Stage, as every third-rate actor knows, is different from film. Film offers close-ups, subtleties and silence, allowing delicate thoughts, emotions and movements to float off the screen. To reach the furthest reaches of the gods, for whom the performers may be little more than matchstick men, voices must be loud and gestures large. I had thought that much of Billy the film would be lost in the transition to stage - his grandmother's frailty and regrets, friend Michael's longing, Billy's changing moods as he discovered dance and as his father discovered him dancing, the reactions of the miners to the cuckoo in their midst. I was wrong. The retention of key scenes and much of the dialogue from the film, plus the direction, which allowed brief moments of silence, all helped to maintain and convey the many different levels of the story - the miners' struggle to maintain dignity and to survive, Mrs Wilkinson's feistiness and her awareness of the limitations of her skills and pupils, the shadow of puberty falling across young lives and so on.
Above all, what held the show together was the dance. I have to admit that apart from the times when I dated dancers and tried to show an interest in their craft, I know little about either classical or modern terpsichore and I only show real interest when dance consists of handsome young men in not many clothes stretching their bodies to interesting positions. Which means I can't comment on the originality of the show's choreography or the talent of the dancers. What I can say is that I was totally absorbed by and focused on the dancing that I saw - even though only once, when Billy dances with his older self, did it involve a handsome young man in tight-fitting clothes. What held my attention in scene after scene, was the gaggle of girls in class dancing with great energy and little talent, the ranks of policemen and miners confronting each other, Grandma dancing with her memories, young Billy and Michael surrounded by dancing dresses and . . .
|The Angry Dance|
If there was a downside it was the songs. (Music by Elton John, lyrics by Lee Hall) I couldn't hear several of them and those I could hear did not impress themselves on me - except for Grandma's melancholic memory of her man and marriage. At least, when I gave up trying to hear the songs, I could concentrate on the spectacle and with Stephen Daldry's direction and Peter Darling's choreography there was enough to keep my attention. Besides, the acting was excellent - Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson, Deka Walmsley as Dad, Ann Emery as Grandma, not forgetting lesser roles but equally good performances from Howard Crossley as George, David Muscat as Mr Braithwaite, and (I hope I am not mistaken) Zach Atkinson as Michael.
In quieter moments I found myself wondering what in Billy Elliot's story and in Billy's dancing had moved me so much. The answer of course was all the complexities of humanity. Billy represents the best of us, our talents allowed to flourish, our dreams come true. That in itself would be cause for celebration, but we can only see his achievement against the background of the failures that surround him - the miners whose strike has been defeated, the would-be dancer who can only teach untalented children, the old woman whose husband beat her, the boy who likes to wear dresses seeing the boy he longs for leave forever. And even Billy does not have it all; he has lost his mother and London may tear him away from his community, nor is his talent guaranteed to help him rise above his fellow-students or protect him from the rough and tumble of metropolitan life. In short, Billy represents our fragility as well as our achievements; he is the epitome of our humanity and that is why we - or at least some of us - cry tears of joy and sadness.