All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 31 Treading the boards
Boxing Day was fairly quiet for Mum and I. Our lunch consisted of 'left-overs' from the previous day, which doesn't mean that they weren't very tasty indeed. We both had a 'siesta' in the afternoon, Mum because she was tired after all the Christmas preparations of the previous days, and me because I needed to be bright and rested before 'Cinderella' in the evening. Mum had decided that she would like to see the show with an audience and I was lucky enough to get a single ticket for her. I offered to pay for a taxi to take her to the theatre, but she said she didn't mind waiting a couple of hours for the show to begin and would even take her knitting along, so in the end I drove her to the theatre.
We arrived there at six o'clock and I left Mum, a solitary figure sitting in the stalls while I went down to my dressing room. The whole place was buzzing with that extra sense of excitement that always occurs on an opening night. I sat in a corner while the other girls had their hair and makeup done and then put on their costumes.
In the meantime, a voice over the loudspeaker in the corner of the room had announced the half hour to curtain up, then the quarter hour, five minutes and finally 'Overture and beginners please', at which time the other girls left the dressing room to the usual comment of 'Break a leg' from me and the dressing staff. I wasn't required until about forty-five minutes after the show started, so now it was my turn to have my hair and makeup done and to step into my costume.
Once I was ready, I walked up to the auditorium and stood in the wings to watch. Pantomime, probably more than any other theatrical performance needs an audience. The 'fourth wall' at the front of the stage is broken more often than in other types of play, and there is constant banter between the cast and the audience, in fact it is positively encouraged. The audience often offers advice ('Look behind you' etc) which is always deliberately misunderstood by the cast member until the very last second.
If there was any danger of me feeling superior because of my Stratford experience it would have been quickly scotched by watching the players in action. Jeff and Colin, the Ugly Sisters were excellent; so quick-witted they had the audience roaring with laughter. Watching them in subsequent performances, I noticed that while they more or less stuck to the script, they constantly improvised, and bounced off each other, probably due to their long experience of working together. I knew it was something I could never do, and realised that it was only because my part required me to stick to the script that David had asked me to step in.
My scene with Cinderella went very well, the audience even laughed at my solitary joke about not waving my magic wand near banks. The appearance of Cinderella's coach in a puff of smoke impressed them, but when I drew circles in the air with my 'magic wand', and Cinderella spun around, her costume changing to a glittering ball gown right there on the stage, there were gasps of amazement and then cheering. I'm sure some of the younger members of the audience thought they really had witnessed magic!
At Interval, as everyone in the cast grabbed a cup of tea and a biscuit to keep up the energy levels, there was a general consensus that things were going well. When the final curtain came down, and the curtain calls began, we were all happy with the way the performance had gone. With my small part, I was one of the first to take my bow, but the applause was generous and very gratifying. Cheers were reserved for the Ugly Sisters, and of course Prince Charming and Cinderella who came on last holding hands and wearing new and even more glittering costumes. The curtain rose and fell about six times before it finally stayed down and the house lights came up.
We waited on-stage for David, and he was smiling as he arrived.
“Well done everybody. That was an excellent performance,” he said. “Now we just have to hope that everyone in the audience tells their friends, although ticket sales are going very well.”
I changed as quick as I could since Mum was waiting for me in the stalls.
“That was a wonderful performance, darling,” she said. “It was even better with an audience.”
The report in the local newspaper a few days later was very gratifying.
”MAGICAL CINDERELLA COMES TO BRIDCHESTER”
'We are fortunate to have one of the few remaining professional repertory companies in Britain, and once again they are presenting an excellent pantomime, 'Cinderella'. Director David Soames has produced a fast-paced witty show with the usual audience participation encouraged as it should be.
'Mary Green is a sweet heroine in the title rôle, and is partnered well by Joyce Greenvale as the handsome Prince Charming. Twins Jeff and Colin Anderson as the Ugly Sisters had the audience in stitches with their witty repartee, the result of many years of experience. Marilyn Edwards as the wicked stepmother was suitable evil, and newcomer Julian Grayson as Buttons, the servant of Baron Hardup (Larry Cleary) evoked sympathy from the audience with his obvious unrequited love of Cinderella. Harriet Stow, an alumna of Apollo and currently performing Shakespeare at Stratford, stepped in at very short notice to play the Fairy Godmother while June Whitlow is indisposed. The whole ensemble performed to a very high standard.
'The singing was excellent, the jokes topical and the special effects, particularly the transformation of Cinderella's workmaid costume into her ball gown (especially made by Wardrobe Mistress Beatrice Arthur) right on stage, were met with gasps and cheers of appreciation from a capacity audience. The season continues until 26th January, with matinées on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Don't miss this excellent production and help keep live theatre in Bridchester.'
The article was accompanied by a picture of Mary in her ball gown and me as the Fairy Godmother waving my magic wand to effect the transformation. Out of all the pictures taken during the dress rehearsal, I really didn't expect them to use that one, especially as my part was so small. However I was glad that Aunty was given the recognition she so richly deserved.
I really enjoyed playing pantomime. It was certainly a contrast from Shakespeare but none the worse for that. Midway through the second week I received a phone call from June Whitlow one afternoon. Her voice still sounded a bit croaky, but she said she was feeling a lot better and invited me to afternoon tea at her house. I wondered if she was concerned that I was intending to perform the whole season, so I decided it was a good idea to meet up with her and allay her fears.
June lived in a nice house on the fringes of Bridchester. She had moved from Manchester about a year previously and so I had not previously met her. When she opened the front door I saw a pleasant-looking woman in her mid-forties who welcomed me in. I had dressed in my tartan skirt with black tights, a white silk blouse and three inch heels. I didn't want to look like a 'star from Stratford' remembering what had been written on the theatre billboards.
After June served tea, sandwiches and cakes she asked me what I thought of playing pantomime.
“I'm enjoying it very much, but I'm only filling in until you are ready to return,” I said. “I don't think I could ad-lib the way so many of the cast do.”
“I can't tell you how relieved I was when David told me he had found someone to take my place. As you know, we don't have understudies, so I was starting to think that I'd have to drag myself onto the stage somehow, but it wouldn't have sounded good, the Fairy Godmother croaking like an old frog!”
We both laughed at that.
“You probably know that David is my brother-in-law, but even so I'd have been happy to help out since I have a few weeks off. Apollo gave me my first professional part on stage and that was when someone was sick too, so this was a pay-back in a way.”
“I heard that you've been playing Juliet at Stratford. That must have been so exciting.”
“Well it's a dream rôle of course, and I was so lucky to get it. Not only that, but we are going on a world tour in about a month, presenting 'Romeo and Juliet' and also 'Twelfth Night'. I have parts in both but I won't be doing all the 'Romeo and Juliet' performances as I'm sharing the rôle with another girl. It will be my first ever overseas trip and I'm so excited.”
“Well from what I hear you thoroughly deserved to get the parts,” she said.
I blushed. “Thank you. I have been very fortunate. I'm sure there are many other actresses who could perform the rôles as well if not better, but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Before I left we were firm friends, and she made me promise to tell her when I was next performing and she would do her best to come to see me.
I was just about to leave when we heard a car pull up outside and a minute later a tall very handsome young man with flaming red hair rushed in to the room and kissed June on the cheek.
“Hello Mum, we're just back from Scotland.” He then appeared to notice me for the first time as his mother said “Phillip, this is Harriet Stow. You remember that she took over the Fairy Godmother rôle when I got sick?”
Phillip flashed me a one thousand watt smile “Hello Miss Stow, I'm very pleased to meet you.”
Cursing the blush I could feel rising in my cheeks I said “Call me Harriet please.”
“Thank you so much for standing in for Mum. She was very worried when she knew that she couldn't perform.”
“It was my pleasure,” I responded, “and speaking of which I really have to go to the theatre now to prepare for tonight's performance.”
“Let me see you out,” said Phillip, and after saying goodbye to June I let him escort me to my car.
“I haven't been to a pantomime in years,” said Phillip. “I'll see if I can get a seat in the next couple of days.”
“I'm sure you'll enjoy it,” I replied. “I'm certainly enjoying performing in it, although I hope your Mum is well enough to resume the rôle soon.”
As I drove to the theatre, I couldn't help thinking about Phillip. I could imagine that he had a string of girls lined up waiting for him to take notice of them, so I didn't really expect to see him again.
That evening while on stage I glanced at the audience and there was Reggie and Sophie sitting in the middle of the stalls about three rows back. I gave no indication that I had seen them, and carried on performing. I did wonder what was on Sophie's mind. She seemed to have chosen seats where she knew they were visible from the stage. Was this to say 'I've got him and you haven't'?
What did come as a surprise was that when I left the theatre by the stage door, there was Phillip waiting for me.
“I decided that there's no time like the present so I rang the box office and it turned out that they had a couple of single seats, so here I am. I was wondering if I could express my thanks for a most enjoyable evening by taking you to supper?”
This was a young man who never heard the word 'no' when it came to women, and he didn't hear it then. I was always hungry after a performance, even one as small as 'F.G.' as I'd now taken to calling it.
We walked to a small café close to the theatre which stayed open for theatre patrons. It was rather full, but the waiter found us a table for two near the back, and as we walked towards it I was shocked to see Reggie and Sophie sitting at a table which I would have to pass.
This time I couldn't pretend not to see them, so I paused briefly and said “Hello Sophie, Reggie, I hope you enjoyed the performance.”
“Yes, it was excellent,” said Sophie. “Especially you, but I thought you were in Stratford?”
“I'm just a having a short break before we go on an overseas tour,” I replied. “The local company needed a stand-in when a cast member was sick, so here I am. Oh, by the way, this is Phillip. He's the son of June Whitlow who should be playing the part I'm currently doing.”
“Hello,” said Sophie, smiling archly at Phillip.
'You tramp,' I thought.'You can't keep your eyes off anything in trousers.'
“Well we mustn't keep you from your supper. Nice to see you again,” I said, and followed the waiter who was standing there patiently while this exchange was going on.
“Who were they?” said Phillip when we were seated at our table. I decided that the more of the truth I could say, the better.
“I've known Reggie for years. He comes from Bridchester too. We went out a few times when I was acting in London, but recently he met up with and married Sophie.”
Phillip looked at me closely “Something tells me you weren't too happy about that?”
I shrugged. “Well I'm an actress and we live rather a gypsy life. I'm not ready to settle down yet and obviously he was.”
“So what does he do?” asked Phillip.
“He's studying Economics at York University. That's where he met Sophie.”
“Fancy that. I'm at York too, but I'm studying History. I had a feeling that I'd seen Sophie somewhere before. She's not easy to forget.”
'What a shame she didn't get her claws into you first,' I thought and then decided that was unkind.
“Now that I've met Reggie I'll probably run into him there. Does he play sport?” said Phillip.
“Yes, he's a very good cricketer and footballer,” I replied.
“Well I probably will run into him. I'm a member of the Uni cricket team. We're always checking out the college teams for likely talent. Which college is he in?”
“Derwent,” I replied. I wasn't too sure that I was happy the way this had all turned out. Sophie might have felt happy to see me with yet another man, but what had Reggie thought when he saw me with Phillip? Did he now think that the love I sent him in emails was not genuine? I decided to send him an email as soon as possible and set matters straight.
I was seated facing the rear of the restaurant so I didn't see Reggie and Sophie leave, but they were gone by the time we left. Phillip was good company and we chatted amiably as we ate supper.
“I'm guessing you have Sundays off, so would you like to go for a drive in the country and have lunch?” said Phillip.
'Oh dear, I'd better handle this carefully, I don't want to bruise a sensitive male ego,' I thought. 'I'm sure Phillip isn't used to refusals, and I don't want him to be biased against Reggie because of me. However, I suspect he's the sort of man who expects a first date to end up in bed because it usually does.'
“That would be very nice,” I replied. “The problem is that I'm only here for one more weekend and I promised Mum I'd take her out on Sunday. Do you mind if I take a rain check on that?”
“No, that's fine. I'm sure we'll catch up again,” said Phillip, looking rather disappointed.
“I hope so too. Anyway, what would your girlfriend think?” I said with a smile.
“I don't have a girlfriend,” he replied.
“Unless you are gay, which I very much doubt, I suspect what you really mean is that you have many girlfriends but no-one special?”
Phillip laughed “Harriet, you're not only very pretty, you're also very smart. That's one of the many things I like about you.” That embarrassed me of course, which was what he intended, and made him think he'd won the exchange and I was happy that he thought so.
After we finished our supper, we walked back to where I had parked my car, and I made no objection when Phillip kissed me goodnight. It was quite a kiss too, with his tongue halfway down my throat. It seemed my 'women's instinct' about Phillip had been right.
The following morning I rang Emma and asked if I could use her computer as I needed to send Reggie an email. She had no objection of course, so I went round there later and wrote to Reggie as follows:
I was surprised to see you at the pantomime, but I guess that means that it was S's idea. Bumping into you at the café was also a surprise, but perhaps a good thing as S must think I am accumulating boyfriends. I only met Phillip yesterday and won't be meeting up with him again if I can help it.
I do need to tell you about him though, he's a member of the York University cricket team which I know you'd like to join, so I did my best to keep him sweet without actually agreeing to go on a date with him. I told him we were just casual friends, so you know what to tell him about me if he asks.
I hope you had a good Christmas. You looked well which I was pleased to see. I go back to Stratford in about a week and then prepare for the overseas tour. When I return I'm having my surgery. I'm not sure what I'll be doing afterwards but that's an actor's life.
All my love,
I checked it over and clicked 'send'. I didn't know when he'd get a chance to read it, so I didn't expect a prompt reply.
On the following Sunday I took Mum out for a run in the country and lunch at one of the village pubs which put on such nice food.
As we drove along, Mum said “Darling, you know I don't like to pry but I'm still puzzled about what happened with Reggie and you. You seemed so happy together and then you tell me he's gone and married this young woman he's only just met. There must be more to the story than that.”
I had been expecting this for some time, so I'd had time to get my story together. I hated telling Mum a lie, but there were parts of the story it was better she didn't know, so my sins were more of omission than commission.
The way I told it, Reggie had had a fling with Sophie and she had become pregnant so he felt he had to do the honorable thing and marry her. Since then she had lost the baby. I didn't say anything about Sid and his veiled threats; the less anyone know about that the better.
“Maybe it worked out for the best,” I said. “After all, I probably won't be at Stratford for ever. I might be travelling all over the country and that doesn't help a marriage.”
Mum looked at me and said nothing, but I don't think she believed me.
Midway through the following week, June returned to rehearse her part, and the Friday night performance was my last. Everyone was so kind, saying how much I had helped them out and they hoped to see me on stage with them again sometime. They presented me with a huge bouquet of flowers which I left with Mum after extracting a few of the blooms to take back with me to Stratford. I felt a little sad to be leaving Brid and the show, but after all I was only ever a stand-in.
To be continued.
I 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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