The director of hit film Billy Elliot was among celebrities and city dignitaries to attend press night for the musical version’s North East debut.
Stephen Daldry made his feature film directorial debut with Billy Elliot in 2000 and went on to join the creative team that brought the inspirational tale of a coal miner’s son to the stage.
He said it was a pleasure to be back in the area, just 12 miles from Easington Colliery, where much of the film was shot in 1999.
Tonight’s press night gala marks the musical’s debut in the North East as it embarks on its first UK tour.
Stephen, who also directed The Hours and The Reader, said: “We are all incredibly excited. We are thrilled and delighted.
“We’ve spent 11 years doing this show, all over the world, and for 11 years we wanted to come to Sunderland, after millions of people had seen the show from that village just down the road.
“Whether in Australia or South Korea, they were so far away from Easington, yet they responded so well to what that community went through – the struggles during the miners’ strike – so the idea of bringing it home is very emotional for all of us.
“To bring the show here is so much more than that – the audience here lived through those struggles.
“It is like a homecoming and we are so thrilled to be here. We are delighted Billy is finally coming home.”
Set against the background of the 1984/’85 Miners’ Strike, Billy’s journey takes him out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class, where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and whole community and changes his life forever.
The four boys playing the title role in the first UK and Ireland tour of the musical are Adam Abbou, 12; Matthew Lyons, 11; Haydn May, 11 and Lewis Smallman, 12.
The boys were cast following nationwide auditions and after months of intensive rehearsals will alternate the role on tour.
Among the other cast members is Washington actor Elliot Stiff, nine, who plays Michael, Billy’s best friend.
Also entertaining the crowds at the press night was Easington Colliery Band, the musical voice of the former mining community, which performed outside the Empire as audience members arrived.
The band was formed in 1915 by the miners and supported by them until the colliery’s closure in 1993. It’s still based in Easington today, in the old colliery pay office, opposite the Memorial Gardens. The building is the last remaining evidence of the colliery.
This week also sees the final performance of the West End Billy Elliot, where Easington Colliery Band will also perform a moving set. After 11 years at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London, the show will play its final performance tomorrow.
l Billy Elliot is at Sunderland Empire until April 30. Tickets from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland