The Wardrobe Mistress - Patrick McGrath

The Wardrobe Mistress - Patrick McGrath *****

Patrick McGrath is a masterful and elegant writer of suspenseful situations that delicately unravel unhinged characters on a downward spiral into madness. The writing is beautifully crafted, full of barely perceptible insinuation, erotic undercurrents and anticipatory tension. At his best, there's a tendency towards the gothic in the incipient madness spilling over into delicately wrought melodrama in such works as Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard's Disease, but there has been a repetitiveness that has seen diminishing returns more lately in Trauma and Constance, albeit still with elegantly and beautifully crafted writing to enjoy.

If that character is always present in his works, McGrath has worked a little outside his comfort zone in the US historical drama Martha Peake, in the exoticism of Port Mungo and - perhaps most successfully - in Ghost Town, his collection of three stories in different time period in a Manhattan setting. The Wardrobe Mistress extends McGrath's range and setting but is still recognisably within the same over-heated gothic melodrama tending towards madness that characterises much of the author's work. In his latest work, McGrath finds a suitable setting for ghosts, dark secrets, erotic passions and the breaking of fragile minds within in the post-war London theatrical world.

It's January 1947, and it's a dark, cold, steel grey winter for Joan Grice, the wardrobe mistress at a theatre just off Piccadilly in the West End of London. Her husband Charlie Grice, a well-known and much loved stage actor, has just died, and Joan is distraught. She has some questions and doubts around the nature of the accident that has killed him, but there is nothing she can put a finger on. His last role as Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is taken over by Frank Stone, and Joan is surprised at how the actor perfectly steps into the shoes of Gricey and assumes his mannerisms. Intrigued, Joan strikes up a friendship with Frank, giving the impoverished actor a couple of her husband's old suits that he badly needs, and soon the relationship develops into something more.

That's something that Joan doesn't want her daughter Vera discovering, concerned about how she would respond to Gricey's understudy also taking his place in her parents' bed. Vera, also a famous stage actress, has more than enough drama in her own life as it is. Vera is particularly fraught as she prepared for the challenging role of the lead in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and she has begun to have suspicions about the behaviour of her husband Julius and the woman who lives with them Grisl, who he claims is his sister who fled from persecution in Nazi Germany. Julius and Grisl do have a secret, but it's not what Vera thinks.

It transpires that Gricey also kept a dark secret from his wife and daughter, and the accidental discovery of the true hidden nature of her husband shocks Joan to the core. In fact, it starts to push her towards the edge, the wardrobe mistress starting to hear Gricey's voice emanating from the wardrobe of their Mile End home in the East End of London. Not long in the grave, it undoubtedly doesn't help matters that Gricey's suits are inhabited by his successor Frank Stone, and that his considerable presence hasn't been entirely laid to rest. There's a dark pathology in Joan's actions, and the shock of her discovery risks spilling over into something much more dangerous as Frank takes up a role in The Duchess of Malfi opposite Vera.

The Wardrobe Mistress in many respects is classic McGrath, with hints of ghosts and madness, mixed in with mother/father/daughter relationships that have dark incestuous undercurrents. But nothing is quite that simple when it comes to the human mind, and McGrath goes much deeper here than usual into questions of background and identity, into persecution and self-entrapment. As well as relating that to simmering political undercurrents in post-war Britain, McGrath also finds resonances for the personal crises of identity in the dramas of Twelfth Night, in The Duchess of Malfi and in the enclosed world of the theatre itself. He ties everything together beautifully with his customary flair and with a mysterious chorus for a narrator that allows the writing itself to teeter on the edge of madness.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath is published by Hutchinson on 7th September 2017

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