Stephen Daldry: The next step for Stephen

Billy Elliot catapulted Stephen Daldry to stardom as a film director, but brought the press to his door. So why is he staging a musical version? Paul Taylor finds out

Wednesday 17 July 2013 23:42

Stephen Daldry materialises some 45 minutes late - and after a few harassed phone-calls from the PR - for our meeting at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London, where rehearsals for the musical version of Billy Elliot are in full swing. The production is into the preview period, and he's still making significant changes to the show.

It's not his fault that he's late, however. Someone forgot to tell him that the interview was rescheduled for first thing. You can hardly blame his minders for this oversight; given the brain-knotting logistical convolutions involved in mounting the Billy Elliot musical, Daldry's absurdly complicated diary must be the despair of those obliged to monitor it.

Still, here he is, bestowing the largesse of his low-key disarming charm on all who cross his path. I've known Stephen since the early Nineties, when he made an extraordinary impact as the artistic director of the tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. It had been hitherto unheard-of for a fringe venue to win an Olivier award, but under Daldry, the Gate picked up the outstanding achievement gong in recognition of the groundbreaking quality of its Spanish Golden Age season. (This was more than 10 years before the Royal Shakespeare Company got round to ransacking the riches of the Hispanic Renaissance repertoire.)

He won't thank me for the comparison, but there's something about his visual cheekiness that reminded me then - and still does now - of Joe Brown of the Sixties pop group Joe Brown and the Bruvvers. Cheek, though, was the least of it; it was clear from early on that there was simply no stopping this man. It was equally clear that there was probably nothing he could not get away with. Which could have been the undoing of someone of lesser mettle; a scandalous degree of charm can, after all, lead either to a charmed life or to disaster.

His CV indicates that his career has erred (if that's the word) in the former direction. In 1992, his Expressionist production of An Inspector Calls put JB Priestley's Edwardian family in a tottering doll's house and the play in a heightened, post-war Socialist context. It conquered the world, making Daldry a not-so-small fortune in the process.

His artistic directorship of the Royal Court in the Nineties, by a characteristic confluence of clever management on his part and jammy good luck, managed to coincide with the biggest explosion of young writing talent (Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill et al) since the Angry Young Man era. He also masterminded the brilliant refurbishment of the Court's decaying Sloane Square building - an upgrade that manages, better than any overhaul I've yet encountered, both to preserve the precious soul of the theatre and to keep on the right side of its many ghosts, while equipping it with state-of-the-art facilities. Contrast that with the dismal example of Sadler's Wells.

Then we witnessed Daldry's triumphant move into films. He received an Oscar nomination for his second movie The Hours (which did win an Oscar for Nicole Kidman as a prosthetically enhanced Virginia Woolf), and a Bafta was in the bag for Billy Elliot, the film about the Geordie boy who, in the face of determined opposition, dances his way to a place at the Royal Ballet School against the backdrop of the bitter, soul-destroying miners' strike of 1984. The director's inexorable onward and upward progress could have been faintly tiresome if it weren't for the aspects of Daldry a bald CV cannot communicate: his apparently endless and galvanising good humour, and his natural kindness.

Both these qualities were put to the test as Daldry gamely shoehorned me into his hectic day. We adjourned briskly to a local café where, while wolfing down sausage sandwiches, he sized up the problem. "We can do the interview at lunchtime. But before that, if you have time, you can come round and watch the rehearsals with me. We're going to need a car to wait for us [this is directed at the PR]. I'm starting with a rehearsal on stage about a song that is being completely resequenced.

"Then we'll jump into the car and head over to another rehearsal room in Chelsea Barracks where Peter Darling [the choreographer] is working on a dance number that I may put in the show before opening night. It's being rehearsed with another boy - he's a very good ballet dancer. We're using him because I don't want to confuse or unnerve the three boys who are actually playing Billy. They won't know about this number, unless we decide to put it in."

Because of regulations about the employment of children on stage, the title role is being shared by a trio of boys. Each Billy has his own Debbie (the amusingly "forward" daughter of the dance teacher) and his own Michael, the clandestinely cross-dressing gay friend. (To my amazement, I discover from Daldry that the straight Geordie kid who played this character so beautifully in the film ended up following his older brother into the Army and is now in Iraq.) The choreography has been tailored to fit the different aptitudes of each Billy, and the orchestra has to take into consideration the diverse keys in which they sing. "I am, in effect, directing three different shows simultaneously," says Daldry, with a cross between a laugh and a groan.

To an outsider, the atmosphere is deliciously droll. At lunchtime, in the streets and shops around the Victoria Palace Theatre, you can scarcely move for pre-pubescent youths who are playing Billy and their mothers or chaperones (child protection legislation is now so exacting that a child actor cannot go to the child-only loo without a guardian, thus creating problems - I hear - when he or she goes home for the weekend and finds that calls of nature have to be answered solo).

"Actually, to get the full experience we would also have to fly to Leeds, where today we're holding auditions for the next batch of Billys," says the director as we whiz across London. These are the boys who will replace the current crop when their contracts run out. Daldry would be able to get us there, as he actually knows how to fly a plane as a result of the RAF scholarship he secured to read English at Sheffield University.

As I scurry in his wake round the morning's agenda, Daldry obliges with some characteristic moments. "When I ran the Court, I wanted to buy all of this," he reveals airily, while we slog through the grounds of Chelsea Barracks to the dance session. "But Stephen, how on earth would you have filled this vast building?" I ask. "Well, you know me," is the serene reply. "I was thinking theatre complex, acting school, several auditoria... but the Cadogan Estate wouldn't sell it to me. They'll make more money out of converting it into shops."

As he's about to take the resequencing rehearsal at the theatre, he warns me: "This could be a bit tense." So it proves. It's the scene in the story where, now converted to the idea of Billy as a dancer, the coal-mining father makes the agonising decision to turn scab in order to raise the necessary funds, and he's chased and berated by his appalled older son. I deduce that this encounter had originally been spoken, and there seems to be a certain resistance to the idea of turning it into recitative and song. There's a problem in how to co-ordinate the underscoring (the music is by Sir Elton John) at this point with the offstage cries of the brother, and the musical director points out that if they slow down a particular musical motif that the father sings here, it will pre-empt an analogous (and, I think, more important) moment later in the piece.

Daldry listens patiently to all the objections and runs through the encounter several times, suggesting ways to give it more emotional definition. It's evident that there's a lot of openness and trust within the company, and that this director encourages directness. There had, he tells me, been a lot of changes to the show the night before. Just out of earshot, I watch Haydn Gwynne (who is playing Mrs Wilkinson, Billy's dance teacher) clearly remonstrating with Daldry about some of them. Then, when she has made her points, she gives him a big hug and leaves for her break.

Over at Chelsea Barracks, a boy with raven-black hair and chalk-white skin is being put through his paces in an exhilarating sequence that appears to be a beguiling combination of ballet and boogie, performed with stand-ins for Mr Braithwaite, the podgy ballet-class pianist, and Mrs Wilkinson. Peter Darling develops the steps and there's a lot of counting of beats. At one point, he and Daldry go outside for a consultation. In the corner, the boy's chaperone, a fiftysomething woman with glasses on a string, is placidly reading a foxed and seriously ancient paperback.

The number is terrific, but doesn't it illustrate an inherent snag with turning Billy Elliot into musical theatre? It's a cardinal convention of the stage musical that it is available to every character to express himself or herself through dance. That could become a liability in a piece that's about the sheer distinctiveness of a boy who, in an unfavourable environment, is bursting to be allowed that form of self-expression.

I put this to Daldry over lunch in a nearby hotel. "How you get everybody dancing is one of the crucial questions," he says. "What's the core impulse, and what's the language that they are dancing within? If you are going to get into the conflict between the police and the miners, then are we just going to sit through a lot of Terry King fight sequences?" * * The answer, he says, is to look for "unconscious behavioural patterns. Basically, we went round and watched a lot of Northumbrian people dancing in different ways. We have used some of those [oddly Riverdance-like] rhythms in terms of how the police and the miners start to dance - which we do as comedy, so that they unconsciously start to move in traditional dance patterns."

In the musical version, they surreally share the stage, at that point, with one of Mrs W's classes, "so that the police and the miners and Billy and the children she's teaching all seem to relate to each other. It looks as if the whole world is in a dance class unwittingly orchestrated by Mrs Wilkinson."

The director had a personal involvement with the 1984 miners' strike. "My first professional job was working with the Doncaster Arts Co-operative based in a pit village called Barnborough in South Yorkshire. We did a show called Never the Same Again, about the women. We toured round during the strike as the warm-up act for Arthur Scargill. You had your play, and then you had Arthur coming on. I became very attached to this particular village. It's a peculiarity of the mining tradition in this country that it was basically a rural industry."

The musical, he says, taps into our collective sense of loss over the kind of world that was wiped out after the strike. It's this, he argues, that creates a bridge between the personal and the political: the hormonal individuality of Billy's talent and the solidarity of the doomed community. "I think the predominant theme of the film and of this show is grief. It's the grief of a family mourning the dead mother and the grief of a community very immediately aware of its own mortality."

Daldry virtually adopted Jamie Bell, the fatherless Geordie boy who played Billy so captivatingly in the film. This led to vile and baseless tabloid insinuations that the director - who is bisexual - was a paedophile. "It was a terrible time," he recalls. "If they decide to go for you, they can really go for you. Basically, they just camp outside your house. But it's really horrible when they start turning up on your mother's doorstep. They franchise out the really dirty work to freelances who - believe it or not - offer sexual favours for information. They rattled every possible cage and, unfortunately for them, nothing fell out - which irritated them all the more."

Having had a long and highly creative relationship with Ian MacNeil, the brilliant designer who created the spectacular set for An Inspector Calls, and who is in charge of the look of Billy Elliot, Daldry surprised everyone by marrying another old friend, Lucy Sexton, the dancer and performance artist, who is about to appear in a Mayfest show for the Bristol Old Vic. "Both Lucy and I had always wanted children, so it seemed the natural thing to do." They have a little daughter, Annabel.

I say I can fully understand that impulse, and that I reckon that only someone very naive would assume that this state of affairs has altered or "fixed" (in either sense) his fluid sexuality. But why, I wonder, did they go to the (surely unnecessary) lengths of getting married? "Because," he says, "I have fantastic health insurance through being a member of the Directors Guild of America. Obviously, to get it for my partner and children I have to be married. Now, I could not be married and pay out £30,000 a year, or I could be married and it all comes for nothing. What would you do?"

His private life, he says, has always been based on the idea of an extended family. "My houses are full of my friends, whether it's the house in Hertfordshire or the one in New York. It's not a commune, though the notion of commonality of property is to a certain extent there. But actually, it's a lot of families living together, there are always kids around and everybody has their own rooms. It's the medieval concept of the 'long house'. That notion of people of living together has always been where I am happiest."

It also lies behind his flair for running theatres. "Familial replacement therapy is one of the reasons people go into theatre in the first place. It may be a small family unit, like the Gate, or a large family unit, like the Royal Court, but they all have their strange and eccentric aunties and uncles and their own internal dynamic." It's quite a few years now since he put these particular gifts into practice, though he and Richard Eyre (another former artistic director) have on several occasions spoken of joining forces one day. "We'd be great at running a theatre together," Daldry says.

But the immediate problem is Billy Elliot. Our encounter took place less than a fortnight before opening night, yet the director seems to be thriving on keeping lots of balls up in the air. There's documentary footage of the 1947-48 nationalisation of the mining industry that he may put into the production. He has yet to decide whether to close the show with the focus on the community or on the "phoenix-like" Billy's individuality. And there are all those logistical nightmares.

But, as he heads off into a future that's set to be full of Billys, Debbies and Michaels, he looks like a man who cheerfully knows that he's in it for the long haul.

'Billy Elliot - The Musical' opens on Wednesday at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1: booking to 22 October (0870 895 5577)

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