Review: Billy Elliot at Liverpool Empire *****
When Billy Elliot was screened in cinemas back at the turn of millennium it encouraged a whole new generation of boys to take up dance.
Is that still the case I wonder, or are classes across the country the preserve once more of a corps of mini-ballerinas?
Luckily there are still some budding principal men out there, not least the quartet of lads who share the title role in this tremendous and touching touring production of the Billy Elliot stage musical.
One of the four, performing on press night at the Empire, is Liverpool’s own Adam Abbou – a confident and talented 14-year-old who brings Billy believably to life in all his conflicted, confused, childish glory.
The team behind the film, writer Lee Hall, director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling, evidently worked on the maxim of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the musical stays true to both the spirit and the hope-over-adversity narrative of the movie original – give or take a few songs with music by a certain Sir Elton John.
At the same time however, it manages to flesh out Billy’s, and his family’s, background a little more, while injecting both a good dose of comedy and an avalanche of bad language.
It’s 1984, and while the men of Easington pit in the Durham coal fields are out on strike and tensions run high – both at home and on the picket line, other aspects of community life carry on, somewhat incongruously, as normal. The lads learn to box, and the girls don tutus and jete, plie and pirouette for their laid-back teacher Mrs Henderson.
Billy unwittingly stumbles in to her class, and after a few reluctant lessons turns from awkward ugly duckling to elegant swan.
Anna-Jane Casey has great fun as the Miss Hannigan (albeit with a warm heart) of the dance world, while elsewhere there’s a scene-stealing turn from the young Bradley Mayfield as Billy’s adventurous friend Michael, unafraid to follow his own singular path.
Adam Abbou as Billy (credit Alastair Muir)
The young duo’s taps and tinsel, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart-inspired duet is on of the show’s many stand-out scenes.
While battles rage at the pit gates, to a pounding, electronic, souped-up Swan Lake, Billy finds refuge in dance, and there’s a magical, and emotional, scene where young Billy and his adult self perform an all together more serene pas de deux to Tchaikovsky’s score.
The ensemble numbers are powerful and visually spectacular, with some intricate choreography – in Solidarity for example, strikers, police and ballerinas weave a complex dance, while there is a striking, head torch-suffused finale.