Aaron set to re-live his Billy star role
16:54 25 September 2014
A Norfolk-and-bred real-life Billy Elliot is set to take to London’s West End once again this weekend. ADELE NORRIS reports.
Born at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn with a life-threatening illness, Aaron Watson – now 17 – battled the odds and danced his way not only to full health, but a lead role in London’s West End musical sensation Billy Elliot.
Now he’s set to return to the stage for a performance which will be watched by millions around the globe on Sunday.
Everyone knows writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry’s tale of a young boy’s struggle against the odds to make it as a dancer, but for Aaron the story has always been much closer to home.
In 1998 Karen and Nick Watson, from Watlington, took their only weeks-old baby for his first check-up. When the GP said he thought the infant had a heart murmur, no one feared the reality.
Severe Ventricular Septal Defect, also known as a ‘hole in the heart’ was the devastating diagnosis and their baby boy was taken to Great Ormond Street Hospital for open-heart surgery.
Aaron spent 24 hours in intensive care and two days on a high dependency ward. Growing up he couldn’t live the life of a normal child, avoiding sugary food and drink and regularly returning to hospital for monitoring.
“His body was weaker than others,” Mrs Watson said. “We worried about him, we wanted to wrap him in cotton wool.”
Not surprisingly Karen and Nick were nervous for their son when he started school.
“We worried he would be bullied and he was told not to do anything too strenuous so in the end Nick decided on some easy-going karate classes.”
The modest exercise to build his strength seemed a good option, until they arrived and noticed Aaron only had eyes for the coinciding gymnastics group.
Swapping karate chops for stretches, it wasn’t long before his talent was spotted and Aaron was prompted to try dancing at Footlights Dance Centre in Lynn.
Four years later the real Billy Elliot story began.
“I saw the advert for Billy Elliot The Musical the day before the auditions, but I was due to take part in a competition somewhere else,” Aaron said. “At the last minute we decided to take a chance.”
At just nine years old Aaron competed against 200 others at the audition. He said: “I only went along for the experience, but then I was invited to the 60th anniversary of BAFTA to perform as part of 13 past, present and future Billys.
“I got to meet loads of famous people, including Miss Piggy and Sharon Osbourne who said she wanted to take me home!”
Making the selection didn’t mean he had got his first break on a big stage. From here Aaron was sent to the ‘Billy House’ to spend six weeks training at a summer school.
It was just months before the chosen Billys would take to the stage, but even then he still wasn’t guaranteed the part.
More importantly, Aaron was waiting on the all-clear from his consultant at Great Ormond Street. Could Aaron’s body, which his family had been told would never be as strong as his peers, bear the harsh training regime and physical demand of a West End show?
“I got the permission just in time,” he recalled. “I was so excited!”
In 2010 Aaron moved back to the Billy House for six months of training before taking to the stage as the 23rd person to play the part.
“We had school tutoring at the Billy House in the mornings – those lessons lasted until midday. Then we had lunch at the house and from two until about five-thirty, we would have rehearsals,” he said. “Once the shows had started we took it in turns to perform. So sometimes I would be performing in the evenings, sometimes I would be on standby.
“It was a lot better once we were in the show, but learning was pretty hard and stressful.
“It is always going to be tough because you’re trying to perfect something in a short period of time. I never had doubts but my mum and dad did [wonder] that it was going to be too much.
“I donated my first pay cheque to Great Ormond Street Hospital. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here,” Aaron added.
“I would say the second performance was the most nerve-racking. With the first you are just full of adrenaline you don’t think about it. Once on stage it all goes.
“If all my family were in the audience I would try to get a standing ovation by really encouraging everyone at the end of the show,” he said.
Karen said: “His fan base really built up over time. We got lots of letters from all over the world.”
Aaron added: “I got sent one bit of mail from as far as Australia.”
Today he has an appreciation page on Facebook dedicated to his time as Billy with almost 200 members. Nine months after his show debut he performed the part for the final time.
“I would love to have stayed for longer, but I was growing fast and my voice was breaking so I didn’t really look or sound like young Billy any more,” he said.
Heading home to Norfolk, it was back to normal teenage life. But Aaron didn’t enjoy his time back at high school. “I’ll never regret the choices I made, but school life wasn’t fun.”
Aaron was determined to continue his dream – even though it meant another gruelling audition and moving away from home – but he auditioned for Tring Park School for Perfoming Arts where he would study specialist dance, drama, musical theatre and music education.
Aaron said living away from home was tough: “To start with I missed home but once you get going it’s OK. When you are over-tired you miss home more.”
This year he passed his GCSEs with all A to C grades and has started two more years at the school for his A-Levels.
“I still look through my fan mail and portfolio from my Billy days. I just feel like ‘wow’ that it all happened. I love reading the reviews and letters, its great to feel like you’ve done a good job,” he said.
“I don’t know what the future will hold, I definitely want to be a dancer but I don’t know in what genre.” Karen said: “He loves his ballet but it might change once he gets stuck into his upper sixth form study this year.”
But before Aaron returns to study there’s just a final Billy job at hand when for one night only he’s been given the chance to relive it all.
This Sunday Aaron will join what he calls ‘the Billy Family’ as part of a commemorative performance which will be watched not only by the Victoria Palace Theatre audience, but also millions of fans live in cinemas across the world.
He’ll be one of 27 former Billys who will be part of bringing to life the music of Sir Elton John.
Aaron said: “It means so much to be asked to return. I’ll be rehearsing in London five hours a day for five days before the live show. I’m not nervous, I’m excited.
“I’m most looking forward to being part of the show again and being on stage performing because that’s what I love doing.”
As the family watch a video of his favourite scene, dancing to Electricity, Aaron said: “I bet mum cries when she watches this on Sunday. She always cries at this bit, even when she just hears the music...”
Billy Elliot the Musical Live will be screened at cinemas across the country. www.BillyElliotLive.co.uk