Gina Murray's family have been in showbusiness for generations and now her sons, Joe, eight, and Max, six are taking the stage in London's West End.
I come from a showbiz family. My mother, Grazina Frame, is a singer and actress whose career has included several musical movies, including being the voice in The Young Ones and Summer Holiday films with Cliff Richard. She played the lead in Lionel Bart's musical, Blitz, and toured with The Rolling Stones and other artists.
My father is hit songwriter Mitch Murray. During the 60s and 70s he wrote songs for The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers and a host of others. He was also a successful music producer. My stepfather, Rob Dallas, is a writer, producer and used to be a performer, so I was completely surrounded by showbusiness.
When my sister, Mazz, and I were growing up, performing came naturally to us. We're only a year apart and we were always together in much the same way my two boys are now. I wanted to go to theatre school and Mazz often says that the only reason she went as well was that she wanted to be with me. I think she would have gone anyway, because she's super talented!
Mazz and I have both done loads of musical theatre, and we were performing in the West End at the same time at one point, which was great fun. I was Mama Morton in Chicago, while she played the Killer Queen in We will Rock You. Showbusiness was normal for us. When I was a child, I didn't realise that performing isn’t part of everyone’s life.
Getting in on the actJoe and Max got into the performing arts when a colleague told me about his son’s acting success following a summer workshop at the New London Performing Arts Centre (NLPAC). It sounded good, so I decided to send the boys, then aged six and four, to a musical theatre workshop.
Joe and Max had a great time, and afterwards they were asked whether they'd be interested in doing some work. They said they would, so we put them on the books of Byron's casting agency.
On stage at the London ColiseumJoe’s first role was in The Death of Klinghoffer, an American opera, at the London Coliseum.
At six years old, in his first job, he had to be alone on the most enormous stage. It was nerve-wracking for me to watch, as a parent and as a professional. I didn't know whether he was going to sink or swim.
When I watch my children, I'm not just a mummy: I won’t think they're the best thing since sliced bread if they're not. Watching Joe at the Coliseum, I knew I was going to love him and think he was wonderful because he's my child. But I didn't know whether I was going to be able to say, hand on heart, that he was good. I needn't have worried. He was fine. He didn't even seem aware that it was a big deal.
Next stepsNext up for Joe was The Magic Flute, also at the Coliseum. Unlike the Klinghoffer production, where there is just one child, there was a team of children in The Magic Flute. From a child's point of view, it was a bit like summer camp.
Joe was seven when he was in The Magic Flute, and then at eight he auditioned to be the young Martius in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, with Tom Hiddleston playing his father.
The casting team said they needed a child who was really focused, good at concentrating and working with adults, and able to sit or stand still for long periods of time. I thought there was no way they'd pick Joe because he doesn’t sit still anywhere, not even in Pizza Hut!
When he got the part, I told him I’d tried to get an audition for the Donmar for about 20 years. And he got straight in!
I needn't have worried about whether he could stay still. Once he got on that stage he knew he was working. He was motionless. More than that, he was really focused. He wasn't just a statue: he was in his role, in character.
Joe shared the role with two other kids and he was very lucky to be chosen to perform on press night. He was also in a National Theatre live screening of the play, which was shown in cinemas across the world. It was a bit scary watching, knowing it was going out live.
A friend who's a teacher saw him perform and said she felt that every child should have the opportunity to experience Shakespeare by being in it. Because then you can understand and appreciate it, and you learn without even realising you're learning.
My small boy in Billy ElliotAs the younger child, Max was always a little bit in Joe's shadow. So when there was a chance for him to play Small Boy in Billy Elliot I was keen to let him to go for it.
When he auditioned for the show, I was really nervous as I'd noticed that he was uncomfortable being looked at on stage in school assemblies. Once he had the part, I tried to prepare him for the difference between doing rehearsals to an empty auditorium and the buzz of a packed theatre with the lights on him.
Before making his entrance in Billy Elliot, Max has to walk through the auditorium. He sees the audience at very close quarters before he even gets on stage. On opening night I was worried about how he’d cope, but his performance was effortless. He didn’t appear to be at all nervous.
He opens and closes the show, and there's a whole scene with him and Billy, where there are just the two of them on stage and Max is copying Billy's ballet steps. From the very first performance he seemed to really take to it and enjoy the focus and attention. I thought, oh dear! What have we started?
Max has blossomed in this role. When he's left to his own devices, he really comes into his own.
Confidence and other tricksOne of the things that my sister and I have gained from showbusiness is confidence. If there's anything I want Joe and Max to get out of performing, it's that. Showbiz can help people to overcome all-too-common nerves and fears in social situations.
I can already see this happening with the boys. Performing has certainly boosted their self-esteem and they've both become more confident. Sometimes, though, that needs reining in if it goes too far. It's important to teach them the line between confidence, which is good, and cockiness, which is not so nice.
When they're working in the theatre, a child is in an adult world and is expected to act accordingly. That doesn't mean they can't have fun, but that has to be within the parameters of the professional world. So it can be tricky when the child returns to school with their contemporaries and feels as though they're more grown up than everyone else because they've been working.
Children in theatre also learn about commitment. Try explaining to a six-year-old: this is for six months. Please don't get bored of it in three months because when you sign a contract to say you'll do something, you have to see it through. And Mummy and Daddy have to see it through as well.
Young children don't seem to feel the pressures of being on stage as much as adults. They're not aware of the pitfalls because they've never experienced them. As a grown up, you think, I could forget my lines, I could fall over... But often children don't worry as much.
How it all worksHaving a child in a West End show is a big commitment for parents. We have to make sure Joe and Max get a good education, even when they’re doing three shows a week.
The roles are alternated with at least two other children, as there are normally eight performances a week. But with both boys in the West End at the same time doing different shows, it's a big commitment when Gary, their dad, and I are both working.
The children are chaperoned at the theatre: we just drop them off. Their chaperones have always been fantastic. In Coriolanus, the three boys playing the young Martius shared one chaperone and they had a brilliant time.
On Billy Elliot, there are lots of children and the whole thing runs on well-oiled wheels. The older children in the cast – the ones who play Billy and Michael, for example – have tutors and live in a house with the other Billys and Michaels. They love it! If I'm honest, I think Max would rather not come home after performing. Sometimes he says to me, "I never want to leave Billy Elliot, Mummy."
We have an amazing au pair who’s used to the stage-door handovers. Between the three of us we usually have it covered, but sometimes I have to ask my mum to help. Because she was in the business herself, she loves it!
SchooldaysJoe and Max go to our local primary school and their headmistress has been incredibly supportive. But they still need to show up and do the work. It can be difficult as they do get very tired, and the most difficult thing is switching routines from day to day. Sometimes they have to be up until 11 o'clock; other nights they need to be in bed at eight.
It's hard for them, especially when the adrenaline makes it difficult to wind down. In my job, I've spent my life living at the wrong end of the day. That's fine for an adult, but the boys have to get up and go to school. Joe doesn't seem to struggle as much as Max, partly because he's older. So Max has learned during this contract on Billy Elliot that he has to go to sleep on time whether he likes it or not.
Occasionally they do miss out on stuff at school or with their friends. But I've said to them, "In life, you can't have everything. It's impossible. So you pick and choose. There are other days to do PE, a cake sale, the school trip or whatever it is you're missing. But you won't to get the opportunity to play this role again. So we'd better go with it if that's what you want to do." I always leave it as their choice and their dad does the same thing. He's really supportive.
Being brothersJust like Mazz and me, the boys are a real duo. What's lovely is that Joe has found it inspiring seeing Max doing Billy Elliot. They both had ballet lessons when they were tiny, but they weren’t very interested in it then. Now Joe has seen Max doing Billy Elliot and Max has seen the older boys playing Billy, they can see where ballet might lead. They can see a prize at the end of it.
Max idolises his big brother, but now he's coming into his own and that’s healthier, because he feels he's somebody in his own right. They have this connection where they can talk about being on stage, and understand what it means to be in a West End show.
My little matesRecently I was asked to do Chicago again, as Mama Morton, in China, and I had to tell my children about the job. I was potentially going to be away for about two months so I was concerned about how they would react, and also worried about missing them.
But because they're both in the business now, when I explained to them that I'd had an audition and I was really excited because I got the job, they lit up for me. They know how it feels, and what it means to get a job. It was brilliant because I had two little mates that understood why I wanted to do it.
My husband's not in showbusiness. He's a police officer, which is another vocational profession, so he understands how Joe, Max and I feel about our work.
These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that a lot of adults don't get. Of course, the children don't really understand that yet. But one day, they will look back and think, oh my goodness, I was sharing a stage with these amazing people - Tom Hiddleston, Peter de Jersey, Mark Gatiss – in the West End. What an achievement.
Looking to the futureI'm not concerned about what happens later on with the boys and performing, except that I want them to keep up with their schoolwork. If showbusiness started to affect it in a detrimental way, we'd forget it for a while.
When I was a child, I had no idea what Shakespeare was about. I was all about jazz hands and musicals and wanting to be in Fame! I was incredibly fortunate to be able to make my dreams come true and that's what I want for my children. Whatever their dreams are, I want them to know that dreams can come true if you put the work in.
Right now, Max would like to be a Billy Elliot star and Joe would like to do a 'big show with a microphone' like his brother. Then again, he's also interested in being a mechanic. Time will tell.
We are WomanGina and her sister, Mazz, together with Emma Kershaw, comprise Woman the band.
Their new single, Woman of the World, will be out later this year. Check out their website for photos, videos and more info.
With thanks to Joe and Max for taking part in this interview
Photo on poster of Joe in Coriolanus by Johan Persson
Photo of Max by Alex Bourne
Other photos from Gina and Mazz