REVIEW: BILLY ELLIOT (Sunderland Empire)


Billy is coming home declares the publicity and what a triumphant home-coming it was. The theatre-goers at Sunderland Empire certainly thought so, rising as one to give a very much deserved standing ovation at the end.

Set in Easington, less than 10 miles away from the Empire and we were entertained by Easington Colliery Brass band as we entered the theatre, which was a nice touch.

As the theatre waited to judge the show, it wasn’t found wanting. The accents were authentically Durham (not Geordie), with not a consonant out of place or a vowel over elongated.

With Billy Elliot, dance is the thing. Adapted from the 2000 movie of the same name, the musical (two hours and 35 minutes with intermission) is the story of an aspiring dancer who also happens to be a motherless lad living with his father, brother and grandmother in a rough British coal-mining community.

It’s an especially tough time. As the play opens, the year is 1984, and the community is threatened by a battle of wills between the unionised miners and the intractable prime minister Margaret Thatcher, heard in vintage footage as the play begins. The first song, The Stars Look Down, is a shout-out to a not-dissimilar 1940 movie of the same name about a young man who attempts to break out of the mining community in which he was raised.

The role of Billy is shared between 4 exceptionally talented young men: Adam Abbou, Matthew Lyons, Lewis Smallman and Haydn May who performed for us on his 11th birthday. Billy is just a kid with extraordinary expressive potential, who may or may not make it as an adult, and that is exactly what this show delivers. The strength of the emotional connection flows to the rest of Billy’s family: his beloved but dotty gran (played by Andrea Miller) and his brother Tony (Scott Garnham). Garnham’s deeply wrenching performance made me believe for the first time that his character Tony was cut from the same cloth as young Billy. In other productions, he often seemed just angry, but in this he seems to be remembering his broken dreams. Billy’s gruff dad (a suitably marshmallow-centred Martin Walsh),  gives a sensitive and honest performance.

Annette McLaughlin is absolutely wonderful as the inspiring Mrs Wilkinson. She sings with a cabaret singer’s sexy, smoky voice, has a fantastic sense of humour and dances like a professional. She also gets one of the most moving moments of the play as this surrogate mother sings a duet with the ghostly real one, Nikki Gerrard.

Billy is hooked, although he worries that male dancers are deemed “poofs.” That anxiety is addressed in Billy’s subsequent encounter with his cross-dressing friend Michael (Henry Farmer, Elliot Stiff, Samuel Torpey all sharing the role) in the comic number Express Yourself (“Get some earrings, some mascara, heels and a fan/pretty soon you will start to feel a different man.”) Surreptitiously taking a few lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy proves to be a dancing prodigy. The teacher he believes he has what it takes to go to a professional ballet school in London.

That effort will require a radical change of attitude, not just from Billy’s macho family, but from an entire community seemingly built on a foundation of masculine bluster. With great comic interaction from Debbie, Mrs Wilkinson’s 10 year old daughter (Lily Cadwallender, Evie Martin and Italia Ross).

The interplay between ballet lessons and battles on picket lines is well done and gives the stage version a harder edge than the film. The first half is tremendous fun, assisted greatly by Sir Elton John’s music which is often anthemic and uplifting. Whilst the show seems to just be about an unlikely kid from an anti-arts environment trying to get into the Royal Ballet School it’s really about how artistic truth flows from deep within us and how a dancer dances because nothing else makes him or her feel the same way. And it’s about how as parent, one thing matters most of all: that you get behind your kids.

Yes, the language can be fruity and maybe more shocking when uttered by a 10 year old – but this is a wonderful show. It’s a living, breathing, feeling musical, one of the most political ever created for the theatrical stage.

Reviewed by Lindsay Sykes
Photo: Alastair Muir

Billy Elliot is playing in Sunderland until 30 April and on tour around the UK