Anyway which way you look at it, Billy Elliot the Musical is as timely as it is well made. Based on his own screenplay from the film of the same name, Lee Halls has created a compelling book and lyrics which come alive at the keyboard of Elton John’s genuinely heartfelt composition. All that, in turn, is brought to life - a dazzling combo of coals dust and glitter - in a staging by Stephen Daldry that is as richly imagined as it is, for the most part, understated. Meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine this Australian production, which opened last night at the Capitol in Sydney, being better realised.
As a contemporary musical, Billy Elliot kicks aside the narcissistic over-produced slop which has dominated Broadway and the West End since composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber and producer Cameron Macintosh joined forces a couple of decades back: emotionally manipulative formularism at its most commercially relentless.
lnstead, this musical combines grunt realism with an inspiring fairytale mythicism in a manner that shouts ‘artistic truth’, while Daldry’s succinct staging produces waves of ever-building emotional richness. I find this production as honest and inspiring as I found Miss Saigon and Les Miserables banal and flakey.
Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy from a northern English coal-mining town who illicitly trades in his boxing gloves for ballet slippers. As close to a modern fairy-tale as we can get, the story is so beautifully realised - in both the screen and stage versions - it takes on a timeless significance.
The action is set in a northern mining town near Durham during the infamous coalminers’ strike of 1984/85. In this stage version, political depth is added to the back story. And for good reason: the miners and police serve as a chorus.
I happened to be in the Durham region around that time of strife and the experience was unforgettably bleak: tense defiance on the part of the striking miners (backed by decades of working-class tradition) against the ferocious will of Margaret Thatcher’s Rightist government. Stage entertainment it might be, but this production captures the feel of that gut-wrenching time.
We open with film footage of the actual strike and, in the end, the curtain goes down on defeated miners descending back into their choking netherworld. While avoiding dour naturalism, there is nothing coy about Billy Elliot’s portrayal of the community out of which the young boy himself emerges. The language is sometimes as blue as it would have been on the streets and in homes of the miners at the time. No holding back there.
This tough stuff serves as a lingering bass-note to the story of Billy’s triumph against such odds. Teary emotion and roller-coaster laughs, in turn, we ride a theme that touches us all: whatever our origins, we have a right to realise our dreams.
It’s not surprising Elton John responded so strongly to the film’s premiere screening in Cannes. As he has said in interviews, the Billy Elliot narrative mirrors the struggles of his own early years. Elton John thus brings to the music a marvelous authenticity of impulse, which grows in authority as the drama evolves. The film’s original screenwriter, Lee Hall, not only creates an excellent book but was encouraged by Elton John to write the lyrics. It’s lovely work and very well put together. There is fun in it too. They even indulge in a few harmless in-jokes. Some may miss the ‘Wayne Sleep’ digs, but to those in the know they are good fun.
Peter Darling’s evocative choreography weaves several stylistic strands including jazz, vaudeville and classical ballet. Each represents a singular force in the story - the cops, the workers, the older folk, the ‘bally girls’, and the fully evolved world of the Royal Ballet. In itself, the dancing perhaps best vivifies the extent to which complex themes in this musical are deftly realized.
We Aussies are good at musicals given half a chance. In this instance particular acclaim must go to Genevieve Lemon’s indefatigable fag-puffing Geordie dance teacher. Lemon has always been an actress with a unique comic veneer, often under-pinned by a chin-tossing sadness that suits this role to perfection. Good work from all the main players. But best of all is the spirit of shared goodwill among the ensemble, thus offering Billy a springboard from which to soar.
Being a musical, much of this version of the Billy Elliot legend is enacted in song as well as dance. So, in the lead role, we need more than a talented dancer. Rhys Kosakowski certainly did not shy from the challenge of playing Billy on opening night. Enthralling to watch, his dancing was more than technically adept. From grief and frustration to outright joy, the emotions underpinning his movement also ran deep. And what an all-rounder! Just as his dancing is sleek and potent, Kosakowski’s singing is tender and his acting true. It is astounding to think we have three more Billys, possibly just as good, waiting in the wings to go on.
There is at least one ungainly point in the work. I share the view of one London reviewer who baulked at a scene where Billy and his mate Michael dress up in women’s clothes - despite Michael’s hilarious claim that his father does it all the time. Even Aiden, an eight-year-old nephew who attended opening night with me, baulked at this: in his own instinctual way he found it unconvincing.
The scene is probably there to counter-pose the prevailing idea that just because you’re a ‘balley dancer’ doesn’t mean you’re gay. The fact is often you are gay - and so that’s okay too! But the scene is so overloaded with message the result is oddly ambiguous. That said, Landen Hale-Brown (who played Michael on opening night) turned in one of the most exuberant performances of the evening.
Others have not been convinced by the ‘vaudeville-style’ opening of the second act. But this is small beer.
If you have an interest in stage-craft observe the closing scenes. Unfortunately the Capitol does not enjoy a centre aisle, so our Billy must exit less dramatically along a side wall of the auditorium. Nothing much can be done about this, though one can imagine the effect of Billy’s central-aisle exit on the hushed first-night audience in London. All is not lost. It’s meant it be a quiet moment anyhow, before the production turns itself on a pin to deliver one of the most high-spirited high-kicking, all-fun finales ever concocted. You exit this one singing the applause!
In the way all great musicals capture the spirit of the times, this one comes along in the wake of Margaret Thatcher and John Howard to remind us that we do not have to succumb to their versions of numbing class-slavery. With a bit o' chutzpah and a little help from friends we can all be whoever we want to be and, in our own way, achieve great things. Maxine McKew noted this week: there’s much to be said for timing. The premiere of Australia’s own Billy Elliot the Musical helps herald in a new ‘can-do’ zeitgeist. Thank whomever you wish, at least it’s no longer pointless wanting to try.
Billy Elliot The Musical
Venue: The Capitol Theatre, Haymarket, Sydney
Dates: From Tuesday, November 13
Australian Premiere: Thursday, December 13
Times: Tuesday to Saturday @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Sunday @ 3pm, Wednesday & Saturday at 1.30pm*
Tickets: $89.90 to $112.90
Running Time: 3 hours, interval
Bookings: The Billy Hotline 1300 552 290