THREE years ago our two eldest sons got the parts of John and Michael Darling in Peter Pan at Derngate, Northampton, alongside David Essex.
Jed and Dougie were aged just ten and eight, I was heavily pregnant with Bonnie, and Billy was only just four. After a month or more of ferrying them all back and forth from rehearsals and shows, over Christmas, we were all completely knackered.
And I decided then that it had been a brilliant experience, but we wouldn’t do it again.
Jed and Dougie in Peter Pan with David Essex, Christmas 2007
Fast forward a couple of years and we appear, somehow, er, to be doing it all over again.
This time in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, next door at the Royal Theatre.
Its different. Slightly.
The boys aren’t principal characters with lines, but part of the larger chorus. They are also, obviously, older and more independent.
So how do you suddenly find yourself as the parent of ‘performers’? Isn’t that the mark of the ultimate in pushy-parents? The uber-pushy?
Well no, actually, this has very little to do with us. Honest.
Jed has been part of Northampton’s County Youth Theatre group, which meets every Saturday at Clare Street, for years. Then Dougie joined too, and in a bizarrely casual way they caught the performing bug and wanted to audition for everything they could.
Usually I say no.
However, when they came home asking to audition at the Royal, I wavered.
It’s the Royal’s Christmas show (never call it panto), which I’ve actually been reviewing for the Chron for about the last 12 years, ever since the days of Michael Napier Brown and Vilma Hollingberry (that’ll show your age).
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is being directed by Dani Parr, who I’ve met a few times through her shows for kids, including Where’s the Bear and Flathampton.
So when auditions came around in late summer, I relented.
They auditioned over a weekend alongside a hundred or more other kids (most of whom wore ankle warmers and ‘jazz shoes,’ while my pair wore muddy trainers).
It’s a peculiar experience, the child-actor audition. There’s a lot of waiting around, and everyone has a number. Mostly you’re in and out, and unless they tell you to hang around, you know fairly quickly if they’ve been rejected.
At the end of this one, they called dozens of numbers and took those delighted children away.
We all assumed ours hadn’t got in and got ready to console them and bribe them back to happiness with promises of pizza. But agonisingly, those called out hadn’t got through, and there were more tears than at an X-Factor sing-off.
Rejection is the really tough bit for both children and parents to handle. Beforehand, rather than telling them how brilliant they are, you have to keep reminding them that they might not be chosen – because they are too young, to old, too fair, too dark, whatever you can think of – so the blow is cushioned. At the auditions I saw one parent really losing her rag with the stage manager, loudly demanding to know why her child wasn’t chosen. It was painful.
If chosen, there’s lots of form filling, and laying out of rules. There’s no payment, one pair of free tickets, and you must be on time and available for two months.
You have to get written permission from their headteacher for them to be out of school for some days in December when they’re doing matinee shows – which doesn’t often go down well.
Rehearsals began over half-term, and have continued at least one school night and Saturday or Sunday since. Towards the opening night, on November 30, they rehearse just about every evening and some days.
But they’re loving it. They’ve learned fight scenes with the ‘proper’ actors and a ‘proper’ fight director . They tell me they are playing a hippogryph and a satyr (I had to look it up).
They’re also evacuees, reindeer and baddies. “I’m an imp baddie, and Doug’s an ape baddie, so he doesn’t need make-up,” said Jed, before being tackled to the floor. By the ape.
It’s a relentless schedule. Jed and Doug are doing 22 shows between December 3 and January 8, including Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. But they are one of three junior casts doing a whopping 66 performances. At least this time, they aren’t doing matinees and evening shows on the same day, and get some days off. It’s an extraordinary thing for the theatres to organise.
For the parent, it’s nerve-wracking and a little isolating. You hand them over to chaperones for the fun part and just feel like chief taxi-driver and sandwich-maker. You also have a life and other kids to make feel just as special. The evening shows and rehearsals can finish late, and in our case, with Bloke working away, this means relying on the kindness of a friend down the road to pop up and babysit, or too frequently, putting the sleepy siblings into the car on the PJs. It’s not ideal.
If your child does show a leaning towards performing arts, it’s important to be both encouraging and grounded. Being in theatre shows is a brilliant ways to boost confidence, learn skills and make friends, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a step to instant fame and fortune.
If any of my lot want to tread the boards full-time when they’re older, that’s fine. But while they’re still kids, I’d like them to have a normal life and a childhood.
And maybe you have kids who prefer to sit in a comfy theatre seat and watch others dress-up in funny costumes. That’s our Billy’s plan anyway. . .
• Tickets for the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe are on sale at Royal&Derngate, via the website or box office, on Northampton 624811.