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'Bringing love to your front room': Layton Williams' unexpected debut concert | Stage

He was cast as Billy Elliot at 12, toured the UK in hit musicals Rent and Hairspray, and proved a sensational lead in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Now, Layton Williams is preparing for his debut solo concert and the conditions aren’t exactly what he might have expected. “I’d always been nervous abut doing my first concert,” he admits. But there’s something “weirdly comfortable” about the unusual setup of this one. He won’t be able to see the audience. “If anyone’s having a really terrible time then I won’t know,” he says with a laugh, before swiftly resuming his default upbeat setting. “But guess what? They ain’t going to be having a terrible time. They’re going to be bopping on their couches. I’ll be giving a shake and a shimmy. It’s going to be uplifting.”

Williams is one of the many performers exploring the possibilities of livestreaming while venues close their doors because of the coronavirus crisis. On Monday he will kick off the Leave a Light On series of intimate concerts organised by Lambert Jackson Productions and the Theatre Cafe in the West End of London. Williams will be “bringing love to people in their front rooms” by singing numbers from the shows in which he has starred plus delivering some “bonus tracks” too. He has already put out a call for requests to his huge fanbase on Twitter. “Some of the songs are duets so maybe I’ll just ask everybody to sing away at home. Get involved – and send me a video!”

Layton Williams at the curtain call for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Layton Williams at the curtain call for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

The current plan is to film the 45-minute concerts at the Theatre Cafe with the minimal number of crew members required. But the back-up option, says Williams, “is to fully lock it down. Someone will drop off the equipment at my door and we’ll do it from the living room.” He will perform on Monday afternoon, followed later by the Waitress musical stars Sarah O’Connor and Lucie Jones. There will be three daily concerts for the rest of the week. Viewers will be charged £7.50 per performance (“significantly less than a ticket to a show,” say the producers) and the fee will be split between the artist, who will have the highest percentage, Lambert Jackson and the Theatre Cafe. There are also discussions about charity partnerships.

“Actors are pretty much all out of a job right now,” says Williams, whose credits include the TV comedy series Beautiful People and Bad Education. “Hundreds of thousands of people every night would usually have been going to the theatre but there are no shows to see.” He has been touring the UK in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, playing the eponymous teenage drag queen, but the tour was cancelled on Monday following the government’s briefing in which they warned people against visiting theatres during the Covid-19 emergency. Before Monday’s performance in Birmingham, “we were on our toes after the Broadway shutdown,” says Williams. “We warmed up, did the technical rehearsals, then Boris did his 5pm chatter-chatter. We all got called to the stage. It was really emotional, we all started crying. It’s the unknown.”

Layton Williams in Rent in 2016.

Sensational lead … Layton Williams in Rent in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Like other actors, Williams has found himself with an emptying diary and an unstable financial future. “I have some savings but lots of actors don’t,” he says. “People think actors earn way more than they do.” He draws attention to the many acting students whose training has been affected and whose showcases will have been cancelled. The stage workshops he offers through his company, Pros from the Shows, are on hold and his bedroom is currently filled with crates of merchandise that had been destined for the convention Move It (he was creative director for the event, cancelled this week). But he’s opened an online store for the merch and plans to host virtual, pay-what-you-can dance and vocal workshops, with some of the proceeds going to the charity Acting for Others. While we are all spending much more time in our living rooms, he hopes it will get people off the couch and moving. Musical fans and performers have had to swap the stage and the stalls for their front rooms. Now, says Williams, “we have to think inside the box”.

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