In the unforgettable new version of Billy Elliot the Musical from director Nikolai Foster, all lines have been blurred. When the miners strike, they run down the aisles and howl their protests right above our heads. Billy’s room sits atop a portable mining shaft, the personal and the political as one. When Billy dances, it doesn’t really feel like a dance under Lucy Hind’s beautifully empathetic choreography. It’s a boxing match. A street fight. An angry conversation. Art is not an extra luxury in Billy’s world. It’s his life.
Where Stephen Daldry’s original production, which ran for 11 years, was like Billy Elliot the Musical – complete with a capital musical – Foster’s new version is more like a play with dancing and songs. Lee Hall’s screenplay has plenty of room to breathe and rings with ideas around love and loss, community and isolation, passion and violence. The result is an unusually deep musical that distills Hall’s acting down to its essence, but also feels nuanced and truthful.
The most memorable songs are sweet heartbeats rather than jaw-dropping dazzling ones. Elton John’s score got overlooked pretty quickly when it first opened for Billy Elliot in 2005, but there’s a candle in the Wind-esque tenderness here. A song between Billy and his dead mother, The Letter, is devastating in the purity of the loss it evokes and the delicate ditty, Deep Into the Ground, evokes the deep pain that a refusal to let go – of a love lost, living or dying community path – can bring.
Joe Caffrey captivates as Billy’s grieving and angry father, who continues to push his sons away while bringing them closer. Wrapped in cigarette smoke and dripping with cynicism, Sally Ann Triplett’s Mrs. Wilkinson has only a slight twinkle about her, which makes her moments of compassion all the more persuasive. Finally, there’s Samuel Newby’s fabulously cheeky Billy. With exposed lighting rigs reaching skyward and a spare stage sweeping backstage, Michael Taylor’s cavernous setting cleverly underscores the depth of Billy’s loneliness, the dizzying scale of his ambition, and – most inspiring of all – the amazing bravery it takes for a small child to dream big.