Sep 16, 2021 Society
In 2005, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ was in the charts, it was legal in the UK to smoke indoors, and coffee was usually granular. I was 19 and living in Reading, the birthplace of Ricky Gervais and not much else. I was a shy young adult, and had just been released from prison into a bail hostel.
Our routine consisted of workshops and an hour of free time after a main meal. The rest of the time, we were locked in. Some time in November, we were in the main lounge for the daily morning meeting, which was run by Shirley, the manager. Everyone loved her. She was the kind of boss who has an open-door policy. Unlike the front door, which was locked.
The morning meetings were for announcements and the discussion of ‘flat issues’, like someone shat in the sanitary bin, someone hid alcohol in the sanitary bin, or someone shat on alcohol that was hidden in the sanitary bin. Sometimes the issues were complex, like when the accountant was arrested for demanding sexual favours from residents in exchange for reduced rent. (The accountant was also Shirley’s girlfriend.)
After this November meeting, Shirley asked me to write the Christmas pantomime. I didn’t know why she chose me, or what a pantomime was, but I decided to rise to the challenge.
At the following morning meeting, I asked if anyone wanted to be in the hostel production of Cinderella. Four residents out of the available 22 volunteered. They were: the girl who said she’d dated Nelson Mandela’s grandson and who could talk herself out of getting a hiding like no one’s business; the Cockney twins who’d just been released on parole; and Sue aka ‘the knickerless brief’, a disbarred solicitor whom several residents took legal advice from in lieu of their own solicitors’, which in at least one case resulted in them going back to prison.
After I wrote the script, I gave it to the girls to start running lines while I got to work on the set. The backdrop was a room divider which looked like a high-school science project display. I painted a marble staircase on it. While it looked majestic, it barely covered the back wall. I found a cardboard tube and painted it to look like a marble column.
I got out of the daily workshops to work on the production. While everyone was doing anger management, I called fabric stores and the local hospital. I hustled five bags of scrap fabric and two bags of old hospital linen. I started sewing clothes for Cinderella and Prince Charming. I could sew a pillowcase so I assumed I could sew clothes. I made a dress that looked great on the hanger but terrible on a person. Cinderella tried it but it didn’t fit. I couldn’t take it out because I’d cut too much of the seam allowance out, so I just told her to diet. (Sickening, I know.)
I listened in on the twins practising dialogue. They were most of show’s comedy so they needed to get the jokes running smoothly. Unfortunately, one of the sisters had a problem with her lines. This was the joke:
Stepsister 1: I’ve got an hourglass figure!
Stepsister 2: Pfft, yeah, with all the sand at the bottom.
Stepsister 1 kept saying holler-glass instead of hourglass. I was nice on the first day of rehearsal but by day three my patience had worn thin and I started screaming. I used to be known as the shy and quiet one, but now I was getting a new reputation.
By the end of the week, tensions were high. Shirley called me into her office and asked me to show her the script. After she finished reading, she tried to phrase things delicately. “Ange, there’s no budget for the end scene.”
The final scene was full of special effects. The stepmother and stepsisters transform into toilet brushes. The curtain draws as they argue about how much shit they have to deal with. I wasn’t sure if Shirley understood the subtlety.
I said we could get fishing lines attached to toilet brushes, turn the lights on and off like lightning, and the cast could shout in the wings for the voice over.
I couldn’t convince her. I crumbled.
I couldn’t hide how devastated I was. When I talked, snot covered my consonants. I was ushered out of Shirley’s office and, for the first time, I saw her door close.
The next day, a hostel worker handed out a new, simplified script. I was invited to join the new production but my ego got in the way. The night before the big day, Cinderella didn’t come back in time for curfew. The clock struck midnight and she didn’t show. We could see from our bedroom windows the familiar squadron car. The police would have a warrant out for her arrest.
The morning of the show, Cinderella was recast while I continued working on the set. When the cast came to practise on the stage, I stood back to admire my work. From my 5’2” perspective, the props looked fine, but when women who were over 5’10” interacted with them they looked like giants.
At the morning meeting, Shirley listed the names of everyone we were expecting, and I realised the only people who were allowed to come were our solicitors, the GP, staff, probation officers and police. People ask me all the time, “What’s the worst audience to perform to?” It’s that.
I went to my room to sulk. This wasn’t my production and I hated everyone. When I heard laughter from downstairs, I got curious. On my way to the lounge, I saw Mandela come out from Shirley’s office. This time with an electronic tagging bracelet. We walked into the back of the lounge midway through the show. Cinderella 2.0 had wrapped the dress fabric around her instead of wearing it as a dress. She looked great. When she dropped her shoe on the floor, Mandela whispered to me, “Never leave evidence.” At the end of the show, there were standing ovations and cheers. I can’t re- member if I apologised for being a tyrant. Shirley, Cinderella, Stepsisters 1 & 2, and Sue — I’m so, so sorry. And I’m always here if you wanna holla back.