A CONCERTCategory: Theatre
Dinner was to be at seven, the concert from eight to ten, supper from ten to eleven. At five minutes to eight a procession with umbrellas, mackintoshes and overshoes set out for te racket court, which could not-be approached except on foot. Once arrived at the racket court, Mary was recalled to reality by what Mr Macpherson was eagerly saying. The schoolmistress who played the accompaniments had suddenly been laid down with a temperature. Would Mary save the situation by taking her place? Knowing that nothing very difficult would be expected of her, she said yes at once, to Mr Mac- pherson’s visible relief. He conducted her behind the green baize curtain to a little space at one side of the platform where the performers were assembled. They were all very kind and helpful, the postmaster in particular.
“You won’t find it’s like a London concert. Miss Preston/’ he assured her.
Mary said she was sure she wouldn’t.
The curtains were then drawn aside, discovering Mr Macpherson, who announced that Miss Preston had kindly volunteered to replace Miss Stone, who had gone down with a touch of the old enemy, flu. Loud applause followed, which redoubled when Mary mounted the platform. While she waited at the little upright piano for the audience to settle itself, she saw Lady Emily insisting on spreading half her shawl over Mr Banister’s unwilling knees, and Agnes picking up her mother’s bag and stick. In the front row of the gallery she could see most of the servants, including Ivy, to whom Nannie had given lofty permission to come.
The performance now began. Mary had no difficulty in reading the music provided, but had to exercise considerable ingenuity in following the soloists. All the performers, she discovered, regarded anything played by piano alone, whether as introduction, intermezzo between verses and phrases, or closing melody, as unnecessary padding, put in by the composer to lessen their chances. Taking this attitude, most of them plunged straight into their items, sometimes not even waiting for the key, in their anxiety to distinguish themselves. The audience enjoyed everything. The heat became stifling. A racket court is never at the best of times a well-ventilated place, and crowded as it was with people in wet shoes and coals, it felt like a conservatory in which the favourite plants were damp wool and rubber.
In the interval Mary joined her party, who were loud in admiration.
“You’re just splendid, Miss Mary,” said Mr Macpherson. “We’ve yet another piece of ill news, though. The young man that was to have done the comic solo, the last number on the programme, has had a tooth out, and he is in that state of agony that I had to advise him to go home. It is a pity, for the comic is a good note to end with. You couldn’t sing us something, could you, Miss Mary?” “Oh, I’m very sorry, but I couldn’t possibly,” said Mary. “I. don’t mind playing, because no one listens to me, but I couldn’t stand on the platform. Oh, please not.”
“Well, we’ll have to see what we can do. Maybe I’11 sing myself. Time now, Miss Mary.”
The concert proceeded through its interminable length. The singers never had a second copy of their music, and if they did not know it by heart, looked over Mary’s shoulder and sang down her neck. The postmaster gave a comic reading in stage Scotch .which produced roars of enthusiasm. Gudgeon arrived with his song. He was as unruffled on the platform as he was at the dinner- table.
“I am well acquainted with both music and words of my item, miss,” he said to Mary in a conspiratorial aside, “so I shall leave the music with you. Be kind enough to follow me and all will go well. I shall return to the piano to turn for you myself.”
He then took up his position on the platform. While he was acknowledging the applause which greeted him, Mary was able to cast her eye over his song. It was a Victorian relic, called “The Body in the Bag”. Its theme was the adventures of a gentleman who sought to dispose of a tom-cat which had died in his establishment. While playing the opening bars, which consisted of two or three chords with the written instruction “ad lib till ready”, Mary glanced ahead and was smitten with horror. The song would obviously be a popular success, but what would Aunt Emily and Aunt Agnes think? However, it was not her fault 5 so she steeled herself to go through wTith it. The accompaniment being written for the class of accompanist who acquires his technique through a popular manual called “Vamping in Six Lessons”, she was able to give her almost undivided attention to Gudgeon’s rendering. It was that of a master. Every word was clear. Every point wras not only made but underlined, and his gracious waits for laughter made it impossible for bis audience to miss a word. During the chorus which followed each verse, Gudgeon had to imitate, a trombone, which he did with great skill, joined in ever-increasing numbers by his hearers. True to his word he came and turned over for Mary in every verse, in spite of her whispered hint that she knew it by heart now. Two verses before the end he paused dramatically.
“Kindly continue the ad lib till I recommence, miss,” he said to Mary. Then, advancing to the edge of the platform, he addressed Lady Emily in a respectful but penetrating voice.
“I thought you might like to know, my lady, that there are only two verses more to come, and these contain what we may call the crux of the item.”
“Thank you so much, Gudgeon,” said her ladyship. “Oh, Gudgeon, did you think of seeing that Mr Leslie’s shoes were sent to be mended? Not the other ones, you know, but the other ones.”
“Yes, my lady. Walter took them over to Southbridge on his afternoon.”
“Oh, thanks, Gudgeon.”
“Thank you, my lady. Now, miss, if you will be so kind,” he added, turning to Mary.
The crux of the song, to use Gudgeon’s unimpeachable phraseology, was that after the cat’s body in a sack had been left on doorsteps, dropped into rivers, thrust up chimneys, and always returned, the owner went back with it in despair, only to discover when he opened the sack at home that he had been mistaken about his cat and there were seven little bodies in the bag.
Such of the audience as were not singing in the chorus explained to each other that it was “bodies” this time, not “body”, so that by the time the applause died down there was hardly a single member of the audience who did not clearly understand what it was he or she had been laughing at.
The items that followed were commonplace in comparison. While the postmaster’s daughter wTas delivering herself of a monologue, Mr Macpherson came up to Mary in the little space beside the platform.
“It’s going on well,” he observed, “but I wish I had put Gudgeon at the end. It would have been a fine wind-up, I doubt if his dignity would have stood for it, though,” he said chuckling. “Well, Miss Mary, there’s but the one more song. Just keep your seat at the piano and as I said, I’ll maybe give them ‘The Wooing O’t’ myself.” The monologue and the following song were disposed of. Mary sat idly at the piano, wondering what sort of a voice Mr Macpherson had, when the agent walked up to the front of the platform.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “our last item is unfortunately cancelled, as the gentleman is at present in bed with the face-ache. I had thought of singing to you myself, but I doubt if you’d have stood it. I now have much pleasure in announcing that a young gentleman from London will oblige with a song.”
The applause was deafening as the newcomer mounted the stage and putting a piece of music on the stands said to Mary:
“Can you play this?4 “David!”
“Oh, Mary,” he mocked. “Look, love, can you read this thing?”
“No, no, I couldn’t possibly,” she said quickly getting up. Probably she couldn’t. The newest jazz hit isn’t in everyone’s technique. And even if you had the jazz gift, which you know you haven’t, how could you play with your fingers trembling and your eyes feeling as if they must be crossed with the violence and suddenness of your emotions?
“No, I didn’t suppose you could,” said David. “I only got it by -post from America this morning. I can hardly play it myself. However, we’ll give it a try. Get another chair and you can turn over for me.” Mary obediently fetched a stool from the back of the platform, where the seats provided for the Cheerio Trio, (a revolting combination of clarionet, violin and female cello, with whose performance Mary had hardly been able to keep slowness, if one may coin such a phrase to express the opposite of keeping pace) had been piled. David pulled the piano further towards the front of the stage, slewed his chair round, and plunged into firework, singing all the time in a heart-rending voice. For Mary there was the pleasure of leaning across him two or three times to turn over.
Nothing could have pleased the audience more than Mr David’s unexpected appearance and his crooning voice. Shrieks, stamps, whistles and yells called for an encore.
“No more. Not a drop,” shouted David, blowing kisses to everybody.
Mr Macpherson, who had an eye on the time, had the curtains closed, and the audience simmered down.
“That was a grand song, David,” he said. “You were a good lad to come. But why didn’t you let us know?”
Without waiting for an answer, he went back to the hall to superintend the placing of the trestle tables and the unpacking of sandwiches, cakes and beer, while Mrs Siddon looked after the large tea urns.
(From Wild Strawberries by A. Thirkell)