REVIEW: Billy Elliot (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

Auckland Theatre Company Production of Billy Elliot. Director Colin McColl. Production photographs Michael Smith

[Class Sha in Class Gaff]

Auckland Theatre Company Production of Billy Elliot. Director Colin McColl. Production photographs Michael Smith
Auckland Theatre Company Production of Billy Elliot. Director Colin McColl. Production photographs Michael Smith

Often when people come to an opening night there’s an air of anticipation.  But the opening of Billy Elliot was even more electric because we were coming to see a new theatre.  Billy Elliot is exactly the right sort of spectacle to launch the ASB Waterfront Theatre and to show off this magnificent space.

From the moment we got there people were admiring, commenting and showing a childlike curiosity while exploring the brand new premises.  The theatre itself feels spaciously open, yet simultaneously intimately cosy and plush.

It was only when we were comfortably seated that our attention was focussed on the show at hand.  The moment the curtains were raised we were treated to Tracy Grant Lord’s dramatic set, with all its brick and tile character – instantly capturing the look and feel of a Northern English mining town.

The setting is the eve of the coal miners’ strike and much is made of Maggie Thatcher and her polarizing policies that led to the year-long strike forming the backdrop to the show.

Through the main protagonist, Billy Elliot’s mining family, we learn of the hardship that has been faced by Billy (Jaxson Cook) and his older gruff brother Tony (Jack Barry), following the death of their mother (Lana Macfarlane), and their father, Jackie Elliot’s (Stephen Lovatt) efforts to cope with two very different boys and their eccentric and possibly senile grandmother (Rima Te Wiata).

Billy is packed off to boxing class, run and hilariously portrayed by Andrew Grainger who was in perfect form as the foul-mouthed and carelessly violent George.  Billy’s ‘ineptness’ makes him the only punching bag on stage.  He’s intrigued by the ballet class being taught afterwards by the washed up wannabe dancer Mrs Wilkinson (Jodie Dorday), whose world-weary teaching style would be very familiar to many.

And so the scene is set.

In sublime and stark contrast the opening number is brilliantly executed to establish the increasing tension between miners and police.  Likewise Billy’s secret passion and often reluctant draw to dance is totally believable as a tonic and release from the strife at the pit and at home.

Te Wiata’s Grandma character was a crowd favourite from the get-go.  That was evident by the way they erupted into applause after she sang Grandma’s Song.

Malia Johnston’s choreography of the cast is outstanding with many intricate set pieces from the ballet class and the high energy fight scenes between police and miners conveying both personal relationships and wry social commentary.  You couldn’t help appreciating the angst and hardship that the miners were experiencing along with the frustration that the constables were feeling both through the fabulously synchronised dancing as well as amazing singing.  The uncanny parallels between the two warring parties is ironically and dramatically portrayed in their violent confrontation during the song Solidarity, thanks to fight choreographer Alexander Holloway.

An absolute highlight was the relationship between Billy and his freethinking, gender-fluid best friend Michael (Stanley Reedy). Played with beautiful innocence and thought-provoking pragmatism, the relationship between the two characters speaks volumes in their charming poignant scenes.  A personal favourite was the duet Expressing Yourself which Cook and Reedy perform with absolute panache, further accentuated by Richie Cesan’s fabulous tap choreography.  All I can say about the ‘other dancers’ on stage is that they were an absolute spectacle that will remain engrained in my memory for a very long time (let’s just say seeing is believing).

Billy’s new found home and happiness in dance is amusingly and poignantly revealed through the interaction between Mrs Wilkinson and her piano accompanist Mr Braithwaite (Jeremy Birchall) particularly in We Were Born to Boogie featuring skipping ropes (reminiscent of a childhood fascination) where his quirky antics left the audience in stitches just before the interval.

The insults and fear, along with prejudice expressed when Billy is found to be dancing instead of boxing, is dramatically honest and suitably terrible.  The consistent goading of Billy as a ‘poof’ and a ‘Nancy-boy’ feels awful but is realistically common where tradition abounds and misunderstandings are rife.

This resistance to change makes seeing our hero, Billy, finally finding his wings even more special.  Watching the young Billy free, and dancing at last with his aspirations and future self was a truly emotive duet with Daniel Cooper, who plays the older Billy.  It was so wonderful it could easily have been an amazing final scene but of course as we know there was more to come in terms of the storyline.

At frequent intervals we are reminded of the innocence of youth by plenty of swearing from the young characters including the adorable “small boy” character and Billy’s sassy and forthright female admirer Debbie Wilkinson (Aria Ferris), whose straight-talking philosophy of life reflects her dance teacher mother’s cynical but caring attitude.  The authentically Northern hilarious and filthy swearing is a great device to help lighten some of the more intense moments.

Having lived and studied in Newcastle I [Tim] loved hearing the Geordie accent again right from the first line in the show.  I’m so pleased that a huge amount of effort has been put into this with the help of accent coach Sarah Valentine, as it forms an integral part of the identity and humour of the region. [Tim lived in Newcastle for four years].  Those of us that ‘grew up’ in ‘80s Britain under Thatcher’s ‘iron fist’, the year the miners’ strike is indelibly etched in our minds.  The staging of ‘class conflicts’ in the streets, the imagery through costumes (from the miners’ helmets and jackets right down to the policemen’s buttons) is spot on and wonderfully authentic.

Of course it’s Elton John’s music, astutely performed under the leadership of Musical Director John Gibson, that underpins this amazingly uplifting musical.  It is a joy to be able to voyeur the band through the netted screen rather than being tucked away unseen throughout.  In fact I must commend lighting designer Matt Marshall for making sure that the band is always visible at varying degrees throughout the show.  Marshall’s lighting choices throughout the show are slick and worthy of special mention.  Likewise Thomas Press’ fabulous sound effects enhance the production’s credibility.

Cook’s dancing is amazing throughout the show.  The 12-year-old lad holds his own throughout and he has definitely managed to achieve his “triple threat” ambition in terms of his dancing, singing and acting.

The amazing talent on stage is beyond compare. And when singing in harmony and in unison there were numerous moments throughout where I could feel chills tingling down my spine.  Having the cream of the crop of NZ musical theatre is a great move on the part of ATC’s Artistic Director Colin McColl – how else could they have executed those big number with such melodic vigour and gusto?

The division caused in Britain between the North and the South, between strikers and scabs, has never really healed.  And the Lee Hall’s story of Billy Elliot doesn’t shy away from this.  Instead it gives us faith that there can be hope, humour and promise, through the story of a wee gutsy boy from the Northeast of England.

Billy Elliot, is a heck of a show and although it portrays a long struggle, it’s ultimately incredibly uplifting in a way that you don’t often experience when you go to the theatre.  A great show that’s a must see in a fantastic new venue which will surely heighten your experience, whether or not you’ve seen the film.  Go!

Billy Elliot is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at the gorgeous ASB Waterfront Theatre until 27 November. Details see ATC.

SEE ALSO: review by Lexie Matheson and Metro Magazine review by James Wenley

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