“I think it is such a beautifully crafted show – beautifully directed, beautifully written, beautifully choreographed – everything about it is perfection,” explains Annette McLaughlin who plays the extravagant northern ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson.
After a successful eleven year run on the West End, the Billy Elliot UK tour brings the moving story of a boy with a dream to theatres around the country. Through exemplary northern humour, there is a sensitive storyline which is emotionally consuming and entirely heart-warming. It is an uplifting musical that boasts exceptional talent.
As the production comes to the end of its superb run in Manchester, I sat down with the stars of the show ahead of its arrival at the Birmingham Hippodrome in March. Stepping into the dressing rooms of Annette McLaughlin who plays Mrs Wilkinson, and Martin Walsh who plays Dad, I began to discover more about the two adult characters that play such an important role in Billy’s life.
Annette has an immeasurable career in theatre, and Mrs Wilkinson was a part she was always desperate to play. “I have been a massive fan of both the film and the show, I saw the show when it first opened in London and it was one of those shows that give musicals a really good name. Every element of it is genius, and on top of that there was this part of Mrs Wilkinson, a very funny, sarcastic, chain-smoking, brilliant dance teacher who I just identified with,” she told me.
She explained that you have to be thirty years old to play Mrs Wilkinson, and she auditioned for the part previously and despite getting through many auditions rounds, she wasn’t quite old enough. “It has been a bit of a dream to play the part,” she said. “Finally I am old enough, so I am actually living the dream as we speak.”
Mrs Wilkinson sees something very special in Billy, a spark of talent and passion for dance. “She sort of becomes a bit of a mother figure with him,” Annette explained. “She is tough with him, and at first she isn’t interested with this kid and his boxing gloves. But she then sees this passion in him, and I think it sort of ignites a passion in her that she has lost.”
Although Billy keeps his dancing a secret from his father, it isn’t long before he finds out. Exploding through the door in a rage, Billy’s dad drags him out of his ballet class and tells him to stop being “such a poof.” This creates immense tension between Dad and Mrs Wilkinson, as she is desperate to change his mind.
Billy’s mother has passed away, and his dad is struggling with the loss of his wife and the fact he may be losing his job due to Margret Thatcher’s threat to close numerous mines. “At the start, dad doesn’t really know him and he certainly doesn’t view him as an individual,” Martin Walsh explained. “Then by the end, he does. At the start of the show he is very ‘You’re my son, so I will tell you exactly what you’ve got to do’. It is interesting looking at it from 2017, looking at a role that 30 years ago a lot of dads would have been like in that period of time.”
“Billy Elliot is this touching story of triumph over adversity for Billy, but the show is also about family and about community coming together. It is about the minors strike, and on paper that doesn’t seem like a good idea for a musical, but it evokes all those emotions really that we all identify with. Then throw into the mix some really incredibly talented chilled and you’ve got yourself a smash hit musical.” Annette (Mrs Wilkinson)
The most moving aspect of the show is the progression of Billy and his father’s relationship. They are both angry at each other, Billy just wants to dance and audition for the Royal Ballet, but his father believes strongly in gender stereotypes, and feels Billy dancing makes him less of a man. “It is almost harder to sustain the first half than to show the emotional side of my character in the second act, Martin said. “That is the journey I prefer far more as an actor, and obviously I want the character to be liked. If people left in the interval, I think they’d have a very different view on dad than if they’d stayed till the end.”
“Dad’s journey is an emotional rollercoaster. He plays it all tough in the first half until the interval, and then that façade is broken in the second half right when he starts thinking about missing his wife and realising how bad a father he has been because he hasn’t been able to be a father and a mother, which is clearly what Billy needs.”
When Dad realises that Billy really does have something special, and witnesses him dance for the very first time, it is an incredibly emotional moment. “Electricity is definitely the defining moment in the show,” explained Annette. “Because you see this child’s passion, and his extraordinary talent.”
“He flips, he turns, he sings, he breaks your heart, and people just jump to their feet.”
There is a moment where the audience see Dad’s pride and emotion truly heightened. When I asked Martin how he reaches that emotional level every night, he said: “It’s a connection, and it’s a moment. It is a response to the audience, to the actors on stage, to the characters we are playing, to how I am feeling on the day, to how I am missing my own children. There is so much honesty behind it, so I try not to worry too much about it, I just try to feel it all in the moment.”
What is the core message of the show? “Tolerance, love and acceptance,” Martin tells me. “We all sing in the finale Michael and Billy’s song Express Yourself,” added Annette. “Which is about being who you are, and I think allowing yourself to be who you are and being happy with that, is the strongest message in the show.”