Lewis Smallman as Billy

Lewis Smallman as Billy Elliot before a wall of riot shields in what miners saw as police against people. Pictures: Alastair Muir

Billy Elliot - The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome


A TALE of the son of a widowed miner wanting to be a ballet dancer, all set in the midst of the 1984 miners' strike is hardly the stuff to get the pulses racing.

But then again writer Lee Hall has a knack of turning unlikely subjects into brilliant drama with the likes of The Pitmen Painters or the intensely moving Spoonface Steinberg, and, with music by Elton John, he has adapted his smash hit 2000 film into a superb musical, an emotional rollercoaster of a ride which has taken the world by storm.

Now on its first UK tour it is easy to see what all the fuss has been about – it is a show that has everything - kids who have far more than their fair share of talent, a raw, emotional story, a gritty setting, magical choreography, music that saddens or soars and acting that cannot be faulted.

The story is simple. We are at the start of the bitter miners' strike of 1984-85, a conflict which left wounds that will never heal in many a mining community.

Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot spends Saturday mornings, with little enthusiasm, at a boxing class in the Miners' Welfare. One week, he is told to stay behind to hand the key to Mrs Wilkinson, who follows boxing with a ballet class.

Mrs Wilkinson

Marvellous Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson with her ballet girls

So Billy, with, at first, only marginally more enthusiasm, swaps punching for pirouettes, which goes down really well with the miners who see boxing as proper and manly while ballet is a pastime for girls with any male dancer being obviously gay.

Se we are presented with the twin struggle. The Miners against the police and Margaret Thatcher, a battle they and their entire industry was about to lose, and Billy's battle to follow his dream.

As the hardships endured by the striking miners increase, and some question the point of the strike at all, they find a new focus for unity away from industrial strife - Billy. The strike is being lost but his dream becomes their symbol of hope.

Four young actors share the part of Billy and on Press night it was Lewis Smallman, aged 13, from West Bromwich who has appeared in an English Youth Ballet production of Swan Lake at the Grand and as Kurt in The Sound of Music with Trinity Players in Sutton Coldfield, and, for good measure, has won both gymnastics and dance competitions.

He has a long dream ballet sequence with his older self, played by ballet dancer Luke Cinque-White, which includes a spectacular flying section, showing fine talent for his age.

The lad can dance, act and sing as can Elliot Stiff as friend Michael, again a part shared by four actors. Michael likes dressing in his sister's clothes and hardly hides his sexuality. Not only can Elliot, from Tyne and Wear, dance but he has immaculate timing and delivery for comedy in a remarkably accomplished performance for a 10-year-old. One of the stars of the show. Michael's big tap dance number with Billy brings the house down.


Andrea Miller as the cantankerous Gran

And let us not forget Lilly Cadwallender, an 11-year-old, from Cleveland, as Mrs Wilkinson's bolshie, and then some, daughter Debbie. She is one of three Debbies and it is another superb performance, full of humour and wonderful timing. Like Elliot, this is her first professional show.

Three names to watch out for. They have the talent but only the theatre gods know how far they will go.

There are other magical performances too from the likes of Annette McLaughlin, a West End, Broadway and RSC star. She plays the world-weary Mrs Wilkinson, with her second-rate teaching in a third rate ballet class in the welfare – but she knows enough to see potential.

She is part of perhaps the most moving moment of the show as she reads the letter to Billy from his dead mother which turns into a sad, emotionally charged duet, The Letter, which strikes a chord with any parent in the audience or indeed anyone who has lost parents.

And there is her pianist, Mr Braithwaite, played by Daniel Page, a big bear of a man, but so light on his feet when the shackles are off in another fun dance number, Born to Boogie.

Leo Atkin is George, the boxing coach, who sees the noble art simply as you hit him and he hits you while nearer to home we have Martin Walsh, well known as a TV actor, as Billy's dad, struggling to bring up his son in the three years since his wife died. His is the second poignant moment as he sings the sad lament Deep into the ground at the welfare Christmas party as he remembers his late wife.

His is the real drama as he breaks the picket line to get the funds to give Billy a chance in ballet, putting family before fraternity. Only someone who has been a union member in a strike will know the courage and heartache that that took – if only for a day. But that is a catalyst for new hope, something beyond the pit and an uncertain future – Billy and his ballet. A lovely performance from Walsh, full of humour and the uncertainty of a father struggling with emotions and a long way out of his comfort zone.

Scott Garnham gives a powerful performance as Billy's older brother Tony, a union firebrand who puts principle before practicality while there is a magical performance from Andrea Miller as the grumpy, with a capital G, Gran. Her marriage to her dead husband gets a caustic, bittersweet airing in Grandma's Song.

There is also a sadness in that Billy still sees and has conversations with his dead mother, played by Nikki Gerrard, in moments of crisis or doubt. When she says goodbye with a reprise of The Letter you know Billy is finally being himself and has a chance of a future.

There are powerful moments throughout the musical with the opening salvo in the strike with The Stars Look Down, the clashes with police and the final moment as the defeated miners, helmet lamps on, pack into the cage in darkness to descend into the bowels of the earth, defiantly singing Once we were kings. A lovely staging.

There is good support from a hard-working ensemble and the tutu clad girls in the ballet class who all take on Peter Darling's choreography which is at times powerful and always inventive. Darling, and director Stephen Daldry, incidently, are in the same roles they undertook in the film.

The technicals are also first class from Rick Fisher's dramatic lighting to Paul Arditti's solid sound, all on a clever and remarkably flexible set from Ian MacNeil with sliding trucks and even a giant Durham miners' banner - Easington Lodge – which keeps everything flowing without a pause.

And it is all helped along by an excellent nine-piece band under musical director Patrick Hurley and still on music, the choral work, at times, was quite exceptional turning Once we were kings, for example, into an anthem.

It was a hard sell to raise the £3 million to make the film in 2000 and what a bargain that turned out to be as it earned £70 million and growing. The musical, which opened in 2005, has won more than 80 international awards including 10 Tony awards and five Oliviers.

It takes a big show to fill the Hippodrome for eight weeks and they don't come much bigger than this. It's moving, it's funny, it's spectacular, it's heart-warming and above all it's entertaining - British musical theatre at its best and one not to miss. A spontaneous standing ovation said it all. To 29-04-17

Roger Clarke


*contains some swearing

Martin Walsh on being Dad 

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