2 hours ago
Monday 29 September 2014
'Billy Elliot - the Musical' - live, transmitted into cinemas.
It got off to, for me, an inauspicious start - much, much too loud, though that was hardly the fault of the production beamed in from London's Victoria Palace Theatre. If the sound level wasn't quite on the edge of distortion it was pretty well near headache level, with the result that a lot of the scene-setting lyrics were lost. (I'd wished I'd brought some cotton wool with me for ear-plugs, but instead had to use the ear-pieces of my Walkman throughout the show) Amid all the rowdiness in the opening scenes I was also a bit put out by some heavily demonstrative acting, though once again one couldn't blame the cast entirely, acting technique for the stage necessarily taking physical movement up a notch for an audience at a physical distance, as against acting for a camera in close- up, where all facial, muscular inflections can be captured. So it was here, with many cameras making it look more like a film than the live theatrical event it was.
Having said that, and accepting that none of it so far was the production's fault, I was nevertheless a trifle underwhelmed until well into the first half (precisely 50 mins into the 1 hour 10 mins) when I did find, to my great pleasure, that the experience had taken flight and I was gliding along with it. (I'd seen the film on which this musical is based just the once when it was first released in 2000. It's such a singular story that one can't help but remember the path it takes.)
I thought the music was good. Not being familiar with any of the songs, I'd had doubts whether Elton John could write a wide range of numbers of different moods and styles to hold the narrative drive on a convincing course without getting monotonous - and he does.
Acting was good also, stand-outs being the dancing teacher (Ruthie Henshall - the only name in yesterday's cast I'd recognised) and the 'Billy' of the day, Elliott Hanna (aged 11) was nothing short of extraordinary - such confidence and verve.
I was initially not convinced by Billy's father (Dekka Walmsley), his brother and his grandma, but the first of these, at least, really started to shine towards the end of the first part and all through the remainder so that by the end I was totally won over.
I've never ever heard so much 'blue' language on stage, not even in a straight play. It was darned near relentless - not just among the grown-ups, not just between grown-ups and kids, but also among the kids alone. Maybe it shows my age, but I did find it just a tad off-putting. Perhaps that is the way children speak nowadays. The original film had far fewer expletives, though they'd probably been reduced in number so as to have the film achieve a more acceptable censorship category. At yesterday's screening there were many children, some very young, with their parents. I couldn't help wondering if some of the latter were a bit embarrassed at having to sit through such a barrage of sexually-slanted invectives.
Which brings me to the fairly frequent gay slurs. I well know from my own experience that around the time of these events (early 1980s) such vocabulary as used here was regularly spat out with purposeful venom from many quarters, including the more 'popular' newspapers. Of course the climate has changed beyond all recognition over the last 30 years. Nevertheless I wonder if the audience's cosily-humoured reaction to them, in both theatre and cinema, was really a reaction out of affection or there's some residual homophobia still present, which is 'validated' by hearing them again in this public 'official' context. I'd like to think it had subsided enough not to be an issue now though, regretfully, I doubt it. Maybe I'm making too much of a mountain out of it.
It's a strange coincidence that this screening event should have happened just at the same time as the film 'Pride', which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, is still doing very well at the cinemas, a film which covers the same period of history - miners strike, Mrs Thatcher, gay rights - as this musical does. (I've heard that this feel-good film is frequently getting applause from cinema audiences at its finish).
Before the musical began there were filmed introductions from Elton John, Ruthie Henshall, Elliott Hannah, who guided us around backstage - and then out on stage came director Stephen Daldry, who told us that not only was that performance being beamed into no less than 550 cinemas in the U.K. alone, but also throughout Europe, in the east including Finland, Lithuania, Poland (pointedly no mention of Russia) as well as to Japan, Malaysia and Australasia - and, with a time delay, to the U.S.A. (The performance is also being released on DVD in a couple of months).
He also told us that 'Older Billy' is being played on this occasion by the very original child actor in that role - Liam Mower, now 22. And not only that, but in the show's curtain call numbers there was to be a special appearance of no less than 27 former Billys in an ensemble number - and so there were, and it was magnificent!
As an aside, I must mention that the last time I was in the theatre from which this was transmitted, (Victoria Palace - just over the road from Victoria station), was in 1986, when I was enjoying my then prosperity to the full, and I saw there the musical 'Charlie Girl' - with Paul Nicholas, Cyd Cherisse (yes!), Dora Bryan (recently departed, and a lovely lady and comedienne who'd done so much to support the HIV hospice where I'd done a bit of voluntary work in the 90s) - and Nicholas Parsons. One of the things I remember about that lively, otherwise happy, show was the disappointing and unimaginative choreography, which took it down a few marks! Yesterday, several times at the shows end, as well as before it started, the cameras panned the theatre audience, and I could poignantly identify the very aisle seat in which I'd sat, that occasion still being a few years before my life was to turn topsy-turvy and never recover.........at least not yet.
So, the acid test for this 'Billy Elliot' would be - do I regret having spent the money on it? - and the answer is a clear 'No'. But what it has not done is to take away the wish to see it performed live 'in the flesh'. Yes, I really would like to see it again. Watching a transmission of a live show is very much a second-hand experience. There is very little of the electric charge one gets when one is actually there - and that is precisely what makes theatre a different, and I'd say, an ultimately more exciting art-form than cinema can be. It's the knowledge that the performers are up there working for you that clinches it. But as for yesterday's experience - definitely one to be remembered with considerable pleasure. I was entertained!