The part glamorous, part rough-and-tumble world of the theatre provides rich pickings for fiction, plays, and films. Sadie Jones’s fourth novel, set largely in the 1970s, is a hugely enjoyable new contribution to the backstage genre.
Luke – attractive and restless, a writer and womaniser – longs to leave his grim northern town and his parents: his mother incarcerated in a mental hospital, his father an alcoholic. He meets, by chance, the urbane Paul and the feisty Leigh, young theatrical types in search of a play. Meanwhile in London, the fragile, beautiful actress Nina (Chekhov associations surely not coincidental) begins her career under the thumb of her ghastly, pushy mother, who soon hands the reins over to Tony, a manipulative producer. He romances and moulds Nina – despite his obvious predilection for young men.
Luke, Paul, and Leigh become a tight trio, both professionally – starting Graft, an above-a-pub theatre company – and romantically. But Luke’s maxim – “Don’t chat up the stage management” – puts paid to romance with Leigh, propelling her into the arms of the solid, safe Paul instead. Inevitably, Luke and Nina cross paths, and the stage is set for a drama of ambition and adultery.
All this might sound like soapy fodder, but Fallout is both deliciously gobble-able and carefully constructed. Jones exhibits great insight into human behaviour: as the perspective slides easily between characters, flickers of recognition spark with each. She’s brilliant on the whooshing rush of love, desire or friendship – and how the three are rarely as clearly delimited as we tell ourselves. Rare flashes of instinctual recognition or life-altering moments are caught precisely: “I know you, she thought – except she almost didn’t think it, so small a thing was it, so delicate”; “the wanting one another was in the room so quickly it was like vertigo”.
Jones’s comfortable, confident grip slips a little towards the end – Paul’s narrative feels hastily wrapped, and Nina’s development from feeble to calculating could use further drawing out. But the novel largely marries a satisfying story with real depth of feeling.
Time and place are smoothly evoked too. Jones infuses Fallout with period detail (the cigarettes, the clothes, the drinks) while avoiding the more obvious Seventies London clichés. Her portrait of the theatre verges towards pastiche occasionally – Graft’s first play is “a violent, bestial hour about mines and miners” – but never undermines her characters. We may smile with hindsight at the earnestness of such experimental, political performances, but they are filled with an exhilarating sense of possibility.
Fictional creations are mixed with real names and shows from the era – a formative time for British theatre, following the creation of the RSC and the National, and the end of stage censorship in 1968. Theatre aficionados may enjoy guessing who or what Jones is nodding towards (The Depot, a Covent Garden warehouse Paul converts into a theatre, for example, is surely the Donmar), but the story never gets bogged down in all that. No prior knowledge is required for a thoroughly pleasurable read.