All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 29 The Fairy Godmother
The following Monday I had a phone call from my brother-in-law David.
“Hi Harriet, how's it going? I believe you're coming up to Brid soon?”
“Yes David, I'll be there in a couple of days. I'm looking forward to having a rest from acting. Are you having a break too?”
He laughed. “You know what rep theatre is like, we never close. Our production of 'Cinderella' starts on Boxing Day.”
For those readers who are not aware, it's a tradition in British theatre dating back several hundred years to present a pantomime during the Christmas holidays. The Apollo Players at Brid was no exception and as one of the few repertory companies still in existence, they really counted on good ticket sales to subsidise the rest of the year and keep from folding.
There are a number of traditional pantomimes such as 'Aladdin', 'Puss in Boots', 'Jack and the Beanstalk', 'Sleeping Beauty' etc. and 'Cinderella' is one of the most popular. The stories are very simple and are hundreds of years old, but each production is unique, being adapted to include slapstick, topical references, songs, dancing and audience participation. For many people in the audience, this is the only theatrical production they will attend in a year, but they do so quite religiously.
I knew immediately that this wasn't just a social call from David, but I decided to tease him.
“Cinderella one of my favourite pantos. I'll make sure to bring Mum along to a performance,” I said innocently, deliberately putting him on the spot.
“Err, actually there's a reason I'm calling you, and before you get mad, it was your sister's idea,” David said.
“Don't tell me, someone's broken a leg,” I replied.
“Not quite, it's June Whitlow who's playing the Fairy Godmother; she's come down with tonsillitis. She'll probably be alright in a couple of weeks, that's what her doctor says anyway, but in the meantime we really need someone to step into the rôle.”
I laughed. “And I'm the emergency 'go to' girl?” I said.
David was laughing now too. “Something like that.”
“There's just one thing,” I said.
“If it's about the pay, I'm sorry we can't give you what ISC does,” he said. “To be honest, we really can't afford you.”
“No it's not about the money; I don’t want to take a job away from someone who needs it more than I do.”
“Well there's a reason why I'm asking you. The show starts in just over a week, and I really don't have time now to hold auditions and then ask someone to step in just for a couple of weeks. I know you can learn the part in no time and give a good performance. There is one other thing. The Fairy Godmother is older than Cinderella of course. That's not a problem for June as she's in her thirties, but you will have to be made up to look older than you are; I hope you don't mind?”
“David, I owe you big time. If you hadn't given me my first part I wouldn't be where I am today, so of course I'll help you out. If you'd asked me to be one of the Ugly Sisters I might have had misgivings, but I certainly don't mind looking like an older woman if she's the Fairy Godmother. As for money, just pay me the going rate for cast members. I'll speak to my agent Richard and explain things to him. All I ask is that you don't tell anyone what you're paying me, alright?”
“It's a deal, and thank you Harriet, I won't forget this,” David said, the relief in his voice very obvious.
“I'll drive to Brid tomorrow and see you at the theatre. Can you have a copy of the script ready for me please?”
After we finished speaking, I rang Mum and told her about David's call and that I would be coming up to Brid the following day if it wasn't inconvenient.
“Of course not darling, I'll be happy to see you. I'm so glad you're helping David out. He was quite worried about ringing you; he knows how hard you've been working,” said Mum. I should have realised that she'd know all about it.
“I worked that out, he blamed Emma for the call,” I said. “I was never going to say 'no', he gave me my first break, remember?”
Mum laughed. “I do indeed, and look how far you've come in such a short time.”
My next move was to write an email to Reggie:
It seems I won't be having a holiday in Brid after all. David just rang and asked if I could fill in as Fairy Godmother in the Apollo pantomime 'Cinderella' that starts on Boxing Day. The lady they cast has tonsillitis and he doesn't have time to find someone else. It's only until she recovers, so will be a week or two at most. It will be fun to do, since I've never done pantomime before. It's only a small part and I won't have to work too hard.
All my love, Harriet.'
Reggie was smart enough to read between the lines that I was telling him not to suggest going to the show since Sophie would think he was doing it to see me. On the other hand if she suggested it and then found out I was in the show, Reggie could plead ignorance.
I decided not to take my computer to Brid, but instead would ask Emma if I could use theirs to check if Reggie replied.
The following day I packed the car and drove to Bridchester, arriving at lunch time. Mum welcomed me as she always did, told me I was too thin which was another regular comment, and promised to feed me up. After a light lunch I drove down to the theatre. As I walked towards the stage door past one of the big framed posters, I saw that there had been an addition pasted at the bottom. It read:
'Special guest star Harriet Stow as the Fairy Godmother.
Harriet recently starred in the Imperial Shakespeare Company production of 'Romeo and Juliet'.'
Two 'stars' in one announcement. Someone hadn't wasted any time and I hadn't even had a rehearsal yet! I had better not let them down.
I opened the stage door and there was old Jim in his cramped little office, just as he'd always been.
“Why Miss Harriet, it's so good to see you!” he exclaimed, beaming.
“It's good to see you Jim, how have things been?”
“Well, we're still here although sometimes I wonder how we do it,” he said. “I hear you're helping us out again, just like you did before.”
I smiled “And happy to do so Jim. It will be like old times. Is David holding a rehearsal at present?”
“Yes, and he won't forgive me for holding you up. I'm guessing you can still find your way?”
“I think so Jim, and it's really great to see you again.”
I really meant it; Jim is one of those unsung heroes who helps keep provincial theatre alive.
I made my way quietly into the auditorium. David was on-stage and taking some of the cast through their lines. I stood and watched until they took a break, and then I walked down the side aisle towards the stage. David saw me and waved.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who don't know her, this is my sister-in-law Harriet Stow. Harriet has just driven up from Stratford where she's been starring in an obscure little play called 'Romeo and Juliet'. She's kindly agreed to help us out by playing the Fairy Godmother in our pantomime for a couple of weeks until June recovers. Come up and meet the cast, Harriet.”
Somewhat to my embarrassment everyone present started to applaud.
“Thank you everyone. It's really great to be here,” I responded. “This is my first pantomime and I'm really looking forward to working with you. I hope you'll be kind to a beginner.” That produced a laugh of course.
David stepped forward as I climbed the steps up onto the stage, and taking my hand introduced me to the cast members. Some I knew from the time when I had worked with Apollo, which now seemed so long ago, others were new to me.
“This is Joyce Greenvale who is the Principal Boy and playing 'Prince Charming',” he said, introducing me to a tall and strikingly handsome young woman, “and here are the Ugly Sisters, Jeff and Colin Anderson.”
There is a tradition of cross-dressing in pantomime. The Principal Boy is played by a young woman, and characters like the Ugly Sisters or an older woman described as the 'Dame' are played by men. There is no attempt to disguise the real gender of the performers, in fact the Principal Boy usually wears a short costume which reveals her legs clad in fishnet tights and boots.
David introduced me to everyone on the stage and then said “Thanks very much for coming so quickly. I've got a copy of the script for you. Now I don't want to rush you, but can you go down and see Aunty for a costume fitting?”
Just then I caught sight of Mary as she stepped out of the wings and she saw me at the same moment. I rushed forward and we had a big hug.
“So who are you playing?” I asked.
“Cinderella!” she exclaimed. “Didn't David tell you?”
“No he didn't, he was too concerned with persuading me to help out as the Fairy Godmother, not that I needed much persuading,” I said. “This is great, my big scene will be with you.”
Mary was called for a rehearsal then, so I headed down to see 'Aunty' Arthur the wardrobe mistress, who had been at Apollo as long as anyone could remember. When I knocked on her door and entered, she was bent over one of her big sewing machines and looked up to stare blankly at me for a few seconds. Then a huge smile spread over her face as she stood up.
“Harriet! For a moment I didn't recognise you. My goodness, you've become quite the young lady!” she exclaimed.
“Aunty, it's so good to see you again,” I said as we had a big hug.
“I never expected to be fitting you for another costume, and then David told me you're going to help us out again.”
“There's a real sense of déjà vu about this isn't there?” I said. “My very first rôle happened right here because Mary had appendicitis, and now I'm back again because June's got tonsillitis. I was really supposed to be having a holiday, but I think this will be more fun.”
She laughed. “Everyone's so proud of what you've achieved in such a short time. David keeps us up to date, so we heard about 'Juliet', and now you're going around the world with ISC, that's amazing. Anyway, I mustn't keep chattering, you're here for a costume fitting. Do you mind slipping off your dress and I'll take your measurements. I suspect they've changed a bit since last time.”
I did as she asked and as I stood there in my silk slip she said “Now that's something you don't see very often nowadays.”
“The slip you mean? Well they do help a dress hang better. I'm surprised more women don't wear them, but then you don't see women in dresses so much any more unless it's a special occasion.”
“I totally agree with you my dear, but times have changed. So many young women nowadays dress like they are lorry drivers.”
“Well, you'll never see me do that, especially now I'm a member of ISC. There's standards to be kept up you know!” I said with a laugh.
As Aunty measured my bust I couldn't help remarking “All real this time, Aunty,” which was cause for more amusement.
“And very nice they are too,” said Aunty.
When she measured my waist she said “You won't believe it but there was a time when my waist wasn't much bigger than yours.”
Finally she checked my hips which had increased considerably since the first time she had measured them.
“It's all due to the hormones,” I explained. “My body seems to have reacted more significantly than a lot of other trans women, so I've been lucky there.”
“Well I just see a very beautiful young woman,” replied Aunty. She walked over to a rack and took down a very pretty long dress in electric blue with a flared skirt and tulle overlay – very 'fairy princess' in style.
“This is one of the two dresses I made for June. You are both about the same bust size, but your waist and hips are slightly smaller. If you try it on, I should be able to take it in a bit and then let it out when she comes back. There's so little time, if we can get it to fit that will save me a lot of work.”
She helped me into the dress and looked at it critically. “Yes, I think I can do that.” She took up a handful of pins and started using them to make adjustments, stepping back every so often to view her work. Finally she pronounced herself satisfied and helped me to remove the dress without sticking any of the pins into me.
“I'll have it ready by tomorrow if you can come back for a final fitting,” she said.
I couldn't help thinking once again what a treasure she was for the company, and yet there are so many essential people behind the scenes in a theatre who never get the acknowledgement they deserve, while we actors get a disproportionate share of it.
I walked back up to the stalls with the script while the rehearsal went on. David was right, it was quite a small script and very easy to learn after Shakespeare. That didn't mean that I wasn't going to take it seriously. The Fairy Godmother is a small part but an important one, and unlike some of the characters is played straight and without improvising. With so little time to prepare that was an advantage.
With the rehearsal over, David came down off the stage to see me.
“Emma has invited you and your mum to dinner this evening. Can you come? It will give us more time to discuss the rôle.”
“Thank you, I'd like that,” I said. “There's one thing I wanted to discuss with you. I notice that my name has been added to the billboards outside. It's very flattering but I wonder if it's a good idea?”
“Anything that gets more bums on seats is a good idea,” he responded.
“But supposing someone from the local paper sees it and remembers little Harry Stow who enjoyed performing girls' parts in school plays, then puts two and two together and comes up with five? You might get publicity you don't want.”
“That won't happen,” he responded. “I don't know if you remember Rupert Morley at school? He was a year or two ahead of you. Well he's the editor now, a good friend of mine and one of our greatest supporters. Nothing detrimental like that will appear in the local paper. That doesn't mean he wouldn't print a bad review if we deserved it, but that hasn't happened to date.”
That evening we had a lovely family dinner. Of course with two actresses and a director we 'talked shop' as you do, but Mum didn't seem to mind; she was quite used to it by now, and sat there happily playing with Elizabeth who was teething and getting a bit fractious. We particularly concentrated on my scene with Cinderella which of course has some magical effects including changing a pumpkin into a coach, and Cinderella's costume changing from that of a serving girl into a glittering ball gown.
“Have you had a look at the script yet?” said David. “How long do you think you'll need to memorise it?”
“Not long,” I replied. “At least it's in modern English and it's just a dialogue between me and Cinderella. I'll run through it again tonight and I'm sure I'll be ready by tomorrow.”
“That's good,” said David. “We'll rehearse your scene in the morning as we're due to have a full dress rehearsal in the afternoon.
When memorising a script, it's necessary not only to know your own lines but most of those spoken by other people in the scene of course, especially those that give you your cues. I didn't like to say that I had already memorised the script as it sounded like boasting, but I suspect David knew that I had.
“How about the special effects?” I asked.
“Well the coach which is quite narrow will already be at the rear of the stage behind one of two identical backdrops. You ask Cinderella for a pumpkin which will be papier-mâché as a real one would be far too heavy. There'll also be some field mice, model ones of course, which she's caught and put in a little cage in order to release later, being the kind-hearted person that she is. These will become the horses and coachmen. They are all placed on the kitchen table which has a table cloth reaching to the ground to hide a props guy behind it.
The moment that you wave your magic wand, we will set off a flash pot at the front of the stage which generates a bang and some smoke to obscure the audience's view, plus give them a bit of a shock. The props guy sweeps the pumpkin and mouse cage off the table into a basket, the backdrop falls to the stage and is pulled off into the wings and 'bingo!' as soon as the smoke clears there is the coach shaped like a pumpkin! One important thing is that you must both be ten feet from the flash pot or we can't activate it for safety reasons. We have a designated pyrotechnics guy and he has strict instructions about that.”
“Well that sounds exciting,” I said. “And what about Cinderella's ball gown? Does she go off-stage for a quick change?”
“Ah, now that is the pièce de résistance. Aunty has made us a 'transformation gown'. Have you heard of those before? The material of the ball gown is very light, and it is tucked inside Cinderella's serving girl costume. When you weave the magic spell, she will be facing away from the audience and it's your job to distract their attention from her, a bit like a conjurer. She loosens some ties on her costume and then spins around. Part of her costume turns inside-out, and the skirt of the ball gown falls down, covering the rest. Here, let me show you; I recorded it on my mobile phone.”
He held up his phone for me to see the little screen and what an amazing effect it was. As Mary spun around her costume changed from a dowdy brown work dress into a glittering pale blue ball gown in a matter of seconds.
“Wow! That's really going to thrill the audience,” I said.
“Well, we certainly hope so,” David said with a smile. “We want to show people that we can create magic too, just like in the Disney animation film. The final touch is Cinderella's glass slippers, which aren't really glass of course but a clear synthetic material. They really do look quite convincing.”
“My goodness, you've gone to a lot of trouble,” I said. “The little girls in particular are going to love the show.”
“And they'll all be pestering their parents for Cinderella ball gowns. It's just as well we start the season when they've already been given their Christmas presents or we'd be really unpopular!' laughed David.
The following morning I arrived early at the theatre ready to rehearse my scene with Mary. David started by blocking our moves on the stage and then described the part of the scene before my entrance. Then we had a practice run.
We rehearsed from the point where the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters had left for the ball, leaving poor Cinders sitting by the fireplace and quietly weeping. The stage lights were dimmed, and I entered stage right (that's left from the audience's point of view, and is the traditional entrance side for the good characters), and was immediately illuminated in my very own spotlight for more effect. Now that's something you don't get playing Shakespeare!
I crossed over to Cinderella who of course didn't notice my entrance, and said “My child, why are you weeping so?”
She looked up startled and said in a tremulous voice “Alas, all the family has been invited to the palace for a ball held in honour of the Prince's birthday, but my stepmother has refused me permission to go. Instead she's taking my step-sisters.” Then she gasped, stood up and said, “I'm sorry madam, I didn't hear you come in. In fact how did you come in? I thought all the doors and windows were locked. May I ask who you are?”
“I am your Fairy Godmother, child, and locked doors and windows are not a problem when you have a magic wand.” Then holding my hand beside my mouth and speaking as an aside to the audience I said “In fact I have to be very careful not to wave my magic wand around when I pass a bank. (Pause for laughter) Now I have some very good news to tell you. You were invited and you shall go to the ball.”
Not exactly Shakespeare I grant you, but it served the purpose and with a bit of luck the audience might even laugh at the rather weak joke. From there I asked Cinderella for the pumpkin and mice and we ran through that part without actually doing the switch; the dress change was mimed and I handed her into the coach which was at the rear of the stage, warning her to leave the ball by midnight. For that first run through the coach wasn't drawn off the stage, although I stood there waving my wand as though it was departing into the distance.
David seemed satisfied and just made a few suggestions about our movements, emphasising again where we should be when the flash pot would be discharged which of course was absolutely crucial to the coach transformation. We ran through it once more, and then took a break while I went down to see Aunty for a final costume fitting.
Down in Wardrobe Aunty had the dress ready and when I tried it on she looked critically at it and me and pronounced herself satisfied.
“Have a look at yourself in the mirror,” she said. “What do you think?”
“I think the person who works magic around here is you,” I replied
Laughing she said “Props have given me your magic wand,” handing it to me. “There's a battery in the handle that lights up the star at the end. Do a few waves with it so that I can see how the dress looks when you move.”
I obliged her with some 'spell-casting' moves and she was happy with the result. After that I took off the dress with Aunty's help, put my own dress back on and went back to the auditorium to watch the rest of the rehearsal take place. When it was over, David called all the cast members onto the stage.
“Right everyone,” he said, “we'll break for an early lunch now and afterwards we'll get ready for a full dress rehearsal this afternoon, starting at two o'clock.”
We all went to a local café for lunch and a chat. One of the things I love about acting is that being part of a cast is like becoming part of a large family. Inevitably there were plenty of enquiries about what I had been doing, but no-one seemed jealous of my good fortune. Once we had finished eating we headed back to the theatre to get ready for the dress rehearsal.
As we arrived, I could hear the orchestra tuning up. Previously the singers had been accompanied by a pianist but now we would have the full ensemble. I walked down to the front of the stalls and looked in the orchestra pit to see how it was made up. The instruments consisted of a piano, bass, guitar and drums, three violins, a trumpet, trombone and saxophone. Just as I arrived, Freddie the conductor started taking them through the score. For a relative small group they made a great sound.
The dressing rooms at the Palace Theatre are not very big, and the pantomime cast is probably the largest one of the year, so to give them space I sat in the stalls until the cast who were on-stage first had finshed dressing. To my surprise I saw my sister Emma arrive, together with baby Elizabeth and Mum. They saw me and came down to chat.
“David said I could come to the dress rehearsal since I could bring Elizabeth along. I'll take her out if she cries, but she's normally very good. I phoned Mum and asked her if she'd like to come along as well. I know you were going to bring her to a performance, but that was before you became part of the cast,” Emma explained.
“Well don't forget there'll be a bit of a bang when they let off the flash pot in my scene,” I smiled. “Anyway I see they're lowering the curtain so they must be getting ready to start, and I'd better go down to dress.”
I heard the orchestra start the overture as I made my way down to the dressing room I had been assigned. The make-up girl and hairdresser were there, and one of Aunty's assistants was also present to help me dress. Once I was ready there was nothing to do but wait until I was called to the stage, so I went up and stood in the wings to watch the performance. It all went very well, and I knew it would be even better when there was an audience to interact with. Everyone was now in costume, and I must say that some of the costumes and make-up like those of the Ugly Sisters were positively grotesque, but that all adds to the fun.
Then came my scene with Mary and it seemed to go very well indeed. I couldn't tell from the stage of course, but I was assured later that the magical transformation of the pumpkin and mice into the coach and horses went faultlessly. Despite the bang of the flash pot, I didn't hear any crying from the stalls, so it seemed baby Elizabeth had taken it in her stride. For the first time I witnessed the transformation of Cinderella's costume into the ball gown at close quarters and it looked very impressive.
The scene ended with me helping Cinderella into the coach which then moved off-stage, drawn by four young actors from a local school, wearing horses' head masks. I waved them goodbye and the curtain came down. After that I had nothing further to do until the final scene where Prince Charming presents Cinderella to his parents as his bride to be, and I appeared in the background smiling and waving my magic wand, apparently unseen by everyone except Cinderella who smiles back at me. Then the final curtain came down.
We practised the curtain calls to generous applause from the few people present, and waited on stage for David's comments. He seemed very pleased with the way it had gone and only had a few minor points that needed adjustment.
There is an old theatrical tradition that says if you have a really bad dress rehearsal, then the opening night performance will be great, and vice versa. I don't know that I really believe this. I suspect it is a story invented by a director who had a really bad dress rehearsal and wanted to boost the cast's confidence. Now it's become part of theatrical folklore. Anyway, there was to be a second dress rehearsal the next day, so there was still time for things to go wrong!
Once I had changed I went up to the stalls where Mum was waiting and we drove home.
To be continued
would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story, also Julia Phillips for picking up my punctuation errors and any typos Louise or I missed. I'm very grateful to them both.
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