Novels about the theatre have an obvious appeal, pitching us into a world of big egos and backstage entanglements. But there is little memorable modern fiction that inhabits this sphere: among the exceptions are Michael Blakemore’s Next Season (1968) and Angela Carter’s Wise Children (1991).
Neil Bartlett now adds to the genre, recreating the atmosphere of the 1950s variety show. A theatre director who ran London’s Lyric Hammersmith for a decade, Bartlett is the author of three previous novels. In The Disappearance Boy he combines deep theatrical knowledge with a gift for seductive storytelling, evoking the erratic charm of vaudeville – a hangover from the rowdy entertainment and sentimental patriotism of the Victorian music hall.
The “disappearance boy” of the title is Reggie Rainbow, who works for illusionist Teddy Brookes as his hidden accomplice. The dashing, sinister Brookes is well known for an act that culminates in making his glamorous female assistant vanish. Reggie is the drudge behind the scenes who ensures that the trick’s machinery runs smoothly.
The novel is set in 1953, just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and a spirit of raucous festivity hangs in the air. Much of the action takes place in Brighton; Brookes has wangled a slot at the Grand, a venue at one time famous for its lavish pantomimes. Brookes has a weakness for bedding his assistants; once they’ve been snared he bruises and abuses them, only to cast them aside. Having grown bored of his last eager helper, he is now attended by the buoyant, perfumed Pam, with whom he devises a new, ambitious stunt.
Reggie forms a bond with Pam, and the meat of the novel is the story of his coming of age during this spell in Brighton. Reggie was afflicted with polio as a child and carries his body as if it is “some kind of badly wrapped parcel, and one which he seems fiercely determined to deliver on time”. He is a resilient young man, without self-pity. In many ways a typical product of the 1950s, he instinctively espouses a “make do and mend” attitude.
But Reggie is tired of such restraint. Early on, we gather that his stumbling gait means he risks collisions with others – in fact he welcomes them. Though keen to achieve intimacy of any kind, as a gay man in an age less tolerant than ours he needs to be furtive as he explores his desires.
In Reggie, who travels fitfully towards a moment of self-discovery and freedom, Bartlett has created a strikingly original character. He also does a nimble job of conveying how Brookes’s magic tricks are achieved: misdirection is the key – he draws the audience’s focus to a particular object in order to distract them from the artifice happening just a few feet away. Bartlett’s novel too works by misdirection: we’re tricked into foreseeing a specific narrative twist and then surprised to find that something else has been going on right under our noses.
One of the puzzles is the identity of the narrator, whose relationship to events is unclear until the end. The narrative voice is suggestive and conspiratorial. “It’s all about timing, this business,” we are told early on, and so it proves, though not in the way we are led to expect. Bartlett’s own sense of timing is acute; he paces Reggie’s story with delicate care. The Disappearance Boy is a tender homage to all those unseen figures who enable dazzling onstage wizardry.
The Disappearance Boy, by Neil Bartlett, Bloomsbury Circus, RRP£16.99, 282 pages