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We’ve finished reading Sheridan’s The Critic with Il Palcoscenico di Carta, the other day. It’s been a good reading, with several new faces, a lot of enthusiasm and quite a few good laughs.

Also, among the new faces, we’ve had a… rather peculiar character.

Let me begin with the beginning – the very first reading, indeed. We were happily Sheridaning away, when I heard a strange squeaking sound coming from my right… I couldn’t tell what produced it, and was rather busy with the reading anyway.  The bookshop people carting books around on something with squeaky wheels, I decided – and wouldn’t have given it a second thought – except it happened again. And again. And again.  And not only there was nary a cart in sight – squeaky or otherwise – but the more it happened, the more it sounded like… mewling.

A baby? I wondered – until the Great Felicita, who was reading Mrs Dangle, caught my eye, and ferociously pointed with her chin. I stared… the lady at Felicita’s left? I couldn’t see her well from where I sat, but… was the lady at Felicita’s left mewling?

Actually, no: as we proceeded, she gained confidence, and started humming. Humming her own rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night. Louder and louder, too, only pausing to mutter other people’s lines now and then. Oh dear…

“What’s that? Who is that?” hissed the reader on my left – a friend with a famously short fuse, reading the rather huge part of Mr Dangle.

“Never mind,” I murmured back. “Read on. I’ll tell you later.”

Then, Act I, Scene 1 came, when the Italian singers arrive, seeking Mr Dangle’s help. As the several Signore Pasticcio were introduced, the Humming Lady rose to her feet, in all her glory, and struck a ballet poise. I tried not to stare – but it was hard to miss, and all the more because she was… er, built on generous proportions, wearing a very bulky woolen cape, and her hair in some kind of crown-shaped bun. Oh – and the ballet poise. Turned out she wasn’t exactly eschewing attention: as soon as she was sure we were all looking at her, she bowed low from the waist and sat down.

By then, all the readers were fighting to keep straight faces – with admirable success, I must say. Even our Little Shakespearean and his equally young friend were managing some aplomb…

Then this bit of action came:

they sing trios, &c.,

…and the Humming Lady took it very seriously, and started on the Queen of the Night again, louder and louder, until the Italians disappeared.  Not that it quieted her at all, though: she kept muttering lines to herself, beating time with her very high heels, and occasionally humming a little until the end – when she took her bow again, and departed whirling her cape like a prima donna. 

“To think she used to play the violin,” Felicita informed me… “And be prepared: we’ve acquired her for life.”

And sure enough, next week, the Humming Lady was there early for the second part. By then we knew what to expect, mostly – but still we all jumped when, instead of muttering, she jumped in to declaim Sir Christopher Hatton’s lines over the hapless designated reader… The new lady sitting by must have been a friend or an acquaintance, though, because she whacked the Humming Lady on the knee, and shushed her with some success – until Tilburina’s Monologue of the Birds. When the Humming Lady began to chirrup in different manners, we realised that we had not only an accompanist, but Noises Off as well…

And then there was the other day, when a bout of the flu and a couple of last-minute forfeits had left a few holes in the distribution. I was handing around orphan roles, when the Humming Lady stood up and announced that she was reading the Beefeater, if I didn’t mind.

Now, the Beefeater isn’t exactly a huge role, but not the smallest of bit-parts, either – and it’s in verse. So, half fearing she would break into song or something, I cautiously tried to ask, wouldn’t she rather read one of the (shorter) Nieces? Or maybe Tilburina’s Confidant? But no, she wanted the Beefeater. What was I to do? The Beefeater it was.

And what do you know? The prospect of reading her own part made her happy and reasonably quiet. When her moment came, she read with a good deal of emphasis and feeling – and, considering what kind of part it was, within Puff’s tragedy, it wasn’t even entirely out of place. Well, there was the “loud flourish of trumpets”, which she provided quite loudly – and she fiercely corrected whoever had the misfortune to mistake a word… but she was very happy, and once again strode away feeling like Edith Barrymore, I’m sure.