I had been desperate to see this long-running production at the Victoria Palace for some time after its great performances on television, for the Oliviers and at various West End Lives. I had never seen the film or the show before but those who have seen either have always raved about them. Likewise, I walked out the theatre completely fascinated and totally hooked on some of the music. No wonder it was nominated for nine Olivier awards and won Best New Musical. This particular showing was extremely eventful too, as I will go on and explain.
The story centres around a young, sadly motherless, Billy who discovers he has an unprecedented talent for dance, largely against the wishes of his family. As the show goes on, the story of his personal struggles and fulfillment are balanced against a counter-story of work and community strife caused by the actual miners' strike in County Durham, I think from 1985. It is a truly touching story that is full of wonderful comedic touches, dramatic dialogue and musical triumphs.
Currently, five boys rotate the role of Billy in the West End and I was lucky to be a party to the performance of young Redmand Rance, who is only 12 years old. But you'd never have known. His talent truly knew no bounds! His accent was consistent, voice immaculate (not at all screechy as I've heard can occasionally be the case among the children in this show) and dancing overwhelmingly breath-taking. He had the audience encapsulated and his interpretation and feeling throughout the Angry Dance, Born to Boogie, Electricity and Swan Lake scenes - moments clearly put in to really show off a Billy's ability - was plain to see even from the Upper Circle. He was the rightful recipient of a raucous ovation at the curtain call too.
Gillian Bevan played Mrs Wilkinson and it's safe to say that I enjoyed her performance. In particular, her interaction with the other children in her dance troupe was realistic, as were the moments of banter with the brilliant Simon Ray Harvey as Mr Braithwaite. She is clearly a very talented dancer too and in moments where she was required to sing and dance at the same time, it did not overly affect her at all. I just felt that on occasion her dancing was a little sloppy and lacked placement in comparison to some of the tight ensemble behind her - but in fairness, with eight shows a week in an energetic role, perhaps that will happen inevitably. That is not to do a wonderfully talented lady any disservice and it was good to see her on stage having caught her in Holby City a while back too.
Deka Walmsley's Dad was probably my favourite character on the whole. He captured the right amount of anger - at first - and in the end, sympathy with and towards Billy's cause and He Could Be A Star was one of the most touching numbers, largely down to him. His scenes at Billy's audition in front of the curtain in Act 2 were pure genius and it took a while for me to take in how clever those few scenes actually are. On the whole, a great job from Deka and as is often the case when you witness a role played how you yourself would approach it - I can't imagine anyone else being Dad now.
Sadly Killian Donnelly (who I'd seen in Les Miserables) had lost his voice the previous day so I saw Matthew Dale as Tony. Again, a very credible performance - he was quite shouty throughout and maybe his interpretation could be a little more subtle in places but having said that: I feel Tony is quite a misunderstood character who is unrelentingly driven for his cause and Matthew certainly managed to portray this element of the character well.
Likewise, Ann Emery was sadly absent as Grandma but Gillian Elisa did a brilliant job in her absence. I loved her interactions with Billy and Dad in particular and Grandma's Song is a wonderfully sweet and universally principled number we can all relate to. She sang extremely well and was believable to the last. Of course it is no fault of any actor but I felt maybe Grandma could have been used more in the second Act and it is a shame that she only has one or two scenes after the interval; as what I saw in Act One, I liked very much.
Sean Kearns as George was a well fleshed-out character and I enjoyed every moment that he was on stage for. Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher is a fantastic number and I love Sean's part in it above most of the others. The staging for that number, much like the house and Billy's room sets, is very clever and I was left marvelling how they achieved what they did.
Simon Ray Harvey as Mr Braithwaite comes a very close second to Dad as my favourite character. He is literally hilarious and a surprisingly talented dancer (if you see him and how well-built he is, you'll know what I mean). He balances comedy with character function perfectly and he provides great light relief in places where it is definitely needed. Loved the tutu as well and he did not look out of place next to Mrs Wilkinson! Well done Simon and I have a great respect for your performance.
Now a few shout-outs for the other outstanding ensemble roles: Kay Milbourne as the unfortunately named Dead Mum did all she could with an understandingly limited role in parts and her moments with Billy were tear-jerking to say the least. Barnaby Meredith is an outstanding dancer, like none I've seen before and it was a joy to watch his Older Billy and Billy himself on stage together. Jack Bromage-Eccles was on as Michael and he worked so well with Redmand that it was like they'd been performing together all their lives as very close friends. Expressing Yourself was certainly a memorable number and has to be seen to be believed. Macy Stasiak was a good Debbie too and fitted well with the other two boys. As previously mentioned, the ensemble were very very slick and the numbers When The Stars Look Down and Solidarity are evidence enough for this. They're both ridiculously catchy too and I had them in my head for days afterwards. The whole cast, then, should be congratulated on a wonderful overall show.
As an aside, this was no ordinary show! Between Once We Were Kings and The Letter, we had a power cut and consequent show-stop timed perfectly with an underground lift scene which at first we thought may have been part of the show. But no - the stage manager was quick to come on stage with a small(!) torch and inform us of the problem and a little under 15 minutes later, the show restarted where it had left off once power had returned and lights been double-checked. Very unfortunate but it is a testament to the show itself that the spectacle was not ruined consequently. It was a truly memorable night and a show I will definitely try and see again.
At this performance, the cast was:
Redmand Rance (Billy), Deka Walmsley (Dad), Matthew Dale (Tony), Gillian Elisa (Grandma), Sean Kearns (George), Simon Ray Harvey (Mr Braithwaite), Kay Milbourne (Dead Mum), Barnaby Meredith (Older Billy), Jack Bromage Eccles (Michael), Macy Stasiak (Debbie), Rory Toms (Small Boy) and Cyrus Ambrose (Tall Boy), Craig Armstrong, Paul Basleigh, Dawn Buckland, James Butcher, Spencer Cartwright, Lucinda Collins, Helen French, Sergio Giacomelli, Nic Greenshields, Ruri James, Ian Gareth Jones, Connor McAllister, David Muscat, Steve Paget, Steph Parry, Mike Scott, Spencer Stafford and many Ballet Girls!
Also in the cast are Joe Massey, Thomas Moore, Danya Dixon and Millie Thornton.