”Billy Elliot the Musical” revival at Curve – review

Sally Ann Triplett, Jaden Shentall-Lee and Pearl Ball in Billy Elliot
Sally Ann Triplett, Jaden Shentall-Lee and Pearl Ball in Billy Elliot
© Marc Brenner

Curve’s ambitious Billy Elliot musical revival sparkles (and shines) like a theatrical diamond amid the dark coal seams.

In Lee Hall and Elton John’s dynamic County Durham-based show about 1980s social and political struggle in the strike-riven mining industry, with the Tory government hell-bent on division and destruction, young Billy Elliot, an 11 year-old miner’s son, bucks the trends and dumps his boxing gloves for dance shoes.

This may be a show about loss and precarity, but there is nothing at all precarious about Nikolai Foster’s utterly stunning new direction and Lucy Hind’s cleverly insightful natural movement-based choreography. Michael Taylor’s inspired set design is a wonder to behold and Ben Cracknell’s expressive lighting shows perfectly why he is often the go-to choice for Curve. Edd Lindley’s costume design takes us instantly back to the 80s, while Adam Fisher’s sound design totally hits the spot and the combination of Martin Koch’s orchestrations and musical director George Dyer and his hidden on-stage band make Curve’s Billy Elliot a sublime musical experience.

Curve has a reputation for fresh interpretations of well-known musicals and turning them, and our own expectations, delightfully on their heads. Foster’s epic production here is no exception. It is steely, with portable wire fences of acid yellow, so industrial you can almost taste the coal dust. The musical has a tangible rawness and hits both the visceral nerves and conversely, very often, our funny bones. As dark humour goes, Lee Hall’s book and lyrics shine brighter than a collier’s lamp with their caustic reactions to personal stresses and political strife.

This new retelling with its key themes of hard social struggle and hard-won artistic ambition adds an indelible stamp (and stomp) to the admirable and expanding legacy of “Made At Curve” shows. It is lyrical, visually poetic, has robust humour and is profoundly moving in equal measure.

Press night’s Billy (Jaden Shentall-Lee) discovers a love of, and a talent for dance against pugilism. His growing open-minded friendship with Michael (Prem Masani) is very touching, as is his relationship with straight-speaking, ciggy-chuffing ballet teacher, Mrs Wilkinson (Sally Ann Triplett). Triplett is a high-class talent that any show would be proud to cast and in this Billy Elliot, she is exceptional. As Billy’s dead mam, Jessica Daley pulls on the heart strings and makes us all wish we had somebody like Mam watching over us and willing us to succeed from beyond.

The large cast sing their anthemic and emotional hearts out. The lovable kids (and there are 30 of them – mostly from Leicester) are as far from the glossy stage school world as a working-class miner’s home in Easington is from the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden. The raw talent is a joy to behold and are used consistently through the show and add greatly to its appeal.

A proper sense of community is what comes across in this new production, the community of Easington and the close community of actors playing them. There is an undefinable bond evident on stage. The large cast has its strength in the ensemble playing and its fantastic main leads Joe Caffrey (Jackie Elliot), Daley (Billy’s Mam), Rachel Izen (Grandma Edna), Triplett (Mrs Wilkinson) and strong support from Minal Patel (Big Davey), Cameron Johnson (Mr Braithwaite), Craig Armstrong (George), Luke Baker (Tony) and a star dancing turn from William Atkinson as Older Billy.

The main young people’s roles of Billy, Michael and Debbie have been cast with four actors in each role throughout the run and press nights’ Billy (Jaden Shentall-Lee), Michael (Prem Masani) and Debbie (Pearl Ball) are all wonderfully expressive in their portrayals. We find ourselves mentally alongside them, navigating the adult miners’ strike of the mid 80’s through the eyes and minds of the children. Shentall-Lee’s dancing is a tour de force.

Billy Elliot is a truly great musical, with a stellar song list – “The Stars Look Down”, “Solidarity”, “Expressing Yourself”, “Dear Billy (Mam’s letter)”, “Born To Boogie”, “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher”, “Deep Into The Ground”, “He Could Be A Star”, “Electricity”, “Once We Were Kings” and heart-breaking final song “Dear Billy (Billy’s reply)”. Curve’s cast give each number the perfect amount of welly, gravity or subtlety it requires and then some. It’s a show that many local people will be able to connect with as it’s based on a firm bed of not-so-distant historical working-class mining upheaval and Leicestershire itself had its unfair share of pit closures. Tissues should be given out at the door to prevent a flood of wet sleeve moments and runny mascara disasters. And that’s just the men. In summary, a must see.

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