A theatrical homecoming for Billy and friends

When Lee Hall took his musical out of the West End and into the North-east, he discovered some extraordinary talent
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The Independent Culture

A month ago the Easington Social Welfare Centre, in County Durham, played host to Billy Elliot. Almost 13 years to the day, I had stood outside looking for a place to set my story of a ballet boy from the northern coalfields. What was exceptional about this "homecoming" was that the play was performed not by the West End cast, but by the sons and daughters of Shotton Hall Theatre School as part of the Billy Youth Theatre scheme.

The hall was packed to the rafters with ex-miners and their families and in an extraordinary moment of identification, while the Shotton Hall group were in rehearsals, the miners brought their donkey jackets and old pit helmets and gave them to the children for their performance. The Billy Youth Theatre performed for four nights to standing ovations. The lament to the lost age of industry and the political aspirations of the mining communities, "Once We Were Kings", proved too much for many and there were few dry eyes in the house.

Shotton Hall are just one of more than 100 school and youth theatres that in the last few months have performed Billy Elliot as part of a special scheme I set up with Working Title to give youngsters the opportunity to take part in a unique experiment. Usually all amateur rights to a new musical are held by the company. But having come from youth theatre myself, this seemed insane. Youth theatres and schools were writing to me to ask permission to perform songs from the musical, but I had no rights to give.

It seemed contrary to the very themes of the piece to deny them the opportunity to perform. I approached Working Title with the idea that we should release the rights early. To my amazement, the response was not just that we should "allow" children to do it, we should help them to do so.

The idea was I'd write a special script of the musical, cutting it down so it was logistically manageable, then the group leaders would be given training and the opportunity to study the production in London with the creative team who keep the show running day by day. We had no idea whether anyone would take up the challenge. Billy Elliot is a fiendishly complicated show. It's also emotionally pretty robust, and once you start trying out fully staged dance numbers, things get really scary. But the take up was huge. The productions have been so successful that there have been seven regional galas, from Edinburgh to Brighton, each one a sell-out.

I travelled up to see the Durham version, which included the Shotton Hall group. I was full of trepidation. Several of the original cast came with me and as the lights went down and the first number started, Trevor (Fox), who played the boxing teacher George, leant over and said, "Bloody hell, they're good". As the song went on we realised the singing was as strong as the cast in London.

The night was a triumph beyond anything I could have hoped. In the final number, where the miners go back to work and sing a song to socialism, they flew down the real Easington banner. All 175 children came on stage to sing the number and we were choked. It was clear that they'd found something in this story that was really about their Mums and Dads, Grannies and Grandads.

I was humbled by the experience. Once again Billy Elliot has surprised me. It's opened a door onto talent that could easily be overlooked if we don't provide opportunities for it to flourish. And there is a generation of exceptionally talented youth leaders and directors who have proved that they can rise to the most challenging material. It also made me realise that art isn't owned by anyone, certainly not the people who made it up. The power of art is that it is shared. So I am delighted that we are able to offer the Billy Youth Theatre groups selected for the West End Gala the chance to perform their numbers at the Victoria Palace Theatre, home of Billy Elliot, this Sunday evening.

Billy Elliot the Musical, Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1 ( Billyelliotthemusical.com) booking to 9 April