Layton Williams has been dominating the West End Stage since he was 12 years old – chosen from 4,000 hopefuls to play Billy Elliot. More recently in 2016 he has starred as Angel, a flamboyant drag queen, in the 20th anniversary tour of Rent. He may be best known for playing Stephen in BBC Three comedy Bad Education – the camp pupil in Jack Whitehall’s unruly class. Aged only 25, Williams is quickly becoming a household name and it is clear with his enthusiasm and passion why he has gone so far.
Last year he took the lead role in Everyone’s Talking About Jamie – the hit musical about a 16-year-old schoolboy with ambitions to become a drag queen. Now the show has returned to Sheffield – its 2017 birthplace – for the first stop on its national tour. Ahead of press night I spoke to Williams about bringing the show home to Sheffield and the legacy of Jamie’s story.
How are you finding Sheffield?
It’s fab, I love it. I toured here three or four times before and worked here over Christmas last year at the Crucible. I am chuffed to be here. I am all over it. The people [of Sheffield] are going absolutely mad for the show, we will have sold nearly 26,000 tickets by the time we are finished here, which is crazy! It is nice to come back and I’ve felt the love for sure!
How did you go about preparing when you first got the role?
You know what, it is actually really nice to be back here in Sheffield because I prepared for the show here. I was doing Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible last Christmas and I performed ‘Too Darn Hot’, a 10-minute number that left me sweating, and I would run straight to the studio and I would sing every single song for the show in order to try and get my stamina up. I had to keep thinking if I can sing the songs now whilst I’m dripping and so out of breath, by the time it comes to the actual rehearsals I should be fine! My preparation started here in Sheffield, even my first proper rehearsal was in the Lyceum. Sheffield is basically part of my Jamie story as well so it’s super lovely and special.
You’ve played some amazing roles from the likes of Billy Elliot to Angel in Rent. How does playing Jamie compare to them?
Do you know what, it is hard to compare these kinds of roles because every single one is so different. Angel was gorgeous but apart from the red heels there’s not much comparison. They are all such different journeys. This has been a lot more work when it comes to singing every darn song and performing in every scene, and spending hardly any time off stage, but I don’t complain, I like to keep busy! I like the challenge of it. All the roles have been iconic in their own way.
How are your feet holding up after having to perform in heels?
Oh god! I could now do it in my sleep! I played Angel in Rent so it doesn’t really touch the sides for me. Luckily I don’t really dance I just get to wander and strut about. I just tell myself “I got this!”
Did the South Yorkshire accent come easily?
Not easily! I mean, I am northern but I’m from Lancashire so the twang is a bit different. I definitely wouldn’t say it is an easy accent but like I said, I like a challenge! I think I have got it… I’ve not had any complaints at the stage door yet.
What is your favourite number from the show?
It is not even a number but I love a little moment called the ‘Spotlight Reprise’, and I sing a little bit of that with Pritti. I don’t know why but it just makes me feel all tingly inside. I obviously love the ‘Finale’, I always feel like a popstar. I get that mic and say “Come on, on your feet Sheffield!” – not that I even need to tell them to get on their feet they are already up. The ‘Finale’ is just so cute, it just wraps everything up with a cheeky end.
Have you found any of the numbers more personal?
The emotional numbers are always emotional which takes a lot and can be exhausting. Being so dramatic, going through such dramas and singing about feeling ‘Ugly in this Ugly World’ eight times a week takes its strain but it is therapy. It is nice to be able to go on stage, put all your things into the role, put yourself in there and then at the end of the show I just think “wow, I did that”. At the end of the show I literally can’t wait just to do it again.
Have you met the ‘real’ Jamie, Jamie Campbell, who the show is based on?
Of course, many times! He is fab. He will probably be here on press night and he has been to so many shows, galas and celebrations. He is a gorgeous guy, a fabulous person.
Did you speak to him in preparation for getting into character?
Not really in that sense because as much as it is inspired by him it is not necessarily him. I find my Jamie within myself. I search from Layton and my past experiences and I make it my own. It does help when I see him and can see his gorgeous vulnerability and aspects of him that are present within the character. When he is in the audience it does feel like pressure.
Do you find your performance and the story inspires fans?
Yeah, it is so cute. People come to the show in outfits and all dressed up. People rock up at the stage door in full looks, looking gorge and glam! We had a ten-year-old drag queen the other day – the nails were on fleek, the face was beat to the gods, the wig was laced! I was like “YAAS”. The kids really come through and it is just gorgeous to see that we are making a wave through the UK and we are inspiring kids to do their thing and be them. Not even just kids, everyone.
What do you hope locals from Sheffield specifically will take away from the show?
I hope they come and connect with the story. Even though Jamie Campbell is from Newcastle, the director, Jonathan Butterell is from Sheffield and he’s got me in it, a lad from a council estate in Bury. These things, dreams and aspirations shouldn’t be pushed aside because you’re from a certain place. We are bringing the show home to spread the love, hope, kindness!
Featured image: Layton Williams as Jamie New. Photo: Matt Crockett.