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Review: Billy Elliot at Sunderland Empire


Billy Elliot the Musical
Sunderland Empire
Until Saturday 30th April 2016

The tale about the 1984/5 Miners Strike has now been seen by over 10.5 million people across five continents and is the recipient of over 80 awards internationally. How will Lee Hall’s tale perform in the very North East community in which the story is based?

Photo: Alastair Muir
The story starts on the eve of 1984 Miners strike. Young Billy (Haydn May) lives with his Grandma (Andrea Miller) and 2 miners: his brother Tony (Scott Garnham) and his Dad (Martin Walsh). Whilst his Mother (Nikki Gerrard) died some time ago, Billy still feels her presence as he packs his stuff for his boxing lesson.

Photo: Alastair Muir
Billy gets knocked whilst sparring at the boxing club by his mate Michael (Elliot Stiff). It is clear that Billy isn’t a fan of boxing. After the boxing lesson he is told to make sure that Mrs Wilkinson (Annette McLaughlin) gets the keys to the hall when she arrives to lead her ballet class. Billy ends up getting involved in the ballet class much to the amusement of the teacher’s daughter Debbie (Lilly Cadwallender).  Billy ditches the boxing lessons for the ballet but doesn’t tell his family.

Photo: Alastair Muir
Throughout this story, the miners strike and the police presence becomes felt in the region. This leads to one of the early highlights of the show during the song Solidarity. The police and miners interact with each other whilst a ballet lesson takes place on stage. The choreography by Peter Darling under Stephen Daldry’s direct is complex and fluid. The young ballet dancers synchronise so well with the adults around them.

Photo: Alastair Muir
The rich dialogue from Lee Hall’s book is laced both with many funny moments and numerous profanities. The shows age guidelines do warn of bad language and suggest no one under 8 should attend. To be honest if you’d be uncomfortable letting your child watch a tv programme like Life On Mars than this is not the right show for them.

Photo: Alastair Muir
Having said that, there are plenty of laughs throughout the musical. Young Elliot Stiff and Lily Cadwallender both had a large share of the lighter moments and seem to appreciate the audience’s reaction.  The start of the second act involves some puppetry that would have given 80s TV satire Spitting Image a run for its money.

Hayden May as Billy

Photo: Alastair Muir
The most amazing element of the show is the sheer confidence and ability of Haydn May, who celebrated his 11thbirthday at this production. He sang, danced and acted with the calmness of a much more mature actor.

Strong adult roles come from the members of Billy’s family and Mrs Wilkinson. Martin Walsh and Scott Garnham are convincing as the father and son who are struggling to cope with the strike. Annette McLaughlin is charismatic as the small time ballet coach. 

Luke Cinque-White, who trained at the Royal Ballet School in real life, is graceful when dancing as Billy’s Older Self in the later scenes.

Photo: Alastair Muir
Rick Fisher’s lighting design of the dance scenes really helped the intensity of the show. The lighting for the dance in Billy’s bedroom, which resulted in 4 sets of shadows, in particular worked really well. Adding to the pulse was a live band, under the direction of Patrick Hurley, which was perfectly timed with both the singing and dancing action on stage.

Photo: Alastair Muir
It is a long show, taking 3 hours (including interval) before reaching its climax but the time flies by. Lively action and sensible changes of pace keep the show engaging. The only niggles had to be the reference to the good people of Easington as “Geordies” and that some of the North East accents slipped.

After touring around the world, rightly picking up many awards along the way, Billy Elliot has finally come home to the North East of England.  Such is the quality of entertainment on show it is easy to forget how young some of the cast, including the dancers, are.

Photo: Alastair Muir
This delightful story had the entire grand circle on their feet applauding at the end. Stephen Daldry has directed a show that not only captures the spirit of the times, it reflects the spirit and determination of the North East.

Billy Elliot is a fabulously entertaining show with talented young actors who have a great future ahead of them.

This review was written by Stephen Oliver for Jowheretogo PR ( Follow Jo on twitter @jowheretogo, Stephen @panic_c_button or like Jowheretogo on Facebook

Read the original North East Theatre Guide preview:

On The Web:
Twitter:       @billyelliotuk
Facebook: billyelliotthemusical

Billy Elliot The Musical performs at Sunderland Empire from Wednesday 6 April – Saturday 30 April 2016

Tickets available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on
0844 871 3022* or online at*
*Calls cost 7p per minute plus your standard network charge. Booking fees may apply to telephone and online bookings.

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