If you have been staying up to date with my write ups you will know that later this year I am in a production of "An Inspector Calls". With the lead role sat firmly on my shoulders, I was concerned that the recent West End run of the show would have a huge implication on the way in which we stage our production. This would naturally allow people to draw comparisons from both within the production team, and of course among our potential audience. Comparisons are not normally a bad thing but the issue from this arises when you take into account we'd be operating on a significantly smaller budget that that of the London show, which would mean huge changes to the way the production is staged. Wait... did I just say significantly? That is the understatement of the century.... we have a minute fraction of the money any West End show has!!! So there is no way we could have the same kind of lavish set in the same way the full scale production could have.
I wanted a greater insight to this, and what better way to do it than to see an amateur performance of a show I am extremely familiar with - Billy Elliot. To celebrate the shows 5th Birthday, the production team have allowed youth groups to stage their own interpretation of the show. There are in excess of 100 of these productions going on throughout the UK, one of these being in Woking which is 20 minutes from where I live... much closer than London anyhow! It goes without saying that I opted to go, I was interested in seeing how an amateur group would handle the pressures of performing at a large theatre with a show whioch people already know and love. I was also interested in seeing how the actors conducted themselves in front of the sell out crowd.
In the lead role of Billy Elliot was Max Bowden. I must admit I thought I would tear his performance to pieces seeing as the longest serving London Billy - Fox Jackson-Keen is one of my biggest influences to date. It was inevitable that I would draw comparisons between Max and his London counterparts. But remember what I said earlier? Sometimes comparisons can be a good thing!
Max was in fact very good... excellent in fact. I would actually go as far as saying vocally his rendition of Electricity is my favorite to date, certainly much better than any of the current London Billy's. Vocally he has immense articulation and a strict sense of timing, something that seems to be lacking among the current Billy's at times. He had a huge sense of spacial awareness in his dance routines, and delivered a confident performance throughout.
I know it is quite a bold statement to make, but I think Max is just as good as some of the boys who have played Billy across the globe in the full scale productions of the show, and I am certain that he has a huge future ahead of him in performing arts. I think its just a shame that he didn't have the opportunity to be a London Billy a couple of years ago, as I think he would have been superb in the role.
The other stand out performer for me was the actress playing Grandma. Unfortunately from the programme I couldn't quite work out who she was, which is a real shame as I would have loved to credit her by name. (there were 2 or 3 actresses rotating within the role). Either way she was a natural, confident and despite the huge age difference between the actress herself and the character she was casted as, she managed to recreate all that charm verging on dementia that grandma's have. It was simply fantastic.
I will be honest, I didn't agree fully with elements of the direction within the show, there were huge chunks cut from the West End performance, which I felt detracted from certain elements of the storyline. I wasn't keen on the arrangement in "The Stars Look Down" which is the opening number, and I felt Michael was too much of a diva within this production, which whilst funny at times, i think camped things up a little too much... I just feel that Michael should be more curious than being an outright diva, but that is just a personal opinion. However, within the script which he had to work with the actor playing Michael was fantastic, another natural born to be on the stage.
On the other hand there were some moments which I thought were better handled by this production in comparison to the West End. The moment where "the scab" donates money to Billy is one of these. It was much more realistic. The scab enter the scene as a group (where as in the west end there is just one single person). I feel this would be realistic to the times, as scabs were hated among the strikers. There is no way in reality a single scab would walk into a room of multiple strikers. He would get his head kicked in for Christ sake! So this was a beautiful touch giving the scab safety in numbers. Also I like the fact that Dad decides to use the money at the anger of Tony. In the West End production Dad chooses not to answer Billy when he asks if they can use the money. I like the decisiveness in this scene, it is ten times better than the London equivalent.
Furthermore the roles of Mr Braithwaite and Tracey Atkinson were brought to life and given much more character than the West End performance. They played on Tracey's love for food, which was a great touch, giving the ballet girls a little more importance. Though for me the moment which put the icing on the cake was Debbie's goodbye to Billy - she hands him a cuddly toy in the final scene. This was a nice touch, as Debbie throughout has a crush on Billy, I had always felt it wrong that in the West End production she never said goodbye. So in all there were some great touches which gave the show a lot of substance.
In terms of the set - it was simplistic. Nothing coming out of the stage, no huge chunks of the scenery moving. But it worked. A set of doors at the back of the stage which stood beneath a mezzanine floor accessed by a set of steps. I showed a lot of interest in this as in the London production of "An Inspector Calls" the set is very complicated and would be impossible to recreate without an extensive budget. I was therefore very interested in seeing how the group made such adaptations to the scenery in comparison to the West End set. I thought it was all rather good!
So in all what did I think overall? Well I was rather impressed. Songtime really know how to put on a show, which is no surprise seeing as Leon Cooke (one of the early West End Billy's was in the production team). I think the message from this is that an amateur performance, if done well can match the credentials of a West End show any day... this one certainly did. Lets just hope the show I am in can deliver also!