Exploited? Oh Yes, She Was! Novelist Caitlin Davies Was Thrilled When Her Daughter Won a Role in a Professional Panto. What Happened Next Was a Very Salutary Tale

Article excerpt

Byline: by Caitlin Davies

CHRISTMAS wouldn't be Christmas without the great British panto. Goodies and baddies, beauties and beasts, Cinderellas and ugly sisters. What child wouldn't want to take part in such a festive favourite?

That was the dream of my 11-year-old daughter, Ruby. She has a very loud voice and likes nothing better than being the centre of attention. She loves The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, and for five years she's been desperate to perform on stage.

So when she was invited to join the cast of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs last year, she was overjoyed. Hi ho, hi ho, I thought, it's off to stardom we go.

But parents be warned, because my daughter's panto dream turned into a complete nightmare.

Ruby's theatrical ambitions began when she was six and joined a Saturday morning drama class. She loved it so much that she joined another, weekday class and was asked to try out for an acting agency.

When your child is told she's 'good' at something, it's hard to say no. So we signed a contract, provided 'up-to-date professional headshots' -- and then followed years of fruitless auditions.

Ruby went for roles, along with hundreds of others, for feature films, a soap advert and a TV game show. She never got a part -- they really do say: 'Don't call us, we'll call you' -- and I began to worry I was being a bad mother by exposing her to so much rejection.

But 'failure' to Ruby just made her more determined. She didn't seem upset at all. Quite the contrary. 'One day,' she would say, 'I will get a part.'

And she did. Last November, a theatre company contacted the Saturday morning drama club. They were looking for children aged over eight to be dancers and, if they were under 5ft tall, to play 'dwarfs'.

They wanted four teams of eight dancers and four teams of seven dwarfs. The show would take place at a respected London theatre and the children would do seven shows each. Panto is fun, I thought, and everyone said it would be a great experience.

So a few days later, Ruby joined 14 other children in the theatre foyer in a state of high expectation.

My first reaction was that something wasn't quite right: Why were there only 14 children applying for 60 roles when there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of children Ruby's age all desperate to become panto stars?

But I reassured myself the production must be 100 per cent bona fide, since local schools had already received flyers and seats were available on Ticketmaster. What's more, it was being billed as a celebrityfilled spectacular -- with an ex-East-Ender topping the bill.

It seemed strange that just four weeks before the curtain was due to go up, they hadn't cast any dwarfs, but any concerns I had were brushed to one side when, two days later, Ruby got not one, but two parts -- one as a dancer, one as a dwarf.

SHE was ecstatic, and so was I. In fact, I was so caught up in my excitement for her that I decided to ignore the fact that, at 5ft 4in, she was a good four inches above the height limit that had been set for the dwarfs.

I also -- against my better judgment, I'll admit -- turned a blind eye to the fact that they gave another part to a six-year-old, who was two years younger than the minimum age specified.

But never mind that, because Ruby had achieved her dream -- the chance to appear on stage.

We had to organise a licence for her to appear on stage in public, in accordance with the performance regulations for children.

We filled in forms, copied her birth certificate and took passport photos of her. We got permission from her school for her to miss two days of term and then all these documents were sent to our local education authority. We received her licence in the post a fortnight later.

It was only on the day of her first rehearsal that we found out the children would be doing 17 shows, not seven. …