It’s not often a musical manages to be more powerful than the film from which it was spawned. But Billy Elliot does just that.
Back in 2000, the film, which brought to life the tale of a schoolboy from a humble County Durham mining town who finds his feet, and his future, through dance lessons, was a box office smash.
Though the subject matter of dance lends itself perfectly to the musical medium, I wasn’t sure if the tale would lose its Northern grit on the West End stage.
It hasn’t. In fact, the politics of the Miners’ Strike, which resonates so strongly with those from the North East, is hammered home even more poignantly in the stage version. It makes no bones about the devastating effect of the loss of this industry on communities, and a Durham Miners’ Association banner looms large at the back of the stage, a proud reminder of a chapter in industrial history which scarred so many.
In keeping with the show’s roots, the children in the show are often cast from the North East. On the night I saw the show it was spirited Sunderland schoolgirl Hollie Creighton who danced as Debbie.
The Barnes youngster gave a commanding performance that belied her 11 years, while still retaining the cheeky spark of the character - and her potty mouth. Be warned, this is a profanity-filled show.
All too often dramas set in the North East hire actors from outside the area who merely ape the accent, often badly, but it was refreshing to hear a regional twang on a regional character.
She helps to imbue the piece with its warm humour which, balanced with the rawness of its setting, has made it such a hit. And you don’t have to be from the north to be moved by this see-saw of passion and pathos.
Extra scenes which didn’t feature in the film help to give extra oomph to this stage version of the tale. Most notably a mesmerising scene between young Billy and older Billy, a feat of affecting choreography, which is beautifully recreated with balletic prowess.
At the other end of the scale, there’s also a host of prancing giant Margaret Thatchers in a nightmarish Christmas scene (I’ll let you decide what the collective noun for a dozen of the infamous unwavering Prime Minister is, as it may not be printable in a family newspaper.)
Kudos to the young actor who played the eponymous hero brilliantly. With its physical demands and gamut of emotions, from grief to frustration to elation, it’s a big role for an adult, let alone a child.
He’s barely off stage as he fights to express himself in a community that’s being ripped apart around him.
Despite the music being penned by Elton John, it’s not as memorable as the film score - it’s the portrayal of the story through dance which you’ll take home with you.
Though the West End show will draw to a close in Spring, a touring version will make its North East debut at Sunderland Empire in April. It will no doubt have even more of an impact with an audience who lived through this tale of triumph in the face of adversity.
It’s social realism meets Davy Lamps meets sublime dancing, a musical with soul.