In Theatre

After 10 extraordinary years in London's West End, Billy Elliot the Musical finally made its debut in the North East last week! I had the pleasure of being invited along to the opening night and I was not disappointed in the slightest...

About

For those who have never seen the film, Billy Elliot is the story of a young boy's struggle against the odds to make his dream of being a dancer come true.

Set in a northern mining town (Easington) against the background of the 1984/85 miner's strike, we follow Billy's journey out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class - where he finds a passion and gift that inspires his family and changes his life forever.

The Performance

When you think of North East film, it's hard not to think of Billy Elliot, but when you think of North East theatre, it probably isn't one that springs immediately to mind. So, after all this time, it was no surprise that its home-turf debut was an emotional experience right from the very beginning.

I was gripped from the very first song, but, for me, it isn't your classic musical (in a good way).

Although the show contains a timeless musical score from the one and only Elton John, it doesn't heavily rely on big songs and huge dance numbers to carry the narrative.

In fact, the grittiness of the storyline, along with some clever script work, meant it never needed a set of catchy sing-a-longs. And when you're a Northerner, it just resonates even more with you - reminding you of a huge part of your history and heritage that will never be forgotten.

There were some fantastic performances throughout the show, but it seems sensible to start with the main man himself, Billy. Throughout the tour there are actually four Billys, alternating across the nights, and due to an unfortunate injury, we were able to witness the talents of two great young actors on the opening night.

The show started with Haydn May in place, who was nothing short of fantastic. Albeit short-lived, his performance was full of character and was coupled with some impressive dancing and singing.

He was eventually replaced by Adam Abbou, who, at short notice, grasped the opportunity with both hands and delivered a seamless display - his acting, dancing and personality made the transition almost unnoticeable.

But, for me, it was not Billy who stole the show, it was local lad Elliot Stiff.

Playing the part of Michael, Billy's best friend, he owned the stage with a raw and buoyant performance. His character was full of humour, happiness and cheek - all brilliantly summed up in the boys' duet of Express Yourself.

It's fair to say that all the young actors deserve credit, I couldn't find a single fault with any of their endeavours. However, alongside Billy and Michael, plaudits must go to Lilly Cadwallender, who played the part of Debbie. In similar fashion to Michael, her role brought a great amount of humour and innocence in an otherwise depressing and difficult time. 

Amongst the adult cast, we saw a very emotional performance from Martin Walsh (Billy's dad) who is taken on a personal journey - from a heart-broken miner on strike to a father desperate to help carve a future for his son in a time where opportunities are few and far between.

This is intensified by the relationship between him and his older son, Tony (Scott Graham), which is full of tension and dispute. The pair play off each other perfectly, with some additional support from the quick-witted Andrea Miller who plays Grandma.

But amongst the adults, it's the experience and charisma of Annette Mclaughlin that shines above the rest. Portraying Billy's dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, she exemplified a great amount of talent in her dancing and singing, whilst playing the part of a woman somewhere between a tyrant teacher and a sympathetic mother figure beautifully.

In the end, the whole show works in perfect harmony and is a fantastic spectacle that should not be missed. Amongst the frustration and humour, it does contain some strong language and would not be suitable for a younger audience (8+). To sum it all up; I'd highly recommend you buy a ticket and experience it for yourself.

Tickets

Billy Elliot runs at Sunderland Empire until Sat 30 April, with tickets available here.

By David Morton

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