By Penelope Fitzgerald
Paperback, 160 pages
List Price: $13.95
It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous. The flood had been initiated by one of the younger boys in the chorus. He had discovered a way to interfere with the mechanism of the B corridor coffee-machine so that it failed to respond to the next fifty sixpences put into it. The defect was reported, but the responsibility for it was argued between the safety manager and Catering. When the next coin was put in the machine produced, with a terrible pang, fifty-one plastic cups, and then heaved and outpoured its load of milk liquid.
At eleven years old, Mattie could not have hoped for a better result. The production manager said that he must go. The quaint tricks were for leading players only, and even then only at the end of a long run.
'This is the third bit of trouble we've had with him, we shall have to send him back.'
The casting director thought there were three weeks of his contract to run. The GLC, mercifully perhaps, only allowed children to appear in commercial productions for three months on end.
'No, not in three weeks, we're returning him at once good as new, they'll have to send us another one. Where did you get him from?'
Both wavered. The casting director told his assistant to notify the Temple Stage School. The assistant spoke to his deputy.
'Perhaps you'd better go and see her.'
The assistant was surprised, having studied a casual style.
'Won't it do if I phone her?'
'Perhaps, if you're good at it.'
'Where will she be then?'
'Freddie? At Freddie's.'
'I'm afraid you'll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training...you can't have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor's joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O'Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I'm not sure how old O'Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you'd better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over...two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I'll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they're laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they're fond of those...I suppose they'd be getting on for thirty now...well, dear, I've enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I'll speak to the senior house manager first...tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.'
The senior house manager came almost at once. Having intended to say, and for some reason not said, that all this had absolutely nothing to do with him, he summoned indignation in place of self-respect and spoke of what had come to his ears and not knowing what might happen next, also of possible damage to the recovered seats, and the new carpeting which had recently been laid down in every part of the house.
Excerpted from At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald. Copyright 1982 by Penelope Fitzgerald. Excerpted by permission of Mariner Books. All rights reserved.