Monday 29 September 2014

'Billy Elliot - the Musical' - live, transmitted into cinemas.

Despite the ticket prices (even at the reduced 'Senior' price, still four times the cost of a 'normal' cinema ticket) this one-off event was reassuringly well-attended - considering too that it was showing in both of the two double-screen cinemas in this town.

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 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!




  1. Oooh Ray. It sounds like it was good. Why didn't they turn the sound down? Surely they knew?

    1. It was good, Sol (I'm delighted to see that you're still 'around' - and hope you will be for much longer.)
      Although the volume was high I wasn't prepared to create a fuss (coward!), especially since there were quite a number in the audience who were (even) older than I am and may have had hearing problems. I did get accustomed to it but it almost certainly wouldn't have been a problem in the actual theatre where it was being performed. You'd like the show, I'm sure.

  2. Replies
    1. Okay thanks. Arm, hand and wrist still progressing in the right direction but the constant dull pain is annoying, though not overwhelming.
      Thanks for asking.

  3. You and I enjoyed a "Billy Elliot" day yesterday. Thinking of you and hoping that you were enjoying the performance, I watched the movie again and also watched a bootleg copy of the stage show which I was able to obtain.

    So many years have passed since the show first opened that I am surprised that a name like Ruthie Henshall is appearing in it.

    Over the years, so many Billys have danced the role. But no matter whom you talk to, everyone raves about the "Billy" that they saw.

    At the NYC production, I experienced the same reaction you did with the lyrics and some of the acting. But as you say, "the experience had taken flight and I was gliding along with it."

    The scene that stays with me is the look into the future when the young Billy dances with the older Billy to the glorious music of "Swan Lake." If you recall the ending of the movie, Billy leaps on stage with his father being visibly awed. What an imagitive way to show this on stage. Btw, the role of the older Billy was performed by a principle dancer of the NYC Ballet.when I saw it.

    I can only imagine how magnificent it must have been to see the 27 former Billys on stage. I remember how it felt on the anniversary production of "Les Miz" when all the Jean Valjeans from different countries,made an appearance.

    Happy to see that this experience is one to be remembered with considerable pleasure.

  4. Yes, it was an experience to be treasured, Paul. The 'Swan Lake' section was faultless and breath-taking.
    I was wondering if you'd be forking out for the DVD of this performance when it comes out.

    Yes, the ending of the show is much more downbeat than the film. I also thought that the final song, the miners singing as they descended down the pit, ought to have been stronger. Maybe it'll grow on me on repeated hearings.

    I was wondering how whether Americans would understand many of the crude terms employed with such abandon. As for translations into other languages, one can only guess.
    It's a bit odd that there was no limit on young children seeing the stage show, while the film, where the language is so much more toned down and used less often, could only be seen here by children over 12.

    As I say above, I haven't seen the original film since it was first released, and I want to see it again more than ever now.

    Btw: The original Billy in that film, Jamie Bell (whose career has, since, taken off big-time) comes from just across the river from where I grew up. His local accent was, therefore, authentic. Yesterday's Billy was Liverpudlian but he did make a good show of speaking in the north-east accent which, people say, I myself still sound like.

    (I did see that 'Les Mis' re-union. a heady experience! )

    Glad we agree on 'Billy'.

  5. That sounds fun. Taken flight and gliding along with it is a wonderful description of what I like to happen for me.

    1. I'll be surprised if you didn't like this, F.B. - though it will help if you're already a fan of Sir E's music. (I generally am - or at least a large part of it).
      A good musical needs to carry you up and make you forget the world for a while, and this did just that - though, due to circumstances there was a delayed reaction for me. But yes, 'fun' is exactly what it is - though do note my own personal 'provisos'.

  6. Ray,
    I loved the movie "Billy Elliott." In fact I've seen it several times and I probably will again. I'll probably skip this production, I'm not big on theatrical productions. Loved your review. You should be paid for your reviews, you're that good. That's what I loke about some blogs I read, they are excellent and free! But souldn't it be cool if you were paid for your excellent reviews.

    1. I'm grateful for your thoughts, Ron, but I don't seriously think for one moment that they are THAT good. For one thing I spend a lot more time saying what happened rather than being positive or negative about the film itself, which is NOT why most people read reviews. Also, it never comes out right first time, at least to my own satisfaction, and I've got to stop myself tinkering with the wording for days afterwards, though I do allow myself a bit of judicious editing for up to 48 hours afterwards, but never going so far as to change my original view, which is very much a snapshot judgment, though which I may want to 'qualify' afterwards. No, I could name several bloggers who write really good reviews, with the space for one to disagree if need be but still making for a good read - and I certainly don't include myself in that company. But thanks again anyway.

      Btw: Not sure I'd want to see the film of 'Billy E' again, which I only saw once on its original release. But I would see the musical again - though one does have to be 'into' theatre to enjoy it properly.

  7. I've seen a few 'Live in HD' productions and have enjoyed them all. They were productions I'd never see come to my little corner of the world, at least not with those actors, and while the energy and verve isn't the intensity one experiences at the theatre, i do think on the whole they do a good job of showing the play. Yes, there are times were i'd like to be sitting a bit farther back to take in the whole stage, and yes, the prices to these shows run about three times what a usual cinema ticket costs, but even so, that price tag is less than what i'd pay for tickets to the show. And, in my case, i'd also have to allow the transport costs to the nearest large city were i to see it live and in person.

    I never saw the film or the play for Billy Elliot, but your review will propel me to see if i can see the musical here. If not, then rent the DVD.

    1. Seeing plays or musicals in this format is definitely better than not seeing them at all, MB, and so it might be seen as too complaining to criticise it. But when one is an avid fan of live theatre, as I was (and still am) but lack of money prevents one from going as regularly as one would like then it does show up what is lacking from a real there-in-the-flesh experience. It won't be the last time I go to one of these but once again the expense of it dictates more than the desire to see.

      I'd recommend the original Billy Elliott film strongly, The same moods are well captured in the musical version. I wouldn't say that one is better than the other, they are both worth going out of ones way to catch.