Heather Kincaid takes a look at the hit musical as it pirouettes into Birmingham as part of its first ever UK tour...
On 3 March 1985, the longest industrial strike in British history was finally brought to an exhausted end. For 12 months, thousands of miners across the country had refused to work, in protest against the planned closure of UK collieries. Over the course of the year, the dispute became increasingly bitter, with frequent outbreaks of violence and families struggling to keep themselves financially afloat. But despite its unprecedented scale, the strike ultimately failed - a historic outcome seen by many as signalling the end of an era.
Set against this backdrop of confrontation, abject poverty and dashed hope is the story of Billy Elliot - a young boy with an unexpected talent for ballet whose family is at the heart of the conflict in County Durham. Coming to Birmingham Hippodrome next month as part of its first ever UK tour, the smash-hit stage musical shows how Billy's abilities offer him a lifeline out of the world he's been born into. Sadly, the rest of his family and community are not so lucky.
“It's easy to look back on it all now and feel like you know the outcome, but when you're doing this show, it's important not to look at it in the past tense,” says Scott Garnham, who plays Billy's older brother and local strike ringleader Tony. “No union strike had ever lost like this before, so when Tony goes out there, he really believes that they're going to win.”
It's this confidence in solidarity that makes the play's final revelation so utterly devastating. By the time we get to the end of the story, Tony is explaining to Billy that while he goes off to complete his dance training, everyone he knows in Easington and beyond will soon be unemployed.
At the centre of Billy Elliot is the simple tale of a little boy chasing his dream, and since the film first appeared in 2000, it's been widely credited with helping to change attitudes towards dance, giving hundreds of boys access to a previously unthought-of world and driving up standards for male dancers throughout the industry.
But there's another, arguably even more poignant, side to the story, one that’s concerned with the transition from an age of nationalised industry and community solidarity into Margaret Thatcher's vision of an individualistic world in which “There is no such thing as society”.
“There are sort of two different stories about trying to overcome adversity,” Garnham explains, “one about a little boy trying to escape his environment, and one about the strike. And where one succeeds, the other fails spectacularly. When we go to places near mining communities, I feel like they really get what we're trying to say with our story. In Sunderland, you could see fully grown men crying in the audience when we talked about how there'll be no pits left in 10 years’ time.”
Amazingly, over a decade after the musical made its stage debut, the current tour marks the first time it has moved out of the West End to visit the areas whose history it concerns.
“We were so nervous before we went to Sunderland, but it was the most amazing experience, a real career highlight. Even though this is their story, it hasn't been back there since they filmed the movie more than 15 years ago. We actually went to the Easington Town Hall, where a lot of our show is set, and met some of the people, and it's amazing the effect it still has there - even now there's still places where the people who broke the strike can't go. Then, on the opening night, we had the Easington Colliery Brass Band playing outside the theatre, which was a really nice, heartfelt moment.”
Far from seeming frivolous, in many ways the musical version has an even greater, more immediate impact than the film. On stage, the clashes between miners and police are brought vividly to life.
“There are similarities obviously, but we're not trying to put the film on stage. This is very much its own thing. I think particularly the story of me and my dad is much more prominent in the musical. Also, whereas in the film Billy is the only character who dances, in the musical, it's all about showing a distinction between the ways in which different characters move. So the choreography for the policemen and the miners has got its own language if you like, which is in contrast to the very heightened choreography for Billy.”
Although it's stylised, the violence is viscerally felt, the child's perspective instilling a sense of real fear. At times, the rioting surrounds Mrs Wilkinson's ballet classes, threatening to crash down on the safe space that Billy has found for himself. Elsewhere, armour-clad officers stomp towards him with riot shields and truncheons raised, seeming to embody the oppressive atmosphere that's constantly threatening to push him over the edge.
All this isn't to dismiss the show's more straightforward pleasures. When Billy performs at his audition before an unreadable panel (a role in which the audience is cast through clever staging), we share wholeheartedly in his father's tearful pride and wonder. Meanwhile, Billy's less-than-eager foray into crossdressing with his fearlessly flamboyant best friend, Michael, is both heartwarming and hilarious - the dancing dresses, flashing lights and sparkly backdrops in Expressing Yourself provide one of the show's most spectacular moments. And then there's the beautiful dream ballet, where Billy literally soars above the sadness of the world around him, in a gorgeous duet with his older self, as played by Luke Cinque-White.
Yet even this can be seen as part of the bigger picture of social change over the last few decades. The growing acceptance of unconventional characters like Billy and Michael hints at the burgeoning culture of individual expression and liberal social values that the ’80s ushered in. In different times, perhaps Tony and his father would not only have been more accepting of Billy's choices, but even better equipped to deal with their own frustrations.
“Sometimes people watching the show forget that it was such a different time in 1984,” says Garnham, “and that this little boy saying he wants to go off and be a ballet dancer would be like saying you want to go off into space and live with the aliens now. I think there was one review that described Tony as the villain of the piece, and I felt a bit like they hadn't really understood, whereas when you go to Sunderland or somewhere like that, they understand that there are no villains - other than maybe Margaret Thatcher!
“On the surface Tony isn't the nicest brother to Billy, but I think it comes out of a place of actually really caring. He does love Billy, but he's quite hot-headed and rash, and maybe not as in touch with his emotions as men are able to be now. He's passionate, and that tends to come out in anger. But even though he and Billy seem very different, I think that actually, if you look a bit deeper, there are a lot of similarities between them.”
For Garnham and the rest of the cast, the affection is unfeigned. Since the show began its tour a year ago, the five boys sharing the demanding title role - Adam Abbou, Emile Gooding, Matthew Lyons, Haydn May and Lewis Smallman - have grown a lot, both as performers and as people.
“When we started our rehearsals, some of them were quite timid, and although they're all fantastically talented, they each excelled at different things. Now it's virtually impossible to say who's the better dancer or singer or whatever, and they're all really confident and able to hold their own in conversations. The amount of discipline that's required for the role is incredible - I can't think of any other musical with a part like this. But I do feel like we're all one big family and we all look after each other, from the kids to the oldest cast members.”
Billy Elliot is at Birmingham Hippodrome Tuesday 7 March – Saturday 29 April.
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