The smoke from the encore of the opening night of “The Mikado” is still hovering. The auditorium’s gradually emptying. No sign of The Big Cheese.
‘Well done, sir.’ Someone from stage crew scurries by.
‘Thanks. And well done you guys as well. Very slick.’
‘We’ll get more encores tomorrow. And Saturday’ll be mental.’ He grins and hurries away.
Biggles is going through his score with someone from the orchestra. A Muso. ‘Can you come in here as well? I think it would add to it?’ The Muso nods and marks his score, turns to me. ‘That was very enjoyable. You’ve got some talent here haven’t you?’
‘I think we have, yes. And how are you all getting on? Any problems?’
The Muso shakes his head. ‘No. This young man’s got us well trained.’ He claps Biggles on the back. ‘See you tomorrow night. Well done. Both of you.’
BJ’s hovering. ‘Och. We should get back.’ We’ll be flying tonight. Pub now. Orchard Cottage later. My first lesson’s after break. Sweet. I won’t be able to sleep for sure.
‘Right. Pub,’ I say and hug Biggles. ‘Thanks.’
‘Pleasure.’ He reaches for his coat. ‘Pub.’
I wake late the following morning. Mouth dry. Throbbing head. There’s a bunch of cards in my pigeonhole when I reach the common room, one with distinctive handwriting.
“To the cast of The Mikado, with thanks.”
It’s signed by The Big Cheese. Hovis Hair also sends me a note. ‘The HM will be bringing a party of prep school Heads and some parents from St Benedict’s on Saturday night. Please ensure a row of seats are reserved.’
I’ve arranged for mum to come on the Saturday. ‘Oh I can’t come all the way there,’ she croaks down the phone. But I persuade her. ‘Just this once. See what I’m doing. And you like G and S don’t you?’
I book her train tickets and a B and B in town. BJ volunteers to look after her before, during, and after the performance. ‘Och, it’ll be fun. Catch up on what you were like as a wee boy.’ He grins. ‘Fuckin’ annoying I imagine.’
I meet her off the train and we go for a cup of tea in Orchard Cottage. She looks shrunken; old before her time; her suitcase unwieldy. I show her my new stereo and she shakes her head. ‘What was wrong with the record player you had?’
I put on some Ralph McTell. Something even mum can’t object to.
‘What a lovely view,’ she says looking from the front room window. ‘You’ve landed on your feet here, haven’t you?’
We wander round the grounds at Fitzie’s and she oohs and ahhs at buildings, before I drive her down to her B and B. ‘I don’t know why you need a car,’ she says, struggling with the seat belt, wincing as she screws in the seat. ‘Waste of money.’
‘I’ll be able to get home more easily. Save time.’
‘The train’s perfectly good.’ She seems short of breath. ‘More money than sense.’
Later that Saturday, I’m sat in the theatre with my notebook, happily humming “Here’s A How De Do”, most of the cast at tea, when Biggles rushes in, face harrowed. ‘Have you heard the news?’
Mentions the Bursar’s son. Ko Ko. ‘Broken his leg playing rugby over at St George’s.’ My stomach lurches. Blood pumps. No!
His face creases as he tugs on his ‘tache. ‘Now what? Can you do it?’
Now what indeed. Heart going like the clappers, I find Balls. Sit him down under Biggles’ watchful eye, trying to squash my immense frustration at the unfairness of it all. Tell him what’s happened. ‘Are you up to taking the part tonight? How do you feel? You can have a script with you of course.’
Balls shakes his head. ‘I know all the words and moves, sir. I’ve had the three nights as well, just watching from the wings. Fizz has gone over stuff with me every day, just in case.’ He glances at Biggles. ‘Could you spare the time to go through “Tit Willow”, sir? My voice still refuses to stay steady. Lapses into treble.’
‘Of course. Let’s get to it,’ says Biggles hurrying over to the piano. ‘We’ll do all of your bits. And don’t worry about changing voice; it’ll make it funnier if anything.’
I listen to him rehearse, time and time again, before fetching Fizz. ‘Can you go through all his lines with him again?’
She nods. ‘I’ve been trying to help since start of term. He’s pretty good you know.’
‘Thanks. You’re a life saver.’
I find Mrs Undercarpet. She’s already got Ko Ko’s costume and a needle and thread in hand. ‘Don’t you worry. I’ll have it sorted.’
At the end of debrief I close my notebook. Face the cast still reeling from the news. ‘Right. Let’s just take stock. You’ve got better over the three nights. Should be filled with confidence from the feedback you’ve had. Tonight’s your last shot so I know you’ll be giving it everything. But don’t go over the top. And don’t forget it’s going to be a very different experience for one of you in particular. A huge ask. I’m sure you’ll support him every moment on that stage. Work round him. Help him.’
A voice calls out. ‘Come on Ko Ko!’ And the rest stamp, cheer and whistle. Balls’ face is a Japanese picture.
‘And what’s the last thing I’m going to say?’ Finger to ear. ‘Feet…’
‘Feet! Face! Diction! Pace!’
They might be pumped up. I’m a bag of nerves. It’s just not fair.
The Big Cheese appears with a whole entourage of guests. Bollocks. There’s a lot of them. They take the best seats. Just before curtain-up Gandalf walks to the front of the auditorium, and the audience quieten. He rasps to them. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a change of actor for the role of Ko Ko following an accident playing rugby this afternoon. I do hope it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the performance.’ The audience break into a whispered hubbub. I see The Big Cheese catch Gandalf and engage him in a surprisingly brief conversation.
Balls’ first appearance as Ko Ko comes shortly into Act One. My guts are churning like I could throw up at any second as Biggles starts the opening notes to Ko Ko’s opening song. Tall for his age Balls passes as someone older though his voice wobbles before reaching a controlled tone. ‘”Taken from the county jail by a set of curious chances…”’
Applause rings out long and loud at the end.
The smoke’s still clearing at the end of the final performance of “The Mikado” when BJ brings mum over. She’s red in the face, more bright eyed than I’ve seen for a while.
‘Did you enjoy it, mum?’ I put my arm round her slight form and give her a gentle squeeze.
‘I did.’ She snatches a breath. ‘Wish your dad could have seen it. He’d have loved it. And been very proud.’ She keeps a hankie up her sleeve which she pulls out.
I suddenly feel pricks in my eyes; watering. Hug mum properly, but oh so lightly, aware that it might hurt. In the distance I see Balls emerge from the dressing room.
‘I’ll be back, mum.’
I stride across to Balls and he falls into a hug with me. ‘Well done, well done. Fantastic,’ I say as I slap him on the back before we pull away.
Balls breaks into his toothy grin. Red faced. ‘Thank you, sir. Sorry about all the mistakes.’
‘There were few anyone else will have noticed.’
Back with mum, Fizz comes bouncing up. ‘Hi, sir.’ She looks expectant, a face that’s still smeared in make up. ‘Did you enjoy it? He did well didn’t he? Oh, sorry. Am I interrupting you?’
I introduce her. ‘One of the Three Little Maids.’
Mum smiles. ‘Oh I did enjoy that bit. It’s my favourite song. Well done.’
Balls reappears wiping at Japanese make up. ‘Come on, Fizz. Let’s celebrate.’
‘Right.’ Fizz glances at me. ‘We’re all off to the pub.’
‘I don’t want to know. No names. No pack drill.’
Balls drags her away, pulling on her hand.
BJ hovers to take mum away. ‘See you back at the Crown.’
Biggles comes over and we hug too. ‘Brilliant,’ I say. ‘Couldn’t have wished for more.’
He nods. ‘Your boy pulled it off. Thank goodness you’d planned ahead. Pub?’
That night’s a late one. Singing in the Crown. Juke box turned up. A bottle of rum doing the rounds. BJ and I decamp to Orchard Cottage and hammer the dope. It’s half four by the time he leaves and I get to bed.
By the time I’ve recovered on the Sunday, mum’s gone, and I already feel like I’ve lost an arm. “The Mikado” is done and dusted. I ring home in the evening to check mum’s all right. ‘I’m glad I came,’ she says, husky. ‘I can picture you now.’
Now there’s just the meeting with The Big Cheese to face.
Though next morning there’s a terse note from Hovis Hair. “Your meeting with HM is cancelled.”
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Soundtrack - The Back Story!
Follow The Back Story On Your Favorite Streaming Platform
Ralph McTell – England 1914.
Ralph McTell dominated much of my early teen listening; friends played albums like “Spiral Staircase” or “My Side Of Your Window” and songs like “Daddy’s Here” or “England 1914” seemed to illuminate my days and nights with the Dansette. For me, his biggest hit, “Streets of London” was just OK…but it was played at just about every folk club I ever visited.
Later albums like “You Well Meaning Brought Me Here” contained gems like “The Ferryman.” He was a great acoustic guitarist and played the piano too…perhaps it’s easy to sneer at his folkie style, but for me he crafted great songs.
The Mikado - Here’s A How De Do - 1957 cast.
One of Act Two’s funniest moments as Nanki Poo, Ko Ko and Yum Yum consider their perilous problem.
The Mikado - For He’s Gone And Married
The finale of the whole piece. My memory of the last Saturday performance of my own production is seeing the cast of fifty throwing themselves into it, exhausted from four nights of singing…the whole audience clapping and cheering. Wonderful!
About the Author: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!