Billy Elliot bursts onto the Leicester Curve stage in a kaleidoscope of sound and fury. This is a non-stop, high-energy, gutsy production, breathtaking in its epic scale.
Nikolai Foster’s brand new production of Billy Elliot doesn’t shy away from being true to the gritty, harsh realities of life in a mining town. The stage opens in darkness, with just the lights from the miner’s pit helmets piercing the black, and the haunting sound of brass. For many, this will evoke painful memories of communities destroyed. The confrontations between the miners and the police are carefully choreographed but full of latent violence.
But the joy of Billy Elliot is the story of how a boy from this tough, working-class community came to be a ballet dancer. Jaden Shentall-Lee, playing Billy in this show, is an astonishingly assured actor and dancer – and he needs to be, for he barely leaves the stage. From being the youngest bairn in a struggling family, to exploring his identity with his best friend, to discovering how to express himself through dance, Shentall-Lee is entirely convincing and inspiring. Part of the difficulty of this role for a dancer must be to appear ‘not’ a dancer at first, and that balance is intelligently negotiated both through his performance and the naturalistic choreography by Lucy Hind. In ‘Electricity’, Shentall-Lee explodes in a ferocious, stage-filling performance which almost garners a standing ovation mid-show.
Billy’s home life is brilliantly captured through the brutally honest performances of Joe Caffrey as Dad and Luke Baker as older brother Tony. The tension between the sparring males in the house, the pressures of finances and the grinding loss of dignity through the strikes, is stripped bare. Both give powerful, heart-felt performances as they recognise Billy has an opportunity to find a life beyond the mining community.
But the emotional heart of the story lies in Billy’s relationship with Mrs Wilkinson, the local dance teacher who recognises his potential. Sally Ann Triplett plays the brash, passionate and no-nonsense Mrs Wilkinson, a glory in neon spandex and leg-warmers. From the slightly desperate ‘Shine’, where she implores a class of fairly talentless girls to shine on stage, to the upbeat ‘We Were Born to Boogie’, Triplett dazzles with her furious energy and punchy vocals. Casting perfection.
‘The Letter’ introduces Jessica Daley as Billy’s Mam and my only complaint is that I want more –more of her stunning vocals and warmth of expression. Daley’s duet with Triplett is glorious and the loving maternal care they share for Billy hits home.
Billy’s best friend Michael, provides the opportunity for further exploration of identities, as he dresses up in women’s clothes and discovers himself. Prem Masani is a joy to watch in this role, cavorting about with gay abandon, and his duet with Billy is funny, heart-warming and charming in equal measure.
Nikolai Foster reflects the storyline of culture in the community by involving the Leicestershire community in its performance. Tonight, team Dennis features 13 local children as dancers, boxers, kids from the estate, all of whom perform their proverbial socks off. Together with the adult ensemble, the candid mix of different ages, ethnicities and personalities presents a believable community and whether playing miners, policemen or smaller characters, everyone is utilised to their maximum.
The vast, open Curve stage is the perfect place to explore the epic scale of this musical, from picket line to boxing club, from cramped home to the Royal Ballet. Designer Michael Taylor cleverly utilises a tiered industrial construction to keep the pit in sight at all times, whilst also making it a terraced house. Ben Cracknell’s lighting, as always, is a thing of creative beauty in itself, different rigs, styles and effects offering layer upon layer and enhancing every scene. Musical Director George Dyer relishes the dynamic score and his 7 piece band fill the theatre with a wall of sound.
With its impressive use of movable set, colourful costumes and fast-paced scenes, this new production of Billy Elliot is a celebration of life, hope and individuality. And as Sally Ann Triplett says, a ‘celebration of the return of theatre’.
Billy Elliot runs at Curve until 20th August