A big National Coal Board sign looms large at the opening of Lee Hall and Elton John's decade-old musical stage version of Hall and director Stephen Daldry's hit turn of the century film. In a tale of one little boy's liberation as a dancer against the backdrop of the 1980s miners strike, however, the Durham Miners banner and the 'Save Our Community' sash held aloft matter more. It is this call to arms that forms the heart of Daldry's production, as Billy becomes a potty-mouthed beacon of hope in a situation where picket line, thin blue line and chorus line rub uneasily up against each other.
Given such a context, there is bound to be some pretty grown-up stuff going on here, be it the institutionalised homophobia in Billy's village, the class war going on within it, or Billy's grieving for his dead mother that drives his every move. And, as so magnificently choreographed by Peter Darling, what moves they are. Watching Lewis Smallman as one of four alternating Billys and fellow child actor Elliot Stiff as his friend Michael razzle-dazzle it up while wearing women's clothes requires unabashed confidence as well as technical skill, and these boys are fearless as they revel in every show-stopping moment. Dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, meanwhile, as played by Evie Martin, provides the cheek.
The second half opens with a political puppet show straight out of Spitting Image in a show in which entertainment and agit-prop themselves transcend their humble roots to become something bigger. This might just be the best advert for community, arts education and international socialism ever.
The Herald, September 23rd 2016