Billy Elliot The Musical, the story of a working class boy who puts down his boxing gloves and turns to dancing, is touring the UK for the first time in a critically acclaimed production. With a musical score by Elton John, it certainly made Palace Theatre-goers smile on opening night.
Set in a small mining town in the north east during the 1984 miners’ strike, it explores the struggles in a community on the brink of losing of its only industry, as well as Billy’s personal battle against the prejudices of his peers as he takes up dancing and dreams of a place at the Royal Ballet School in London.
As the mining industry comes under attack from the government, we watch battle lines drawn by Billy’s father (a great gruff portrayal by Martin Walsh), brother and others inside the Easington Lodge of the Durham Miners Association.
The whole town is on strike – and as protesting workers, marching policemen and dancing children become entangled in impressive stage routines, the sense of a community under pressure is clear to see.
Some scenes showing this tension are quite terrifying. The scene in which Billy dances up against the slamming riot shields and thundering batons of the police is a fine example of Peter Darling’s intense choreography.
The demanding role of Billy is taken by four different boys at different performances – on opening night by Haydn May. The boy who has already lost his mother and is on the verge of losing his father to industrial action remains believable thanks to his ability to balance black humour and sensitivity. Impressive at just 12 years old, particularly in scenes in which he runs down the stairs from his rickety bed (a brilliant piece of staging) and those in which he is the only boy in an all-girls dance class.
“I can’t do it, miss!” he protests against the guidance of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, patient enough to take Billy under her wing, potty-mouthed enough to keep the audience on their toes too.
The relationship between Billy and his teacher (played emotively by Annette McLaughlin) drives the first half forward with a giggling group of ballet girls adding their own dynamic personalities to the sense of chaos.
The staging is stand out and takes us through the process of coming of age, culminating in a beautifully-lit set where an older Billy dances with his young self suspended in the air.
This is a production with the power to move the audience from hope as Billy progresses to fear when the second half opens with a massive leering puppet of Margaret Thatcher, reminiscent of Spitting Image, accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher.
Emotional scenes are balanced by moments of comic relief. Billy’s cross-dressing friend Michael is a brilliant example of this, bringing bursts of brightness and leading us through one of the most memorable songs of the show, Expressing Yourself, along with a tap routine and giant dancing dresses.
The maturity of the young cast is impressive and they carry forward a story which has the power to speak a message to us all amidst the bad language (which is brilliantly authentic) – believe in yourself.
The Palace Theatre until 28 January.