Now showing at the Victoria Palace Theatre. All views represented in this review are my own.
Welcome back! It’s been a while. Sometimes life gets in the way. However let us begin our summer with a journey to the 1980s and a review of the production I saw for the fifth (!) time this June. This, dear readers, is what I call a serious review. Maybe it’s because I was born in the eighties, my natural affinity with what happened during the eighties, or just the fact that Billy Elliot challenges everything I knew about the eighties – however after my fifth (yes, really) viewing of this production I am still more in love with it than ever.
Based on the film of the same name, this production covers the same themes albeit with more comedy. It’s still about an aspiring 11 year old dancing boy in a mining community that is out on strike and struggling to survive in 1984-5. Having grown up in Essex, the land that didn’t really get affected by such things, but benefited hugely from massive infrastructure projects such as M25, privatisation of the family silver and most importantly the land that still claims Thatcher was the messiah to land ravaged by the unions; I have always seen this musical as an extension of my own education in opening my eyes further to the way in which communities within the United Kingdom were fractured as a result of the pit closures.
Let’s take the miners. Nationalised by Attlee’s reforming Government of 1945. Their communities were based around their pits. Closure for them meant total loss of livelihood in an area where people were trained to do little, even nothing else. Thirty years on the closure of the pits in these ‘former industrial towns’ is still felt. Of course, modern history teaches us that it was the miners that brought down Heath in 1974 (nothing to do with him calling an election over 12 months before it was necessary) and Callaghan’s Government in 1979 (aside from the fact Callaghan was the one who should have called an election at any rate, and that Thatcher also was hankering for victory). Therefore the opening song ‘The Stars Look Down’ is fairly accurate. The miners saw their position as unassailable but also believed they held the moral ground because they were fighting for their society, not a figure on a balance sheet.
The historical backdrop of the miner’s strike is just one theme highlighted through the musical. The rallying together of the community is interlinked with this. The Easington miners act with ‘Solidarity’ (another Act 1 song), which aside from some fairly impressive choreography involving riot gear, provides a stark contrast to the 1980s history that promotes the individual. Viewed in 2014 there is almost some comfort in the way in which the miners rally together, not just to support their own cause, but each other and their families as demonstrated in raising money for Billy and his audition and the rather amusing Christmas Party.
The contrast to community is found in the theme of acceptance. Billy wants to become a ballet dancer, raising concerns amongst his family that he might be homosexual. This is contrasted further with Michael (Billy’s best friend) who is revealed to be a cross dresser and most likely, homosexual. The song ‘Expressing Yourself’ where the two boys dress up and perform is a highlight. The line: ‘We’ll not complain about your boring life, if you just leave me to mine.’ along with the line: ‘The world is grey enough without making it worse, what we need is individuality.’ provides an interesting contrast to the wider message about community as here the message is about being an individual. Philosophers could debate for years about whether the conflicting rights of community versus the individual. However, here the two are not in conflict. It is important to be true to yourself. If we were all the same, it would be boring. Social individuality is the key to positive interaction and sexual orientation does not define a person or their occupation.
With sparkling choreography, sharp dialogue and a historically explosive backdrop, one of the highlights of the musical is the interaction between Billy and his dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson. I’m not going to say the current Mrs Wilkinson is the best I’ve seen, because Genevieve Lemon (of Neighbours and Prisoner: Cell Block H fame) who played the role when I saw this for the second time in 2010 takes some beating – having been in the original cast of the Sydney production. However, the interaction still dazzles, with a fantastic range of emotions displayed across four songs ‘Shine’ (a Chicago parody), ‘Solidarity’, ‘The Letter’ and ‘Born to Boogie’. Of course the interaction between the pair on stage would not be complete without the role that Billy himself plays. The talent these young actors and dancers display is nothing short of truly thrilling.
The tragedy of this musical is that the miners never see what lies ahead. Foreshadowing events to come, sporadic appearances by ‘scabs’ at points during the musical highlight what some came to regard as the futility of the strike. As modern day audience, thirty years after the strike began, we know that whilst Billy’s fate may offer that happy ending that will satisfy many, there is an inevitable juxtaposition to be had. As Billy finds out he has been accepted into the Royal Ballet School, the miners find out they have lost the strike. The colour of the staging that has highlighted previous scenes is gone, and the miners are surrounded by darkness with only the light of their head torches for company. It is the inevitable ending, and the defiance of the song as the miners return to work – ‘Once We Were Kings’ – is particularly haunting with the repetitive ending: ‘We walk proudly and we walk strong, all together we will go as one, the ground is empty and cold as hell, but we all go together when go.’ Thus, highlighting that not only do the miners accept their ultimate defeat, but that they still continue with their ultimate underlying principle that they act together as a community.
Words can never do justice to the amount of enthusiasm and empathy I have for this musical in the issues presented in terms of solidarity, community, individuality and acceptance. If you’re a fan of the eighties or fancy a trip to a musical not set in a fantasy land, but in the gritty world of Thatcher where ‘Sid’, the M25 and the ‘Big Bang’ were simply not heard of – this is a must see. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and smile. There is so much more to be said, but then I’d really spoil it for you all!
Billy Elliot: The Musical was first performed in 2005 and is still being performed at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London with bookings currently being taken until December 2015. Alternatively there will be some showings of Billy Elliot in cinemas this September as apart of the ‘Digital Theatre’ programme. Please check your local cinema for details.