From illness to stardom for teenager

PUBLISHED: 13:00 29 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:45 03 March 2010

THE curtain is about to rise on the Ipswich and Norwich Co-op Junior's latest pantomime, The Wizard of Oz, sponsored by The Evening Star.

Community Editor Amanda Cresswell talks to Helen McCraw who plays the leading role of Dorothy and as a tiny baby faced the threat of never been able to talk, let alone sing, when she contracted a rare illness.

BUBBLY Helen McCraw chats enthusiastically about the forthcoming Co-op Junior's production The Wizard of Oz.

She's just 13-years-old but is about to play her biggest ever part – the lead role of Dorothy.

Helen is full of confidence ready to burst into a solo in front of a packed audience. So it is all the more amazing to think that it could all have been very different.

As a baby Helen was diagnosed with a strawberry haemangioma which caused breathing problems.

At nine months old she had a tracheotomy … a surgical procedure where a tube was inserted into the windpipe to help her breathe.

Her mum, Sarah, aged 40, said: "We were warned that Helen probably wouldn't be able to speak or make a sound with this.

"But the next day she learned to put her chin over it so she could make a noise. We know she was determined to talk."

Helen had the tube in her throat until she was three years old. That was when she first started dancing classes. Her mother had to be with her at the classes in case of any difficulties.

At first Helen was shy and worried about being with new people and around new places.

After starting the Co-op Juniors dance class in Brantham at the age of five she soon came out of her shell and acts, dances and sings like a true professional.

Her first show was the Little Mermaid at the age of seven where her first role was as a shrimp, a cupcake and a sailor girl.

A string of other Co-op junior performances followed including Beauty and the Beast, Annie, The Christmas Carol, Aladdin, Cinderella, Oliver, Peter Pan and Me and My Girl.

The Wizard of Oz will be her tenth show with the Juniors.

"It is my biggest ever part," she said excitedly.

"I will be singing and have speaking roles. The best bit will be the end when everyone applauds. It is very rewarding. But my favourite scene is when I meet the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, which all happens in the same scene."

Helen, who lives in East Bergholt, runs through the plot with enthusiasm. The opening scene is on a farm in Kansas. There is some dialogue before the cyclone strikes and Dorothy finds herself transported into another world.

Along the way she makes friends with a Lion without courage, a Scarecrow with no brain and a Tin Man who needs a heart.

"What I like about the show is that it's a perfect fairy tale. The characters are so good – the Witches, the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow. There is some really good acting. The numbers are absolutely brilliant and so are the costumes.

"The children will like it because it is a bright and colourful because it is a magical place."

As well as the Juniors, Helen also attends Linda Tiptoes School of Dancing and juggles her schoolwork with the performances.

"I wouldn't say it is a struggle to do both," she said.

"We decided I would do my homework straight away, as soon as I get it and that seems to work.

"Meanwhile my mum is a bit like a taxi service, she is always taking me in and out of rehearsals."

Helen has also had good parts in school.

At the age of ten she played a gangster rat (the second in charge) in Pied Piper, which she enjoyed. The following year she had a good part in Dracut Spectacular.

She's not taking a big part in her next school production, Oliver, because she is so busy with rehearsals with the Co-op Juniors.

Although in the long term she would like to take up acting professionally, Helen said there are lots of other things she can do.

She said: "Ideally I would like to work in the West End. But that is a big ambition. There are lots of other jobs, for example I would like to take up teaching. But I want to stay with the Co-op Juniors for quite a while – for as long as I can really."

Despite the Juniors pantomimes attracting huge audiences Helen assures me she won't be nervous.

"I have had to sing solos before and have said lines before. Last year I played a lost boy in Peter Pan and sang one of the verses.

"You get used to it. If I am nervous I don't like to show it. I will put on a brace face."

All her family are coming to see the show, including her grandparents who are coming all the way from Edinburgh.

"They are really excited. It will be their first show they have watched me in because they live so far away," she said.

Helen's family are also involved with the Junior's. Sarah, helps back stage, while her 16-year-old sister Lucy, helps with painting scenery and props.

"It is great performing," said Helen. "But another good thing about the Co-op juniors is that you also make lots of new friends."

n Tickets are now being sold for the Co-op Junior production The Wizard of Oz at the Ipswich Regent from December 21 to 30. Telephone the Regent box office on 433100.

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