You might think this is a big, brash musical, but the truth is it has huge amounts of theatre craft – you’ll see experimental, physical theatre and puppetry in among the musical numbers. The beating heart of this brilliant piece of theatre is an extraordinary performance from a child actor. It is incredibly easy to forget that Matthew Lyons, in the titular role, isn’t a well-seasoned performer of several decades. His level of skill, stagecraft and comfort on stage simply don’t ordinarily belong in a performer of his tender years. That he’s a local boy should make us all proud.
Lee Hall’s story, first written as a movie in 2000, combined with Elton John’s musical score to create this West End smash. It’s about time it came on tour to Northern cities – the story of the decimation of the mining communities of the North East is far more relevant to us than it is to those in London.Billy wants to dance. Society, at the hands of Thatcher, is crumbling around him and Billy finds self-expression, unexpectedly, in dance – in a North East mining community. The music, with apologies to Sir Elton, is the least successful part of the production. Not that it’s not successful, just that the script, with its enormous depth, is a work of virtual perfection. Weaving grief and loss on a personal level, families torn asunder, fantasy sequences and a heartfelt story of triumph over adversity, Lee Hall has done something quite spectacular.
The other big plaudits have to go to Samuel Torpey as Billy’s friend Michael. A boy on his own particular journey, again young Torpey has a level of comfort on stage you’ll rarely see from any actor of any age.
This is an angry, visceral, beautiful piece of theatre, that it is such a boundary-pushing piece of work disguised as bold brash musical is to be applauded. I love it.
Bradford Alhambra, to June 11.
By Nick Ahad