Billy Elliot The Musical – Victoria Palace Theatre

The kids are fantastic and the dancing astonishing, but one does wonder why they decided to add songs at all…

I have come late to Billy Elliot. In my usual quest to see all of the ‘little’ shows while their runs last or before they get shut down due to a lack of tourist appeal/ souvenirability, it’s quite easy to just skip the long runners altogether. After all, they’ll be there forever, come rain or come shine.

It is clear that Billy has seen better days. However, what is also apparent is why it has been such a massive initial success, still oft quoted on posters as ‘the best musical in London’, and enjoying a hugely successful and long-lived transfer to Broadway. At its heart is the emotion of the much adored film, the touching exposure of the parent-child relationships and sheer joy of seeing kids expressing themselves in ways that are ‘uncool’ (it certainly wouldn’t pack such an emotional punch if Billy was into break-dancing).

The flaws of the production are also glaringly obvious. The first half drags, many of the early jokes fall flat and it is difficult to see the point of many of the adult cast members’ songs. The costumes look great, but having not seen the film for five years, I still somehow know that many are direct replicas of on-screen ensembles. This simply reminds the audience how much has been lifted directly from the movie and negates this musical’s claim to stand as a production in its own right. If the producers want to see how a film can be translated to the stage, adding new dimensions but not losing its original character, they could do a lot worse than heading down the road to see Cameron Macintosh’s Betty Blue Eyes.

The other problem of the inevitable comparison to Daldry’s film is the role of Mrs. Wilkinson. A part that can only be described as having been ‘nailed’ by Julie Walters gives actresses very little room for manoeuvre (it reminds me of anyone trying to play Sally Bowles – you’ll never beat Liza). The result is an imitation that can do nothing but fall short of expectations.

The children, however, were irrepressible and irresistible. This week’s Thursday matinee was the first outing for Josh Baker as Billy. The delight on the young lad’s face as he bowed to a very appreciative audience was a joy to encounter. Seeing a man that must have been his father be the first to stand in the middle of rapturous applause brought a tear to my eye (sickening I know, I would like to place some blame on hormones for that…) He stole the show along with his fellow child actors: Reece Barrett as Michael, Emily Williams as Debbie and a fantastic ‘Small Boy’ who is unidentified by picture in the programme, but demanded constant attention due to his amazing stage presence and an uncanny resemblance to Jonathan Lipnicki (the adorable Ray in Jerry Maguire).

In fact, probably the best thing that could happen to this show would be for the adults to stop singing altogether. Their songs were unnatural and often appeared pointless. This was brought into sharp relief when the miner brother that thought Billy shouldn’t be ballet dancing because ‘men don’t do those sort of things’ decided to commit the ultimate hypocrisy and sing about life on the picket line – bizarre. The highlights were without doubt the scenes of and between the children on their own. The relationship between Billy and Michael captured the honesty of young friendship and the small part of Debbie was fulfilled with comic aplomb.

Until the end of the first half there were no really memorable songs – one could be forgiven for thinking that Elton John hadn’t put his best effort into the composition. Yet the finale of act one saw Billy dancing his way through his frustrations at being denied the chance to audition for ballet school. This number jolted the play into the 21st century from the dangerous, 70s-brown territory that was starting to resemble my worst theatrical fear – Blood Brothers 2. Starkly lit, the dancing was outstanding and the image of Billy crashing against the line of riot police shields visually stunning. Similarly, ‘Electricity‘, performed during Billy’s eventual audition, focussed solely on Billy. Accordingly, it brought the house down.

Don’t believe the claims that this is ‘still the best musical in London’. It’s not. It is, however, a great chance to see a huge pool of young talent and accessible ballet. Don’t go if you want to be roused by musical genius and don’t bother to buy the soundtrack, but Billy Elliot still has a lot going for it. It is easy to see why this has become another long running show that is mainly seen by kids, tourists and OAPs these days, yet, as an example of the talent of British preteens, you couldn’t find better.

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9 thoughts on “Billy Elliot The Musical – Victoria Palace Theatre

  1. Sara says:

    Totally agree with you on this one! I certainly wasn’t blown away by Billy when I eventually got around to seeing it, but the kids were fantastic! Also looks like we share a worst theatrical fear – Blood Brothers 2, can you imagine?! :-S

  2. mickey grogan says:

    Billy Elliot The Musical is not your traditional musical, but rather a play with music. Elton John’s songs are perfect for enhancement of the plot, without seeming to distract. The slow paced start is also needed for character and mood formation. This gives added power to the end of the first act and the entire second act. Anyone who has never tried to write a play or movie would not appreciate the importance of pacing. The musical is far better than the movie by the same creative team and is one of the best shows on stage anywhere in the world today.

    • helenaoftroy says:

      Thanks for your comment Mickey – it’s always good to see both sides of the debate and reaction to theatre is by its nature subjective and personal.

      Whilst I haven’t tried to write a play or movie myself, I stand by my argument about the first act. There is no doubt that the same effect could be achieved in a way that is more diverting for the audience. In response to your comment about music I totally agree that this is a ‘play with music’. I believe that this could be taken even further by only using the music for the children’s expressions of their inner worlds.

      If anyone else has seen the play and would like to add their thoughts, please do!

  3. Spanner says:

    As a writer of musical theatre, I think Billy Elliot falls flat by not always observing the main rule of the musical genre; you sing because you can’t speak any more. The only songs where this rule is properly observed are ‘Electricity’, and Michael’s number, ‘Expressing Yourself’. Of course dance is used to achieve the same form of expression, but many of the other songs seem superfluous, and don’t really aid the plot or character development.

    Many musicals manage to set the mood and tone of a piece and character within the opening few bars; everything from Sweeney Todd and West Side Story to Legally Blonde being great examples. While the opening number of Billy Elliot sets the tone and oppression of the miners’ strike through its lyrics, the score seems a rather weak companion and as a result, sets a rather dreary pace for the rest of the show.

    The show also feels a little too balletic. While it is of course essential that Billy, Mrs Wilkinson and the dance school girls dance throughout, some of the company dance numbers don’t seem fitting of the characters performing them.

    For me, this isn’t so much a ‘feel good’ show, as a ‘feel ok’ show. Even if you classify it as a ‘play with music’, it still doesn’t deserve the ‘Best Show in London’ tagline that the posters on the underground try to have us believe. However, I’ll agree that the children in this production are phenomenal, and show up the more experienced adults like ketchup stain on a white t-shirt.

  4. […] to charge extortionate prices for mediocre seats as a result of the subsequent demand. After seeing Billy recently and finding it tired and overpriced, my scepticism for seeing this show increased. […]

  5. […] all touched me very deeply when performed well in the past. However here, much like I found with Billy Elliot, it felt like the show was tired and dated. No need for changing a winning tourist formula is the […]

  6. Klick says:

    Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just
    your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all.

    Nevertheless think of if you added some great visuals or videos to
    give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this site could definitely be one of the best in its field.
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    • Helena says:

      Thanks! I did used to have lots of picture, but someone contacted me saying that I was infringing their copyright, so I removed them all to prevent any legal consequences.

      I only run this blog for fun and it generates no income – I have 2 other blogs and a full time job so have never had time to look into what I can get int he way of images for free. If you have any advice, it would be much appreciated!

      Helena

  7. […] what exactly was the point of putting such a great film on stage. It certainly had a whiff of Billy Elliot, with a smart lad seeing clearer than his father. The set was also particularly impressive, […]

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