Review: Billy Elliot the Musical dances its way into our hearts

reviews Dec 04, 2019

As the the lights dim in Sydney's Lyric Theatre, one young boy sits cross-legged centre stage, taking in the large black and white overhead newsreel projecting images of 1960s England. With scenes of rioting mine workers and Margaret Thatcher exploding onto the screen, it's clear that this show means business.

It's the opening night of the highly anticipated return of West End and Broadway hit Billy Elliot the Musical, returning to Sydney after a 10-year hiatus from the Australian stage. Adapted from the 2000 hit film, Billy Elliot the Musical is written by Lee Hall and directed by Stephen Daldry, with music by the fabulous Elton John. It follows the story of Billy Elliot, a coal miner's son, who wants nothing more than to dance. Stuck in a dead-end mining town, Billy must fight and pirouette his way through this hostile world to make his dreams come true.

Filled with complex politics and emotions, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking the role of Billy requires a seasoned performer. However, the cast of fresh young faces, bring the character to life in a vivd and endearing way. For the Sydney production, the role of Billy is shared between four young boys – River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen and Omar Abiad, with Jamie Rogers winning the special honour of performing on opening night. Throughout this intense production, Rogers appears in nearly every scene, giving him little time to catch his breath. Mustering all his energy and enthusiasm, he carries the whole production on his shoulders, belting out every song and bounding through the myriad of different dance styles that are thrown his way.

Young cast of Billy: River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen, Omar Abiad and Jamie Rogers

Making up the rest of the Sydney chorus line are the wonderfully sassy Lisa Sontag as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, Justin Smith as Billy's Dad after originally playing Billy’s brother Tony during the last Australian run and Drew Livingston as Billy's rough-as-guts big brother, Tony. The real star of the older cast, however, is the enduring Vivien Davies, who shines as Billy's beloved Grandma. Feisty and fearless, Davies wins over audiences with her sarcastic comedy during her 'Grandma's Song' solo, where she bitterly reminisces about her late husband, while ghosts of young men sweep across the stage.

With actors puffing away on cigarettes and inhaling pints of beer, the deceptively simple sets and costumes help highlight the rough edges of this storyline. The provoking imagery of mine workers and policemen dancing alongside little girls in pink tutus works as a powerful story-telling device, emphasising the turbulent environment that Billy has to navigate his way through. This harshness builds tension, creating an electricity which bubbles beneath the surface of this production, exploding into glorious bittersweet triumph at the end.

Billy Elliot the Musical is a beautiful show full of raw human emotion and a serious political message, but one that is still as joyous and heart-warming as it was when it first leapt onto the Australian stage 10 years ago.

Billy Elliot the Musical opens in Adelaide in December and Melbourne in February. For a limited time, upgrade your tickets here.