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on 23 June 2011
Freddiefs is the name by which the theatre school officially known as the Temple Stage School is referred to by anyone in the know in the 1960s. Dilapidated and old fashioned, it is kept running by the machinations, scheming and sheer force of will of Freddie, the proprietress. However, but money is needed and times are changing and Freddie must choose either to change with them or remain true to what she knows.

Penelope Fitzgerald has a very light touch. In the hands of a different author this could have been a rather obvious, plot-driven novel in which the children of the school and the famous ex-pupils rally round to save the stage school, presided over by an aged and eccentric Freddie, but Fitzgerald transforms it into something far more subtle about the characters and about the theatre for which the plot is merely a vehicle.

She has an uncanny ability to pin characters down with a few phrases. I knew exactly what the gloomy Irish teacher was like from just the following description: "He had no ability to make himself seem better or other than he was. He could only be himself, and that not very successfully. Meeting Carroll for a second time, even in his green suit, one wouldnft recall having seen him before." Who hasnft wandered out of a job interview feeling like that at some point in their life? It is sharp observations and precise characterisations like this that make the book so enjoyable.

Equally as important as any character in the book is the presence of the theatre itself. Fitzgerald writes about this with wit and humour, and displays both a genuine affection for the stage as well as an awareness of the reality of the work which goes on behind that. At Freddiefs acknowledges the rise of film and television as the dominant form of entertainment and does so with a practical manner which does not excessively romanticise the idea of the stage, something which seems quite rare in theatre books. It displays an equal equanimity towards the disparity between true talent and fame and riches.
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HALL OF FAMEon 30 November 2002
"Freddie", a woman who is part institution and part legend, speaks the quote above; she is also the latest spectacular person that Ms. Fitzgerald offers to readers.

The quote is unremarkable until it is penned as an answer to an accountant named "Unwin", who stated, "Surely a discussion should have a basis of substantial fact." The rejoinder that is the title of this review follows, and you have a good sense that Freddie flaunts convention, floats above the rules that affect others, and when she is confronted with a bit of reality, ends the discussion with her nemesis feeling not only were they wrong, but they are indebted to her. A debt collector not only fails to collect, he leaves his vest for use as a costume for the students of Freddie's school for children of the theatre.

Precocious children are not new to Ms. Fitzgerald's books. In this book the line between child and adult is blurred even further, as these thespians in the making are adept at changing who they are when circumstances or their own whimsy requires. All the affectation that can be associated with their mature counterparts of the stage, are played out by the children, and this makes for wonderful reading, as age is modified by characterization, and not measured in years.

There are more eccentric players in this book than the others I have read by Ms. Fitzgerald, to sample just one, a gentleman when deciding on which of the sins he would choose, does not pick one with even some benefit in this life, but chooses sloth. His opinion of himself is in line with the wish, and a more pathetic character has rarely appeared in literature.

Into all this there is a love triangle of sorts, a grand piano that is sinking through the floor, "as though wading ashore", and a vast and rich story that Ms. Fitzgerald once again delivers on so few, but so spectacular pages.
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on 21 March 2016
Anyone with theatrical interests will enjoy this delightfully funny and subtle tale of a drama school for child actors in the heart of London in the 20th century. Penelope Fitzgerald's flights of fancy are always firmly grounded in realities too. Tantalising glimpses of great stars, and once again she stops before we feel we have quite reached the end, and we are left wondering what ultimately happens to her gamut of brilliantly created characters across the age spectrum – both theatrical and not so inclined . . .Perfect read for anyone with even the slightest interest in the theatre and a taste for lively characters and clever humour
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Even if you are not generally a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald's books this work is definitely worth your time.

I sometimes grow impatient with Fitzgerald's characters, mainly because they can be so very passive, in such a maddening way, just when some spirit is called for. They act as something of a counterweight, or drag, to the vigor and sharp insight that Fitzgerald brings with her own authorial voice. She's often just more interesting as the narrator than the characters are as characters.

I think "Freddie's" works because the theater and Freddie's school are such target rich environments that Fitzgerald can be absolutely brutal, and the novel just keeps rolling merrily along.

While I don't particularly care for the Freddie character herself, (a little bit of her goes a long way), she is the "big" active character that I've missed in other Fitzgerald books. I see her as the massive tent pole that keeps up the circus tent, and allows room for all of the secondary performers. The children are two-faced horror shows; actors are sketched in as riotously dysfunctional. The love affair between the two School teachers, which is the true heart of the book, is chiseled out with icy detachment. Other minor characters also shine, and everyone is accorded sharp, penetrating, satisfying dialogue. Then, all is drenched with Fitzgerald's brutal and hilariously dry asides.

The upshot? If you have wondered what the deal is with Fitzgerald - all the awards and the rave reviews - this is a good place to start.
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on 28 January 2014
AT FREDDIE'S is another example of the subtlety that made Penelope Fitzgerald one of the greatest writers in English of the twentieth century. Its evocation of the musty world of a children's acting school in the 1950s is masterly and, as ever with Fitzgerald, the picture is built up tangentially. The hopeless persistence of the characters is beautifully etched in and at the centre of the action (or inaction) is the brilliant creation of Freddie, the ageless owner of the school. An enormously rewarding read.
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on 15 November 2015
A wonderful view of this school and its links to London's great theatres. Covent Garden as a market has all its sights and smells revealed. A captivating picture of Freddie and her ways of dealing with people and staff in order to survive! There's a definite atmosphere and a theatrical way of life as the pupils hope their dreams will be made real. However, it demands attention and at times it feels that direction is lacking and action too! It's more a series of episodes....
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on 10 October 2015
A beautifully written tale of a theatre school for children in London run by an eccentric older lady, this is a remarkable book. The images created are memorable and the whole story is lit up by the unreality and flights of fantasy of theatre, and yet conveys compassion to the characters caught up in the school.
There were plans to turn this into a movie but they came to nothing. Maybe it could be taken up again, I for one would love to see it.
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on 12 February 2014
She evokes atmosphere and odd characters well. Nothing much really happens, bit you are drawn into this odd world on the periphery of life.
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on 19 March 2014
At Freddie's has some very funny things in it and is not conventional but this tale of a children's acting school promises more than it delivers, like The Bookshop.Some of the portraits of the child aspirant actors and the under-qualified teachers are sharp and fresh. But I feel Fitzgerald is being pushed by a literary establishment.
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Simon Callow gushingly describes this as one of the "great theatre novels" in his introduction. Ummm..... it's mostly about two very ordinary, non-theatrical schoolteachers who happen to find themselves teaching at a children's stage school, and the theatre acts mostly as a backdrop.

Ms Fitzgerald did work as an English teacher at a famous children's stage school in London in the 1960s,and she must have taken a lot of notes, because as a slice of life it is delicately observed. "Freddie", the founder and headmistress, is now in her eighties and hanging on by her tenterhooks to what she has built up; but her school was created to serve the needs of an Edwardian theatre that needed child actors for Shakespeare and Dickens. And now what the 1960s wants are child actors to appear in television commercials. A prospective investor keeps trying to talk the stately lady into updating and modernising, but she can take the upper status in any situation, and he is helpless.

Amidst the shabbiness, Freddie has hired the two cheapest teachers she can find to give the students a pretence of an academic education. (OFSTED inspectors, do not read this novel or you will have a coronary!) One is an idealistic and fresh young woman, new to London and to theatre, and one is a very dull youngish man, who has no talent at teaching or any understanding of the arts, though he does his best. They're the two visitors in this alien world, and most of the novel is told from their viewpoints.

Yes, there is the stage school brat stereotype in the boy Mattie, but there is also his more thoughtful and serious counterpoint Jonathan, and the other children are barely sketched in at all. The adult characters are much more fleshed in, particularly when the female teacher has to chaperone and tutor Mattie at professional theatres. She is fascinated by this world.... but she does wonder why people devote their lives to something that is so ephemeral.

Possibly Ms Fitzgerald was wondering that as well.
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