Billy Elliot: Birmingham star Annette McLaughlin speaks ahead of show
It'll be like a home from home when Annette McLaughlin lands in Birmingham to star in a six-week run of Billy Elliot.
The actress and comedian once spent every other weekend near the city, commuting from London with her then-boyfriend, Frank Skinner, to watch the Albion. Boing Boing. Annette spent happy seasons in the stadium but laughs at the idea that she was a Born Again Baggie.
"Oh God, no. I was just a very, very good girlfriend."
Instead of the stars in blue-and-white-stripes, her abiding memory is of the half-time pies.
The West End showgirl, who plays Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, worked with Frank on TV's The Frank Skinner Show. She has a strong connection with the West Midlands.
"Frank was my boyfriend and I used to go and watch West Brom with him. I'm not a Baggie but I was a very good girlfriend. I enjoy football because I had three brothers and used to enjoy playing it as a kid.
"I used to go every Saturday with Frank and I loved it. I loved the pies most of all, that was my favourite thing. The gravy used to drip down my hands. They were delicious. We only used to go up for the weekend but it was great because he was such a massive fan of West Brom and was so proud of his heritage."
Heritage is a dominant theme in Billy Elliot, which has been seen by more than 11 million people worldwide and celebrates life in a northern mining town. It's set against the background of the 1984/85 miners' strike and follows Billy's journey from boxing to ballet class, where he discovers a passion for dance that inspires his family and whole community and changes his life forever.
Sharing the role of Billy are Adam Abbou, Matthew Lyons, Haydn May and local boy Lewis Smallman, from West Bromwich, who was a former student of Sandwell Flyers Gymnastics Academy & Arabesque Dance Academy, with links to various local amateur dramatic societies.
Annette has been with the show for a year and describes it as a winner.
"Having seen it when it first opened in the West End, I just wanted to be a part of it. It's an incredible show and I wanted to play that part.
"When it came round it was an easy decision to make. I've been doing the show for almost a year on tour and I love every second. I haven't got bored. It's brilliantly written and I get to play this great character every night with these incredible kids is a dream."
Annette says characters like Lewis and the other youngsters who play Billy are both talented and grounded. "When you put into the mix these extraordinarily talented young performers, it really is a great show. You can't believe what they are doing. Audiences love it. We have standing ovations around the country, people love it.
"The kids are very grounded. That's all part of their training. They are all very different and bring their own thing to the show. They are crazily talented. Even in the last week, they have been doing their bow at the end of the show and bringing in different bits of acro. I watch them and think: 'Oh my God, he can do that as well'."
Annette says the success of Billy Elliot is down to good writing, good direction and working with incredible kids. And though she's been on the road for a year, she remains as enthusiastic about the production as she did on the day she joined.
"Touring is hard work. It's not all glamour. It's not all going out. I have quite a big role and it's quite physical, I tap and skip throughout the show. It's hard work being away from home but we have a really lovely big happy family on tour and we take all the kids with us. And there's something exciting about turning up at each venue and knowing that people are going to see it for the first. I've got to see the UK again during the past year, which I haven't done for a long time. We're in each town or city for four weeks, which is quite nice."
Annette's career has embraced film, TV and stage as well as comedy – she's one half of a female comedy duo called Fair Do's. From Shakespeare to Chicago and from Heartbeat to Law & Order UK, there's little she hasn't tackled.
"I don't think my career has been intentional. I just really love doing the work. I enjoy learning and I'm curious and I'm always looking for a new adventure and a new challenge. It's be great to be back in Birmingham. The last thing I did was Noises Off, which was very enjoyable."
And, of course, being in Birmingham will give her the chance to tuck into another of those delicious pies.
Billy Elliott runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday, March 7, to April 29.
By Andy Richardson