Layton Williams: A Star is Reborn
“Out of the darkness
Into the spotlight
There is a new star
Shining so bright”
The lyrics from the show‘s closing song resonate as I realise I am watching a star being reborn in the West End. This time, Layton Williams is now an adult, and in taking over the title role of Jamie New in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie', he affirms his place as a leading man.
The gala night audience are here to welcome back Layton to the West End, who at only 24 years old, has already spent half his life here.
At just 12 years old Layton was picked from 4,000 hopefuls to play Billy Elliot on stage. Responding to an advert, his mum had driven him from Bury to Manchester to audition. In an article published recently in the Guardian, Layton talks about how “There were thousands of people and I very nearly turned around because I was the only person of colour I could see. It was just white boys everywhere,” Layton went on to become the first mixed-race actor to play the fictional role of Billy Elliot.
Groundbreaking at the time, director Stephen Daldry spoke of the colour-blind casting, “The casting department has never been given any guidelines on the racial background. They only respond to their enthusiasm and talent”. Thirteen years later, Layton is breaking ground again by being the first mixed-race actor to play Jamie.
Although famously based on the BBC documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16” that follows the real life story of Jamie Campbell, an admittedly white teenager from County Durham, it bares remembering that Jamie Campbell is only the source and inspiration for what became the character Jamie New in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'. Notable changes also included transporting the story to Sheffield where it is now based, and the creation of an entirely fictional best friend in the form of Pritti Pasha.
Whilst working at the National Theatre's new writing department, I looked a lot at casting and story telling. One of the prominent questions any writer has to answer when devising and pitching new work is, why this story, and why now? The same can apply to casting.
'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' is one of the very few current musicals with a central LGBTQ story, and for this reason it's place in the West End is sorely needed.
It seems incredible to me that even thirteen years after Layton played his part in forging the way for colour-blind casting some audiences are still less receptive.
Just yesterday, Chichester Festival Theatre announced that they are to revive 'Oklahoma' ten years after it was last staged there with Michael Xavier and Leila Benn Harris. Amara Okereke will play Laurey. Amara recently took to twitter to defy objection to her playing Cosette in ‘Les Miserables’ as an actress of colour, and yet some people are already questioning why this show and why that actress.
When it was announced that John McCrea would be handing the role of Jamie New over to Layton Williams, to me, it seemed the perfect choice.
John and Layton, studied together at Italia Conti and were close friends. Layton also starred in the TV series 'Beautiful People', which Dan Gillespie Sells composed the music for, before composing the music for 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'.
With any show, there will only ever be one person who each covets the legacy of originating a role. Within this there will always be people who will only ever see that role belonging to that person. This is often because their voice lives on in any original cast recordings made. But there are always then new audiences who come to a show for the first time at a later point, and for them whoever has taken over the role defines it for them.
It's fair to assume that Layton's casting in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' will attract new audiences. Switching between screen and stage, Layton has acquired an allegiance of fans along his career, who will undoubtedly now come to see him in this.
Having already seen the show three times, once with John McCrea, and twice with alternate Luke Bayer playing Jamie, I recognised the differences that they both brought to the role. These differences are what excites me about seeing a new cast. The new energy can often invigorate a show, and bring out new elements that weren't there or weren't noticed before.
I was a huge fan of Jonathan Harvey's series 'Beautiful People' and even then I recognised the star quality that Layton Williams commands. Having followed his career through to seeing him play Seaweed in 'Hairspray', I was most struck by his performance as Angel in the 20th Anniversary production of 'Rent'.
'Rent' remains one of my most favourite and cherished musicals, and this production was exceptional, stripping it back to it's raw beauty and authenticity, it was within this that Layton was allowed to shine. His incredible dance skills and acrobatics had always been showcased through 'Billy Elliot' to 'Hairspray' but now Layton was also being afforded the chance to showcase his incredible voice and prowess as an actor.
In the same way that I recognised Noma Dumezweni as a formidable actress when I first saw her in 'Carmen Disruption' at the Almedia Theatre in 2015, six months before she was announced to play Hermione Granger in 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'; I saw past her skin colour and respected her as a fine actress. ‘The Cursed Child’ was inevitably going to be successful even from conception, but the casting of Noma actually signalled to me that the producers were ensuring this would be a brilliant play with a incredible cast. In defence of their casting choice, J.K. Rowling said “Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job.”
Similarly, when it was announced that Layton would be taking over the role of Jamie, I was personally delighted for Layton and for the future of the show, knowing that as a performer he is the definition of a triple threat. However I also anticipated that some would still question this casting.
Why now, and why this actor? Again the answer comes back to Layton Williams and an incident that occurred last summer at the Edinburgh fringe, an incident of racial profiling which Layton was subjected to and called out.
Theatre venues and LGTBQ spaces alike are recognised as safe spaces, and yet actors like Amara Okereke and Layton Williams face opposition from a minority of narrow minded audience members; when they are just doing their jobs, jobs they love and have worked hard for, and are great at.
Colour-blind casting is necessary to combat the discrimination that actors of colour continue to face.
What struck me more than anything whilst watching Layton Williams in ‘Everybody's Talking About Jamie’ is how far from jarring his casting is. If anything, what I realised, was that Layton actually brings a missing piece to this production.
The story, based in Sheffield centres around concerns for Jamie New’s defiance to not hide his sexuality, in spite of concerns voiced and upheld by his school and his father. These opposing figures are presented as bigots and their motives are never really examined or justified.
With Jamie New now as a young mixed-raced man, it adds another layer to this character, and leans towards explaining why his school and father worry for Jamie.
A sixteen year old white boy daring to be different is one thing, but a sixteen year old mixed-raced boy challenging convection, raises the stakes for this story.
Part of the show’s appeal is its authenticity. It’s regional accents, it’s grey set, it’s diverse cast. All these elements help place the story in Sheffield; and when the audience is first introduced to Jamie’s father, played by black actor Marlon G. Day, it struck me that seeing the pairing of Day with actress Rebecca McKinnis, I believed them even more as an authentic couple.
The new cast also has welcome additions from Hayley Tamaddon, a northern actress who again brings authenticity to the role as well as nailing her rap. Shane Richie manages adequately with the accent, while fitting perfectly in to his role, looking fantastic in drag and sounding impressive. Sejal Keshwala and Sabrina Sandhu also seamlessly fit into the new cast.
What is most apparent during the show’s closing song ‘Out Of The Darkness (A Place Where We Belong)’ where Layton leads the full company; as all nineteen cast members assemble around Layton, is that it’s obvious he has already earned their fellowship. A true leading man is distinguished when an entire company look to him with confidence, assurance, and respect.
In Layton, they trust.
And so should we.