A nickelodeon remake of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
In essence, you can categorise all performance criticism under two Cheryl Cole .circa 2008-11 X Factor, automated responses, ’you’re right up my street’, or ‘it wasn’t my cup of tea.’ ‘The Addams Family’ was not my ‘cup of tea’. It wasn’t even my dirty pint that I’d down – victim to peer pressure – on a Saturday night… but it was fun and harmless… unlike a dirty pint on a Saturday night.
‘The Addams Family’ gives you all that you’d expect – the characters’ dead-pan eccentricity, a fabulously ghoulish set, its beloved theme tune and numerous merchandise stalls to preserve its ever-inflating franchise. But it is niche exploited – the musical is farcical. Personally, I can’t quite accept that the self–contained world of ‘The Addams Family’ (on screen) – and the escapist voyeurism that it offers – can be exposed to a stage adaptation without making a mockery of the former.
‘The Addams Family Musical’ is basically a panto with an extremely high production-value, but, hell, sometimes a spiralling farce and a classic ‘dad joke’ will be perfectly suffice – for some – if you like that sort of thing… It’s a simplistic and worn narrative pardoned by pizazz!
Musical numbers were gloriously theatrical, and the voices of Samantha Womack and Carrie Hope Fletcher rang beautifully within the theatre. It was Fletcher’s portrayal of Wednesday Addams which is undoubtedly the highlight of the production. She has an inexpressible and innate draw; an attraction that defies an audience’s choice in the matter.
The set design by Diego Pitarch was innovative, transporting – it had a masterful subtlety to defining a scene with ease and interchangeability. Alistair David’s choreography, paired with the sheer vibrancy of the production’s costume and technical design, was a spectacle; combined, the chorus were an indispensable surge of energy.
‘The Addams Family’ is a spectacle, shallow, but a visual delight. If you’re looking for a show that the kids and grandma will enjoy look no further – just get yourself a vodka orange in the interval and you’ll find it just as funny as them.
Let’s talk about Drag. Most people have probably encountered a Drag Queen of some kind in their lives. (If not please, reassess that situation after reading this review) Whether it’s as part of a Hen Party or Birthday Party at the local Drag Bar- hello Minsky’s and Wow- or on TV via (if you’re my age) Lily Savage presenting Breakfast or tea-time TV (those were the days) or on Netflix with the glory that is Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Obviously if you’re a drag race fan the next sentence will not be a surprise but: Drag is an artform.
Once again: Drag is an artform. Cabaret is an artform. Drag as Cabaret is an artform. So easy to dismiss as someone in exaggerated make up in a wig in a dark bar you visit once in a blue moon. But real Queens work a room and a crowd tougher than most comedians. Most Queens have worked their way up through dingy back rooms and hiking on outfits in toilets. All Queens are not the same either. All Queens are definitely not created equal. But the best are an utter masterclass in entertainment.
La Voix is an utter masterclass.
All the above said too, it’s really important to say how brilliant it is that Ffresh at the WMC invited a Drag Queen to be part of this season. That alongside the National Theatre’s production of Jayne Eyre in the main theatre, La Voix was invited to do not one but two nights. It’s both important in recognising that performance given space in arts venues shouldn’t be on a hierarchy- although some patrons might sniffly ask why a Drag act was in a theatre, not back in a club where they no doubt think that sort of act ‘belongs’ but also to show audiences ‘yes we welcome all kinds of performance here’. It’s also important as reviewer to have the experimental Jazz group last week, included on the same programme as a Drag Queen. It’s about saying there’s sophistication, and training, and creativity across all kinds of performance, so let’s do away with these divisions. Finally, it is also about- particularly in ‘Pride Month’ the idea that LGBTQ+ performers and audiences, and work that historically wouldn’t have been welcomed in such spaces is. It’s only 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised, and Drag and other Queer performance was not so long ago an underground scene or at the most related to a certain kind of club. To see then a drag performer in the flagship venue for Wales, and with a diverse audience is not something to be taken lightly.
All this politics and history however is taking away from talking about the Diva herself. And that isn’t on really. La Voix is a force of nature. She got to the semi- finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2014, where her name meaning ‘the voice’ and is known for her on-point impressions of famous Divas.
Winning many prestigious awards which include Best act at the London Cabaret awards, Winner of Drag Idol and most recently the Gold award winner for Best act at the Boys Scene Awards. And was in the Ab Fab film.
So, for the past 10 years La Voix has been taking on the big divas and making them her own, on both stage and screen. And last night’s tour of the Divas didn’t disappoint. Resplendent in a turquoise gown and trademark red wig, she reminds the audience that ‘I didn’t get this dressed up to not have pictures taken’ before adding ‘If your flash isn’t on…I’ll wait’. The audience interaction is, as with any drag show and after storming on with ‘the voice’ filling the room, there’s some delightful patter with the accompanist (Fresh from Hawaii with accompanying shirt) and of course with those lucky (unlucky depending on your take) to be in the front row. There were clearly a cohort of die hard fans in the audience who know the show possibly better than La Voix, but also allowed for some great banter between them. Drag Queens are known for both cutting, and a times filthy humour. And while it was certainly un-PC at times, the jokes never strayed into the borderline offensive that some other acts might take on. No doubt that changes with the venue and crowd, a skill again knowing how to work an audience, meant those in the audience unfamiliar with the Drag style of humour wouldn’t have been too shocked- and I defy them not to have laughed.
Songs take centre stage, as do the Diva’s who deliver them. While to some degree sticking to the demographic most in evidence at the show- the over forties, Diva fans- there was enough contemporary reference mixed in to make the show feel fresh. So, while Adele might not have been performing at Wembley that night, La Voix brought us Liza does Adele. The audience was given a masterclass in performing the Divas from Cher through Liza to Judy and ending on a Welsh flavour with Shirley Bassey. A personal favourite as a musical theatre fan was Liza doing Mein Herr from Cabaret…but as if she tried it now at 76. I didn’t know I wanted it until I saw it. There’s such a detailed familiarity with the Divas from La Voix that goes far beyond simple mannerisms and vocal impersonation, and there’s also the love of a Diva in general that fuels the act. So while they are mercilessly mocked, there’s a sense of love and respect there. Something that’s very much at the heart of a really great Drag Queen too.
Also at the heart of any good Queen’s act is how to make an entrance and also an exit. And the closing numbers do not disappoint. Audience already primed 2 songs earlier, for the exit and cheering her back on stage La Voix returned decked in Ostrich Feathers and white (soon to be put in danger by a misplaced vodka cranberry). Dame Shirley was taking the final bow, and the crowd loved a home-grown Diva. And finally, as a sing-along closing number, Bonnie Tyler. In which the crowd also proved that giving a Welsh audience a chance to sing and they will attempt to upstage any Diva. But really what more fun can you have on a Saturday night than singing at top volume to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ with a Drag Queen dressed in white?
There’s a lot to be said for bringing Drag to wider audiences, and respecting just what a skill not only Drag but working a live cabaret audience is. La Voix thanked the crowd for coming out and supporting live cabaret noting that in these times it’s live entertainment- particularly at this end of the spectrum- that suffers. She also said that in these dark times we need that entertainment. And that’s the crux of it. At the end of a long day or week, La Voix gave us an escape- a fabulous, sequin clad, feather trimmed Diva-esque escape. Merci La Voix, Merci!
“Age doth not wither her.” The old adage definitely can be applied to Rebecca Evan’s portrayal of the demanding central role of the Marschallin in a new production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. Evans is at the top of her scale, with a soaring soprano and equally at ease in Act I as the skittish Bichette (her lover’s name for the Marschallin) and in the final scenes as a mature and gracious lady, bowing to the inevitable.
Right from the start there is poignancy behind the comedy, as a lone figure portraying the Marschallin in age is seen either seated in a chair or wandering around at the back of the stage. A nice touch of individuality in that the (non speaking) part is played by actress Margaret Bainton who was in the chorus of the WNO for thirty-seven years and played a child in Der Rosenkavalier fifteen years ago
The Marschallin is married to a high-ranking Field Marshall who is conveniently away on duty as she enjoys a bit of rumpy pumpy with her young lover, Count Octavian (nicknamed Quinquin) , only to be most inconveniently interrupted by the boorish Baron Ochs, up from the country and hell-bent on acquiring a young wife with money. The machinations become more and more involved, as Octavian is nominated to carry the obligatory silver rose – the Der Rosenkavalier of the title and traditionally symbolising and engagement– to the Baron’s prospective bride. What no one has bargained for is that the two young people are instantly smitten with one another and fall in love.
As often with operatic comedies, there is a hint of pantomime. The young Count Octavian is a female role, performed here by the delightful Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, making her debut with WNO and singing the role with evident relish. Brindley Sherratt’s Baron not only shows perfect timing but his mastery of a difficult bass role, requiring as it does a range that is rare, Sherratt being one of the few who have this accomplishment. The Baron’s intended is Sophie, daughter of the daughter of nouveau riche businessman Faninal. Singing Sophie is the delightful newcomer Louise Alder, in Cardiff for Singer of the World and only the night before shortlisted as a contender for the title, while as Faninal her social climbing father with dreams of grandeur, Adrian Clarke is a Hitler-like figure of hand-rubbing nastiness.
Strauss’s wonderful music, bound together with its string of memorable waltz melodies, is a given, but in the hands of WNO’s new young conductor Tomáš Hanus takes on new dimensions, underlying the comedy and recognising the poignancy beneath. A small caveat – there is a sight hesitation, no more than a breath, in Act II when the tempo drops, otherwise this would have been five star. All in all – a masterpiece culminating in the superb singing of the trio as the opera draws to a close. Director Olivia Fuchs and designer Niki Turner are to be congratulated. Turner has resisted the temptation to go overboard, and instead opts for a single glittering chandelier that reflects the opulence of 1911 Vienna against elegant pale grey walls. An added pointer to the theme of the opera are the sands of time running out from above onto the stage, much appreciated by the audience but a nightmare for the stage hands.
Five years after Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ opened at the National Theatre, the 2017 production at the Wales Millennium centre did not disappoint.
Haddon’s Whitbread Prize-winning novel has made a staggeringly successful leap from popular book to stand out theatre adaption and it’s fair to say no one could have quite predicted the way audiences would take central character Christopher Boone to their hearts.
Christopher (lover of mathematics, space and detective novels – who just happens to have Asperger Syndrome) has stumbled upon a serious crime in neighbour Mrs Sheers’ garden.
Although he has never before left his street unaccompanied, the crime triggers an investigation led by Christopher himself – in between dealing with a death, a family separation, writing a book for the first time and an unforeseen journey to London which will be his most terrifying challenge yet.
Although Mark Haddon never intended for Christopher’s character to become typical of all people with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder), the beauty of the book – and even more so in this play, is the level of forensic insight into some of the behaviours, motivations and traits of people on the spectrum.
The story unpicks everything we think we know about conditions on the spectrum – and in actual fact exposes some harsh truths about us as a society and how needy, shallow, patronising and ignorant we are of the needs of others. As Haddon stated in 2012: ‘Curious is not really about Christopher at all. It’s about us.’
This is a production about the imperfections and the ugliness of family – and of facing our fears. It shows us the inevitable fallout when our ideas of perfection and truth don’t match up with reality. Life is chaotic and messy – and instead Christopher finds solace and security in the permanence and predictability of patterns.
We see Christopher struggle to cope with the nuances and complications of everyday life while making sense of the confusing world around him. When things don’t go to plan, we see Christopher unravel and the environment/pool of people around him react as they try to contain his outbursts and meltdowns.
The set (beautifully designed by Bunny Christie) centres around a cube which comes to life with pulsating digital animations, square doors and stools which double as doors / cupboards / chairs / TV screens. Patterns, logic, word scrambles, number confetti and laser illustrations are punctuated with visceral sounds, white noise, echoes and musical riffs by Ian Dickinson as Christopher battles through the changes around him.
Lead Scott Reid (who plays Christopher) is incredible and I wasn’t aware of the level of movement and choreography that would feature in the production. For Christopher, life is a ‘dance’ of repetitive routines, motions, and constantly shifting movement and at its most intense and confusing, he is lifted, bounced and twirled by the ensemble cast. During one moving scene, he walks along the wall when he describes his wish to be an astronaut. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (part of Physical Theatre outfit ‘Frantic Assembly’) have really managed to elevate the story even more through their energetic movement and choreographed vignettes.
For some productions, the combination of digital display, choreography and a grand musical score doesn’t always marry well – you struggle to follow or invest fully in all aspects of the staging or the story and they can compete against one another. But there is true mastery here, a dynamite synergy between cast, production and set – and the scenes set in Swindon and London train stations are a sheer punch in the gut for audiences.
In this production, Director Marianne Elliott has skillfully recreated the panic and the fear of sensory overload as well as the sheer beauty of an unfiltered, orderly mind like Christopher’s. There is purity and calm in the systematic and Christopher’s observations, literal interpretations and understanding of the world provide plenty of funny moments for the audience.
Curious does not talk down, belittle or over sentimentalise ASD in a way which some mainstream depictions of ASD do and Stephens’ final scene between teacher Siobhan and Christopher leaves the audience with one final question which asks more of them and their attitudes as much as anything else.
This was a tender and sweet production – a powerful start to the production’s 2017 run at the WMC. Oh, and if you see it – you can look forward to a truly wonderful final surprise for Christopher at the end. What is it? Well, now…that would be telling!
PS – if you have already seen this production or like me have multiple members in your family with ASD and you’d like to understand why they do some of the things they do, I really recommend reading ‘The Reason I Jump’ – a real-life account from 13 year old Naoki Higashida who has Autism.
Type of show: Theatre
Title: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Venue: Wales Millennium Centre (Cardiff)
Dates: 2-6 May
Writer (Original Book): Mark Haddon
Play adaptation: Simon Stephens
Directed by: Marianne Elliott
Lighting Designer: Bunny Christie
Video Designer: Finn Ross
Movement Directors: Scott Graham / Steven Hoggett (Frantic Assembly)
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson (Autograph)
Running time: 2hrs 30min Produced by: National Theatre
So it’s January, everyone is detoxing, skint after Christmas and bruised after Brexit, Trump and a string of celebrity deaths in 2016. I can hand on heart say that if you are suffering from SAD or have lost all hope for the year ahead, you need to find the sun behind those clouds and get your butt down to WMC pronto to see ‘Sunny Afternoon’, the touring production running until Saturday 21st, before it shuttles off elsewhere.
Even if you are not a fan of The Kinks or a fan of musicals featuring the back catalogue of certain bands (let’s not even mention ‘Viva Forever’ here!), you will be hard pressed to find a more inclusive and entertaining musical in 2017.
A real kick in the 60s!
The soundtrack to your Mam and Dad’s wild years, the show focuses on four working class lads riding the crest of the wave of the ‘British invasion’ in the 60s – the meteoric highs and the crushing lows. Natalie Gallacher/Pippa Ailion’s casting of Ryan O’Donnell and Mark Newnham as brothers Ray and Dave is a triumph – the pair have sensational synergy and energetic friction on stage and O’Donnell’s sweet vulnerability shines through his entire performance.
Newnham is unmissable as outrageous rebel Dave, everything from his swagger, his cockney banter and his swinging from the chandelier in a pink dress had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
The most famous of the Kinks’ songs were cleverly deconstructed and re-packaged, allowing us to delve further into the back story to possibly the most influential riffs and tunes ever written. The scene where Ray and Dave are trying to perfect the edgy baseline to their hit song ‘You really got me’ is pure magic, reverberating through your chest and rattling around your rib cage.
There are some delicious comic lines, especially from the plummy stockbrokers-turned-agents Robert Wace and Grenville Collins, who groomed the four for stardom, even coming up with their name, with the help of another agent Larry Page. I couldn’t help laughing out loud when one of them says in a voice that may remind you of certain Harry Enfield characters: ‘Now…let’s talk about it over a nice plate of kippers’.
You’ll laugh when Ray’s Dad (played by Robert Took) complains about ‘wearing out shoe leather’, about the house prices in Muswell Hill (£3,500 – with a £500 deposit!)…and you wonder what the hell Mr Davies would make of the prices in Muswell Hill these days. This is nostalgic but not cloying, sentimental but not syrupy.
There are multiple sharp observations and throwaway comments referencing other 60s bands and celebrities. When the managers find Ray in a depression in bed with Rasa his wife, one of them quips: ‘You wouldn’t find John Lennon lounging around in bed with his wife!’. Later on, when the band are on tour in America and are uneasy about the guns and violence there, their manager assures them ‘You’re a pop star! You’re not important enough to shoot!’.
A blueprint for future musical trends
The real pleasure for those not born in the 60s is the discovery of music you didn’t know existed – for my parents’ generation, it’s all familiar territory. But if you only know a handful of the old (and most famous) of songs by the Kinks, you get to unwrap a new gift.
Aided by the clever studio/house/concert hall design of the stage by Miriam Bluether and the choreography by Adam Cooper, watching ‘Sunny Afternoon’ will transport you back to the excitement, the optimism and the feeling of being on the cusp of something completely original and unchartered.
From the time THAT guitar riff kicks in, you understand exactly what it is your Mum has been harping on about all these years. It’s hard to imagine how utterly new, how extraordinary this must have felt for teenagers in the 60s, to go from stale crooners in suits to long haired rebels with rock guitars.
The Kinks were the masters of social commentary which would foreshadow the later emergence of musicians and bands of my generation: the blueprint for American garage and rock bands like grungy Nirvana in the 80s and the Britpop boom in the 90s. I hadn’t realised it until last night but ‘A well respected man’ was clearly influential for Damon Albarn and his crew with Blur’s hit ‘Country House’.
Delightfully rebellious, clever and heartfelt
Credit must be given to the wonderful pacing, characterisation and story for the musical by Ray Davies himself. It’s clearly a personal and heartfelt snapshot of an incredible moment in history. The result is rebellious, clever and heartfelt and I witnessed something I hadn’t yet seen at the Wales Millennium Centre: an entire audience on their feet, no awkward seat lurkers in sight. Inhibitions were gone and for a moment I felt like we were watching the real Kinks. I was genuinely sad to leave the theatre and re-emerge into 2017.
My Mum, who had accompanied me (and by the end was a bawling mess) had enjoyed every last morsel of the show. I asked her why she was crying, she said: ’I remember it – I remember it all!’. If only to see what your parents saw, feel how they felt and see how bloody awesome the fashion and sounds of the sixties actually were, this is an absolute treat of a show.
Type of show: Theatre
Title: Sunny Afternoon
Venue: Wales Millennium Centre
Dates: 17 – 21 Dec (Touring show)
Directed by: Edward Hall
Music, Lyrics, Original Story: Ray Davies
Choreographer: Adam Cooper
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Musical Director: Barney Ashworth
Ryan O’Donnell (Ray Davies)
Mark Newnham (Dave Davies)
Richard Hurst (Larry)
Tomm Coles (Grenville Collins)
Joseph Richardson (Robert Wace)
Lisa Wright (Rasa)
Garmon Rhys (Pete Quaife)
Running time: Approx 3 hours (with interval)
Produced by: Sonia Friedman Productions and Ambassador Theatre Group
Mary Poppins is a musical, which you most probably know or have heard about, originally produced by Walt Disney and songs sparked alive by the Sherman Brothers.
The musical begins with two cheerful children in the 1960s named Jane and Michael who are as free as a drifting kite, but far from home, so a constable safely returns them home. Upon arrival, the children ask for their father to build a better kite, but Mr. Banks who is a banker, certainly doesn’t believe it’s a bankable time, not only for himself, but for his children too. So, rationality directs him to hiring a stringent nanny, one who can restrict the children’s wild imaginations and size their mannerisms appropriately. Jane and Michael however have different wishes, they want a nanny who is fun, free, and funny and magical Mary Poppins is a wish come true.
Mary Poppins guides the Bank family into a world of freedom, teaching them to remove all restrictions such as: patronising patriarchy, calculating classism, and recurring reality in a merry, magical and musical manner, so they may be bouncingly blissful rather than depressingly deflated.
On Friday I ventured to the Millennium Centre to watch Mary Poppins and I would definitely recommend it to be watched; since we were young our minds have been creatively curious, whether it was having imaginary friends or discovering a new and expansive world in our back-gardens and frankly it was fun. But, as we age, we lose a lot of things, and one is generally is the World of Wonders. Instead we walk into the world of restricted, reality rationality sadly never to see World of Wonders again but Mary Poppins guides you back into the world of magic so I would definitely recommended to watch it.
I would like to also applaud the fantastic acting by the performers, especially Mary Poppins played by Zizi Strallen; Jane by [I’m unsure which girl it was in the booklet] and Michael by [Unsure again] and the welcoming service from the Millennium Centre.
Full of fun and fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang needs no introduction, rating as it does high among the icons of musical theatre. Full credit must be accorded to this production by West Yorkshire Playhouse both for the high standard of its performers and for coping with what must be incredibly difficult logistics in staging Chitty on tour, involving as it does the transporting of some large and unwieldy objects. I will say no more on this subject for fear of giving the game away to audiences who are seeing the musical for the first time.
Based on the 1968 film adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams, despite differences between making a film and staging a musical, and the moving forward of the era in which it is set, under the direction of James Brining this Chitty has an aura of timelessness about it which spans the generations. Pure nonsense, but totally believable. At its heart is the boy meets girl romance of lonely widower Caractacus Potts, an inventor of strange machines who is struggling to bring up two young children on his own, and the delectable Truly Scrumptious. Add to the melée an aged and slightly doolally grandfather, a wicked Baron and Baroness, a spine-chilling Childcatcher and a magic car and the result is as sweet as a dolly mixture.
Lee Mead is a mop-headed Caractacus, seemingly bewildered by life but full of spunk and determination. The lyrics by the Sherman brothers are well-known, and Mead is great in the foot-tapping fun numbers such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which gives its name to the title, bringing an unexpected lump to the throat with Hushabye Mountain, which has the added poignancy of the vision of his late wife appearing to him as he sings.
Andy Hockley’s Grandpa, bushy-bearded and bandy-legged, is a delight, the Welsh actor being accorded a special round of applause on opening night in Cardiff. Hockley manages well the balancing act of adhering to the original character created by writer Roald Dahl, based on a story by James Bond Creator Ian Fleming, yet adding his own twist.
Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Truly Scrumptious eschews the frill and flounces of the film and opts instead for more modern attire such as jodhpur like trousers which have the added advantage of showing off her shapely form. You can’t fail to be charmed by this Truly. Hope Fletcher brings a warmth to the role which reveals an understanding of the importance of family life which is one of the underlying themes. Her singing is impeccable; outstanding in her solo Lovely Lonely Man reinstated in Act II after being eliminated from earlier productions of the stage show, melodic and perfectly balanced in the songs she sings with Caractacus and the Potts children.
That accomplished actress Claire Sweeney makes a comical and high-kicking Baroness Bomburst opposite Shaun Williamson’s perfectly petulant Baron. More comic talent in that pair of would-be villains Boris and Goran, played respectively by Sam Harrison and Scott Paige. Matt Gillett’s Childcatcher is sinister and suitably spine shivering, while Bill Coggins gives a movingly compassionate performance as the concerned Toymaker.
It’s not only the wonderful music and lyrics that make this show what it is, but the choreography. Stephen Mear’s choreography is a star in its own right throughout, whether it be the foot tapping intricacies of Me Ol’ Bamboo in the fairground scene or the exotic rhythms of the Bombie Samba in which Sweeney’s take is a master piece of send-up on its own. Skilful video effects and animation work in tandem with an atmospheric yet simple staging which changes or revolves seamlessly. As for the music – under the baton of musical director and keyboard player Andrew Hilton it well deserves the applause it receives.
So what of Chitty herself? Let’s not spoil the surprise. Let’s just say you won’t be disappointed.
Runs until 21st August 2016
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Wales Millennium Centre
Writer: Ian Fleming
Music & Lyrics: Richard M.Sherman and Robert B.Sherman
The wow factor is very much to the fore in this production of Billy Elliot – one of the most heart-warming of musicals, it tugs at the heartstrings from the moment it opens. Brought up in the tough environment of a small mining town in the north-east of England during the 1984/85 miners’ strike, young Billy’s passion for dancing leads him to follow his dream. Abandoning his boxing lessons, he secretly joins a ballet class. The only boy, Billy is the subject of much speculation and teasing – some of it malicious. On the home front, it’s even more so. Billy’s elder brother pours scorn on Billy’s dancing and does his best to nip the young boy’s emerging talent in the bud. Spurred on by his ballet teacher, who knows talent when she sees it, Billy is determined to carry on dancing.
Of the four boys who alternate in the super-demanding role of Billy, Lewis Smallman was the one chosen to open in Cardiff. His was a Billy that we all know – a schoolboy going straight to the biscuit tin when he gets home. But this Billy is still grieving for the loss of his mum, and Smallman manages this part of the role with an expertise beyond his young years, but it is his skill as a dancer that rightly steals the show.
There is star quality here. This Billy is equally at home in the comically camp dance number in which Billy and his friend Michael (Elliot Stiff) dress up on girls’ clothes to the elegant precision of a version of Swan lake performed with an older Billy (Luke Cinque-White)in a dreamlike sequence in the second half – not in the original film but blending in perfectly. Martin Walsh, as Billy’s Dad, struggling both with the deprivations of the strike with no money coming and the problems of a recently bereaved father trying to bring up a young son on his own, brings a depth of understanding to the role, displaying both toughness and vulnerability. As Billy’s dancing teacher Mrs Wilkinson, who knows talent when she sees it, Annette McLaughlin has the role off pat – under no illusions as to her own teaching, and generous in spirit, cigarette puffing when the opportunity arises and with the big-hearted generosity that characterises the north.
Peter Darling’s choreography for the tour differs slightly from the West End production, particularly in the foot-tapping number ‘Born to Boogie’ but most of the sensational dance numbers are the same – and pretty amazing they are, too, doing full justice to Elton John’s lyrical and swinging score in musical numbers that make you want to jump from your seat and join in. A small caveat –which seems almost invidious in the face of such talent – is that several cast members, including Smallman, have not entirely overcome the difficulties of the north east of England dialect.
The darker side of the story is the miner’s strike, and the stand-off between Thatcher’s government and the National Union of Mineworkers, with scenes played out at the pit face of one of the mines threatened with closure, and in the working men’s club where the miners hold their meetings, and the soup kitchen which is established there for the hungry miners and their families during the strike. Light relief is there, too, in the shape of Grandma – not always quite with it (she hides her pasty in the bedclothes much to her grandson’s disgust!). Andrea Miller’s Grandma is a great cameo, displaying a love and empathy for, and with, Billy and his dreams with which many grandparents will identify.
Overall, though, Billy Elliot belongs to the young, and the ensemble of dancers and singers more than do it justice. Bravo!