Director Stephen Daldry today introduced the latest multi-ethnic recruits who will share the title role in Billy Elliot at the West End’s Victoria Palace theatre. The musical, which premiered to rave reviews on 11 May 2005, is based on the 2000 Brit flick of the same name and set against the North-eastern mining strikes of the 1980s, where a motherless boy whose father wants him to learn to box instead discovers a love for ballet.

Four new youngsters will take on the title role as the boy who hot-foots his way from a Northern mining village to the Royal Ballet, alongside current Billys Liam Mower (who originated the role and has now been in the show for a year), Leon Cooke (who has been in the show since September 2005) and Travis Yates (who joined in December 2005).

Matthew Koon, whose parents emigrated to the UK from Hong Kong, is 12 and lives in Salford. He is a Royal Ballet Junior Associate, taking classes with the school at a branch in Leeds every week. He will give his first performance as Billy next Wednesday (1 March 2006) and said he was “nervous but excited” about his starring role.

American Colin Bates is 15 and lives in Pennsylvania in the US. He has starred as the Artful Dodger in Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Oliver! and is also featured in a forthcoming Robert De Niro film. He said he’s particularly looking forward to all the technical aspects of the show when he joins the cast in March, including flying in the ‘dream sequence’, in which Billy dreams he is a ballet superstar.

Dublin-born Dean McCarthy is 14 and is a disco-dancing champion, having competed in contests all over the UK and Ireland. He will join the production in September 2006, and said he has already seen the show twice and is enjoying his training for it.

Eleven-year-old Layton Williams, who is the first black child to play the role, lives in Bury and never trained in ballet or tap until securing the role of Billy. He said: “I have now been training for about a year and I’m really looking forward to my first night, which is in September.”

At a press conference held at the Victoria Palace today, Daldry said that ethnicity played no part in the audition process in which he looked for charisma and the ability to learn the moves. Each Billy brings a unique quality to the role, according to the director.

The boys join Philip Whitchurch (who has taken over from Tim Healy as Billy’s father) and original cast member Haydn Gwynne (as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson) in the show. Gwynne said today: “I think the adults get a lot more nervous than the boys. They are wonderful to work with, and because they all work differently there are subtle differences in each performance which keep it fresh and exciting.”

Billy Elliot won Best Musical at this year’s Evening Standard Awards (see News 28 Nov 2005) and scooped four of our Theatregoers’ Choice Awards (including Best New Musical and Best Choreography for Peter Darling). It also leads the way in the Olivier Awards, which are announced this Sunday (26 February 2006), with a total of nine nominations including Best New Musical and Best Director (for Daldry, who also directed the original film). As in the Awards, all three young performers who originated the title role – James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower – have been collectively nominated for Best Actor in a Musical.

Mower had some advice for his new co-stars today. When asked about how to handle nerves, he recommended: “You have to think of your favourite animal to calm you down, someone told me that was a good tip. I don’t do that every night. I think my favourite animal is a monkey.”

Billy Elliot - The Musical features an original score by pop singer-songwriter Elton John, with lyrics by Lee Hall. It's designed by Ian MacNeil, with costumes by Sue Blane and musical supervision by Martin Koch. The show is produced by Working Title and Old Vic Productions plc, and is currently booking to 21 October 2006.

- by Caroline Ansdell