REVIEW: Billy Elliot The Musical, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, until March 4

BILLY ELLIOT. Emile Gooding (Billy Elliot) and Ballet Girls by Alastair Muir
BILLY ELLIOT. Emile Gooding (Billy Elliot) and Ballet Girls by Alastair Muir

Meeting all expectations and surpassing them, Billy Elliot The Musical offers a simply brilliant night at the theatre – a tale gloriously told of hope soaring above the most ghastly deprivations and hardships.

At the centre of it all is an astonishing debut performance from Emile Gooding as Billy. It’s tempting to resort to the “star is born” cliché. Probably better to say we will certainly be seeing lots, lots more from this remarkable young man, a total stage natural.

To carry such a massive role in such a huge musical in such a vast auditorium speaks of an immense talent here. The character he is playing is often described on stage as having something genuinely special. In that sense, Gooding is perfectly cast.

But there’s more to the show than Billy, Martin Walsh as his father giving a performance which grows powerfully as the night grows longer, the gruff miner powerless as his world is crushed by the hated Maggie Thatcher. Slowly, reluctantly, he comes to realise – as unlikely as it seems – that his hope for the future resides in the dancing son he simply cannot understand. Walsh beautifully conveys the dawning realisation, as does Scott Garnham as Billy’s older brother.

Just as impressive and just as touching are the scenes Billy shares with Annette McLaughlin as Mrs Wilkinson, the flawed, chain-smoking teacher who has the vision to encourage it when she sees talent pitch up in her dance class in the least likely form.

The tenderness Gooding shares with Walsh and with McLaughlin is the beating heart of the show – and is beautifully done.

Bradley Mayfield similarly adds to the emotional depth of it all as Michael, the cheerful young cross-dresser who orchestrates a marvellous glamour fantasy with surreal, oversized dresses dancing behind him and Billy.

But the real power of the show is that amid the laughs and the tugged heartstrings, we really do get a sense of what they are all up against: the closure of the mines looming as the ill-fated strike starts to collapse.

This is compelling social history wrapped up in the most wonderful of musicals. With never a wrong note, it’s an engaging celebration of the hope that shines through in even the very worst moments. Even after all these years, Billy’s tale still lifts us all.

Phil Hewitt

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