This latest from Bainbridge (Mum and Mr. Armitage, 1987), who writes best about that other England of unemployment and wasteland cities, is characteristically bleak and black in humor, but the foreshadowed denouement is disappointingly melodramatic. When young Stella, who "always had a precise notion of what could be expected of her," shows an interest in the theater, her ambitious uncle Vernon, through a business contact, arranges for her to join the local theater company. Brought up by uncle Vernon and Lily in the lodging house they run in a seedy section of Liverpool, Stella is a moody girl who runs away from affection and makes mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. But she is immediately enchanted by the theater company--a shabby Dickensian group of aging ingÇnues, addicts of one sort or another, and the minimally talented who put on everything from Peter Pan to Caesar and Cleopatra In love with the director, the monocled and aloof Meredith, Stella willingly runs errands, works the lights, and acts small parts, while the company, who treat her like a pet, is riven by jealousies, old passions, and new obsessions. When the actor playing Captain Hook breaks his leg and a former company member takes over the part, everything is rapidly brought to its increasingly foreseen ending. All is explained, including the mysterious telephone calls, and Stella, despite the messiness of it all, announces that "I'll know how to behave next time. I'm learning." Bainbridge has a wonderful sense of the telling details that establish class and setting, but the story, initially intriguing, soon degenerates into the predictable, and Stella, an original, becomes merely a dramatic prop. A rite of passage that founders.