Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 8th March, 2017
Familiar from the much-loved film, the musical version, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, comes to Birmingham as part of its first national tour, and the Hippodrome is a good fit for this West End-quality show.
Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, this is the story of a young boy whose interest in ballet is kindled when he wanders into a class in favour of the boxing lessons his dad would prefer he attend. The dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson spots real talent in the boy and arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet school, opening a can of worms that include cultural expectation, gender roles, male sexuality… There is more to the story than a boy’s struggles to achieve his dream. Billy faces prejudices like a wall of riot shields – the police presence and the bellicose spirit of the miners shows us that such attitudes are of the past, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher is very much still with us as the country continues to be shafted (that’s a mining joke) by the Tories.
Annette McLaughlin is superb as the tough-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, able to face up to the stubborn, prideful figure of Billy’s Dad (a highly credible Martin Walsh) and Billy’s brother Tony (a passionate Scott Garnham). The supporting players are second-to-none and there is much to enjoy in the troupe of girls who are nowhere near Billy’s level of skill and prowess. Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite puts in a surprisingly athletic turn in a very funny dance routine, and there is heart-warming character work from Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma. Elliot Stiff stops the show with his portrayal of Billy’s best friend Michael – the two of them perform a number with some oversized frocks that brings the house down.
If I had to pick a standout moment, I’d plump for when Billy dances with his older self (Luke Cinque-White), an exhilaratingly beautiful pas de deux.
Inevitably, the night belongs to Billy – on this occasion performed by the remarkable, phenomenal Lewis Smallman (who hails from nearby West Bromwich!). Hardly off-stage, he sings, he dances, he acts and – perhaps most difficult: pulls off a credible North-East accent! It’s a breath-taking display of talent and skill, humour and emotion. Exceptional.
Astounding, life-affirming and joyous, Billy’s story is eclipsed only by the talent on show by the performers. The indomitable human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity and setbacks is a universal theme, but you will rarely see the message so eye-poppingly presented.