1922. Jack Treadwell arrives at The Empire in the middle of a rehearsal and he is instantly mesmerised. Once you look past the glitz and glamour, the true magic of the theatre lies in its cast of characters – both on stage and behind the scenes. There’s stunning starlet Stella Stanmore and Hollywood heartthrob Lancelot Drake; and Ruby Rowntree, who keeps the music playing, while Lady Lillian Lassiter, theatre owner and former showgirl, is determined to take on a bigger role. And then there’s cool, competent Grace Hawkins, without whom the show would never go on . . . could she be the leading lady Jack is looking for? 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 goes dark?
Jack is our eyes in this unfamiliar world, explaining the theatre whilst also representing the issues a man of his age would face post WW1. He outlines the theatre for the reader as a physical space first, both backstage, front of house and as a performer. There are three distinct aspects to the magic we see created on the stage. There’s the physical building and it’s structure, the artists and stagehands who build the scenery and then there’s the money. Without any of these aspects it’s impossible to create the business we call show. As Jack learns so do we and it brings a brilliant sense of wonder to the reading experience. The author also uses him to make the language of the theatre accessible to us, so we can understand everything that’s going on. Finally, Jack brings to life an aspect of life that affects all men of his age in the early twenties; learning to cope in the post war world. The trauma of war is explored through Jack and Danny Moon, with both young men very reluctant to discuss their experiences. However, as the story progresses it’s clear there are physical and emotional scars that can’t be seen.
Danny Moon in particular embodies a sad truth about war, men go into battle as one person and come out of as someone completely different, someone we may not recognise. All of the characters in the book have their own quirks and personality traits, making them feel real and individual in a large cast of characters. Often in casts like this people get lost but not here, where even if they are slightly stereotypical they’re still memorable. There’s a nice class distinction between upper and lower class characters and how they interact with each other too. The author even touched on the changes in women’s lives in the early Twentieth Century in a subtle but effective way. The issue of women’s legal and political equality was only one aspect of the volatile social change women faced at this time. In fact their social mobility had changed during the war and there were elements in society who wanted their roles to revert to pre-war tradition. Women were not so easily persuaded and the author represents this with headstrong female characters who struggle against the belief that women should return to the home. The role of actress had traditionally been synonymous with women of easy virtue and those attitudes still persist in the 1920s, as well as mistaken beliefs that women can’t think and therefore act as well as men. The women here definitely prove those theories wrong! Finally, there were returning soldiers struggling with their mental health and Billy Barlow represents this wave of men with depression, anxiety and P.T.S.D. His struggles are enacted on the stage, bringing real meaning to his performance. Of course the author isn’t aiming to make these issues the focus of the novel, but by adding it as background he has grounded the story in it’s place and time.
Whilst I’m not specifically a Michael Ball fan, I am a huge fan of musical theatre and I know what an incredible talent he is in that world. I figured if anyone knows how to put the magic of the theatre into words then it’s him. I had a certain amount of scepticism though – as a lover of books I’ve looked on with dismay at brilliant writers struggling to get publishing deals, when celebrities seem to find it easy. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t make them a great writer. However, here Michael Ball’s warmth and love of his subject comes across beautifully and I really enjoyed the book. For a first novel, the story is long with many different avenues to explore, but I found that despite the complexity it wasn’t hard to follow and I didn’t have to go back over earlier sections to keep track. The structure helped, because in addition to chapter breaks there were clever changes in tone, setting and description. His story immerses the reader in the world of theatre, but the author has also created sympathetic characters and opened a window on the social issues of the 1920s. I look forward to more adventures at The Empire.
Published by Zaffre 13th October 2022
Meet The Author
Michael Ball OBE is a singer, actor, presenter and now author. He’s been a star of musical theatre for over three decades, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical twice, he’s also won two BRIT awards and been nominated for a Grammy. Michael regularly sells out both his solo tours and his Ball & Boe shows with Alfie Boe and has multiple platinum albums. The Empire is his first novel.