Live cinema linkups may not be quite the same thing as actually being there, but when the reality of seeing a show involves a return trip to London and a night in a hotel, it clearly make commercial sense to nip down to the nearest multiplex. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals but I saw Billy Elliot at the Victoria theatre in 2007 and thought it one of the best stage shows I’d ever seen, so here was an opportunity to revisit it, some ten years later.
Based on Stephen Daldry’s superb movie (released in 2000) this is a canny adaptation that incorporates many of the film’s best moments and throws in some ideas of its own. It’s 1984 and the men of a small County Durham mining town are out on strike. Teenager Billy (played in this performance by Elliott Hanna, but the role is shared with three other young actors) is coping with the recent death of his mother. Dad (Deka Walmsley) is struggling to hold the family together, while Billy’s older brother, Tony (Chris Grahamson) is a committed militant, and Grandma (Ann Emery) is rapidly succumbing to dementia. Sent to the local gym for boxing lessons, Billy finds himself much more interested in the ballet classes run by local dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), but he knows that Dad won’t approve of him swapping one class for another…
It has to be said that the musical version has a somewhat unsteady start, featuring overheated jokes about meat pasties and a kitchen invasion by striking miners, that are both clumsily handled, but it quickly settles into its stride and once Billy reports for boxing training, it becomes truly engaging. There are some superbly staged routines – a scene where a ballet class becomes entangled with a face-off between striking miners and truncheon-wielding police is a particular highlight, as is Billy’s anger-fuelled tap-freakout in front of a row of riot shields. Only the stoniest hearts will resist shedding tears in several scenes here, particularly the one where Billy and Mrs Wilkinson share a reading/singing of his Mother’s last letter. Young Elliot Hanna demonstrates such breathtaking talent that you cannot take your eyes off him. When a seasoned trouper like Ruthie Hensall pales in comparison alongside him, you know he surely must have a bright future ahead.
The figures speak volumes of the show’s success. It’s run continuously in the West End since 2005, has toured worldwide and has been seen by a total audience of more than 9.5 million. People love this show and I am no exception.