Rachel Bettesworth was born in 1990. She lives in Islington where she works as a vocal coach.
Repeat To Fade (81 000 words) is Rachel‘s first novel. It shows the dark side of the music industry through the eyes of singer and songwriter, Paige Bailey. Now telling her story to therapist Hannah in 2017, the beginning of the #metoo movement, Paige looks back at her early experiences of the business in 2006-08, the same time period as the highly publicised troubles of Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears.
In the chapter below, Paige is sharing a memory with Hannah of one of her earliest auditions as a child in musical theatre.
‘It’s kind of a rite of passage for a child working in musical theatre to play the orphans. Oliver, the Artful Dodger, Gavroche in Les Mis, that urchin in Pinocchio who gets turned into a donkey.’ I laughed and Hannah smiled patiently. I was talking fast, determined to talk about something other than what we’d talked about in the last session. I almost hadn’t come, but John had driven me and he was in his car waiting outside. It was part of our deal. I’d moved in with him, just outside of London in Teddington, and he was taking me to and from therapy every day at 10am. If I didn’t go, then he’d make me go to rehab.
‘Obviously, almost all the orphans are boys,’ I continued. ‘But in the spring of 2000, there was an open call for Annie. Annie, the girl orphan, who was just about the same age as me.’
We turned left and left again out of Covent Garden station, my mum and I. She held my hand as we crossed the road and headed right down Langley Street. The auditions were at Pineapple Dance Studios and we knew the way by then. It was spring. Blossom snowed and pigeons flirted. London in bloom.
‘Annie auditions?’ the receptionist asked as we walked in. She had a nose piercing and glittery eye liner and a Spice Girls crop top. I wanted to be her immediately.
My mum nodded in response and smiled.
The receptionist gestured to a sign that read Annie Auditions in bold black lettering and breathed in. In one breath she said, ‘Follow the signs through the door and up the stairs to the second floor head through the double doors and down the corridor where you’ll find a lady called Josie with an orange clipboard give her your CV and headshot and she’ll give you a number and then you can wait for your number to be called.’
She said it like they always do. Like it was the hundredth time she’d said it that day. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 10:07. Too early for a hundred. Surely.
My mum thanked her and moved towards the door. The receptionist winked at me with one of her glittery eyes.
‘Break a leg.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, crossing my fingers as I walked on through the door.
Half way up the stairs, my mum made a thinking face.
‘Hmm,’ she paused, ‘I think. Ninety-one.’
I took her hand, joining in for our game.
‘It’s too early for ninety-one, mummy. Didn’t you see the time on the clock? It’s only seven minutes past ten.’
I thought for a moment before deciding on seventy-six.
‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘But it’s an open call, Peggy. It’s going to be busy. Listen.’
She held up a finger and froze. I could hear them. Through the double doors and down the corridor. As she opened one of the doors, the sound burst through like the lid was just taken off a jar of noise. Canned Annies. Barrels of Annie the Orphan.
When I was given my number by Josie with the orange clipboard, it said 87 in big black font. My mum had won, she was closest. We made our way through the crowd of Annies to find a couple of free seats and we sat down beside a large plastic pot plant whose leaves needed dusting.
‘I’m going to be quiet now, mummy,’ I said, peeling off the back and sticking my number to my chest.
About twenty minutes later, Annie number 148 arrived. And at 11am, at 250, I guess they ran out of numbers because no one else came through the double doors.
I sat, watching the other girls with their mums and chaperones. Some quiet, some stretching, some busy belting at the wall. Mimi Williams was there, in her Sylvia Young’s Theatre School hoodie. Half way down, underneath her hoodie where the zip split to a V, the number 45 was stuck to her t shirt. Mimi’s mum always made sure they were early. I caught Mimi’s eye and we smiled at one another. We’d been sisters the year before, Gretl and Marta Von Trapp in a tour of The Sound of Music. We’d stayed close since. Mimi had recently done a run as young Eponine in Les Mis. Her first West End role. She was sitting quietly too, idly plaiting her long, straight, black hair while her mother chatted animatedly to the woman beside her. I watched Mimi’s hair, glossing in the light from the window, and put my hand to my own blonde hair, much shorter than Mimi’s. I realised I had no idea how to plait hair and that I wanted to learn. I looked up at my mum and wondered, with her short hair, if she’d ever been taught to plait. Maybe I’d ask Mimi to teach me.
One girl a few seats away was wearing a wig. A curly, red, fancy-dress Annie wig. Her manicured mother picked at nothing on the girl’s dress while the girl stared down and willed the floor to swallow her whole. Most of the girls knew how it worked by then. Most of us knew not to turn up to an Annie audition wearing the wig.
I wanted to give that girl a hug and tell her it was OK. The girl in the wig. I wanted to tell her she didn’t have to wear the wig. But I was being quiet so I didn’t. Instead I waited until her eyes left the floor and then I smiled at her. She smiled back and then we were friends. She knew that I didn’t think she was stupid for wearing the wig. She just wanted her mummy to love her. I got it. Most children are simple. Usually they just want their mummy to love them.
My mum sat in the seat beside me and read. She responded if I chose to speak- which I didn’t- but she knew not to start up a conversation while I was being quiet. A couple of times, other mums spoke to mine. The sort of fork-tongued small talk only stage mums have up their sleeve in such a supply. Like magicians with their coloured handkerchiefs it was hard to know where they kept it all.
‘Ooh, bit nervous is your one?’
‘Bless. First timer?’
‘Mine used to let her nerves get the better of her too. Yours’ll grow into it all. Don’t worry.’
My mum would smile at these women, say something polite and then go back to her book. We weren’t there for her so she didn’t let it get to her. This was what I wanted.
As usual with this sort of open casting, the singing audition was in the morning. We were called in six at a time. Six girls per line. Four bars each. If we got a recall, we’d do a scene and choreography after lunch. Lunch wasn’t provided. While six girls were auditioning, Josie with the orange clipboard called out the next six numbers. They lined up in order and disappeared down the corridor. She would then call the next numbers, and six more girls would get up, and so on.
When each group of girls reappeared, you could usually tell how they did by their faces. Most came out looking tearful, or putting on a brave face. They returned to their mothers in slow motion. Some mothers scooped up their daughters and told them it was OK, and they meant it. Some mothers allowed their faces to hover on disappointment before they reached consolation. I am certain some of them made sure their daughters noticed before they changed. The more overt stage mums tended to expose themselves at these moments.
‘Some people clearly just don’t know talent when it’s staring them in the face,’ they would hiss. Reassuring themselves more than their daughters of their delusions.
Sometimes they aimed it at their daughters instead.
‘Were you really focussing properly though, Alice?’
‘Did you hit the big note right, Jenny?’
‘But what did you do wrong, Mimi?’
I’d heard Mimi’s mum say something like this more than once. And Mimi usually got the part.
Occasionally mothers would go and give the organisers a piece of their mind. In 2004, during my audition for Jane Banks in Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, a mum actually marched into the audition room while I was singing and demanded they give her daughter another chance. They didn’t. Obviously. Because that’s not how it works.
At the Annie audition, one girl out of about twenty came out smiling. Most of these girls searched out their mothers like hungry baby birds, chirruping when they reached them, chirruping for praise. But the ones who had been working a while knew to just roll with it. They’d come back out in their stage blacks, likely with a Sylvia Young’s Theatre School crest on the left breast of their black t-shirt, like the one Mimi had on her hoodie. They’d spot their mothers and stick a thumbs up their way. Maybe two thumbs. But that would be all. That’s exactly what Mimi did when she came out of her audition. A quick nod, and then on into another room for a chat with one of the production team as her mother picked up her handbag and Mimi’s packed lunch and hurried after them.
When the girl in the wig returned from her audition, she was so upset one of the audition panel was actually holding her hand and guiding her back to her mum. She looked no older than eight. Maybe even seven. The audition had asked for girls with a playing range between nine and eleven.
Her mother got to her haunches and the girl hugged her around the neck. The mother’s knees stayed just above the ground, not touching. She rubbed the girl’s back and smiled stiffly at the man who brought her back out. She thanked him.
The girl was saying sorry.
‘Sorry, mummy. Sorry.’
As they left, the mother didn’t hold the girl’s hand. The girl had taken off the wig. She held it in her fingers. One curl dragged across the floor. She didn’t look back to smile at me, her new friend. She just followed her mother out of the door. I watched quietly, and when the door closed on them I turned to look at my own mother. Her eyes were wet behind her book. She had seen it too.
‘They call it bouncebackability,’ I said and Hannah nodded. ‘Like stage mums have sleights and magicians have hankies, child actors need bouncebackability. As though you are part child, part rubber ball, part boomerang.’ I looked at her eyes and felt mine prickle. I cleared my throat. ‘As you get older, you have to learn how to bounce back from what feels like being shot out of a cannon and into a brick wall.’
‘That sounds very painful,’ she said. I didn’t reply for a while.
‘Trip Saint James, the Head of Goliath Records USA, once said to me-’ I put on my best Trip voice, deep and American- “You only get one bullet per head, Paige, so never waste a shot. You gotta kill it with every show.” In other words: kill, kill, kill.’ Hannah raised her eyebrows. ‘I had a slightly different approach to him, I guess. I used to call it my box of confidence. Some children have this innate ability to do something just because they have decided to be able to do it. I could do that. For years I could do that. If I needed to be able to do something I would just go quiet and look inwards. I’d open my box of confidence and take a pinch or a handful, depending on how much I needed, and somehow it worked. For a long time, it worked. And every time it did, the box would magically refill. I was invincible when I was a kid.’
‘Numbers 85-91,’ called Josie with the orange clipboard after nearly two hours of sitting on my hands and being quiet. My mum nodded and smiled at me and I got up and strode down the white brick corridor towards Studio Eleven.
I had been in Studio Eleven before. It was one of the largest studios at Pineapple. The long wall that faced the door as you entered was mirrored. A black upright piano stood opposite the door at the end of the room. A man was sitting at it, drinking from a white mug. He was the man who had helped the girl in the wig back to her mother. He looked kind but like he’d rather have been playing Carnegie Hall. At the far end, about a dozen freestanding ballet barres were stacked away neatly, and the unmirrored walls- the white brick ones- had a barre fixed around them, bordering the room. Speakers were attached to the bricks, a music system stood beside the piano, and on the floor in the centre of the studio were 6 Xs made with black tape. Our markers.
The panel were in front of the mirrored wall. That was the first time I ever met John, last on the right. John Dillon. More commonly recognised as the most famous drag queen in the UK, Mary Le Bone, who would be starring as Miss Hannigan. It was the first time a drag queen had been cast in a role on the West End.
On the other side of John Dillon was someone I already knew. The choreographer, Luke. He’d worked on the Sound of Music tour Mimi and I had been on. I caught his eye as he looked up and he spotted me. He leant to his left, towards a woman I figured was the casting director, and said something. As her head turned to me, he winked and a little burst of sparks fizzed in my belly. There was another man, the producer. And one other, the director. I hadn’t met either of these men before but I knew who they were. Everyone in the industry knew who these men were. They sat, all five of them, at a long table. Side by side in a row. Like Jesus and his disciples at the last supper. Or the top table in a show called My Big Fat Gay Wedding.
I stood on my mark, front and centre, before the audition panel. Either side of me, girls 86 and 88 were taking their marks too. I could see in the mirror they were both a head taller than me. This was a worry. They liked their kids to be a similar height and build. The backs of my knees stretched and I raised up through my spine, willing myself to be taller.
86 I recognised. 86 was Phoebe Freeman. We’d been at the same fourth-round Hermione audition for the Harry Potter films. Phoebe was good. She’d just come off a contract as Young Cosette in Les Mis. She’d done West End, tours, TV and film, and she had two years on me but still looked nine or ten which was great for her. They loved it when older kids looked younger than they were.
Josie with the orange clipboard put our CVs in front of the panel on the table. They spread them out, headshots up. The panel looked at each of the headshots, and then they looked up at us. Ready.
Luke stood up. He welcomed us and explained that we’d each be singing four bars of ‘Tomorrow’, starting with number 85 on the left and going through to number 91 on the right. As he sat back down he nodded at the pianist.
The intro began. I realised I was third. Bars 13-16 were mine, which meant a cheeky extra bar in to the chorus, which meant I got the big note. I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds and pulled in my focus from that quiet place inside me I’d been building up for the past couple of hours. I took a pinch from my box of confidence.
Being in the same batch of Annies as Phoebe Freeman, with her impressive CV and her baby face in the room, my chances had just plummeted, but they’d be looking for at least three or four girls to play the role. I knew would just have to take that extra bar for every beat.
85 wasn’t great. She came in two words too late, missing the sun from ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow’. She was nervous. The moment it happened I saw the panel’s eyes mist over. They stared through her, waiting for the next, not interested in having their time wasted by nervous children. When the woman beside Luke moved her writing hand across the table, I was certain she had drawn a red X across 85’s headshot.
Next. Phoebe was good, really good. But having played Cosette so recently, her vowels were still set to British musical theatre. Open ohs and ahs. 3000 miles from the closed, harsher sounds of Annie the awphan from Noo Yawk. As she was singing, John smiled at her encouragingly and the director whispered something to the producer and he nodded.
Then the piano moved to the minor and it was my turn. Knees soft, shoulders down and back, chest open, relaxed. Eyes up. Eyes up to where the dress circle cuts through the auditorium, where the little screen shows the actors on stage a view the musical director, conducting from the orchestra pit. Eyes up to where the professionals know to look. Up and out, under the stage lights.
I took a breath, thought tall, and boom.
‘When I’m stuck with a day…’ I belted. ‘That’s grey…’
The director and the producer stopped whispering and turned their heads front. Luke smiled diagonally and leaned forwards on his forearms. The woman looked up too, did that thing where she held her chin up slightly, feeling the energy boost I was giving. They all fixed their eyes on me.
‘I just stick out my chin…’
I pictured myself, grinning out from the posters on the London Underground. Hands on hips. The curly red wig on my head. The real one.
The producer raised his hand and floated a royal wave as I sang out. He was smiling too. John Dillon nodded. They were waiting for it. I rooted myself to the ground for that extra bar. I may never have been sweet young Cosette like Phoebe, or pretty little Eponine like Mimi, but with my big belt voice and my box of confidence, boy oh boy was I an Annie. I opened my arms out straight, fingers wide like feathers at the end of wings, and went for the note.
‘And saaaaay… Ohhhh…’
At the end of the song, the usual audition silence stood in the place of any applause. The six of us stood still on our markers. I closed my eyes for a second and tried to keep my hopes down. It was a tough job. Like a dam right before a flood.
The audition panel turned in towards one another and started moving headshots across the table. They muttered, and everyone seemed to agree. When Luke stood up again he was holding two headshots in his hands, the sides with the photographs to his chest.
‘Number 86? Phoebe Freeman,’ he looked at Phoebe who smiled and nodded. ‘Aaaaand,’ he drew out the word for what felt like a month and I thought I might explode. ‘Number 87. Peggy Bailey-Barton.’
Something banged in my heart and rippled through my body. It burst out hot and bright to the tips of my toes and the tips of my fingers and then vanished, leaving behind a warm glow as I tried my hardest not to externalise the feeling as anything more than a returned smile and a nod.
‘Everyone else,’ Luke continued, his voice slightly louder, more matter of fact. ‘Thank you so much for coming. We won’t be seeing you again today, but good luck and thank you.’
As the door opened and the six of us started to file out, Luke spoke again. ‘Peggy?’ I turned back to the audition panel. ‘Stay put a sec would you? We’d just like a word.’ I stayed put on my mark, sparklers crackling in my belly again, as numbers 88 to 91 walked past me, their heads low.
Once the room was clear, the director plummed a theatre dahling ‘hellair’ at me over the table.
‘So, Peggy. Would you just give us a few bars of ‘Maybe’?’
I smiled at him. ‘Umm,’ I shrugged, ever so precociously, ‘Maybe.’
They all laughed, delighted.
‘Barbra Streisand!’ John Dillon barked in a Northern, smoker’s croak. ‘She’s only a bloody comedian on top of that voice. Go on, pet!’
The pianist began to play the intro. I took the time to prepare for what was coming. The song is about the orphan Annie designing characters for the parents she’s never met. ‘Betcha he reads, betcha she sews’, she sings. Automatically, I thought about the photograph of the man I didn’t know on my mum’s bedside table. The man who looked like my brother Harry, but older. Army uniform. Green camos. A grass green beret with a green feather pluming from a silver harp. In the photo the man is holding a fuzzy blonde baby girl into his chest, and on his knee there’s a little boy who looks like Harry, but younger. The baby girl is smiling at this little boy, who is smiling up at the man, laughing and clapping. The little boy looks so happy as he looks up at the man. Happier than I’d ever seen him back then.
‘Just so you know,’ I said, and Hannah raised her eyebrows with polite expectancy, ‘my father was killed in action during the first Gulf war. He was an officer and it was a wrong place wrong time kind of thing.’
‘I’m sorry. That must have been awful for you all,’ Hannah replied in a serious voice. I shook my head.
‘I never knew him. It happened when I was a baby. I just figured you’d be wondering where he fit into all this. Isn’t therapy traditionally like 80% “I hate my dad” stuff?’ I laughed. Hannah raised her hands as if to say, ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’
For the few seconds of intro to ‘Maybe’, I thought of this photograph of my father. I tried to picture my mum and he together. Young and happy. And then I started to sing.
‘Maybe far away, or maybe real nearby, he may be pouring her coffee, she may be straightnin’ his tie…’
I sang the whole song, no one stopped me, and when I finished there was quiet. But this was a loaded silence, filled with imminent sound.
‘John,’ the director plummed, ‘Can you just pop up and stand beside Annie please?’
John squawked a ‘Ha!’ as he got up from his seat.
‘And the Olivier award for subtlety goes to…’
‘Sorry- Peggy,’ the director corrected himself with a wry smile while I tried even harder to keep my hopes in line. ‘Here, John. Take this would you?’ He handed John two pieces of paper.
‘Peggy,’ John croaked as he shook my hand. I felt like I was meeting Cilla Black’s brother and sister in one. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet ya. I’m John, but if I’m in a dress and ya feel like it, you can call me Mary.’ John winked and we shook hands. ‘What a corker of a voice you’ve got. Eh? I’m tellin’ ya. Nearly knocked me wig off an’ all!’ My eyes glanced to his head of short, greying man hair. He noticed this. ‘Well, you would’ve done if I’d been wearin’ one, eh?’
‘Peggy?’ the director called. John and I turned to the panel, holding our scripts. ‘Could you just read through this little section here for us in your very best American accent? Have a quick scan and then when you’re ready.’ I looked down at the sheet. Act one scene one. The first dialogue between Miss Hannigan and Annie, when Miss Hannigan catches Annie trying to escape the orphanage. I had watched the movie three times a day for the past month and dreamed of being Annie for years. I knew the script by heart. I was ready. Looking up from the paper, I nodded at John, who jumped towards me and grabbed me by the ear.
‘Aha! Caught ya,’ he said, his accent somewhere between Manhattan and Manchester.
We did the scene. I drawled a sickly, insincere, ‘I love you, Miss Hannigan,’ and walked past John as he finished with, ‘Why anyone would wanna be an orphan, I’ll never know.’ During this, I turned around, stuck out my tongue, put my thumb to my nose and wiggled my fingers behind John’s back. The panel laughed out loud. They clapped and John hammed up an elaborate bow.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ he cooed.
‘Can she dance the role?’ the casting director woman asked Luke.
‘She can dance the role.’
His right eye twitched an almost invisible wink at me. I was not a strong dancer. Luke knew this. I could dance, obviously. You had to be able to hold your own with jazz and tap, and of course, like with most dance, you needed a strong core knowledge of ballet. But Annie is a singer/actor/dancer role, in that order. And I was a singer/actor/dancer, in that order. The casting director looked at the director. The director looked at the producer. They were nodding. The sparks in my belly threatened to explode out of my mouth as John leant down towards me and, in an even worse American accent than in the scene, said, ‘Gee, kid. I think you just got the pawt.’
I took a moment to feel an echo of the afterglow that this memory still brought. Hannah watched. She was smiling, just slightly.
‘That was one of the happiest moments of my life,’ I said eventually.
‘Mm,’ she said, raising her eyebrows politely.
‘After the audition, my mum took me to Harrod’s,’ I continued. ‘Whenever I had an audition in London, if we had time before the train home, either to celebrate or commiserate, my mum treated me to a milkshake at Harrod’s.’ I paused, warmed and saddened, ‘I loved that time we got to spend together, just us.’
‘Good?’ my mum asked across the table, as the first taste of thick, rich chocolate milkshake shot up the straw and into my mouth. I nodded and swallowed.
My mum smiled at me over the milkshakes. Her eyes smiled too, the way they only did when she was really, really happy. Like the morning Harry got accepted to music college. ‘Are you proud of me, mummy?’ I asked.
‘I am always proud of you,’ she said.
‘Do you think Harry will be proud of me?’
‘He is always proud of you too, sweetheart,’ she said, and she looked at her watch as I took another long chocolatey pull on my straw.
‘We should call these millionaire shakes,’ I said in a thick voice, my head tilted back, mouth half full. ‘Because really only millionaires can afford them. Like Mr Warbucks.’
The milkshakes at Mo’s Diner on the fourth floor of Harrod’s cost nearly £5. They were delicious. Thick and rich and bigger than my face. But we were far from being millionaires. We couldn’t quite believe anything could be so expensive as a milkshake that cost nearly £5. It was a real treat.
‘Millionaire shakes. Clever you,’ my mum laughed. ‘Tell you what,’ she added, a hint of naughtiness in her eyes as she looked up from her watch for the second time, ‘Annie loves dogs doesn’t she? She’s got Sandy.’ I nodded, straw in mouth. ‘When we finish these, why don’t we go and find the room with all the puppies? We can pretend we’re wealthy lunatics who want to buy one. They might just let us play with them. What do you think?’
We wandered around Harrod’s looking for the puppies and, as required by law for regular folk in that place, almost immediately we got lost. We ended up in a room filled with pianos, beautiful pianos, and in the middle of the room there was a white Steinway. A baby grand. Just like the one John Lennon played in ‘Imagine’; my dad’s, Harry’s, and my favourite song. I looked up at my mum and asked if I could play the white Steinway. She glanced at her watch.
‘Which would you prefer to do, Pegs? Play the piano or play with the puppies? I don’t think we have time to do both before the train. I have to be back to pick up Harry.’
‘The piano please.’
They let me play it. I perched my bottom on the stool- my feet could barely reach the pedals- and I played ‘Imagine’. Before I’d even finished playing the intro, the crystalline, warm sound of the Steinway consumed me. The keys were cool under my little fingers, soft and smooth. Everything was quiet around the music. Nothing but music has ever been able to do that for me, wave away the endless stream of thought and analysis and comparison and critique. Quieten the white noise of my mind, leaving melody alone.
‘I’m going to buy that piano one day,’ I told my mum on the train home. ‘When I sign my first record deal we are going to Harrod’s and I’m going to buy you a lifetime supply of millionaire shakes and then I’m going to buy myself that piano,’ I said. And I believed it. In that titanic way only children are able to believe in something, I believed that one day I was going to sign and record deal and buy that piano.