If you were a boy growing up in the County Durham area in the late 1970s, your entire life was pretty much mapped out for you. You would grow up in a council house with your parents (dad a miner, mum a housewife), you would go to school, then leave and become a miner yourself. Saturday, would be the football, followed by the Miner’s Social Club where you would get drunk with your mates and probably meet your future wife. Once married, you would get your own council house, bring another child in the world, either a son to follow you down the mine or a daughter to marry a miner, and so it goes on. Hardly the circle of life is it? And then in 1984, the government took on the miner’s union in what turned out to be the longest and bitterest strike in UK history. This, then is the backbone of Billy Elliot currently in its 11th year at the Victoria Palace Theatre.
The story starts with a small boy watching a film of the Durham Miner’s Gala from July 1947 where Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison gave a speech extolling the virtues of the newly nationalised coal industry and told the miners that ‘The great experiment of socialism in a democracy depends on you. The whole future we are trying to build up in our country is for all our people, and all our children, and it depends on you.’ The curtain comes up to reveal that we are in a Miner’s Social club on the 12th March 1984 the day the NUM called the miners out in a national strike against pit closures – a cause they were confident they would win. In the euphoria felt by everyone at that moment, Jackie Elliot (Deka Walmsley) and his two sons, union agitator Tony (Chris Grahamson) and 12 year old Billy (Ollie Jochim) are ready to do their part to support the strike.
Well, Billy not so much as he has to do normal schoolboy things like go off to the boxing club. As he’s late – because he was looking after his aged, possibly alzheimic, grandmother (Gillian Elisa), he has to work harder than the rest to make up the time and gets into a sparring match with his best friend Michael (Todd Bell) before being left to work on the punch bag and hand over the keys to the next club, ballet – run by the formidable Mrs Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall). Unable to get Mrs W’s attention long enough to give her the keys, Billy ends up joining in with the class and, despite the put-downs by Mrs Wilkinson’s precocious daughter Debbie (Demi Lee) he quickly realises that not only does he quite like ballet but he is actually pretty good at it – unlike his feeble attempts at boxing. Of course, this being north east England in the mid-80s, Billy realises that his interest in ballet is not necessarily going to win favour with his very traditional family so keeps it to himself as he works with Mrs Wilkinson and pianist Mr Braithwaite (David Muscat) to improve his knowledge and look beyond the borders of County Durham to a future that few in his village could even imagine.
Based on the original film of the same name “Billy Elliot” is one of the best shows I have ever seen. Lee Hall’s book and lyrics, Elton John’s music, Stephen Daldry’s direction and Peter Darling’s choreography all combined together to present a night of musical theatre that is going to be difficult for any audience member to forget in a hurry. The show itself is a wonderful way of depicting the 1984-85 strike and the social tensions of the time – some of which are still present in these small ex-mining town today. I love the song ‘Solidarity’ which I think really demonstrates how the bitterness of the time grew – from the initial light-hearted banter between the strikers and the miners through to the violently confrontational approach taken by both sides at the end. The strike is a wonderful backdrop to Billy’s story though and his attempts to have a normal – if non-traditional – life, despite everything. And praise here has to go out to Ollie Jochim who played Billy on the night I saw the show for his wonderful performance. On stage for, I’m guessing, around 98% of the show, Billy has some huge moments throughout the performance. Both the ‘Angry Dance’ and ‘Electricity’ are massive and would probably scare an adult as would the duet between Billy and his older self (Barnaby Meredith) which is intense and absolutely beautiful to watch.
This was my second time of seeing “Billy Elliot” and one of my friends asked why I wanted to see it again. I tried to explain that every night in live theatre is different but with this show it’s even more. There are four Billy’s, three Michaels, three Debbies and thirty ballet girls that can appear in any combination meaning that every show is more unique than any other and must be fantastic challenge to the adult performers.
Overall, “Billy Elliot” deserves its reputation as one of the most captivating and electrifying shows in the West End just now. Even the programme is superb – probably the best I have purchased from any show with superb photographs and song lyrics it’s an excellently produced reminder of the show and at a price that is reasonable – it would be nice if all West End theatre programmes were so good. From start to finish it is a glorious display of the magic of musical theatre at its best and I wish another ten (and more) glorious years of success.
Review by Terry Eastham
Set in a northern mining town, against the background of the 1984/’85 miners’ strike, Billy Elliot is the inspirational story of a young boy’s struggle against the odds to make his dream come true. Billy’s journey takes him out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and whole community and changes his life forever.