Not quite what you expect to hear, nor is this a statement I would have believed had I heard it five years ago, but after tonight, it’s one I’ll be spreading around. My last experience of the National Theatre Live scheme currently being rolled out across the country was not a positive one. In fact, it was almost entirely disappointing, save for the fact that I got 3 “I owe you” tickets from Cineworld and a very smug feeling knowing I held out the longest before abandoning ship. The last time I attempted to jump aboard the NTL train, it pretty much crashed and burned, or in other words, all I got in place of the Bill Nighy-meets-Carey Mulligan extravaganza I was promised was a faulty satellite connection and about 40 minutes of stop-start theatre. In theory, a brilliantly progressive idea. In practice, I wasn’t convinced.
However, on Sunday I went to see the critically-acclaimed ‘Billy Elliot’ and actually got a chance to see how this scheme was intended to work. And I have to say, it’s a little bit weird. Going to the cinema just doesn’t have the same excitement as seeing a show on the West End. There were moments, in fact, where it felt more cinematic than staged and just a little bit…music video. Saying that, there were also times when I had to physically restrain myself from becoming the laughing stock of the cinema by succumbing to the urge to applaud. Toto, I don’t think we’re in the theatre anymore.
I suppose the main pitfall is that traditional theatre etiquette – no rustling sweet wrappers (in this case, popcorn bags) or getting up to nip to the loo every five minutes (thank you to the little girl next to me) – goes out of the window entirely. This is a cinema experience, just a little less Hollywood and a lot more…County Durham.
Ok, enough of that, let’s not let NTL overshadow the actual show!
From the very first ball-change, I was catapulted into the world of Thatcher’s Britain, full of 80s flair and gritty satirical wit. It’s a little daunting how one very cute ten year old (yes, ten) can take such a monumental role in their stride. Even more daunting is the fact that when the interval came round, I (along with the whole cinema, it seems) realised that Elliott Hanna – that very ten year old – was sat just a few rows away watching his own performance. Confusing, isn’t it? You might think it strange to be starstruck by someone so young, but if you watch his turn as the cheekily dynamic Billy, you wouldn’t.
Naturally, I seized the opportunity to have a quick chat with him (once I’d composed myself, that is). I was intrigued to find out what he thought of the whole NTL experience. “It feels very different. The audience is different. Having cameras there is scarier.” I can definitely see where he’s coming from – with the cameras often zooming in, there is a lot more emphasis on the nuances of an actor’s performance that can sometimes get lost in large theatres. Whilst this adds to the intimacy of the more intense moments, it also detracts from the impact of the larger formations – dance scenes weren’t made for zoom.
That said, this show is politically charged, emotionally driven and, well, blooming brilliant. The cast are fierce, the songs are powerful and The Letter Scene drove me to edge of tears. The whole thing? It’s cush. And Michael looks cush in a tutu.
Speaking of Michael, he featured in my cinema fan-girl moment too. He was mentioned by Elliott (as in Hanna, not Billy – but also Billy – you know what I mean) as he reflected on his favourite part of doing the show – turns out, it was finding a new best friend. Cue a cheeky exchange of knowing glances between the pair. Like I said, very cute. There’s no doubt in my mind that these two make a comically crisp – and extremely talented – pair. It seems the Billy Elliot-mill has a knack for turning out stars. A lot of “Billy”s have passed through that stage door, spinning in and out of the award-winning musical machine. The cherry on the top of this visually stunning cake? The all-in Billy mash-up of a finale: that’s right, almost every Billy that’s ever been in the show’s nine year run on stage (25 out of 38 to be precise) in one epic dance number. Is this a must-see? Most definitely.