The Wardrobe Mistress

Written by Patrick McGrath

London in the bitterly cold winter of 1947. The actor Charlie Grice, known as Gricey, dies of a heart attack, and his grieving widow Joan, the eponymous wardrobe mistress for a theatre company, is not sure how she will cope without him. Joan is a non-observant Jew, while Charlie was a gentile. Matters are made worse with the troubles afflicting her daughter Vera, married to Julius Glass—for Joan, a disliked son-in-law who argued with her husband just before his death. Joan is convinced that this led to her husband’s untimely demise. Joan desperately misses her husband. When she sees Charlie’s understudy, the much younger Frank Stone, perform the part of Malvolio in Twelfth Night—the play that he was appearing in before his death—Joan is convinced that her husband has returned and is speaking to her through Frank. But then Joan discovers a shocking political secret about her deceased husband, and she has to change many of her opinions about her family and friends in light of this new knowledge. Relationships get messy as Frank and Joan become close, and Joan is convinced that Gricey’s spirit has survived to haunt her.

The story is narrated by an offstage female Greek-like Chorus that sees all and comments upon the tale as it unfolds. There is a dark, Gothic thread to the story set in post-war gloomy, austerity, ration-haunted London. Patrick McGrath is a highly accomplished writer, and this novel is a delight to read.