After a year-long talent search and perhaps the longest preview period in West End history, Billy Elliot - The Musical faced the press last night (11 May, following previews from 31 March, initially scheduled from 24 March) ahead of tonight’s star-studded gala opening at the West End’s Victoria Palace. Any fears that the stage adaptation could not live up to the standards set by the original award-winning 2000 British film (or indeed its own hype) have been quickly dispelled by today’s rave reviews.
Set against the North-eastern mining strikes of the 1980s, the musical recounts the tale of a motherless boy whose father wants him to learn to box. Instead, he discovers a love for ballet that leads him from secret lessons to a place at the Royal Ballet School.
Billy Elliot - The Musical reunites the creative team behind the award-winning film: director Stephen Daldry, writer Lee Hall and choreographer Peter Darling as well as producer Jon Finn. It features an original score by pop singer-songwriter Elton John, with lyrics by Hall. It's designed by Ian MacNeil, with costumes by Sue Blane and musical supervision by Martin Koch. It’s produced by Working Title and Old Vic Productions plc.
James Lomas (15), George Maguire (14) and Liam Mower (12) – discovered after a year-long, countrywide search – make their professional stage debuts alternating in the title role. Mower (who in, true Billy style, won a place at the Royal Ballet School during preparations for the musical) took the honours at last night’s press performance. The cast also features Haydn Gwynne as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson and Tim Healy Billy’s father and Ann Emery as Billy’s Grandma.
Some highlights from the critical acclaim so far heaped upon the premiere production follow.
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “Billy Elliot succeeds brilliantly because Elton John’s music and, especially, Peter Darling’s choreography enhance Lee Hall’s cinematic concept…. Dance is used to express narrative in a way that evokes West Side Story…. Stephen Daldry’s production is a model of fluidity and intelligence. He constantly reminds us that the special power of the musical is that it can express a lyrical idea through physical action…. Liam Mower performs not just with heroic dedication but also a strange seriousness that is affecting.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Billy Elliot strikes me as the greatest British musical I have ever seen…. Big and bold, imaginative and great-hearted… A passionate and unashamedly partisan lament for the damage the Thatcher government inflicted … Elton John has written a wonderful score …. Hall's vivid and, be warned, expletive-filled dialogue turns on a sixpence …. Daldry's production, with a deliberately scruffy design by Ian MacNeil that vividly captures the period and the poverty of the characters' lives, is blessed with great energy …. One leaves this triumphant production in a mist of tears and joy.
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “There are all kinds of problems to be surmounted in adapting Billy Elliot into a stage musical. But Stephen Daldry's exhilarating production has some brilliant solutions up its fluffy pink tutu …. Rather than trade in evasions, this funny, touching and shamelessly enjoyable staging highlights the painful and unresolvable conflicts of feeling and ideology. … (a) warm, generous and deeply talented production.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times -
“Great to have one’s flagging faith in musical theatre restored yet again…. Stephen Daldry and Lee Hall have concocted a piece that’s tougher, bolder and, as my tear ducts can attest, more moving than its admittedly admirable celluloid precursor…. Liam Mower proved impressively grave and dignified as an actor and gloriously skilful as a dancer…. The musical as a whole is a celebration of dance: its lure, its excitement, its wonder, its surprises, and the discovery of the self that it demands.”
Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard - “Just irresistible….it catches you in its fervent grasp and pins you down with all the artfulness of the vintage seducer….This is an evening which throws a fierce political punch as well as an emotional one….Liam Mower in the title role casts a long spell….Mower dazzles in a sequence of dance numbers….There is nothing more glorious on the London stage than Billy’s dream sequence in which he and his older self (superb Isaac James) dance together in feats of soaring virtuosity….This musical conveys a raw excitement no film can match.”
Mark Shenton on Whatsonstage.com - “Captivating performances, amazing dancing and terrific melodies that will have you reaching not just for superlatives but also for your handkerchief, to wipe away tears of pure joy, sadness and excitement…. Mower is an utter revelation, superbly charting the character’s journey from the tentative vulnerability of his damaged family life to the liberating confidence that he finds in performance. quite possibly the greatest modern dance musical since A Chorus Line.
- by Terri Paddock