The Empire

Michael Ball
Zaffre
Released

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The Empire

This is a book that its target readership will absolutely love. This will include fans of musical star Michael Ball and also anyone who might enjoy an undemanding but gripping page turner set in the world of theatre.

For his literary debut, Ball has immersed himself in the world of perhaps the greatest author of novels such as The Good Companions set in and around the theatre, J B Priestley.

Not only are many of the themes and characters similar to those of the great Yorkshireman but the setting is in that county when he was in his pomp—the early 1920s.

The plot is a ripping yarn that tends towards the sentimental and melodramatic. On the theatrical front, Lady Lillian Lassiter, a relatively young widow and former showgirl, has inherited the titular theatre but prefers to spend her time enjoying the glitz of Broadway with a female friend.

Back home in the building, problems abound as a dastardly rival attempts to drive her operation out of business by monopolising and threatening every agent and star in the region—not the most original plot line but still engrossing.

If that wasn’t bad enough, her step-grandson (not much younger than the lady herself) is a drunken, gambling coward with an overbearing mother and between them they also attempt to undermine the efforts of the arty types running the show.

On that front, Lady L has struck lucky, since although the theatre manager turns out to be somewhat lacking in the necessary skills, although he does have surprising financial skills, his assistant plucky Grace Hawkins not only takes over the management of the theatre but proves herself to be a literary genius.

In this, she is assisted by Jack Treadwell, a former soldier with a hidden history (even from himself).

He also just happens to be the handsome romantic type, who starts out as the stage door man but in no time at all falls for the shy but lovely heroine and proves himself to be a budding impresario, who puts together a revue, led by a star hauled out of a fish and chip shop.

All sorts of dodgy dealings go on in the background, but there are also the kind of insights into backstage theatrical life that only someone who has spent his career on the boards can offer.

As one reads through the 400 pages, there are many laughs, for example in connection with a comedy musical version of Macbeth presented by a humourless actor manager, but also tears of joy, frustration and true pathos.

This may not be the kind of work that wins the Booker prize, but it is highly entertaining, will undoubtedly sell well and will have members of the Michael Ball fan club in raptures.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher