A night out in the West End: the singing, the dancing, the heights of comedy, and the depths of emotional despair—and often that’s just the real-life drama unfolding in the dressing rooms! Professional theater involves a heavy workload, high stress levels, and a brutally competitive job market; it also brings its cast and crew an adrenaline buzz like no other and a rock-solid sense of camaraderie. It’s a world that I find fascinating—and that unique “bubble” of the theater, the enforced proximity of the actors and the backstage team, the intimacy, the nerves, and the flaring tempers all combine to make a great setting for a contemporary romance! My London Celebrities series has so far seen love grow unexpectedly from animosity between co-stars, a relationship flourish against considerable odds between a leading lady and her older director, and a warring aerialist and makeup artist find their way back to each other under the lights of the circus ring. In my new release, The Austen Playbook, the action will move out of the city for the first time and into a historic theater on a crumbling country estate that’s rife with past and present scandal.
Fictional theater history plays a part in The Austen Playbook, but the real history of professional theater in England has more twists and turns than a soap opera. In sixteenth-century London, Queen Elizabeth I would bring companies of actors to her court for private performances, and during her reign, the incredibly long tradition of traveling entertainers began to transition into an organized vocation. Elizabeth’s favored players were the company of William Shakespeare, who cleverly geared dialogue and plots to hold on to the queen’s patronage. As the first permanent playhouses emerged, like The Theatre and The Curtain in Shoreditch, and of course later The Globe, the path was laid that would eventually lead to today’s modern West End—the glitz and the glamour, the escape into another world via the stories unfolding onstage, and the political and social commentary.
Theater has always reflected both the best and worst times of the current age, and throughout history the drama behind the scenes can be as intense as the words written in the script. The theater was entwined with political intrigue: the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, allegedly commissioned a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II the day before his plan to march on London and rally followers against Elizabeth I, in what was viewed as an attempt to sway public opinion by drawing a comparison between the aging monarch and the one-time deposed king. The rebellion failed and Essex was beheaded, as were several people who’d sat in the audience watching the play. The actors, however, were ordered to perform the play again for the Queen herself at Whitehall, on the eve of the execution.
Decades later, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans decided that theater invited licentious, immoral behavior and it was banned for eighteen years, the theaters pulled down; but when the notoriously pleasure-loving King Charles II took the throne, players swarmed back to newly-built playhouses, and the age of Restoration Comedy began, with a volley of witty satire and risqué, tongue-in-cheek jokes. It was decreed that women characters should be played by women actors, bringing the first female professional actors to the London stage. Throughout the centuries, there was severe censorship with the Licensing Act of 1737, multiple fires at Drury Lane, the Great Depression tore apart the arts industry, and many theaters were hit in the barrage of bombing during the Blitz, but theater in London has endured and continues to entertain, delight, and comfort thousands of people every day.
It’s a unique environment and often multiple generations of families will be caught up in the “theater bug,” which is the case for the heroine of The Austen Playbook. Freddy Carlton is a young veteran of the West End stage, having debuted at the age of eleven. She comes from a family with a long history in British theater and has a very strong legacy to live up to, and somewhere along the journey to success, she’s started to lose sight of her own passion for her job. While Freddy struggles to find the right path—and the courage to stand up for what her heart really wants—she joins the cast of The Austen Playbook, a Jane Austen-inspired, audience-interactive, whodunit play that will be televised live from a country manor house. When she discovers that the owner of the estate is the notoriously icy James “Griff” Ford-Griffin, the harshest theater critic in London—and not exactly her biggest professional fan—the stage is set for a fiery, passionate summer. Secrets are revealed, scandal simmers, co-star rivalries flourish, and opposites attract with a vengeance. It’s the great love of their lives that neither the bright, happy-go-lucky Freddy nor the sarcastic, grouchy Griff saw coming, but they’ll fight to protect it…and will have to, when a revelation about the past threatens all their future happiness.
About The Austen Playbook:
In which experienced West End actress Freddy Carlton takes on an Austen-inspired play, a scandal at a country estate, an enthusiastic search for a passion outside of acting…and the (some people might say icy*) heart of London’s most feared theater critic.
*if those people were being nice
Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.
She can’t take her eyes off him.
Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.
Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.
As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.
Don’t miss the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker! Order your copy of Act Like It, Pretty Face & Making Up today!