An audience with the Billy Elliot boys

Like the character they play, three lads were plucked from obscurity and became dancing sensations. Now the young stars have been nominated for an Olivier. Ed Caesar meets them
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In the Upper Circle of the Victoria Palace Theatre, three teenage boys are striking a sultry fashion-shoot pose for The Independent's photographer. To the backdrop of tutu-toting girls rehearsing below, they slope shoulders and pout lips. But Liam Mower, the smallest of the three, cannot keep a straight face. And he sets off George Maguire to his right. Who nudges James Lomas.

"Sorry," squeaks Mower. "I got the giggles."

Meet the Billy Elliots. These three precocious talents have stormed the West End since May as the rotating stars of Elton John's smash, Billy Elliot The Musical. In the role made famous by Jamie Bell in Stephen Daldry's triple-Oscar-nominated film, Liam, George and James have stomped, pirouetted and back-flipped the stage show to critical and commercial Valhalla.

Critics have called the show, among other superlatives, "The Brit Musical of the Decade". Awards have been hot on the heels of the critical plaudits. The show won the Evening Standard and, yesterday, the Critic's Circle Award for Best Musical, while the three original Billy Elliots have been nominated for a joint "Best Actor" Laurence Olivier Award, for which they will compete against Ewan McGregor.

But the boys couldn't really care less. In fact, even though the Critic's Circle Award had just been announced when I meet them, they hardly breathe a word about it. They seem happy just to see each other, now that the two oldest Billys - James, 15, and George, 14 - have left the show due to ever-shrinking costumes and breaking voices. Liam misses them, he admits - "we are all such good friends".

The boys, who were plucked from an audition process in 2004 (which attracted more than 3,000 hopefuls), are the opposite of archetypal stage-school children. They banter, don't take themselves seriously and are great fun to be around. But what all exude, in the words of the musical, is lashings of "individuality".

George, from Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, is the loud one. A self-appointed entertainer, he drops his aitches and endlessly ribs the others. He is, in his own words, "one of the lads".

James thinks his fellow Sheffield-dwellers, the Arctic Monkeys, are overhyped. "Better than The Beatles?" he says. "Nah." He is the tallest and least chatty, although confidence, one suspects, isn't a problem. When a press officer brings hot drinks, he hands his back. "This is tea," he says. "I asked for coffee."

But he is not precious. His Dad, a steelworker, and his Mum, a hairdresser, have seen to that. James is now being punished for his two-year excursion to theatreland with two hours a day of extra tuition for his GCSEs.

Liam, from Hull, never sits still. He's 13; the third brother of four. All his other brothers play rugby at the same club as their Dad, a pipe-fitter. Although George, James and Liam have something of the real Billy Elliot about them, Liam's life echoes Billy's story closest. In 2004, Liam won a place at the Royal Ballet School. But unlike Billy, Liam's future will probably lie away from ballet, after he left the school last year.

"Yeah I got a place," says Liam, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. "And I went for about a year. But I got a bit homesick. A bit tired. I would do a couple of full-on ballet classes there and then have to do the show at night. I was knackered. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the Royal Ballet - it's amazing - but I suppose I felt there was more in Billy Elliot. My heart's really in musical theatre."

All the boys have been bitten by the razzle-dazzle. Going on Des O'Connor's show was fun, they say, and O'Connor's now a mate. Strictly Dance Fever was a bit embarrassing. The Royal Variety Performance was a blast. But if there's one thing they can't stop gassing about, it's Elton John's wedding, where they were both entertainment (before James Blunt, after Joss Stone), and guests.

"We went into this massive room," says George. "It was all like cocktails, and people mingling. Elton John was standing to the side, and everyone had to go past him and shake his hand. But we just didn't know it was a queue, so we walked straight to the front and shook his hand. Then we realised we'd pushed in front of Hugh Grant, Liz Hurley and Craig David. Ooops!"

But did anyone know who these queue-jumpers were?

"Oh yeah," says James. "They'd come up to you and go, 'Billy Elliot!'"

"Yeah, me, James and George were just talking," continues Liam, "and then Victoria Beckham said, 'Oh look, it's the Billy Elliot boys.' James went over to her and said, 'Hi, I'm James.' Then we all sort of mingled."

The boys eventually left at midnight, but not before two older women, who really should know better, had entertained them.

"Yeah, Sharon Osbourne let us squeeze her boobs," says an impish-looking James.

"And Liz Hurley," says George.

Some boys have all the luck.

Such outings have been the exception. During the boys' stint as Billy Elliot, they were living in Ealing Broadway, west London, with other children from the show, where they would have to get up early, do three hours' schoolwork, rehearse, and perform in the evening. Child labour laws ensured that the three boys would take it in turns to take the lead role, but, with eight performances a week, and one boy needed as understudy each night, there was little time for rest.

Given the physical demands, it's a wonder any of them got through the first week. James had been dancing for well under a year when he won the role. Being cast into the intense weekend "Billy Elliot School" in Leeds, where all the boys received intensive dance tuition, and then the exertion of endless run-throughs, must have been tough.

"I think I learnt about seven years' worth of dancing in one year," says James. "It was really hard work. The first time I did a proper dance I was proper knackered. But by the end [of the run], I was still tired when the show finished, but it wasn't like I was going to faint. Your stamina gets better, and your muscles start to grow."

The physical demands of the show were not the only hurdle. Leaving home for such long periods was emotional, too, says George. "You get stressed, because you're doing a lot," he says. "Rehearsals, and performing and understudying. You don't get home a lot. You don't get to see your mums and dads a lot."

"It could be quite lonely. You're so used to having your family around. That first day, when my Mum left, was 'orrible. I was only 12 or 13. It was upsetting. [But] I could talk to my dad if I had serious problems. And my older brother, too. With your mum, it's a bit different, because she's a woman. And you don't really talk to women about things, do you?"

But if arriving was hard, leaving was harder - and not only for George and James, but for the one they left behind. Liam says that he never felt homesick before the show started. It only started to become difficult when his friends started to leave. "I hate goodbyes," he says.

George, who performed for the last time on the 23 December, grappled with the end of his adventure, too.

"I was definitely sad," he says. "Because the whole process, including auditions and everything, has been two years. It feels like they've taken a massive part of your life away. You've got nothing to do. Normally, you'd be rehearsing, or doing a show. You're always on the go. But now, it's just going to school, going home, and chilling out. It's boring."

James, at least, has had a little help in dealing with the end of his Billy Elliot experience from the original Billy, Jamie Bell. "We went to see Munich together last week," he says. "He's cool. He used to get bullied after he had been in Billy. He told me someone rode past him on a bike and spat water in his face. His best friend ran after the guy and pulled the bike out from under him, and poured water all over him. That's why it's good to have friends."

All three boys have given some serious thought to their future careers. "I'm going for different auditions," says James, who recently won a scholarship to a performing arts college. "I'd like to do more musicals, and more films. Drama on TV."

"I've got an agent now", says George. "Hopefully, if everything goes right, I want to go into films. TV or normal films. I could do it while I'm still at school, because all film sets have a tutor on them. I've realised, since I've done this show, that what I really want to do is acting."

Talking to these boys who are, like Billy Elliot, children from ordinary backgrounds chosen to do something extraordinary, one is reminded of the final scene of the musical when Billy, suitcase in hand, walks off to an uncertain future. Unlike the film version, where we see Billy realise his dream in Swan Lake, the musical closes with a question.

What Liam Mower, George Maguire and James Lomas make of that is anyone's guess. But winning an Olivier on 26 February won't hurt them one bit.