Current Issue #482

Two decades on,
Billy Elliot’s story of community, masculinity and coal mining still resonates

Justin Smith and Wade Neilsen in Billy Elliot The Musical
James D Morgan
Justin Smith and Wade Neilsen in Billy Elliot The Musical

Just shy of the original film’s 20th anniversary, Billy Elliot The Musical makes its way to Adelaide this month with a story of community and family that’s more relevant than ever.

“It kind of appealed to my politics, to be honest,” actor Justin Smith says of his first time watching the original 2000 film. “I felt a lot of sympathy for the community, and that’s something that stuck with me. And I think any sort of performer – I had a pretty good childhood, and my parents were very supportive – but making that choice to be a performer, that wasn’t necessarily something that filled them with a lot of hope for my future.”

The story of an adolescent boy (Jamie Bell) whose embrace of ballet dancing puts him in conflict with his striking coal miner father, the film was a box office hit. The stage adaptation, written by the film’s screenwriter Lee Hall with music by Elton John, has become a phenomenon of its own since premiering in London’s West End in 2005.

An Australian version came a few years later, snaring a string of Helpmann Awards including best musical. Back in 2007, Smith played Billy’s older brother Tony in that first run. Now, Smith returns as the family’s gruff patriarch Jackie.

Justin Smith in Billy Elliot The Musical
James D Morgan
Justin Smith in Billy Elliot The Musical

“It was a little discombobulating at first, it was quite strange,” Smith says of returning to the show. “Because I had such a great time on it last time, it’s such a fabulous show and I made so many close friends and the work itself was really enjoyable, so I think it stuck with me a lot more than other things I’ve done. So it was all sort of in there bubbling away. Then when we started rehearsals, it was only a bit of an adjustment – I did sing one of Tony’s lines in a rehearsal at one point, that was slightly embarrassing!”

With both of Tony and Jackie spending much of the story in the thick of the UK’s 1984-85 miners’ strike, the process of swapping from one generation of Elliot men to another was a fairly natural process. “They’re kind of similar in as far as they’re both products of their community, their work, their time – in the north of England, that’s sort of what you did. You grew up, and unless you’re the butcher or the baker you were a miner. There were similarities in the role, but the generation difference… dad’s got a bit more complexity which has been really great.

“He’s got more runs on the board, ultimately he’s able to see this opportunity for Billy as being really a last chance. And, having lived through that difficult working life with other strikes along the way, I think he realises that this is the only chance that his son has for a future. I think in the back of his mind he also realises that the industry itself is not going to survive, and towns like that are not necessarily going to survive. And actually that’s what happened, the town [it was based on], and many others have fallen apart since. So in that respect his eyes are a bit more open to what’s to come.”

It’s a theme that resonates sharply in a contemporary Australian context, as mining jobs have become one of the defining – and dividing – political issues of the last decade. “We talk about it a lot as a cast,” Smith admits of the current political climate. “I’m finding things a bit scary at the moment. In terms of the parallels with 1984, it’s all about community in the show, and the potential breakdown of community. And I feel like that’s really happening now – we need that community more than ever. We’re all living in our own little bubbles, staring at our screens and I often feel like the government kind of pushes that, everyone looking out for themselves. I don’t know, I think we need that community more than ever, and that’s what the show’s about.”

Cast of Billy Elliot The Musical
James D Morgan
Cast of Billy Elliot The Musical

Smith’s new role as Billy’s father also sees Smith explore the tension between Elliot senior’s older ideas of masculinity, and a son whose love of ballet dancing is initially hard to comprehend. “That’s where all the aggression [comes from], as far as dad goes – he’s basically the antagonist in the first half,” he says. “But he’s a product of his time, growing up in the 1950s. This kind of thing is totally alien to him, so he’s kind of knee-jerky and predictably aggressive about discovering Billy dancing.”

Throughout the production’s run Smith will play father to no less than four different Billies in Wade Neilsen, Jamie Rogers, River Mardesic and Omar Abiad. Unlike Jackie, it’s clear he’s having no such trouble in showing some fatherly pride.

“I’m a father of two boys, I have a 13-year-old, Billy’s 12, so that’s very easy for me to tap into at the moment,” he laughs. “These four different fellas are doing amazing, amazing stuff, and they’re all different – and a lot of the choreography is different to suit each kid, and that’s great to bounce off.

“And it’s not just the four boys, it’s the Michaels and the Debbies and the ballet girls. You’re sort of presented with new faces every show, and that’s a bit of a gift really.”

29 December – 26 January

Billy Elliot The Musical

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.

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