THE CHILD STARS OF THE WEST END!
Some of the weightiest roles in Musical Theatre are played by some of the smallest performers.
How do they cope?
THE LION KING
Ella and Ezrae backstage at The Lion King Photo: Photographs by Kitty Gale
Ella Marshall-Pinder 9, lives in Essex
‘When I was about two or three I was on the coffee tables dancing at home and my mother was like, “Get down!” And I was, “No, Mummy, it’s a stage,”‘ Ella Marshall-Pinder says. She is honest about why she likes performing, saying, ‘I don’t want to admit it but it’s probably the attention.’ At four Ella went to Saturday classes at her local Stagecoach performing arts school. At six she was cast as a Munchkin in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz.
She won the role of Young Nala, Simba’s best friend, in The Lion King musical last December.
The miniature costume, especially the printed leotard, still thrills her, as do the plaits made to look like ears on the top of her head. ‘The orange flowers are my little touch,’ she says of her hair clips.
On a performance day (the children are on sixmonth renewable contracts and perform twice a week, with a matinee every other week, and are on standby for two) she either eats at home after school, or (ideally) has duck salad in a restaurant near the theatre. ‘Everyone thinks I get time offfrom school, but mostly I only leave early for matinees,’ she says. Often she is not in bed until 11pm. She is not allowed sweets or chocolate (‘it makes your voice claggy’), and she has to do extra homework to make up for what she has missed. But the theatre is full of friends, and there is plenty of laughter backstage. This has a lot to do with Neisha Blake, the children’s chaperone, who has a nice way of teasing her charges.
Performing involves long periods of waiting (for rehearsals, make-up, being on standby), and they occupy themselves playing card games. On the walls of her dressing room are many score charts for Uno. Who’s winning? ‘Me.’ Pause. ‘Oh, OK, Neisha.’
Ezrae Maye 11, lives in East London
At six Ezrae Maye was being driven through Newham, east London, when he saw the sign for the Deborah Day Theatre School. ‘My mum said, “That would be good for you, because you’re a drama king,”‘ he says. His mother was right. Saturday morning classes were not enough and he was soon going on Thursdays after school, too. In 2012 he was selected for the Lion King Cub Camp, the training pool (two hours a week during term time) for young hopefuls, then graduated to Cub School, which prepares children for the show, where he spent six months learning the part. He debuted as Young Simba, the lion cub prince, in the West End, last December. Every other Wednesday he leaves school at midday, is met by one of his parents (or occasionally his grandmother), who takes him to the theatre (‘Mum on the Tube; Dad mostly drives’) for the matinee. For evening shows he does a full school day and goes to the theatre after eating in a nearby restaurant – a favourite is burger and chips. He is normally in bed by midnight. ‘I’m tired, really tired, after a long day at school, but when I come to the theatre everyone’s energy is so up it makes mine go up and then I am excited. Performing is fun,’ he adds, ‘it feels like you are a celebrity.’
The Lion King is at the Lyceum Theatre (thelionking.co.uk)
Mitchell Tobin prepares backstage at Billy Elliot (PHOTO: Kitty Gale)
Mitchell Tobin 13, from Florida, America
From the moment he saw the musical on Broadway in 2010 Mitchell Tobin knew he wanted to be Billy Elliot, the coal miner’s son who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Then aged nine, he had already won several dance competitions, so his agent put him up for the role in the American touring production. But Mitchell, they said, was too small. It wasn’t until Mitchell was 12 that he was cast for the Broadway show. He had five weeks to learn the part, including dance steps and the regional Geordie accent. His first performance was in December 2012, and he transferred to the London production a year later.
Mitchell now lives with the three other Billys in the official house during the week (they each do two performances a week and are on standby for another two), and spends weekends with his mother, a nurse (and former dancer). She has put her career on hold and divides her time between London and the family home in Florida with Mitchell’s father (a lawyer), sister, 20, and brother, 18. Mitchell’s sister is the reason he took up dancing, aged three. ‘She was like my dance teacher at home, critiquing me,’ he says.
The routine for the young actors is strictly scheduled: up at 8am, three hours’ tutoring each morning; only one ‘candy bar’ a day. ‘They make sure we are eating healthily and staying fit,’ Mitchell says. On performance nights he is in bed by 11.45pm. The role requires him to be proficient in tap, ballet, modern dance and a bit of hip hop. ‘I find flying quite hard [Billy soars above the stage in a dream ballet], but there is always someone there to tell me that it’s going to be OK.’ As for friends, they are mainly back in Florida, but there’s a lot of larking about in the Billy house, and he enjoys the dedicated attention he gets. ‘During the show they are handing you water, giving you a tissue if you need one, right there, ready for you.’
Billy Elliot the Musical is at the Victoria Palace Theatre (billyelliotthemusical.com)
Elise Blake 10, lives in Essex
After a year in the title role in Matilda the Musical Elise Blake is the most experienced as well as youngest of the four Matildas (the children are on six-month renewable contracts). She already has West End credits to her name: Ripp the Munchkin (The Wizard of Oz) and Little Cosette/Young Eponine (Les Misérables). At three she was having lessons twice a week at the Emery Stage School, Essex. ‘I just loved it because I’ve got two aunties and one uncle and my mum and her sister who were all dancing from a young age,’ she says. She speaks of her routine of getting up at 7.30am and going to bed at 11pm (on a show night) with the professionalism of someone who toured the country with The Sound of Music (as Gretl Von Trapp) when she was six.
‘We flew to places like Liverpool and Birmingham and Ireland, and it wasn’t easy to go back home. The biggest thing I’ve had to give up is spending time with my family. When I was touring my sister was born and my brother was born when I was in another show. It does feel like you’re missing out.’ Each Matilda performs in two shows a week and is on standby for two more; they are also required to do a minimum of 15 hours of schooling a week. Elise loves the spectacle, the glamour and the pizzas with the cast before the show – but not Matilda’s sensible schoolgirl sandals. ‘I would be embarrassed to wear them as me – not my style,’ she says.
She knows she’s lucky. ‘It’s a privilege being born talented – not everyone has the same opportunity, so you have to take it when you’ve got it.’
Georgia Pemberton 10, lives in Surrey
For Georgia Pemberton her acting debut came when she was 10 days old, in the television comedy William and Mary. ‘My line was “Wah!”‘ she says. By the time she was training at Julie Sianne Theatre Arts, a dance school in Surrey, aged six, she had already been in television advertisements for Clover and Specsavers. ‘My mum had been a dancer and an actor and I wanted to be like her, to do everything that she did.’ Her breakthrough role was Young Eponine in Les Misérables when she was eight.
Last September Georgia took on the role of Matilda – initially spending seven weeks in full-time rehearsals. She uses her evenings at home to practise and to go through her lines with her mother. She gets up for school at 7.30am, and when it is her turn to perform doesn’t get back to bed until 11pm. She admits she is shattered, saying, ‘I don’t even turn the lights out [before going to sleep]. I don’t like it when you do a performance and have to get up for school the next day. I literally crawl out of bed.’ Other sacrifices include friends. ‘The last time I had tea with my friends was not last holiday but the holiday before that,’ and spending time with her family. ‘My brother is 24 and he’s just opened a new art gallery and I really want to see it but I feel I can’t.’
Cristina Fray 10, lives in London
Having played Matilda for nearly a year, Cristina Fray says she still finds something magical about being on stage and ‘feeling everyone laughing and clapping. It’s amazing to feel the buzz of the audience.’ Neither of her parents is a performer, but she says, ‘I grew up listening to music. We are great fans of Abba and Queen.’ Her Bohemian Rhapsody, she says, was word-perfect by the time she was eight. She says she was lucky to do Saturday classes at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London when she was six because it is so attuned to the West End. ‘Every time we would sing a song it would be, this is how you would do it on a West End stage.’ Her cv includes an advertisement for Sky Movies and Little Cosette in Les Misérables. Her father does most of the toing and froing with her to the theatre. ‘I’ve got an older brother and a younger sister and my mum has to take care of them, so my dad normally comes with me on the Tube,’ she says. ‘A whole day of Matilda is quite tiring, but when you get into bed you are buzzing. You think of all the lovely things – the amazing show, the moments you had and being with your Matilda friends.’
Lollie McKenzie 10, lives in Bath
Lollie McKenzie has been playing Matilda for nearly six months. One of a family of four from Bath, where her father is a doctor and her mother a former film director, her only previous role was as young Snow White in the pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in 2012, in which she also played a fox and a villager. She started dance classes at the Dorothy Coleborn School of Dancing, in Bath, when she was four because her older brother had friends there. ‘I went to watch Matilda about a year before I auditioned for the role and I thought, I really, really want to do that because I’d never done anything big before. Mum was like, well, maybe.’ When required on stage Lollie stays with the other long-distance-based child actors in the Matilda house in London, and then goes home for five days between performances. ‘This morning I had breakfast in Bath and then Mum drove me to London,’ she says. She gets back to the Matilda house at about 11.30pm. ‘We have something to eat, maybe toast or cereal – Krave is my favourite – and then go to bed.’ Her school sends her work which is overseen by a tutor who comes to the Matilda house every morning. ‘When I was rehearsing I learnt my lines before I went to bed. Instead of reading books I read the script over and over. Mum would test me every evening.’ Her favourite moment in the show ‘is when we go for our bows at the end. You think, I’ve done a good show for the directors.
I’ve done a good show for everyone watching, and I’ve done a good show for myself.’
Matilda the Musical is at the Cambridge Theatre (matildathemusical.com)