The news has continued to be dominated by the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who passed away on 8th April 2013 following a stroke. Everyone had an opinion on the Iron Lady and my Facebook page was split between people condemning her and those who were condemning the people who condemned her. Amusingly enough though, there was also another group on there whose thoughts on Thatcher’s death steered in a very different direction. The statuses posted by the theatre section of people on my Facebook tended to be more concerned about how the musical Billy Elliot was going to handle it in that night’s show.
Billy Elliot is a screen-to-stage musical set in the time of the Thatcher government; in particular, during the miners’ strike of the 1980’s. As expected, Margaret Thatcher is not portrayed favourably within the confines of the story, and in fact, makes an appearance of sorts in the Act II opening number ‘Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher’ as a giant inflatable Spitting Image-style puppet, accompanied by such lyrics as:
“So Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher
May God’s love be with you
We all sing together in one breath
Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher
We all celebrate today
‘Cause it’s one day closer to your death”
On the day of her death, the show’s producers met with the cast to discuss whether or not to include the song in that night’s performance. It was decided to put it to an audience vote and, as the show’s director, Stephen Daldry explained: “After an explanation of the song’s content and historical context from the stage, the audience voted overwhelmingly for its inclusion in the second act.”
It is inevitable that when an important figurehead connected to a production passes away, their death must be marked in some manner, no matter how big or small the gesture. Indeed, another West End production which features Margaret Thatcher also came under scrutiny. Peter Morgan’s play The Audience stars Helen Mirren as the Queen and provides ‘fly-on the-wall’ insight into the private meetings she holds with her serving Prime Minister on a weekly basis. There were no changes made to the production on the night of Thatcher’s death, but Morgan did make an on-stage appearance prior to the performance, telling the audience: “Today one of the great figures of post-war British political life and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century, and therefore the participant of the greatest number of the audiences with the Queen, died. I just wanted to mark that occasion this evening with all of you. “
Margaret Thatcher continues to feature in the news, following the debates over the download of Judy Garland’s song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ from the 1939 film musical The Wizard of Oz and the status of the former Prime Minister’s funeral while, in continued parallel, Billy Elliot is also still making the news, albeit for different reasons this week. This time, the interest surrounding the musical is due to the announcement of new cast members joining the principal line-up of the West End production in May 2013.
Anna-Jane Casey and Howard Crossley are due to join the company of Billy Elliot from 13th May in the respective roles of teacher Mrs Wilkinson (ballet) and George (boxing), taking over from current cast members Gillian Bevan and Sean Kearns. Casey is an award-winning stage performer who has appeared in such productions as Chicago, Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and was most recently seen playing The Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Playhouse Theatre. Crossley’s theatre credits include may RSC productions, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Woman Killed with Kindness, as well as an extended stint playing Timon in The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre (2001-2007).
Also joining the company in leading roles will be Kevin Wathen as Billy’s brother Tony, taking over from Killian Donnelly, and Alexander Loxton as Older Billy, taking over from Barnaby Meredith. Remaining in their roles are current cast members Ann Emery (Grandma), Deka Walmsley (Dad), Kay Milbourne (Dead Mum) and Simon Ray Harvey (Mr Braithwaite).
Billy Elliot is based on the 2000 hit film of the same name, which follows young Billy as he aspires to fulfil his dream of becoming a ballet dancer. The musical premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 2005 and has since won numerous theatre awards, including an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Original screenwriter Lee Hall penned the musicals book and lyrics, with music composed by Elton John.
The musical doesn’t need to be a news feature to warrant being talked about however. It remains one of the West End’s most popular shows after eight years and with very good reason. I last saw Billy Elliot some years ago when my sister’s and I took my dad to see it for his birthday and it was a fantastic night out for all of us, including my two sisters who aren’t typically fans of musical theatre. A musical which is both funny and moving, it will dance its way into your heart and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who hadn’t been to see it yet.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)