The Billy Elliot Experience

by Raewyn Whyte

NB a truncated version of this commentary appeared in the NZ Herald on 17 October 2017.

Auckland Theatre Company's Billy Elliot stars Jaxson Cook, Andy Grainger and Stanley Reedy. Photo: Michael Smith.
Auckland Theatre Company’s Billy Elliot stars Jaxson Cook, Andy Grainger and Stanley Reedy. Photo: Michael Smith.

Billy Elliot – The Musical, as inspired by the 2000 film and subsequently a long-running stage show, is Auckland Theatre Company’s end-of- year musical and launches its new home at the ASB Waterfront Theatre.

This show makes an intriguing choice. Billy Elliot is a work of social commentary set in mid-1980s Thatcher’s Britain, highlighting issues such as rising poverty and unemployment, homelessness, benefit cuts, and a long-running miners’ strike. It is also an uplifting tale of a talented boy from a mining family who takes up ballet and gets a chance for a future away from the pit and poverty-stricken Welsh mining  villages. Of course, there’s irony there, as few theatrical artists or ballet dancers achieve any kind of financial security. Assuming they make it through a demanding period of pre-professional training and education, then comes thew challenge to win a position in an established company. So for all we know, for poor teenaged Billy, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. Again, that’s not something this production ever hints at.

The version of Billy Elliot: The Musical being presented by ATC through til 27 November, by comparison to the long-running Melbourne version which I saw in 2011, downplays the social commentary to the point where the miners strike is a somewhat localised event and Maggie Thatcher is just some distant figure on the radio headlines whose printed visage makes a good mask on bonfire night.

As it turns out, ATC artistic director Colin McColl really was somewhat oblivious of the social content.  He is quoted as saying, in news articles, that he chose Billy Elliot because …”it mirrors the company’s struggle to get its own theatre, and the triumph of believing you can achieve your dream.” Hence, the absence in the McColl-directed version of critical social commentary and any dramatisation of the downside of the miners’ strike, as seen in the movie and in the Melbourne stage show.

The characters feel very much like broad caricatures of the various English and Welsh working-class and middle-class families we have seen time and again on television — hapless and defensive miners spouting slogans, downtrodden families doing their best to cope with deprivation, a loopy granny, a well-meaning union leader, police who do what they are directed to do, shrieking ballet girls who as yet have no idea what it is to stretch and point their feet, and a ballet teacher who gives class routines unlike any real class. Every now and then, however, the veneer cracks and an actor’s interpretation gets a chance to peek through, and at these moments, the whole thing starts to come alive. In particular, Stephen Lovell makes a credible single-parent father for Billy, juggling parenting with being a good union member on strike til push comes to shove. Rima Te Wiata is a feisty granny, though old before her time; Jodie Rimmer is a caring ballet teacher  who very much furthers the talents of her star pupil, despite the ludicrous class routines she is required to deliver.

The all-important story of the miner’s strike against which Billy’s discovery of his desire to dance appears, is barely headlined  through snippets of radio news and occasional sloganeering by the miners, and there are only rare moments of insight into the lives of these people. The opportunity to draw connections to similar issues of relevance right now in New Zealand is eschewed.

The show has terrific music by Elton John, with lyrics and book by Lee Hall. There is a memorable anthem built around the labour movement staple Solidarity, belted out with pride by the ensemble of 29, and deeply moving duets, Deep Into the Ground, sung with considerable emotion by Billy and his dad (Jaxson Cook* and Stephen Lovatt), and The Letter, sung by Billy, his ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, (Jodie Dorday) and his dead mum (Lana MacFarlane). Grandma’s Song, sung with lascivious alacrity by a greyed-up Rima Te Wiata, is a distinct highlight.

The eight-member band, led by John Gibson, are visible at the back of an extended depth stage, and are for the most part, terrific.  This special extended stage is clearly a well-thought out feature of the brand new theatre designed by architect Gordon Moller.

The kids are the stars of the show and they deliver what has been asked of them , clearly extremely well rehearsed. They sing well, dance credibly, though if you have spent any time in local dance studios thronging with their talented peers, you might even expect a greater level of polish, and they bring vivacity to characters with whom they would seem to have very little in common.

Billy (Jaxson Cook on opening night),  is rarely off stage, and his dancing definitely “improves” all the way through the show, in both solo and ensemble sections – a difficult enough feat. His nascently gay friend Michael (Stanley Reedy on opening night) is wonderfully assured and seems to be mature beyond his years, and the times when these two are dancing and singing together are  definitely heartwarming.

The ensemble sections are cleverly staged, with the two best scenes perhaps  those where the dance studio is symbolically split and framed by policemen and miners as the children dance, and  the celebratory finale/ curtain call, where the most spirited dancing is presented with everyone wearing tap shoes.

What: Billy Elliot – The Musical
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until November 27

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