Billy Elliot offers an important slice of "social history"

The UK has lost its last deep mine, but the Billy Elliot resonances aren't hard to find as Billy Elliot the Musical plays Southampton's Mayflower Theatre from Tuesday, February 7-Saturday, March 4.

Wednesday, 21st December 2016, 12:33 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:47 pm
Adam Abbou (Billy Elliot) Martin Walsh (Dad) and Scott Garnham (Tony) by Alastair Muir
Adam Abbou (Billy Elliot) Martin Walsh (Dad) and Scott Garnham (Tony) by Alastair Muir

“Partly it is about educating people about what happened with the miners,” says Martin Walsh who plays Billy’s dad. “But you also think about what is happening in the steel industry now, and you also think about the NHS which is also under attack.”

All reasons why Billy Elliot is an important social document – as well as being a cracking show.

Set in a northern mining town, against the background of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Billy’s journey takes him out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and whole community and changes his life forever.

Martin’s role is to play his initially-uncomprehending father.

“I was watching a documentary the other day about the last deep mine closing, just as we were rehearsing. I was just seeing the conditions they were working in, awful, miserable conditions, and back in the 80s, there was obviously less mechanisation. They earnt their money, but you think of the danger and the dankness and the darkness. And everybody was supported by just the one wage back then.

“When the mines went, there was nothing else for them. Just reading about it, they were not fighting for better money. They were just trying to protect the industry, just trying to keep it going, and we all know how it ended up. As we start the show, there is the announcement of the strike, and the miners are all up for it. They are all jubilant. They are all thinking they can sort it all out. It’s actually one of the hardest moments to play because we know what is going to happen to them.”

And Billy’s dad epitomises that struggle: “He has got a lot of issues. He is confronting the possible loss of his career, his industry, his future, his hope and he is looking at his older son who is going to be out of work at a much younger age and he is looking at his younger son who just wants to dance and he can’t understand that. And he is also dealing with the relatively-recent loss of his wife.

“The dance really just comes from within Billy. The way it plays out is that Billy is late for his boxing class and just hangs back for the ballet class. He professes not to like it, but he comes back and gets into it and grows to love it. It is just an accidental discovery that takes over…”

For those that know the film, Martin explains that the musical opens it all up: “I have never actually seen the musical. I am in it, and I know it inside out, but I haven’t actually seen it. We could have done when we were being cast, but the director said not to because he wanted us making our own decisions. And I think that is right.

“But the musical gives you different ways to explore things. It shows more of the community. It shows more of the life. It allows you to look at things in different ways and express things in different ways. You can really feel the emotion in the room, and it opens it all up to a bigger audience. You have got the music and you have got the dance, and you have got the gritty acting which is hopefully where I come in.”

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