Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Oct 10 – Dec 15, 2019
Music: Elton John
Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kelley Abbey, Gabrielle Daggar, Vivien Davies, Danielle Everett, Robert Grubb, Drew Livingston, Jamie Rogers, Justin Smith, Aaron Smyth, James Sonnemann, Dean Vince
Images by James D. Morgan
An eleven-year-old boy from the North-East of England decides to learn ballet. Billy Elliot takes place in the mid 80’s with County Durham in the throes of the devastating coal miners’ strike, and Billy’s decision to dance could not seem more flippant or extravagant. There is of course, the additional concern that ballet is a wholly inappropriate activity for any male person, especially in regards a small boy during his formative years. The fragility of masculinity is a central theme in the musical; machismo and gayness are delicate subjects in virtually all our societies, hardly spoken about until the notion of manhood finds itself severely threatened. Billy’s simple act of ditching boxing for ballet, causes more than a slight kerfuffle, thereby exposing our culture for its toxic attitudes around gender roles.
Not quite as moving as the 2000 film, but certainly no less entertaining, Billy Elliot is a sumptuous delight on the live stage. All its visual aspects are marvellously rendered, from scenic design, lighting, costumes, to choreography, there is brilliance everywhere we look. Music by Elton John, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, tell the story with humour and elegance. Its depictions of childhood are particularly charming. Billy and his friends are allowed to be playful and rambunctious, their more than occasional use of mild profanity presents an innocence that feels resonantly, and unusually, authentic.
Performer Jamie Rogers proves himself technically accomplished in the title role, with countless pirouettes and chaînés turns keeping us amazed and thrilled. Billy’s best friend Michael is played by James Sonnemann, a hugely charismatic actor whose precise comic timing has us eating out of his hand, at every appearance. Gabrielle Daggar is another child star who delivers the laughs, very endearing as the mischievous Debbie. The grown-ups too are excellent, in this quintessential work about art and its challenges. Billy’s father is given effervescent life by Justin Smith, and Kelley Abbey’s idiosyncratic warmth as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson makes convincing, this unexpected and unlikely tale from the English working class.
It is an appealing thought that one’s station in life could be illusory, but the truth is that few of us can transcend barriers, to become something more than has been assigned. Humans may be capable of infinite things, but cultural restrictions are just as real as those natural potentialities. Immense and immeasurable forces abound, that tell us what we cannot do, and it takes superhuman ability to recognise the truth, and surmount social constructs. Defiance is hard, but without it, autonomy can only be elusive.