London is in ruins, there’s nothing to eat, and it’s the coldest winter in living memory.
To make matters worse, Charlie Grice, one of the great stage actors of the day, has suddenly died. His widow Joan, the wardrobe mistress, is beside herself with grief.
Then one night she discovers Gricey’s secret. Plunged into a dark new world, Joan realises that though fascism might hide, it never dies. Her war isn’t over after all.
To begin at the beginning: this is a beautifully told story of life in the theatre set in London, just after the war, in a period when rationing was still in full force and people really were eating spam, lard and onion sandwiches for sustenance and the Board of Trade had disallowed pleats in trousers, double breasted jackets and turn ups in trousers, the better to save on cloth. There’s lots of nice detail like this which helps to underline the poverty and the dearth of ‘nice to haves’ in all categories.
Our narrators in this tale at once strike us as unusual, for these are the ladies of the chorus. But this is not quite a Greek chorus, rather it is like the witches of Macbeth writ large – a chorus that is witty, judgemental, sarcastic and all observant. They don’t simply narrate the action, they comment upon it, drawing the reader in as if they were whispering secrets directly into the reader’s ear. And occasionally they forget if they have mentioned something, only to tell you that it doesn’t matter, it’s so important, it bears repeating.
It’s a bitterly cold January and Joan Grice, the wardrobe mistress of the Beaumont Theatre has just said goodbye to her husband, the actor Charlie Grice. Charlie was a much admired actor – a larger than life character and his funeral is well attended by members of the theatrical profession. Joan’s daughter, Vera, is there with her husband, the theatre producer Julian Glass. Julian’s theatre was bombed during the war, but he still invests in productions and Vera is a rising star in her own right.
Patrick McGrath has beautifully captured what it is to be part of the theatre world; the fragile egos, superstitions and eccentricities of actors; the all-consuming desire to let the actor become the character they are playing, the ambition and above all, the very real need to be loved and wanted by the audience.
Charlie had been playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night. No mere chance here; for Malvolio’s character is a sombre reminder of a past world – of the war gone by and the fact that we are still in a serious place in time. So when he abandons his propriety, it is all the more shocking and he looks all the more foolish to his audience.
Joan grieves deeply for her husband and looks for him in the smell of his clothes and sometimes, when she cannot bear the loss any more, in a bottle of gin. So when she sees young actor Frank Stone who has stepped in to play the part of Malvolio, she wonders at how remarkably similar his performance is to Charlie’s, down to every nuance, and begins to think that Charlie may have re-emerged in Frank’s persona.
So Joan cultivates a friendship with Frank, offering him some of Charlie’s, always well- tailored clothes, which she alters for him in her home. And still thinking that there is something of Charlie in him, their relationship deepens. As the chorus tells us; “It will happen in friendships like this, it is our observation, that a few days after the second or third meeting, when it’s become clear to both parties that something’s afoot – in the time spent apart, changes will have occurred within the imagination of each, and a new level of familiarity, or even intimacy, will have been achieved.”
There is no internal dialogue here; all comment is from our chorus so we watch, as an audience watches a play, as the drama unfolds. When Joan discovers that for all the years of her marriage Charlie was hiding a horrible secret; a secret that devastates her for Charlie was in with the fascists and Joan is a Jew; something Charlie knew. What now is she to make of her dead husband; the man who used to call her his Venus de Mile End?
As Joan delves deeper into Charlie’s secret life the tension grows as we explore the world of those who endeavoured to keep rise of fascism alive, resulting in a chilling piece of writing which has resonance for today.
I found this to be compelling, truthful in its exploration of the theatre world (a world I worked in for 20 years) beautifully told and genuinely haunting.
The Wardrobe Mistress is a tour de force.
The Wardrobe Mistress is published by Windmill Books on 7th September 2017
About Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath was born in London in 1950. He has lived in various parts of North America and spent several years on a remote island in the north Pacific, before moving to New York City in 1981. He is the author of a story collection, Blood and Water and Other Tales, and six novels: The Grotesque; Spider, which was adapted for the big screen in 2002, with a screenplay by Patrick McGrath; Dr Haggard’s Disease; Asylum, which was shortlisted for the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and is currently being made into a feature film; Martha Peake; and, published by Bloomsbury in May 2004, Port Mungo. Patrick McGrath lives in London and New York with his wife Maria Aitken.