Billy Elliot - The Musical
Birmingham Hippodrome 7 March to 29 April
FOR actor Martin Walsh, Billy Elliot the Musical is an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ in which the character he plays, Billy’s Dad, undergoes a massive change of heart.
Based on the 2000 film, the musical, which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome this week, tells the story of a young boy’s dream to become a ballet dancer despite the initial opposition of his family.
Set in a northern mining town during the 1984/5 miners’ strike, Billy’s dream ultimately inspires not just his family but his entire community.
But initially Billy’s Dad is totally opposed to the youngster’s ambition to be on stage. A striking miner and widower who is bringing up Billy with the help of the youngster’s grandma and brother, Dad wants what’s best for his son – but believes that is mining and boxing, not dancing.
“It was definitely the Dad character that attracted me to the show,” says Martin. “I’d seen the film so knew he was a very strong character and it’s the humanity of Dad that I love. I’m a newish father myself, I’ve got two children, Ana who is six-and-a-half and Zac who is two-and-a-half, so I know that becoming a parent does change your perspective.
“At the beginning Dad is very set in his ways and has set ideals about how people should be and how they should grow up and then gradually he becomes more human. At the start of the play not only is he missing from his son’s life spiritually but he’s also missing his wife and has no idea how to be a mum and a dad.
“I love the grit, the humanity and the politics in this story and I love the emotional rollercoaster of Dad’s journey. We don’t know, any of us, what’s down for us in life and we don’t know what’s round the corner – that’s the joy and the worry. I’m angry with him for most of the first half but it’s like a game of two halves and after the interval you see his humanity.”
Martin believes that expectations of fatherhood differed back in the 1980s so Billy’s Dad would not have been unusual in his awkwardness in showing his true feelings for his son.
Scott Garnham as Tony, Martin Walsh as Dad and Adam Abbou as Billy Elliot.
Picture: Alastair Muir
“I’m a dad today and things have changed a lot,” Martin says. “I was never told by my dad that he loved me but I knew totally that I was loved. He never put it into words because they just didn’t then. But I make a point of saying it in my life. In Billy Elliot Dad never tells Billy that he loves him but when I play the character I try to say it to him in different ways. I say it with my eyes or my gestures but it’s not in the script and that’s very much of the time.
“Being a dad is a challenge but it’s a very beautiful one and we’re very lucky to be able to play out that family relationship of father and son on the stage every day.”
Once Dad sees the passion his son has for ballet, he decides to support him but as a striking miner he can see no way to pay for the auditions. So he goes against every moral fibre in his body to break the strike.
“Dad in the musical differs from in the film because he breaks the strike for one day,” says Martin. “It was troublesome for my heart to quantify and qualify that. He goes to work for a day and then he realises. We did wonder how audiences would respond to that – particularly in Sunderland! But the audiences see the humility of it.
“I’m from Warrington, between Manchester and Liverpool, and had a similar upbringing really so I do understand how hard that is for him. I have memories of the miners’ strike and honestly my memory is misery and hopelessness. I wasn’t an avid news watcher as a child but you would turn on the TV and there never seemed to be any good news.
“I would only have been 12 or 13 at the time but I remember how everything felt precarious – there were no safe jobs or safe career paths. I think the only good thing to come out of all that for me personally is that to go into a career as precarious as mining didn’t really phase me because nothing felt safe.”
For Martin, building a career in theatre appeared to be as alien as Billy’s choice to pursue ballet – although Martin was fortunate to have the support of his family.
“I was doing acting before I even knew that I was doing it,” he says. “I liked playing leads in Nativity plays and tended to get the roles in school shows. There’s no history of acting in my family so I don’t really know why I was always to the fore then but it just came naturally to me. There weren’t really the finances in my family to go to the theatre so I grew up mainly watching TV and theatre only really came to me through school. It was music teachers and English teachers giving time up after school to organise shows.
“Both my music teacher and my English teacher came to see me in Billy Elliot. We had a little meet up and a coffee and it was a really nice time to see them and say ‘thank you’. My English teacher said that when we were reading the Scottish Play (Macbeth) out loud in class and she got me to read the lead she immediately knew that I had something. And my music teacher said we did excerpts of My Fair Lady and I did the dad then and sang ‘I’m getting married in the morning’ and apparently I invented the last chorus and it went down a bit of a storm. I didn’t know until I saw them the other week that they’d seen something in me then – at the time it just all felt normal to me.”
Since then Martin’s career path has seen him in a collection of different roles on television, film and on stage but the Billy Elliot tour is a new venture for him.
“This tour has been the longest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “The repetition would be the biggest challenge but the audience is always the biggest cast member so that every venue is different and every performance is different. It’s a joy being able to take the show to so many different places.
“I’m looking forward to coming to coming to Birmingham as I don’t really know the city. I’ve done three episodes of Doctors there but that’s all. And it also has the huge advantage that it’s only an hour away so I can come back and be dad to my own children.”
Billy Elliot the Musical plays Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre from March 7 to April 29.