Before I know it, it’s the week of performances of “Darkheart.”
The Sunday before the Thursday opening night, I’ve spent the afternoon with Biggles and his band.
‘They sound fab. Really professional. A bit loud perhaps?’
How could my youngsters compete? They’d surely be drowned out?
Then, back to his house to talk over all the minutiae of the music. Listen to some Colosseum. ‘These guys took jazz fusion to a new level,’ he says, as we glug wine.
‘Do you want to stay for supper, Rob?’ asks Biggles’ wife. ‘It’s no problem for us.’
In it together.
On the Monday, I’m attracted by the sound of something familiar from one of the classrooms. Intrigued, I open the door to reveal most of the cast singing, one of Biggles’ tapes playing in the background. They’re not word perfect, but they’re belting it out. I’m greeted with cheery waves.
‘Let’s show sir!’ It’s Miss Dazzle. ‘Get in your places.’
She goes over to the tape machine. ‘Ready?’ Turning, she flings me a cheery smile and my guts irritatingly melt again. I watch as the cast move in time, a dance routine developing. ‘No looking down at your feet,’ shouts Miss Dazzle. ‘Heads up!’
When it finishes, the cast are breathing heavily.
‘Right,’ says Miss Dazzle, throwing me a hopeful glance. ‘Let’s try another one.’
On the Tuesday evening I help Matron deliver the costumes to the concert hall. It’ll be the first time I’ll see them in full dress and there’s an added buzz to proceedings, the cast obviously excited. ‘They look great.’ But the rehearsal quickly disintegrates. ‘Stop! You’ve just jumped three pages.’
The stage crew are putting in a first appearance, kids from Uppers roped in by a guy in combats holding a clipboard. The Stage Manager. They bang around the stage, pull on ropes, climb ladders to adjust lights. ‘This all right here?’ Shouting.
They seem to have no respect for the cast. ‘Out the way.’ I can hardly hear some of the actors but feel powerless. If I want lights and stage, I have to put up and shut up.
Gandalf drags and scrapes his ladder to and fro across the stage. ‘Move yourselves.’ A mass of white beard and long hair wearing more ridiculously tight shorts, he shouts to the back of the auditorium, ‘bring up dimmer three.’
And then there’s the music. There’s only a skeleton band, but it drowns out any of the songs, even the big chorus numbers. ‘I can’t hear you!’ It’s impossible to make out any of the lyrics, and the cast themselves suddenly seem to have developed two left feet. The songs and dances are a shambles.
As for the acting…‘A block of concrete’s got more life in it than you!’ There’s no attack of the words. ‘Volume!’ I become convinced that the story itself is tedious. ‘Should we cut those lines?’ Start to appreciate what The Wife of Parse must have gone through over the years.
They can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t act. I’m no better after all. ‘Start again!
Matron puts a comforting arm round me in a break. ‘Don’t worry. It’s always messy the first time they’re in costume. That’s why it’s a good idea to do it early. They get over excited and forget everything else.’
At least Chippy has appeared with some props and furniture. ‘Sorry they’re a bit late.’
I run my hand over a beautifully sculpted wishing well, complete with handle and rope. ‘Thank you so much. They look so professional.’
He smiles self-consciously. ‘Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. Anything at all. It looks as if you’ve got a hit on your hands here.’ Is he taking the piss?
The First Act has ground to a conclusion. I’ve sat scribbling notes, watching the performance like a kestrel, despairing as lines are thrown away, cues missed, entrances late. ‘Oh come on!’ Lights fail to come on when they should, and go out when they shouldn’t. ‘No! After the next line!’
Gandalf scowls and growls. ‘We’re not mind readers; get me a proper script with the cues marked up.’
Biggles takes me aside. ‘It’s always like this. Just got to grin and bear it. You’ll see. Tomorrow everything will take half the time.’ I feel myself shaking my head. If only.
The rehearsal finishes at half past nine. The cast is quietly changing, and I sit, head in hands in the auditorium.
Matron’s busy collecting costumes. ‘No one is to go without me checking them.’ She holds up some coat hangers. ‘These are all labelled. Make sure you collect yours from me and then hang them on the pegs with your name on them in the changing rooms.’
I gather myself, walk over and hug her. ‘I can’t thank you enough. They look fab, and you’re so organised. I couldn’t have done it without you.’
When we pull away I can see she’s red in the face. ‘I’m pleased as punch,’ she says. ‘Thank you for asking me. I’ve never felt so much a part of the place.’
Miss Dazzle approaches me with notes she’s taken. ‘We only need to work on a few things before tomorrow, but I’ll hold an extra rehearsal at lunchtime.’ Is she joking? Being kind?
By the time everything’s been packed up and the cast dismissed it’s past ten o’ clock. Taff has appeared earlier and I’ve watched him quietly start sketching on the backdrop. I can see him painting out parts of the house and outlining something else.
‘We’re going for a drink,’ I say to him. ‘Coming?’
But he shakes his head. ‘I’ll just finish this.’
I place my hand on his shoulder. ‘Thanks, mate. There’s no need, but thanks anyway. I owe you.’
‘It’s nothing, boyo. Enjoy your drink. You’ve earned it.’
After raiding the juke box - a rare outing for Jack Bruce - I pore over my notes in the pub, while Biggles listens to my rants. After a while he holds up his hand. ‘Rob. Stop. You’re just getting yourself worked up for no good reason. It’s not a West End production. These kids are only twelve or thirteen, younger many of them. Look at what they’re achieving. They’re enjoying themselves and they’ll remember this for the rest of their lives. And you’ll be surprised what another rehearsal will do. It’s already in good shape.’
Am I convinced? He continues. ‘The sound stuff will arrive tomorrow morning and I’ll get a gang together to set it up. I’ve got the band coming at lunchtime and I’ve asked a few of the soloists to come along. You won’t recognise the difference tomorrow night. You’ll see.’
Hesitating, he takes a swallow of his beer. Froth on his moustache. ‘You know your trouble don’t you? You’re a perfectionist. Like me.’ He lets this sink in. ‘They’re just kids when all is said and done.’ Smiling, he lifts his glass as if in a toast. ‘Next time we’ll do something in Uppers. Then you can get worked up, OK?’
I laugh. ‘Thanks. You mean you’d work with me again after this shambles?’
He gives me a withering amused look. ‘You’ll see.’
The Wednesday of the dress rehearsal drags by. I have no interest in my lessons, willing them to finish. I’ve had that Jack Bruce song, “Rope Ladder To The Moon” going round and round in my head since last night at the pub.
“…you asked me to the theatre in a place quite near the sun…”
At break The Giraffe comes up to me. ‘I haven’t prepared any lessons today. Was sure you’d be having rehearsals. What’s going on?’ Even Rasputin grunts something about “miracles.” The Wife of Parse is tight-lipped, distant.
“…your act was all in fun…”
At lunchtime I go over to the concert hall to discover a hive of industry. ‘More insulating needed here!’ Cables and wires coil and stretch into the distance, stage crew covering them with black tape. The band is tuning-up and I see gun mikes. One of the cast grins at me. ‘I feel like a pop star, sir.’
Soon Biggles calls for quiet and the band begin to play. The guy on the sound desk twiddles and fiddles with knobs as the group begins to sing. It’s no better really than last night. ‘Stop!’ Biggles talks to the band, to the drummer in particular, then turns to the cast. ‘Just because you’ve got mikes helping doesn’t mean you don’t blast it out as if you hadn’t. OK?’
He begin again, and I can tell the drummer is playing well within himself. The cast members start to sing. Clearer above the band.
Thumbs up to Biggles.
“…you gave me central heating, I can’t forget the glow…”
Back in the Prep school, there’s music from one of the classrooms. Popping my head round, Miss Dazzle is drilling more of the cast, their faces intent on moves, heads held up, feet in unison. ‘Good!’ shouts Miss Dazzle. ‘Keep that going!’ She’s wearing a tight body stocking thing. All curves. My mouth’s dry. Miss Dazzle catches my eye and flashes me the biggest smile I’ve ever had from her. I have to drag myself away; stop picturing her with Chisel Face. Now isn’t the time for any of that.
Spicy excuses me from rugby in the afternoon. ‘Sure you’ve got better things to be doing. Break a leg for tonight.’
Hovis Hair’s been organising ticket sales and programmes. ‘They’re back from the printers.’ She hands me one to peruse.
I’ve proof read the template, but feel an added thump as I read the finished product. ‘Thank you. How many are there?’
She smiles, her hair rigid. ‘You’ve practically sold out Friday and Saturday and tomorrow’s filling up. I might have to print more depending on how things go.’
The enormity of it all sweeps through me once more. I’ve barely slept properly, waking from troubled slumbers, head racing, adrenaline coursing through me.
“…you took me to a ceremony and the sacrifice was me…”
After school I seek out each lead actor and actress, going through my notes from the previous evening. ‘I liked what you did there, but the next scene you started dropping off at the end of your sentences.’ They listen, nod, say they’ll try to remember. I tell each one how proud I am of their commitment. ‘In the end, I want you to enjoy it.’
Who am I kidding?
“…rope ladder to the moon…”
That night of the Dress Rehearsal, as I sit humming along with the biggest chorus number in the first Act, band and cast pumping it out, lights flashing, there’s a bang from somewhere, loud, and the power fails. All the lights and mikes cut. Complete blackout.
What the fuck!?
The band grind to halt; there’s a moment’s silence then a myriad of young voices, a few screams from onstage. I hear Gandalf growl. ‘Bloody hell.’ I call out down the steps to the cast. ‘Everyone stand still! And keep quiet. It’s probably nothing serious.’
A lighter flickers and I can see Biggles waving it about from the piano. ‘I heard a bang,’ he shouts.
Gandalf’s already found a torch and is heading down the steps. ‘Probably the trip switch. Might have put too many lanterns up.’ He disappears behind stage. The stage manager is now waving a torch on the cast who are huddled. ‘Keep calm.’
All I can think is, what if this happens during tomorrow’s performance? We’d be a laughing stock. And what if it can’t be mended? What then?
Minutes tick by until the whole stage and the band are once again bathed in light. The cast cheer as relief floods like the lights through me. As Gandalf scurries past I pluck up courage to ask. ‘OK?’
He growls. ‘That’s why we need a proper lighting system. Should have checked it earlier. Needs to be overridden if I’m to give you more.’
‘Isn’t that dangerous?’
He gives a gravel laugh. ‘No. Get them to start the routine again and I’ll have a fiddle. Don’t worry. It won’t happen tomorrow.’
At the end of the Dress Rehearsal I’m sat with my head in hands while the sound and lights crew pack away, and the stage manager comes over with some notes. Speaks like an officer. The Commander. ‘Can you ask cast to keep out of the wings unless they’re due on stage? They’re blocking up the exits which slows everything down.’ He runs through the curtain up and asks about the curtain call. ‘Have you got it organised?’
Never given it a second thought. Shit. ‘No.’
The Commander raises an eyebrow, but speaks matter-of-factly. ‘No problem. Can you bring them in tomorrow lunchtime and we’ll sort it out?’
Matron has an armful of costumes. ‘I’ll take these back to the boarding house and do some repairs. One or two have put feet through things or lost buttons.’
Taff appears. ‘Coming for a drink?’
I clap him on the back. He’s painted a Disney castle over the house, a Gothic folly in the grounds and dark clouds in the sky on one side. ‘To represent the forces of darkness, boyo.’
‘It’s magnificent. If nothing else, the backdrop will get some applause.’
We go down to The Crown with Biggles. Someone else has a hold on the juke box. The Who. “I Can See For Miles.” Great!
‘Well, that’s it,’ he says. ‘We can do no more.’
‘It feels odd.’ I take a gulp of beer. ‘This time tomorrow, we’ll know how it went.’ Blowing out my cheeks, I can feel more adrenaline surge. ‘I’ve never believed that old saying; you know, about a bad dress rehearsal.’
‘Me neither.’ Biggles raises his glass. ‘To “Darkheart.” It’s been a pleasure.’
‘Thanks. To “Darkheart”.’ We chink glasses. ‘Chocks away.’
I wake with a start on Thursday morning having tossed and turned before dropping into a deeper slumber near dawn. There’s a throb in my head as I raid the cabinet and stock up with aspirin.
School’s quiet when I wander in and mooch along to my pigeonhole where there’s a pile of cards. “Break a leg.” One’s from Spicy, and another from The Wife of Parse. “Wishing the cast of “Darkheart” well for tonight’s performance.” I have to reread it.
Miss Dazzle comes in to check her post. ‘All set? Did you sleep?’
I grimace and she does the most extraordinary thing. She comes over and hugs me.
I must be going really red, cos I can feel the blood in my cheeks. ‘Thanks for all your help,’ I manage.
‘Pleasure.’ Is she red too? Whatever, she turns to leave. ‘Break a leg tonight. I’m coming.’
‘On your own?’
She pulls a face. ‘Kit’s got some departmental meeting. Besides, he’s not really interested.’
At lunchtime I go through the curtain call. ‘Let’s make it snappy.’ I’ve been in amateur productions that have shambolic curtain calls, hating the chaos, the embarrassing number of bows, dragging applause. Like at “The Winslow Boy.”
Mine’s sharp, on and off, no messing. Even the leads go on together so that there are no perceived “stars.” ‘One bow from the middle and off. Quickly.’
The Commander gives me the thumbs up. ‘No point in milking it, though I think you might have to do an encore. Got anything lined up?’
‘I’ll talk to the MD.’ Frankly, it’s the last thing on my mind. An encore would mean it’s gone well. I can’t allow myself to think of that. Given the circumstances.
Colosseum – The Valentyne Suite
I first got into Colosseum through hearing “Those Who Are About To Die Salute You” which had a number of excellent tracks amid the not so accessible jazzy improvisations. “The Valentyne Suite” had another of those album covers which were so hippy, and the title track’s a fantastic jazz fusion piece. Love the distorts which made listening in stereo such a buzz.
Jack Bruce – Rope Ladder To The Moon
My brother was a big Cream fan, so I often heard snippets from “Disraeli Gears” or “Wheels Of Fire”, but rather than Clapton taking my attention, I was drawn to Bruce’s voice, and his solo albums, written with lyrics by Pete Brown, were avant-garde yet tuneful. The album “Harmony Row” included “The Consul At Sunset” which appears on my Blow Smoke Rings playlist. “Rope Ladder To The Moon” comes from “Songs for a Tailor.” The piano and cello riff gets under the skin.
The Who – I Can See For Miles
Top band! Let’s face it I could choose a dozen great songs for this, but this one takes me back to when I first really got into the band. Keith Moon – what a drummer!
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!