“We’re bringing Billy home,” say the cast of Billy Elliot as they limber up for the hit show’s North East debut at Sunderland Empire.
The film which spawned the musical was shot, and based, just 12 miles down the road from the theatre against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike which scarred so many in Easington Colliery and the surrounding communities.
Today, the legacy of that strike lives on and the cast say they feel proud to honour those who lived through the tumultuous chapter in the region’s industrial history with a musical that packs a political punch.
For so many the closure of the pits was a death knell for a way of life, which is remembered in all its gritty glory in this tale of a young boy who dances his way to a new future.
In the same week in April that the West End Billy Elliot takes its final curtain call after 10 years on stage, the first UK touring version will open on Wearside for a four-week run.
It’s only the second date on the new tour, which opened in Plymouth last month, but it’s one that holds a particular resonance.
Martin Walsh, who plays the role of Billy’s dad, said: “We feel like we’re bringing Billy home, or as close to home as he’s ever going to get. And we can’t wait for the audience reaction to the show, to feel their passion and buzz.
“I was born in the ’70s, but I grew up in the ’80s. I was one of Thatcher’s children, I remember the misery, and we really try to portray that reality on stage.”
The actor, whose TV credits include Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Coronation Street, added: “It’s my first musical. I never thought I’d do a musical. But what attracted me to this is that it’s real people, it’s a real story, with real grit and determination.”
In total, worldwide, 90 boys have now played the iconic role of Billy Elliot on stage, the West End version of which will play its final performance on April 9 after 4,600 performances when the theatre closes for refurbishment.
On the UK tour, the four boys who pull on Billy’s ballet slippers as they alternate the title role are Adam Abbou, 12, from Liverpool; Matthew Lyons, 11, from Leeds, Haydn May, 11, from Bath, and Lewis Smallman, 12, from West Bromwich.
Martin said: “We have four Billys and with my role I’m dad to all but, much like choosing your favourite real child, I couldn’t pick a favourite theatrical child. 85-90 per cent of the performance is the same, but then each brings their own nuances to the role.
“It was the father/son relationship which was the pull to me. I’m a father myself and I’ve left my children at home to do this tour, so I feel that personal wrench.”
Billy’s female role model comes in the form of dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson, a part made famous by Julie Walters in the film, which was released in 2000.
Playing the role on stage is Annette McLaughlin, who says it’s a part she feels she’s been preparing for all her life.
“I’ve seen the film and I’ve seen the show when it first opened in the West End and I’m a massive fan of both. I loved the part of Mrs Wilkinson and I remember thinking ten years ago that it was a part I’d love to play,” she recalls.
“She’s such an interesting character: she’s funny, she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. She goes on an amazing journey. She meets this young boy who’s extremely talented and she becomes a surrogate mother to him. They have a beautiful relationship. She treats him like an adult and never talks down to him.
“It’s a volatile relationship too, but she guides him so well in the passion of dance, as well as the technique, and he trusts her completely.
“I actually trained as a ballerina with The Royal Ballet but I grew too tall and went into acting, so I understand her disappointment in life. I feel like it’s a part I’ve been training for all my life.”
Annette, who’s appeared in the West End in many productions including playing Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, says the children in the piece help to keep the show fresh night after night.
“We have four Billys, three Debbies, three Michaels and three sets of ballet girls,” she said. “I’ve been working with the Billys for 15 weeks now and they are extraordinary. Their talents are never-ending. They bring such an energy to the show, and it’s infectious to watch.”
She too spoke of the cast’s excitement about bringing the show to the Empire, the closest big theatre to the setting of Easington, which became Everington in the film.
“It’s a brilliant story told and directed in a brilliant way. We’re so excited to be bringing it to Sunderland,” she explained. “We’re slightly scared because of the accent, but to meet people who resonate with the story is something we’re really looking forward to. It would be great to go to Easington, to the Welfare (Dawdon Miners’ Welfare Hall was used in the film).”
Speaking about the East Durham twang, she said: “It’s a great accent. We have a great dialect coach and my ex-boyfriend was from Sunderland so I’ve had that kind of accent around me, which has helped. And there are people in the company from the area who can tell us where we’re going wrong.”
The stage version hammers home the message of how the closure of the pits shattered communities even more poignantly than the film and Scott Garnham, who plays Billy’s big brother Tony, says it was a fascinating subject to research.
“He’s a feisty character, but to put it in context, it comes from a place of passion,” he explains. “Tony can see into the future in a way: he can see what will happen if they don’t win this fight (the Miners’ Strike).
“It’s two stories really. There’s the tale of Billy who dances to overcome adversity. Then there’s the story of the communities who are fighting for everything they love and hold dear.
“It has a really important message. That’s when theatre’s really good and where sometimes musicals are lacking. Some musicals make you laugh and some make you cry, and Billy does that better than any other out there.”
Speaking about the four boys who play the titular role, he said: “It’s possibly the biggest part in a musical. I can’t think of any others where you have to fly, back flip off a piano, tap dance, do ballet and sing, there’s so many skills required.”
He says Sunderland can expect the best Billy possible when the show opens next month in a production brought to life by the multiple award-winning creative team behind the film, including writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry.
“I’ve been a couple of times to see the West End version, the first time when it first opened with my parents and I was blown away,” said Scott, whose many West End credits include Les Misérables and the original cast of Made In Dagenham.
He added: “There’s been tweaks, but it’s honing the story.
“They’ve had 11 years to come up with the best version of Billy on tour. It’s been on Broadway, it’s been in Holland, it’s been in the West End and they’ve been able to do a hybrid of them all.
“Lee Hall and Stephen Daldry came to opening night of the tour and they said it’s one of, if not the, best version they’ve seen.”
•Billy Elliot is at Sunderland Empire from April 6-30. Tickets are available from 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.