Sheffielder Billy in the West End limelight

Young Sheffield actor Billy Hinchliff is currently playing a leading role in a Shakespearean production on the West End stage.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 11:34 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th December 2019, 3:08 pm
Billy Hinchliff and Alice Franzisca in the National Youth Theatre's Great Expectations at Southwark Playhouse

He is Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Criterion Theatre, the third play in the National Youth Theatre REP season following Great Expectations and Frankenstein.

The NYT REP season was introduced seven years ago by artistic director Paul Roseby and serves as an accessible training ground for young talent, aged 18-25, which has kickstarted the acting careers of many young actors.

Recent alumni include Seraphina Beh (Madison Drake in EastEnders and Farah in Netflix’s Top Boy), Sope Dirisu from Channel 4’s Humans and Sky Atlantic’s Gangs of New York and Alice Vilanculo, winner of the 2019 Stage Edinburgh Award for E8.

Billy Hinchliff in the National Youth Theatre REP company's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Criterion Theatre

A former student at King Edward VII School in Sheffield got into acting via youth projects at Sheffield Theatres from the age of 12. “It only really started out when I got a funny old audition which was actually for The Full Monty which they were putting on at the Lyceum for the role of Nathan, the young lad, which I didn’t get but through that I made a connection with the theatre,” he recalls.

“I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre in 2016 and got in and you do a kind of intake course which lasts for two weeks down in London. And once you complete that you are then a member of the National Youth Theatre and from that point on you can audition for their shows and then when you reach the age of 18 you can audition for the REP company.”

After leaving school he was accepted for a foundation course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. “It was a 15-week course which finished this time last year. From there I applied to the REP company and got in and that started in May,” he explains.

He is one of 16 actors, aged 18-25, involved in the three productions which started with the London premiere of Neil Bartlett’s adaption of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and a modern AI-inspired adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein featuring VR headset technology, both at Southwark Playhouse.

Billy Hinchliff and Julia Kass in the National Youth Theatre REP company's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Criterion Theatre

This year’s season the NYT REP staged relaxed performances (for those with autism and other conditions) for the first time and features the most performances ever in its seven-year history.

“We did over 70 performances at Southwark Playhouse,” reports Billy. “There are a lot of school groups that come along because by nature of the plays we are doing are - A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Expectations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – are on syllabuses for GCSE and A level.

“But equally there were a lot of members of the general public and also people from the industry – agents, casting directors and so on. But because the REP has been going on for eight years now it has built up a following and I guess is on a level with drama schools like RADA and Lamda whose shows people come to see and are seen as very professional.”

Although by no means his biggest role, Frankenstein, with the audience handed VR headsets to use towards the end, presented a real challenge.

Billy Hinchliff in rehearsals for the National Youth Theatre's Great Expectations

“All members of the cast played AI robots and at different points in the play they would come on and do scene changes – the set was really clinical and everyone was dressed in all-white like dentist’s costumes to give some sense of what the future could be,” he explains.

“A huge amount of the rehearsal time for Frankenstein was movement based and it was hours of standing still, moving in line, and ways you would move your eyes as a robot. We had to create a dialogue and to remove the sense of the human and yet create a sense of something sinister. Almost suggesting there was nothing behind the eye

“It was a huge contrast to the previous play, Great Expectations, which was a period piece. That was brilliant, I got to play a character called Bentley Drummie who is Pip’s enemy really and ends up with Estella. It was really different inhabiting Dickensian characters – hugely drawn characters who have a whole different muscularity to them.”

And now he is in a leading role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Funnily enough, I am not so nervous in terms of all the industry stuff and the fact I am playing Lysander who has been done by so many great actors but that my family and friends will be coming to see me for the first time since I have been with the NYT. It will be really good for them to see what I have been up to for the past couple of years.”

And what are his plans when the season ends in January? “My aim is to go into the industry and see how the next 12 months goes from January. I have had several meetings with agents and by the end of Rep I will decide on the basis of which one would work best for you and has the most interest in you. Because I am playing Lysander in Midsummer Night’s Dream which is quite a big role for me I want to hold off on the offers I have got and make a formal decision in January.

“I will stay on in London because at the moment it seems like the place to be with agents and stuff and I think it is really important you give them all you can as a young actor and get to every audition you can.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Criterion Theatre until January 17 and Billy will be representing as the NYT local alumni for Sheffield this year for the NYT auditions and interviews taking place in Sheffield Theatres (10am on February 8 and 22) and the University of Sheffield (10am on February 23)