Amy Moore speaks to Deka Walmsley, who plays Dad in BILLY ELLIOT at the Victoria Palace Theatre
Billy Elliot has been dazzling theatregoers at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London since 2005, with 2015 marking the production’s 10th anniversary.
Since its stage debut, over 10million people have been to see the successful show, which has since earned over 80 theatre awards globally, including 10 Tony Awards and 5 Olivier Awards.
Billy Elliot consists of an award-winning creative team including writer Lee Hall, director Stephen Daldry, choreographer Peter Darling and Elton John, who composed the show’s score.
Cast members include Brodie Donougher, Ollie Jochim, Bradley Perret and Matteo Zecca who alternate the title role of Billy Elliot, with Thomas Hazelby the 40th boy to play Billy in the London production. Additional cast members include Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson, Deka Walmsley as Billy’s Dad, Chris Grahamson as Tony and Gillian Elisa as Grandma.
TALK US THROUGH THE CHARACTER OF DAD
He goes on such a massive journey in the show. He’s pretty unhappy at the beginning – he’s lost his wife and he doesn’t really talk to his kids anymore.
Through Billy wanting to be a ballet dancer, he learns how to fall in love with his son again. It’s a great part to play for an actor, because you end up being pretty inarticulate and upset, then at the end of the play you get the best hug from your son.
There’s Billy, Mrs Wilkinson and Dad.
Billy grows up being taught by Mrs Wilkinson [the dance teacher] and in the second half, his Dad comes to realise that he’s got a talented son.
It’s set around the family – the Dad, Billy and Billy’s older brother – but there’s this great triangle with Mrs Wilkinson, because he learns to dance in secret. When his Dad discovers it, the drama comes, because it’s about him learning to accept that that’s what Billy is good at. It’s set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike in the 1980s, so life is pretty tough and grim for the family.
ARE THERE ANY ASPECTS OF DAD’S CHARACTER THAT YOU FIND PARTICULARLY CHALLENGING?
It’s very emotional. There’s a great song at the beginning of the second half, which is about his life. There’s also a moment where he decides, that in order to find the money to send Billy to ballet school, he’s got to break the miners’ strike and go back to work.
There’s a great song called He Could Be A Star, where Dad and the older brother Tony – who is also a miner – come to blows in song form. It’s difficult, but it’s exactly what actors want, because you want things that challenge you and will push you forward.
The kids change all the time. You have three or four Billy’s at any one time and they’re all very different, so it keeps you fresh.
YOU’VE BEEN IN BILLY ELLIOT SINCE 2011, HOW DO YOU CONTINUE TO BRING THAT ENTHUSIASM TO THE STAGE?
It would be difficult if it wasn’t such a brilliant show. It’s such a beautifully put together production. It’s a story that I’m really close to. I’ve known the writer [Lee Hall] for 30 years. We grew up in the theatre together. Its territory that I understand very well, but it’s the kids that keep it fresh.
HOW DO YOU THINK BILLY ELLIOT HAS REMAINED ‘TIMELESS’?
It’s not a story about the miners’ strike, it’s a story about family and that’s quite a universal thing, especially if you put the kid at the centre. It’s a ‘timeless’ story about how a family learn to love each other again. Over 10 years, the audience have learnt how to root for the kid, and the kids are so brilliant that the audience can quite easily follow that story with them.
TALK US THROUGH YOUR FAVOURITE SCENE
Electricity. There’s a brilliant moment where Billy and his Dad go to London for an audition and it goes very badly. Just as they’re leaving, a voice from the audience says; “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?” Billy answers by singing a song called Electricity and in the middle of that song, he dances.
I’m sat on a chair in the middle of the stage and this amazingly talented 12-year old kid does this incredible dance around me. It’s so beautiful to be a part of.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE PART OF SUCH A LONG RUNNING SHOW?
Proud, because its won so many Olivier and Tony Awards and quite rightly.
To be associated with something that successful is a privilege and you feel like you have to deliver, because you don’t want the standard to drop. I think whatever we’re doing; we’re doing it right.
People are so proud of the history of the show. It was a brilliant show to begin with.
It won an Olivier Award for ‘Best Musical’ in the first year that it opened.
WHY DO YOU THINK BILLY ELLIOT HAS BECOME SO SUCCESSFUL?
Everybody was at the top of their game when Billy Elliot was made, the script, the choreography and the direction.
I think the story suits the theatre more than it does film.
It’s found its natural home in the theatre. The people who have seen the film and then come and seen the musical are always staggered at how different it is.
It’s a live event. There’s always more engagement if it’s there in front of you rather than a film you feel somewhat detached from.
HOW DOES THE FILM COMPARE TO THE THEATRE PRODUCTION?
They’re both brilliant bits of work, but they’re just very different animals.
The story is told in a very different way in the theatre, because it has to be.
It has to live theatrically. There’s no point in recreating the film onstage.
It’s great to have a writer of that calibre [Lee Hall] create something that he’s absolutely passionate about. He’s a working class lad from Newcastle, who ended up going to Cambridge and becoming an incredibly successful playwright and screenwriter.
Lee Hall understands how to tell a story on a human level. He’s very good at engaging the audience first and foremost, nearly always through humour, because Billy Elliot is a very funny show. As he’s doing that, he draws you into a much bigger story.
He’s very good at that balance. You’re falling in love with the characters and as a result, you find yourself thinking about the bigger picture.
AFTER 10 YEARS, WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT FROM BILLY ELLIOT?
Absolutely anything you could want from a theatrical experience.
You’ll laugh and you’ll cry and you’ll cheer. You’ll be stunned by some of the choreography.
I would never hesitate to recommend that anyone come to see it, even if they’ve seen the film.
Billy Elliot is currently booking to December 19, 2015. Discounted rates for groups of 10 plus are available, with the standard group rate starting at £31 for Monday to Thursday performances and £36.50 for Friday and Saturday matinees. For more information visit www.billyelliotthemusical.com.