Billy Elliot – the theatrical production of the eponymous film – currently playing at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre is not much short of wonderful.
It’s the story of a motherless boy who, against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike of the mid 80s, where men are facing emasculation through the loss of their livelihood, culture and history, wants to be the antithesis of blokehood – a ballet dancer.
It’s the story of how his father can’t believe he wants to swap boxing gloves for a leotard, about how his teacher believes in him against the odds and about how self-belief is the thing that will get us all through life.
The performers are honestly awesome – energetic, cheeky, flamboyant and faultless. And that’s just the kids. The adults are similarly fabulous. The energy, the electricity!
It’s pretty faithful to the film but has some noticeable additions. Such as when Billy meets his older self and duets to Swan Lake. In the film, this is the climax of the story but here it arrives earlier as a clever hint of what’s to come.
Tchaikovsky’s music is, of course, a maelstrom of passion and the two performers, Adam Abbou as the young Billy and Luke Cinque-White as the older, are breath-taking. But the aerial feats with the wire weren’t necessary. The dancers already exhibit such energy, expertise and excitement we didn’t need stunts.
Likewise, Michael, Billy’s cross-dressing mucker is given a show-stopping number where he demands, “What the hell’s wrong with expressing yourself.” It’s an upbeat, triumphant, defiant number and Bradley Mayfield delivers it with verve and virtuosity but the producer has seen fit to accessorise it with a waltzing wardrobe of oversized frocks.
This slightly surreal It’s A Knockout style dream sequence had the audience hooting with laughter but I wonder if it glosses over what would have been, in the Sunderland of the 80’s where men were miners and only “poofs” did ballet, a difficult and brave life choice. It felt a bit like the subtleties were being
sacrificed to the god of crowd-pleasing.
The film is beautifully scripted and much of the dialogue makes the theatrical cut. Such as when Billy shares his letter from his dead mother with dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (the excellent Anna-Jane Casey) and she tells him that she must have been very special. Billy replies, “No, she was just me mam.” It’s both heartbreaking and humorous.
But it’s not hilarious. Through my tears, a bittersweet chuckle broke through, but half the auditorium was rolling in the aisles. Which made me think that maybe this production’s pathos was too compromised by obvious gags, such that the audience failed to find the heartbreak when they should.
Because, like the film before it, it’s a hard edged tale of riots, politics and real poverty. The pit closures and subsequent Miners’ Strike is not so much the backdrop as an insistent, encroaching character in the play itself. And when Billy’s father (Martin Walsh) makes the ultimate sacrifice and crosses the picket line so that he can pay for Billy’s dancing, consigning himself to the slagheap of history to forge the way for Billy’s new life, it’s as heart-stopping as the dancing.
Liverpool Empire, until 27th May
PR Rating: ****