Sojourn by the SeaBy Jules Craig
June 18th 1908
I believe I’ve just been knocked out quite cold, by what is theatrically termed a safety curtain. Daisy carried me to the dressing room, even though she is only half my size. She’s a perfectly terrible actress but entirely charming and clearly quite strong. Of course, if I hadn’t met her in the Concert Hall Cafe, the day after we’d seen her in King Lear, and discovered that the company, who were about to present the Bard’s ‘Dream,’ had lost their Peaseblossom to food poisoning, I’d never have embarked on my theatrical career. This is not my first sojourn into the dramatic arts. I once played the Angel Gabriel in Mothers Church Pageant, refusing the role of Mary and favouring to be in charge of the celestial throng, which was far more appealing than tending to a donkey and a baby. When I offered my help to Daisy and her fellow theatricals, I exaggerated my experience a little, adding Cleopatra and a couple of light melodramas to my repertoire. This was further embellished when I introduced myself to the director, declaring in my most theatrical voice, ‘I come from the Lyric, you may have seen my Medea.’ He didn’t look up but mumbled that if the costume fitted I could have the part. They are a peculiar breed these thespians, though endlessly entertaining like a production itself. Yesterday when running through the fairy scenes I suggested that Bottom deliver his speech to the left of the stage because he was throwing his right arm in a demonstrative way into our faces, making it impossible for us to be seen and putting us in danger of being struck down. You’d have thought I’d proposed to sever his arm right off. The gesticulating and wailing was certainly more impressive then his portrayal of Lear.
I’m lying on the dressing room sofa drinking hot sweet tea. Daisy has joined the other actors in the bar who by all accounts are a bit shaken from this evening’s events. It was what they call a dress rehearsal, although that is a very loose term, as the costumes were quite appalling, and there seemed to be a lot of confusion as to which fairy was flying at what time. It became apparent that the Stage Manager was not managing when he failed entirely to bring one of the fairies back to earth. The actress was flailing her limbs around and grabbing onto the scenery. It’s no surprise they got into such a tangle, it’s a mess back there, all ropes and pulleys. I had a little tidy up whilst we were waiting to go on stage. Thank goodness for all those hours of needlework. Being good with knots has more uses then just enlivening cold winter nights with mama and the dog for company. As I was re-arranging the ropes in a more practical fashion, one of the Stagehands on the other side of the playing area, who appeared to be carrying a fishing rod, looked up and began to wave and mouth something to me. I came forward on to the stage to see what he wanted and then everyone began to shout and the director screamed ‘Curtain’. Heaven knows how much time passed but in my next conscious moment I was lying on my back staring up at the horrified faces of my fellow performers.
Mother will be appalled that I have joined their ranks and am now an actress. She brought it upon herself, sending me to Brighton with an aunt who is 20 years her junior, and only five years my senior, and who has far too many interests to be a burden or a chaperone. She was a great surprise to Grandmamma in her 40’s, and an even greater shock to grandfather, who for five years before her birth worked in India, only returning for high days, holidays and the odd funeral.
It is getting dark now; I can hear the evening starlings. I will return to the hotel though my Aunt may not be back herself. This morning when I arrived for Breakfast, Sebastian, her business acquaintance, was already there, and before I’d even poured the tea, they were gone to attend to some financial deal or other, leaving me to my own devises.
June 19th 1908
The theatre is empty and dark. I can hear the swish of the sea; the cry of gulls, and the dawn is ready in the wings to make its entrance. Alone in the auditorium with a small gas lamp, I can still sense the excitement of the audience. The director didn’t want me to over do it, the sweet dear, so he said not to worry with my lines and insisted I sat on a chair in the wings between scenes and not to touch anything lest I exhaust myself. But I never felt so vibrant and alive as I did on stage. And the party after the show was exhilarating. I’ve tolerated my parent’s soirees where gentleman drink whiskey and smoke cigars and the ladies have port and sugared almonds. Here on the pier in the middle of the sea, ladies dance on tables, gentleman play the spoons and champagne flows for all. After several glasses the pier felt as if it was swaying in a storm, and everything seemed hazy as if a sea mist had descended. I worried that my aunt would worry and I longed to get back over the walkway to the hotel, taking care not to let my heels sink between the planks. I only made it as far as the dressing room and when I woke realised, from the stillness that everyone had gone. I’ve never been on my own in a building, always servants and maids, nannies and gardeners. I found the lamp and became quite bold walking right to the end of the pier and felt the sensation of being in the middle of the sea. The moon made me catch my breath, and then I cried out. There was a shadow, a man with a fishing rod.
‘Sorry lady, did I make you jump?’ It was the stagehand.
‘I think I’ve been left behind.’ I said. I sat beside him in silence for hours, and then I kissed him. He tasted salty and fresh. We found a discarded scenery cloth and lay together at the back of the stage. He’s still there but I’ll leave him to sleep, perchance to dream.
June 20th, 1908
Today’s events have been as dramatic as one of the bard’s creations.
When I returned to the hotel at dawn, my aunt was in the foyer looking pale and serious. She didn’t question where I’d been but said we were leaving early and to be packed and ready for the evening train. I protested and told her that I was staying to be an actress and she would have to go back on her own, or with Sebastian. She burst into tears and I stormed to my room, packed my bags and returned to the West Pier. I told Daisy that we could share digs together and I would help her with her lines. The Director said that there was a minor problem as the original Peaseblossom had recovered, and I was no longer needed for the role. He sent Daisy and I for a 'tasse de café' while he came up with a solution. Daisy was mournful and confided that her secret sweetheart, the stagehand had left quite suddenly that morning as there’d been an urgent need for ‘movers and lifters’ at the Grand Theatre in Blackpool. We watched the aquatic entertainments: the professor who throws himself into the sea on his bicycle and the dear old chap and his dancing dog. He is the oldest performer in the country, the man, not his dog-although the dog is also on his last legs. When we returned my Aunt was with the Director, who apologised that there were no funds for another actress and that it was unreasonable for someone with my talent to work for nothing. I suggested I could replace the stagehand, but the director said it was ‘no job for a lady’.
The train to London is cramped and slow. My Aunt believes that whatever happens at the seaside stays at the seaside. She says that it is a relief to go back to who we really are. Whilst she sleeps, I’ve been considering my life with mother and the church, and the hours of creative needlework ahead of me. I cannot shake the thought that part of who I really am will always remain in the midsummer moonlight by the theatre, fishing with the stagehand at the end of the pier.
This page was amended on 09/04/2014
An engrossing and amusing story that thoughtfully captures the West Pier theatre in its hey-day.