The Empire by Michael Ball – an absorbing historical novel of theatrical life and more

The Empire by Michael Ball

This is a fantastic read. Full of drama, excitement and suspense, this is an absorbing book of theatrical life set in a town theatre in the 1920s. While the shadow of the Great War lingers over several of the characters, this is a world and a family story in its own right. It is filled with amazing characters, from all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, but all revolving around The Empire, a theatre that reflects the glories of past shows and a promise of further experiences. As virtually all the action takes place within its warren of corridors, rehearsal room and of course its splendid auditorium it offers a marvellous feeling of a community with its gossip, heroes and surprising regulars. Michael Ball has created a world of theatrical activities affected by the pressures of the outside world but in a very special way; while there are challenges to the straightforward running of a building which excites loyalty and passion from virtually everyone who works there, invention, initiative and innovation from those who have perhaps been overlooked can change everything. For everyone who loves the theatre this novel is a must, for anyone who enjoys a strong and absorbing story it is a powerful tale. I really enjoyed it and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it as the first of an enchanting series.

There is a long list of the characters to begin the book, but rather than be daunted by this programme like listing, it became a useful reference point. The beginning is carefully written as an overture, introducing some of the most important characters in their typical settings, from the influential editor of a local paper through to a Lady with a significant interest in The Empire. We first see the theatre through the astonished eyes of a young man, Jack Treadwell, who has not long returned from France after his service during the recent war. This is 1922, and people are determined to move on from a War which affected virtually everyone. Jack has been told to go to the theatre in a message from his late mother, and he is soon involved in the dizzying place of entertainment which has welcomed so many over the last few years. He encounters Grace soon after entering the building, and while she may not bear the official title, he soon understands how she is in fact in charge of much of the daily running of the building. From stagehands to musicians, the stage door dog called Ollie to the costume manager, Jack soon charms them all with his good humour, genuine fascination with the people and their activities and his determination to improve the theatre’s fortunes. Grace in particular is intrigued by his innovations, and when a campaign by a local theatre owner causes problems, joins forces with him to help the situation. Of course The Empire does not exist in in a vacuum; Lady Lillian Lassiter was married to the late local businessman who had given her the theatre as a gift to mark her original career, a decision which has upset his family as they now benefit from his business dealings but cannot control the theatre. Sir Edmund as owner of the rest of the shares has a dubious past and a somewhat shady present. Other forces in the town may well have an influence on the progress of The Empire, and there are those who are far from dedicated to the theatre’s success. The trials and triumphs detailed in this book make for absorbing reading.

This is a book that I thoroughly recommend as a light but fascinating historical novel, and it offers an impressive insight into life in the 1920s for many types of people. I look forward to the next instalment!