There is Nothing like a Dame Chapter 3

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There is Nothing like a Dame

A novel by Bronwen Welsh


Copyright© 2017 Bronwen Welsh

A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage

Chapter 3   In at the deep end

As we approached the stage I saw that many of the cast were already there, standing in front of a semi-circle of chairs. Because I had been invited to perform my rôle without an audition, I hadn't caught up on the identity of the other cast members. It turned out that I knew some, but not all of them. Closely followed by Viola, who seemed more nervous than ever, I walked up the steps onto the stage. The conversation ceased as they watched me approach, so I broke it by saying “Hello everyone, I'm Harriet Stow for those who don't know me and I'm playing 'Julia'. This is Vi Edwards and she's playing 'Sylvia'.”

“Hi there Harriet, good to see you,” said Mike Jacobs, one of the actors I knew from Stratford. “You too, Vi. I'm Mike, and I'm playing 'Valentine'. Is this your first time at Stratford?”

Vi blushed. Well, Mike was very handsome and a heart-breaker, perhaps I should warn her. “Yes, it is,” she responded. “I'm really looking forward to it.”

'Perhaps even more than you were a minute ago,' I thought to myself.

A couple of stragglers arrived and it seemed we had a full complement. I'm sure Hoppy notified the stage manager who in turn spoke to our director Chris Johnson. He wouldn't want to make an appearance until everyone arrived or he'd have to repeat himself. Now he appeared, walking out of the wings.

“Good morning everyone and to those who are here for the first time, welcome to Stratford. I'm Chris Johnson, the Director of 'Two Gentlemen'. Some of you know each other, but some are new, so I suggest we all introduce ourselves with a brief C.V.”

He went on to describe how he had gained a place at RADA, initially with a view to becoming a professional actor but he and the staff came to realise that his greatest strengths lay in directing, and that was how he eventually graduated.

“Harriet, perhaps you'd like to go next?”

“My name is Harriet Stow, and unlike most of you, I am not a graduate of a drama school. I commenced my professional career by accident when I was working as Assistant Stage Manager at a theatre in Bridchester, and one of the cast came down with appendicitis. I happened to know her part and was co-opted at short notice.” I noticed a few raised eyebrows. “When the production moved to London, I continued in the rôle and was later fortunate in obtaining a part here in Stratford. I've been performing here for a few years; one rôle was Viola in 'Twelfth Night' which Chris directed.”

I stopped at this point, afraid I was going on rather too long. Chris smiled.

“What Harriet was too modest to tell you was that she has been asked to be a resident artist later in the year at an American theatre specialising in Shakespeare. In order to help her in this new venture, she has been appointed Assistant Director for this production.”

I'm sure that came as quite a surprise to the rest of the cast as there was faint murmuring amongst them.

The rest of the cast then introduced themselves, and when it came to Viola's turn she said “My name's Viola Edwards,” she paused and blushing said, “My parents are Shakespeare enthusiasts in case you hadn't guessed.” She was rewarded by a laugh from the assembled cast. She went on “I'm a RADA graduate and I've played a few parts in provincial theatres, but this is my first time in a Shakespeare play apart from school productions and also my first time here in Stratford. I'm really looking forward to working and learning from you all.”

'Very diplomatic,' I thought, which I hope doesn't sound unkind because it wasn't meant that way. The worst thing is young actors who arrive at a prestigious company and think they know it all; they don't last long.

Each cast member was given a smattering of applause as they gave their resumé.

When everyone had spoken, Chris said: “Right. We are going to start with a read through of the play. Anyone who doesn't fully know their part is welcome to read from the script, but I expect everyone to be 'off book' by the middle of next week at the latest.”

Just as he finished speaking a mobile phone began to ring. Now it goes without saying that every mobile phone must be switched off at a rehearsal and everyone looked at each other in shock. It was even more shocking when Chris Johnson himself fished in his pocket and pulled out the offending phone. He pressed the button and said “One moment please. Sorry, everyone, this is an important call.” Then turning to me he said “Harriet, would you mind taking over for me please?” With that he walked off the stage into the wings. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end!

I took a deep breath. “Right everyone, we'll start the read-through. Let's approach it as though it was a live radio production of the play. I'd like everyone to act their part and there will be no stops if anyone fluffs their lines, but bonus points if any glitches are smoothed over. Those who need to open your scripts please and we'll begin.” I paused while scripts were opened and then started as though I was introducing a radio broadcast. “The Imperial Shakespeare Company presents 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' by William Shakespeare. Act one. The scene – Verona, an open place; enter Valentine and Proteus.”

I looked at Mike and nodded. He commenced his part and I was pleased to see that both he and Greg Oldham who played Proteus, knew their parts. Greg was the son of Reg, a cast member in the Hamlet production where I'd played Ophelia, and I'd met him briefly before. I was pleased to see they played well against each other and I suspected they had rehearsed the scene privately.

When it came to the appropriate point, I said “Enter Speed, Valentine's page.”

The rest of the scene went well, and then it was my turn as Julia in Scene Two, with Lucetta, my servant. She was played by Liza Taylor, a young actress that I had never met before. We had no previous experience of acting with each other, but I thought it went quite well. This scene which consists of a dialogue between Julia and Lucetta, includes Julia's famous speech after she has torn up a letter from Proteus:

'Nay, would I were so anger'd with the same!
O hateful hands, to tear such loving words!
Injurious wasps, to feed on such sweet honey
And kill the bees that yield it with your stings!
I'll kiss each several paper for amends.
Look, here is writ 'kind Julia.' Unkind Julia! ...'

When we started the third scene which would complete the first act, I couldn't help wondering where Chris had disappeared to. Surely his telephone call couldn't have lasted this long?

The answer became apparent when the scene finished, and Chris walked out of the wings and onto the stage.

“Well done everyone,” he said. “I listened to you in the wings so that I didn't disturb you, but for the first run through it went very well.” He glanced at his watch. “We'll do the second act and then break for lunch. Would you introduce it please Harriet?”

I nodded and said “Act Two. Milan. The Duke's palace. Enter Valentine and Speed.” With that, the next act began.

I should mention that this play is unique in that while Shakespeare often mentions dogs, here one actually appears on-stage, in the form of Crab, Launce's not very obedient animal. We didn't have the dog at this read through, but Alan Hayman who played Launce was partly chosen because he had a dog, Phideaux, which he swore would behave himself on-stage and not lift his leg on the scenery!

With the conclusion of Act Two, Chris said. “Well done, ladies and gentlemen. We'll take a break for lunch now. Please be back in an hour and we'll read through the other three acts.”

As everyone trooped off the stage, Chris came across to me and said “I'm sorry to throw you in at the deep end like that Harriet, but you did very well as I knew you would. Scene Two was excellent and young Viola did well too. I think playing against you gave her confidence. You may not have realised it but you are becoming something of a mentor to younger actors.

“By the way, you might think that phone call was a set-up but I assure you it was genuine. My father-in-law is in hospital and just had an operation. That was my wife ringing to say that he had come through it alright. There was nothing I could do of course, except lend a sympathetic ear which is what she wanted, that's why I made an exception and took the call.”

I nodded. “I understand completely,” I said. “Sometimes other things have to take priority over a play rehearsal.”

“Would you like to come down to the café for lunch? We can discuss the play,” he said.

Together we walked down to the Riverside Café, staying inside since the weather was still very chilly, and the last thing an actor wants is a cold. Over sandwiches and coffee, Chris described how he was going to approach the production. It was very interesting to 'get inside a director's head' as it were, and I determined to make some notes as soon as I had a chance.

After lunch, we went through the final three acts which we completed by mid-afternoon. It was too late to do anything else, so Chris said we would 'call it a day' and he would see us all at nine o'clock the following morning.

--ooOoo--

I drove to the flat and took my suitcase inside. There was a note from Dale on the kitchen bench informing me that there was a casserole in the refrigerator and if I would like to warm it up, he'd be back about six. What a pleasant surprise that was! I didn't have to find something for tea after all.

The flat was looking very tidy as it always did. I checked what else we might need in the way of food, put the casserole in the oven on a low heat and then phoned Reggie to report on the day's proceedings. Like me, he suspected that Chris's phone call had been set up, but whether that was the case or not, I could at least say that I had seemed to acquit myself quite well.

Dale arrived, as promised at six o'clock and I had set the table ready for our evening meal. We greeted each other with the usual affectionate peck on the cheek. After he had a quick face and hands wash, we sat down at the table and served ourselves the casserole which tasted great. I congratulated him on his cooking.

“I didn't think you'd fancy cooking after a hard day's work,” he said. “Incidentally, you're looking well; married life seems to agree with you.”

I laughed. “Perhaps you'll try it yourself sometime.”

He suddenly looked rather serious and I thought I had put my foot in it.

“I'm sorry Dale, have I said something I shouldn't have?”

He smiled. “No, it's not that, in fact, it's quite the reverse. There's something I wanted to talk to you about, but I wanted to wait until I saw you. You know that Frank finished his course last year?”

“Yes, I understand he did very well. Wasn't he top of the class?”

“Yes he was. Well, now he's been looking for a job near here so that we can be together. He's applied for a job in Warwick and I think there's a good chance he'll get it.”

“I'm guessing that you've told your parents about your relationship with Frank?”

“Yes I have. Well, I told Mum first. To be honest I don't think she was really surprised. When I was younger she used to ask me why a nice boy like me didn't have a girlfriend and I used to say that I didn't have time. Eventually she stopped asking.”

“And she was alright about you and Frank?”

“She said so long as I was happy that's all she wanted for me. Then I had to tell Dad, and I really didn't know how he'd react. I think Mum had had a word with him because he said 'Well he seems a nice enough lad and you're old enough to know what you're doing'.”

“So your parents have met Frank?” I asked.

“We ran into them one Saturday while we were shopping in Stratford. I introduced Frank as a friend who had come to Stratford to see you perform in a play. That part was true anyway. We just exchanged a few pleasantries and that was it.”

“If Frank gets that job, I presume you'd like to get a flat together?”

Dale looked embarrassed. “I'm in a bit of a quandary. I don't want to leave you in the lurch.”

I had to be magnanimous. “Don't worry about me, Dale. It's been wonderful sharing a flat with you, in fact I couldn't think of anyone better, but all good things come to an end. Have you started looking for a place yet?”

“I've looked at a few, but after living in this place everything I've seen would be a real come-down.”

I had a flash of inspiration, although I confess it wasn't totally altruistic as I didn't want Dale to leave any sooner that he had to.

“Has Frank got much furniture?”

Dale laughed. “All the furniture in the house where he's living at present belongs to the owner. All Frank owns is a desk and chair.”

“I've got a suggestion, but if you don't agree with it, that's fine. Do you think Frank would like to move in with us while you look for something you'll be happy with? That would take the pressure off you to sign up for somewhere you don't really want to be.”

Dale beamed. “That's a great idea, Harriet, you're a star!”

“Just being practical,” I replied. “Why don't you ring Frank and run it past him?”

After tea, Dale rang Frank and after chatting for a few minutes handed his phone to me.

Frank sounded ecstatic. “Harriet, thank you so much for offering to let me stay at your flat. I couldn't tell the guy who owns this house that I was going to leave in case Dale and I found ourselves out on the street, but now I can! I have to give him two weeks' notice, and then I could move to Stratford. Would that be alright with you?”

“That would be fine Frank. Dale told me about you applying for a job in Warwick, good luck with that.”

Frank laughed. “I just told Dale, I got the job and they want me to start in three weeks so that all works out perfectly.”

“That's wonderful news, Frank. I'm rehearsing 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' at present, so I'll be home in the evenings until the season starts.”

“Dale told me that you're Assistant Director too, congratulations!”

I laughed. “I'm not sure about that, I can see it will involve quite a bit of extra work.”

“You'll do it well, I know you will,” he replied, and after a few more remarks, I handed the phone back to Dale. Dear Frank, he was definitely the honorary chairman of my fan club!

To be continued.

I would like to thank Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for their advice and proofreading of this story, which is much appreciated.



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