Auck­land, be proud: the first show in the new Wa­ter­front Theatre is a toe-tap­ping tri­umph.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - Re­view by James Wen­ley BILLY EL­LIOT THE MU­SI­CAL: ASB WA­TER­FRONT THEATRE, TO NOVEM­BER 27. WWW.ATC.CO.NZ

James Wen­ley re­views Billy El­liot the Mu­si­cal.


This is a story of es­cap­ing a cul­tural back­wa­ter, valu­ing artis­tic ex­pres­sion, putting on a huge fundrais­ing drive, and achiev­ing the dream that many thought im­pos­si­ble. Billy El­liot is a very good stand-in for the plucky Auck­land Theatre Com­pany, who have fi­nally be­come the last flag­ship com­pany in Aus­trala­sia to get their own home venue.

Mu­si­cals have long been some­thing the ATC do well. The best — I’m think­ing Cabaret or Chicago —are of­ten when they get to put their own spin on the ma­te­rial. This is not the case with Billy. It’s mod­elled off the 2005 West End pro­duc­tion, and the record­ing made for the 10th an­niver­sary has been on con­stant re­peat as they repli­cate the con­trac­tu­ally ob­li­gated chore­og­ra­phy. It gives them a for­mula that’s been proven to work, but the dan­ger is a paint (dance) by num­bers ap­proach.

I’ve seen Billy El­liot in Syd­ney and Lon­don. While those had hy­draulics that the ATC can’t em­ploy, what we’re get­ting is a very good match for those in­ter­na­tional productions, and it ab­so­lutely com­petes. Partly that’s down to the in­ti­macy of the new ASB Wa­ter­front Theatre, but mostly it’s be­cause this Billy is per­formed by a com­pany who have ev­ery­thing to prove, and they dig deep to give us some­thing spe­cial. Our Billy has some­thing else: an elu­sive qual­ity that we’ll call “heart”.

The 2000 Billy film was a star­tling pic­ture of Thatcherite Bri­tain and nationwide min­ers’ strikes, viewed from the per­spec­tive of an 11-year-old boy who ex­changes boxing classes for bal­let. The sound­track was a su­per-cool mix-tape of retro Bri­tan­nia, a sound the mu­si­cal ditches en­tirely.

Un­usu­ally, the film’s screen­writer, Lee Hall, wrote the book and lyrics for the stage ver­sion. The lyrics are the weaker of the two, mawk­ish and of­ten de­riv­a­tive, but they get the job done. It’s for­giv­able when the com­poser is Sir El­ton John, who lends his trade­mark camp style, but also real gravel, to the min­ers’ bal­lads. The so­cial re­al­ism and mu­si­cal glitz oc­ca­sion­ally make awk­ward dance part- ners but mostly work, like the au­da­cious move in “Sol­i­dar­ity” to in­ter­cut an al­ter­ca­tion be­tween strik­ing min­ers and po­lice with a bal­let les­son.

Then there are the mo­ments when it’s not enough to sing, and dance is the only vi­able means of ex­pres­sion. Af­ter Billy is barred from bal­let classes by his fa­ther, Act One fin­ishes with the boy’s an­gry dance. Ex­plo­sive, de­fi­ant and threat­en­ing to put dents into the brand-new stage, Billy flings him­self at the po­lice riot shields. Act Two sees him in a tran­scen­dent duet with his fu­ture grown-up self (Daniel Cooper), and cli­maxes with his im­promptu dance dur­ing his au­di­tion for bal­let school.

The qual­ity of the ATC’s pro­duc­tion is all the more re­mark­able when you con­sider that the cre­ators of the orig­i­nal mu­si­cal spent five years look­ing for their orig­i­nal Billys, and then set up a Billy school to train more. For the ATC’s open­ing night, it was Jax­son Cook own­ing the ti­tle role (he al­ter­nates with Ben Shi­eff and Harry Sills): an ath­lete for the stage, hum­ble, but yearn­ing for more than his lot. There are de­light­ful per­for­mances from the other chil­dren, es­pe­cially Billy’s off­beat off­sider Michael (Stan­ley Reedy) and in­quis­i­tive Deb­bie (Aria Fer­ris).

The adults are led by Stephen Lo­vatt as Billy’s fa­ther Jackie, who ap­pears vis­i­bly crushed by his years of toil, and Jodie Dor­day’s vi­brant bal­let teacher Mrs Wilkin­son, who doesn’t have it much bet­ter in mid­dle-class do­mes­tic­ity — her lessons are the sole chance in her week to in­dulge in some es­capism. The comic back­bones of the pro­duc­tion are An­drew Grainger as the boxing coach and the cheeky Rima Te Wi­ata as Billy’s dotty grandma.

While the mu­si­cal has a bril­liant song putting the boot into Mag­gie Thatcher, po­lit­i­cally its val­ues are in­co­her­ent. It wants to hon­our the min­ers, nobly fight­ing a lost bat­tle, but for Billy’s story to work they also need to be con­trasted as back­ward boor­ish relics. Billy is ad­vised to go and never look back. There’s a ten­sion run­ning through the lyrics be­tween the work­ing-class re­frains of “all for one, and one for all, sol­i­dar­ity for­ever” and the fi­nal cur­tain-call mes­sage, “what we need is in-di-vid-u-a-li-ty”. Yes, Billy El­liot smashed the union move­ment, danc­ing off to his neo-lib­eral fu­ture.

Strik­ing for broad ap­peal, di­rec­tor Colin McColl and the team have done it. Billy El­liot is a toe-tap­ping, un­der­dog-tri­umph­ing good time. Auck­lan­ders can be jus­ti­fi­ably proud of it, and their in­cred­i­ble new world-class theatre.

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