Margaret Wallace - the Barn Theatre's costumier par excellence - retires
- Credit: Supplied by Barn Theatre
After more than 20 years looking after every aspect of costumes at the Barn Theatre, mostly as head of wardrobe, Margaret Wallace has reluctantly decided to retire.
"It’s horrible to have to admit not being able to continue doing something that I’ve loved," she said, "but I just can’t do it anymore – you have to know when to call it a day.
"I can remember years ago, when we were the young ones, we used to think the old ones were past it and boring and now we’re the old ones and I expect the young ones think that about us!"
In reality, Margaret will be sorely missed and a hard act to follow for her ingenuity, dressmaking skills and many hundreds of hours dressing productions over the years at the Welwyn Garden City community theatre.
Ma Wallace, as she’s affectionately known, has dressed around 40 shows, and says she’s "put my four-penneth in" to many others.
She has sourced and made hundreds of costumes and, with her team, spent Monday and Tuesday mornings at the Barn repairing and keeping them in good condition.
Even during lockdown they were in there, sorting out scrubs from the wardrobe for a local GP surgery and expelling the moth that had made themselves particularly at home in the uniform department.
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They went through every single piece of costume. "I wouldn’t describe it as an infestation," she said, "but left alone for months it could have been, and a valuable asset would have been lost."
In the 1970s, long before her sons – Robert, Simon and Trevor – joined the Barn, Margaret loved to see the shows with friends and would sit there wishing she could be involved in some way.
Then, when Rob joined the Barn Youth Group, Margaret and husband Alan, who was a divisional officer for Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service for 31 years, went to watch activities regularly.
Twins Trevor and Simon became involved later, and all three are now part of a hugely talented group who bring so much creativity to the Barn today, be it acting, directing, music, sound and lighting, and photography.
Eventually Margaret and Alan, who live in Panshanger, joined the Barn themselves because, she said, "we were so grateful that our boys had been helped and encouraged to learn new skills there and stayed out of trouble that bored teenagers can become involved in."
Her introduction to dressing shows came when Janet While – "fantastic costume lady", Margaret said – asked her to help with Gigi.
"One character had such a quick change, it took three of us to do it. It was a great show and we swept the board at the Hertford Drama Festival that year."
There have been many fabulous costumes over the years – the sumptuous Playhouse Creatures and beautifully authentic Bronte to name but two.
In 2003, Margaret was instrumental in bringing a huge costume collection to the Barn. And it turned out to be quite an earner!
"Janet and I had gone to a company called Festival Costumes, who were based in Codicote, to look for costumes for The Crucible, that Simon was directing.
"We got on really well with the owner, when, out of the blue, she asked us if we wanted to buy the business!
"Janet took it to the Barn Council and they said yes. Then we found we didn’t have space for all the costumes, so eventually another room was built on to the theatre complex, which was paid for by the income from costume hire."
She continued: "I think at one time the annual income from that was around £7,000. We had a huge team helping to hire out costumes, run brilliantly by Judith Claxton and Shirley Thompson and then eventually it came to me to organise.
"I’ve never gone looking for jobs, I’ve just got them by default really."
Margaret struggled to say which was her favourite show to dress, because there have been so many, but some stood out.
A Slice of Saturday Night in 2007, for the fun of it, and Cinderella in 2011 - "the best pantomime we’ve ever done".
"Robert, playing Buttons, had such a quick change, he didn’t change at all, just put one costume on top of another," said Margaret.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore stands out for a different reason.
"There was so much blood that I’d have to bring all the costumes home each night.
"Alan had the bath ready filled with cold water and we’d plunge them all in, thump them around a bit and leave them to soak overnight, then get them out next morning by which time there wasn’t a trace of blood.
"We then had to get them dry and pressed, ready for that night’s performance."
There are so many of these stories Margaret can recount.
"I remember one show when we needed a Mary Quant dress and hadn’t been able to find one. I got up at six in the morning and had it made ready for the dress rehearsal that night."
One of the Barn’s longest serving production directors, John Davies, said: "Margaret was a wonderful person to have in charge of costumes.
"She took a lot of trouble to get things right, spent much time on it, met the deadlines, and made no fuss at all, however pernickety the cast might be."
Modest Margaret was anxious to stress that she hasn’t worked alone – she’s had a terrific team of women working with her over the years.
She is still to be found at the Barn on a Tuesday morning, with a skilful group of volunteers, and they continue to maintain the costumes in good order for the productions to come.