A Swansea Child – from Chapter 8

Bucke leaned against a pillar at the rear of the small, cramped Star Theatre, watching what he could only consider to be an act of desperation on the small stage in front of him. No one in the audience had yet thrown anything at the plate-spinner, but it could only be a matter of time. His own concerns had little to do with theatrical inadequacy and more with law and order. There had been an increase in the number of thefts reported recently and an enhanced police presence might be useful. He was not inclined to ask Sergeant Ball to station a constable here permanently. It would not be a sensible use of a constable and the theatre was a place where they could be so easily targeted. After the day that he had experienced, he certainly needed to do something different and, perhaps, clear his mind.

It was full tonight, as it often was, and the air was thick with smoke and the scent of stale beer. The audience was screaming at the juggler on stage constantly, some in an attempt to provide sufficient distraction to make him drop the balls, and others to draw his attention to the precarious balance of the plates he had spinning on sticks. They were so close to him that they could see the cracks in his thick plaster of make-up; they could smell the fear. This was a moment of colour and malevolent entertainment, a chance to mock and humiliate a stranger at the end of a grey and mundane day, but a distracted audience enjoying themselves, could easily be relieved of the few valuables they had by an opportunist or two. Bucke looked around but could see no sign of either Vinegar Bridget or Selina, in his mind the most likely suspects.

Next up was another inadequate performer, this time Harry Boston, ‘The Singing Painter – Artiste Extraordinaire,’ – who produced on stage portraits in broad rapid brush strokes, on paper stretched tightly across a frame. The design had been previously punctured in the paper with pins and, as long as the light was good, Harry could get away with it. But it was not gripping entertainment to see a man paint a second-rate portrait of the Prince of Wales at speed, and the audience, as they always did, soon became restless and abusive. They were confident they should be allowed their criticism, for they had paid for a ticket and believed in their right to express their dissatisfaction. Thankfully, Harry had chosen not to sing tonight, preferring to get off the stage as quickly as possible and so did not detain them for long; he took a bow and then scurried off stage as quickly as he could, with his easel and paint, happy to escape without the traditional barrage of orange peel and apple cores. 

  Bucke knew him vaguely as a desperate man, barely holding penury at bay with a second-rate theatrical act, who was frequently found drunk in the steep lanes between the High Street and the Strand. It would all unravel soon, thought Bucke. The lights and the make-up and the dubious glamour could not disguise the smell of failure that hung like a cloud around his shoulders. But tonight everyone in the theatre seemed good-natured and he could see no one sulking around, ready to dip into pockets. He pushed himself away from the pillar. He had done his duty; he had been seen and offered as much reassurance as he could in this diverse and unpredictable environment. It was time for him to go.

The Master of Ceremonies clapped his hands, hoping to restore order. ‘And now ladies and gentlemen! For your delight and back by popular demand! Yes! Tonight I can announce the return of Fanny Stevens, The Angel of Swansea!’

There were cheers and Bucke leaned back against the pillar. He could spare a few more moments and he didn’t want to miss this. It was a shame that Constance was not here with him to see her. He had heard her before and her performance would be the only highlight on this thin and uninspiring bill. The audience knew it too.

A confident, self-possessed woman walked out to the middle of the stage and stood, hands on hips, commanding the theatre, defying the audience, driving them almost instantly into silence.

Such a small auditorium brought everyone so very close to the stage and they could see the power in her eyes. The Star had the intimacy of a public house and was often just as raucous. Fanny knew this and was adept at using the proximity of the audience to her own advantage.

She undoubtedly had presence: within the briefest of moments the audience was hers. She was of average height but her hair, studded with pearls, was carefully sculptured and made her seem taller. It had an attractive red tinge, though Fanny always regretted that the sheen it had in her younger days had gone, a consequence of too little washing and too much dirty air. And yet in this filthy place she could produce such a wonderful sound; the sound, it was said, of an angel. Fanny had a powerful chest able to sustain a note for long enough to draw attention to her impressive bosom and to inspire applause. She had a pretty face, with inviting lips, perfect teeth and full cheeks, though her skin suffered for spending too long beneath heavy stage make-up. And whilst it was a face that had seen trouble, sometimes a warmth revealed itself in those eyes that could not be extinguished. Usually though they were cold and unapproachable, for they had seen too much cruelty and betrayal. They had watched her talent squandered, they had watched her sink into a cheap, squalid variety theatre, singing to raucous miners and giggling shop assistants for a pittance. It should have been so different.

A voice shouted from the gallery. ‘Get on with it, then!’ There were some hisses and a sound like a slap being delivered. Still she waited, even the foreign sailors who had been a little bemused by painting and plate spinning and had gossiped and leered at female members of the audience without pause, now settled, aware that something special was going to happen. They recognised that Fanny had an aura, on stage at least. The light caught the pearls around her neck and her glittering earrings when she moved her head, as if a divine light was playing around her.

This was her place, this was her world. Here she was in control. As the silence took hold, she looked across the auditorium with barely concealed contempt. She glanced up at the gallery, sneered at the lecherous men in the boxes. She would start in her own time.

Tonight was one song only. She was here as a favour – Benjamin Bevan, the baritone from Bangor, booked at some expense, had failed to turn up, indisposed they said, though his reputation suggested that he was probably blind drunk in a railway hotel somewhere en route. Harry Boston would accept any offer of employment, out of necessity, and had rushed to the theatre as soon as he had the invitation to fill-in. And Fanny? She needed to be on stage. She never said no. The Star Theatre might not be much but it was all that she had. She lived for moments like this, when she commanded the audience and people listened to her, when the stage was hers alone.

With the slightest inclination of her head, the band started and there was an audible intake of breath. It was the introduction to the crowd’s favourite, and Bucke recognised it too, the tragic ballad The Children of the Wood, a real tear-jerker, written solely, it seemed, with the purpose of making drunks weep.

Fanny took the song slowly – the band were ready for this – enunciating the words clearly to focus on the narrative and to squeeze every drop of melodrama from it. Her audience could not hear it too often – a brother and sister placed into the care of their wicked uncle following the tragic death of their parents, who plans their death to steal their inheritance. Their murder is thwarted, but they die abandoned and forlorn, their bodies covered by leaves laid by grieving robins.

Everyone knew the story so well but it never failed to touch an audience; perhaps, thought Bucke because childhood and happiness were so fragile in their own lives. It was a melodramatic story in every way, but one which carried with it that uncomfortable truth. And Fanny’s delivery was perfectly judged. There were those who would come to The Star solely to hear her sing this song, to wallow in its emotional vortex, like addicts, allowing their eyes to brim with tears and relishing the thrill, because they knew it wasn’t real.

Bucke watched the enraptured audience, some of them mouthing the words as Fanny took them through the story. The dying father, faltering, said to his brother

‘Look to my children dear;

Be good unto my boy and girl,

No friends else have they here.

And the whole audience, even the few who had never heard the song before, even those who did not fully understand English, knew the poor father was deceiving himself.

When she sang the line about the children taken into the wood, chattering happily, To those that should their butchers be, the audience drew in its collective breath, responding, perhaps, to the emerging news of those terrible deaths in a dismal shed at the Pottery. The tension of the song increased with the insistent drum under-scoring the plight of the children in the wood. Then a trumpet mimicked a hunting horn, the music stopped and Fanny sang of the death of the children unaccompanied. Her voice had such expression, such range.

Thus wandered these poor innocents,

Till death did end their grief;

In one another’s arms they died,

As wanting due relief:

No burial this pretty pair

From any man receives,

Till Robin Redbreast piously

Did cover them with leaves.

No one moved. No one stirred. All that could be heard was the sincere purity of Fanny’s voice, the sound of heaven briefly filling every part of this tawdry theatre. Then the drum returned and soon the instruments followed, as the punishments inflicted upon the wicked uncle were listed. The line, the heavy wrath of God was greeted with approval. The deaths of his own two sons were applauded as just and appropriate, and by the time Fanny reached the end of the ballad, the moral compass of a fairy tale world had been restored.

It had been a cathartic experience and, as the audience burst into wild applause and as Fanny offered the audience her contempt and the briefest of bows, Bucke slipped outside, grateful to breathe the fresher air from the sea. It was quite a performance. He might have heard her before but knew that he could never tire of that remarkable voice. And tonight, with the macabre deaths of the two boys still fresh in his mind, her song had touched him deeply. He knew that it would haunt him for days to come. No one could escape the mesmeric qualities of her voice or the depth of her expression. Or indeed escape the way in which she seemed to reach deep inside your soul. Fanny never failed.

In the box to the side of the stage, another member of the audience was completely transfixed, lost entirely in the magic of that moment. It was the first time that Henry Fry had come to the theatre and he was entirely overwhelmed. How glad he was that he had allowed himself to be persuaded.

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