There wasn’t a dry eye or an empty seat in the house, as the long awaited UK touring production of Billy Elliot danced into the Liverpool Empire Theatre this week.
Elton John’s musical adaptation of the 2000 film, starring Julie Walters, ran for eleven years from 2005 in London’s West End, before runs on Broadway, in Australia and on two US Tours; and the best of all of these previous productions have been amalgamated into the current UK Tour, now beginning its extended run in Liverpool. Unlike the majority of shows sent out on tour after a residency in London, this production has not lost any of its grandiose, with subtle revisions to the set and action whilst not losing a drop of its integrity.
Just as in its big screen counterpart, the show focuses on the political unrest of Thatcher’s Britain, and its effect on the Mining Industry in the North East. As the Miners of County Durham march out on what would become a year-long strike, young motherless Billy Elliot reluctantly dreads his weekly boxing class, and stumbles even more reluctantly into a girls’ Ballet class. Despite initial protestation, Billy’s natural talents soon become apparent, and ballet mistress Mrs Wilkinson coaches him privately for an audition to attend the Royal Ballet School. As the miners struggle to survive through their prolonged battle for worker’s rights, tensions run higher than they might have, as Billy not only faces the challenge of getting into the most prestigious dance institution in the country, but also the fight of the the working classes in a country that had forgotten them.
The phrase Solidarity from Lee Hall’s lyric is appropriate for a solid and devoted ensemble and leading adult cast, who capture the struggle of the workers and the passion of the union. Most notably, Anna-Jane Casey’s extensive theatre career sets her in great standing to step into the iconic shoes of Julie Walters. Her non-emotional straight-talk, both as she runs class and as she stands up to any man in her way, are the perfect preamble to her softer scenes with Billy, giving him the maternal care he so craves.
However, with respect, the adults are simply warmup acts for the young stars of this show; from the tiny boy who appears first on stage, to the wonderfully haphazard gaggle of ballet girls who swarm the stage throughout. The children’s roles are shared as with any theatrical production, but for Opening Night in Liverpool we were treated to performances from Evie Martin as Debbie, who delivers many of the iconic lines from the film with maturity beyond her years, and Bradley Mayfield as the cross-dressing tap-dancing Michael, who effortlessly and unashamedly reminds us that there is nothing wrong with expressing yourself.
Very few performers get to enjoy an opening night of a UK Number One Touring show in their hometown; fewer still in the leading role; and even fewer still get to do it before the age of 15. The energy in the Liverpool Empire this week channelled as much electricity as is suggested in the show’s act two song and dance number as 14 year old local actor, Adam Abbou, stunned an entire audience with his sensational performance in the title role of Billy. Adam joins a long line of Billy’s whose technique and skill at such a young age is enough to make any grown professional feel inadequate. Look out for his name in what is set to be a bright future.
This show tackles an incredibly serious subject matter. Exploitation of the lower and working classes and mistrust of government seems feels oddly similar to the world we live in today; though the handling of the subject is heartfelt, hysterical and hard-hitting. Behind a facade of how expression of self through dance leads to a discovery of what we need to do, the show champions the rights of all of us workers to stand by what we believe in, for though we may lose many things in doing so, we will not lose courage or integrity.
Reviewed by Tate James
Photo: Alastair Muir