It had been a landmark of the West End scene for 11 years, but all good things must come to an end. Garlanded in awards, praised lavishly by the critics, the curtain finally fell on the London run of Billy Elliot last month. But that isn’t the end. Billy has just begun its first UK tour, one which will last 15 months in all.
It arrives in Yorkshire at the Bradford Alhambra on May 10 and already tickets for the five-week run are like gold dust. The success of the show is perhaps even all the more remarkable given that the original film, starring Jamie Bell, was made on a relatively modest budget of £3m and the subject matter didn’t exactly scream global success.
And yet the story of a working class lad from a mining family, who defies his father – and social expectations – to embrace the world of classical ballet went onto gross more than £70m.
“Ever since the film was released nearly 16 years ago now, there has been a very definite Billy Elliot effect,” says Annette McLaughlin, who plays Mrs Wilkinson – the role Julie Walters so memorably made her own – on the tour. “It was once a very brave and perhaps sometimes foolhardy lad who decided that he wanted to go to dance classes and perhaps even make his career there. But year on year, more and more young men have done just that, and this year, quite incredibly, the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge, which is quite the most prestigious dance academy in Britain, had more male applicants than females. That is quite extraordinary.”
McLauglin also had ambitions to be a dancer. However, when she grew too tall she decided on acting instead. “Mrs Wilkinson is a dream role for me. There’s a lot of dance in there, and a lot of drama as well. And the bonus is that, at one point, I finally get to wear a tutu. Of course I went back to the film, I think all of us did. And I am one of Julie Walters’ biggest fans. She is an extraordinary talent. But I don’t reproduce what she did slavishly, because the stage show is a very different thing to the film. It has to be. There are different dramatic moments and peaks.”
For Malton-born and raised Scott Garnham, who plays Billy’s disapproving brother Tony, the success of the show is down to the fact it has a very real story to tell. “Tony is feisty, he’s very much a working man, and he is totally opposed to pit closures and compromises,” says the 31-year-old. “And when he finds out that his kid brother is brilliant at dance, he just flips. He thinks of it as a betrayal, if you like, and violently objects to the idea. But in the end, he comes round, and, of course, realises that, in life, you have to be what you want to be, and that Billy is only being true to himself.
“I love the history behind the show, the optimism of it… and yes, I went back and researched the period thoroughly. For me, born in 1985, it was ‘before my time’, but then I came to realise that there are so many people out there, in so many Northern communities, where it is not only a very vivid memory and a scar, but also something that the older ones still have to live with every day. It destroyed livelihoods, but it also destroyed families.”
One of those who does remember the bitter demolition of the industry is Martin Walsh, who plays Billy’s father. Brought up in Warrington, he says has vivid memories of watching the confrontations between the miners and the police on TV. “On a lighter note, who could ever resist a show in which you encounter a chorus-line of tap-dancing miners, of all shapes and sizes? But the icing on the cake for me is the energy of the youngsters in the show. Their freshness, every performance, just takes your breath away!”
Enter, here, young Matthew Lyons. The Yeadon-born 11-year-old is Yorkshire’s very own Billy Elliot, one of five youngsters who will alternate the role on a tour which takes them all the way through until early 2017. “I’m so proud and pleased to be part of the ‘family’,” says Matthew, a member of the West Yorkshire School of Performing Arts in Guiseley. It was there that he learned of a search for young males to fill the dancing shoes of Billy on his first national UK tour which opened in Plymouth a few weeks back.
“To be totally honest”, admits Matthew with a grin, “I hadn’t heard about Billy Elliot, and hadn’t got a clue what it was all about. But then my teacher got me the DVD of the film, and I was hooked instantly. I realised that it was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world.”
It has been a long and gruelling journey for Matthew and his young colleagues. There were casting calls in Leeds, then two sets of auditions in London. Then a five-week stint in a boarding-school environment which tested whether the lads could acclimatise to a lengthy stay away from home. Then there were final selections and long rehearsals.
“It was tough and yes, I was homesick at one point, but I made it, and I couldn’t be happier,” he says, “and I realised that this will be my career. I do want to be in the theatre.”
Simon Potter, head chaperone on the tour emphasises that the show’s youngsters all get schooling from a permanent tutor attached to the production. They can take all their familiar toys and games and posters with them, and they all get regular breaks so that they can go home and see their families and friends.
“Matthew is a great young man”, says Simon. “But they all are and they all bring something of themselves to Billy. We don’t want polished know-it-all kids from stage school turning out homogenised performances. That’s not what Billy Elliot is, nor how he should be played. There’s a level of spontaneity in this musical that is impossible to quantify, and, dare I say it, Matthew embodies that spirit perfectly. The work ethic and the discipline is incredible, and these youngsters are already artistes at the top of their game.”
“It’s so much fun,” adds Matthew. “Dancing and getting that applause at the end of the evening. Making people happy. How could you not like that?”
• Billy Elliott, Bradford Alhambra, May 10 to June 11. Box office on 01274 432000.