REVIEW: Billy Elliot @ The Palace, Manchester

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Pic: Alastair Muir

The Palace Theatre, Manchester sees the long awaited arrival of the hit musical Billy Elliot for the festive season and brings dance, drama, tears, laughter and politics in abundance.

 

Anyone who loved the film will not be disappointed by the stage adaptation of the story of a boy, with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, from a Durham mining village gripped by the bitter 1984-85 miners’ strike.

The show is in many ways better than the film, amplifying each glorious element. The dancing is more integral to the experience and Elton John’s music is both poignant and wonderfully entertaining.

And the political messages emanating from the story of the miners’ strike is more than just a back-drop. Writer Lee Hall lets rip in a way that perhaps he couldn’t in the film. Some of the messages are quite subtle but others are blatant – the Durham Miners hated Margaret Thatcher and saw the police as their enemy. Come to think of it, can you imagine any story about this strike in which the miners are the villains and the Tories are the heroes?

The political messages are as embedded in the story as the police were in mining communities. One scene that sticks in the memory is the Christmas Party puppet show in which Thatcher is brutally lampooned.

Central to the story is of course Billy whose dreams of becoming a dancer eventually inspires the whole town to get behind him. In the press night production, Billy was beautifully played by 13-year-old Lewis Smallman whose singing, dancing, and Geordie accent was pitch perfect. He is one of four boys who will be playing Billy in the show’s run.

Another star in the making is surely 10-year-old Samuel Torpey from Middleton, whose portrayal of Billy’s friend Michael charmed the audience with wonderful dancing and comic timing which made his scenes a joy to watch.

The cast is incredibly strong with great performances from  Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson, Martin Walsh as Dad, Scott Garnham as Tony and Andrea Miller as Grandma.

Doubtless most people will enjoy this show for the singing and the dancing, and there is plenty to enjoy. But for an exiled Geordie such as me who lived through the miners’ strike, it is the political message that shines through. Lee Hall holds nothing back in the song lyrics which take swipes at the government, the police and the leadership of the trade union movement who ultimately betrayed the cause. The essence of the message to be taken away is both joyful and tragic. Billy escapes a future of pit closures, unemployment and fractured communities, but as Tony says in the play: “We can’t all be dancers”.

And there are plenty more battles left to fight.

Runs till January 28

Dave Toomer

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