My latest theatrical outing drew me to Potters Bar, a rather non descript little town somewhere north of London. At this point I must emphasise, my geography is rubbish - the UK is pretty much split into three zones. Firstly you have "the south" where I live, then there's "London", finally anywhere beyond London just becomes "the north". I should stress, I wouldn't advise using my geographical teachings in an exam... you won't get very far. Anyhow, I found myself in "the north" to see my very good friend Louis Gaudencio in the Top Hat Stage & Screen School's rendition of Billy Elliot, which formed part of the 5th Birthday Billy Youth Theatre initiative. Having been to one other Billy Youth Theatre production in Woking a month or so ago, I knew that I would both be expecting a lot and drawing a lot of comparisons to both that show and the West End performance.
I think what is interesting in seeing two different amateur performances of the same show is that you get to see just how important and influential the direction becomes. I think the directors role is often forgotten about in reviews when the writers lavish praise upon the actors or alternatively blast them for a shoddy performance. The fact remains that the director is at the helm and is ultimately responsible for whatever goes on. So that is where I am going to start my review today.
I will be brutally honest - I disagreed with more than I agreed with in terms of the direction. For starters what was with cutting "He Could Be A Star"? The song represents a pinnacle turning point in the show where Billy's family come around to the idea of him becoming a dancer. It also stands for the unity and spirit within the community in that era. Ultimately, aside from Billy wanting to become a dancer this is one of the main themes of the musical which is brought to life in the original London show. The song "Once We Were Kings" had also been scrubbed from the performance. Again it highlighted the miners spirit as well as their plight and suffering at the time. I feel these two parts were hugely missed, and in effect altered the sentiments and meaning of the show. I would however like to say on the music front, the band in the capable hands of musical director Grant Martn were fabulous!
But what about the acting? Well with all youth productions you come across a mixed bag of young actors, but I love crediting those who really deserve it, and tonight I am going to start with Sarah Phasey. I must say I felt she was really strong, with a fantastic voice. Her harmonising with Joshua Smyth (the second act Billy) in the reprise of the Letter was perfect, and captured the emotion of the song so well. Throughout I felt Sarah delivered a performance that could be likened to the West End "dead mum", both in her voice and mannerisms. Whilst it is only a small role, it is a hugely significant one - and a role I feel Sarah delivered superbly throughout. The same praise can be lavished upon Louis Gaudencio who rose to the occasion in the role of Tony, the older brother of Billy. His characterisation of the part seems to be derived from that of Craig Gallivan who currently stars in the same role in the West End. Louis was confident throughout, and too delivered a memorable performance. Another huge talent waiting for a big break.
A strange directing decision was to cast two boys in the role of Billy, one for each act of the show. With the size of the role, I could see the benefits of this (as there would be less pressure on each boy to learn their part). Equally however it makes you want to compare them with one another which inevitably I am about to do. The first act Billy - Harry Sharer seemed to lack a little confidence, which is understandable as I would imagine this is the biggest show he has done to date. I do however feel he has all the potential stowed away which will develop in due course, he is young, I would imagine no older than 11 or 12, so give him a year or two and I think he will be rather good indeed.
Harry bowed out during "angry dance" making way for a fantastic tap dancer who I'd love to credit by name, however he isn't listed in the programme. I have to admit this was one of the highlights of the show for me... simply amazing raw talent, boy could this kid dance! The second act made way for Joshua Smyth who I must say is an extremely talented actor in the making, delivering his lines with expression and emotion throughout he took ownership of the stage which is essential when in a lead role. A confident performance tied in with a fantastic ability to sing ensured that the second act really stood out even if it was lacking two of my favorite songs from the show. Joshua has a natural ability to perform, that is something which can never be taught, and it is that ability which I feel will see him progress a long way within performing arts should he wish to take that route in life.
Now on to the role of Michael... anyone who knows me will know just how picky I am when it comes to this part in the show. Just read everything I have to say on a current West End Michael "Jake Pratt" and you will see exactly what I mean. Sam Higgs therefore had a lot on his plate if he was to impress me. Thankfully he had what it needed, an uncompromisable level of energy, a great sense of movement and of course that cheeky Michael charm which radiates into the audience drawing out the laughter. Sam made "Expressing Yourself" look like a breeze in the park, though a moment that really pleased me was when Michael declares he will miss Billy if he goes off to ballet school. In the West End version of the show, this moment is completely lost when Michael delivers the line too quickly. Sam however took a moment to capture the mood, a short silence then "well I'd miss you".... sheer acting beauty that, bringing such feeling into a line put the icing on the cake for an all round superb performance from Sam.
I will confess now that I wasn't keen on the performance of Callum Crawford as Billy's Dad. Whilst he was confident, his articulation was so fast at times I struggled to take in exactly what he was saying, but further more he seemed to lack expression and emotion in his voice. I think this aside he deserves a little credit. Callum was part of another Top Hat cast for the show and stood in for this performance at the last minute when the casted dad was forced to pull out of the show for personal reasons. Maybe the nerves in unfamiliar surroundings among a cast he barley knew got to him? I don't know, I just expected more from a lead role especially seeing as he too is an older performer.
I also felt the Mrs Wilkinson lacked the attitude she needed, at times I guess she just seemed too nice and lacked authority. Though I should emphasise the role played by Emily Miles was again confident and well learned, just seemed to lack that spark it needed. I am sure there is natural ability there which in another role would allow her to shine (see what i did there... shine... Mrs Wilkinson's song... yeah terrible pun, I'm sorry) But seriously, I feel Emily has potential, just maybe this role wasn't quite right for her. I would also have loved to of seen more prominence from the ensemble roles also, and maybe more emphasis put onto their parts, most notably the policemen in the song solidarity.
So my views overall - I felt disappointed by the direction of the show. Tied in with the opening of this review, I feel the minimalism was too much at times, a basic set would have made a huge difference. The show could have done with a few more rehearsals I felt, especially seeing as the demands on such a young cast were so great. I think that would have helped confidence issues, and the few slip ups which various members encountered. Though in all I felt the cast did pull together well, and there were some exceptional performances.