Backstage: Taking Billy Elliot on the road

A scene from the UK tour of Billy Elliot. Photo: Alastair Muir
A scene from the UK tour of Billy Elliot. Photo: Alastair Muir
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As if putting on a big-budget musical isn’t tense enough, the prospect of touring a large-scale hit musical to 10 major regional venues is off the stressful scale. We’re talking eight big trucks full of kit and a technical crew of 50-plus.

What makes the Billy Elliot tour even more arduous is having to live up to the phenomenal success of a 10-year West End run, not to mention a world-famous brand name, both for the sake of the audience and the venue. These days, the larger regional venues rely heavily on big hit musicals to replenish the coffers. “We have to ensure we are delivering everything regional audiences expect from a top-notch London production,” says Jane Thompson, general manager of the tour, whose job it is to oversee every detail of the operation.

Operation Billy Tour has been in the planning since last October, with a 130-strong company specially recruited for the purpose. Thompson says it’s all about picking the right people for the right jobs, from the child stars to the assistant company manager. She is a veteran of large-scale musical tours, having worked on Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard and We Will Rock You.

Annette McLaughlin and ensemble. Photo: Alastair Muir
Annette McLaughlin and ensemble. Photo: Alastair Muir

The big difference this time is that the 55-strong cast includes 28 children who come with chaperones, teachers and parents in tow. But let’s leave that logistical snakepit until later.

First and foremost, you have to make sure the Billy sets will squeeze through the dock doors, that there is access to off-site storage, that the power sources are adequate and that there is enough dressing room space for the cast, along with numerous other considerations.

“The main technical challenge of going from theatre to theatre (with runs varying from four to nine weeks) is ensuring that you have rigged everything correctly and safely in a short period of time, so you can then look at anything that needs re-blocking in the new venue,” says Thompson. “We have a lot of motorised kit in the wings that has to be meticulously installed to meet our stringent safety standards.

“When we get to the venue, we are reliant to some extent on the skills and responsiveness of the resident crew. It’s our team’s responsibility to teach each local crew how the set works as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The pressure really starts to build in the 48 hours it takes to move the show from one venue to the next, which is when company manager Paul Bouchier comes into his own. “It is crucial to have strong leadership on the road,” says Thompson. “Unless everyone feels supported, with everything they need, they won’t be able to deliver the show we want them to deliver.”

“It’s a bit like being everyone’s mum and dad,” says Bouchier. “You have to be a good listener to do what I do, and to be able to understand how it all works. I’ve never worked on a show with so many children before and that obviously complicates things, not just in connection with the show itself, but all the fitness classes and lessons they must attend.”

Just as stressful and time-consuming as the technical challenges in Billy Elliot is the management and care of the 28 young performers (10 principals, 18 dancers), aged from nine to 14, who work on a rota basis.

Where some touring musicals use locally recruited talent as they move around the country, all Billy Elliot’s kids travel with the show because, as Jane Thompson explains, “the choreography is too complicated and demanding to teach anyone in a short space of time. They really need to have been through the rehearsal process with our adult performers.”

Also, because of the child employment legislation, child performers are only allowed to work five hours a day.

“The children drive the show, and what they do on stage is astonishing,” says Thompson. “Obviously the show is incredibly important to all of us, but the needs of the children must come first. We have to protect and monitor them all the time.”

This requires seven full-time chaperones, plus extra travel chaperones, two full-time teachers, as well as specialist teachers at every venue or available on Skype. Chaperoning so many youngsters on a tour of this scale is a massive responsibility, involving timetables, meal-planning, accommodation monitoring, pastoral care, health care and long working hours.

“We rotate the children all the time on tour,” says Thompson, “not just because of the legislation, but also because we feel it is really important they are integrated with their families and schools, and that the disruption is kept to a minimum. We don’t want the marvellous work they do with us to affect their lives when they go home. Getting the work-life balance is really important to them, and to us.”

Billy Elliot runs at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until April 2, before a UK tour to Sunderland, Bradford, Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Southampton and Birmingham, until May 2017. Click here for full tour dates and venues

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