big ballet numbers are great spectacles, too. Choreographers Claire Smith and Jacqueline Casey have obviously had a ball dreaming up the scenes which show the youngsters rehearsing under the draconian control of Louise Hunter as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson.

The razzle certainly dazzles

The dancers are capable of both scooshing off into big fantasy numbers which paint patterns on the stage with their sheer scale, and depicting a raggedy bunch of girls in a dancing class when they really have much better things to do with their time. Framing it all, Johnston’s staging ensures that all that razzle certainly dazzles.

If he can do big manipulations of large numbers of chorus members, Johnston is also great on the individual scenes. Of course his casting choices help. Timmy Drew has big emotional voice, perfect for the second half Deep Into The Ground, where he laments both the miner’s lot and the loss of his wife. Lucy Cairns also carries a beautifully nuanced voice, as the dead mum in her brief appearances to Billy in The Letter.

It is Ian Sutherland who really excels in the show-stealing role of Michael. He’s got a great voice, he’s fearless and completely natural on stage, and has a fluid sense of rhythm. The big cross-dressing scene of Expressing Yourself might be a gift, but it is one which Sutherland makes full use of.

Thrilling stuff although, ironically as this such a crowd-pleaser, the first bit of audience reaction on opening night was a catcall and a boo. Not that it was an unreasonable response, nor an unwanted one given that the opening piece of scene-setting soundtrack featured Thatcher’s vicious verbal attacks on the miners. It counts more as a big cheer for the heroes of the show than anything negative.

From then on in, it is applause and whoops of delight all the way – give-or-take the odd cry of mocking derision when Thatcher reappears as a grotesque pantomime villain with a diminutive Heseltine sidekick.

smothers the lyrics

If the cheers are well-earned and the entertainment value high, this still has quite a long way to go to achieve the potential of both contributing companies.

Part of the difficulty is purely technical – if Johnston has conquered the space of the stage, his colleague in the pit, Musical Director John Duncan, has not mastered the acoustics of the hall. The balance is way too far in favour of the orchestra over the singers. It might not affect the thrill of the piece, but it smothers the lyrics and hinders the production as a piece of storytelling.

Smith and Casey’s choreography misses a bit of a trick too. What is there is great, make no mistake, but the show is a real opportunity to allow the dance to help carry the story of the conflict between the miners and the police, with the children caught between. These scenes of conflict don’t carry the weight they might.

Then there is the issue of casting a non-dancer as Billy Elliot himself. What Matt Hall does, he does excellently, with his singing voice strong enough to carry the tricky number Electricity. Yet he never gives the sense of Billy’s progression as a dancer. When Mrs Wilkinson says Billy is ready for his big audition at Royal Ballet School you wouldn’t dare disbelieve Louise Hunter – but it is certainly a surprise as there has been nothing to show that he has reached such heights.

Both the Edinburgh Gang Show and the Manor School of Ballet are renowned local youth organisations, whose stage skills are demonstrated year on year. This is a production which allows them to shine and do what they do, best. And that is to entertain.

Run ends Saturday 5 June.

The review of the LYAMC production of Billy Elliot at the Church Hill Theatre in April, is here.

Festival Theatre website

ENDS

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.