Review: Billy Elliot The Musical, Victoria Palace

“What the hell’s wrong with expressing yourself”

Trip number three of my musicals extravaganza to Billy Elliot The Musical, a show that for whatever reason, I had no interest in going to and would never have booked for myself had it not been for this deal. I have never actually seen the film and so it was a brand new experience for me in every sense of the word, but it was strangely apt that I saw it on the day after the miners in Chile were rescued which also happened to be Margaret Thatcher’s birthday.

The other way in which this show pleased me was with its plot. As it turned out, this is another entry into the traditional dance film/show format of which I am much enamoured and which Flashdance reminded me of recently. With music by Elton John and lyrics and book by Lee Hall, the backdrop this time is the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s up in Country Durham where young Billy makes a journey of personal discovery as he trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes and attempts to follow his dream of getting into the Royal Ballet School in the face of huge strife in his family and the community around him.

No one was more surprised than me at how much I loved this show. It is full of a bright energy but also has real emotional depth: the portrayal of the miners’ strike is well done, making its point without being too heavy-handed, but in the depiction of Billy continuing to miss his mother and finding a substitute in the gruff Mrs Wilkinson, it absolutely melted my heart and I bawled my way through ‘The Letter (Mum’s Letter)’ a devastatingly simple song, without even knowing I was about to cry. I particularly liked the fact that the songs are spread throughout the show, there’s a point about halfway through the second half where you could almost forget we’re in a musical but that is because the story is being told so well and is utterly engaging.

Dean Charles Chapman was on as Billy and was simply astounding throughout, in what was a surprisingly demanding role. He has to take us on quite the journey from an uncertain young boy desperately missing his mother to a confident teenager able to see a future for himself as a fledgling top dancer and he does it with such a winning charm it is incredible to think he is only 12. He was vocally strong and had a great rapport with Genevieve Lemon’s superb Mrs Wilkinson as his dance teacher, but it was in his many dancing sequences that he really impressed. There’s so many of them and they are so long and yet each one was delivered with such aplomb whether it was tap with Michael, ballet with his older self or a mix of everything in the Act 1 closer.

Peter Darling’s choreography really is the making of this show, managing capture a range of moods and brilliantly weaving together the strands of the show as best shown in Solidarity which mixed a ballet lesson with a confrontation between the police and the miners. The aforementioned uplifting routine to Swan Lake where Billy dances with his older alter-ego (danced by Barnaby Meredith) is spine-tinglingly beautiful and ‘Born To Boogie’ where Mrs Wilkinson and a startlingly limber Mr Braithwaite (the bearish Phil Snowden) come up with a routine for Billy in a sustained comic masterpiece.

Joe Massey’s Michael was brilliantly played, nicely comic but sensitively played in his cross-dressing antics and bright-voiced in his singing (though I did find it an odd directorial choice to have the show end on a slow falling curtain on Michael alone) and I also liked Emily Smith as Debbie. But there were no weak links throughout the ensemble which is all the more remarkable considering the possible permutations of the cast with multiples actors playing the three young parts and jaw-dropping to consider that there’s five young boys who can deliver the goods as Billy. So a long time coming for me, but I am so glad that I finally got round to seeing this show and have no hesitation in thoroughly recommending it to everyone, not least to see one of the cutest little roles in the world in Small Boy.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval and extended dance finale)
Programme cost: £5 (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a programme so aggressively marketed!)
Booking until 9th April 2011

5 Replies to “Review: Billy Elliot The Musical, Victoria Palace”

  1. Excellent review, Bravo!!

    However, a few minor points…

    1) Your point about Dean’s skills at such a young age is spot on, though his age is actually 13, not 12.
    2) The normal ending of the show is not the scene where the curtain comes down on Michael after he says goodbye to his best friend, Billy. Though that scene serves as a summation of the plot (boy makes good and escapes from a community/life where his prospects would be dim (like does Michael and most of the rest of the community), the show normally ends with a very uplifting Finale featuring the entire cast led by Billy in a wonderfully upbeat choreographed curtain call. However, if you saw the show while the theatre was having issues with its new stage floor, the Finale had been temporarily eliminated due to safety issues for the cast.
    3) There are actually currently (and normally) four boys who play Billy, not five, with each boy normally playing the role twice a week. Again, if you saw the show in the three week period between September 6 and 25, there was a transition period when there were five Billys, with a new Billy (Scott McKenzie) and one who recently departed from the cast (Ollie Gardner) – but normally there are four. To see Dean Charles’ profile as well as the other three boys currently in the role go here: http://www.theskykid.com/billy-elliot-musical/billy-elliot-the-musical-meet-the-billys-londons-west-end/

  2. I can understand how the reviewer came to the conclusion that Dean was 12-years-old as that is what it says in the programme and was his age when he started in the show as Billy.

    Thank you for a wonderful review.

  3. Thank you for your comments, it's lovely to know that real fans of the show enjoyed my review.

    I took my information both about Dean's age and the number of Billys from the show's website, but thanks for the corrections.

    As for the ending, I did get to see the dance finale when I saw the show but I don't think one can count that as an integral part of the drama. I just find it odd that the focus is on Michael in that final scene rather than Billy, but hey ho, it is what it is.

    I'm already thinking about when I might go again!

  4. BETM is every bit as much a musical about Michael as it is about its star, Billy.

    Anyone who can sit through the slowly lowered curtain with Michael's heart breaking as Billy leaves town, possibly forever, and not erupt into a shower of tears is wrapped up too much in male persona, or might be a Klingon. One or the other.

    Ian, the show you saw (sans the finale) tossed you onto the street in a pensive, thoughtful mood, didn't it?

    With the finale intact, you leave the theatre wanting to see the show, again, right away, and then another and then another and go the next day and so it goes. The finale is like a narcotic finish to a lovely theatre experience, and just heightens the whole afternoon or evening.

    The finale is a tried and true finish to BETM and tosses you onto Victoria Street or Allington Street in a fitfully good mood, even if you have to catch a train, bus or find the car park. Good weather or bad, it's always warm and plush inside the Victoria Palace Theatre with BETM on stage.

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