For me, Billy Elliot has always been one of those fantastic feel-good stories that allows you to look back on the inequalities many have faced and fought against to ensure we can live in a country where you're free to do whatever you please - within the confines of the law, of course. It's also a reminder of the dark times miners across the UK faced when Maggie Thatcher was in power, the first female to serve as the Prime Minister for the United Kingdom and a woman who would go on to call those miners on strike and opposing her cuts and policies "the enemy within".
So I was a little surprised when earlier this year I discovered Billy Elliott was making its way to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. For some reason or another, it had escaped my mind that the movie had ever made it to the stage, despite it now running for over a decade. When I then found out that the music for the show had been written by Sir Elton John and his husband David Furness was one of the executive producers, I made it a priority to see.
Taking place in a weary northern mining town, Billy is facing a life of uncertainty as his father and older brother take the miner's strike and fight to the streets, getting into often violent rows with the snobbish police. Not only is there a war going on against the government, but upper, middle and lower classes are completely divided. It seems a bleak situation, but young Billy Elliot is a boy who's not willing to let all of that get him down.
Through the musical we're not only given the chance to learn more about Billy than we ever have done before, but his various family members, friends and those who come in and out of his life. Enjoying a good dance whenever he gets the opportunity, he resents his father for forcing him into boxing, but will thank him for the rest of his life when a late arrival at boxing one week leads to a position in a dance school.
13-year-old Lewis Smallman from West Bromwich was the youngster stepping into Billy's shoes on press night, and there cannot be enough good said about the incredibly talented young man. He is a master dancer. Rousing, emotional, evocative - he's got the entire package. When you go to a show of this type which the majority know is going to have such a focus on the art of dance, you're expecting a great child dancer, but he blew absolutely everybody out of the water. I've never heard an audience in the Palace Theatre whoop and cheer so loud for an entertainer. It was a thrill to be a part of.
Of course, a leading man is only as good as his supporting cast, and thankfully every single member who stepped onto the stage last night (November 30) ensured everybody would leave with a smile on their face. A special mention must go to Annette McLaughlin who played dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson - she's a natural on stage and warmed the hearts of all in attendance.
We also must mention the awesome performance from 10-year-old Samuel Torpey from Middleton, who played Billy's best friend Michael. For a boy so young he's got a firm head on his shoulders - he knows he likes dressing up in women's clothing and he doesn't give a damn what anybody might have to say about it. 'Expressing Yourself' is a very topical piece of music that he's the star of, which should inspire kids all around the UK and even the world to go out and there and be who they were born to be.
Fighting against the stigmas those in the 80s faced - and stigmas that many are still facing in the present day - Billy Elliot the Musical is a piece of theatre that's stunningly relatable. In the midst of a Tory government with a female Prime Minister who a large portion of the general public cannot get behind, we're wondering if 'Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher' might be rewritten in the years to come…
Putting politics aside (it never ends well), this was one of the slickest and sharpest shows I've ever had the pleasure to watch. The music was fantastic, the lyrics were stirring, the dancing was perfection and the acting was always on point. The lighting was beautiful - especially when we would see Billy's shadow flitting across the back of the stage - and the work gone into making the show look and feel like the mid-80s during the miner's strike was simple, yet extremely effective.
I'm so glad I've now had the chance to see Billy Elliot the Musical, and am hoping to go and see it at least one more time before it leaves Manchester in January, 2017.
Billy Elliot runs at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until January 28, 2017.
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