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Martin Marquez

Published 5 January 2011

He has played a barman in Hotel Babylon and a copper in The Bill. Now Martin Marquez adds to his list of trades by playing the West End’s favourite miner, Billy Elliot’s Dad. He talks to Matthew Amer…

“It’s tailor-made for me,” says Marquez of the role in the long-running London musical to which he has committed a year of his life. It is the first time in his career that he has signed such a lengthy theatrical contract. The role of Billy’s Dad, he says, requires “someone who needs to be strong, earthy, gritty, but also someone who needs to handle the comedy. Someone who has compassion but is not able to be physically demonstrative with their emotions; that [facet of the character] isn’t personal, but I understand it from my upbringing and parents.”

Marquez, whose performances on the London stage have included Trevor Nunn’s joyous production of Anything Goes and Deborah Warner’s recent telling of the harrowing Mother Courage And Her Children, had little doubt that he would accept the offer to play Billy’s Dad from the moment he was offered the role, though he took a customary pause to consider signing the contract. He had seen the hit musical when it first opened and thought the tale of a miner’s son with a passion for ballet was “one of the best shows I’d seen in a long while”.

That was more than five years ago, a testament to the fact that Marquez is not the only audience member to have been won over by Billy’s charm. More than 3 million theatregoers have enjoyed the show since it first opened at the Victoria Palace theatre in 2005. Based on the hit Brit flick, the musical – which features songs by Elton John – tells the story of a northern boy growing up amid the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, who discovers an unlikely passion for ballet. But his talent is at odds with the prevailing beliefs of the town – and Billy’s Dad – that boys should box and girls should dance.

A father himself – though not to a young boy from a mining community – Marquez says the character “rings a few bells, certain positions that I’ve been in. I have drawn on personal experiences for it,” he adds, “but who am I to say that another actor who might not have children might not be able to do the same?”

If nothing else, Marquez’s experience as a parent might have helped prepare him for life in one of London’s most child performer-centric shows, which boasts a selection of child stars playing Billy, best friend Michael and a vast collection of ballet-dancing girls. This does mean, of course, that the adult actors have to rehearse every scene over and over and over again with different combinations of child performers.

“I wasn’t anticipating a problem with it,” Marquez says of having to perform opposite different Billys each night, “but I also didn’t anticipate it to be so interesting. I imagined, stupidly, that they’d all be roughly the same, but they’ve all got different qualities and you have to use that. Some of them will take a good shouting at, because they’re stronger, and others you deal with slightly differently.”

Though he may have had to rehearse and re-rehearse scenes, Marquez did have the benefit of joining a settled production. While he was given free rein with his version of Billy’s Dad, the basics of the production have been in place for years. Far from being constrictive, this meant Marquez could delve straight to the heart of his character: “You’re not spending time working out where you’re going to go in your blocking, what costume, what the set is. You know all that, so you’ve just got to get on with the acting, which is a really good place to be with a rehearsal.”

Coventry-raised Marquez – his mild accent grows stronger as he utters the word “Midlands” – may stand at the beginning of one of Britain’s newest acting dynasties. It is a little early to herald such a birth just yet, but with him and his brother John – currently stealing the show in A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic – both now West End regulars and his daughter Ramona showing an inherited flair for comedy as the youngest member of the family in hit BBC sitcom Outnumbered, it is not the most outrageous flight of fancy.

“We’re not scrabbling around to get the next thing for her,” Marquez says of his daughter, who has also appeared in BBC4 bio-drama Enid and entered the industry not on the back of a series of auditions, but having been spotted at a party. “We are always keen for her to get back into the normal life of school.” This seems like an eminently sensible and serious proposition from a man who strikes me as eminently sensible and serious.

It is a touch surprising, then, that what he would most like to do would be to concentrate on the comedy work he creates and performs with his brother in the guise of The Brothers Marquez. Their most recent show, The Dark Side Of Buffoon, thrilled audiences at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010. “We love to get together. We work really well together and we find each other funny. We create stuff that we both think is great. If it paid enough…” he trails off. “But we have families and have to take things that pay more money so that we can afford to do our stuff.”

It might not be quite like going down a mine to provide for your children, but the sense of sacrifice for the good of the family resonates strongly with the story of Billy’s Dad.



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