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Editors' Blog: Keeping it in the family - is nepotism a problem in theatre?

There are two clear sides of the argument when it comes to the question of whether a famous surname is a help or a hindrance

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Unfair advantage? The Strallen sisters Zizi, Summer, Sasi and Scarlett
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

The words 'nepotism' and 'theatre' are, to some people's minds, synonymous. And the fact we have the younger members of a number of celebrated dynasties - including the Foxes and the Redgraves - currently represented on our stages does little to dispel the impression.

So is the oft-heard accusation that theatre is a closed shop to those without family connections a fair one? I've written previously about the lack of class diversity among our rising acting stars but, although this is linked to the issue of nepotism, I don't consider it to be quite the same thing.

In a recent interview with WhatsOnStage, Emilia Fox (whose family tree resembles a Who's Who of British theatre), compared the profession of acting to that of medicine, in that one generation will often follow the previous into the industry.

"Lots of people have said to me 'is it in your blood?', but I've never really believed that", said Fox, who is currently starring in Rapture, Blister, Burn at Hampstead Theatre.

"I think it's more to do with growing up around people and an industry you feel comfortable with. It's more like a business that gets passed down the generations, it's no different to doctors; I think that happens with lots of generations and they choose to go into the same work."

Emilia Fox with her famous father Edward
© Dan Wooller

And it's difficult to argue with Fox's assertion that if a child grows up with parents who work in a vocational profession, they are likely to follow the same path.

Scarlett Strallen - one of four sisters all working in musical theatre (their mum is Cherida Langford, sister of Bonnie) - echoed these sentiments when I spoke to her last month.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was younger until I walked into the theatre where my parents were working and just completely fell in love with it," said the Candide star. "[I] couldn't see any other career option but to play dress up and perform."

But many would still argue that Fox's analogy with the medical profession is a tenuous one, in that a doctor has to pass rigorous exams and will be struck off if not up to a professional standard, whereas a performer is more able to ply their trade based solely on a surname.

Even so, I'd still say it's unfair to blindly sling brickbats in the direction of stage actors who happen to have a famous family. There's a clear distinction between a dynasty such as the Strallens, the Foxes or the Redgraves, in which its members carve individual identities on the basis of hard work and talent, and one such as the Kardashians, Hiltons or Osbornes, where fame is pursued for its own end.

The perception that a well-known surname provides an unfair leg-up to our nation's stages is a difficult one to dispel. But then so is the feeling that those stages would be poorer without the input of these great acting families.

Is nepotism a problem in theatre? Give us your views below