Bury lad Layton Williams kicked off his stage career travelling down the M62 to join the Billy Elliott training academy in Leeds before graduating aged 12 to take on the lead role in the West End.
He went onto play young Michael Jackson in Thriller – Live and as an adult won critical acclaim playing Angel in the 20th anniversary tour of Rent.
Now he’s back up north at Leeds Grand Theatre playing Jamie New in uplifting musical Everyone’s Talking About Jamie which has just been made into an Amazon Prime movie.
For people who are new to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, how would you sum up the storyline?
Jamie is based on a real character who was the subject of a documentary on BBC Three. I remember watching it years ago and it was about him wanting to be a drag queen and wanting to go to the school prom in a dress, and how his mum Margaret supported him.
So, what happened?
When he got to the prom there was all this hoo-hah, the teachers wouldn’t let him in, then something wonderful and unexpected happened, his school mates refused to go in without him. The basics of his story inspired the musical and it’s been given a bit of theatrical razzamatazz. Our story is about a 16-year-old boy who wants to be a drag queen and it’s about his relationship with his parents, including his dad who he isn’t much in touch with.
What do you see as the key theme?
It’s about acceptance. This is a show for everyone, especially for today. It’s not just for people who are into RuPaul’s Drag Race and stuff like that. The show is about a boy finding his path in life with the help of his close relationship with his incredible mum and her unconditional love for him. She loves him exactly as he is. A dad who isn’t supportive and lots of other characters that people will be able to relate to. It’s about family, friendship, trust and support.
It sounds like a rich array of characters?
There are so many different, relatable characters in it, although if you identify with the dad then have a word with yourself! And there’s so much diversity in the cast. The real Jamie is white and I’m not, but that wasn’t even a question for the producers and creatives – which is so refreshing and so fab, like just ‘He’s right for the role’ and that’s how it should be.
And plenty of big costumes onstage?
There are high heels, high kicks, drag queens, beautiful dresses, feather boas, some fantastic songs and brilliant dancing. It really is fun, funny and fabulous with a lump in your throat and a little tear.
Having played Angel in Rent this isn’t your first time in heels, is it?
No, it isn’t. The heels thing is a doddle now.
How important is the theme of inclusion to audiences both young and old?
Very important. I get messages from older people who have been helped by the show, whether it’s helped them come out or helped them understand their children better. It does obviously speak directly to the LGBTQ+ youth, but it’s not limited to one faction. So many people can relate to being an outcast or feeling different but after seeing the show they’ll feel, to quote one of the songs, there’s a place where they belong. It didn’t happen to me personally, but our director Jonathan Butterell said when he was doing the show in Sheffield a guy came up to him, grabbed his arm and said ‘I was Dean once’ referring to the school bully character. Some people in the audience will maybe see the Dean character and think ‘That was me’ or they might see the dad and think ‘I was homophobic’ or they’ll go ‘Everybody is celebrating this boy here so why do I have these negative feelings?’
So, you think you might change some people’s attitudes who might be unsure about the show?
They might get dragged to the theatre by their girlfriends or wives, thinking ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’ then hopefully by the end of it their hearts and minds will have been opened and their opinions on things have changed.
What challenges does the role of Jamie present?
It’s about the emotional journey he has to go on. Eight times a week I’m having an argument with this person, bonding with that one, having to cry about this, having to cry about that… The rollercoaster of emotions is a lot to navigate. Being 16 years old is hard.
Sounds like you are drawing on personal experience?
I remember being 16 with all those hormones and stuff. There’s the acting side of all that, then there are so many songs. I have to keep my voice tight and right. That’s the difficulty – keeping myself on top form all the time so when I get out on stage, I slay it. I want people to have the best experience possible and that means I have to be in full health, make sure I’m rested and always prepared. That’s the nature of the job but that’s what makes it exciting because you put your whole self out there on stage.
Does the show resonate for you?
Yes, it does. I’m a queer boy from a council estate up North, so we have that in common. Me and my mum have had our moments in the past and sometimes on stage I’m thinking about the things we’ve been through. We always patch things up, but families go through stuff. And my upbringing wasn’t rosy. As I say, I was a gay boy on a council estate and as much as I tried to hide it I had a few things coming my way. It’s not been the easiest ride, but I put it into my art.
You’re playing the historic Leeds Grand Theatre, does it have any significance for you?
Leeds is the only place on the tour I’ve never performed in so I’m so excited about going there. And I have fond memories of Leeds because it’s where I did my Billy Elliot training.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at Leeds Grand Theatre from Tuesday 2nd November to Sunday 7th November. To book www.leedsheritagetheatres.com or 0113 2430808.