Day 6: Missed The Boat: Billy Elliot

'Billy Elliot' at Palace Theatre Victoria
Billy Elliot
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

I’m not sure why I didn’t see this one. Towards the end of its West End life I had the incentive of a Sunny alumnus being in the cast, so I should really have made it there then – the problem was that Victoria always felt very out of the way at that point, plus I was still pushing most of my money towards Sunny Afternoon so couldn’t afford to splash out much on other things… Prior to that I just remember not being at all bothered about it, but again I don’t know why; it’s not like I’d seen the film and taken an instant hatred to it – I’ve never seen the film and just have a rough idea of the story. Safe to say I’m regretting it more now, given my increased interest in Elton John’s work and my massively increased appreciation of dance since then. Perhaps I was put off by it being a story about a child? Child actors can be excellent but they can also be awful (sorry, parents) so that was a likely contributing factor. Anyway, moving on…

Set in County Durham at the beginning of the miners’ strike in 1984-5, the musical is based on the film of the same name, which itself is based on Lee Hall’s play Dancer. Sent to the gym for boxing lessons, 11-year-old Billy Elliot chances upon a ballet class and is entranced by it; he secretly begins learning to dance instead, until his dad finds out and bans him from continuing. This doesn’t last long, as Billy’s teacher Mrs Wilkinson suggests he should audition for the Royal Ballet School and gives him private lessons. All the while, Billy’s dad & brother have been part of the strike and frequently clash with riot police – in the absence of his mother, will Billy be able to convince them to let him follow his dancing dreams?

What I’ve found quite often with this series is that listening to a cast recording can’t always convey the spirit of the show in question; live recordings can help this, but the quality often suffers – and recordings put together in a studio can lose the urgency of a live performance. The cast recording for Billy Elliot, however, does a better job than most. I think it helps that there is some dialogue in certain songs, so it feels a bit more contextualised and allows you to follow the story slightly better – plus the variety of genres utilised makes it an interesting listen. You also can’t downplay how personal this project was to its creatives: both Lee Hall and Elton John felt it was telling their own stories in one way or another, so you know it all comes from the heart.

The miners’ plight and the ever-present class struggle loom large, and must have been quite an educational tool with regard to that period of social history; Solidarity is a great example of how the world of ballet and mining contrasted, both in action and the typical class of participants. Deep Into The Ground is a moving moment drawing on folk music influences of the local area, as Billy’s dad thinks about his dead wife, and Electricity is also a real highlight. Billy finds the words to describe his passion for dance through song after initially finding it a struggle – if you’ve ever been really passionate about anything before then you can’t help but relate to the lyrics.

After all that, I think I’ll now make sure I see the film in the near future, and hope that someone wants to remount the musical at some point as I’d dearly like to see it properly. I don’t want to keep living in regret of missing all those dance routines!

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Billy Elliot cast recording was released on 21 November 2005 on Polydor. You can buy the album online.

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