Layton Williams Talks Rent, Anti-Bullying & Musical Theatre

Layton Williams is probably best recognised as one of the boys cast as the title role in Billy Elliot –  The Musical during its 5 year run at London’s West End.  He also played a stand out role as Kyle ‘Kylie’ Parkinson in the BBC series Beautiful People. We caught up with him to hear about his career journey including his time working with infamous choreographer Matthew Bourne, being a part of the hit musical Hairspray, his work with anti-bullying and LGBTQ rights charities, and his current role in the musical, Rent which will soon be going on a UK tour!

Billy Elliot is a story everyone loves. It follows a young boy and his personal struggle between family strife and following his dream to become a dancer. Originally made into a film in 2001; after winning multiple awards including 3 BAFTAs, in 2005 the film was adapted for the West End, as Billy Elliot – The Musical. Going on to win four Olivier Awards and a Tony, and running for 5 successful years in the UK, you were cast as Billy Elliot from 2007 – 2008, what was that experience like?

I was walking past the theatre (Victoria Palace) yesterday and I had a bit of a moment to myself; it was weird not seeing the Billy Elliot sign on the front. Billy Elliot was the beginning of everything for me. A platform to where it is now. It really set me off in the right direction; it was the best. I couldn’t have imagined that first role for me, as a kid, playing the title role Billy Elliot in the West End. It was a really good learning curve.

You’ve trained at some of the UK’s leading performing arts schools including Sylvia Young and the Italia Conti School of Theatre and Dance. Is there a little of the Billy Elliot story in your own story? 

I was the Billy Elliot story. I was 11 when I first started training and I got on stage when I was 12 until 14. I didn’t have much of a dance background, and we couldn’t afford to drive back and forth to London. Thankfully, everything was paid for; the training lasted two years before I even got on the stage so clearly they saw something in me. I’d gone to after school clubs and to the Carol Godby theatre workshop. That’s where I did my first singing class; I’d take a streetdance class there once a week and it just progressed from there, but I’d had no formal dance training before that audition. I’ve actually been working with Carol Godby recently, to set up dance workshops in my local area to give back some fabulousness.

Training for the show took place at the Billy Elliot Academy in Leeds, how did the training prepare you for the role?

It was amazing. Training began after the first round of auditions and we were trained up until we reached a standard required to dance the show. It’s then that they decide who performs. There were around 10 or so boys and each week we’d all do the journey from Manchester – about 5 trains and trams! The training helped with dance technique; the way we composed ourselves; our work ethic, it became embodied in us.

You also starred in the much-loved BBC 2 comedy series, Beautiful People (2008), tell us a little about that?

It’s 8 years ago now since we recorded the new medley for the show – it was a wonderful show that I happened to fall into. As soon as I read the script I felt the character. It was so me, really camp; really fun. It was about two boys who grew up in Reading on a council estate – Olivia Colman was in it; Sarah Miles who played my mum, great actors who are all now doing such incredible things. It was good for me to have that dip into TV world because I didn’t know much about it before. I got on set and thought, what do I do? No one tells you what to do. We got a second series out of it; I do miss it, I want my own spin off!

We must mention Hairspray, another great musical which has been successful in the UK. How did your time in the production compare to other musicals you’ve appeared in?

Hairspray came at an interesting time because I wasn’t sure where I wanted my career to go. It was a great musical full of incredible songs; it was well directed and featured great choreography. It was a new vibe and in the same vein as Rent I thought – let’s do it! I wanted to be in a show where I worked eight shows a week as an adult and deployed the necessary work ethic. When you’re a child actor you not allowed to perform every show performance, there are regulations in place. I’d only done Billy Elliot and Thriller, but following on from them I didn’t really know what musical theatre was like; I hadn’t done it. Hairspray has an important storyline about discrimination, I loved that aspect and the show surprised a lot of people who came to see it as they didn’t realise there’d be such a brilliant storyline underneath all the huge costumes.

You worked with Matthew Bourne, the British Choreographer famous for his contemporary dance works including adaptations of Swan Lake and Cinderella, what was it like to work in one of his productions?

Matthew Bourne works quite differently. Dancers don’t work every show because the performances are so intense on the body. They don’t play the same role each time they perform, instead they perform two or three characters each; everyone switches and changes. It’s a really good idea because it keeps everyone fresh. Every time performers go one stage audiences are almost seeing something new. For us as dancers, it feels fresh to dance something we haven’t danced in a couple of weeks. The thing with Matthew is he’s all about the story telling. The first time I saw one of his productions it was Cinderella in 2010, and I remember thinking, wow, I never knew anything like that existed. I didn’t think you could tell a story without opening your mouth.

Layton Williams as Angel Schunard in Rent the musical
Layton Williams as Angel Schunard in Rent the musical

You’re currently starring in Rent, as Angel Schunard with the new 20th anniversary cast, are you working alongside performers you’ve worked with before?

I’m working with my boyfriend which is really cool, he was in Hairspray with me too – it’s a one in a million chance that we get to work together again so we’re enjoying every second. I’m also working with my best friend; we’ve been friends since we were 14. It’s nice, it’s like working with family. The choreographer was in Billy Elliot with me – it’s a very small industry you’re always going to know people across a production. Angel has always been a dream role, so it was a dream come true to play this character.

You’re a supporter of charities Stonewall which campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain, and Ditch The Label the international anti-bullying charity, what change do you hope to see in the areas that these charities operate?

I’ve been working with Stonewall since I was seventeen, and I received some verbal abuse in the street recently, I couldn’t believe it was still a thing! If it’s happening to me, a grown man, then it’s happening to a kid in school – not on my watch if I can have anything to with it! It’s all about speaking up.

What does the next year hold for you?

Rent and the role I’m playing is perfect for me. This is me playing my first principle role in theatre, every night. So for me to be here, in London as part of a sell out show, I feel like I’m proving myself, because people didn’t know I could sing or dance. This is a nice way to tie it all up. I’m just excited, we’re in London for 9 weeks and then the production goes on a three / four month tour from May. It really feels like the start of my adult career;

Other than Rent, which other musicals are on your wish list to see this coming year?

I need to see Dreamgirls!

Rent will run in London at St James Theatre until 28th January 2017. It will then go on a UK tour from the 31st January until the 27th May 2017.

To book your tickets and find out all the tour stops, go to the Rent website.

Read TBB’s 100% #OutOf100 review of Dreamgirls here.


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