A celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships
By Joanne O’Mara
Billy Elliot: The Musical is a stunning piece of musical theatre that lifts us out of our everyday lives and takes us beyond ourselves.
When the curtain opens we are immediately plunged into the darkest depths of the 1984/85 coal miner’s strike in Durham, England. We are placed in a time when the miners’ collective unionism and shared sacrifices are threatened by Margaret Thatcher’s push to weaken the union system. Immersed in an empathic narrative that leads us to understand both the politics and lived experience of the miners— we meet Billy Elliot (played in Melbourne by Omar Abiad, River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen, and Jamie Rogers)—a boy who falls in love with ballet when he is meant to be boxing. Like many heroes, the odds are stacked against him—poverty, a toxic masculine culture and lack of social capital. We are inspired, moved and exalted as we travel the inspirational journey with him as he negotiates all of this to transcend his life and circumstances through his engagement with the arts.
The show is a celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships. Billy is supported on his journey by three women—Mrs Wilkinson, a local B-grade ballet teacher (played by Lisa Sontag); Grandma (played by Vivien Davies) and Dead Mum, his mother, who has died several years before (played by Danielle Everett). All three of these women uplift him to enable him to rise above the toxic masculinity.
Billy’s Grandma describes her complex, oppressive, violent 33-year marriage to his alcoholic grandfather in a song describing how “your life ended when you had a ring around your finger” and the brief reprieve she and her husband both felt from the industrialised environment and their noxious lives when they went dancing. In another moving scene Billy recites and Mrs Wilkinson reads Dead Mum’s letter to Billy, where she pleas, “You must promise me this, Billy, in everything you do, always be yourself, Billy, and you always will be true”.
Through all of this, it is the male chorus, that set up the scenes so effectively as the strike and clashes between police and miners are ever-present in every moment of the play, most notably when the dance classes is so surrounded by the circumstances that the young girls and Billy merge with the strikers.
The most delightful rendering of the “Be yourself” theme is when Billy and his friend Michael dress in Michael’s mother’s clothes and sing a song about expressing themselves, asking “Cos what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself/ For wanting to be me?”. This celebratory number joyfully concludes, “The world’s grey enough without making it worse: What we need is individuality”.
The recently renovated Regent Theatre was sparkling and the lighting and sound in the play were incredible as a team of gifted designers worked effectively with some of the constraints of this beautiful venue, which was purpose-built as a movie theatre. I was most moved in the scene where Billy dances with his future self (played by Aaron Smyth). In this scene the scale of the boy dancing with a much larger male dancer and the use of effective lighting transports us into his imagination and dreams of his future self.
The heart of Billy Elliot: The Musical is about personal freedom—to choose your own path and live your own life. It is also about struggle and loss, and, while set in 1984, is incredibly contemporary, speaking to the circumstances that led to Brexit, to current conversations about male violence and redefinitions of what positive masculinity looks like. It is a stunning, inspirational, emancipatory piece of musical theatre.
Billie Elliot is playing at the Regent Theatre until the 19th April. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes with a 20-minute interval.
Show times and tickets at https://billyelliotthemusical.com.au/
Photography by James D. Morgan