November 2011

The dramatic life of the theatre

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In her seventh novel, Lucky Break, Esther Freud draws on her own experience as a drama student and actress (and the wife of actor David Morrissey) to explore what it takes to pursue a life dedicated to acting. Her cast is a group of young men and women who meet on the first day at a prestigious (and pretentious) drama academy and stay connected over the next decade, even as their professional paths diverge.

Rather than focus on a single character, Freud throws her net wide, the better to explore the varied experiences of these potential thespians. The circle of friends includes plump and plain Nell, who worries that her looks will garner her nothing but small parts as the maid or best friend and grabs at the opportunity to play a penguin in a traveling children’s show. Charlie, whose exotic beauty easily wins her leading roles, finds her interest waning as she discovers new skills that have nothing to with her appearance. Perhaps the most ambitious of them all, Dan, chosen to play Hamlet while still in school, realizes success upon success, but all his accomplishments seem fragile, balanced against a future filled with unknowns. His wife Jemma never pursues her own dreams, finding that Dan’s victories demand sacrifices by the whole family.

Freud creates an atmosphere that is filled with the rich particulars of an actor’s life. Tense auditions, grasping agents, red carpet premieres and predatory directors dot the landscape of seedy pubs, dismal hotels and out-of-the-way location shoots. Freud is able to cast an equally sympathetic eye over all her characters, following their ups and downs with empathy and accuracy. When Nell wavers between two agents, the loyal worker toiling in the crowded office versus the glamorous professional behind the rosewood desk, we never sense Freud’s judgment despite the faint hint of satire.

Best of all, Freud captures the ebb and flow of luck, good and bad, and the literally life-changing effect it has on careers. Bad luck can be as simple and devastating as an outbreak of acne on the day of a shoot, and good luck as fortunate as simply picking up the right phone at the right time. That both occur is one of the many delights of this engaging novel.

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