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Being Billy Elliot

Published March 29, 2010

As Billy Elliot The Musical prepares to celebrate its fifth West End birthday, Official London Theatre caught up with its four leading men to find out more about playing musical theatre’s most iconic minor.

On 31 March 2005, the story from one of the most popular British films of all time was combined with a musical theatre score by flamboyant pop star Elton John to create one of the most successful British stage shows in recent years, Billy Elliot The Musical.

The show was an immediate success, garnering critical acclaim, public affection and winning four Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for the original three Billys, James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower.

Five years on, the story of a young mining town boy who prefers ballet to boxing and would rather pirouette than punch continues to draw audiences to the Victoria Palace theatre. The London show is now on its 22nd lead boy, so, to celebrate the show’s fifth birthday, Official London Theatre caught up with the current Billys – 13-year-old Tom Holland from Kingston, 12-year-old Rhys Yeomans from Manchester, 12-year-old Ollie Gardner from Bath and 12-year-old Dean-Charles Chapman from Essex – to find out more about their Billy Elliot experience.

It is a testament to the power of Billy Elliot The Musical that in less than five years the show has directly influenced two of the boys currently playing its lead. Both Rhys and Dean-Charles were inspired to begin dancing by the production. “I came to see the show when I was nine. I thought it was amazing and I really wanted to play the part,” Rhys told OLT, while Dean-Charles began dancing “because I wanted to play Billy Elliot.”

All four boys agreed that, in Tom’s words, training for Billy Elliot The Musical was “Very hard, but worth it!” “Every day I would do something different, from ballet to acrobatics to acting,” explained Ollie, while Dean-Charles summed up that “On a scale of 1 to 10 it’s 10.”

Our Billys can’t even relax once the training is over and they’ve got the role, as Rhys, who joined the show just last week, is finding out. Though the four boys share the performance schedule, starring in the West End is no easy ride for a young performer. “The hardest thing,” said Ollie, “would be remembering all the notes and keeping my performance to the same or even better standard each time.” For Tom, the toughest aspect of performing is “All the rehearsals and the late nights and getting up early for school.”

But all of that fades into insignificance next to those things that make playing Billy Elliot so special which, for our four Billys are:

Tom: “Acting and dancing with my friends and working with the creatives.”
Rhys: “Meeting all the cast and becoming friends with them.”
Ollie: “The audience reaction every single show.”
Dean-Charles: “Being on stage and getting the audience applause at the end of the show.”

Without wanting to give too much away for anyone who has not seen either the stage show or the film, the tale of Billy Elliot, at one point, finds the young wannabe dancer at an audition, where he is asked what it feels like when he is dancing. It would be a missed opportunity if I did not ask the boys playing Billy the same question. “Like you are in your own world and you can do what you want,” says Tom, while Ollie describes it as “an incredible feeling,” Dean-Charles says “I feel on top of the world” and Rhys decides, with just a hint of self-doubt, “If I get it right I feel fantastic.”

Performing to thousands of people on the London stage is an experience most of us can only dream of at any age, but to have achieved it at only 12 or 13 is quite incredible and, undoubtedly, life-changing. Playing Billy Elliot has given Tom more confidence, helped Rhys feel more grown up and shaped Ollie’s ambitions for the future. 

But what of that future? Does a life of stage stardom beckon now that our foursome of Billys have had a taste of the trappings of fame, which include a recent visit to 10 Downing Street. I wouldn’t be so sure. Though Rhys “would like to audition for the Royal Ballet School”, when Tom’s time in Billy’s striped t-shirt comes to an end, he will “concentrate on my GCSEs and play sports with my mates,” and when Ollie leaves Billy, he is also “looking forward to going back to school”. As for Dean-Charles, well, his Billy experience has definitely given him a taste for performing. “I want to act, dance and sing!” he says.

It will be interesting to see, in another five years time, how many former Billy Elliots are gracing the London stage in musicals, plays or dance productions. I would not be surprised if the show nurtured almost as many stars as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s reality casting series.

MA

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