Maybe there is no such thing as a lucky break'", remarks Nell Gilby, star of Esther Freud's seventh novel, which features a cohort of students making it – or not – through an impressively pretentious drama school and a decade of acting life. "'Maybe you do well, or you don't do well, and that's how it is.'"
We meet Nell on her first day at Drama Arts: short, rounded, breathlessly excited and in awe of her leggier, more beautiful and confident peers. Like the stunning, mixed-race Charlie, who takes her flawlessness so much for granted that a late-onset outbreak of zits proves life-changing. And handsome, ambitious Dan. Their stories weave in and out of Nell's.
As in her previous six novels, Freud – who went to drama school and is married to an actor – draws on both her own and others' experiences to write authentic-tasting fiction. Occasionally, Lucky Break dips into over-familiarity: the obligatory casting-couch moment (although this turns out to have method-acting benefits), shifts in Pizza Express and a star-pupil-turned-waiter sighting that could have sprung from Fame or any other cautionary tale of aspiring thesps.
But, mostly, Lucky Break's truths are quietly and elegantly told; the book's moral encapsulated in one of its two epigraphs, Michael Simkins's advice to a young actor: "It's not fair, and don't be late". The only character who succeeds in amassing partner and children as well as something approaching a career is Dan. His wife Jemma – they met on their first day – drops her acting ambitions and never seems to finish her Russian degree because she's too busy parenting their increasing brood. Blessed with beauty and apparently effortless early success, Charlie can't seem to hold down a relationship. Nell dreams of a stranger who would "lay his body over hers... I love you, I love every part of you, he'd repeat through her sleep".
It's not fair. But love is never fair: and acting, Freud implies, in this accomplished and readable if not over-challenging novel, is like being in love with the worst kind of boyfriend. Nell's flatmate Sita is offered, repeatedly, the part of Asian girl forced into arranged marriage and ignored for any other role. So when she finds a temp job crystallising into permanence, she sticks with it, marries Raj from accounts and gets pregnant. "I feel," she says, when Nell questions her choice to abandon acting, "as if I've fallen out of love with someone unavailable, someone quite unkind and found... well, Raj, who's lovely and who's actually here.'"
Freud mixes in an abundance of subtle comedy. Nell earns her Equity card playing a penguin for four-to-seven-year-olds. She lands her first proper job by barking "My Way" in the audition. Meanwhile, Dan learns one take too late that it's good manners to shave minutes, rather than hours, before a sex scene. Charlie also gets a sex scene. Dan gets to keep his kit on, while Charlie, predictably, doesn't. On the other hand, while Charlie's scene, part of a French film, proves both morally ambiguous and a genuinely erotic experience, Dan's was "in all honesty... the un-sexiest night of his life."
Meanwhile, on the same film set Dan, about to discover what happens if you piss off the stunt man by doing your own stunts (it hurts), recalls a fight workshop at Drama Arts. During the workshop Eshkol – naturally melodramatic and heavily made-up – is punched, accidentally, on the nose. "There had been blood, foundation and some hysteria". Quite.
Lisa Gee's 'Stage Mum' is published by ArrowReuse content