15 August 2008

Billy Elliot - A Punter's Review

On Saturday, 2nd August 2008 my beloved and I went up to London to see 'Billy Elliot', a musical based on the film of the same name and with music for the stage show written by Sir Elton John. Billed as 'The Greatest British Musical', it held out great promise for a thrilling night of theatre.

The performance we saw had Layton Williams in the leading role. I can honestly say that the lad was absolutely fantastic in just about every aspect of his performance. I was very impressed by his ability and his natural presence on the stage. He really lived the part, and certainly held his own in the pas-de-deux with Barnaby Meredith who played his older self, taking account of the boy's age and the experience of the older dancer.

It was strange for me, a Brummie living in Newcastle and having travelled all the way to London, to hear a whole production done in Geordie. Even that most difficult of accents the boy managed extremely well, with a couple of slight mispronunciations. I've lived near the Tyne for 22 years and still can't do the accent as well as Layton.

Billy's dad was played by Phil Whitchurch, known for his TV roles in 'The Bill' and 'My Hero' (in which he played a very convincing idiot). He put in an excellent performance, displaying his versatility in contrast with those other roles, powerfully conveying the pathos of a man in mourning.

I have to say the music did absolutely nothing for me. I found it unmemorable and lacking in depth and breadth, apart from one piece - an excerpt from Swan Lake, written by Tchaikowsky. Sir Elton John has written some superb stuff in his time, for example, the music for 'The Lion King'. Unfortunately, at least for me, this effort was not comparable and left me unmoved. Certainly, there was comedy in Grandma's song but that had more to do with the libretto than the score. The anthem entitled
(presumably) 'We're Going Down' had the potential for so much poignant irony but failed to plumb its depths. So, sorry, Sir Elton, but in my opinion this is not Britain's greatest musical; I saw 'Joseph' in November and that had much more going for it.

I was moved by the parts involving Billy's late mother but even there I have to say that was because it evoked memories of my own loss rather than empathy with his.

The show has been criticised for the amount of swearing in it. Even as someone who never uses such language, I did not find it offensive, fitting, as it does, the culture in which the story is set. I know that sounds awfully snobbish but I was was once a young boy and am fully conversant with the terms used. Indeed, some of the worst expletives were used by the youngest members of the cast and only served to make the comedic sections even funnier.

All-in-all, I preferred the film - but I would not wish to detract from the excellent performances I have already mentioned and there was some superb theatre among it all. By way of balance, I have to say that the audience received the show very favourably, with most of its members out of their seats in ovation at the end. Certainly, the man sat next to me seemed to be enraptured by the whole thing.

My beloved loved it, of course. Still, you can't expect to please everyone...