Why nothing brings the curtain down on a little darling's stage career like a M.F.H. – that's a truth-twisting, tantrum-throwing Mother From Hell, says a top West End children's casting director
09:22 GMT, 22 May 2012
Sunday morning at one of London's biggest West End theatres and the audition is going well, with hundreds of children queuing outside.
A group of 20 nervous boys and girls have just left the stage and a new batch is being ushered in. The show's musical director and choreographer crack a few silly jokes to put the children at ease and I glance down at the list of young actors my assistant has just handed me.
Suddenly, inked in beside one of the names I spot three letters that make me freeze — M.F.H..
Mothers From Hell can put an early end to their children's career on stage by being too pushy
I've been casting children for some of Britain's top shows for 17 years and many of my brilliant team have been with me almost as long: I know they will not have written those initials lightly.
Because M.F.H. strikes dread in any casting director's heart — meaning Mother From Hell.
We deal with all sort of parents at auditions —ones that are nervous, over-protective, sleep-deprived or short-tempered. And we know the strain that accompanying a child to a big audition can bring. Sometimes, they seem to want the part far more than their children do.
The letters M.F.H., however, signify someone who's really difficult: unreasonably demanding, self-obsessed and downright rude. Sometimes, they'll be haughtily requesting that they be allowed to queue-jump, insisting it is absolutely vital their child is seen now.
Well, that's not going to happen; everyone must take their turn in the queue. Nor are demands to accompany their little darling into the audition going to be met.
There's a reason we don't let parents in, and even cover up doors and windows to stop them peeking in: we want that child to relax and audition for us; not for an over-bearing parent hovering at the back who'll probably criticise them for everything they did on the way home.
Other potential Mothers From Hell are the serial complainers — do you know how long we've been waiting Why is no one keeping me properly informed Why is there no coffee
Then there are the ones who relentlessly grill my front-of-house team with endless questions about the production itself. For goodness sake, they're organising the audition; not directing the show!
Made it: The London Children's Ballet, presenting A Little Princess at The Peacock Theatre, probably don't have M.F.H.
The M.F.H. — although thankfully rare — can take up a huge amount of time. But I never say anything during the audition itself. It's not the child's fault their parent has behaved so badly and I've learned from experience that the rudest, nastiest parents can still produce highly talented children.
So if he, or she, turns out to be perfect for the part — be it a new Oliver or one of the Banks children from Mary Poppins — those three little initials will never be mentioned again.
But if we're wavering; if it's coming down to two or three equally talented children, I will quietly say something to the director about potentially difficult parents.
All of us who work with children in theatre know how important it is for them to have sensible, understanding parents, and if someone's being a pain before their child has even got the part, what will they be like once they have
On this occasion, however, it's easy — the M.F.H.'s unfortunate child can't sing in tune and, not for the first time in my career, I sit there incredulous. Didn't the mother know it was a musical
The hunt for a new star goes on.
An open audition might attract 1,000 nervous children — each accompanied by a tired and tetchy parent — queuing outside the theatre in a line that often goes two or even three times round the block.
But my well-practised team quickly bring order to the potential chaos.
Some of the parents and children will have travelled hundreds of miles and have been there since 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning, convinced (wrongly, I should add) that an early place in the queue will somehow increase the chances of their child landing a starring role.
But no child is going to audition well if they've been standing on the pavement for six or seven hours.
Jo Hawes said: 'I still vividly remember the pain of telling one little girl that she hadn't got a part in Annie (file picture) – while her identical twin sister had. It was heartbreaking'
So the first thing my team and I do is go down the queue handing out numbered raffle tickets.
This leads to them being given a time to audition, so that they can go away and have some breakfast, relax a bit and then come back by appointment.
But some will not be coming back, even though the audition process proper has yet to begin.
For the second thing I do is get out what I call my 'Chip stick' — named after the small boy in Beauty And The Beast, one of the trickiest characters I have had to cast.
He had to look eight years old, sing like an angel and — most importantly of all for this West End production — could not be more than 4ft 2in tall.
Any bigger and some of the show's stunning illusions wouldn't work.
Marked on the Chip stick, my own personal height stick, will be a cut-off line not just for Chip but for other parts I've cast in the past — assorted Von Trapp children, the Artful Dodger, and whatever the part is we're auditioning for today.
The height will have been carefully specified in the breakdown that I will have circulated to agents, parents, dance schools and the ironically named website, notapushymum.com, that spreads the word about child auditions.
This breakdown carefully specifies everything required for the part — age, height, singing ability, ethnicity. And yet, as I go down the line with my stick, there are always a number of children who fail to meet the requirements. 'Too tall,' I say, again and again.
'He's just had a bit of a growing spurt,' says one mother, showing no sign of budging from the queue. 'Can he audition for the experience'
Sadly, the answer has to be no: it's not fair to the very busy creative team to present them with children who simply have no chance of being cast. It merely prolongs, quite pointlessly, what is an already exhausting experience.
And yet a small minority of parents just never seem to learn. They bring 15-year-olds to an audition for a 12-year-old character ('he's short for his age'), girls to auditions that are only for male characters ('we thought there might be something'), and the tone deaf to a casting of Oliver! ('maybe somewhere in the chorus').
One or two particularly unscrupulous parents (beset by the delusion that those auditioned first are most likely to be picked) have even attempted to sabotage our raffle ticket system, waiting to see what colour we're using that day and then rushing off to the nearest stationers to buy a book of the closest match.
But when we suddenly find we've got two number sixes, the interloper is soon discovered and sent to the back of the queue! The audition process brings other problems too. I remember at a casting for Bugsy Malone thinking that there was something really very familiar about one particular little girl. And when she appeared yet again, I knew there was.
'For some child actors, becoming a proper teenager spells the end of their showbusiness careers and they quite happily revert to so-called 'normal' life.'
It turned out her mother had sent her in three times, dressed in a different set of clothes on each occasion, convinced that she was somehow increasing the chances of her daughter landing a part and that we'd never spot the deception. Alas, she was wrong on both counts.
We've even had parents lying about where they live, which is so foolish when you think how important it is for a young child to be able to travel easily to and from rehearsals and late-night performances. So if a show is going to rehearse and run at the London Palladium, there's no point in me seeing children from Cornwall, however talented they might be.
On one particularly terrible occasion we even had a little girl stranded late at night at a theatre in the north-east of England. It was a touring show with a cast of supposedly local children.
This girl was not collected one night and then we discovered the truth —that she actually lived in London.
I had, in all good faith and based on the information I'd been given, applied to the local authority for a licence (all children performing in theatre need one) and given a false address illegally.
So once the truth came out, she instantly lost her part.
But, despite the problems caused by a small minority of parents and even by some of the agents who represent children, casting youngsters for the theatre is a wonderful job.
I love discovering completely raw talent — a little boy or girl who has never appeared in anything except a school play but who turns out to be perfect for a starring West End role.
I love watching their performance develop and grow. The journey from that first open audition to the standing ovation of an opening night is a truly extraordinary one and I feel privileged to have shared it with some of the wonderful young actors I've helped discover.
Yes, witnessing so much disappointment — obviously most children attending an audition won't get a recall, let alone an actual part — can be tough. I still vividly remember the pain of telling one little girl that she hadn't got a part in Annie — while her identical twin sister had. It was heartbreaking.
Just as bad is the moment when a talented boy's voice breaks. The theatre needs children who look and sound like children and when their voice starts to deepen it's the end of the line for them as child actors.
More than 3,000 children turned up to open auditions at the London Palladium Theatre for children to play the Von Trapp family in Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage production of the Sound of Music, many of them brought by pushy parents
Most of the time we can see or hear it coming but sometimes it catches us unawares.
Once the change happened so quickly that I found myself having to ring a boy's father to tell him that that day's two shows of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were going to be the last time his son could sing the part of Jeremy Potts.
Both of them were fabulous about it and fortunately we were able to get hold of extra tickets so many of his friends and family could come in and watch his final show.
Even more dramatic, however, was the night when a boy playing the title role in Oliver! just about got through Act 1, but found his voice had broken completely by the interval.
There was no way he could continue, but he responded like a real trouper, standing in the wings to help his nervous understudy through the rest of the show.
For some child actors, becoming a proper teenager spells the end of their showbusiness careers and they quite happily revert to so-called 'normal' life.
But not all: Tom Fletcher, who I helped cast in the title role of Oliver! at the London Palladium more than 15 years ago, is now a hugely successful member of McFly.
Jon Lee, another great Oliver, became a pop star with S Club 7 before returning to musical theatre as an adult. He's currently Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys.
For those who long to follow in their footsteps, however, it all starts with that nerve-racking audition, that extraordinary moment when dreams really do come true for a fortunate handful of children but not, I'm afraid, for everyone else. That's showbiz. Just don't tell the M.F.H.!
■ Children In Theatre: A Guide For Children And Their Parents by Jo Hawes is published by Oberon Books, price 14.99. For more information, visit johawes.com