If I wore mascara, I’d have looked like a zebra by the end of the opening number. It’s not that I’m a soft touch – Bambi leaves me resolutely dry-eyed – but there’s a short list of things that, in a theatre or concert hall (or, more rarely, a cinema) are capable of reducing me to emotional wreckage. Billy Elliot is very near the top of that list. Not the original film, though – it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have that effect on me. The stage musical, on the other hand, is a different story. Fortunately this time I was prepared. I’d bought tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.
And I wasn’t even seeing it “properly”, in the theatre. Yesterday, a special performance of the show was broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Europe (it will be shown later in other territories). I’m not always that much of a fan of live broadcasts of theatre, whether on TV or in the cinema; too often, they end up being somewhat disappointing, not least because a performance which is designed to play to the back of a 1200-seat theatre (or a 3000-seat concert hall) can register very differently on a flatscreen TV or an iPad or a giant cinema screen. Under those circumstances, work which would register as subtle if you saw it “in person” often (though not invariably) comes across as either shrill or (worse) strangely blank. The camera, also, often doesn’t move quite as much as it needs to, and it’s very easy for a filmed stage performance to end up seeming listless and rather static. It’s a great idea to film stage performances – it opens up work done in a single location to a much wider audience, usually at a price that’s lower than the cost of a theatre ticket, and of course that’s a good thing, and for organisations like the National, any additional revenue from cinema screenings must be very welcome. It’s just that the result isn’t always successful.
So, yes, I had some misgivings before it started, although they didn’t stop me from booking a ticket (£16 at a cinema a tram-ride from home vs. West End ticket prices plus the train-fare to London makes the cinema screening a relative bargain). I’ve seen the show in the theatre a couple of times before, and sobbed through it both times (and as I said, that’s not something that happens to me often); I wasn’t sure it would (or even could) have the same effect in a live screening, even on a very large screen, but I took tissues just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because this particular simultaneous broadcast was done superlatively well – which means, among other things, that I responded to the show precisely the same way in the cinema as I had in the theatre.
And it still seems as fresh as it did when it opened nine and a half years ago. A lot of the adult actors who’ve worked on it have said in interviews that the presence of a rotating cast of children stops the performances from going stale; whatever the reason, what I saw yesterday certainly didn’t play like a show that had been running the better part of a decade. The kids, of course, were phenomenal, but they always are in this show, and Elliot Hanna is probably as good a Billy as there has ever been. There’s also terrific work from the adult ensemble, with Deka Walmsley giving a particularly moving performance as Billy’s dad, and Ruthie Henshall – a big-name replacement – doing what might be the finest work of her career as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who notices Billy’s potential and pushes to find him a way out of Easington. She’s not necessarily obvious casting – even after seeing her play Roxie Hart, the kind of bristly backstreet sarcasm the role needs is not the first thing I’d associate with her, and the music isn’t the greatest fit for her voice – but she nails it.
She’s helped – like everyone else – by the production team’s clever, careful planning of where to point the camera. The lengthy “Solidarity” sequence – which I think is still the single finest piece of musical staging I have ever seen – must be nightmarishly complicated to film, because it delivers so much information, and because it compresses events taking place in multiple locations into the same physical space. At the same time, it shows Billy’s slow progress from absolute novice to a dancer of some skill, and a series of pitched battles between striking miners and the police. It’s rendered on screen here with absolute clarity – all the key reaction shots are there, but they also film the choreography so that you can see it properly, instead of filming the dancers from the waist up (see, for example, the movie version of A Chorus Line for a masterclass in how not to film choreography). And that’s true all the way through – at every given point in the show, the camera is looking where you’d want to be looking if you were watching it in the theatre. That sounds simple, but it’s something that these events very often fail to achieve.
The show itself… given Elton John’s other work for the musical stage, to say this is his best score could easily be open to misinterpretation, and that would be unfair. It’s true that the best parts of the score are essentially hymns – the opening “The Stars Look Down” as the miners get the news that a strike has been called, and their proudly defiant admission of defeat in “Once We Were Kings” at the end of the show as they head back to work, the strike having been finally called off by the union – but that goes with the territory: the show, far more than the film, places both the community and the politics front and centre, so of course the score includes at least a couple of socialist protest songs (it’s frankly almost surprising that at no point does anybody in the show break into a chorus of “The Red Flag”). For those songs – and for “Deep into the Ground”, a folk ballad sung to devastating effect by Billy’s father (and, in the last verse, Billy himself) near the top of Act Two – John has, uncharacteristically, dug deep and produced music that is powerfully redolent of both the geographical location and the social milieu in which the show is set. The Thatcher number – a hard-edged rock stomper with a grimly satirical lyric – is the other musical highlight; it, too, fits in perfectly with the show’s period and place.
This is, though, certainly one of those productions in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Some of the rest of the score is (like most of Elton John’s music these days) rather on the bland side – “Electricity” is a jaw-dropping moment of theatre because you are watching a child more or less literally dancing for his life, rather than because of any qualities inherent in the music itself – although it’s never less than pleasant. Lee Hall’s lyrics are best when he keeps the tone conversational, although some of Mrs. Wilkinson’s zingers in “Shine” have a certain sting to them (“It doesn’t matter if you’re special needs/Maimed or lame, or born in Leeds…”), and his book, like his original screenplay, is sometimes shamelessly manipulative. When Mrs. Wilkinson starts singing the letter from Billy’s dead mother, you can feel your strings being pulled; what saves the moment is the artful simplicity of the lyrics, and the devastating restraint with which the scene is performed. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t cry; she struggles to control her emotions, and succeeds – which leaves the audience awash.
Other than that moment, though, I’m not sure I can quite explain why the show has the effect on me that it does – and why it continues to have the same effect on repeat visits. Certainly, it’s partly that I remember the strike very clearly – I was eleven years old when it began, my grandparents lived on the edge of a mining community (and were both from mining communities themselves), and I vividly remember the violence in the air as we drove past the picket lines, and my parents telling us to lock the car doors and keep the windows shut. The show’s opening number – the miners singing in solidarity as they go out on strike – is so moving partly because we know what happens next: the government of the day engineered the strike as a means of breaking the unions, and the strike brought about the collapse of the coal industry and essentially destroyed the miners’ communities, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The strike was one of the defining moments of Thatcher’s government, and it’s a good part of the reason she was so hated in some parts of the country; it was also, around the mining communities themselves, as close as we’ve come to civil war. Both sides played dirty; there was fighting in the streets, and the NUM picketers formed the front line in a battle for, essentially, the principles of democratic socialism on which very nearly all the great institutions of postwar Britain had been built. And while the original film of “Billy Elliot” keeps the politics quite firmly in the background, it’s definitely there – indeed, the film’s most moving scene is the moment when Billy’s father decides he’s prepared to cross the picket line to go back to work to raise the money to pay for the audition. The great achievement of the stage musical, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it pushes the community (and therefore the politics) front and centre, without pulling the focus away from Billy himself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most commercially-successful piece of theatre Britain has produced in the past twenty years presents a point of view that isn’t merely liberal-left-wing, but out-and-out pre-New-Labour Bennite socialism; the show is set at more or less the precise moment when Britain’s political landscape took a decisive lurch to the right, but Hall, wisely, largely tells the story without editorialising. The show doesn’t lecture the audience about the devastating effect of the strike on Britain’s mining communities – it simply shows us, and that’s far more powerful.
The opening number of “Billy Elliot”, in fact, is basically the final scene of “Journey’s End” or “Blackadder Goes Forth”: the miners are going to war, and they’re facing oblivion, and so the rest of the story becomes something a little different than it was in the film. This is very definitely the story of the community as well as of Billy himself, and it’s also, far more clearly than in the film, about the different ways to escape a place that is dying on its feet. “Grandma’s Song” and “Shine” both point to a kind of cheap escapism via entertainment; crucially, “Grandma’s Song” introduces the idea of dancing as a means of escape, and suggests that without some kind of escape life in Easington would be brutally hard to endure. “Expressing Yourself” is cute, but has a serious point – although he can’t articulate it, Billy gets the idea from Michael that you can transcend your (grim) surroundings by remaining true to your inner self. And the political situation is clearly set up as a barrier to Billy’s escape, far more than it was in the film – indeed, in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act, the riot police’s shields form a literal barrier, and while Billy repeatedly hurls himself against them, he does not break through. Of course he escapes in the end, but nobody else does, and his escape is mirrored by the image of the miners, in absolute defeat, going back underground. The stage production juxtaposes the two images in a way that the film couldn’t, because cross-cutting just doesn’t have the same effect. Again, playing those two moments against each other is shamelessly manipulative; Hall and Stephen Daldry get away with it because the show’s dialogue and lyrics, throughout, are startlingly unsentimental.
It’s remarkably effective – at least, if the effect it has on me is anything to go by. Centre-stage, you have a child who you know is going to break free from a place that is about as bleak as life in Britain in the 1980s could possibly be – and that child is surrounded by adults whose lives are about to be destroyed. Hall and Daldry (and Elton John) tread a very delicate line – in some ways it’s an incredibly manipulative show, but the characters in it almost never make a direct appeal to your emotions (even true of the letter from the dead mother, although that’s the most manipulative scene in the show). If you fall for it – and not everybody does, although I certainly did – then you fall hook, line and sinker; I am far from the only person I know who sobbed all the way through it (I wasn’t even the only person in the cinema yesterday who sobbed all the way through it). If you add to that the breathtaking artistry of the children in the show – particularly (though not only) the child playing Billy, who has to negotiate a complex acting role and some incredibly strenuous choreography – which is moving in itself, the result is a kind of theatrical perfect storm.
And in the case of this particular performance, there are a few extras thrown in to prick your tear-ducts even further. In the Swan Lake fantasy sequence in the second act, the older Billy is danced by Liam Mower, one of the three Billys from the original cast back in 2005 (Mr. Mower is now a ballet dancer, and has danced the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake). Of course, this was announced at the start of the screening; this, too, is a lump-in-the-throat moment, and there’s a tenderness to the scene that I don’t quite remember having been there the last time I saw the show. And then there’s the added post-curtain call dance number featuring (nearly) all the kids who have played Billy in London over the past nine and a half years. It’s absolutely charming, and a lovely celebration of a group of absolutely extraordinary young performers.
The result – and I know I’m gushing here – was quite an event. For all my misgivings about theatrical performances being shown on screen, this one turned out to be a knockout. If you missed it, don’t worry – there’s going to be a DVD, and it’s going to hit the shops before Christmas. Very few stage productions have been filmed as well as this; if you like the show at all (or if you teach theatre), it’s probably going to be an essential purchase.
Just buy a couple of boxes of tissues at the same time. You’ll need them.