Billy Elliot hits the mark

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Billy Elliot
Billy Elliot
Theatre adaptions of films don’t always work well but Billy Elliot is a notable exception to that rule.

We saw this show for the first time on Saturday and the matinee performance held our party of eight fully in its grip from beginning to end. Indeed one of our number was in pieces after the finale to Act 1 where Billy dances with great anger in a dream scene against an ensemble of riot shield-wielding policemen; never has the timeout of an interval been so well placed since Les Miserables‘ One Day More.

Billy on this occasion was 13-year-old Nebraskan Tanner Pflueger. His was not the only good performance on the day; indeed there wasn’t a noticeable weakness in the cast. But inevitably it was his energetic and very capable performance that drew the audience to its feet in the last of several curtain calls.

This is not a show that sends you out on the street humming a hit; despite its Elton John background there’s no big Lion King Circle of Life-like number. Post-show memories instead are more of the dance and also the back-story which had us Googling for more details of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike minutes after leaving the theatre. In particular the cyc-sized Durham Miners’ Association banner provided a poignant reminder that Easington Colliery is still one of the most deprived areas in the UK following the pit closure in 1994.

The darker side of the show carries through to the language, brutally realistic to the setting but perhaps something not all parents of young children would be expecting. It was mostly appropriate to what might have been said by the characters, but occasionally one sensed a slight over-usage to provide shock-laughs. We live in fascinating times where a fractional part of Billy Elliot’s libretto performed before the watershed on TV would be job-threatening but where it is completely acceptable to audiences of 1500 at a time in the Victoria Palace theatre.

After my recent mauling of the lighting and stage design on the Sound of Music I was completely taken in by the efforts of set designer Ian Macneil and lighting designer Rick Fisher. The set was a fascinating blend of high-tech, primarily a multi-storey set that rises out of the stage to represent Billy’s bedroom, and low-tech trucks pushed around by the cast and a small army of not always invisible stagehands. The lighting was often refreshingly sparing, which ensured the more dramatic and complex moments were all the more effective.

In summary, a brilliant performance that is well worth a trip to town.

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