At half six on the opening night of “The Mikado”, I’m standing with my notes, facing the auditorium which is filled with a kaleidoscope of Japanese, nervously chattering. The orchestra’s fiddling quietly. Tuning. Biggles is whispering to one or two. Is he nervous? Am I? Mrs Undercarpet’s making a song and dance about pinning something up. ‘Hold still.’
Gandalf’s in his tightest shorts yet. He’s standing right next to me, centre stage, shielding his eyes up into the flies. He knows I want to start. Shouts. ‘Move that parcan a couple of inches to your left!’ High profile.
The Commander’s in black. He suddenly runs up the stairs to the back of the auditorium as if there’s a major disaster.
All eyes turn. He loves it. He’s just fetching his clipboard. Stage crew are lounging on the apron of the stage. I motion to Tits ‘n Arse and get her to come out and stand next to me, then catch Biggles’ eye. Ready?
‘OK everyone, let’s do the register.’ Everything goes quiet. I can even hear a hum from the aircon and from the myriad of cables and equipment that run the length and breadth of the theatre.
After taking the register, I open my notebook. ‘Right, let’s go through last night.’
I start by giving Biggles the floor. He taps his score. ‘Good start, but the entry for the Mikado himself was a bit weak. My fault, I didn’t bring you in sharply enough, but can we watch that tonight?’ He speaks briefly. Just right.
I turn to Mrs Undercarpet. Get it out of the way. She’s got a mouth full of pins. Waves.
‘Please, I must double-check all kimonos. All kimonos.’ Life or Death. She crams the pins back, manic.
Gandalf? He bangs on about exits and entrances and standing in lights. Nothing about black bras. At the end, he breaks into that gravel laugh. ‘Good show.’
The Commander goes meticulously through his few notes. ‘Get out of the exits. You, Poo Bah, stop yacking and get off.’ The cast giggle. Someone says, ‘Yes Poo Bah. Get out the way.’ More laughs. At the end he slaps his clipboard. ‘Nearly full tonight. That’s about three hundred. I don’t want to see any cast on stage till I call you. Break a leg.’
Tits ‘n Arse gives them a pep talk. ‘You’ve done a brilliant job.’
I go through my notes, trying to keep them succinct and relevant. Light. ‘The song quite distinctly calls for three little maids, not two, and the other rushing on late.’ I raise my eyebrows theatrically towards Fizz, who stands and takes a bow to laughter and applause. ‘Sorry, sir.’
Keep them upbeat. ‘”Here’s a How De Do” was a great bit, really funny, thanks.’
I close my book. Look round them all, taking in individual faces. Eye to eye. ‘It’s been a pleasure. We’ve had our ups and downs, it’s been a long gestation period – look it up, Nanki Poo – but you should be proud of yourselves. You need an audience now. It’ll change everything. Give you an energy you’ve not had before. Enjoy. I hope to. I’ll be the one at the back with a vat of wine. Make sure I hear everything. You’ve got four stabs at it. Savour each moment ‘cos it’ll all be over on Saturday. And you’ll feel as if you’ve had an arm cut off.’
I put my hand to my ear. ‘And what’s the last thing I’m going to say? Feet?’
And there’s a loud chant, tops of voices. Perfectly in time. ‘Feet! Face! Diction! Pace!’ and they all clap and cheer. Pumped up.
The Big Cheese is in the audience. Very High Profile Indeed. Standing. A giant in a shimmering blue suit. Shiny head. Is he surprised by the number of people here? His eyes are everywhere even when the Bursar engages him in conversation. Biggles tells me there’s friction between the two. ‘HM’s not keen on where money’s been spent. Concert Hall’s been done by the skin of its teeth.’ Sycophantic parents also try to talk to him and I clearly see him switch on a smile for them. But his eyes are on the gathering crowd.
He sent the cast a card earlier. “Break a leg.”
The car parks are bursting, there’s a queue of cars waiting. Exhausts white in the chill night air.
I know, because after the debrief I’ve gone back to Orchard Cottage where I’ve a stash of dope which BJ’s organised. I’ve arranged to meet him at the interval as well. ‘I’ll run over,’ I say. ‘Meet you outside.’ Well, there’s nothing more I can do now. Might as well enjoy it. If it goes horribly wrong at least I’ll be numb. After my pipe, I brush my teeth, grab a load of tangerines and walk back to the concert hall, and into the lighting box, safe in my filmic detachment.
I can see down the length of the theatre from behind the smoked glass. There’s a small speaker in one corner, so I can overhear the voices of the audience amplified by gun mikes, even over the music that’s playing as they take their seats. ‘How lovely to see you. Busy isn’t it?’ I peel a tangerine; feel that quickening of heart as the clock ticks towards curtain up. It’s about twenty past seven and already the place is heaving. The Commander’s trying to find seats, moving children, giving the adults the best places.
Gandalf sweeps into the lighting box. ‘Lots on the door without tickets,’ he growls. ‘Front of House is swamped. We’ll have to put out more seats.’
He’s changed out of his shorts, wears a black polo neck, black trousers and a pair of headphones with one of those mouth mikes, like someone from the CIA on a mission. SAS. He loves it. His hair’s tied back in a ponytail. ‘Good to see the place buzzing again,’ he rasps, reaching for his packet of fags. ‘There’s some wine somewhere.’ He fiddles in a cabinet, brings out a bottle. ‘And a cork screw.’ He shakes his lighter and heads out, opens the fire exit and disappears into the night for his final gasper before curtain up.
Five minutes to go and it’s obvious we’re not going to start on time. Very annoying. Not because we’re not ready but because the audience are still trailing in. G and S. It brings ‘em in. Right. Time to go backstage.
I open the fire exit and walk outside, down the length of the building, round to the stage door. There are still people milling about. Fags on. Chilly. A bell ringing. ‘Please take your seats.’
The dressing rooms are quiet. Up the stairs and on to stage. Working lights. Fifty Japanese are jiggling about, breathing in and out, pent up energy. Biggles is there, last minute tips.
‘Hi sir!’ Stage whisper. A hand waving. A kimono. Japanese face.
I wander round, a quiet word here and there. I can feel a churning in my stomach now. But I need to keep them hard penned like kestrels. Poised to attack. ‘Big breath. Nail it. You’ll be great.’
The Commander arrives with a torch. ‘Right. We’re about to go.’
Biggles comes over and we hug. I can see some of the cast silently clap. ‘OK. I’m off.’ I wave over-exaggeratedly to the cast. They all wave back. Some blow kisses.
‘Good luck, and thanks mate.’ I tip Biggles a wink. He winks back.
‘You know I envy you,’ he says as we wander through the wings. ‘You get to see it. I’m glued to a keyboard most of the time.’
‘That’s funny; I was just envying you. They’ll be looking to you all the time and you’re right there with them. I’m just another member of the audience.’
‘They’ll be looking for you too,’ he replies. ‘Projecting up to the back.’
Back outside. Up the steps, in through the fire exit, into my seat. Notebook poised. Wine glass filled. Sickness in the pit of my stomach. The orchestra’s already in place. There’s applause and Biggles walks in to take his place at the piano.
‘House lights down,’ growls Gandalf. The lights begin to dim. Where’s The Big Cheese? No mistaking his shiny head. He’s in Row L. Centre seat.
End of Act One. Before the applause is over I’m out of my seat and through the fire exit, legging it down the side to the stage door and in. The corridors are busy, a stream of Japanese filing into dressing rooms. Talking. Animated. ‘What did you think, sir?’ A chorus. ‘Are we OK, sir? Are you all right, sir? Are you happy, sir?’
I give them the thumbs up.
The Commander catches me. ‘Rob; we’ll have to extend the interval. Catering will be swamped. OK?’
I get Biggles’ feedback. ‘I think it’s OK. Really sorry about the entry to Three Little Maids. My fault.’
I hadn’t detected it. ‘No one will have noticed.’
Tits ‘n Arse comes up. ‘All right?’ Hopeful. I nod vigorously; give her a quick hug. ‘Mind my make up!’
No more to be said, I’m about to go when Fizz runs up. ‘Sir! Are you going back? Are you happy with us?’
‘Yes to both. And I’m now going to sit back and watch you entertain me.’
In fact I’m running back to Orchard Cottage. BJ’s already there, pipe at the ready. ‘Great show, man. More dope?’
Stick that in your pipe, Big Cheese.
The Mikado - Three Little Maids
I directed a production of “The Mikado” in 1994. Four nights of encores after months of rehearsals; there’s more than an element of truth in the conversation Robert has with The Big Cheese to echo one I had with my own Head…drama was not top of his agenda until then!
“Three Little Maids” comes from Act One and it’s possibly the most recognizable song from The Mikado. Short and sweet…I suspect everyone knows it without necessarily recognizing its antecedence. It’s one of the shortest songs in the musical yet is the one most requested.
The Mikado - Comes A Train Of Little Ladies
The entrance of the geishas…catchy and melodic. In the production it’s the first time we get to see the love interest for Nanki Poo.
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!