Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and Offshore. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.
Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.
The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)
While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.
Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)
However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.
Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.
Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.
Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)
Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.
Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.
He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)
A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.
Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.
Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.
At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.