Last Updated on 23rd July 2022
Gary Stringer reviews a new production of Billy Elliot the musical now playing the Leicester’s Curve Theatre.
A cost-of-living crisis, an unpopular Prime Minster, and industrial action, no it’s not 2022, but the mid-1980s. With nostalgia for the decade of yuppies, shoulder pads and the Rubick cube continuing to dominate popular culture, the time is right for the first new UK production of Billy Elliot the Musical, at Leicester’s Curve theatre.
The 2000 film by Director Stephen Daldry is a much-beloved classic, with an(other) unforgettable performance from Julie Walters and a star-making turn from Jamie Bell. Subsequently adapted as an award-winning musical in 2005 with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, this aspirational story of a boy who dares to dream and in doing so find himself through dance is perfect for revisiting in these discordant times. Big ballet shoes to fill, but Director Nikolai Foster is not daunted and brings something fresh to this production whilst respecting and retaining the heart of the source material.
Showcasing Curve’s commitment to nurturing the talent of tomorrow, the young performers that constitute the “ballet girls and boxing boys” are sensational, their childhood innocence providing the perfect counterpoint to the world-weariness and cynicism of the adults in their life, giving hope to the parents and relatives ground down by the harsh day to day realities, and the seemingly impossible odds of making ends meet.
In this Press Night production Jaden Shentall-Lee (sharing the role throughout the run with Leo Hollingsworth, Alfie Napolitano and Samuel Newby) displays incredible charisma and confidence as the working-class boy from County Durham who swaps boxing gloves for ballet slippers, helping to bring solidarity to his divided family as well as the wider community. His performance of ‘Electricity’ in act II is simply electrifying. Whilst his relationship with his father, played by an excellent Joe Caffrey is central, it is his relationship with his indomitable Mrs. Wilkinson that is pivotal to the story and Sally Ann Triplett certainly makes the part her own, bringing pathos and dignity to a woman that finds fulfilment to the missed opportunities of her own life via our titular hero. Of the other women in his life, comic relief is provided by Rachel Izen as Billy’s grandmother who delivers a stunning turn in ‘Grandma’s Song’, whilst Jessica Daley as Billy’s dearly departed mam brought a tear to many an eye as she guides and encourages from afar. But perhaps the sweetest relationship is between Billy and his friend Michael (Prem Masini) who encourages and inspires through his own enthusiastic determination to simply being and expressing himself.
As with previous Made at Curve productions the immense stage is a character in itself, managing to be both epic in scale and claustrophobic thanks to Set Designer Michael Taylor and Ben Cracknell’s impressive lighting design. The stark industrial staging is used to great effect, with fences caging in the cast, representing the economic and societal constraints facing the community. Recreating a mineshaft to serve as the Eliot family home is a genius touch, a representation of a structure at the heart of this mining community with all its conflicting associations.
In bringing to life this story of a community battling to prove that they are viable this joyous production celebrates friendship, family and camaraderie under adversity, showing parallels with the onstage and backstage talent still recovering from the effects and uncertainty of the pandemic. Like Billy, take the chance, you won’t be disappointed!
In memory of Angela Hyde-Courtney who introduced the joy of live theatre to so many, and so enthusiastically.
Until 20 August 2022