Richard Piper stars in Billy Elliot The Musical as Billy’s dad, Jackie. It’s appears a very traumatic role: he is a grieving single parent, questioning his core values, dealing with unemployment, a dotty grandmother, and a stereotype-breaking son. HMT asked Richard how he would describe Dad’s journey through the story…
Richard Piper: Dad’s journey is a rewarding and complex one as his life has transformed by the end of the play. He is at the start a man unable to get back on his feet after the death of his wife three years previously, a single parent with two sons (i.e. he is trying to play the role of father and mother) and a dependant grandparent, and is politically in a quandary over whether to go on strike. By the end of the strike that he ended up supporting, the miners have failed but Jack has achieved redemption through supporting his son on his quest and in his mind doing what his wife Sarah would have wanted.
HMT: Dad provides some ‘comic-relief’ moments, often just after really emotional scenes. Is it easy to switch emotions so quickly?
RP: For some reason it is always easy for an actor to make this switch and the same occurs in life – people often talk about humour present at funerals! It is a great relief to have humour walk hand in hand with tragedy. This musical is wonderfully full of that quality and is gives the role of Jack Elliot great texture and fullness.
HMT: You’ve performed the role of Jack since the show opened in Sydney, over a year ago. What keeps you engaged with the character?
RP: There are two factors that keep me engaged with the character. Firstly I have had a life long sympathy with the miner’s cause and left England in the mid-eighties disgusted with Thatcher’s treatment of pitmen. I feel a passionate commitment to representing them honourably. Secondly, I have a special father / son relationship with all the Billys, which is a constant inspiration to me, as is the sheer potency of their talent.
HMT: You mentioned you only arrived in Australia in the 80’s. Being British-born, how easy was it to pick up the Geordie accent of northern England?
RP: I’ve been familiar with the accent since childhood through an uncle in Newcastle (fabulous alcoholic Uncle Walter!) and always loved the sound – even so it was still a tricky journey getting there. In rehearsal and outside work hours I spent a lot of time doing the accent to really tune the sounds and tonalities. Much of the time this would be at lunch over a Vietnamese soup. I was probably quite hard to understand.
HMT: For those who haven’t yet seen Billy Elliot, what is the one thing that makes this show not to be missed?
RP: Everyone who sees the show says how much more there is to the show than they expected. It is a grass-roots show of great compassion, great humour and great power; not counting for the refined sensibilities of elitist theatre but for appealing to the hearts and minds of audiences not necessarily familiar with theatre as a medium. To the great general public, who are only too familiar with the plight of the miners in a time of economic hardship and after all, who can resist the story of a boy surviving these hardships and emerging triumphant. Also, let’s face it; the film was great publicity for the Musical!May 2009