05:40:22 pm on
Monday 15 Jul 2024

Tiny Dancer at Stratford
David Simmonds

Is it reasonable to expect an eleven-year old child to carry more than forty other actors on his shoulders? I asked that question as I settled in to watch Billy Elliot, The Musical, at the Stratford Festival, the other week. The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall; he also wrote the movie screenplay.

The music is by Elton John.

Billy Elliot first came out in 2000. It had a long run in the UK and elsewhere. This is its first Stratford production.

Billy Elliot is the story of a young boy that dreams of becoming a dancer. He has everything going against him, especially the fact that he comes from coal mining country, in northeast England, where the workers and their families are trapped in a doomed industry, facing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her determination to break their union. Indeed, there are two stories developed in the play: the struggle of Billy to pursue his dream and the struggle of the mining families just to survive.

As many musicals, the play is most enjoyable when taken in as a spectacle, rather than as a drama or a comedy. There are many big choreographed production numbers with plenty of action and special effects. It’s exhilarating to see everybody work together to pull it off.

There will be some 104 performances of the play through November. Right at the centre of each performance is an eleven-year-old child. What a demanding role it is; that child has to sing, (tap dance, perform ballet and gymnastics as well as act, including adopting a Geordie accent that entails remembering to say “Me Mam” rather than “My Mom.”

Nolen Dubuc manages to carry off the role, superbly. From his resume, it would appear he has been grooming for this role his short life. He was first inspired to be a dancer at the age of five, when his parents took him to see Billy Elliot. Since then, he has won several dancing awards and appeared in both musical plays, including Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast, and movies. He spends twenty hours a week honing his skills.

Dubuc carries a cast of forty.

Just imagine the load on his shoulders. It’s not just the forty other actors. Billy Elliot is the signature play at Stratford this season. Audiences don’t want to leave disappointed or read lukewarm reviews and decide to stay home. There are 191,000 seats to fill, more than 1,800 for each of the 104 performances.

I can’t get over it. Dubuc is eleven years old. When I was eleven, I considered it miraculous that I got out of bed in the morning, never mind starring in a musical.

In his brief life, he has grown from a gleam in the eyes of his parents to holding his own, as the lead in a major theatre production. It’s going to take that long to find a new owner for the Wellington corner store, if not longer.

These facts raise an interesting question. What standard should I expect from young Nolan Dubuc and the Festival that is putting him out to the world? Do I cut him some slack because he is eleven and liable to forget the odd line, miss a musical cue or cut a cartwheel out of his routine? Do I hold him to the same standard as his adult peers?

The answer is simple. Stratford holds itself out as an excellent festival and every production of every play should endeavour to meet that standard. If the Festival doesn’t hold child actors to the same standard, perhaps they shouldn’t be staging plays that have big roles for children.

In fact, maybe I’m suffering a little age related bias. Why should I assume that young Dubuc is the weak link in the chain, solely because of his age? He’s seasoned actor, as are the older actors. They have all spent their lifetimes at their craft. You could say Dubuc has an advantage over actors in their thirties and older: his brain is still growing. Perhaps it’s the older actors for whom I should be cutting some slack.

My hope for Dubuc is that this role is his career highlight to date, not his career highlight, period. Some child actors make a smooth transition, some don’t. At least, with the prospect of his voice breaking and putting on a solid growth spurt, he shouldn’t have to worry about typecasting as a Billy Elliot character.

To answer the question posed at the top of this column, Is it reasonable to expect an eleven-year old child to carry more than forty actors on his shoulders? The answer is yes, if it's Nolan Dubuc. He's a precocious talent. He's a stage-worn troop at eleven. He can carry the show.

John Travolta would approve.

  • John Travolta would approve.

It’s not too soon to start planning for those more grownup roles. His agent could sign

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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