Saturday 23 July 2022

Billy Elliot


Curve, Leicester

Friday 22nd July 2022


‘Solidarity forever!’


Following the success of recent productions such as Beautiful, A Chorus Line, and a summer run in the West End for their 2016 production of Grease, Curve is currently setting the standard for post-covid theatre, with a cleverly curated season that’s captivating audiences nation-wide. Their latest delight is a timely revival (the first since the original production) of Lee Hall and Elton John’s Billy Elliot The Musical. Nikolai Foster’s vision beautifully evokes a sense of community against a delicately balanced backdrop of political and emotional turmoil.

The story of a young boy pursuing his passion for dance, while battling prejudice and the hardships suffered by working class families during the 1984 Miners Strike is a modern classic, yet Foster’s production mines new depths, creating a moving and visually imposing piece of theatre. Michael Taylor’s set exploits the sheer expanse of Curve’s stage, upon which looming scaffold structures and mine shaft-yellow cages evoke a perilous playground of industrial dangers and suburban class hostilities. Foster juxtaposes this adult world in which tensions frequently escalate into bone-rattling violence with the exuberant world of the young boxers and dancers. Edd Lindley’s colourful costumes and Lucy Hind’s playful choreography featuring the children jumping out of lockers during ‘Expressing Yourself’ is a perfect example of such youthful innocence which is completely at odds with the social suppression of the external political landscape of the time. These worlds collide even further during the thrilling ‘Solidarity’, as the ballet dancers become surrounded by warring strikers and policemen in a whirling crescendo of commotion.

Yet such juxtaposition is also used to great effect to emphasise the theme of community in Billy Elliot. The children and adults frequently share the stage, inextricably fusing the political with the personal, as families struggle to make ends meet. A fine example of this is the opening of Act 2 which sees the locals gather for a shoestring Christmas celebration; the audience resume their seats while the characters sing, laugh and dance together in a tableau of nostalgic warmth. The fact that Foster and co have once again harnessed the talents of the Curve Young Company to bulk out the group scenes adds an extra layer of authenticity to the communal quality of the piece. The jaunty medley of 80’s festive hits soon gives way to the cracking satirical number, ‘Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher’ which combines family-friendly pantomime aesthetics with a biting undercurrent of bile. Subsequently the comedy descends into more heartfelt sentiment with Jackie Elliot’s folksy ode to his lost wife and lost livelihood, ‘Deep Into The Ground’. As such this scene traverses the gamut of human emotion and exquisitely encapsulates the thematic complexities of the show in a single ten-minute sequence; from the communal heart and resilience, to political fury and personal grief – all delivered with a deliciously traditional British timbre ranging from irony to pathos.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Sally Ann Triplett was born to play the acerbic yet maternal Mrs Wilkinson, and she relishes every exasperated rebuke levelled towards her gaggle of giggling dancers and has a ball with the Chicago inspired choreography for ‘Shine’. Joe Caffrey’s earthy portrayal of Billy’s Dad, Jackie Elliot, grounds the show in a realism that makes the audience care for the family and mining community. Ethan Shimwell shines as Billy’s best friend, Michael, displaying natural comic timing and infectious enthusiasm. And finally, Alfie Napolitano gives the performance of his life as young Billy. He captivates the audience from the get-go, but it’s his performance of ‘Electricity’ that especially wows; his grasp of the choreography is superb, as expected, but it is in the small emotional nuances that Napolitano really tugs at the heartstrings – for example, the brief pause and glance towards his Dad before taking his final series of pirouettes – the performance elicited a rare and deserved mid-show standing ovation.

Curve has created a production which affords Billy Elliot both the immense spectacle and touching intimacy it deserves. The image of Billy dancing alone, dwarfed upon the vast metallic tangle of the stage, is unexpectedly moving, while the group numbers involving the miners singing for their lives are rousing yet prophetic in their ominousness. Foster and co have injected the musical with new vitality and far-reaching impact that will affect young and old alike. The revival comes at a time in history where Britain faces a similar state of economic and political crisis, and it admirably demonstrates the capacity of the arts to truthfully reflect the cultural climate while transcending social, physical, and linguistic boundaries to express both individual and collective anger, grief and joy.


Billy Elliot plays at Curve until 20th August 2022.

The cast of Billy Elliot
Credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday 14 July 2022

Jack Absolute Flies Again

National Theatre, Olivier

9th July 2022, matinee (preview)

What will happen in England after we have won this war?
Bunting! Bunting everywhere!

Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’ new play takes R.B. Sheridan’s 1775 farce The Rivals and updates the setting to a Sussex country house in The Battle of Britain. The romantic pursuits, mistaken identities and malapropisms from The Rivals are combined with Bean’s typically bawdy sense of humour, some impressive aerial dogfights and a dose of WWII patriotism. The result is an entertaining, albeit safe and slightly too long, comedy with pathos.

Caroline Quentin introduces herself to the audience as the widowed Mrs Malaprop at the start of the play (Imelda Staunton wasn’t available she quips). Her country home has been overtaken by a RAF unit, Women’s Auxiliary Airforce and maintenance units. Into this comes our protagonist Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson). Having recently returned from risking his life, he wants to win back the heart of Mrs Malaprop’s niece and heiress, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson). She herself has fallen for northern mechanic Dudley Scunthorpe (a great bit of casting in Emmerdale’s and Strictly’s Kelvin Fletcher). Also chasing him is Malaprop’s maid and self-aware dramatic device Lucy (Kerry Howard brilliantly pulling the theatrical puppet strings). Meanwhile there’s an amusing sub-plot involving Mrs Malaprop and Jack’s dad Captain Absolute (a brilliant Peter Forbes further proving his versatility).

From what I gather, the play is pretty faithful to Sheridan’s plot, but Bean and Chris have a lot of fun with the cliched dramatic devices and archetypal characters. They gleefully drop a malapropism into almost all of Mrs Malaprop’s lines and Quentin delivers them brilliantly, knowing which ones to play up and which ones to sneak through. They’re occasionally predictable (when a clematis is brought on stage you can spot a clitoris joke a mile off!) but that’s part of the fun. There’s also some entertaining breaking of the fourth wall to send up the magic of theatre. Emily Burns’ production is mostly paced well and all the jokes are well received. Most impressive is the false identity scene where Jack dons a northern accent and moustache to woo Lydia Languish and in doing so becomes his own rival. Another particularly funny moment comes when Jordan Metcalfe’s Roy tests how far his beloved’s love for him will stretch. One man behind me was almost choking with laughter as Metcalfe begged to know if she’d still love him if he had no penis, no legs, no arms and just a hole for a face.

The action is played on Mark Thompson’s colourful cartoonish set which looks like a wartime propaganda poster. A cut-out plane welcomes the audience in the pre-set and Mrs Malaprop’s house impressively opens up for the interior scenes. But most notably, Jeff Sugg’s video design makes full use of the stage and side walls of the auditorium for the flying scenes – they’re moments where I found myself sitting back and taking in the full scale of the Olivier.

In an interview with The FT, the playwrights hoped Jack Absolute… will not be ‘just a fluffy laugh factory’. Bean has a history of using broad-brush comedy to explore serious issues from England People Very Nice (2009) to Great Britain (2014). He’s also great at writing exceptionally funny plays with dramatic weight: The Nap (2016) and Toast (1999) for instance. Jack Absolute… is on the fluffier end of the scale but there is a darker side to the end of the play which culminates in another dogfight. The outcome of this throws the usual conventions of a comedy into doubt. It gives a bit of weight to proceedings but I understand if some might not be convinced by how needed this is.

The NT’s programming has come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years and they’re due a hit. I don’t think Jack Absolute Flies Again will set the world alight in the way One Man, Two Guvnors did but it is popular fare that’s broadly entertaining, performed by a cast clearly having a good time on a set which makes impressive use of the Olivier. And there’s a nod to Quentin and Fletcher’s time on Strictly too!

Jack Absolute Flies Again plays at the National Theatre, Olivier until 3rd September. It will be broadcast as part of NT Live on 6th October.

The set of Jack Absolute Flies Again. Credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg