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Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

15 June 2016

A musical is perhaps not the first thing one would think of when dramatizing the 1980s Miners strike, but the Welsh premiere of Billy Elliot The Musical was an exhilarating experience, one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre in any form that I have seen in a long time. Adapted from the 2000 film starring Julie Walters and Jamie Bell and directed by Stephen Daldry, the story of a young boy who overcomes both the childhood trauma of his mother’s death and his working class upbringing to audition for the Royal Ballet could come across as cloyingly sentimental, but it’s a real credit to the ensemble cast and direction that we buy into Billy’s journey right from the start.

The musical stays faithful to this coming of age story, whilst adding a score by Elton John and a snappy, funny and emotionally gut wrenching book and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the original screenplay). The musical numbers embody the unique political and social world of a Northern mining town in 1980s Britain, with traditional brass bands in tunes such as The Stars Look Down and Solidarity, and tapping into folk memory with Grandma’s Song and Deep Into The Ground. These songs reflect the mainstay of the show, the mining community which Billy grows up in but eventually leaves, and is offset by the more boisterous numbers of Mrs Worthington’s dance class, Shine and Born to Boogie and the wonderfully surreal Expressing Yourself, which features a lovely tap dance homage to classical Hollywood musicals.

The cast are excellent throughout, led by Lewis Smallman as Billy (there are another three actors who alternate the role during the run), who captures Billy’s freedom when he dances with great grace and agility. Two show stopping scenes stand out – the Angry Dance, when Billy is forced by his family to drop out of his audition, brilliantly combines his personal rage with the conflict between the union and the police who confront each other on the battlefield of the Miners strike. Stunning original choreography by Peter Darling sees Billy dancing amongst this class war, leaping onto the shields of the riot police in an image that burns itself into the mind. The other remarkable piece is the Dream Ballet, where Billy takes part in a duet of Swan Lake with an older version of himself which features a daring theatrical effect that brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation.

Of the other cast members Annette McLaughlin makes a delightfully droll Mrs Wilkinson, and Scott Garnham as Billy’s older brother Tony, Martin Walsh as his dad and Andrea Miller as his grandmother invest his family with great wit and comic timing. Elliot Stiff as his cross dressing friend Michael steals every scene he is in and the ensemble chorus of dancers, both young and old, brought tremendous energy and excitement to the stage. It’s not just a musical that pleases the crowd; it’s a work of exquisite art that explores working class masculinity and offers up a soaring lament for a lost way of life.


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