Authors: Lyn Gardner
Olivia Marvell stood impatiently at the bottom of the steps in front of the Swan Academy of Theatre and Dance. She was surrounded by her friends Tom, Georgia and Aeysha. They were all peering down the road with expectant looks on their faces. They had just come from the cafÃ© and they were stuffed full of toasted sandwiches, cherry almond cupcakes and hot chocolate, and were now looking forward to the first assembly of the new school year. Olivia and her friends were going into Year Nine and they felt very grown up. Tom had developed what Aeysha liked to call “the Year Nine swagger”.
“I have not!” said Tom indignantly.
“You have,” insisted Aeysha. “But at least it's cooler than the Year Eight sashay and the
Year Seven scuttle.”
“I've never scuttled in my life,” said Tom.
“Of course you have. All Year Sevens scuttle,” said Aeysha authoritatively. As if to prove her point, two Year Seven newbies in their smart new olive and gold uniforms scurried by nervously, hoping that they wouldn't be noticed by Aeysha and the others.
“That's how I felt when I first came to the Swan,” said Georgia. “I thought Year Nines were so grown up. I'd have died if one spoke to me. It's odd to think we've got so ancient.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Tom. “I'm like my mum, who always says that she's young at heart but just slightly older in all the other places.”
Olivia's little sister, Eel, appeared at the top of the steps and pirouetted her way down them with dizzying speed and remarkable grace. At the bottom she curtsied to several passers-by. One actually clapped.
“If Miss Swan catches you doing that, she'll eat you for tea,” said Aeysha. “You could really hurt yourself.” Then she added affectionately, “Little show-off.”
Eel grinned. “I know, I'm a
off. I just can't seem to help myself. Particularly now I'm in Year Four.” She peered at the little group as she turned to go back inside. “I came to tell you that all the teachers are heading towards the hall. You'd better get your skates on or you'll miss the entire autumn term.”
“I'd hate that,” said Tom. “I love this term. There's always so much to look forward to, like Hallowe'en and Christmas.”
“Mmm â¦ skating at Somerset House,” said Georgia dreamily.
“I went with Emmy's family last year. It was magic,” said Eel. “We should have a Swan outing.”
“You organise it, Eel,” said Georgia.
“That's not fair,” said Eel. “I'm only eight. People should organise things for me.” She sighed dramatically. “But I'm probably the best person for the job. I so often am. I'll get Emmy to help me.” And she danced away.
Katie?” asked Olivia, her forehead wrinkled with frustration. “The bell's going to go any minute and if she doesn't hurry up we'll all be late for assembly.”
“Maybe we should have invited her to the cafÃ© with us?” said Georgia.
“Liv did,” said Tom, “but Katie said no. She wouldn't come to the Newbies' Concert yesterday either. Even though Miss Swan made a point of asking her.”
“I think she's worried that people are going to stare and whisper behind her back,” said Olivia.
“I can see why,” said Aeysha thoughtfully. “Particularly after all the stuff in the newspapers about her dad.”
“And when they kept going on about her being âthe disgraced
Sound of Music
child star',” said Georgia.
“It can't be easy coming back to the Swan after being excluded. She was such a queen bee before. Now she's going to feel just like one of the newbies.”
“Worse,” said Georgia. “People are going to be watching her like a hawk. The slightest slip and they're going to say she hasn't changed at all. She's just the same old, poisonous Katie Wilkes-Cox, who wants to be a star whatever the cost to anyone else.”
“I want it now â and I want it on a plate!” said Tom, flicking back an imaginary lock of long hair in a scarily perfect impression of the
old Katie Wilkes-Cox. After she'd left the Swan, Katie had redeemed herself by helping Olivia and the others save the school from the mostly criminal business activities of her bullying property developer dad.
“That's exactly why Gran said we should look after her a bit, at least until she finds her feet and proves herself,” said Olivia, whose grandmother, Alicia Swan, owned the Swan Academy. “But everyone must know that Katie has changed, otherwise Gran would never have invited her back.”
“There she is!” said Tom, spotting a small, slightly forlorn figure hurrying towards them, weighed down by a bag no doubt full of practice shoes and clothes.
Katie reached the steps and looked at them nervously; her hair was tousled from running, her pretty face was pale and her cat-like eyes were anxious.
“Hello,” she said in a small voice. “I'm sorry if I kept you all waiting. I â¦ I just didn't want to get here too earlyâ¦” She tailed off.
Olivia gave her a smile and a quick hand-squeeze as the bell rang loudly.
“The new term is about to start,” said
Olivia, her eyes shining. “Come on, everyone, or we won't get a good spot in the hall for assembly. Gran's got that gleam in her eye that makes me think she must have some exciting news.”
Katie watched them move towards the door. She took a deep breath and followed them in, and was immediately caught up in a tide of people heading towards the girls' cloakroom. As she was swept along, she thought she heard somebody whisper, “Just look what the cat dragged in.”
Katie felt as if somebody had punched her in the stomach. Returning to the Swan was going to be as difficult as she'd feared.
Alicia Swan cast her eye over her pupils. She always looked forward to the start of each new school year. It was a fresh beginning and everyone was so bright-eyed and eager. She could feel the energy in the room fizzing and bubbling. If only she could bottle it, she thought. She loved the optimism of all the Swans and she delighted in the promise of a new year; every exercise book was fresh, nobody had yet failed a maths test, and upcoming auditions offered the possibility of roles rather than heralding the rejections that were an inevitable part of show business. She glanced at Katie, and noted how pale and nervous she appeared. It was going to be hard for the child, but Alicia knew that the Swan was the best place for her.
She looked in the direction of this year's Year Elevens, who would be taking their GCSEs next summer before leaving the Swan. Some would go on to further training at drama school, others to take A levels and maybe head to university, but a number of them would go straight into the profession. Kasha Kasparian had left only last term but was just about to release his first single. He was one of the lucky ones. She wondered how many of her current Year Elevens would still be in the business in six or seven years' time and how many more, worn down by the constant rebuffs and lack of success, would have given up. Alicia had just come from doing an interview with a magazine journalist who was writing a feature on stage-school kids. The journalist had been enthusing about the “overnight success” of so many former Swan pupils, citing the actor Theo Deacon, the singing sensation Amber Lavelle and the young theatre director Allegra Featherstone, whose promenade version of
Alice in Wonderland
had taken the Edinburgh Fringe by storm. Alicia had raised an eyebrow.
“In my experience, it generally takes at least fifteen years of hard graft in the business
to become what the media loves to call âan overnight success',” she had observed drily. “Many who come out of the Swan have been training and working since they were seven or eight.”
Now, she clapped her hands together to signal quiet and the noise died away promptly. Will Todd's voice could be heard in the silence, saying, “â¦ then she screamed cos I'd put mice in herâ” He broke off as he realised that Miss Swan was eyeing him sternly, even though her mouth was twitching. Everyone laughed.
“Just make quite sure that the mice stay at home, won't you, Will?” said Alicia. “Now to business. Welcome, everybody, particularly all of you who are new to the Swan, but also to those of you who are returning for the new school year. I hope you are all ready to get down to some really hard work after the summer break.
“As I'm sure many of you are aware, the Swan Circus was a big success in Edinburgh this year and won both a Fringe First and a Herald Angel, as well as getting rave reviews in all the major newspapers and on many blogging sites. There was a lovely big feature in
Congratulations to everyone involved. I'm very proud of you all.”
Olivia and her friends grinned at each other. Most people in the room had no idea how close the Swan Circus had come to complete disaster in Edinburgh.
“Congratulations are also due to Toby Bond, who has been cast in
and Sisi Holman, who will be playing the young Cosette in
Sisi will be our eighth young Cosette.”
Everyone applauded. The Swan had provided a steady stream of talent for the cast and chorus of the long-running musical that was known affectionately in the business as “The Glums”.
“More good news. Will Todd will be playing the lead in the new
Dennis the Menace
series that starts filming after Christmas, which I'm sure everyone will agree is the most deliciously perfect casting.”
The Swans laughed and clapped.
“And I'm pleased to say that most of the building work to extend the Swan is now completed, so there should be very little disruption this term, although there are still
some snagging problems to sort out and decorating to do. I'm afraid there is more building work to come, though, as the ceiling of the theatre needs attention, but for reasons which will shortly become clear that will have to wait until next term. Fortunately I've been advised that it's not urgent.
“Auditions. The normal rules apply. No auditions for anyone whose academic work isn't up to scratch or whose behaviour is considered anything less than impeccable. I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities over the coming term, and I know that some of you are already booked for panto. But there are some excellent roles in the offing includingâ¦” Alicia gave one of her famous dramatic pauses, and everyone in the hall leaned forward a little. “â¦the role of Zelda in the upcoming movie of the best-selling books. This is a possibility for all girls in Year Nine and above, although Year Elevens might want to consider the likely disruption to their GCSEs with filming starting in May.”
A buzz of excitement ran round the room.
was the latest high-profile children's series to be giving
a run for their money. Every girl in the room would love
to get a chance to play the lead.
“Now, I know that not everybody will want or be able to work this term because of forthcoming mock exams, or maybe because they've already worked as many weeks as they're allowed to by law, but I do have news of an exciting in-house project. For the first time ever, we're going to stage our very own charity Swan pantomime in our very own theatre!” There were loud whoops. “It will give us a chance to show what we can do when we really pull out the stops, and we will of course be inviting lots of casting agents and industry professionals, so not only is it in a good cause, but it will be a great showcase for you and the school. There won't be any other major panto in central London this year, so I'm hoping ours will be a real draw. And I have every reason to think that it will becauseâ¦” Alicia paused again. “Because the script is being written by Michael Marvell as a gift to the Swan, and the director Jon James has also very kindly offered his services entirely for free. We're also confident that several former pupils will make surprise guest appearances.”
There was buzz of excitement around the room, like the low hum of a jet engine.
Everyone knew Jon James, who was responsible for a string of West End hits. Michael Marvell was Olivia and Eel's uncle, the older brother of their dad, the famous high-wire walker Jack Marvell. He was a hugely successful Hollywood screenwriter who had won two Oscars.
Kylie Morris had raised her hand. “Please, Miss Swan, who are going to be the surprise guests?” she asked.
“My lips are sealed, I'm afraid,” said Alicia. “We don't want it all over the press just yet.”
“Theo Deacon? Amber Lavelle?” persisted Kylie.
“I'm not going to tell you,” laughed Alicia. “Not until it's all quite sorted. These people have commitments that they have to work around.”
She didn't say it out loud, but Theo and Amber also had a difficult agent who couldn't understand why her clients wanted to work for free for a Swan charity show when they could be commanding mega fees elsewhere. But she felt certain that Theo and Amber's commitment was genuine and that it would all work out.
“All I will say is that I don't think you'll be disappointed,” she added with a smile. There were squeals of excitement. The thought of
acting on the same stage as Hollywood's most dashing star was too exciting for words.
Alicia checked her watch. “Right. It's time to go to your first vocational lessons of the term. Please make your way out of the hall in an orderly fashion.”
She stepped down from the stage and was engulfed by the children as they headed towards their dance and acting lessons.
“Miss Swan, which panto will it be?” asked Georgia.
,” replied Alicia.
“Ah,” said Tom, looking at his friends and waving an imaginary wand. “You
all go to the ball!” Then he gave Will a wink. “Maybe your white mice could get parts, Will. They can be transformed into ponies.”
Alicia shook her head firmly. “I don't want those mice anywhere near the school,” she said. “I hope you've heard me loud and clear, Will?”
Will nodded meekly. “Yes, Miss Swan.”
“I love those
books. It would be so mega to play her,” said Kylie Morris dreamily as she tagged along with the group.
“I'd swap seven GCSE A stars for the chance to play Zelda any day,” said Nicola
Stephens. “You'd be made for the rest of your career after that,” she added sagely.
“Nicola, you know it's not as simple as that,” said Alicia tartly. “I expect that's what Lucy Hare thought after she was cast in the remake of
” Lucy was a girl from a rival stage school who had been splashed all over the newspapers as the next big thing. She had delivered a very decent performance as Velvet Brown, but because the movie itself had been panned, she had then disappeared almost without trace. Somebody was rumoured to have spotted her at an audition for the chorus of a
regional tour. “As you all know, nothing is guaranteed in this business. Least of all success.”
“Here today, gone tomorrow,” said Will Todd. Alicia pursed her lips at the cruelty of Will's wit, but she knew that what he was saying was true.
“What exactly do the producers want for Zelda?” asked Aeysha. “In the book, she's a real chameleon. A complete shape-shifter.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Unusually they haven't even specified hair or eye colour. Only age. So it's wide open. But at least it
means that it's an opportunity for a great many of you.” Alicia smiled at them before she walked towards her office. “It could be any one of you.”
“It could be anyone,” said Kylie, “but it better not be Katie Wilkes-Cox.” There were a few murmurs of agreement.
“What do you mean, Kylie?” asked Aeysha sharply. “Katie proved she'd changed when she helped save the Swan. She deserves her place here.”
Kylie shrugged. She could feel she had the support of several other girls in the group. “Maybe she does and maybe she doesn't. Maybe she only came back because she saw the Swan as her best chance of becoming famous. We know that's all Katie Wilkes-Cox
cares about. But I don't think she should get to audition for stuff until she's been here longer. It wouldn't be fair if she just waltzed back in and then snatched a starring role away from someone who really deserved it.”
Aeysha smiled. “Someone like you, you mean, Kylie?”
Kylie looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, well,
maybe.” She waved her hand around. “Or it could be any one of us. It could be you, Aeysha, or you, Georgia. How would you feel then?”