Billy Elliot @ Festival Theatre, Adelaide 31/12/2019

With cooler temperatures gracing Adelaide, the atmosphere through the city was electrifying on New Year’s Eve. As tens of thousands descended upon Elder Park and Adelaide Oval, the Festival Theatre was abuzz with excitement for the opening night of Billy Elliot the Musical.

Based on the 2000 motion picture Billy Elliot, Billy Elliot the Musical is the brainchild of Sir Elton John. The concept of a musical adaptation was concocted after the initial screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival. John enlisted the assistance of director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall to bring his vision to life. It is the story of twelve-year-old Billy, who discovers an enthusiasm and talent for ballet. He pursues his dream to perform ballet despite the fervent objections of his father and the mockery of his community, a coal-mining village in Northern England. Interwoven with Billy’s journey is the coal miners’ strike of 1984 in Great Britain.

The brimming Festival Theatre was in glittering spirits as Act 1 commenced as the eagerness and anticipation generated from months of promotion was finally fulfilled. For the next three hours, we were delighted by a production equal parts comedy, drama and sentimentality as we followed Billy’s journey in dance towards the Royal Ballet School.

Ian MacNeil’s set design, primarily in neutral and earth tones with splashes of red, is representative of the political turmoil of the time; a near civil war with its unnecessary bloodshed. When paired with Nicky Gillibrand’s costume design and Campbell Young’s wig, hair and make-up design, you are instantly transported to Northern England in the 1980s.

The accomplished Australian cast brings their characters to life vibrantly and charmingly. For the opening night’s performance, Wade Neilsen stars as Billy in a genuinely enormous role. Neilsen boldly carries the production like one would expect from a veteran performer. His talent is undeniable as he masters the Geordie accent, sings and dances his way through ballet, tap, hip hop and acro all the while remaining on the stage for almost the entire duration of the performance.

Justin Smith, as Billy’s dad, captures the complex struggles of being a working-class widower raising two sons amid a national miners’ strike with raw believability. His transition from sheer anger upon discovering Billy’s love of ballet to eventual acceptance and sentimentality is ingratiating. When he and Billy are sitting under the spotlight at the Royal Ballet School audition, and he is asked if he supports Billy’s dancing, the simple and repeated response of, “yes” is heart-warming and brings a tear to the eye. Drew Livingston and Vivien Davies both put in solid performances as Tony and Grandma respectively. They help to create an authentic family unit and dynamic.

Lisa Sontag shines as Mrs Wilkinson the harsh but compassionate ballet teacher who uncovers and nurtures Billy’s talent. The depth and strength of Mrs Wilkinson and Billy’s relationship, a crucial relationship in the story, is a joy to watch. The bond between Sontag and Neilsen is abundantly evident and serves well to demonstrate the pseudo-mother-son relationship that Billy yearns for in the absence of his biological mother.

A notable stand-out performance is that of Hamish Monger in his professional debut as Michael, Billy’s friend. Monger is an enthusiastic comedic relief; a delight each time he graces the stage. His duet with Neilsen, Expressing Yourself, which sees the stage transform from bleak Northern England to a glittery spectacular with gigantic dancing dresses, is a show highlight.

Peter Darling’s choreography, adapted in Australia by resident choreographer Danielle Bilios, is a sight to behold. Oft complex, it is elegantly attuned to follow Billy’s development in dance. More importantly, it helps to progress the story whether via solo, duet or impressive ensemble performances such as Solidarity which amalgamates the juxtaposition of brawny miners, riot police and ballet students in delicate white tutus.

Billy Elliot the Musical is a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting story of transformation that is sure to leave you laughing, crying and cheering. It is a passionate journey which effectively interlaces the vulnerability associated with political turmoil, hardship and emotions, and captures the essence of family and community spirit.

Review By Anita Kertes

Billy Elliot the Musical continues its run at the Adelaide Festival Theatre until Sunday 26 January 2020. Tickets from BASS.

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