Writer Siobhan Meldrum examines the emotional parallel between real life and theatre – with Billy Elliot’s heartwarming tale of unapologetic self-expression.
The year is 2015 – and the world is just beginning to fall apart. 16-year-old Siobhan is in the second row of the Victoria Palace, on her very first trip to London, with eyes as wide as a picket line.
Based on the film of the same name, Billy Elliot: The Musical is a story of fervour, belonging, and the perpetuity of hope. Set against the 1980s miners’ strike in County Durham, the musical follows young Billy in his newfound aspiration to become a ballet dancer. Lee Hall and Elton John sprinkle moments of pure joy against a sky of bleak circumstance; the cheesy razzle-dazzle typical of musical theatre offset by, what my granny would call, “hooligan language” from the mouths of 11-year-olds.
I recently took part in The After Life Experience, a theatrical meditation that guides participants into selecting one moment from their life to spend eternity in. This was my moment. Billy Elliot facilitated not only my intense passion for theatre but validation for a young, closeted queer lost in politics and identity. It illuminated to me, if you'll pardon the pun, the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Billy Elliot facilitated not only my intense passion for theatre but validation for a young, closeted queer lost in politics and identity."
Billy's – and, I suppose, my own – journey to acceptance and fulfillment is capacitated by his relationships and subtle lessons from other characters. The first of these is Grandma, who reminisces on her unhappy and abusive marriage, made bearable by the few nights her late husband would take her dancing. She laments that if she had her time again, she'd have "given them all the finger" and pursued her own dreams and happiness. Secondly is Billy's best friend, Michael, who, in his sister's clothes, is unreservedly and unapologetically himself. Expressing Yourself is a gorge of flamboyancy, complete with tap-dancing, polka-dot dresses; highlighting the value of holding onto your individuality, no matter what anyone else has to say about it. Mrs Wilkinson, who teaches ballet in the miners’ welfare, encourages the potential in Billy before he can even recognise it in himself. Finally, there’s Billy's dad, who sacrifices his pride by planning to return to work in order to give his son a chance. This prompts the entire community to come together – to help one of their own.
I'm not a miner, or a ballet dancer, or even English - but I longed for this community, this camaraderie. And while it may not have existed for me in my very White, cishet, working-class village, there, on the Victoria stage, was the proof that it could exist. Tears plummeting down my face during the finale, I settled: If I cannot find it, I will create it. If there's one thing I took away from Billy, it wasn't “follow your dreams”, but that those who love you will lift you towards them. And you, in turn, even when the world seems despondent, cannot give up hope for what comes after.
It's a lesson I've tried to live by, even more so in the last 18 months. It's difficult, of course. The world doesn't just suddenly change because you've shifted your perspective, but it helps. After every rejection email, every mental health dip, every newly imposed restriction, it helps to remember: the battle might be lost but not the war.
Billy Elliot is unfortunately no longer touring or in the West End, but a live recording of the musical is available for purchase.
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