Review: Billy Elliot – the Musical

Simon Hale is at Birmingham Hippodrome to watch a modern classic.

Film and theatre producer Jon Finn admitted that he cried when he first read the script of Billy Elliot and that he spotted Elton John doing the same as he was watching the film at the Cannes Festival in 2000.

Sir Elton suggested turning the movie into a musical with his own songs and the show has since wowed audiences worldwide. Now the story of the boy from a working class family achieving his dreams as a dancer has finally arrived in Birmingham.

The reason for the tears, Jon announced on VIP night at the Birmingham Hippodrome, was because his own granddad was a miner and the script reminded him of the camaraderie and community that existed in mining communities – and which was tested to the limit in the strike of 1984. The violence and confrontation between miners and police and the financial struggles of families that ensued provide the backdrop to an absorbing and moving show in which 13-year-old Lewis Smallman from West Bromwich is the total star.

Lewis displayed an all-round mastery of dance, gymnastics and acting skills as Billy, the boy who would rather learn ballet steps than boxing. His cross-dressing exchanges with his best friend Michael (Elliot Stiff), followed by a dance routine by giant dresses, were among the funniest in the production; while his dancing alongside his older self (Luke Cinque-White) showed the grace and finesse of a seasoned professional ballet dancer.

In an emotional roller coaster of a show, balanced neatly between drama and dance, Lewis took us from mourning a dead mother to fulfilling her advice in a performance that brought the audience to its feet.

Annette McLaughlin didn’t quite reach the heights of Haydn Gwynne’s stunning portrayal of ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson that this reviewer had the good fortune to see on Broadway but was compelling enough in the role with her ‘tough love’ approach to her classes and in standing up to Billy’s bigoted family.

The Elton John score was enjoyable and usefully descriptive without being memorable, and the language throughout the show was more than a little ripe at times (though grittily realistic) for full-on family entertainment.

But this is still a wonderful feel-good show and if you don’t manage to catch Lewis Smallman as Billy then there are three others boys playing the role in rotation that you feel are just as talented. And like the producer and the composer, you’ll struggle to hold back the tears.

Billy Elliot is in performance at Birmingham Hippodrome until April 29th. Tickets