Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Billy Elliot


UNIVERSAL PICTURES STAGE ENTERTAINMENT, WORKING TITLE FILMS and OLD VIC PRODUCTIONS present BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL. At the CAPITOL THEATRE Sydney.

BILLY ELLIOT, The Musical is based on the
Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film of the same title. Billy Elliot The musical is set in the North east of England in the tumultuous years of 1984/1985. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Government’s confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers and the torrid events that resulted from a nationwide miner’s strike. Lee Hall the creator of the Book and Lyrics of the show, talks about his own childhood, growing up in Newcastle and discovering through poetry at school that he dreamt of being a writer and "that he decided that he needed to go somewhere that writers went and so I set my heart on Cambridge. And like the Royal Ballet School for (the fictional) Billy Elliot it became my ides of salvation." And so "the basic premise of a young boy discovering a new world of creativity against the background of the harsh realities of the 1980’s was a world I felt very familiar with." This is so evident in what I think is one of the best Books for a musical I have experienced for some time. It is grounded in such lived truths and the fact that a MUSICAL has sprung out of this difficult background makes it an even more baffling and wonderful surprise and pleasure. The film was a great experience and the Musical adaptation of it is just as attractive. The heritage that Lee Hall mentions of Joan Litttlewood and the great Ewan MColl at their Stratford East Theatre, and the 7:84 Theatre Company "of song, folk dance, politics and gritty humour" all "coming together in the proud working class tradition of a good night out" is thrillingly remembered and developed for the 2000 generation.

Stephen Daldry the director of both the film and the Musical play has collected around him a simply wonderful team of collaborators so that the production on stage is flawlessly conceived and executed. The Set design by Ian Macneil gives both the sense of reality for every place the story shifts too but as well as a feeling of "Art". There is in the management of the designed visual images such logical and truthful observation of real life that the designer’s subsequent manipulation of the primary sources profoundly gives a sense of poetry to all of the settings both in Newcastle and in the theatre in London. Similarly the Costume design by Nicky Gillibrand is fascinating for its ordinariness and yet careful selections of look and colour that give the piece that confident belief in the verisimilitude of a real world and at the same time an unconscious confidence as a tool to support the usual “Form” of a musical.

The choreography by Peter Darling is similarly impressive both for its inventiveness and believability. The Finale to act One, with the intertwining of the miners and police riot with the desperate dance of Billy is simply breathtaking in its vision and judgement and execution. The rightness of the masculine gestures, the ingenious use of the props and set and the skill of it as dance is thrilling.

In the Lighting (Rick Fisher), the Design elements and the Choreography there is a sense of cinematic flow, it is seamless. The technical design is clockwork in its precision and almost undetected in its many changes. Stephen Daldry has managed a superb adaptation both conceptually and in practice. There is a great artistic sensibility married to artisan proficiency of a high order.

The musical score by Elton John is the least memorable part of the production.

This production in Sydney has been playing for some time and is nearing its end of season. I felt the adrenalin edge to the performance was not as sharp or thrilling as it ought to be. Too comfortable and a little sense of warming up after a day off. They are all performances of some real skill but just slightly undercooked on the night I attended. Genevieve Lemon, Richard Piper and Justin Smith giving real performances within the conventions of a musical. This night I saw Maureen Andrew as Grandma and thought she gave a truly moving breath to the character. The best performance along with most of the dancers, dancing this night.

Lee Hall talks (and later Jessica Ronane explicates further) that “however good it (The musical) looked on paper and however good the songs sounded on Elton John’s demo, the show depends entirely on finding someone to play Billy Elliot.” Writing Children into any musical must give producers pause (Oliver, Annie) and when they are the leading character and worse when they need to be what the musical theatre call "a triple threat" (Singer, Actor, Dancer) it must be a daring enterprise. We have been regaled by the production’s publicity machine,about the local search and the finding of a young team of artists, their training etc. to play Billy. It is a tall order. On my night Rarmian Newton created the character. There was great proficiency and theatrical charm but most of the choreography was approximate and not finished (there were fleeting moments of perfection but not consistent enough to surrender to. Beauty followed by sloppiness.), the singing voice seemed dangerously under prepared for the evening’s performance, the acting just a little too pat and so there was a dimming at the heart of the Enterprise. This was not Mr Newton’s responsibility alone. For me the performance did not radiate with the joyful energy of a need to do this for the audience tonight. This night. It was very, very good but unfortunately for us, not great. One did not leave the theatre with the full joy of the theatre that this musical has the potential to give. The Resident Director may need to be more attentive.

It is a very costly night out for the audience. They want the best you can give. If the Company value "word of mouth" recommendation then there needs to be more honouring of the work every night.

1 comment:

CT said...

I felt the same Kevin. It was as if all the pieces were brilliant but there was luster missing. An unpolished golden object - sitting on the back shelf.

I left at interval. I felt I'd seen much that it had to offer...but wasn't going to get anymore and the frustration at the unrealised potential in the show was building. I'm really glad I saw the first half - but I'm also glad I didn't stay to get irritated beyond my limits.