Every year, thousands of families engage in the annual tradition of going to the pantomime as a special Christmas treat. This year, one of the stars lighting up the stage in Dorset will be the Romanian-born actor, Ionica Adriana. She’s playing Princess Jasmine in Lighthouse Poole’s production of Aladdin, written and directed by CBeebies favourite Chris Jarvis, who also plays Widow Twanky.

Growing up in Yorkshire, Ionica had a childhood filled with love and happiness. Her ambition was to be a gymnast or do another sport professionally. However, a chance decision to study musical theatre at college led to her applying to drama school. At which point her career path was set. ‘When you’re auditioning with 4,000 people and you get into a class of 16 you think, okay, I need to take this acting thing seriously,’ Ionica tells me, backstage at Lighthouse Poole. Perched on the edge of a sofa, she’s still in the stage make-up she applied to have her publicity photos taken with other members of the cast.

Since graduating Ionica has worked almost continually, across television, stage and film, including annual runs in panto. ‘I had never seen a pantomime until I appeared in my first one in 2015,’ she admits. ‘Initially I didn’t understand the in-jokes or ad-libbing. I was thrown right in at the deep end and had to learn very quickly. Doing panto is a real skill. You learn so much as a performer, especially if you’re a character that can be more playful. Playing a baddy. I love doing that. It’s ace!’

Great British Life: Ionica Adriana as Princess Jasmine in Lighthouse Poole's pantomime Aladdin. (Photo: Richard Budd)Ionica Adriana as Princess Jasmine in Lighthouse Poole's pantomime Aladdin. (Photo: Richard Budd)

Hard work and adaptability are evident throughout her career. Having been in Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate, Ionica particularly loves television drama. ‘A role in something like Line of Duty would be my dream,’ she says. Also, coming out of Covid she faced up to her fear of doing serious theatre by working at the Union Theatre in Southwark, London. ‘I was terrified. I felt so out of practice.’

With her infectiously happy nature, it’s easy to see why Ionica’s been so successful in a notoriously difficult industry. ‘Although I still need to fill the gaps between jobs by working as a photographer (taking headshots for other actors) or waitressing.’ And her success is even more remarkable when you consider that, for the first two and a half years of her life, things couldn’t have been more challenging.

Ionica was born in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania: a time when women were pressurised to have at least five babies, the use of contraception risked jail, and complications in having an abortion caused the deaths of almost 10,000 women. When Ionica’s mother gave birth, unable to look after her baby daughter she took her to one of the vast state-run orphanages. Here Ionica remained until her adoptive parents, who first met her at 18 months, were finally able to collect her, aged two and a half.

Great British Life: Anthony, Ionica's adoptive father, feeding her during their first visit to the Romanian orphanage. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)Anthony, Ionica's adoptive father, feeding her during their first visit to the Romanian orphanage. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)

The path to adoption had been equally hard for the couple, by the point at which they adopted Ionica and another baby girl. ‘My parents had lost 13 children in pregnancy, and they’d tried but failed to adopt back in Britain. My mother had just experienced an ectopic pregnancy when she saw the Romanian orphanages on the news. She began to wonder if this was the path they should take instead.’

Her parents flew out to Romania and were advised by some doctors they met to head north to an orphanage in Cluj, Transylvania. Arriving as the first couple seeking to adopt, they were truly shocked by what they found. One adult having to deal with more than 30 babies meant their charges were lying in filth, self-feeding from bottles propped up so that gruel could slide down through an enlarged teat hole. Older children swayed back and forth. There were no toys. No physical contact. And bath-time meant a hosing down with freezing cold water. All the children were in a very poor state of health, both physically and mentally. Experts feared that those who had been there the longest would have experienced irreparable damage.

Indeed, of the children who had been there for longer than six months, around a quarter to a third did go on to have profound and ongoing difficulties. Miraculously, and despite being one of the oldest children in the orphanage when she left, Ionica wasn’t one of them.

Great British Life: Ionica Adriana backstage at Lighthouse Poole. (Photo: Richard Budd)Ionica Adriana backstage at Lighthouse Poole. (Photo: Richard Budd)

‘When we arrived in the UK, I became part of the English and Romanian Adoptee (ERA) Project, led by a child psychiatrist called Sir Michael Rutter,’ she explains. ‘My physical and cognitive indicators were measured, then every two years after. One of the things it showed is that we shouldn’t write people off. Despite the worst start possible, people can be resilient beyond belief, and until the age of seven there can still be hope.’

Aged 21, Ionica asked to meet Sir Michael, such was her gratitude that he’d dedicated so much of his career to the ERA study. ‘I wanted to say, look, it’s worked. Everything you’ve been saying is real. I am completely normal!’ A few years later, she was asked to speak at his funeral. ‘There were 33 speakers, I was the only Romanian adoptee. There I was sat in a row of Lords and Dames – and lots of people who had flown over from America. They all had letters after their names, and I was just me.’

When I ask if she’s suffered any residual effects from being in the orphanage she grimaces. ‘Flies. I was absolutely petrified of them. When my parents first saw me, the windows were broken, it was hot, and I was covered in them. So, seeing a fly linked back to the traumatised part of my brain.’ Is she okay with them now? ‘Not so much. But people run away from wasps and spiders, so it’s not that unusual.’

Great British Life: Happily settled with her new adoptive family in Yorkshire, Ionica aged five. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)Happily settled with her new adoptive family in Yorkshire, Ionica aged five. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)

She also had a desperate need to drink water whenever the opportunity arose. ‘I’d drink from hose pipes. Anything. Back in the orphanage we weren’t given enough liquid, in order to minimise the soiling of the sheets we were wrapped in. It took me a long time to lose the need to constantly rehydrate. Dad used to joke he was glad we weren’t on a water meter!’

Ionica has taken part in two Radio 4 documentaries. In one of them, Ceausescu’s Children, she returned to the orphanage in Transylvania. ‘When I was asked if I’d be interested in doing the programme I said, a million per cent yes.’ She smiles. ‘I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity. I met so many incredible people and learnt things I’d never have had the opportunity to know.’

The main building where Ionica was kept is now derelict. I ask how she felt, walking around it. ‘Knowing its history, even the producer I was with felt something about the energy. It was a completely empty space, just one string of plastic flowers, that was quite haunting.’

The documentary makers had looked for Ionica’s birth mother but were unable to trace her. However, during lockdown in 2020, when her mum came running into her room at 11pm, Ionica knew something was up. ‘Mum had always tried to find my birth mother on Facebook, and finally she did. She was living in Sicily with my half-sister.’ Ionica also has a half-sister in the US, and they’re all in touch.

Great British Life: Ionica in reflective mood during a play reading. (Photo: Ionica Adriana)Ionica in reflective mood during a play reading. (Photo: Ionica Adriana)

‘My birth mother is incredibly strong,’ she says proudly. ‘She survived the Communist regime and then moved abroad to start a new life. People have this perception that the babies were just dumped in these orphanages, but they weren’t. She really cared. There is so much that people don’t know, because none of it was documented.’

In 2022, after three years of talking to her birth mother online, Ionica decided to make an upcoming 50th birthday extra-special by travelling out to Sicily to surprise her. ‘Every year I’d record a video, holding up a bunch of cards with words on, like they did in the film Love Actually,’ says Ionica, scrolling through her phone to show me the video. ‘But last year, at the end of the recording I told her to turn around.’

I hold my breath as I watch the clip, for never have I seen one woman hug another so hard. With such intense emotion. My tears fall soon after.

Great British Life: Ionica and her adoptive sister Roxy at the orphanage in Romania. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)Ionica and her adoptive sister Roxy at the orphanage in Romania. (Photo: Supplied by Ionica Adriana)

One of the most famous phrases in panto is: ‘It’s behind you.’ And for one brave Romanian woman living in Sicily, I’m sure the words will always have so much more impact. Because, behind her was a brilliant young woman, her daughter. Ionica not only survived, but she’s thrived in the life she was given in the UK by loving parents, growing up to become an adult filled with real joy and light.

This year, as countless families watch Aladdin at Lighthouse Poole, enthralled by the possibilities of a genie and a wish-granting lamp, I’ll be thinking of a wish that was once granted four times over, as it turns out, to a childless couple in Yorkshire. For after they adopted Ionica and her sister, they successfully had two sons through IVF.

And that wish to adopt two children from a squalid Romanian orphanage will always be so very special. Because, as Ionica says wisely, ‘If you give someone a second chance in life, you’re never not going to win.’

Aladdin is at the Lighthouse Poole from December 7 – 31. Book at lighthousepoole.co.uk or call 01202 280000.

Great British Life: The cast of Lighthouse Poole's Aladdin. (Photo: Richard Budd)The cast of Lighthouse Poole's Aladdin. (Photo: Richard Budd)