I pride myself on keeping up with the London newspapers, although they are of necessity delivered some days later to my residence in Mombasa. Of course, I also take both the local weekly English-language papers, as they help me to perform part of the role that I fulfil here. So, when I saw the announcement in the Kilifi News, I already knew something of what to expect.
"The Clockwork Cabaret to appear in Mombasa!" the announcement said, in what was perhaps unnecessarily large type, "Famous show in African debut at the Grand Victoria Theatre, Nyali!"
The Clockwork Cabaret was indeed famous. It was a touring show where all the performers - dancers, musicians and their musical instruments - were automata: steam-powered cybernetic machines directed by Jacquard cards and programmed instructions executing on intricate clockwork machinery, while simultaneously cunningly formed to closely resemble the human beings who would hitherto have undertaken these tasks, as well as the forms of other animalistic or mythological figures.
The papers had informed me that it was originally an English Provincial touring attraction but, after having received uniformly excellent reviews in the Manchester Guardian and the Yorkshire Gazette, it had been brought to the London West End where its run at the Gaiety had been sold out for months. At the end of the run and now acclaimed by reviews verging on the hysterical, even in the normally staid and stolid pages of the London Times, the production management had made the surprising decision to tour the more select parts of the Her Britannic Majesty's Empire overseas.
Perhaps it was not entirely a surprise, I concluded after a few moments thinking a little more deeply. Rather, perhaps the decision was made at the discreet suggestion of some representative of Her Majesty's Government, a touring exhibition to show the world the marvels and ingenuity of British manufacturing and workmanship, as well as the superiority of British science and cybernetic engineering.
Besides, the cybernetic troupe would likely travel more easily than the delicate flowers that would more normally populate the West End stage. The machinery would be packed into specially-designed padded cases, easily transported by airship, and accompanied by only a couple of engine-mechanics and a master cyberneticist, rather than the dozens of performers, dressers, stage assistants and general hangers-on which would otherwise be required.
It was not so difficult for me to arrange to be at the opening night at the Grand Victoria Theatre. I am very much a local Patron of the Arts, a serving member of several boards and committees, as well as the chairwoman of the Nyali Cultural Council. All that was required was a gentle hint or two in the appropriate ears and, a few short days later, I received a charming gold-edged invitation requesting the pleasure of the company of Miss Elizabeth Robinson, OBE, at the first performance. It was a grand enough invitation, I was pleased to note: a champagne reception before the show commenced, as well as accommodation in the Royal box for myself and my party.
The evening in question turned out to be the kind of fine African night which old hands such as I appreciate so very much. The spectacular sunset was followed by a refreshing cool nightfall with just the faintest of breezes. The old trees which surround the cobbles of New Albert Square were softly illuminated by gaslights, contrasting with the brightly-lit grand porte-cochere of the theatre, with a queue of smart carriages - a few still horse-drawn although the majority steam-powered - waiting to disembark their passengers.
By the time my own steam-car was safely at the door, I would tell that all the great and the good of the colonial establishment had turned out for this event. A steady stream of gentlemen in evening dress accompanied by finely-dressed ladies glittering with diamonds and pearls swept up the marble steps into the foyer where the reception was already in full swing.
I alighted gracefully, assisted by a liveried footman on the Theatre's staff, and made my way inside in the company of two of my most trusted servants, although their true role in my household is known to very few. I was welcomed effusively by the Theatre manager, Mister Mwanajuma, whom I already knew quite well and greeted with a few words of Kiswahili, and was then introduced to the impresario responsible for the production, Mister Wallace from Manchester.
I was able to exchange no more than a few words with the Mancunian production manager before the press of new arrivals swept me away, and so I was not able to form much of an opinion about the man. He seemed affable enough but slightly distant, possibly pre-occupied, although I could not have said with what. I moved on, accepting a glass of champagne from a waiter while seeking my other guests in the Royal Box who would as a matter of course attend with their own retinue.