I’ve just finished reading, for the second time, Penelope Fitzgerald’s, 'At Freddie’s' – a darkly comic novel about the Temple Theatre School for Children and its marvellous proprietor, Miss Wentworth, or
Freddie, who sits powerful and invincible in the centre of her decaying empire. The description of the
school building is wonderfully evocative, and it’s mostly this that I remember from last
reading over twenty years ago – the landing that must be tip-toed across by the children in case it collapses, the grand piano, with one leg sunk through the rotten floorboards, like a stranded ship. Theatre Schools could never be like this again!
The Little Theatre where I spent much of my childhood, was a similarly memorable place – though it was rising from decrepitude, rather than sinking. In post-war Britain, a few dedicated and serious-minded amateur actors, with time and money to spare, formed a Theatre Club, and eventually purchased an old Victorian School sometime in the early 1960s.
What a place it was. The tragic-comic masks leered at us from the foyer. There was a tiny auditorium, complete with green velvet upholstered chairs, acquired from an old cinema. An old lady called Marjorie sold fragments of rock-hard homemade toffee wrapped in greaseproof paper, and the rustle and crunch of toffee- eating accompanied the opening moments of all the productions. Before each performance the National Anthem was played. I remember the sound of the seats banging to upright as everyone stood to attention and my sense of gravitas, and the desire to giggle.
The Wardrobe, presided over by Betty and Joanna, was a room full of vintage clothing that could have filled the boutiques of London markets in the 1980s. There were beaded dresses, crinolines, tie-on lace bustles, real fur wraps, and drawers and hampers of feather boas, pearl handbags, hats and gloves. More terrifying was the props room, a dark sinister place located at the back of the Ladies Powder Room – where mirrors shocked us from dark corners, and we were watched by disembodied heads.
A strange collection of grand people were members of The Little Theatre. There was Noel, with the dark intense eyes, who came very close when he spoke. There was Joe, with his painful wooden leg, who managed the lighting, liked frisking the women as they waited in the wings, and frequently gave himself accidental electric shocks. Vera – a tiny, fussy, ex-ballet teacher, made teas for rehearsals and performances and insisted on matching the china cups to the correct saucer. Terence and Eileen worked in the set design rooms, where sometimes we children were allowed to prime the huge canvas flats. They quarrelled often, and the more heated the rows became, the more endearments were used.
There were the Grand Dames, Dorothy and Muriel, who’d both love to have gone on the stage professionally. They didn’t like each other at all. Then there was Fay, tiny and round, who aspired to greatness, always so elegantly dressed in black, and draped in fox furs and feathers. Fay was only given minor roles, or allowed to be part of the crowd, but acted her heart out to ensure she was noticed by everyone. They took themselves very seriously as grownups must do. I was impressed by them all.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.