Authors: Lyn Gardner
“Ella Campion? Surely not?” said Alicia, frowning. “She must be long dead.”
Olivia and Tom shook their heads. “She's not. She's very much alive,” said Olivia. “But she's ancient. Maybe ninety or even a hundred. Do you know her?”
Alicia laughed. “I know I must seem very old to you, Livy, but I'm not quite that old. No, Ella Campion was in the business long before my time. Campion's closed down before I was even born. I can't remember the details, but I think that something bad happened. Some kind of tragedy. You should look it up on the Internet. I can remember my grandfather telling me about Campion's when I was a girl. It was famous and Ella Campion was a legend. She was running
Campion's before she was twenty and that must have been during World War Two. She put on everything, from Shakespeare to variety and pantomime. Of course, Campion's was originally a music hall back in Victorian times when her family first owned it. I think part of the draw in its latter days was that it had remained much as it was, almost untouched since the nineteenth century. But it must be over fifty years since it closed. After the war people didn't want that old kind of entertainment. They wanted cocktail lounges and American crooners. There was a West End club my parents used to go to when I was a child. The Glass Slipper. It was considered the height of sophistication. I don't think places like Campion's could compete.”
“Campion's Palace of Varieties,” said Olivia, rolling the words around her tongue with pleasure. “Ella said that in her grandfather's day it was a bit like the circus. There were trapeze acts and high-wire walking as well as cancan dancing and even a performing horse. I'm not sure if she meant it was a real horse or not.”
“It might have been real. In the nineteenth century the old Hippodrome in Leicester Square had novelty acts like polar bears and tigers, and
the Alhambra had real waterfalls on stage. My great-grandfather used to go there at the turn of the twentieth century. The toffs came over in their carriages from the West End. It was considered a bit naughty because you could see the chorus girls' ankles, which was considered rather shocking in those days.
“To think Ella Campion's still alive! How did you meet her, Livy? She's a living piece of theatre history.”
Olivia shifted slightly uncomfortably and shot a warning glance at Tom. She wasn't sure her gran would be pleased to hear that she had been climbing into apparently derelict buildings. She thought maybe it might be better to sidestep the question.
“Oh, Tom and I just sort of bumped into her in Hangman's Alley,” she said as casually as she could.
Alicia frowned again. “I wish you children wouldn't hang around there. It's so bleak and isolated with all those boarded-up old buildings, like a ghost town,” she said. “Still, it's nice to think that old Ella is alive and well, even if Campion's has long bitten the dust. It's a pity the way all that old theatre history and
buildings have been lost, swept away by new flats and office blocks. Such a shame.”
Olivia was about to interrupt her and explain that Campion's Palace of Varieties was still there in all its glory, but then remembered she might have to explain about getting into the building in the first place. She decided to wait until they had been back to Campion's to see Ella a few more times. Then perhaps they could take Alicia round as a surprise. She couldn't wait to see her grandmother's face when she saw the perfect theatre and the stage machinery. Ella and Arthur said it was all in complete working order even though it hadn't been properly used for years.
Alicia was still talking. “We should invite her to the Swan. She could come to see the pantomime.”
“OK, we will,” said Tom. “I think she might like that. She knows about the Swan. But she doesn't go out much. She looks as if a gust of wind might blow her away, and she seems to get a bit confused at times.”
Alicia opened her mouth to ask some more questions so Olivia quickly interrupted with one of her own. “Gran, do we have a ghost-light
in the Swan theatre?”
Alicia smiled. “Of course, all theatres do. It's that little bulb in a wire cage stage left. The one that's always on very low.”
“So does that mean the Swan theatre has its own ghost?” asked Olivia, wide-eyed.
Alicia laughed. “Has Ella been filling your head with spooky nonsense? Theatre is such a superstitious business. We haven't got a resident ghost like so many old theatres claim to have. Some even keep a couple of empty seats at every performance, even the sold-out ones, in case the ghosts put in an appearance and want to see the show. It's considered bad luck if they turn up unexpectedly and there are no seats for them. It's the same with the ghost-light. It's supposed to make the ghosts feel welcome. It's all superstition of course. The real origin of the ghost-light is so anyone walking on to a dark stage doesn't blunder into the orchestra pit or trip over the scenery.”
“Oh,” said Olivia, disappointed.
Alicia laughed. “I'm afraid it's not nearly such a romantic explanation.”
“Have you ever seen a theatre ghost, Gran?”
Alicia shook her head. “I reckon that you have to believe in ghosts to see one, and I'm a committed non-believer.” Alicia looked serious for a moment. “Now, did Pablo find you? He says it's not possible to rig the theatre for trapeze, and even tightrope-walking will probably be impossible for the panto.”
“Yes,” said Olivia. “He told us earlier. He says the roof isn't strong enough. It's a real shame about the circus stuff, but never mind, there's still the panto horse.”
Alicia frowned; she was quite surprised that Olivia had taken the news about the rigging so well, and she hadn't realised her granddaughter had been serious about being the back end of a pantomime horse.
“But, Livy, I've read the script and
doesn't have a pantomime horse in it.”
“Trust me,” said Olivia, dancing away with a grin. “It will do.” She looked at the clock on her phone. “Gotta go, Gran. Come on, Tom, we've got to meet a man about a horse.”
Alicia laughed. “OK, you mad twosome,” she said, before remembering something else. “Actually, before you go, I've been meaning to ask you about Katie.”
Olivia and Tom turned round slowly.
“I don't want you to tell tales,” said Alicia. “But how's she getting on with the other children? I'd like to know if things are really bad. I have had brief words with one or two who I thought might be giving her grief, but I want to be certain she's not being singled out.”
Alicia stopped. She could see from Olivia's face that her granddaughter felt awkward, and she hated that she had put her in a difficult position.
“Katie's a survivor, Miss Swan. She'll be OK,” said Tom brusquely, who like Olivia didn't want to be seen as a snitch.
“I'm sorry, clearly this is tricky for you,” said Alicia. “But I ask because the last couple of days I've got the distinct impression Katie wants to confess something to me but can't quite bring herself to do it. I wondered whether she was being badly bullied, or if things had got much worse at home and she can't cope. But if she won't tell me what's worrying her, I can't help her.”
She gazed hard at Olivia and Tom. “If somebody's being bullied, it's not snitching to say, you know.”
Katie stood in the wings waiting for her turn to audition. She was the very last person on the list and only Olivia and Tom were left to go before her now. Her heart wasn't in it but she had no choice because Miss Swan had insisted that Katie put her name forward for the panto, saying that it would be good experience for her to get up in front of her classmates and audition. “You've got to do it sometime,” Alicia had said kindly. “Best to get it over and done with.” Katie wished that it hadn't arrived quite so quickly.
Miss Swan clearly didn't realise just how horrible Kylie and some of the other girls were being to her. Not in any big way: they just weren't giving her a chance, but were dropping snide remarks and pretending she wasn't in the room
when she was. Small-kid, primary-school stuff, really. When she had been the Queen of Mean she had been far more inventive in her nastiness. She'd had a special talent for it. There probably wasn't a person in the class, particularly among the girls, who she hadn't hurt or humiliated in some way. Now they were getting their own back on her. She knew it would probably pass, and she also knew she only had herself to blame.
“I'm not taking no for an answer, Katie,” Miss Swan had said. “I've already added your name to the list of auditionees for the Swan panto. You deserve your chance, and I have complete faith in you.”
What was far worse than the taunts from the other girls was the gnawing feeling that she had already failed Miss Swan by doing something utterly stupid and unforgivable. How could she have added her own name to the Zelda audition list without thinking through the consequences? Every time Katie thought about it, it made her stomach churn. If only she could turn back the clock. She was sure to be found out and then all the faith Miss Swan had in her would be destroyed. Katie would be excluded from the Swan for a second time, but this time
forever. There would be no coming back again.
Katie took a deep breath as she watched Georgia finish her song and dance. There was only one thing for it. She was going to have to confess. If she tried to explain what had happened at the cash machine and how upset and worried she was about her mum and their lack of money, and beg for forgiveness, maybe Miss Swan would understand and show her mercy.
She had already tried twice, but the first time Mrs Gibbs had appeared with an urgent call for Alicia, and the second time she had just completely lost her nerve and had been left stuttering in front of Miss Swan.
But she wouldn't be such a coward again. The minute the audition was over, she was going to knock on Miss Swan's door and insist on speaking to her. She would confess all about her moment of madness, and get her name removed from the Zelda audition list, and maybe it would all be all right. Maybe her place at the Swan would be safe after all, and she'd make Miss Swan so proud of her that the Coven wouldn't dare come near her.
Georgia finished her audition and
everybody clapped hard, and a few people cheered as she left the stage and slipped back down into the auditorium.
“OK, Livy and Tom, let's see what you can do.” Jon James, the director of the Swan pantomime, looked expectantly at the empty stage. He tipped back on his chair and yawned. It had been a long day. The auditions for
had started first thing in the morning with the youngest children in the school and were now finishing with Years Nine and Ten, who were sitting patiently in rows and watching each other perform. Everyone wanted to win a role in the panto.
The children had prepared their auditions without help from the Swan staff, even the very youngest ones. Some had performed alone, while others had performed in pairs or small groups. Eel, Emmy Lovedale and some of their friends had devised a wickedly comic spoof of
The Dying Swan
that had made Jon laugh a great deal and mentally vow to find a spot for all of them in the pantomime. He'd also enjoyed a high-kicking chorus line choreographed by Kylie Morris and some of her friends. But he had also heard endless renditions of “When I
Grow Up” from
and seen scores of tap dancers, and although they were all highly professional, he was beginning to flag. He could already cast the Swan's
ten times over and inevitably some of the children were going to be disappointed, particularly as the major leads were going to go to ex-Swan pupils. Abbie Cardew, who was in an upcoming movie, was playing the fairy godmother. Theo Deacon had said he would play the prince and Amber Lavelle was going to play Cinderella. It was a pity really; Jon would have much preferred Olivia as his Cinders, but even if she would do it, which he doubted, she would be far too young to play opposite Theo.
It was a pity Theo couldn't be persuaded to play Baron Hard-Up or one of the ugly sisters. But when he and Alicia had suggested it to Theo's agent Sheridan, she had raised her eyebrow and said it would never do for Hollywood's most sought-after romantic lead to be laughed at.
“I have to think about Theo's future, darlings. He's not a Z-list reality-show celeb desperate to do panto, he's a real star
a serious actor. It's just lucky for you that filming
on his new movie was put back and there was an unexpected gap in his schedule or he wouldn't be able to do it at all.” She smiled so that big white teeth could be glimpsed behind crimson lips, putting Alicia in mind of a shark that had just had its tea. “You've got to remember he could be earning thousands elsewhere while he's helping you out on your little panto.”
Jon had felt Alicia stiffen in the chair next to him and prayed that she wouldn't say anything. But she'd been so astonished at Sheridan's breathtaking rudeness that she was stunned into silence, although on the way back to the Swan she'd done such a perfect imitation of Sheridan that Jon had been in stitches.
“I know it's wrong of me to even think it,” said Alicia, “but if anybody should play an ugly sister it should be Sheridan. She's so demanding and unpleasant, it would almost be typecasting.”
Jon had smiled. “Maybe that's one of the things that makes her a great agent. Remember she did salvage Theo's career after he did all those appalling movies and appeared to be in freefall.”
Jon looked down at his list of the remaining auditionees. There was only Olivia and Tom
to come, followed by Katie Wilkes-Cox, and he knew all their work very well. In the case of Katie Wilkes-Cox rather too well, after his experiences with her on
The Sound of Music.
Alicia had told him that Olivia didn't want to be cast as anything major and Katie couldn't be, but he was wondering whether Tom might be a perfect Buttons. The age gap between him and Amber wouldn't matter so much; in fact, it would make the relationship all the more hopeless and touching.
“Livy? Tom? Are you there? I haven't got all night,” shouted Jon impatiently.
“Coming!” came the muffled reply. There was a tinny tinkle of music and then suddenly a large pantomime horse appeared on stage. It had soft brown fur, massive brown eyes with thick lashes, a tail that swished magnificently and a daisy in the middle of its forehead. The children in the theatre shrieked, and the horse gave a loud whinny and galloped down the steps and into the auditorium. It tap-danced its way up the aisle, its front two feet perfectly coordinated and its back two tripping over each other. It cocked its head and pricked up its ears becomingly, flirted outrageously with the audience and Jon,
and put out its head to be patted. Laughing, the children reached out to stroke it, and the horse whinnied with pleasure and fluttered its huge eyelashes. That brought the house down. The children were screaming with laughter as the music from
started up and the horse started a lumbering dance.
Jon's face creased with laughter. “OK, Tom and Livy,” he said. “That was fabulous. But there is no panto horse in Michael's script.”
The horse dropped to its knees in front of Jon, put its front hooves together and begged, all the while batting its huge eyelashes and pretending to wipe away tears. Most of the Swans were doubled up with laughter and Jon held up his hands in surrender.
“All right, all right,” he cried. “You win. I give in. You can be the panto horse. I'll ask Michael to write one in.”
A noise that was a cross between a neigh and a cheer came from inside the horse, which rose to its feet, gave a little jig of joy and then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Then it scrambled up like a newborn foal and galloped off into the wings. Everyone cheered.
It took a few minutes for everyone to settle
down again after the excitement and Jon had to ask for quiet several times.
“OK,” he said. “Katie, are you ready?”
Katie popped her head out from the wings. “Yes,” she said, trying to sound bright and cheerful. “I'm ready.”
“Then let's begin,” said Jon.
The music struck up. Katie ran on the stage and started to sing “If I Were a Bell” from
Guys and Dolls.
She had got to the end of the verse and was singing “If I were a bell, I'd go ding dong, ding dong ding!” when Mrs Gibbs appeared at the door of the theatre, raised her hand to get Poppy Churchill, the accompanist and the Swan's head girl, to stop and said, “So very sorry, everyone, for interrupting, but I've got New York on the phone for you, Mr James. They say that they've been trying your mobile but it's off and it's really urgent. I told them you were auditioning but they said they had to speak with you without delay. They wouldn't take no for an answer.”
Katie had faltered to a halt and stood looking uncomfortable. Mrs Gibbs glanced at her apologetically. “I'm really very sorry, Katie.”
Jon ran his hands through his hair. “I'm sorry too, guys. I know it's unprofessional but I really do have to take this call. Forgive me, Katie, and stay exactly where you are. I'll be straight back and we can take it from the top.” He followed Mrs Gibbs out of the door.
Katie stood on the stage on one leg, trying to look unconcerned. There was a moment's silence, then a few people began chatting and Poppy went over to chat to her friends. Suddenly a voice at the back of the theatre began singing very clearly, “If I were a smell I'd go ping pong, ping pong ping.”
Some of the girls giggled; everyone else looked embarrassed and stopped chatting. Katie tried to pretend she hadn't heard a thing but gave herself away by turning bright red.
“Ping, pong, ping pong ping,” trilled Kylie. “There
a nasty smell in here. Must be coming from the stage.”
There was a charged silence. Poppy looked worried, as if she knew she ought to do something but wasn't sure what. A few girls laughed uncertainly; others looked unhappy, as if they thought Kylie had crossed a line. Katie looked wildly around as if seeking help, her
eyes filled with tears, then she made a choking noise and stumbled off the stage.
Aeysha stood up very calmly from where she'd been sitting and walked down the auditorium until she was standing right in front of Kylie. Kylie stood up with her arms folded and a sulky, challenging look on her face. Aeysha leaned forward until her face was close to Kylie's and, making sure everyone could hear her, said, “What is your problem, Kylie Morris? One day, one day very, very soon, it will be you standing on a stage somewhere and I have no doubt that somebody will do to you what you have just done to Katie. As my mum always says, what goes around comes around.” She smiled sweetly. “Do you know what you are, Kylie Morris? Because I do, and so does everybody else in this theatre today. You are nothing but a coward and a big bully.”
Aeysha's grave voice carried a quiet authority. Kylie turned beetroot red; a number of her friends looked deeply embarrassed and shifted in their seats. There was another minute's pause and then somebody broke into applause and others followed, and some even cheered what Aeysha had said. Everyone was
getting fed up with Kylie and she had gone too far this time. One of the unwritten rules of Swan auditions was that everybody was treated with courtesy and respect.
For a moment Kylie's eyes blazed. She looked around at her friends for support, but they all seemed to be mesmerised by their feet. For a moment it looked as if she might spit in Aeysha's face, but then she barged her way along the row and flounced out of the door, almost knocking over a surprised Jon James on his way back in. Not a single one of her friends followed her. Jon looked around at all the serious faces. He could feel the tension in the air.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, before turning to the stage. “Katie, my apologies. Are you ready? Katie!” He turned to the others, perplexed. “Where is she?”
“She felt a bit sick,” said Aeysha.
Jon looked worried. He knew something must have happened but he wasn't a teacher; he had no idea what to do in these circumstances. Normally when he held children's auditions for professional productions he had a full back-up of staff to deal with this sort of thing. He was the director, not the babysitter.