The Empire by Michael Ball - mystery, romance, comedy and drama - book review -
‘It’s a corker, a paradigm, a diamond of the first water! There’s not a finer theatre north of London.’
Take your seats, dim the lights and enjoy the show as singer, actor, presenter, and now author, Michael Ball brings his thirty years of musical theatre wit and wisdom to an exhilarating series played out against the fascinating back and front stage life of a Yorkshire theatre in the Twenties.
Packed with insider knowledge, a dazzling cast of diverse characters and a plot that would be worthy of any stage drama, The Empire is a theatrical treat set to win a multitude of hearts and plenty of reading encores.
Top of the bill are Jack Treadwell, a former army captain newly returned to Yorkshire after serving in the trenches of First World War France, and Grace Hawkins, the indispensable assistant to the manager of the Empire Theatre in the Yorkshire town of Highbridge.
When ex-army officer Jack arrives at The Empire in 1922, he walks into the middle of a rehearsal and is instantly mesmerised. Both his parents died in the flu epidemic that swept through the world and after lingering in Paris for a few years, he has returned to his Yorkshire roots.And after proving himself a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ as well as an inventive doorman, the young ex-army captain earns himself a pivotal role in helping to keep the wheels of the Empire turning. But amid the glitz and glamour, Jack soon learns that the true magic of the theatre lies principally in its cast of characters... both on stage and behind the scenes.
There’s stunning starlet Stella Stanmore, Hollywood heartthrob Lancelot Drake and Ruby Rowntree who keeps the music playing. And determined to take on a bigger role is former showgirl Lady Lillian Lassiter who is co-owner of the Empire along with Sir Edmund Lassiter, her late husband’s son from his first marriage.
And then there’s cool, competent Grace Hawkins, the Empire’s steely assistant manager, without whom the show would never go on and who might just be the leading lady Jack is looking for.
But when long-held rivalries threaten the Empire’s future, tensions rise along with the curtain. There is treachery at the heart of the company and a shocking secret waiting in the wings. Can Jack discover the truth before it’s too late and the theatre he loves is plunged into darkness?
The inner workings of the magical world of theatre spring to glorious life in this glitzy, glamorous but also gritty and down-to-earth tour of the majestic Empire and the many and varied people who work to keep the stage lights burning and the show alive and kicking.
Ball certainly knows his stuff and it shines through in this mesmerising and authentic portrayal of theatre life as we peer into the workings of the backroom staff, tread the boards with the actors, witness the cut-throat nature of rivalries, and follow the players’ personal and professional dramas and dilemmas.
Stars of the show are undoubtedly Jack and Grace, the Empire’s young stalwarts whose exuberance, addictive enthusiasm and budding love affair adds extra zest to the performance and brings a welcome light to some of the darker corners of the story.
With secrets and scandals, heroes and villains, and all the excitement and vibrancy of a nation and a theatre awakening from the long nightmare of the war years, there is never a dull moment from curtain rise to the final, action-packed showdown.Indeed you might say that The Empire has everything a top-notch production requires… mystery, romance, comedy, drama and even a cast list. The next act can’t come a moment too soon!(Zaffre, hardback, £20)