Marketed as “The first new UK production”, Nikolai Foster’s re-imagining of classic favourite Billy Elliot certainly embraces the challenge of creating a ‘new’ take on the show. From the very first minute it was clear that it was going to be a show to be remembered. Scattered with moments of pure genius including some truly profound stage pictures, exceptional design and heart-warming performances, the team's attempt at modernisation was successful on many counts. However, there were occasional moments where I felt that some of the more modern elements of this restaging didn’t quite come together.
You’re guaranteed to laugh, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably cry too.
Though the achievements of the design team were, on the whole, nothing short of exceptional, there were occasional moments where certain costumes and set pieces felt a little out of place and made me unsure whether the production was aiming to transport us to the North of England in the Thatcher era or rather to the hip and trendy high streets of the 2000s. Similarly, the mission to modernise also manifested itself in the musical score, and though at some moments I felt it didn’t quite land, in others, I quite enjoyed these innovations from Foster and his musical director George Dyer - I have to admit I absolutely adored the jazzy rendition of Born to Boogie, even if it was just an opportunity for Cameron Johnson (playing Mr Braithwaite) to show off his sensational vocal talent.
Unfortunately, there were times when I felt where the agenda to update and transform, musically and otherwise, distracted a little from the emotion of the story, such as with The Letter. Generally, there were countless moments of success, it was just occasional moments that didn’t land as well as they could have. For instance, Lucy Hind’s dance choreography was consistently exceptional, leaving me absolutely speechless, but regrettably, I felt the choreography of the fight sequences and stunts didn’t quite match the formidable precedent set by the rest of the production.
On the whole, it must be said that the production was very slick and the accomplishments of the remarkable visual design were matched by staggering performances on-stage. I was repeatedly floored by the complexity and mastery of Ben Cracknell’s flawless lighting design, and the use of the steel mesh fences as set pieces was truly brilliant, particularly in the latter half of Solidarity which I won’t spoil, but I’ll definitely say you’re in for a treat with that one!
Some of my other favourite memorable moments of the performance include the restaging of Grandma’s Song (which I personally think was an improvement on the original), which was a delightful display of Rachel Izen’s unrelenting energy and charisma. I also thought Prem Masani did an excellent job as Michael, capturing the hearts of the audience, I found him a delight to watch. The second act, however, was a real turning point for Joe Caffrey, playing Billy's dad, who triumphed scene after scene, seamlessly transitioning from moments of raw emotion to effortless humour that had the audience in stitches, very nearly stealing the show.
Alas, I could not forget, the star, and of course, the namesake, Billy, played in this performance by Jaden Shentall-Lee. From his very first appearance, I could not take my eyes off of him, and with each scene, he continued to hit new heights of excellence, so by the time we got to Electricity, he had captured the whole room so that the entire audience was on that journey with him. The irony of that moment was not lost on me, the parallels rang through as we watched the story of a young boy on his journey to the stage and, through Jaden, we saw the reality of Billy’s story, as this remarkable young man’s performance was powerful enough to move us all. A true talent, who blew me away vocally and as a dancer, it is clear he was born to be on that stage. I am confident that, as is the tradition with a historic line of young Billy's, this boy is destined for success.
Barring the occasional incongruity of design and the odd accent slip, there were moments where the production was verging on the edge of perfection. They succeeded in creating a true sense of solidarity and community at the heart of the show that carried through to the audience, who joined them on this electrifying journey. For anyone who has a love of arts, especially as a young person, I could not recommend this show highly enough. You’re guaranteed to laugh, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably cry too. The team at Curve have created something extremely special with this production and I hope every single member of the cast took note of that standing ovation last night, because each and every one of them truly earned it. Congratulations!