Billy Elliot, Hippodrome, Bristol and touring

artsnewsplaysbillyelliotIT has been eleven years since Billy Elliot opened in the West End, five years after the original film had wowed audiences worldwide, and I was lucky enough to see the original cast at the Victoria Palace, where the equally-anticipated latest musical sensation from Broadway, Hamilton arrives late next year. The anticipation in 2005 included much debate about how some of the iconic scenes from the film would transfer from screen to stage.  As the show makes its way around the country the same thoughts will no doubt fill the minds of people who enjoy the film, the soundtrack of contemporary music, and the talent of Jamie Bell as he danced his way from the boxing ring and alleyways of his County Durham village to become Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.  None of these worries or concerns, however, allowed for the creative genius of writer Lee Hall, director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling and composer Elton John: the show won awards from its first year and ran for over ten years before this tour started, and it continues to excite and intrigue people wherever it goes. Just as recent film versions of Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables and Into The Woods have different strengths to their stage originals, so this stage version of Billy Elliot uses the new medium to huge advantage.

Bristol is the latest port of call on this first national tour, with a local connection, as one of the four young actors playing Billy, Hadyn May, comes from Bath. Playing Billy on screen may have been quite a feat, but playing him onstage is a phenomenal task, and based on previous experience all four on the tour will be as good as each other, acting, singing and dancing their socks off. The same will apply to the young actors playing his friend Michael, played tonight by Henry Farmer, and who shares a huge cross-dressing production number with Billy, and the dance teacher’s daughter Debbie, Lilly Cadwallender tonight  – every one of them with their own strengths, but also with enough talent already to maintain a successful career for many years should they so choose.

As tonight’s Billy, local lad Haydn was equally talented in his acting, from the comedy scenes to those with more pathos, in his singing, and of course his dancing, not just the hit Electricity, but also the frustrated tap dance which takes the place of the alleyway scene from the film when he is not allowed to audition for ballet school, and closes Act One, with a real violence, throwing himself around the stage, and again with such grace and eloquence in the Swan Lake scene. The grown up members of the ensemble, as is usually the case with these big West End shows when they first tour, are all at the top of their game, and the four main principles, Annette McLaughlin as ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson, Martin Walsh as Billy’s father, Scott Garnham as his brother Tony and Andrea Miller as his grandmother, manage to capture the roles without even needing to try and remind us of Julie Walters et al, with some wonderful comic exchanges between Billy and his slightly dotty Gran, and high emotion from Walsh and Garnham, as striking miners as well as Billy’s family. Dance class accompanist Mr Braithwaite is a lovely cameo too, danced, sung and played with great skill by Daniel Page.

This is such an amazing show, on so many levels, and it manages to maintain the spirit of the film whilst giving us true spectacle on stage. The dancing policemen and miners may now be part of musical legend, but not to an audience seeing them for the first time, and there were so many parts of this show that were greeted with audible oohs and ahhs, like watching a good firework display, from the quieter, more intimate moments between Billy and his dead Mum to gymnastic displays of dancing, not just from the ensemble of youngsters, but from every single member of this extremely accomplished and justifiably confident ensemble. This confidence and ability carries over to the set design, including a wonderful Maggie Thatcher straight out of Spitting Image, creative and imaginative lighting and wonderful music, played, as is often the case with these big shows, by a band who could command an audience on their own, with some beautiful work on flugel horn and trumpet amongst the solo work.

This will be one of the hits of the year at the Hippodrome, and anywhere this tour visits in future, as Billy Elliot continues to lands on his toes throughout the land. See it if you can – you will not be disappointed.


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