If you just see one musical a year, make it Billy Elliot.
This is a tall call to make as we head into March, but this return production of Billy Elliot should be on the must-see list of every music theatre lover.
If you haven’t seen the film, it’s the story of a coal-mining village about to be shut down by the forces of economic pruning by Maggie Thatcher’s hardline conservative government. This is a village in crisis, where men are men and women are tough. Young Billy discovers that the ballet that follows his boxing class is a lot more fun and he happens to excel at it. So the stage is set for seeing if Billy can escape a grim future of unemployment through dance or if he will be stuck in the village forever, like his dad and brother. His much-loved mum died some years ago, but still appears to Billy when he needs her. A feisty but lovable grandma completes the family.
This show places a huge weight on the young star who plays Billy, and there are four of them sharing the role. On opening night, River Mardesic had the whole theatre in the palm of his hand. Rarely have I seen such a natural, unforced performance of a young role, and he is also a spectacular dancer and reasonable singer. Quite simply, I found him mesmerizing. The other young role, of Billy’s sweet cross dressing mate Michael, was played by another terrific actor and dancer, Oscar Mulcahy. And the third junior role, dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie, was played by Ella Tebbutt, with great comic timing.
And the adults in the cast complement the young stars very well, with fine performances from Lisa Sontag as Mrs Wilkinson, Justin Smith as Billy’s dad, Drew Livingston as Billy’s brother Tony, Vivien Davies as Grandma, and a great nuanced performance from Robert Grubb as boxing coach George. Without giving anything away, George has some great costume changes that will make you chuckle. Aaron Smyth as the adult Billy Elliot performs a superb duet with young Billy, while Dean Vince does a spectacular comic performance as the downtrodden accompanist, Mr Braithwaite, with some nimble footwork in his dance numbers.
The book and lyrics by Lee Hall are excellent and Elton John’s music is moving, funny and has your toe tapping – it really is a great score, well played by the orchestra conducted by Michael Azzopardi, and the whole show is a credit to resident director Jacinta John and resident choreographer Danielle Bilios.
Normally I’m not a big fan of profanity on stage, but in this production, even the young stars using f-words simply isn’t offensive – it’s just a reflection of the culture of the time and makes you laugh. It also has the best curtain call number I have seen in a long time.
This is the third live production of Billy Elliot that I have seen, and several days after seeing it, I’m still thinking about the issues raised by this story, and the terrific music – that’s a sign of a wonderful show. And while it is a long show at a little over 3 hours, I didn’t glance at my watch once – and that’s a sure sign of a great night in the theatre!
Photo: River Mardesic as Billy. Photo credit: James D Morgan.
Julie Houghton reviewed the opening night of “Billy Elliot” at the Regent Theatre, on February 22, 2020.