over heard by Louise Levene at the Royal Ballet's Sleeping Beauty
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"They were wooden last year.'' An unexpected criticism of the Royal Ballet from a mere four-year-old. "They were wooden. I remember. And mine broke." She digs her plastic spoon gingerly into her Old-Fashioned Vanilla. Some of the flavours on offer are a bit over their heads: "These are all they've got darling.

Coffee or stem ginger?"

Christmas ballet is the thinking child's panto: it offers more ice-cream breaks and you get to wear puff sleeves. Anybody shouting "Oi! You in the tartan frock!'' would be crushed to death in the stampede of black patent party shoes. Among this season's more eccentric accessories are a policeman's helmet ("The lady behind you can't see, darling'') and a large moth-eaten St Bernard ("Why can't he have an ice cream?''). Meanwhile a golden-haired child takes her £20 seat in the front row of the Grand Tier casually turned out in sweatshirt and tiara. "Mummy. Mummy. MUMMY! I can't SEE," complains the young duchess at the front of the slightly raised Stalls Circle. Can't see? A midget in flats could see from there. For most of the younger contingent the whole purpose of the exercise has yet to sink in. "What's that man doing?''

"The audiences here are very unresponsive. Not like Sadler's Wells or Birmingham. I mean they'll clap your Sylvie Gwilliams and your Darcey Bussells...'' "And Rudy,'' says a friend interrupting the monologue, "they always clapped Rudy whenever he so much

as put a foot on the stage.'' His friend ignores the interruptions. "This season I've only seen two poor performances: one of the triple bills and this one. She's not hard enough.

I like them diamond hard. And brittle. Merle Park is my ideal.''

By now, the parental queue for strong black coffee is stretching right round the stalls bar, out of the theatre and down to the Aldwych. Liberty-printed mothers blush for their teenage children's nose-rings, bovver boots and bad manners.

"I'm not bringing you again,'' hisses one as her offspring picks off its chipped black nail varnish. "You said that last year,'' comes the reply.