Neil Cooper

Layton Williams has had a ball since taking over the title role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the hit West End musical that arrives in Edinburgh as part of its first UK tour. Three years after the show based on a true story of a 16-year-old boy who finds salvation through becoming a drag queen appeared, the northern English actor has made the part his own.

Williams took over the role from his friend John McCrea in Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae’s musical at the start of 2019, and played it on the West End for a year prior to its current six-month tour. Having been doing lead stage roles since he was 12, however, Williams is aware he can’t play teenagers forever.

“I’m nearly 26,” he says, sounding much younger. “I think it might be time to stop playing a 16-year-old after this.”

His mind does a quick back-flip as he reconsiders.

“Do you know what?” he says. “People say if you can do it, then why not? I’ll milk it for all its worth.”

Williams’ attitude is a perfect display of the mix of boyishness, can-do enthusiasm and unbridled ambition that fires him. It’s been this way since he went to open auditions for Billy Elliot the Musical almost 15 years ago. It may have been there already when he started doing drama at Carol Godby’s Theatre Workshop in Bury. It was Billy Elliot, however, that changed everything.

“There was an open call in the paper, and my mum said to me why not give it a shot, so I did, and we had this day out in Manchester. When I got it, doing it taught me how to be Layton, how to walk and talk. My whole working world came from that show, and to lead a show at that age was amazing. Whenever I get nervous about things now I look back and I think, I’ve done this before, it’s all going to be fine.”

Williams sometimes sounds as gushy as a Hollywood veteran, with every phrase loaded with a sparkle and an exclamation mark shaped cherry on top. For someone who has been immersed in high level theatre of one form or another since he was 12, such enthusiasm undoubtedly carried him during what ended up being one of the longest running stints by any one performer on Billy Elliot to date.

“Billy Elliot was one of those shows that everyone knew about, even if they didn’t see it. It came out before Netflix or anything like that, but absolutely everyone had heard of it, and it was such fun to do.”

Once Billy Elliot was done, Williams took a lead role in TV comedy drama, Beautiful People, before playing dance-loving schoolboy Stephen in Jack Whitehall’s classroom comedy, Bad Education.

He then appeared on stage in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, before touring in Hairspray. Williams followed this by taking on the role of doomed drag queen Angel in the 20th anniversary tour of New York based musical, Rent.

“Playing Angel was a real confidence booster for me,” he says. “Leading a show as an adult was really important.”

And so to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which deals with all too current themes of difference, teenage bullying and Jamie’s attempts to express himself through drag.

“I think it’s an important show, because it’s about people accepting you for who you are, and how it can change things. That’s especially the case with everything that’s going on in the country just now. It’s the perfect show to put out to spread a bit of love and to find a bit of happiness.”

In the show, Williams never lets up for a second.

“I just bring my whole self to it,” he says. “I live the life of Jamie on stage every night. It’s laughter, tears, everything, and I give my whole life to it eight times a week, and bring my Laytonness to it.”

In both its subject and the stamina required to do it, Williams’ commitment is unwavering, and he talks about the experience like the seasoned professional he is.

“It’s challenging to do in every way. It’s been nice to think I can lead a show and do it skilfully. I always saw it in my future, but never thought it would be on this show, so now I get to show people what I’m made of. I’ve not had that sort of responsibility since I did Billy Elliot, so that’s nice.”

One of the things Williams is also responsible for is Pros from the Shows, the umbrella title of a series of dance workshops he runs in each city of the tour outwith his star turn in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Run with fellow cast member George Sampson, the aim of the workshops is to open the door to the next generation of performers who, like Williams, might not necessarily have been able to pursue a career as an actor without grassroots training. Since setting up the initiative three years ago, Williams has taught “thousands of people, all over the country. It’s something I love to do, and the response has been amazing.”

The initiative is also a handy safety net to have beyond acting. This may be just as well, as beyond Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Williams has no clear plans, or not ones he can talk about, at least.

“Life!” is all he’s prepared to say, lost in the current moment. “Who knows? It’s very hard to project and think what might be ahead. I just want to carry on doing what I’m doing, and take it to the next level. I see Broadway. I see Hollywood. I see the universe. As long as I reach for the stars, the possibilities are actually endless.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 3-7; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, April 28-May 2; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, June 8-13.