I picked up books 1-4 of The Performers when we were visiting my aunt and uncle up in Cadillac, Michigan, a few weeks ago. The Book Nook, a huge used bookstore in the center of town, has been around for decades, and visiting there is always a highlight of the trip. It contains rows and rows of shelves filled with older, out-of-print paperbacks you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else besides online. The Performers series has been reprinted a few times since the original publication dates (1973-88) and is currently in print from the UK publisher House of Stratus (who have reprinted a number of older UK historicals; see their website for details). The covers here come from the new editions, though mine are the Fawcett Crest paperbacks from the '70s.
The series follows the Lacklands and the Lucases as they rise from rags to respectability and end up solidly amid the middle classes. Their story begins, in Gower Street, when Jesse Constam, a former street urchin turned wealthy gentleman, decides to adopt a dirty ragamuffin of a boy whose daring and high spirits he admires. An orphan who never knew his real name, the boy is given the name Abel Lackland and grows up in the Constams' household on proper Gower Street alongside Jesse's nervous and eager-to-please stepdaughter, Dorothea. Abel's heart, however, belongs to Lil Burnell, a beautiful young girl from the slums who wants to become a great actress. She uses all she's got to achieve her ambition, reinventing herself as Lilith Lucas, an undisputed star on the London stage known for her wit, charm, and irresistible attractiveness to men.
The next two books, The Haymarket and Paddington Green, continue the saga over the next two generations. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, and the family trees at the beginning of each book reveal only as much as you need to know. There are flawed and full-blooded characters aplenty, and their interpersonal dramas play out against a skillfully rendered backdrop of London's vibrant theatre scene and growing medical community. Through his friendship with Lil, young Abel gets trapped into making secret nighttime jaunts to graveyards in the company of resurrectionists - described with enough creepy gruesomeness to be realistic - which piques his curiosity about human anatomy.
Rayner's dialogue is especially good, conveying the social background of each character through dialect and artfully chosen slang. Expect your vocabulary of colorful expressions and creative insults to increase in the most delightful of ways.
The Performers books are great fun, and even though I've been reluctant to start new series (one of these days I will make it to v.2 of Poldark), I've already read the first three volumes and am looking forward to the next nine. Here's a bibliography, repeated from Fantastic Fiction:
1. Gower Street
2. The Haymarket
3. Paddington Green
4. Soho Square
5. Bedford Row
6. Long Acre
7. Charing Cross
8. The Strand
9. Chelsea Reach
10. Shaftsbury Avenue
12. Seven Dials
This marks an entry for the letter P in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.