A chronicle of three young actors desperate to forge careers in the acting profession sounds like a dangerously familiar proposition. We are all now habituated to the weekly Saturday evening drama of wide- eyed dreamers drilled, mauled, culled and reculled in search of a Nancy, Dorothy or Maria. In Lucky Break, however, Esther Freud redraws the path that leads from Television Centre direct to London’s glittering West End.
These young hopefuls are plunged into the maelstrom of a three-year drama school programme that stretches and befuddles them in equal measure. There is a squirm- inducing accuracy to the students’ earnest endorsement of their training, hilariously realised in the principal and the quasi-mystical movement teacher. The austerity of their regime reads like satire, though sadly isn’t.
But for all their diligence, passion and determination there is of course nothing they can do about the way they look. Thus beautiful Charlie and talented but pre- occupied Dan graduate from the school with agents and start working almost immediately, while dumpy Nell has to find a different way in. As their paths begin to diverge with different jobs so they are forced to contrast the practical realities of their personal and professional lives with the principles instilled in them by their teachers.
Freud is terrific on the young actors’ existential conundrum of trying to discover who one is at the very moment when one is trying get a job pretending to be anyone else. Charlie struggles with the deceptive glamour of her screen opportunities and Dan wrestles with the revolving door of fathering a surprise family and nurturing a fairly successful career.
As if to emphasise the unreliable stop-start momentum of their careers, chapters are interspersed between the three central characters. This structure enables Freud to stress the significance of anticipation and anticlimax in the dynamic of actors’ lives without having to dramatise a whole series of auditions and performances. As Charlie’s cynical boyfriend Rob insists at one point, the getting of the part is often far more of a highlight than the actual doing of it.
The other consequence of dividing the narrative into overlapping strands is that the three careers become a kind of race. It is this spirit of competition that fires and indeed thwarts the characters’ enjoyment of their own lives. In a sense they are all equally lucky and untypical in that they defy statistical probability and actually get work. At the same time their experience of that work often creates more problems than it solves. All the things that should be exciting — film-star romances, unexpected auditions, foreign locations and jaunts to Hollywood — turn sour in the tasting.
Yet if Freud is determined to hollow out some of the more popular fantasies about actors’ lives, she is not immune to its enduring romance. As the tortoise in the race, Nell’s career is by far the most textured. Denied obvious casting, she is forced to take the more typical trajectory of open auditions, small-scale touring and expensive gambles on the Edinburgh Fringe. She is the idealistic core of the novel, for whom acting is a reward in and of itself. Stranded in Keswick on a calamitous tour of an apparently irrelevant political satire she is inspired by the thought that ‘for all she knew, tonight there might be someone in for whom this play would be the bright spark of their lives. Someone changed for ever.’
That the majority of working actors are able to buoy themselves up with such simple tenets of faith is cringingly convincing. The novel is at its most entertaining when this wide-eyed optimism is jeaopardised by a colourful parade of feckless agents and vacuous casting directors. Drama students and earnest young actors make better victims than heroes. This particular vintage are peculiarly anodyne, politely succumbing to self-doubt, vacillation and monogamy. Any rogues, vagabonds or even alcoholics are relegated to walk-on parts, and the novel flattens a little as a result.
Freud betrays insider knowledge of the envy, disappointment and solipsism inherent to the chaotic lives of all actors, young and old. At the same time she cannot resist the crowd-pleasing finale (vividly staged in a Richard Curtis snowy Christmas) that keeps us all dreaming.