Billy Elliot, Birmingham Hippodrome - review

Standing ovations have become, in my opinion, overused and routine. They are far too readily applied to often very average productions - I rarely take to my feet to applaud as the curtain falls.

Billy Elliot Tour
Billy Elliot at Birmingham Hippodrome

But when the whole audience leapt up triumphantly to praise the cast of Billy Elliot the Musical last night I was one of the first out of my seat, with tears still wet on my cheek and a large smile on my face.

This show is breathtakingly good. Funny, emotional and totally absorbing – it was a rollercoaster evening.

Comparisons will predictably be made with the hugely successful film of 2000 starring a young Jamie Bell in the role of 11-year-old Billy.

But this is not the film. Perhaps necessarily so, some of the scenes are not quite as powerful as portrayed in the film and it does not have the popular eighties tunes and T Rex favourites seen in the movie. However, the music for this show was written by none other than Sir Elton John himself.

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Billy Elliot at Birmingham Hippodrome

He offers an eclectic mix of beautiful ballads, big show numbers, catchy dance tunes, emotional anthems and even a bit of a folk and a Spitting Image inspired comedy number.

In truth the stage show, also written by Lee Hall, lacked some of the grit, turmoil and the grim reflection of the dark times endured by communities in the north during the 1984 miners strike which was portrayed so dramatically in the film.

But the powerful performances by this cast – particularly the astoundingly talented younger members – offer a much deeper level of humanity and emotion which rips out your heart strings and ties them intrinsically to the fate of the Elliot family and the adorable young Billy.

See a trailer for the show here:

There are also a lot of comedy moments and tension-relieving characters with the politics applied with a little more subtlety and humour.

Without a doubt, the star of the show last night was 12-year-old Lewis Smallman in the role of Billy. It was a hometown gig for the young actor who hails from West Bromwich.

Lewis gave a remarkably convincing performance as the troubled young boy who is mourning the death of his mother and living in hard times in a struggling family with both his father and brother striking miners.

During this difficult time Billy discovers by accident that he has a talent for dancing but problems arise when he is encouraged by dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson to pursue that dream. There is an impossibly moving scene when Billy shares with his teacher a letter written by his dying mother in the heart-breaking song The Letter.

Billy Elliot Tour
Billy Elliot at Birmingham Hippodrome

As well as demonstrating his confident, mature acting ability, Lewis performs several lengthy, mesmerising dance numbers with energy and grace. He is an incredibly talented young star and is one of four boys playing the role during the run.

There are a number of important roles for children such as Billy’s friend Michael and Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie, as well as the rest of the dance class, and all were performed with a maturity and apparent ease far in excess of their years.

Martin Walsh gave a strong performance as Billy’s dad as did Scott Garnham as his brother Tony. Annette McLaughlin is excellent in the complex role of the brusque dance teacher with the soft heart.

On the fringes are the real comedy characters such as Andrea Miller as Grandma, Leo Atkin as boxing coach George and Daniel Page as the surprisingly lithe Mr Braithwaite. The Merry Christmas Mrs Thatcher number, incidentally, was a particular highlight.

Billy Elliot the Musical is, quite simply, unmissable – but make sure you take your hankies.

Runs at Birmingham Hippodrome until April 29.

By Diane Davies

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