BILLY ELLIOT Review by Frank Howson

billy elliot the musical australia river mardesic pic credit james d morgan scaled 1
billy elliot the musical australia river mardesic pic credit james d morgan scaled 1

billy elliot review by frank howsonStephen Daldry’s skillful direction elevates the musical “Billy Elliot” from the potential syrupy quagmire of cute to the genuinely touching and ultimately thought-provoking result that is on display at the resplendent Regent Theatre, Melbourne.

For all those who loved the original movie, you’ll fall in love with the story all over again. That’s a given. Lee Hall has cleverly adapted his screenplay to the restrictions of the theatre-stage, and in doing so, director Daldry displays his talent for creating theatrical magic with lighting, sound effects, scrim projection footage of the times, and innovative set design.

It is a daunting task for producers when casting a lead character of a young boy who’s onstage for the majority of the show, acting, singing and dancing. Such a huge responsibility weighing on such small shoulders. Yet, on the night I saw the show, the role of Billy Elliot wasn’t just played by River Mardesic, he was Billy Elliot. It was a stunning performance for an actor of any age. His acting was real, hitting all the right notes of humour and pathos and, all importantly, he made you care for his character. Really care. On top of that, he sang well and danced with all the style and ease of a young Astaire. A truly remarkable performance from one so young. He is ably assisted by Oscar Mulcahy playing his funny and lovable buddy, Michael, and Ella Tebbutt as his dancing school partner, Debbie. These three youngsters are destined to have fruitful careers in the theatre, should they so wish, and persevere.

In regard to the grown-ups, the casting was spot-on with such established pros as Lisa Sontag in the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the dancing teacher, Justin Smith as Billy’s troubled and despairing dad, Vivien Davies as the kindly and humourous Grandma, Drew Livingston as Billy’s older, angry brother, Danielle Everett as the deceased mum, and theatrical and film veteran Robert Grub who imbues the duplicitous George the miner with wit and dimension. An impressive assembly of experienced talent to give this story the wings it needs to take flight. And take flight it did, for a truly joyful night in the theatre.

The songs, music by Sir Elton John with lyrics by Lee Hall, were to my mind the only slightly disappointing element of the night. Being a long time Elton John fan I pondered long and hard as to why I’d felt a little let down by the songs, and finally settled upon this – it seemed to me that, instead of Elton creating his own distinctive magic with the music, he’d set out to write a score for a musical. He limited his imagination to what had been done before in that genre. In doing this, he possibly harked back to some of the musicals he’d loved in his past, in order to comply with the accepted formula. Lee Hall’s lyrics are fine in that they comment on the action as well as move the story forward, but, personally, I missed the poetry that Bernie Taupin may have brought to this piece. It’s difficult to remember any of the songs after you leave the theatre, although they’re enjoyable enough in the show, and do their job. It’s just that, when you have a musical giant like Elton John involved, you can’t be blamed for expecting more. That’s because he, himself, set the bar for our expectations so very, very high.

The elephant in the theatre throughout this show is Margaret Thatcher. She looms large, and in one scene, literally. The basis for this show results from her action, as Prime Minister, to close down what she believed to be inefficient collieries in order to grow the economy. At the time, it was cheaper to import coal than to keep the local mines operating. This triggered the famous Miners Strike that became the longest workers strike in British history. Ultimately the Government won the day and 200,000 miners lost their jobs, breaking the hearts and spirit of working men who’d given their all to this industry. Thatcher’s actions tore families apart and forms the dramatic heart of the “Billy Elliot” story, as we see first hand the micro-story of its effect on one family struggling to keep their identity, and each other, together. It’s also about how one is forced to accept change in order to go on. To trade your past for a future, lest you be stuck in a groundhog day of bitterness for the rest of your life.

It’s interesting how history alters opinions and political correctness of certain incidents. In today’s world, Thatcher’s order to close mines down would be seen as a major win for the environmentalists. Yes, to quote Mr. Dylan, “the times they are a’changin’.” Always.

Grab a ticket to “Billy Elliot,” it’s a theatrical must-see, and will find a special place in your memories.  And Billy will live on in your heart as a symbol of someone brave enough to bear the consequences of being different, amidst initial intolerance. And finally wins.


You have until April 19 to experience it.

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Review by Frank Howson February 2020.

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