“Look on the bright side”, said Tracey, “at least we got one of the bar staff to make the coffee. Freddie’s attempts always taste like boiled shoes and the contents of the vacuum cleaner.”
Gareth swilled his almost empty latte around and watched the foam settle. They had been waiting for quite a while. Lovely as the managerial office was, making small talk with Tracey wasn’t easy and he didn’t know quite how much of her wild night out stories to believe, or indeed, which were suitable listening for a happily married man. She certainly seemed to enjoy a more active social life than he had at her age.
Freddie had been proving elusive recently. It seems that the pantomime was living up to its name. Despite there being another week until the curtain went up on what would be a make-or-break season, the whole place was in chaos. Backstage staff were busy painting giant urns and there were short people everywhere trying on costumes. Gareth had made a bit of a faux pas when asking about midgets, the term not being politically correct any more. “Artists of restricted growth” was apparently the correct phrase, although the bolshie one who explained this in a patronising way nearly found himself labelled “shortarse” in revenge.
Wandering out of the office, the barman was busy nailing a “Casbah Cafe” sign up. A big box of rather tired Christmas decorations awaited his attention. Gareth decided against asking for more drinks and stuck his head into the auditorium to see if there was any sign of the missing manager.
On the stage, he spotted Freddie standing in front of a giant pile of polystyrene that was carefully being crafted to look like the entrance to a cave. Beside him was a very casually dressed Sparks the magician. They seemed to be having a heated discussion.
Back in the office, Gareth said, “I think we might be in for even more waiting I’m afraid.”
“Do you think we should go back to KOD?” his colleague enquired, “I mean if he’s not going to turn up again, we’re wasting our time.” She didn’t mention that a quick return would allow her a lunchtime in the House of Fraser sale, and a chance to snap up the Whistles bargain she had her eye on.
“Oh, I’m sure it won’t be that much longer”, he replied, although she was already looking wistfully out of the window.
Tracey’s retail dreams were interrupted by the arrival of Freddie, looking harassed. “Sorry I’m late. Look, can I get you a coffee to make up for it?”
“No thanks”, Tracey quickly replied pointing at their empty cups, “we’ve already had one.”
“I think your people outside are a bit busy anyway.”, added Gareth.
“Are you sure? Don’t worry, I was going to make it myself.”, Freddie looked at the pair making slightly exaggerated head shaking gestures.
Tracey leapt in, “You look troubled Freddie. Big night nerves starting to set in?”
Freddie looked downcast. “Not first night nerves I’m afraid. We’ve got a bit of a crisis on our hands.”
“Crisis? Surely, it’s all a storm in a, well whatever those giant jars are.”
“Oil jars. It’s what the forty thieves hide in. No, we’ve got plenty of those. Bloody thieves coming out of our ears if you’ll pardon my French.”
“Really? Sounds expensive. Couldn’t you have picked a panto with a smaller cast? We are on an economy drive you know.”, Tracey chided.
“Cast? No. Sorry”, Freddie chuckled, “We only need ten people, and two of them are in the camel.”
“Camel?”, inquired Gareth, “You have a camel?”
“Not a real one. It’s a couple of the stage hands in a costume. The kids love it.”
“Oh. But what about the forty thieves. It’s on the poster you know.”
For a moment, Freddie was confused. “No, no, no. You see we have people doubling up. You never see forty thieves all at once. I mean we did consider getting a local dancing school in to make up the numbers but in the end, they were more trouble than they were worth. You should see the paperwork, and then you have to deal with all the pushy parents…” he tailed off.
Tracey looked at her watch. The chances of getting a shopping trip in were fading away while they discussed camels and thieves. “So, what’s up. Anything we can help with? Our plans are rather replying on this show going well.”
Freddie looked sad again. “There is a bit of a problem. You remember Spark’s assistant Julie?”
“The one who was chucking up when we came over a few weeks ago?”
“Yes. An unfortunate incident. Anyway, the problem is that she and the great magician have had a really big bust-up and she’s walked out of the show.”
“Yes. Stomped off leaving the act. Left a note in the dressing room saying she was fed up with playing second fiddle to his ego. “
Tracey snorted. “Surely this happens all the time with showbiz types? I saw a couple of midgets…”
“You can’t call them midgets”, interrupted Gareth, “Artists of restricted growth is the correct term apparently.”
Freddie groaned, “Did Gary tell you that. He really is a pompous little man. Literally in this case. Dwarf is the correct term, but to be honest I just call them ‘supporting artists’ and ignore the height issue. As long as they fit in the oil jar, then we don’t care what shape they are.”
“Doesn’t that cause problems with casting? Do you just say ‘must fit in a jar’? Won’t the PC police be all over you. I mean, I could demand to play the part.”
“We are running a production where the leading lady is played by a man in drag, the principle boy is played by an attractive young woman in thigh-high boots and you are worried about labels? Right at this moment, you can try the oil jars for size and I’ll have big Chris from the tech staff sit on the lid to make sure you get inside.”
Dragging the conversation back to the main topic, Tracey broke in, “So what about Julie? How do you know she’s not going to come back?”
“It was her note. She addressed it to Barry.”
“Barry?” Tracey looked confused.
“Sparks’s real name. But he was very picky about being called Sparks. Said that if you didn’t you weren’t being respectful of his artistic status or some such rubbish. I got away with it because he’s never managed to get a bank account in his stage name so if he wanted paying, the money had to go to Barry, but woe betide anyone else using the ‘B’ word.”
“Julie really meant it then.”
“Oh yes. She’s gone and that gives us a big problem. “
“Why? I mean she was great, but surely there must be other assistants out there.”
Freddie laugher nervously, “Of course, but she was playing one of the big parts in this show, Morgiana.”
“Sorry old man”, said Gareth, “Who is Morgiana?”
Freddie looked surprised. “You don’t know the Ali Baba story?”
Tracey and Gareth both shook their heads.
“OK, let me keep it short. Morgiana is Ali Baba’s slave girl. She kills all the thieves and then stabs Al Racheed, the baddie, to death at the end of the show.”
Tracey looked stunned. “Hold on? She kills forty people and then stabs someone to death? And this is for kids?”
“Oh yes. It’s a very traditional panto. I mean there is quite a lot of death in it, but that’s all just part of the fun.”
Still not convinced, she asked again. “Forty-one deaths is what you guys call a good night out for the family? “
Freddie laughed again, “Forty-two actually. Kassim Baba, that’s Ali’s brother, gets killed quite early in the show. The thieves chop him up and put him in the cave as a warning to others.”
Tracey shuddered again. Newspaper headlines screaming “Massacre at the panto” crossed her mind. “Seriously? I mean what do you do for an encore, eat the camel?”
“Of course not. No animal is harmed during one of our productions, the audience wouldn’t stand for it.”
“But that are happy to see enough people to populate the quarter-finals of the FA cup get the chop?”
“They don’t all get the chop. Most are killed by pouring boiling oil on them.” Freddie was enjoying the look of horror on his visitors faces. “As I say, it’s all good family fun.”
The conversation was interrupted suddenly as the great magician burst into the room clutching his mobile phone.
“She’s not coming back”, he snarled, “I finally got her on the phone and she said she’s on the train back to London and I can, well, I can do something that isn’t physically possible. “
Freddie stood up and touched Sparks shoulder. “Perhaps when she’s had a chance to cool down a bit. I mean, you know what women are like,” he shot a glance at Tracey, “Present company excepted of course.”
“Oh, I don’t know, “ Gareth chuckled, “Young Tracey has quite a tempter on her when roused”. Her look made him wish he’d stayed quiet.
“Tracey!”, exclaimed Sparks, “Tracey! You could be our savior.”
“Yes”, he continued, “You could take the role. I mean you are perhaps a little more, erm, buxom, than Julie, but I’m sure you’d fit the costumes.”
Freddie stepped in, “Hold on. We booked the two of you as professionals. This isn’t am-dram. We’ve a week to go and can’t just drag someone off the street to fill in a major role. I mean, all due respect and everything Tracey, but you aren’t an actress, are you?”
“Well, no.”, she stuttered, “I mean, I did a bit in college, but it’s wasn’t serious or anything.”
“Perfect!” Sparks shouted in joy, “She’ll do perfectly! I mean there are lines to learn, but you’ve got plenty of time.”
“No!”, replied Freddie sternly, “If you can’t get Julie back then either we find another experienced actress to take the part, or we don’t open.”
It was Gareth’s turn to look shocked. “Not open? But you must. I mean if you don’t open, then all our plans to persuade the council fall apart. This is your big earner each year and if it doesn’t happen, then the coffers will be empty.”
Sparks looked at Freddie. “We won’t get another actress at this short notice Freddie old mate. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Freddie looked crestfallen. “I suppose so. I mean it’s not perfect, but I suppose this is better than refunding all those tickets. What do you say Tracey?”
“She’s doing what?” Kate roared, “Have you gone mad? We’re letting her take a month off to ponce around on stage?”
Gareth stood his ground. “I’m afraid it is the only option. The show really must go on.”