REVIEW: Billy Elliot, Sunderland Empire, until April 30

Billy Elliot the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir
Billy Elliot the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir

Miners and musicals aren’t natural bedfellows - but in Billy Elliot the two worlds come together beautifully.

In keeping with its subject matter, this is a musical with grit and soul, and a spin off that actually manages to strike a louder chord than the original film.

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As anyone who’s seen that hit film will know, this is a tale of a boy brought up in the grip of the Miners’ Strike as it tears apart communities in East Durham. Unlike his forefathers, Billy’s future doesn’t lie down the pit: he’s destined to dance.

It’s not an easy transition to make for the schoolboy brought up in a village where boys box and ballet is left to the girls.

In the titular role for press night - the role is shared by four actors - was Haydn May who was a brilliant Billy. He goes through a gamut of emotions on his journey to the Royal Ballet School - and so do we - he had me chuckling in his scenes with the tutu-clad potty-mouthed pie-eating ballerinas and reaching for my Kleenex as he reads out a letter from his dead mam.

It’s a demanding role: actors have to sing, act, ballet dance, tap, back flip off a piano - all while keeping up an East Durham twang.

Tony, Dad and Billy in Billy Elliott the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir

Tony, Dad and Billy in Billy Elliott the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir

It’s not often, if ever, you hear such a lilt in theatre with talk of mams, pasties and young’uns and sentences punctuated with like and man. But you can tell the cast have worked hard at mastering the intonation of the North East tongue.

It’s an accent that will be held up to extra scrutiny on this leg of the tour.

Much of the film was shot in and around Easington Colliery - which became Everington in the film - and this is a show that feels very much like Billy is back where he belongs.

Such a politically-charged piece of theatre has an extra resonance when performed for an audience made up of people who will have lived through this tumultuous chapter in the region’s history.

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And it doesn’t gloss over the grim reality of how the pit closures affected individuals. Margaret Thatcher looms large, casting a dark shadow over the community. Never more so than in the Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher scene, in which the people of Everington look forward to her death and a giant Spitting Image-esque model of the former Prime Minister leers above the stage in a menacing fashion.

The tenacity and will to fight, juxtaposed with a struggle to make ends meet, in this bitter stand off between Thatcher’s government and the National Union of Mineworkers, which so defined the era, is personified in the characters of dad and Tony. Martin Walsh and Scott Garnham pull off, to great effect, the stiff upper lip often associated with North East men which Billy manages to chip away at with his dance talent.

And what a talent it is. The Angry Dance which closes act one is particularly powerful as Billy’s stifled emotions trapped in a world of male bravado are expressed in a masterpiece of contemporary dance as he hurls himself at Police shields and stamps the ground.

Peter Darling’s choreography perfectly sums up Billy’s inner fight and goes from raw intensity to humour, such as in the scene with Michael (played with great comic timing by Washington actor Elliot Stiff) in which the pair dress up in garish frocks for Expressing Yourself. And in the early scenes with the ballsy Mrs Wilkinson (Annette McLaughlin) as she manages to tap into his true talent.

There’s also a beautifully balletic scene in which we have a glimpse into the schoolboy’s future as he dances with an older Billy (Luke Cinque-White) and soars through the air in a mesmerising nod to Swan Lake.

It’s a scene not in the film. But this show is a sweeping feat of storytelling in its own right, a musical which balances great humour with great humanity.

You will go from having a lump in your throat to a spring in your step, you’ll feel proud of the struggle that happened on the Empire’s doorstep.

Welcome home Billy.