Steve Sutherland reviews Billy Elliot, Chipping Campden School, 9th February
“In everything you do
Always be yourself,
And you always will be true…”
It was tempting, for reasons which should soon become clear, to write this review under a pen name but the lyric above, and recalling a funny lady I sat next to recently at the RSC, changed my mind.
The lady was watching A Christmas Carol and started blubbing after about ten minutes, pausing every now and again to heap praise upon the production before starting to blub all over again.
I’d been having a bit of a giggle at her expense, but then I attended Chipping Campden School’s production of Billy Elliot whereupon ’twas I who became the blubber, having a little sob specifically during the song where Billy and his dance teacher read out the letter from Billy’s dead mum. Partly the tears were due to Billy being bravely played by Syd Sutherland, (relation: son) and his dead mum played very tenderly by my daughter and his older sister Molly. But that was by no means the whole story.
If you look back over the history of the Billy Elliot musical, you’ll find that most of the plaudits are reserved for the big ensemble numbers, such as the one where the clumsy ballet class trades off against the arrogantly amassed police presence. And doubtless in extravagant West End or Broadway productions, such politically-charged set-to set pieces are the real Bobby dazzlers.
But in the confines of this school hall, under the cosh of limited resources, the work has been edited to undergo a pragmatic shift and it’s the smaller, more intimate moments which carry the emotional clout. Mily Newton’s batty, grub-hoarding grandma suddenly becomes deeply moving when she’s reminiscing about her long gone brute of a husband and how, just for fleeting moments, they’d forget themselves in the romantic reverie of dance. When Syd tenderly replaces the cardigan around her shoulders near the end of the song, the tiny gesture speaks volumes about the unspoken bonds of love and family.
As I said, it’s the littlest things that deliver this production’s triumph. Syd again, pre-empting his dance teacher’s reading aloud of the letter with the occasional muttered word that betrays, despite his baffled, laddish front, that he has read his mum’s note over and over and knows it off by heart. The way he stoically accepts the fact that the scene where his mum’s telling him where to find his trainers is really just a reflex of memory with two tiny words: “Mam? Mam…” The final scene of letting go where he and his mum embrace with a shared, “love you forever.” The sniffles in the audience pay instinctive tribute to the relatable sensitivity of Syd’s Billy.
Strangely, one of the things which seems to have worked in this production’s favour is the fact that it was delayed for 12 months for internal school reasons so many in the cast are an awkward year older than their roles as written. Voices have broken, limbs grown longer, but the strain and the struggle to make it work, hit those high notes and perform those kicks effectively lend the show a raw believability which I suspect a more polished production would lack.
Archie Santer, a master of flamboyance in previous school presentations, is a gruff revelation as Billy’s down-beaten dad Jackie, Fred Warren is a coil of exploding anger as brother Tony, Archie Griffiths’ comic turn as Mr Braithwaite a huffing and puffing howling success, and Olly Burgess’ fey depiction of Michael Caffrey joyously camp. All told, this is a great cast but special mention must go to Eleanor Jackson whose portrayal of Mrs Wilkinson, the pushy, chain-smoking dance teacher with the mouth of miner and the patience of a saint, is absolutely fantastic. How she achieved such a convincing mix-up of a more mature woman’s frustration and assertiveness is acting of the very highest calibre.
An incident which occurred after the final performance pretty much sums it all up: a member of the audience hitherto unknown to our family approached Molly, and, having declared himself no fan of musicals, told her he’d lost his mum when he was younger and that she’d played her part beautifully.
It seems that everyone got something personal from this show. The mark, I’d say, of a special success.