The Starring Role

By Kristian Dennet

Sophia watched the audience as the curtain slowly fell. Like a shop awkwardly closing its shutters for the night. The faces in the audience only looked in one direction; all eyes on Rene, the venerated star of the show. As Sophia wondered why that couldn’t be her, a hand grabbed out and dragged her off of the stage. Sophia was used to this nightly occurrence yet it still always took her by surprise. “Soph! For the millionth time when the chorus plays for the second time you need to be off the fecking stage! It can only be Rene for the final bow. This must stop.” roared John, the director. Without a single breath Sophia strutted off knowing that the following night she would wait on the stage for even longer, maybe even taking the final bow with Rene.

Show number two-hundred-and-fifty. An anniversary show in the minds of musical performers. A signifier to the actor that they have endured and withstood an entire year of the physical and mental battles a script has given to them. The same script. For some of the stars performing the same script nine times a week. Like Sophia. She only has twenty lines within the whole musical. When she wakes her inner voice immediately recounts the first line. “Well, thank you for such a grand gesture Madame!”, whilst she brushes her teeth she imagines the dance moves she must perform in the second song, before sighting the other meagre lines within the first two scenes over breakfast. Everyday granola and yoghurt, and everyday those same lines ranging from two to six words long. During her journey to Aldwych theatre, where Sophia half-lives out her dream, she recalls her remaining lacklustre lines concentrating on how little they add to the narrative. Like clockwork her final line always climaxed within her mind at Charring Cross station, her final stop on the northern line. Two-hundred-and-fifty. And still nobody had asked her for an autograph, only posing for a few selfies with ‘fans’ who don’t even know her name. Tomorrow will be a momentous day for her, yet she couldn’t help but feel bittersweet and disappointed.

But now it was time for pre-celebrations. Every fourteen shows the cast celebrate in gluttonous style, as their contracts stopped them from tasting the forbidden fruits that are liquor and junk foods. A ritual of excess. Today the fourteenth show fell on performance two-hundred-and-forty-nine, gifting the actors two days of liver-destroying, cholesterol-raising hedonism. “Don’t call me cunting Rene. You know how creepy I think it is. My name is Alexa.”

“I’m sorry R-, Alexa…”

“Yeah, well if you’re sorry you’ll join me in getting the fuck out of here and going for drinks. We’re boycotting the other losers if we’re with them tomorrow evenin’. I can’t pretend to be nice two nights in a row.” Within minutes of her final utterance an Uber was already pulled up outside the theatre. Within the same amount of minutes the car had already pulled up outside of Dandelyan bar in South Bank. Sophia was already dreaming of the sugar-dipped glass rim of the cocktail glass touching her lip. After a silent journey with Alexa glaring at her phone screen as it glared back the constant refreshing of twitter mentions that congratulated her on the evening’s performance, she needed something to give her joy. Even after two-hundred-and-forty-nine nights of the same tweets in the show’s post-hour comedown, Alexa’s ego still thirsted for the unified gratification; drinking it like clockwork until her eyes got tired of the screen’s backlight.

“Twenty-quid for a Hugo?! Do they grow the elderflower in the bar or something?” Sophia gassed

“Darling it’s fine, I’ll pay the bill just order whatever,” boasted Alexa. Following an hour’s table service and four rounds the tab totalled one-hundred-and-sixty-pounds.

“Are you jealous of me? I see the way your eyes grow whenever my fans catch us and they don’t know who you are. I wouldn’t blame you hun…I would be too, it’s natural,” Sophia was caught off guard by this, and her tipsy tongue couldn’t lie. But it could plan a response that both pleased and shaded Alexa at the same time. “I envy you. But I’m not jealous. I have plans of my own, and remember you’re ten years older than me…When I’m your age I’d like both fame and a family. I’d hate to be lonely at thirty-five…” She was pleased with her response, Alexa’s slit eyes and fake smile was the exact response she had predicated. A lemon. Her words were like a twist of lemon to the pallet of Alexa’s already bitter soul. Suddenly loneliness and longing danced within Alexa’s mind as echoes filled her heart. The cure for this was another two Negronis. Sophia sipped water, sobering up as she watched Alexa drown her psyche in a dark lake of Italian spirits. As Sophia bathed and soaked in her newfound power over the leading lady, karma brought her down to earth when Alexa passed out as the bartender brought the bill to the table. Two-hundred-pounds for a litre’s worth of liquid courage and an evening with the enemy. As Sophia’s fingers reluctantly entered her Topshop purse she recoiled at the thought of her contract earning her five times less than what Alexa takes home. Sophia overcame her bitterness by taking a pair of tweezers and stabbing Alexa’s Miu Miu clutch, smiling at the now imperfect leather and feeling a cathartic twinge in her chest.

Fireworks lit up the inside of the Uber ride home like a strobe light, lulling Alexa into a deeper sleep and settling Sophia’s sense of sourness. Sophia had used Alexa’s finger in the club to unlock her phone and order the two an executive ride back to Alexa’s apartment. “Christ on a bike I can smell the gin coming out of her nostrils!” chortled Lenny, one of North London’s highest rated drivers; what he lacked in tact he made up for with an AUX cable, phone charger, out of date wine-gums and stolen Fiji water bottles. “Yeah…she’s…having a tough time at work, and with money…She’s one of my backing performers so I thought I’d treat her to a night out. I must have treated her too much.”

“I wish I had mates more like you! Although she won’t be thanking you in the morning, that’s for sure!” admired Lenny.

“She definitely won’t be thanking me! In fact can you drop me off just near Archway station my love? I’ll not be going back to hers; I fancy my own bed tonight.”

As Lenny pulled up by the abandoned pub next to the station Sophia climbed out and stood for an entire minute. Still. Transfixed. Numb to the February cold that bit her ankles. ‘The Archway Tavern’ read the sign adorning the glorious Victorian architecture of the detached building. A beaux-arts canvas flecked with comical late-nineties signage free in its stature, surrounded by post-and-neo-modern erections all breathing the same typography. Even though they were open to business the shops all looked tired, wishing they were closed down and not overworked by consumerism. The juxtaposition invited Sophia to juxtapose herself with Alexa. Alexa was the tavern that everybody remembered and photographed in awe, whilst she and the other crew were the repetitive and featureless row of retailers that people used but didn’t care about.

Sophia’s joints began to creak as she noticed the time on the clock of the tavern. Three A.M. Rehearsals were only eight hours away. This meant her routine for eight hours of solid sleep was out of sync. Sophia picked up the pace so that she was only four minutes from home, abandoning her preferred speed that would take closer to seven minutes to reach her front door. With time against her and a headache burrowing itself within the pits of her eye sockets Sophia began to care less. It was at the lowest point of giving a fuck that she noticed she was being followed. Turning around she spotted the fine feline as it tried to keep up with her, desperate and slow in its manner with a heedless limp. She allowed her stalker to carry on, knowing nothing bad could happen to her if she wondered behind. She actually enjoyed the company deep down, nine-point-five out of ten times she returned home alone, so this was a joyous occasion. Sophia began to plan what she would do with the cat for the remainder of the evening; where it would sleep and the bedtime stories she would tell it. All she had to do was get it through the front door without anybody else in the house noticing it, which was difficult as the cat began to grow louder and louder in its injured state. Groaning, even knocking into everything like a toddler who had eaten too much chocolate. Once Sophia’s house was within view she hurried to the entrance, leaning on the Georgian door whilst tapping the lion paw knocker with her shellac fingernail tips as she watched the spectacle of the debilitated cat drag itself across the street. As it staggered up the mosaic step she began to open the door, enjoying its intense stare as it clearly relied on her for help. Is this what it feel like to be loved? To be a mother? She thought.

Inside the house was warmth met Sophia with a personified sense. Kissing her cheeks. Evolving from tender and blue in colour to soft and rosey within seconds. After Sophia’s new friend finally crossed the threshold of outside space to inside space, the door closed gently before she double-locked it. Inside. Chained and bolted. A triple sense of security was felt by all. The next challenge was getting up the six sets of stairs that led to Sophia’s bedroom. She lived in a five-bedroom house illegally. With the four tenants paying the landlord in cash monthly at a slightly lower rent to the other tenants in the area. Even though they all shared the same safe space the five felt like strangers to each other. After two years. Still unaccustomed. To Sophia the savoir faire of London seemed only to be alive when it furthered the careers or financial gain of its inhabitants. Not like back home in Harrogate where she could spend half an hour stood talking to a neighbour about bin collections.

After yet another intense and time-consuming performance of dragging claws and yanking fur up the stairs the two were outside a row of three white doors. Against white walls. And white rails. And beige carpets. No pictures or rugs. Like an empty gallery space. Once in her bedroom Sophia took off her mask. Cleansing wipes removed her light dusting of makeup, as well as the film of air pollution that deposited on her face throughout her day in the city. The ritual was complete when Sophia was free of her clothing, noticeably her bra, as a rush of freedom reenergised her body. Now she felt light. Completely herself. Like the antithesis of a drag queen; she only felt whole without all of the feminising embellishments she had to wear to be taken seriously. Almost forgetting about her guest who recoiled in the corner of the room, still unaware of its surroundings. Purring, eyes widening. Unsure if it was in its usual nightly resting place or if it was experiencing the tropes of a new bedroom, like a yuppie high on MD having a one-night-stand.

As the cat became more aware and comfortable it also began to make more noise. Bollocks! Thought Sophia as she worried her landlord would hear in the room below. He didn’t like her having guests over, especially the feline kind. She didn’t want to be lonely so she gave the kitty a sleeping pill to ease its sprain and help it sleep. This only made its state even worse as it began to wallow, regurgitating bile and producing a piercing sound not too dissimilar to the post-orgasmic grunts of a human climax. After an hour of moans Sophia could no longer bear to be in the room. She tried scrolling through her twitter, liking dozens of Instagram posts, watching micro-clips on Facebook and even tagging Alexa in events she was interested in knowing that the pair wouldn’t be going to any of them.

Yet nothing could distract her from the noises. It was going to ruin tomorrow’s performance if she couldn’t get at least a fraction of sleep. Crazy. She had finally lost it, even after telling herself she was fine. It didn’t stop the voices, not coming from her own mind but from within the room itself. She began to hear fully-formed words coming from the cat. Entire clauses. Clauses that made sense. Clauses she didn’t like. Whole sentences that damaged her ego and made her feel less than. That was it. The feistiness was now rude, hitting too many nerves. Sophia began to feel physical pain. Her heartbeat rocketed as her migraine began to snap like a rubber band. She planned on harbouring her company just for a day or two, freeing it when it regained full health and consciousness. However the pillow under her head was too tempting, she knew it would do the trick…Silence. At last.

She smothered it until there was no more energy in her wrist. The toast now dripped in butter. As Sophia licked the knife clean, she swapped hands to smother the soggy slice in marmalade. No granola and yoghurt today she thought, today is going to be different. She stared at the breakfast for a few minutes before demolishing it in seconds. She swallowed her pills and hid the pills. Happy. Her new sense of energy made her feel normal again. It was time for the clock to resume so harmony could be restored. Her performance wasn’t just between the hours of seven-thirty and nine-thirty that evening. It was twenty-four-seven. Every action, facial expression and word spoken was well balanced and thought out in order to conform with the rest of the London bubble. After hiding last night’s incident in a dry cleaning suit bag in her walk-in wardrobe she let her morning routine begin again. Rehearsing the script for the show, getting dressed, applying her makeup – today heavier than usual – and taking an Uber to the theatre instead of using the tube. Today was a special day, it was show two-hundred-and fifty. The audience didn’t know it, but the entire cast had been excited about today for weeks. It then occurred to Sophia how on any given day she either felt totally uninterested and depressed, or totally high and happy with life. City life was extreme. It meant living in binaries. If London brought light into her life, it also brought darkness; if she found love, heartbreak would be waiting around the corner. A week of living lavishly brought a following week of budgeting and coupon hunting. Today, though, Sophia was only thinking positively about the night ahead. The negativity of the future did not exist.

“That vile bitch! I thought today she might not be late for rehearsals. Queen of fecking Sheeba. She forgets she’s replaceable. She’s no Meryl, or Helen. She’s barely even a fecking Olsen. Mary-Kate or Ashley could get more fecking cheers and tears out of the crowd. She’s only here because of the amount of Instagram followers she has!” John bellowed, knowing how to speak in only one volume and tone. Backstage at the theatre the cast and crew were walking on eggshells. What should have been a buzz in the air was now a chill, after Alexa had neglected to get to the rehearsals on time. With three hours to go before the show was to begin the night was now spoilt for everyone. “Hardly a surprise, this’ll be the fifth time since we started that she’s not turned up and Natalie’s had to fill in for her.” Muttered Andy, a producer.

“They don’t fecking pay to see Natalie. Who by the way fecked off to Dreamgirls over six weeks ago must you forget you fecktard…She is not doing this to us today, not on two-hundred-fifty. She can kiss her contract goodbye if she’s not here in the next hour. Has she replied to anyone yet?”

As John paced up and down the glitter-red path set from act-two scene-one Sophia cleared her throat. “Well, to tell the truth we were out quite late last night. We got an Uber back together, she got home around half three. We even Facebooked this morning so she’ll probably be here soon…”

“Well, to tell the truth THAT AIN’T FECKING GOOD ENOUGH! If she’s not here soon we need to tell twitter and all that shite that she not feeling well, for the fifth time. It’s either another hangover or she’s disappeared to Milan like the first time she didn’t perform. I hope for her it’s the fecking latter. And FYI Ms. So-bad-influence-phia, if she’s not here in the next hour then it’s you filling in for her because Natalie is too busy singing Beyoncé knock-offs. I know you know all Alexa’s words, I see you fecking mouthing along and you probably sing better than her…shame nobody knows you. Can we quickly drum up some publicity for Soph across the social pages? You’ve got an hour to try and get people excited to see her. Good luck.”

For the next hour Sophia sat watching the backstage door, squeezing her left hand until her index knuckle nearly touched her pinky knuckle. Hoping. Praying that Alexa didn’t turn up. Last night was heavy enough to keep her sleeping until the show started she thought. Even though her excitement had never been so strong, neither had her doubt. When the hour was up she disappeared to the toilet, punching the air and biting on her hand as she tried to hide her shrieks of pleasure. This was her chance to live out her dream, and it was totally unplanned and by chance. Even though the opportunity was gifted to her out of desperation she knew she deserved it. Finally everything that glittered was gold. After running through a dress rehearsal with Sophia as Rene the cast and crew gave her a round of applause. Whilst this was a nice feeling all Sophia could thing about was the gratification of the audience. The standing ovation. The autographs. The tweets and followers.

“Well, that was fecking nice to have a drama free run through. Well done Sophia. And not that it matters but Alexa sent me a text just before you started. “Sorry”, that’s all she cared to say people. If it goes well after tonight Soph, well, who knows.” And with a wink It was now less than one hour to the curtain call. The smell of fresh flowers filled the dressing rooms as an electrifying excitement began to build. Nobody was talking about Alexa, her name became a taboo. Synonymous with Judas. Sophia was finally on everybody’s lips. Just where she belonged.

The curtains opened in the darkness. A spotlight hit Sophia, as she opened her mouth Rene was reborn. The crowd cheered immediately after her first very ad-lib. A tear escaped as Rene watched the tears of audience members. She watched. Counting. Every single eye in the audience, on her. She forgot about the other cast members behind her. Is this was it feels like to be Alexa? Sophia thought with manic laughter swarming her mind’s peripheral. After the first act and three ovations Sophia sat in her dressing room, reading the hashtags and looking at the emoji’s of love being sent to her. Like artwork filling her mentions. Hearts in every colour. Yellow faces with happy tears, smiles. Digital high-fives. Icons of angels and dancing divas. She had broken the West End.

Walking onstage for the second act Sophia stroked Alexa’s dress, trying her best to walk the same way as Alexa did. Holding her posture with the straightness of last night’s Rene. It was during the final moments of the performance when the entire audience was stood with ruckus adulation that Sophia noticed a man and a woman who walked down the aisle of the theatre. Both with eyes on Rene, only they weren’t cheering. Or smiling. Instead they were there to do their job. Sophia spotted the handcuffs in the woman’s belt. They must have gone in the wardrobe she thought. The cat is out of the bag. They found her. She could see the headlines in tomorrow’s Metro now; ‘Former Leading Lady Spiked and Murdered By Leading Lady.’ She smiled as she took a bow. And another. Then slowly, her last.