We were shortly joined by my other companions for the evening: Mister Alexander Abrahams, the millionaire businessman from the American colonies; Mister Furaha, owner of one of the largest plantations and sawmills in the Shimba Hills and the Honourable George Lancaster, MP, member of parliament for Sussex West who was inspecting his holdings in British East Africa. We chatted politely and inconsequentially for a few minutes before it was time to take our place in our box. I led the way up the grand staircase to the upper level and took our seats, from which vantage-point we caught our first glimpse of the mechanical orchestra in the pit.
A few of the instruments already playing the overture were almost ordinary: self-playing pianos and miniature pipe organs, familiar in many a middle-class drawing-room. Most were altogether more astonishing: a clutch of mechanical violinists, bowing their instruments and fingering the strings with hands that looked like kid leather gloves at the ends of arms of polished brass animated by gleaming pistons and intricate clockwork. Wind and brass instruments, too: clarinets and trombones and flutes with their mouthpieces and reeds pressed to red-painted lips set in smooth metal heads, and mechanical arms operating the valves and stops with considerable dexterity.
All the clockwork instrumentalists had red glowing eyes set in their heads, eyes which seemed to be staring unblinkingly at their music stands, although whether the automatons were actually reading the music or the eyes were just for the dramatic effect, I could not immediately tell. The music was good, in my inexpert judgement, the score accurately reproduced certainly but, to my ears, it did sound just a little mechanical.
I watched the clockwork orchestra entirely mesmerised for some uncounted minutes while the remainder of the audience filed into the stalls and grand circle. It was a sell-out; even the cheap seats in the upper circle were packed with eager faces. I could begin to understand exactly why this show had received such universally positive reviews.
The overture came to an end. All the players lifted their instruments from those positions conventionally adopted while playing and held them aloft, and swung their heads so those glowing red eyes were directed to the audience. This was an action clearly intended to make it clear that these were real instruments being played authentically, rather than mere props to disguise some hidden sound reproduction system.
A wave of enthusiastic applause swept the auditorium, even though this was merely the end of the musical introduction. The appreciation expressed was loud and prolonged, but then suddenly diminished, as if all at once the audience realised that they were delaying the start of the performance proper. There was an expectant hush, over which could just be perceived the whirr and tick of intricate machinery and the huff of finely-tuned steam engines at idle.
The machine musicians returned their instruments to their playing position and struck up a rousing march. The stage curtains swept back to reveal a fabulous collection of machines, already in swirling motion, beautifully choreographed and precisely in time with the energetic music emerging from the pit.
The majority of the figures were obviously mechanical dancers, although modelled on both male and female forms, and clothed as modestly as if there were real people on the stage. Notwithstanding, emerging from skirt hem and coat cuffs were arms and legs of brass and polished steel, fitted with pistons and gears in continuous motion.
Other performers were far more outlandish in their shapes. There were automata cast as great cats - perhaps lions or tigers - and others as bears or frogs or tortoises. There was even one in the shape of a giant spider. All of the figures sported heads approximating to human shape, even those whose form was otherwise far from human, and all had the same red glowing eyes as the musicians.
Together with every other member of the audience, I watched entranced as the players in the opening number weaved and strutted and leapt about the stage. The dancers gave every appearance of human animation and lithe movements, the other automations moving in ways that seemed to be remarkable facsimiles of the corresponding living creatures.
The music drew to a finale and the performers swept into their final movements, finally coming to a halt in a dramatic climax. The applause was thunderous, deafening. After a long moment, the actors on the stage took a bow or otherwise acknowledged the audience's approval, and the musicians in the pit once again raised their instruments in salute.
The music struck up again but, after just a few notes, every single one of the automations suddenly froze. There was no warning, no hesitancy; just one moment, the music and dance was in full swing, the next, silence and stillness everywhere.