The creator of Billy Elliot has been inspired by a North-East mining community for a new play. He spoke about this as well as ”Billy” and Elton with The Journal.
Lee Hall has made a return to Tyneside because he has written the play which will reopen Live Theatre after its hugely impressive expansion and revamp.
The universal appeal of the film and the subsequent musical took the whole team led by himself and director Stephen Daldry by surprise, he claims.
Its great. It is still selling out in London and at the end of the year we take it to Australia, or rather we open another production there. Then, next summer, we open in New York, on Broadway. I think the idea is that we keep on going.
Lee says both productions will have a North-East setting and he envisages no problems with casting. One of the kids we had in the show was American and he had an absolutely perfect Geordie accent. I think theres this famous thing with British actors that Geordies really hard but he just learned it phonetically.
Reflecting on the musical version of Billy Elliot, he says: I think it was the hardest thing Ive ever done, along with everyone who worked on it, not least because we had three leading actors so we had to do everything three times. There was this complication of having kids in the middle of this huge show who had to be able to sing and dance, plus the legal thing about the number of hours kids are allowed to work.
It was a really big, expensive show to put on and a logistical nightmare.
With the film, we hoped people would like it but it seems to have touched a lot of people in a way that doesnt happen very often. It has been taken to peoples hearts.
The success of Billy Elliot flick and show has done more than helped Lee’s pension fund.
The nice thing is that when you have something that people recognise, you can start doing what you like. Its nice if people will come to see something else youve done because they had a great night out at Billy Elliot, but mostly its the freedom to write more of what you want to do.
I can take a lot more time over things now but I was really thrilled when Max (Roberts, artistic director of Live Theatre) invited me to write something as the opening show. I had a few ideas but they didnt seem right to open the theatre with, but when I came across this story last year I knew it was the very thing because it links with a lot of the work Live has done in the past.
He came up with The Pitmen Painters. Its based on the group of men, mostly miners, who became enthusiastic painters after attending art evening classes in a hut in Ashington between the wars.
Lee says he chanced upon the book about the pitmen painters by art critic Bill Feaver in a shop on Londons Charing Cross Road. Id seen the pictures before but I didnt know the story.
By the time I got home, Id read the first chapter. I rang Max and said I had found the next play. I knew it was a great subject and so I got in touch with Bill, who has been fantastically helpful and supportive of the whole process.
Lee explains the appeal of the Ashington Group, represented by five characters in the play.
These were ordinary guys, tough miners, who had left school when they were 12, in fact. They were representative of anybody in the North-East but they became, in their day, really famous, up there with the most well-known artists of their generation.
But he says the story is about more than pitmen discovering art. It’s also about how they deal with success and failure and disappointment. Its a way in to a group of really interesting and unusual characters and the stories behind them.
Other projects include The Wall: The Musical with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, which is scheduled to open on Broadway, as well as a new musical with Elton, his Billy Elliot cohort.
Unfortunately, Lee is sworn to secrecy over the subject matter.