Read an Excerpt
‘People keep asking me if I’m nervous.’
This week’s star attraction gave a broad smile. ‘Believe me, anyone who’s played live to a million screaming fans on Copacabana Beach isn’t going to lose sleep over this.’
‘As if a first night in an itsy-bitsy provincial theatre is going to make Clarion Calhoun wet her pants.’
But the face told a different story. The woman waiting to apply the make-up watched the confidence vanish with the smile and spotted the tell-tale flexing of the muscles at the edge of the mouth. Clarion was outside her comfort zone. Acting was a different skill from pop singing. Because of her inexperience she was getting special treatment from the Theatre Royal. Almost all professional actors do their own make-up. This one couldn’t be trusted to create a simple nineteen-thirties look with nothing more technical than a Cupid’s bow and kohl-lined eyes.
She was getting the nursemaiding in spades. ‘You’ll be a knockout. They love you, anyway. A lot of the actors who come through here have it all to prove. You’ve got it made.’
‘My fan base, you mean?’ Clarion looked better already.
‘Every ticket sold, they tell me.’
‘Right through the week. The management are over the moon.’
The dresser unscrewed a new jar of cold cream and picked up a sponge. ‘Your day make-up is gorgeous, but it won’t be seen under the lights. Do you want to remove it yourself?’
‘Go ahead. I’ll think about my lines.’
Clarion meant the lines in the script, not her face. A few more of those were revealed as the cleanser did its work. She was past thirty and her days as a rock star were numbered. Time to revamp her career. She was playing Sally Bowles in a new production of I Am a Camera. With her name on the billing, it was almost guaranteed a transfer to London later in the year.
A thin layer of moisturiser went on.
‘Remind me of your name,’ Clarion said. A touch of humanity.
They’d met before the dress rehearsal, but frequently the leads treated everyone backstage like furniture.
‘So, Denise, how long have you been doing this?’
‘Working in theatre? Most of my adult life.’
‘Here in Bath?’
‘No, I’ve moved around. If I can be personal, your skin is marvellous.’
‘It should be, all the money I spend on treatments. Is that the colour you’re going to use on me?’
‘I don’t want to look as orange as that.’
‘Trust me. You won’t.’
‘What is it – greasepaint?’
‘Glycerine-based cream. It’s going to feel dry. That’s why I used a base of moisturiser.’
‘I may sound like a beginner, but this isn’t the first play I’ve been in. I was drama trained before I got into the music scene or I wouldn’t have taken this on. I always promised myself I’d get back on the stage.’
Denise passed no comment as she smoothed on the foundation, working it down the neck and as far as the cape.
‘Do you want to put some on my front? I wear that really low gown in the second half and a little extra shadow in the right place would be all to the good.’
‘Later. I’ll finish your face first.’ She did the shadowing and highlighting. Then she used a plump rouge mop to brush on some powder.
‘May I see the result?’ Clarion asked.
‘Not yet, if you don’t mind. Eyes and lips make all the difference.’
In another ten minutes Clarion was handed the mirror. ‘Hey! Transformation. Sally Bowles.’ She switched to her stage voice. ‘How do you do, Sally? I’m terribly glad to meet you.’
There was also some nervousness in the audience. Towards the back of the stalls, Hedley Shearman was fingering his lips, trying not to bite his nails. The casting of Clarion Calhoun wasn’t his doing. He gloried in the title of theatre director, yet the decision had been made over his head, by the board of trustees. Until now, he’d always had final approval of the casting, and it had more than once earned him certain favours. No such chance with this megastar, who treated him no better than a call boy.
Each time she looked at him he was conscious of his lack of height and his bald spot.
Clarion’s name guaranteed bums on seats and a standing ovation from her fans, but Shearman dreaded the critics’ verdict. He cared passionately about the Theatre Royal – almost as passionately as he cared about sex. In two hundred years all the great actors from Macready to Gielgud had graced this stage. This woman was expected to get by on that dubious asset known as celebrity. True, she was a singer playing a singer, but this was entirely an acting role. She’d learned her lines, and that was the best you could say for her. Speaking them with conviction was a difficulty that had become obvious in rehearsal.
He only hoped her glamour would dazzle the critics. A week with every seat sold, including matinees, was the pay-off, whatever they wrote.
The lights were dimmed and the excited buzz of voices stopped, replaced by a scratchy phonograph tune that nicely evoked Berlin in the thirties. The curtain rose on Fräulein
Schneider’s rooming house, tawdry, of its time and place: tall, tiled stove, pendulum clock, washstand, bed partly concealed by a curtain, Medici prints, wicker flower-stand, three-fold screen, couch and chairs. The set designer was a professional, thank God, and so was the head of lighting. The single shaft of light on Isherwood focused attention for the speech that set the tone for the entire play. Preston Barnes, the actor playing Isherwood, had learned his craft at Stratford. Could he compensate for Clarion’s wooden delivery? The irony was that she was supposed to be animated, while Preston cultivated the passivity of the camera.
The opening minutes couldn’t have been bettered. Preston’s soliloquy was exquisitely done and so was the dialogue with the landlady. Yet Shearman couldn’t ignore the fact that everything was just building up to the entrance of the real star.
And there she was.
A burst of applause from her fans.
Give Clarion her due. She moved with poise. She had the figure, the strut, the sexuality of a night club singer, all the attributes of a Sally Bowles. Until she opened her mouth.
Shearman slid even lower in his seat, trying to tell himself his involvement made him hypercritical and no one else would notice. It could be worse – couldn’t it? At least she was delivering the lines.
Others in the audience were shifting in their seats. Someone in the row ahead leaned to his companion and whispered in her ear. The restlessness was infectious. Movement from an audience so early in a play is unusual.
On stage, Clarion pulled a face.
Her mouth widened and brought creases to her cheeks. Her eyebrows popped up and ridges spread across her forehead.
Shearman sat up again.
Nothing in the script called for her to grimace like that.
Sally Bowles was supposed to be in command, outspoken, a girl about town, out to impress, demanding whisky and soda when coffee was offered. Instead she was baring her teeth, staring towards the wings as if she needed help. Stage fright? You don’t expect it on the professional stage, not in such extreme form. Her eyes bulged and she was taking deep breaths. Preston Barnes as Isherwood had spoken a line and Clarion needed to respond. She didn’t. A voice from the wings tried to prompt her, but she appeared dumbstruck. Gasps were heard from the audience. Few things are more destructive to drama than an actor drying.
Barnes improvised a line to cover the silence. It brought no response from Clarion.
She put her hands to her face and clawed at her cheeks.
Her make-up would be ruined, but that didn’t seem to be a concern. She was way out of character now. Nothing the other actors could do would rescue the scene. There was a bigger drama on stage.
And now Clarion screamed.
This wasn’t a theatrical scream. It was piercing, gut-wrenching, horrible. The sound echoed through the theatre, shocking everyone in it, from backstage to the box office.
Someone had the good sense to lower the curtain.
Even the house lights coming on didn’t bring relief. Behind the curtain more convulsive shrieks could be heard.
By the time Hedley Shearman got backstage, Clarion had been helped to her dressing room. Doubled forward in an armchair, she was still crying out as if in severe pain, the sound muffled by a towel pressed to her face. The room was full of people wanting to help and uncertain what to do. A St John Ambulance man was talking to Clarion, but she was too distressed to answer. The man turned to Shearman and said, ‘We should get her to hospital.’
To his credit the little theatre director rose to the challenge, saying he’d drive her to the Royal United himself. Aware of his other responsibility, to the shocked audience still out front, he asked if the understudy was ready to go on. He was told she was already getting into one of the Sally Bowles dresses and could be on stage inside five minutes. An announcement would be made to the audience that Clarion was unwell and unable to continue, but the play would resume shortly.
No one understood what was wrong. The entire theatre was awash with theories. An extreme form of stage fright? Food poisoning? Mental breakdown? Drugs? An allergic reaction?
Clarion’s dresser Denise did her best to comfort the star in the back seat of the Jaguar as Shearman drove at speed to the hospital.
There, still clutching the towel to her face, Clarion was met by the triage team and rushed inside to be assessed.
Not long after, a doctor invited Shearman and Denise into a side room.
‘She appears to have come into contact with some irritant that inflamed her skin. There’s considerable damage to the face and neck. Did her role in the play call for anything unusual to touch her?’
Shearman shook his head. ‘Nothing I’m aware of.’
‘I’m thinking of special effects. Smoke, dry ice, any sort of vapour produced mechanically?’
‘Do you know if she recently used a cosmetic that was new to her? Stage make-up, perhaps?’
Shearman, alarmed, turned to Denise. She reddened and shrugged. ‘She didn’t do her own make-up. I looked after her.’
‘You never know with skin,’ Shearman said, to close that avenue. ‘What’s all right for one person can produce a reaction in someone else.’
‘We don’t think it’s allergic,’ the doctor said. ‘We’ll get a dermatologist to look at her, but our first assessment is that these are acid burns.’
‘Acid?’ Shearman said, horrified. ‘There’s no acid in stage make-up.’
Denise, saucer-eyed, shook her head.
‘I’m telling you what we found,’ the doctor said. ‘She may have to be transferred to the burns unit at Frenchay.’
‘I can’t understand this. It makes no sense at all.’
‘It’s not our job to make sense of it,’ the doctor said. ‘We deal with the injuries that are presented to us. All we want to find out is the likely source of the damage so that we give the right treatment.’
Clarion’s agony on stage ran next morning’s tabloid headline. The theatre was besieged by reporters, distressed fans and, it has to be said, ticket-holders wanting refunds. Upstairs in his office, Hedley Shearman was urgently conferring with Francis
Melmot, the Chairman of the Theatre Trust. Silver-haired and silver-tongued, Melmot, at six foot eight, towered over the stumpy theatre manager.
‘The latest is that she’s being treated at Frenchay Hospital, where they have a burns unit,’ Shearman said. ‘The skin damage is severe, I’m sorry to say, and could be permanent.’
‘Hedley, this is irredeemably dire,’ Melmot said. ‘How could it have possibly have happened?’
In the privacy of his office Shearman could be frank. ‘The obvious explanation is that her skin reacted adversely to the make-up. The burning is all on her face, neck and upper body, the areas that were made up. She rubbed some of the stuff off with a towel and they’re having that analysed.’
‘You’ve spoken to the make-up person, of course?’
‘She’s a dresser, isn’t she?’
‘Yes, but she was specially assigned to do the whole thing, costume, make-up, confidence-giving. If you remember, you said Clarion must be feather-bedded.’
‘Oh, I’m responsible, am I?’
‘Denise is in shock. Can’t think how it happened. She used her own make-up on Clarion. She’s been with us for years, as you know.’
‘What was it – theatrical make-up?’
‘The same stuff they all use. Tried and tested, used in theatres up and down the country.’
‘But was it new?’
‘Well, yes. It’s not good practice to use something that’s been in contact with another actor.’
‘So it’s possible it was a bad batch – the fault of the manufacturer?’
For Melmot, this was all about apportioning blame.
‘I find that hard to believe. The hospital were talking of acid burns. Acid isn’t used in cosmetics. I can understand something being wrong with the mix, only not enough to cause such a violent reaction. Denise is devastated.’
‘If this disaster is down to her, I’m not surprised,’ Melmot said.
Shearman didn’t like the way this was heading. ‘I didn’t say it was Denise’s fault. She’s a trusted member of the team.’
‘Someone is responsible. You say she’s devastated. I’m devastated, too. We could find ourselves being sued for a small fortune. A large fortune if Clarion is permanently scarred. She’s a mega earner and no doubt she had contracts lined up for months ahead.’
‘It’s too early to talk of legal action.’
‘It isn’t. This could bring us down, Hedley. I’m bound to report to the trustees.’
‘They’ll have read the papers like the rest of us.’
‘I must still inform them properly.’
Shearman’s world was imploding. He had status in this theatre, the best job he’d ever had. Sensing he was about to be unfairly blamed, he surprised himself with the force of his anger. ‘I’d like the board to know I was bulldozed into this. I didn’t like the idea of engaging the bloody woman. She’s no actor. Certain people insisted she was box office. It couldn’t go wrong, they said, but it has, spectacularly.’
Melmot chose to ignore the outburst. ‘When the make-up woman –’
‘When she saw Clarion in the dressing room before the show, was she in any discomfort?’
‘No – and she was fine while she was waiting to go on. The first signs of anything going wrong were on stage.’
‘How long after she was made up?’
‘Twenty minutes, at least. If there was going to be a reaction, why was it delayed? I’m mystified.’
‘Have you impounded the make-up?’
Shearman clapped his hand to his head. ‘God, you’re right. I must see to that. I’ll speak to Denise. We’ll confiscate everything that was used last night and lock it in the safe.’
His phone beeped. He snatched it up and said without waiting to hear who was on, ‘I told you I’m in a meeting.’
The switchboard girl said, ‘The police are downstairs, sir.’
‘The police? That’s all we need.’
Melmot was already moving to the door. ‘I must leave you to it, old man. Urgent calls to make.’