Excerpt from Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Theatre Of Marvels

A Novel

by Lianne Dillsworth

Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth X
Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2022, 320 pages

    Apr 2023, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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Print Excerpt

The African in the Audience

Go to the theatre much? No, nor me. At least not before I became an actress. I know what you're thinking. Actress, eh? But you can keep your dirty-minded thoughts to yourself. I trod the boards and no more. Doesn't mean I don't have a story or two to tell, mind. Would you be kind enough to indulge me if I talked about the old days? Hard as it was back then, I can't say that if I had my time again I'd change it.

That feeling you get before the show starts. Whether you've been up Drury Lane once, twice, or ten times, I reckon you'll know it. It comes up on you as the lights go down. The fizzing in your belly conjured by cheap gin and jellied eels at a farthing a pot. Keep your eyes hard fixed on the curtain in front of you. Those red velvet folds, with their heavy gold trim. You're so eager at the thought of the performance to come, you tell yourself you saw it move. But if you really want first peek it's best to look to the left of the stage. Time it right and you might just see the actors looking out at you.

Not at Crillick's Variety Theatre, though. Back in the late forties, if you'd have found yourself sitting in the stalls you would have looked in vain. Doesn't mean we weren't there, just that you didn't see us: redheaded Ellen and right alongside her with the wild black curls? That would be me, Zillah. I know it's strange to think that we watched you before you watched us, but both of us had our reasons. Each night, Ellen searched the audience for a scout, someone with the power to pluck her from the Crillick's stage and take her to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. She fancied herself a soprano. I was more concerned about seeing what mood the punters were in—if they were at the stage of drink where they would join in a singsong or so far gone they'd turn violent and throw things at us. Every crowd was different, but there was one September night, the year the Queen was delivered of her daughter Louise, when one man in particular caught my eye.

The first thing I noticed was his hat. It stood out a mile among the flat caps and bowlers, and he had the frock coat to match. It's not often you get a man in a topper at Crillick's. Don't mistake me, Marcus Crillick's show is more than a few rungs up from a penny gaff, but the quality don't like variety. They prefer to keep things pure. So straightaway I was suspicious. Then I clocked the colour of him.

"Him over there. What do you make of him?" I said to Ellen.

She squinted in the direction of my pointed finger.

"The African, you mean? Don't often get one of yours in."

He sat on the benches, three rows back, his right leg stretched out on the aisle. Even from here, peeking out behind the curtain, I could see that he was handsome and broad in the shoulders. Around him sat our usual regulars, the shop boys and navvies already half-cut and impatient for the show to start. The sour tang of their sweat was sharp on the air. Beyond them were the tables for the better sort, the clerks with women worth the price of dinner and a show. The ushers weaved around them, touting trinkets and sweetmeats, competing for the pennies in their pockets. Up above, the box where our proprietor often sat was in darkness. Crillick liked to keep an eye on what was happening in his theatre, but for the time being he was away on business in France.

Ellen, satisfied that she had the measure of the African, delivered her verdict. "Selfish bastard, I reckon. Getting above himself. No call to be wearing a hat three minutes before the curtain."

I was glad she was talking to me again. Things had been frosty between us for a couple of weeks, ever since Crillick had made me the headline act and cut Ellen's solo from the bill to give me more stage time. It wasn't my fault, of course, and she knew it, but that didn't stop her being miffed. I suppose I would've been too, in her position, seeing how green I'd been when I started.

Excerpted from Theatre Of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth. Copyright © 2022 by Lianne Dillsworth. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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