On 15 April, Eleanor Worthington Cox has every chance of becoming the youngest person to win an Olivier – the most prestigious award in British theatre. The 10-year-old from Merseyside is nominated alongside the three slightly older girls who share with her the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's acclaimed musical Matilda, based on Roald Dahl's story and playing to packed houses in Covent Garden, London.
From its opening comic number, Miracle ("My mummy says I'm a miracle / My daddy says I'm a special little guy"), the show is sensational and Matilda has the best tune of all. Lined up on a sofa in a sitting-room deep inside the theatre to give their first interview with their mothers, the four young actors explain why Matilda's song Naughty is the highlight of the show.
"I think we all like Naughty and the reason is because we get to do stuff we don't usually do, " says Cleo Demetriou, a petite, dark-haired Londoner from a theatrical family who, at nearly 11, is the most experienced performer of the four, and had to break a contract with Les Misérables to take this part.
On the afternoon I meet them, the girls have been rehearsing for the award ceremony night on 15 April at the Royal Opera House where, winners or not, they will perform a new routine. Have they decided what to wear? "It's a secret, " says Cleo. "But we won't be all the same, will we?" adds Sophia Kiely, 12, who had never acted before Matilda. She says she got emotional and cried on her first night during the curtain call.
But joyously comic though Matilda the Musical is, with music and lyrics by the Australian comedian Tim Minchin and with Paul Kaye, as Matilda's used-car-salesman father, turning in one of several hilarious performances, the show is not all gaiety and light. Like all Dahl's stories, Matilda features some cruel and frightening adults.
Headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played by Bertie Carvel) is a terrifying sadist, and until she meets teacher Miss Honey, Matilda is lonely and unloved. Do the girls find it sad pretending to be her? "I do feel sorry for her at some points, " says Kerry Ingram, who played Matilda in the show's first run in Stratford-on-Avon and, now nearly 13 and tallest of the four, is soon to leave along with Sophia. "Because she's different from all the others and she's got these powers and her parents don't even notice because they pay no attention at all. She's this incredible girl, and her parents think she's just evil."
The girls each perform twice a week, attending two further performances as a stand-by, and are firm friends, having sleepovers at each other's houses on nights off. Four hands shoot in the air when I ask if they ever fluff their lines. "If I don't go through them before I do them, I forget them, " says Kerry of the tragic tale of the acrobat and the escapologist that Matilda tells in several instalments.
"We go through them in the wings, don't we, " says her mum, Sally.
They visibly relax when sharing anecdotes, talking over each other and being prompted by their mums, in friendly competition to tell the funniest story. Cleo delivers the killer one-liner when I ask about her audition. "Well, I got chucked out … twice!" she declares, sounding every bit the school-of-hardknocks pro and letting her mum, Lucy, fill in the details about how she was "what you call in the industry heavily pencilled" at the first auditions, but didn't quite make it – only to be called back months later leading to a frantic to-and-fro with Les Misérables at the other end.
Eleanor's mum, Jill, bought her a card while they were waiting to hear whether she had got the part. "It was a picture of an angel touching a star, " Eleanor says, "and it said, 'so she grew wings and flew to the stars but she didn't realise she had her dress tucked into the back of her knickers!'"
"I thought it's a message to keep her grounded, " explains Jill.
Of the four mums, Jill seems least set on a life in the theatre for her daughter. Eleanor, she says, talks about being a teacher as well as an actor while Kerry, who goes to a home counties drama school, used to be fixed on a career as a paleontologist. But it is impossible not to see how overpoweringly seductive and wonderful a life in showbusiness must look from where they are sitting right now – for the mothers, all but one of whom did some singing and dancing of their own as children, as well as the daughters, even if they aren't allowed sweets and ice cream because they are bad for the vocal cords.
Sophia's mother, Susanne, the only parent whose child had no experience of professional theatre (Eleanor was in Joseph in Liverpool, Kerry was in The Sound of Music), and an artist herself, says: "People have talents and gifts, and the question is do you keep them in a box or unwrap them, and do you unwrap them when they're younger or older? And we've chosen younger."
While Kerry and Sophia talk about leaving the show and moving on – at nearly 13, Kerry needs to spend more time in school, while Sophia is looking forward to going back to ballet, piano and violin lessons, and both have siblings who need more of their mothers' attention – you can't help but wonder if these girls can fully grasp what they have been a part of, how incredibly fortunate they are.