REVIEW: Theatre plays role in musical knees-up

Live from London's West End.
Live from London's West End.

Billy Elliot: The Musical Live - streamed from London’s West End to Alnwick Playhouse, live at 2pm last Sunday, repeated in the evening

Alnwick played its part in a most extraordinary international theatrical event at the weekend.

An excited audience gathered at the Playhouse on Sunday afternoon for a unique experience in the illustrious history of Billy Elliot, the hit West End musical that started life as a modest movie set in the County Durham pit village of Easington during the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s.

A special performance of the show, which started its London run in 2005, was to be beamed by satellite simultaneously into 553 locations around the UK, including the former Easington Colliery Miners’ Institute, and eight countries around the world.

The live stream from London Victoria’s Palace was also the widest ever cinema release of a live event and bagged a record £1.9million.

It formed part of the Playhouse’s ongoing programme of streamings of drama, musicals, opera, dance and ballet by world-class companies.

So far, Alnwick audiences have been treated to performances of A Streetcar Named Desire, Coriolanus and War Horse from the National Theatre, shows by the Bolshoi Ballet and even from Met Opera in New York, among others.

The screening of Billy Elliot on Sunday was extra special.

It was introduced by the show’s director Stephen Daldry, who explained that 25 current and former Billys, including the three original cast members , would be teaming up for a spectacular finale.

Daldry described the event as ‘a great celebration’ and said: “Having the older Billys, all the kids from around the country who had been in the show before, I think it really demonstrates the legacy of the show– of kids having that extraordinary training and extraordinary ability and opportunity to really flourish.”

The story is of an 11-year-old boy living in a mining community ripped apart by the strike.

In this tough, prejudiced environment, where families had been stuck in their ways for generations, Billy discovers a passion for ballet dancing, much to the amusement of friends and fury of family.

But he follows his dream, culminating in an audition for the Royal Ballet School.

I liked the adaptation of one of my favourite films, which was released in 2000. It was a gritty drama with tear-jerking moments, particularly between father and son, balanced with plenty of laugh-out-loud scenes.

The tensions and hardship caused by the strike, that tore families apart, were portrayed beautifully, especially in the dark, emotional first half.

After the interval, it turned more panto and slapstick, losing its razor-sharp edge.

But throughout, the piece was extremely well acted, even if the North East accents slipped occasionally.

It was particularly poignant in this region, an area where feelings still run deep.

I was a bit perturbed by the copious amounts of swearing, which was not entirely necessary particularly as the show was bound to attract youngsters.

The musical numbers were amazing, totally fitting and setting the scene and tone perfectly. Then there was that one-off, spectacular finale, with the returning Billys joining forces with the current ones for a fantastic, tap-dancing treat. The icing on the proverbial cake.

And now I have a taste for it, I know a journey to London to see it ‘in the flesh’ would not be wasted.

That is the beauty of the live streamings – you get the chance to see these shows at a fraction of the cost. A trip to the capital, plus a West End show would set you back around £250 compared to the £14.50 for a standard Playhouse ticket.

Many people would not be able to afford the money nor the time to travel down to catch a show. This is a worthwhile second-best option.

I found the atmosphere strange at times, especially early on, because the audience seemed unsure whether to clap at the action on the giant screen – after all, the actors were unable to hear the appreciation being shown.

But as the crowd warmed to the experience, there was laughter, tears and spontaneous applause at the end.

In the live streaming show I attended, there were a few issues with the sound, as the satellite transmission experienced some blips, but it did not unduly spoil the show for me.

In fact, I was more distracted by the usual rustling of sweet papers which plagues all public performances and cinema screenings.

It had been an emotional and enjoyable time and one that will inevitably be repeated.