It may not have the big numbers of Les Miserables, nor the spectacle of Phantom of the Opera, but for gritty, hard-edged theatre, it wins hands down.
And, of course, with the show based on the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s and its devastating effect on the pit communities of East Durham, it has a particular resonance with audiences in the North East, where going underground to work was not just a means to get a loaf of bread on the table, it was also a way of life.
So ingrained was mining in generations of many North East communities, including Easington, where the original movie in 2000 was set, that it was only natural to follow in your father’s footsteps.
But in Lee Hall’s story, Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old boy who breaks the mould. Living in the macho environment of a pit village ripped apart by the strike, Billy discovers he has a penchant for ballet rather than boxing.
Ridiculed and abused, he nonetheless manages to pursue his dream.
On paper, turning the miners’ strike into a musical shouldn’t work but it most definitely defies the odds.
It’s a roller-coaster ride of raw emotions. I found myself crying, then crying with laughter, then crying again. When you go, take some tissues!
Scenes of violence and hatred on the picket line were juxtaposed with heart-wrenching, tender moments between Billy and his dead mum.
Hilarious scenes involving Billy’s dotty gran and his ballet sessions made the first half one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was utterly gripping.
Many of the belly laughs were the product of a time when PC referred to a policeman, and political correctness was a concept yet to be invented.
The star of the show, of course, was Billy, played beautifully last night by Haydn May, celebrating his 11th birthday and one of four youngsters rotating the role on the UK tour. He was amazingly talented, particularly as a dancer and gymnast. The scene in which his frustration at not being allowed to audition as a ballet dancer is released in a frenzy of tap was superb.
Haydn was ably supported by some home-grown talent. The energetic and funny Elliot Stiff, nine, from Washington, who plays his cross-dressing pal Michael, and Lilly Cadwallender, 10, from Hartlepool, as the dance teacher’s daughter Debbie. All the children are a joy to watch, their professionalism and talent belying their years.
Billy and Michael’s routine with giant dresses was a light interlude among some pretty heavy scenes.
The adults also gave everything to their parts. Annette McLaughlin, as teacher Mrs Wilkinson, brought gravity, perfect comic timing and a great singing voice to the film role made famous by Julie Waters.
Both Martin Walsh (dad) and Scott Garnham (Billy’s brother Tony) had to balance anger with humanity and managed it with aplomb.
Everything about the production was spot on – the dramatic score penned by Elton John, the stunning choreography, the spectacular set, the music, the imaginative lighting ... I could go on.
It was a thoroughly enthralling evening and one that everyone in the North East should experience. The days of the miners’ strike were tough and dark, full of strife and division that have been depicted on stage with a stark reality that was, at times, painful to watch.
But judging by last night, the musical is in for a great run – there were many cheers and tears, and at least two standing ovations!
Billy Elliot is at Sunderland Empire until April 30. There are tickets remaining, with the best availability on Mondays to Thursdays. They can be bought in person at the box office, by calling 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland
Find out more about the show and the tour at http://billyelliotthemusical.com/