"Billy Elliott" actor not ready for final curtain call just yet
For Preston actor Leo Atkin retirement is on hold.
After 40 years treading the boards across the globe he is still enjoying life and work in one of his biggest roles to date, boxing coach George Watson in Billy Elliot The Musical.
Leo celebrated his 65th birthday in December and spent the day on stage in Manchester for a two-show stint. However, the day was made special by his dedicated family who made the short trip to come and help celebrate and see him perform.
The Manchester run of the tour, which concludes at the end of the month, has meant Leo has been able to make the commute to the Palace Theatre from his home in Houghton, near Preston, where he lives with wife Ann.
“I actually got to celebrate Christmas at home which was really nice. It can be so hard on the road, away from home at Christmas. I’ve been there.”
The part has also seen Leo fulfil a lifetime ambition to star in a West End show, not only playing George but stepping into the lead as Billy’s dad. It is, “the pay off” for himself and his family after making the sudden switch to life as an actor at the age of 26.
Wife Ann was newly pregnant at the time and he decided to give up his steady job as a time and motion man at South Ribble Town Hall.
The dad-of-two says: “I am in the twilight of my career now and truth be known I was considering retirement. Then lo and behold I got the part of George and understudy for dad and it was a surprise and delight all in one.”
“I have done musicals in the past but it had been many, many years.”
He describes his journey on the Billy Elliot tour as ‘phenomenal’. The show has been on the road since curtains went up last February in Portsmouth. It will continue until July, finishing in Hamburg, Germany.
“It does sound a cliche but it is a pleasure and a privilege to be part of it. I first saw the show on the West End when a friend of mine was appearing in it and remember thinking I would love to be in that show. It’s taken 10 years but I have met that ambition. The sense of pride I have on stage is immeasurable.”
It was during his time as a member of Leyland’s St Ambrose Players Leo had that lightbulb moment acting was much more than a hobby.
He attended drama school in Manchester and then began the task of landing a job.
“As an actor you’re always on the lookout for the next job – it’s the nature of the beast.
"I’ve had the opportunity of some really good parts, fantastic roles but the business is as much about perfecting and learning your craft.”
In his career he has performed at theatres all over the world and as part of a nine-month tour playing in King Lear in Europe, Scandinavia and Japan.
He played Puck in a Midsummer’s Night Dream and toured in repertoire with the Original Theatre Company as Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’and Humphrey in ‘See How They Run’.
“Last year I had a lead role in a wonderful play ‘Colder than Here’ as part of the Re:play festival, Manchester Fringe.
“It was emotional and gritty – within a few months I had the role in Billy Elliot.”
Touring comes with its challenges, especially when you’re part of a physically demanding musical and have two roles to fulfil.
Leo says it has taken real stamina to pull off the national tour but adds the support from the company from the front to back stage has made it worthwhile.
“It has worn the old knees but we have a great team who really put us through during the rehearsals and made sure we were all fit for the challenge.
“It was hard going but the behind the scenes team are just amazing – we have four Billy’s on the tour so the wonderful thing is rehearsals had to be done with all of them – it was four rehearsals for the price of one!
“But the kids are wonderful – all of them and so, so talented.
“They really are a cracking bunch.”
Leo will take a week to recharge after the last Manchester show on January 28 but is promising himself a nice holiday when the tour comes to an end – perhaps another look at retirement?
“Ann is pulling a face...we’ll see.”