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Curtain Down

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Sorrel knew there was going to be trouble, as soon as her new agent asked if she were a member of the Warren clan.

“You’ve been focusing more on the character roles, I see.”  Mr Van Diemen shuffled through her curriculum vitae.  “Compared to your cousin’s career, I mean.  Less upsie-downsie.”

Sorrel hesitated.  "Miranda is a very talented actress," she said.

There was a lot more she could have said if she’d wanted to, but she generally tried to be kind-spirited, even when it was Miranda.  Her cousin had had a sparkling early career full of notable second leads in modern comedies and Shakespearean ingénues cherry picked for her by her father.  Then she’d gotten what should have been her plum role – principal in a new murder mystery written by a new rising star novelist, much hyped by the theatrical press, a lot of capital sunk into the production and… it just hadn’t worked out.  Sorrel had been at the opening night sitting next to her grandmother as the great Margaret Shaw chewed on her bottom lip and muttered to herself and fussed with her shawl while Miranda just never quite seemed to connect with the audience, nor even her fellow actors.  Miriam had filled her in later on the endless phone conversations and tantrums among the aunts and uncles about whether Miranda ought to be allowed to go on in the part, and she could imagine to herself just how awful it was going to be at Christmas with Grandmother doing imitations.  Even for Miranda that seemed very harsh.

Sorrel went on: “I got some very good advice, when I was just starting to work on the stage.  Build up your craft as you go.  I haven’t actually minded having smaller roles all this time, because I’m always learning from them, and seeing what the other actors do.”  She smiled suddenly, shyly.  “Not that I’d mind getting a lead.  But there’s always something to learn from the other parts.  Why do you ask?”

Mr Van Diemen handed her a mimeographed script.  “I want you to read through this.  Learn the third scene and be ready to audition for Cecilia – none of those little schoolgirl M’audition pieces, if you please, the managers want to see the real thing.”

She took the script obediently, then asked – “but why were you asking about Miranda?”

“I’m thinking about putting her forward for the part of Margaret.  The play is about two sisters who don’t get along.”

***

Life in the Square was very different from those years at the bog end of the War when she and her siblings had first lived there.  Mark, of course, had gone back to school as soon as the money had been sorted out and was in London just for holidays – and even then, he often went back to the Channel Islands to stay with their father.  Aunt Lindsay had had another baby, needed help, and taken over Hannah and Holly right along with her.  Holly was thriving with an aunt to fuss over her and make sure she preened as a young girl should and yet, it did rather leave Sorrel feeling like a theatrical boarder in a lodging house.  Alice was full of stories about the ‘old days’ and the Roaring Twenties and the First Nights they used to have, and they accommodated the roaring matron of the house together.

Sorrel trudged past the little park in the middle of the square, wondering if they were ever going to put the railings back or clear away the rubble from that one last bombed out house.  Normally she liked to see all the growing things, but in the 4pm gloom the Square looked raggedy and uncared for, gone to seed.  Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness indeed, she sniffed.

When she got in, Alice was waiting for her.  “Come on in, old China, and get some soup into you.  That fog is thick enough to cut with a knife.  Herself wants a word when you’ve warmed up.”

Fed and brushed, Sorrel braced herself for the interview.  Her grandmother was in fine form, the dragon of her childhood aged into a force of nature.  She settled into an overstuffed armchair and breathed the warm fug of the room, outrageously hot after the foggy twilight she’d walked through.

“So tell me about this play, young Sorrel,” her grandmother said, “this new work we’re all supposed to be thrilled by.”

“I read it on the Tube.  It’s a tragicomedy, I suppose.  On the surface it’s very funny, but I feel like the playwright wanted to talk about something awful, too big and awful to look at directly.  I don’t know if that makes sense?”

“Perfectly.”  There was a gleam of wolfish smile. “See the skull beneath the skin.  When are you scheduled to audition?  We must get you ready in time.”

“I was thinking about not auditioning, actually,” Sorrel said noncommittally.

“Nonsense,” her grandmother said stridently.  “No grandchild of mine turns down a lead role.”

Sorrel fiddled with one of the jade figurines.  She'd been thinking about this on the train, all the years she'd spent being the responsible Forbes child, and thinking about everyone else's needs and wants and putting her own aside for them.  “I don't actually like Miranda,” she said, “and if we both get cast I'd have to see her every day.  That's six weeks of rehearsals, and however many months the play runs for.  That's a lot of time to spend with someone you don't like.”

“Tosh, my girl,” Grandmother said, “this is acting.  I have mortally hated no less than half of my leading men, and done all the better for it.  Channel that feeling into your craft and you’ll really shine.  Now then,” she added, “go and drill your lines, and when you’re ready I’ll work through the scene with you.”

***

“You’d be surprised to see Winifred now she’s back from Jersey – she’s gone all pink and pretty.  You know how pale and rotten looking she was from that pneumonia.” 

Holly had been released from the Academy for her lunch break, and was filling Sorrel in on all the gossip as they walked in a nearby park.  She grabbed her older sister’s hand and swung on it.  “So I’ve got an audition to go to, too.  At Alexandra Park.  There’s a new puppet show they want to do for For the Children, and Uncle Mose told the producer I’d be a good voice for it.  Imagine that – me on the telly…  If I do well, maybe I’ll get called in for one of the variety shows, like Kaleidoscope.”

“Gosh,” said Sorrel, “we’ll have to get a television set and everything.”  She looked up at the autumn rotted leaves hanging on the trees around them.  “Do you remember when we first came to London?  When we were all squeezed on the train and the GI gave us all sweets and then we arrived at Grandmother’s house and there was no furniture or carpet or anything?  Just look at us all now.” 

Her sister looked uninterested – six years in London took up most of your memories when you were only just thirteen and going for your first audition on the television.  “When’s your audition for this play?  What’s it called?  What’s it about, anyway?”

When the Curtain Falls,” Sorrel told her.  “It’s supposed to be historical, but really it’s a satire about right now.  It’s wickedly funny, and also pretty sad.”  She made a face.  “And all the best lines go to the character Miranda is auditioning for…” 

Holly shrugged.  “Them that has, gets” she said, copying Alice’s voice.  “You want to be the funny one, go out and be the funny one.  When is it?”

“Tomorrow.  After I’ve had lunch with Dad.” 

 ***

Her father grimaced at the vegetable pie set in front of them.  “I miss the days when you could get a good filling meat pie.  Brimming with gravy, that was the ticket.”

Sorrel shrugged and dug into her meal.  “I like Woolton Pie.  And at least bread and clothes are off ration now.”  There didn’t seem much point in talking about it – grown ups reminiscing about food they used to eat was so old hat she almost didn’t register it anymore.  And the times someone gave her real egg to eat, she always felt she had to be polite about it because she was so used to the dried kind that fresh tasted odd.  Another oddity in her life was her newly cut short hair.  Alice had put her foot down when she’d graduated from Madame Fidolia’s and taken her to a hair salon and had her plaits trimmed down to a smooth page boy cut.  She was still getting used to the swing of hair around her neck and ears. 

A flicker by the entrance of the Grill Room caught her eye and she looked up to see two actors she recognised, Noël Coward and Laurence Olivier, walking into the restaurant, arms waving expressively.  She looked down again, suddenly shy, feeling envious at the way other faces in the room were turning to watch their passing, like the wake of a ship. 

“Wanting to be them?” her father asked her.

“A little,” she answered.  Then: “did Mother miss all this, after she married you?  Lunch at the Savoy, and seeing famous actors and, and hoping to be one someday?”

“I think she might have done, at least some of the time.  She was happy with me and our quiet life in Jersey, I promise she was, and very happy when you and Mark and Holly came along.  But every now and then I’d see her reading through her review scrapbook looking wistful – a lot like you are now.”  He sighed.  “You look so much like your mother.”

She looked up, trying to reconcile the lined face and salt and pepper hair with the vigorous man she thought she remembered from before the War.  She’d been only seven, she realised, with Holly still toddling about.  She wasn’t even sure Holly remembered that there had been a before the War. 

He put his hands flat on the table.  “So there was something I wanted to talk to you about.  Rather about your mother, but also not.  There’s a young woman I was spending time with over the summer – I think things could become serious if we let it, and I wanted you to hear about her from me.”

“Oh.”  She really didn’t know what to make of this, how much her parents had loved each other had been one of the great mythologies of her childhood.  “Is she nice?”

“She’s very nice.  You know her, actually, she’s one of the teachers from your school.  Her doctor advised her to take a long summer holiday by the sea to convalesce in, and Holly wrote to me asking me to keep an eye on her.  We got to be chums, I suppose.”

“Wait, Winifred?  Do you mean Winifred Bagnall?  Holly said she’d gone all pink and pretty.” 

“Yes.” He looked doubtful.  “I thought from your letters that you got on with her.” 

“Well, yes, I just never thought…  Look, she’s nice, I promise I know she’s nice.  I’m just used to thinking of her as Winifred my teacher, not Winifred my step-mother.  That’s what you mean, right?”

“It might be, if things go well.  I’m hoping it will, but it would be a big change for everybody.  Anyway, enough about me.  Tell me about your play that you’re auditioning for.  It’s this afternoon?”

***

If Sorrel had had any thoughts that her cousin might be a little deflated after her recent flop, she was quickly disabused.  Miranda walked into the theatre looking like she owned the place, decked out in some of her mother’s furs.

For this audition, the managers and the director had said they wanted to see a live read through, and brought in several of the young women proposed for each role to pair off against.  “Poor old Sorrel,” Miranda said when she saw who she was paired with, “finally worked up the nerve to try for a lead this time.  Well, I’ll try to make you look good.”

“Don’t worry yourself, Miranda,” she said.  “I know it’s me doing you the favour today.”  And there was a flash in those burning ember eyes, and Sorrel knew that for once in her life she’d scored a palpable hit on her accomplished older cousin.  And then it was their turn to read and the magic happened, and she forgot the proscenium arch and the glittering eyes in the dark, and even her new dress and uncomfortably fashionable hair cut, and became Cecilia, the hard done by girl with a cousin she hated and yet loved and the words burst free from her, that difficult burning verse a new playwright had committed to the world.  They wound down to the end of the scene:

CECILIA: Dame Margaret, you are unregenenerate.  The dragon’s scales
       Show on your skin.

MARGARET:                                                                       Oh, boil your head.

At the final line, with Miranda’s perfect comedic timing and intonation, the other actresses on the stage burst into titters, and the managers and director in the stalls started to chuckle.  “Excellent, Miss Brain.  And that’s good, Miss Forbes, that’s very good,” the director, a coming young man with an ostentatious scarf said.  He seemed almost surprised.  “I’m intrigued by your interpretation.”

“My Grandmother spent a lot of time going through the play with me,” Sorrel admitted, feeling craven.  Actually, it had been fascinating – Margaret Shaw hadn’t given two hoots about the way Sorrel delivered her lines; what she’d wanted was to fossick out every possible interpretation or shadow of meaning put in there by the playwright.  Digging into the bones of the piece, she’d called it: “the merest farce must be approached with the same depth and intensity and understanding as a great Shakespearean tragedy,” the old woman had warned.  “Anything less is disrespect to the body of the play and to your audience,” and Sorrel had gotten a glimmer with adult eyes of why her grandmother had been considered one of the greats of 20th century theatre.  She brought to each role not just fire and humour, but deep solid understanding.  “Young Adelaide was the only one of my children who knew that in her bones,” Grandmother went on with a sigh.  “Now this,” she held up the heavily marked up script, “has some potential.  If you pursue it with a whole heart, and that little director has some guts, you could do very well.  Now start from the beginning of the scene again…”

***

Two days later, Mr Van Diemen called to say that she’d gotten the part and to finalise the contract.

She sighed – as she’d feared, the Powers That Be had decided that she and Miranda were a natural pair, and she was going to be stuck with her cousin for however long the play ran for, with all that entailed: adjacent dressing rooms, many scenes together, and playing a character who had to be the straight man to all the acid wit that Miranda Brain (in all likelihood, the future Dame Miranda Brain) could dream up.

One day, when Sorrel had gotten some positive notes from the director, Miranda had told her as they walked to their dressing rooms: “You do know that if this play goes well, all the reviews are going to say things like, ‘Miss Brain has drawn a wonderfully sympathetic performance out of her young cousin’ don’t you?”

When Sorrel asked what the point of that remark was, Miranda had simply said, “I’m orienting you.  Reputation matters in this profession, and you don’t have one.”

And then there was that one horrible day when she’d gone back to the theatre after everyone had left to collect a cardigan, and she’d heard a choked horrified sound from the dressing room next to hers.  She’d pushed the door open and seen her cousin bent nearly double, weeping into her mirror.  Miranda had looked up a moment and seen her staring silently and started to shout.  “Get out!  Out, out, out!  You always get things that are mine, and I hate you.”  Sorrel had left, just as silently, and travelled the lonely Tube ride home with her hands shaking.

The next day, Miranda – of course – acted as if nothing had happened, and went right on needling her younger cousin.  Sorrel looked at the brittle posture of her cousin, the high held chin, and the skull beneath the skin – Miranda did have something to prove, but she was damned if she was going to admit it to anyone.  During one of the breaks, Sorrel sat next to her with a cup of tea and mentioned: “Grandmother was telling me a story the other day.  She said she hated a lot of her leading men; found them irritating, or too self-involved, or weary-making, any little thing really.  She thought she was a better actress for it, because she put all that passion into her part.”

Miranda gave her a filthy look, but she took the proffered custard cream anyway and ate it in two decided snaps of her teeth.

***

The week before opening night, Madame Fidolia invited her back to the school to take tea.  Sorrel shyly reached into her attache case and presented Madame with an autographed picture.  “Our publicity stills came back,” she said, “and I really liked this one.”

“Ah, one of my little Forbes children, about to take flight.  All three with such beautifully active imaginations.  Do you know, your brother Mark wrote to me a few weeks ago complaining that now his voice has settled he has been suborned into his school choir.  He tells me,” she sipped tea confidingly, “that he manages by pretending he is a bear growling out the bass line.”

Sorrel smiled.  Mark’s version of the story to her had been that he was a pirate in a ship’s crew.  “I think he likes pretending that he doesn’t like singing.  It gives him cover with his friends who are going into the Navy as well.  My Dad says he’ll be popular – on long voyages they always liked sailors who could put on a concert.”  They chatted for a few minutes about this and that, before Sorrel got to the question she really wanted answered.

“Oh, it is very… how do you say?  Melodramatic.  I believe I’ve just been asked for young Winifred’s hand in marriage, so of course my student has burst into tears and says that it is all quite impossible.”

“Why?” Sorrel asked, suddenly offended on behalf of her father.

Madame Fidolia shrugged eloquently.  “People in love know no reason, nor any common sense; not even those who have married before.  Perhaps you could ask the principals in person?”

When Sorrel left Madame’s study, it occurred to her that she might hate her play, but someone else’s life she had a chance of fixing up.  She wandered the halls of the Academy looking for her old teacher, and found herself, queerly, feeling like a hunter stalking her prey.  She eventually bailed up poor old Winifred in the records room, where the mushroom coloured woman was sternly filing scripts.

Sorrel had thought of something nice to say but found herself blurting out: “For someone who’s supposed to be in love, you’re awfully brisk.”

Winifred set down a cardboard box with a thump and cracked open the contents.  “So that’s where the Penguin Readers got to,” she muttered.

“Um.”  Sorrel perched her bottom on the table and asked tentatively: “So are you in love with my father?  Like in love as in want to marry?  Not just good friends from a summer holiday?”

“It’s quite impossible,” Winifred Bagnall snapped.  “You know I’m not the marrying kind.”

“Alright?” Sorrel blinked.  “I actually didn’t know that.  Who isn’t the marrying kind? Apart from nuns, I suppose,” she added.

Winifred looked up, her mouth a horseshoe of unhappiness.  “Everything in my life I’ve earned.  I don’t get a free ticket for looking pretty, or wealthy benefactors helping me out, or relatives with good contacts or, or anything like that.  Every nice thing I have I got by working.  I don’t want to leave go of that.”

“Um.  Dad’s pretty nice.  In case it matters?”

“It isn’t that,” there was more slamming down of books on the table.  “Madame Fidolia has offered for me to buy into a partnership at the Academy.  It would be a stretch, but she’s offering favourable terms because she wants me to take over as managing partner in a couple of years.  I can’t be a professional woman and also a housewife packed off to Jersey.  It was a lovely holiday but it has to end.

Sorrel chewed her lip.  She’d hunted down Winifred intending to be self-sacrificing and noble, but she’d realised that actually she didn’t have to be.  Winifred wasn’t going to take over her mother’s place, neither in memory nor practicality; she would always be good, kind, practical Winifred.  Having her in the family would be more like having a wiser older sister, and she suddenly felt a bone deep ache for that presence in her life.  “Couldn’t you buy into the partnership anyway?  Make Dad move to London and keep the house in the islands for holidays.”  She shrugged.  “Holly and I would get to see him more, so everyone wins.  Trust me, he’s been baching for years – he can survive being married to a working woman.”

Winifred stopped sorting books and looked up at her, suddenly wary.  Sorrel smiled, a sudden beaming grin.  “We’d like it.  We really would.”

***

There was an old superstition that bad dress rehearsals made for good opening nights.  If that were so, Sorrel thought grimly, then they ought to have a cracker play on their hands.  The technical had gone badly, and as for the dress… well.  A lot of small indignities and accidents had happened and by the end, a full hour later than planned, their director had almost worried his scarf to shreds. 

“Alright, alright, my darlings.  Everybody go home, get a good night’s sleep, and be here rested tomorrow at 3.”

Sorrel tried hard to sleep that night, and utterly failed, ending up sitting in her grandmother’s darkened sitting room by the banked fire making cocoa on the coals and wishing that someone would wake up and ask her what she was doing.  There were a lot of lonelinesses at midnight when you were about to do something that scared you.

In her dressing room getting ready, the loneliness was even deeper, even with Alice helping her with her makeup keeping up a running commentary on the company and the wardrobe department’s last minute efforts.  A knock on the door and Sorrel was desperate for a third person in the room.  It was her grandmother and uncle, there to make a courtesy call.  Miranda’s father was all jovial cheer and condescension – “my daughter tells me you’ve been working very hard,” he said, “good, good.  Do you remember that wonderful start I gave you in The Tempest?  Always room for improvement, of course, but there you are, practice makes perfect,” before bustling out in a wave of paternalism.  Sorrel rolled her eyes.

“This child ought to be whipped,” her grandmother said with a twinkle in her eye, and Sorrel realised all of a sudden that actually she liked her grandmother very much indeed.

“I’d like to get a cat,” she said suddenly.

Margaret Shaw blinked.  “Now that’s a non sequitur.  You and Addie and first night nerves.”

“I live with you, don’t I?  Permanently, I mean, not just an orphan you’re taking in during the War.  I live with you, and I like living with you, and I’d like to get a cat.  There’s a girl I know from Madame Fidolia’s whose family is moving to Rhodesia.  She has a cat called the Grey Mouser that she wants to find a home for.  I’d like him to live with us, if that’s alright with you.”

Grandmother stood up with dramatic flare.  “All the cats in Christendom shall hence forth be yours, young Sorrel.  Now go forth and break a leg,” she added as she swept out of the room to take her seat for the first night.

As Alice helped her into her frock, Sorrel suddenly gasped.  “I can’t do it.  I can’t go on, they’ll have to use my understudy instead.  I’m not ready to hold a whole play yet; Miranda is, but I’m not.  You’ll have to tell them.”

The dresser snorted.  “I’ll do nothing of the sort.  If I haven’t seen an actress with stage fright in my time – oh the diversions and alarums Herself used to put us through…”  She tugged at the dress’ laces.  “When it comes to it, young china plate, you just have to work the next three hours.  When that curtain goes down you’ve done your job.”  Alice picked off Sorrel’s good luck fish from where it hung on the mirror, and carefully tucked it under her dress where it wouldn’t be seen.

When the call for beginners had gone out, Sorrel took herself out to the wings to wait for her entrance, breathing deep studied lungfuls of air.  She pulled out her little jade fish with the red tassel and rubbed it with her thumb, wondering what ever had become of that Chinaman so far from his home.

A voice came from behind her.  “Sorrel.  You’re good in the part.  The audience need someone to show them what’s funny, and that’s you – I wouldn’t get such good laughs with a different actress.”  Miranda shrugged languidly, her face made exotic and figured with stage makeup.  “You know how selfish I am – I wouldn’t say something nice unless I meant it.”

It was Sorrel’s cue then, and she looked up at Miranda’s eyes too startled to say anything before she had to sweep onto the stage into the body of the play, all flesh and blood over the bones put out there by the writer.  When her cousin walked out to join her, her heart leaped and she sang out the lines of hate and love and redemption and humour and let the goodwill of the audience carry her through to its own inexorable end.

                MARGARET:       Just so long as you keep it in the family.

                CECILIA:                                                                                               Family is all there is.

Sorrel took a deep breath and watched the curtain fall as the applause swept around her. She grabbed Miranda’s hand and held on tightly for the encore.