The best ingredient for a powerful story is a personal touch.
Twenty odd years ago, writer Lee Hall penned a quiet little film called Billy Elliot – a tale of a small boy chasing a big dream amongst family disapproval and social and political turmoil.
The former was a touch Hall had borrowed from his own upbringing, having grown up with a family against his dreams to pursue writing. Director Stephen Daldry, on the other hand, had worked in the mining pits during the historic strike in 1984, a time he calls “one of the most important events” of his life.
Fast forward five years with the original director, writer and choreographer of the film working together to stage it as a musical – and casually throw Elton John into the mix with his openness about his strained relationship with his father and goes-without-saying musical genius, and you’re sure to have a hit on your hands.
The original stage show debuted in London in 2005 to a whirlwind of international accolades; 85 awards in total, ten of those being Tonys, and has gone on to tour the world since. It hit Australian shores in 2007 and has returned with the same crew but a fresh cast to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.
Let’s get straight to it, opening night was nothing short of electrifying.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Billy Elliot is set in a small village in the north of the UK where the boys and men know only two things: mining and boxing. Anything outside of those realms is met with an explicit eff off.
Eleven-year-old Billy (for us, River Mardesic) is being moulded to fit into this routine, however, he soon discovers his love of dance far outweighs everything else. And with the backdrop of the mining strikes hanging over the town, Billy embarks on a personal journey to follow his dreams, while the world he knows collapses under Thatcher’s rule.
The fresh faces in this run of the show are absolutely outstanding. Mardesic alternates the role of Billy with four other young actors (Omar Abiad, Jamie Rogers and Wade Neilsen) so, unfortunately, we were unable to witness what each of the others brought to the show. However, Mardesic is a shining light amongst the grittiness of 1980s England and the glitz and glamour of the future he longs for.
His conflicted relationship with his father (Justin Smith) personifies the growing tensions enveloping the town, whereas the warm chemistry that blossoms with his ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Lisa Sontag), acts in contrast to what is really happening in the outside world and fills the void left behind by Billy’s late mother.
Sontag and Mardesic have wonderful chemistry on stage, touching in the moments where it matters while also entertaining us with the no-BS attitude that comes with being raised in the North. Smith is a dominant force from start to finish and encapsulates a man torn between his conservative ways and wanting what is best for his son.
The supporting cast also provide some truly laugh out loud moments. If you’re comfortable hearing folk as young as ten curse like drunken sailors, you will have a great time here. Special mentions need to be given to Michael (Oscar Mulcahy), Billy’s flamboyant best friend who provides one of the standout musical numbers of the night. Mrs Wilkinsons’ daughter Debbie (Ella Tebbutt) is also a highlight, giving us the show’s best one-liners and just being a natural bad-ass with no filter.
Theatre is a collaborative ensemble of many different elements and Billy Elliot The Musical goes full throttle in all of them. Ian MacNeil’s set design is flawless and the smooth transitions between scenes flow effortlessly. This goes in hand with the lighting and sound design – when all three peak together, they create one hell of an immersive experience.
Peter Darling’s choreography cannot be ignored, either. Everything from the ensemble pieces to Billy and Michael’s tap duo ‘Expressing Yourself’ (a personal favourite) are roof-raising. Billy’s dance in ‘Dream Ballet’ will also leave lumps in throats and not a dry eye in the house. It is not just the choreography that works, it is its fluidity with the themes playing out through the story. Miners dance and manoeuvre around ballerinas, putting a spotlight on the clashes occurring in real life.
The dance sequences also intensify as the show goes on and Mardesic keeps up at every turn, outshining his co-stars with ease. Darling doesn’t limit his dancers to one style – he explores everything from contemporary dance to miners prancing around in tutus. Nobody is safe and everybody delivers.
The show does have its setbacks, though, and the heavy political theme seems to drag in the third act. The musical numbers are powerful, however, the focus shifts in the finale to the dreary future of the miners, rather than the uplifting resolution of a young boy finally escaping his small town and achieving what was once considered impossible.
That nitpick aside, Billy Elliot The Musical is an absolute triumph of musical theatre. If the numerous standing ovations that erupted at Regents Theatre this past Saturday night were anything to go by, this is a show that cannot be missed. It is pure joy at its finest.
Billy Elliot The Musical runs until April 19 at Regent Theatre. Book tickets here.