Billy Elliot the Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre

Haydn May as Billy (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Haydn May in Billy Elliot at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Picture: Alastair Muir

Billy Elliot the Musical continues at the Milton Keynes Theatre until 17 June. The show’s next dates are at the Theater am Grossmarkt, Hamburg, Germany from 29 June to 23 July.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Milton Keynes Theatre is made for Billy Elliot. With its huge width and deep recesses, it provides a venue well up to London’s Victoria Palace, where this show opened in 2005, collecting four Olivier Awards including Best New Musical.

The brilliance, taste and restraint Stephen Daldry brought to directing the film reappears here. The entire concept, adapted by Lee Hall from his own screenplay, is marvellous.

The script serves up a Billy (Haydn May, awesome) embroiled in a family rendered dysfunctional by the miners’ strike and at a loss since the mother’s death.

His means of escape via the gym then ballet class offer a perilous way out . He needs Anna-Jane Casey’s characterful, feisty Mrs Wilkinson as he needs his mum, and when their relationship grows protective (‘You don’t fancy me, do you, Miss?’) the grief and gratitude when he rushes to hug her are as tear-jerking as his pep-talk conversations with his ‘dead mam’ (Nikki Gerrard). The writing is skilful: none of this grows mawkish.

When the better-than-camp Michael of Henry Farmer – a twinkling genius and an utter hoot – lures him into cross-dressing, it’s yet another of Billy’s learning curves. Both of their Geordie accents are glorious.

Waving Billy off, Michael nearly steals the show (we even get the famous kiss). So it’s a measure of the dazzling achievement of Haydn May – one of four Billys on this tour – that he hits the jackpot and scores astronomical marks at every turn.

Turn he does, and twists, and performs sensational acrobatics, and pirouettes. Time and again one thinks: ‘Haydn can’t cap that’ – and then he unleashes another humdinger of a leap.

It isn’t just the dance, but his every move: watch him running up and down stairs as if to a perfectly timed musical beat, or gliding over the bobbies’ shields like a radiant butterfly. Several Billys have proved to be a knockout. He’s definitely one of them.

Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite, the pianist-cum-factotum, is a comic joy; and when cavorting with Billy, hilarious. So is Leo Atkin as George, the boxing coach, doubting whether Billy ‘has a chance’ at his audition (a glorious scintilla of comedy). Italia Ross as Debbie (with a crush on Billy – cue another side-splitting line) is as funny as her equivalent in the film.

The direction on this UK and Ireland tour feels as taut as ever, and there is pure craftsmanship on show (including Ian MacNeil’s set design and Rick Fisher’s superb lighting).

MacNeil’s device for Billy’s bedroom is particularly effective as he cowers upstairs when Martin Walsh’s confused, deeply emotional, confused and widowed Dad and Scott Garnham’s bolshy, left-leaning, sharp-mouthed striker brother have a right barney. Dad grabs Tony’s red-fringed newspaper and hurls it away in disgust: ‘Fookin’ Socialist Worker? Not in my house’. Wonderful stuff.

Elton John’s inventive, unforgettable score – its subtle allusions reflecting both classical influences and mastery of eloquent pop – is exemplary. Masterfully orchestrated, it’s not too heavy: solos, like the expressive saxophones, peer through.

Free of all kitsch, bogus sentiment and lightweight, crowd-pleasing ideas, this show is a musical miracle.

Roderic Dunnett


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