Peck 'em

Between you and me, I’m feeling rather pleased with myself right now.

I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be somewhere else entirely. I was supposed to be at a brand new theatre, on opening night. But turns out booking opening nights at brand new theatres are risky things to book for, and now I have the evening free.

Now, usually this would be a cause of panic. I’d be scrolling through TodayTix, my thumb a blur as I try to find a West End theatre that I both haven’t been to, and can afford to buy a last minute ticket to. With just over five months to go before the final countdown, I can’t afford to take Saturday nights off. No way. Ain’t no time left for that nonsense. I’m going to the theatre, dammit.

But I vaguely remembered getting annoyed at the theatre not do long ago. Annoyed because for the third time, they’d put up a marathon-worthy show on their website, with so little notice I’d already booked myself in for that evening.

I checked back.

Yup. There is was. On for one night only. A play. And there were still tickets available.

Hello, Theatre Peckham! Despite all your best efforts, not programming anything of any use, and then dumping things online with next to no advance notice, I’m going to get you checked off my list.

My feelings of smugness last exactly as long as it takes me to stick in their postcode into the TFL Journey Planner.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Peckham might as well be in the Lake District for all the transport links it has. Looks like I’ll be walking half-way across London to get to this one.

But being the brave, intrepid, explorer that I am, I set off. Battling against cancelled Thameslink trains and walking for miles and miles to fall down at their door.

Turns out, the Theatre Peckham’s laissez-faire attitude to getting shows on sale doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to pull in an audience. This place is packed. There’s a small courtyard outside of the main door, and it’s filled with happy-looking people having drinks and enjoying the sun. Inside, it’s even busier. The queue for the bar stretches out from one side of the foyer to the other, echoing the line of bunting strung up overhead.

I inch my way around the walls, trying to find somewhere where I’m not in everyone’s way. It’s tricky. There are people waiting at the box office. People waiting for the loos. People waiting beside the entrance to the theatre. People waiting for friends and drinks and the doors to open.

This place has clearly set itself out to be a community hub and it's doing it well. There’s a piano on one side, a dress up corner on the other, and even a casting opportunity notice board. No wonder they can fill a theatre with only a few days' notice.

I find a small space near a pillar and tuck myself in.

At least I don’t have to get involved with any of that. I have an e-ticket. It says right here in the confirmation email “use your smartphone to display the .pdf ticket on-screen so that the person on the door can examine and check its authenticity.” Not sure how they go about that, but I’m hoping there’s a beeper. I hate e-tickets, but I love a ticket beeper.

It’s warm in here. It’s a bit Hardwicke Hall (“more window than wall”) and the sun is blazing through the glass, heating us up like a bunch of rapidly ripening tomatoes.

Someone standing near me leans back against the pillar and fans herself.

I stare at her. That fan looks surprisingly like an admission pass.

I should have known better. Ticket confirmations are nonsense emails. You should never trust a word they say. There’s not going to be a ticket beeper. And no one is going to check the authenticity. They might have fancy pdfs to send out, but that doesn’t stop them from handing out laminated scraps of logoed up paper like all the rest of the old school venues.

processed_MVIMG_20190720_191416.jpg

I join the queue for the box office.

“The surname is Smiles,” I tell the lady behind the counter when I finally get to the front of the queue.

“Sorry?”

“Smiles?” I say, wondering if I had been mistaken after all, and the admission token had been nothing more than a trick of the dazzeling light. But no, there they are. I can see them. Piled up neatly next to her mouse. I press on. “S. M. I. L. E. S. Smiles? That’s the surname?”

She looks it up. “Just one?” she asks.

“… yes.”

She hands me a token. It’s white, laminated, with the Theatre Peckham logo, and is in no way an e-ticket.

Thank goodness.

I return to my little corner near the pillar, and soon find myself part of the queue to get in without the bother of moving.

A young man in a Theatre Peckham branded top makes his way down to queue, talking to everyone in turn.

processed_MVIMG_20190720_191708.jpg

“Sorry?” I ask when he gets to me. I shade me eyes against the sun still forcing its way through those massive windows.

“You don’t mind being filmed?” he repeats.

“Oh…” Do I mind being filmed?I mean… the answer is: yes. I do. But I’m not sure I mind enough to cause a fuss. “No,” I tell him.

He moves on, asking his question all the way down to the end of the queue.

I’m not sure how I feel about this direct approach. On the one hand it’s great that he’s making sure everyone going through the door knows that there’s going to be a camera in there, but on the other, it does rather put you on the spot more than a sign ever would.

I make a mental note to pick a seat at the back.

I check my phone.

It’s 7.35pm. The doors still aren’t open.

Oh well. At least it’s a short play.

Or is it? I can’t remember. But it surely must be. In this run up to Edinburgh, everything seems to be coming in at under an hour.

I go to the Theatre Peckham website and look for the show we’re queueing for, Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and scroll down.

2 hours plus interval.

2 hours plus interval. What does that mean? How long is an interval? It doesn’t say. It could be five minutes or thirty or anything in between.

It’s 7.38pm and we still haven’t gone in.

Two hours

Plus an interval of unknown length.

And then the long trek back to Finchley.

I’m not getting home before midnight, am I?

The usher is back. He slips through the queue to reach a lady a few places ahead of me. “Don’t forget to sit at the top, yeah?” he says. “The back of the back of the tip of the top.”

She frowns at him. “Why?”

“Because you don’t want to be filmed, yeah?”

Her face clears and she nods. Back of the back of the tip of the top. She’s got it.

7.43pm. The doors have opened. We’re going in.

Gosh. It’s quite nice in here. A balcony circling three sides. A floor level stage.

There’s multi-coloured upholstery across the seating, which I notice are those flip-down benches which require you to coordinate the sitting down process with your neighbour.

I can see what the usher meant by the back of the back and the tip of the top.

There are a few rows right at the back that are cordoned off by a railing. I suppose they’re supposed to be considered part of the balcony, but really they look like an extension of the stalls with a wall to keep back the riffraff.

I can see the camera. It’s just there, in front of the first row.

Hopefully it won’t see me back here.

Its presence doesn’t seem to have put many people off though. The front row fills up fast. As do the second and third row.

As the seats gradually fill up, spaces gradually disappearing as newcomers are forced to go further back, I can see why. The rake… isn’t great. It’s disappointingly bad. Especially for such a new theatre. I always wonder about this. Do theatres not test the rake before opening to the public? Do they not consider that someone sitting in their seats might actually like to see what is happening on stage? It always makes me think they are just gambling on them never selling enough tickets for it to matter. And in the event of them having a hit show, for the audience to be so desperate to see it, they won’t care if their view is a little obstructed by the person in front.

It’s nearly ten to eight now. And we still haven’t started.

I suppose that says it all. Bollocks to the audience. There’ll be a show. At some point. And they’ll get to see it. Most of it, anyway. Whatever.

Oh well.

processed_MVIMG_20190720_194521.jpg

We’re starting now. At last.

Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.

All time travel and the voice of god and returning to the scene of the crime and prophets and machetes and rhyme.

A bit poetic. A bit dance theatre. A bit strange.

A bit… dull.

I mean, it’s fine. Well written. Well performed. All that.

But it isn’t doing the business for me.

Too many characters. Too much stuff going on. Too long. Too drawn out.

I’m sure the twin timelines will come together at some point, but right now… eh.

But you know, this play wasn’t created for the likes of me. And the rest of the audience seem to be loving it. Laughing at what I presume are the right bits.

The air conditioning is good though. A bit too good. It’s freezing. But I’m not complaining. Better too cold than too warm. I’m just waiting to wriggle back into my jacket as soon as the interval hits.

Just as I’m rubbing my arms to get some warmth back into them, the stage light extinguishes, plunging into darkness. The man sitting next to me lifts his hands, ready to clap. But he holds back. Is it the interval?

The darkness extends a fraction too long.

The house lights should be coming up by now.

But they don’t.

Someone at the front risks a clap, and we all follow their lead.

The house lights go up. As one, the audience gets to their feet and disappears to the bar. I reach under my seat and grab my jacket, snuggling down into its woollen warmth.

As everyone begins to filter back, they come laden with drinks and snacks. One person appears to have popped out to the shops, and his hands are full of crisps. Around five packets if I’ve counted correctly. Not quite the Dairylea Dunker of snack masters that I saw at the Stockwell Playhouse, but he’s certainly up there.

He opens up the first pack, and starts munching, tipping out the last of the crumbs just as the house lights descend for the second half.

I pull my jacket tight around me and shiver through the rest of the play, trying to enjoy the frigid chill of the auditorium, and being annoyed with myself for not appreciating the cold as much as I should.

At the end, there's a standing ovation. A little one. And not undeserved. Those actors put in the work. Jumping between characters with little more than the unzipping of a jacket and putting on of a hat.

Oh well. Time to start the long walk to Oval. There's no way I'm risking the Thameslink again.

In the foyer, I turn around to have another look. Taking in the piano, the bunting, the reading nook with it’s chair and accompanying bookshelf.

I doubt I'll be back. Not until Peckham gets a tube station anyway.

processed_MVIMG_20190720_191405.jpg

The Old Curiosity Theatre

It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.

The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.

processed_MVIMG_20190719_193755.jpg

As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.

"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.

"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.

"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."

I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.

"Just the one ticket was it?"

"Yup. All by myself."

Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.

A queue is forming on the stairs.

Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."

As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.

Space is tight at the Pentameters.

Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.

"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.

"You've been here before?"

I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.

"You're not a student are you?"

"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.

"Are you an actress or...?"

She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.

I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."

"Oh! What do you do?"

"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."

"We do all that ourselves here."

As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.

She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.

Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.

"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.

processed_MVIMG_20190719_194243.jpg

"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.

Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.

processed_MVIMG_20190719_194948.jpg

Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.

processed_IMG_20190719_194053.jpg

The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.

Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.

It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.

A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.

He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.

"Can I get a programme," I ask him?

"Yup, they're a pound."

I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.

"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.

But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.

"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.

The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.

Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.

It's not worth a pound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.

But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.

processed_MVIMG_20190719_194504.jpg

The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.

The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.

"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.

"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."

And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.

Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.

The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.

She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"

We all give it. Enthusiastically.

"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.

I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.

The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.

"Night," I say on my way out.

"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"

I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.

Not my Sherlock

After months and months (and months) of monitoring the Rudolf Steiner House website, they’ve only gone and programmed a play. I thought I could get away with not visiting the theatre that lives in this building. I thought it was wall to wall lectures about strange esoteric and spiritual things that I don’t understand. But no. They’ve gone all commercial. They’ve got Sherlock Holmes in for the summer.

I’m a little bit annoyed, to be honest.

But it’s fine. I’m sure the Rudolf Steiner House is very calming.

All pale walls and the smiles of the spiriually enlightened. That’s how I’m picturing it.

Full disclosure, I have no idea who Rudolf Steiner was (or quite possibly, is…) but given the titles of the things that they usually programme “Exploring Your Intuitive Self,” “Inner Light and Strength - Nurturing Seeds of Spiritual Renewal,” “How to Protect Yourself from the Demonic attacks of Electromagnetic radiation and Vaccines”) I’m thinking he must have been some proto-Scientology dude.

Hope it doesn’t turn out like when I was offered a personality test in Totteham Court Road…

The House is just off Baker Street. Close to Regent’s Park. It looks quite nice from the outside. There’s a window filled with books down one end, and an a-frame advertising the play down the other.

Inside it is all pale walls and spiritually enlightened smiling people. There’s a counter at one end. That must be the box office. And a sort of foyer space lined with blue upholstered chairs down the other. All very hospital waiting room, except for the massive roller banner with the show artwork next to the doors to the auditorium, which I think is supposed to serve as a backdrop to any Instagrammers that float through, and dozens of show posters stuck to every available surface.

“Are you picking up tickets?” asks the man behind the counter.

“Yup!”

“What's the name?

I give my surname, spelling it out letter by letter.

He looks down for a second. “Maxine?”

That’s me!

“Great,” he says, handing me a receipt-paper ticket. The same style of ticket they have at Above the Stag. “You're in I12.”

Well, okay then. I look around, decideding what my next course of action should be. The doors are open but it’s far too early to be going in.

I decide to risk it, and sit on one of the blue chairs.

processed_MVIMG_20190718_191221.jpg

There aren’t many people here. They’re all outside, hanging out on the pavement.

I get out my phone and start editing my Jackson’s Lane post.

I hope no one tries to indoctrinate me. There’s a bit I wanted to rewrite and that’s always tricky on my phone’s touchscreen.

The man sitting closest to me says something.

I ignore him, turning to Google to double-check something.

He says something again.

I look over.

He’s staring at his phone.

He’s still talking. Or rather muttering. To himself.

He swears. He’s annoyed.

He must be editing a blog post too. I get that way sometimes.

“That’s four tickets,” says the man behind the box office, as a family waits at the counter.

Oh yeah. I’d forgotten kids loved Sherlock Holmes. I certainly did. I had all the books on tape. I used to listen to them on my way to school. Clive Merrison and Michael Williams pretty much narrated my childhood.

“Now,” says the mum, pausing dramatically. “Do you have such a thing as ice cream?”

They don’t.

Crisps? Yes. KitKat Chunkies? Yes. But not ice cream.

Oh dear. Not sure how they are going to make it through a month-long summer run of a kid-bait play without the cold stuff.

That gets me thinking about the other important theatre purchase… programmes.

There don’t seem to be any on sale. There aren’t any on display on the counter, and the ticket checker on the door doesn’t have any either.

Either there’s a programme seller inside the theatre, or programmes are against some Rudolf Steiner principal. I hope not. While I admit to being the least spiritual person in the world, composed of one part anxiety and two parts cynicism, I don’t like to think that my programme addiction is putting me in harms way of demonic attack.

Perhaps that’s why the theatre ghosts avoid me. Somehow they’ve found out about the six 35 litre boxes I’ve got filled with the things at home.

And before you say it, no, my desire to meet a theatre ghost is not a symptom of some latent spirituality. I don’t actually believe in ghosts. I grew up next to a 12th-century graveyard and never heard the slightest whisper of a WooOooOo in the night. I just want to chat to one at some point. Without the burden of belief.

I should probably go in.

I show the ticket checker my receipt.

She leans in, peering at the teeny text.

“Err…”

“It is very small,” I say.

She laughs. “Is that an I or an L?”

“It’s an I.”

She points at the door on the right. “You’re on the right,” she says.

So I turn right.

And this is it. The Rudolf Steiner Theatre in Rudolf Steiner House.

processed_MVIMG_20190718_192246_1.jpg

It’s a proper little theatre. There’s a stage, with a full-on proscenium arch. And raked seating set in three blocks, divided by two aisles.

I find row I and stare at the seats, trying to work out which is mine.

All the other rows seem to have their seat numbers marked by little badges applied to the bottom of the flip seat. But not row I. They must have fallen off or something.

“Do you know what number you are?” I ask a lady in my row.

She grabs the seat next to her and points to a previously unnoticed number.

“I’m 11,” she says.

I lean in, squinting at the number. “12,” it says, very faintly.

“I would never have spotted that,” I laugh. “It looks like I’m next to you then!”

From the foyer I hear the tiniest little tinkling of a faerie bell.

“Have you read any reviews of this?” asks my neighbour.

“I don’t think they’ve had press night yet,” I tell her. I know that they haven’t had press night yet. They haven’t been shy about telling us when press night is. It’s 25 July. It’s on the Rudolf Steiner website. It’s on the play’s dedicated mini-site. It’s probably on the flyers. I don’t know, I haven’t checked. But press night is 25 July.

“Yes, it’s the second performance,” says my neighbour.

“We’re going in blind.”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “That’s the risk you take, I suppose.”

Yeah, I mean. Sure. Can’t say I read reviews before a show all that much. Even in my pre-marathon days. I was usually booked in long before the critics submitted their verdicts.

Looks like I'm in the minority though, as the audience tonight is a bit thin. Small groups are scattered about the middle bank of seats. The rows all half empty due to a price banding which discourages sitting forward. Now, I'm not a fan of flat-pricing unless that flat price is somewhere in the region of fifteen quid, but I think the Sherlock-gang were a bit ambitious with their premium seats here. But hey, maybe the reviews will have this place sold out come 26 July.

Although, I'm really not sure what the press are going to make of it. It’s a strange play. We've got a Holmes and Watson, but that’s about as close to Conan Doyle as we’re getting.

There’s ghostly goings-on as a man is murdered by… an invisible thing. The only witness, a bluestocking with a penchant for whiskey, and getting one over on Holmes.

Leaves shake, pictures lose their grip on the wall, and telescopes spin on their tripods.

I keep on waiting for the Hound of the Baskervilles-twist, but no, it looks like we're really going down the whole invisible route.

It's like Mousetrap and The Woman in Black snuck into the writers' room and locked everyone else out. Add to that a sprinkle of biodegradable woke-glitter, and you have Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing.

The family next to me are having a hard time coming to terms with the invisibleness of the thing too.

The keep on leaning into their mum to ask what's going on with childish whispers, and then returning to their sweets when the answer they get placates, if not entirely satisfies, them.

In the interval, I go back out into the foyer.

processed_MVIMG_20190718_203450.jpg

The pair behind the counter warn any drink-buyers that they can't take their new purchases into the auditorium.

An old lady comes in, asking about the show. "It started at 7.30pm," they tell her. "But it's on for the next month."

And there it is again. The tinkling tiny bell.

I look over. The ticket checker is ringing a brass bell. Going over to the main doors to call back into everyone hanging out on the pavement. They're not paying attention. It's not what I would call a classic theatre bell. The bells at the Royal Opera House would laugh if they saw it, before chomping it down in a single bite. It really is small. The kind of bell an infirm Victorian lady would have used to summon her dependent niece to bring thin broth and a bottle of gin in the morning.

She changes her grip, whipping the bell up and down. "I think if I do it like a town crier..." she says, showing the guy behind the box office.

"I don't think it's working," he says kindly, as exactly no one comes through the door.

She sighs. "I don't think it's working either."

"I think we need to figure out another way to do it."

Yup. I agree. You can't be using piddly little bells on theatre audiences. The thing about theatre-goers, you see, is that we all hate sitting in theatres. We will postpone the torture for as long as physically possible. Until every usher is on the brink of getting a heart attack. Think of it like letting children out of class for their morning break. They're all hopped up on custard creams and Ribena now. There's no getting them to settle down for double chemistry. Not even if you promise to show them some cool colour-change reactions. It's too late. This is why all plays should be done in 90 minutes. No interval. No bells. No-fuss. Just good clean theatre fun. And we won't even complain too much if nothing blows up.

But we do all make it back in.

I grab my jacket from where I left it on the seat and shift down to the other end of the row. It was a bit awkward sitting right there next to that family, when there is so much space going spare.

Turns out, now that i’m sitting behind someone, the Rudolf Steiner Theatre really isn't meant to be a theatre. The rake is awful.

Maybe I really should have gone for those premium seats.

I try hard to focus. There's a lot of talking going on as Sherlock explains the mystery of the invisible thing. I was so sure they were going to do a Sussex Vampire, I'm left baffled by the revelation. I mean... okay then. I guess... Fine. Whatever. It's been a long week. And like, I get that Conan Doyle wasn't available to make notes on the script. He might have told them that The Adventure of the Creeping Man wasn't his best story. But at least the narrative decisions he made in that tied into the popular perceptions of science at the time.

It was fun though.

And no one tried to recruit me into a meditation circle.

Plus I get to use Baker Street tube to get home. And that's cool.

A Lion's Instinct

I need to learn to trust my my own instincts. I’m so convinced of my inability to read people, that when my spidey senses do end up tingling, I brush it off as my imagination.

There I was, walking though Highgate on my way to the theatre, and I could just feel someone following me. The fact that most of the time he was walking ahead of me on the pavement does not seem to have affected the queasiness in my belly.

After changing sides of the road three or four times, he stopped, stood at the side of the pavement, not looking at me until the very last moment before he turned around. And said something.

“You have beautiful eyes.”

The street was deserted. There was no one else there.

Of all the things to say to someone, it was not the most worry-inducing, but still. I was alone. Even worse: we were alone. I don’t want people creeping around me for minutes on end to make comments about my eyes. It’s not even true. I don’t have beautiful eyes. I mean, they’re alright. But it’s my eyeliner that’s doing the heavy lifting there.

I kept on walking, pretending not to have heard him, and don’t stop until I get to Jackson’s Lane.

That’s my theatre for tonight.

A first for me. I’ve never been here before. Although I’ve walked past a good deal. It's right opposite Highgate tube, and it’s pretty hard to miss. A massive red brick church, it does rather dominate the cross-roads if not exactly the horizon.

A couple are lounging on the steps outside what must have been the main door back when it was still a sanctified space. They are looking very young and glamorous together there. As if they’re posing for an Abercrombie and Fitch advert, or whatever brands young people are wearing these days. Something to do with Hype clothing or something, isn’t it? Christ I’m old…

Shit, probably shouldn’t blaspheme around a church. Even if it’s not a church anymore.

It’s nice in here. All fairylights and bunting and streamers and rainbows. I fully expect to turn a corner and get myself punctured on the horn of a passing unicorn. It’s like stepping into the ultimate children’s party. One thrown by some very dotting, and very rich parents. Thinking about it, this is what all the kids party around here must be like. Although, knowing Highgate mums, they probably hire Jackon’s Lane itself for their little darlings.

The young woman behind the box office looks up and grins as I come in. I go over.

I give my surname, and she pulls open a box marked “Pay What You Want tickets” on the top. I’m seeing a show as part of their Postcards Festival. When booking online there's a choice. Either get your ticket for free, with the caveat that you’ll pay some figure based on how much you think the show is worth, on the night. Or you type in your credit card details and get all that shit sorted in advance. For fifteen quid.

I went for the free option. No because I’m cheap. I am cheap, but that’s not the reason. I was intrigued to see how it would all work. I haven’t done this type of arrangement yet on the blog.

I’m not entirely sure how it all works.

“When you go in,” she says, handing me the ticket. “You'll find an envelope on your chair, at the end of the show just pop some cash in there.”

“I was just going to ask!” I say.

She grins. “I could sense it was coming. The door will open in about ten minutes,” she goes on, pointing towards the doors at the far end of the foyer. “The show is about fifty minutes.”

Fifty minutes? Holy sh..ugar. We’ll be done by 8.20pm. And I’m only a couple of stops from home. In bed by ten, here I come!

Ticket now acquired and rules of the game established, I have a walk around the space. It’s really nice in here. Usually this excess of decorations would have my anxiety flairing up, but it’s really laid back. Comfortable. People sit around tables chatting quietly. The queue at the bar is short and well managed. There’s a cafe space tucked away behind a low wall, which is dark and homely looking.

I go up there, and pull up a pew.

A literal pew in case you think I am indulging in cliché.

Looks like they got more than the building when the Christians moved out.

With the pew-based booths and miles of bunting, the whole place is very Pastel Goth. Not my personal style, but one I’ve always appreciated in others.

processed_MVIMG_20190717_191138.jpg

“Excuse me, can I sit here?” asks a bloke, pointing to the other side of my pew.

“Go for it!”

He’s brought food with him from the cafe. Something very savoury looking. Steam is rising off of it and the smell is making my stomach rumble.

I really miss hot dinners.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice from the foyer behind us. “The performance will start in two minutes.”

Blimey. Time to go in then.

I join the queue at the door.

The young woman from the box office is now serving as ticket checker. She smiles at every one in turn, thanking them as they hand over their tickets to be torn free of their stubs.

“Carrot, would you like a carrot?”

I can’t see what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure I just heard a voice asking someone if they wanted a carrot.

I turn the corner. There’s a popcorn seller. Or someone who looks like a popcorn seller. With that boxy tray hanging from a strap against her neck. The type worn by Cigarette Girls in cinemas back when smoking and pillbox hats were still things that happened.

“Popcorn? Loose popcorn? How about a carrot?” she asks.

The man she’s talking to consents to the carrot.

“Yes? You want a carrot? The carrots are very popular.” The next person also demonstrates interest in the carrots. “The carrots are all gone, I’m sorry. But I have loose popcorn? No? Take a party popper.”

She hands the party poppers out. I take one.

“Don’t pop it! Not yet!” she warns. “Sit at the front please!” she calls after a group kitted out with party poppesr.

I begin to make my way to the front, but something stops me. I remember the man from earlier. And I resolve to pay attention to my tingling senses.

processed_MVIMG_20190717_193326.jpg

I stop a third of the way down, and slip into a row, putting a good distance between myself and the stage.

From the entrance, there’s a bang.

“Did you pop the party popper?” shouts the popcorn seller in mock outrage. A second later, she recovers herself. “Thank you,” she says, friendly once more. Someone asks her something. “Yes, you can eat the popcorn.”

A group of young men with man-buns and ripped t-shirts sit in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. They are very tall, and the rake isn’t all that good. I move down a few seats.

Just in time. One of the young men leans back, his arms stretched taut over his head as he bends himself over the back of his seat, his hands reaching down into my row.

Something tells me these are all circus boys.

The queue has cleared.

She makes her way down the aisle, honking a horn and making sure everyone has party poppers. “Not yet!” she warns before disappearing into the wings, to be replaced by a woman in a sparkly red leotard and a black tail coat. Our ringmaster for the self-billed Greatest Show on Earth.

The show is… having some problems.

The cast of a thousand acrobats are trapped in Calais. Or is it Dover?

But the show, as they say, must go on. Our sparkly host will be persevering. With the help of popcorn seller Poppy, and… the audience.

Oh dear.

She needs a horse.

Oh shit.

I mean… oh sugar.

No, fuck that.

Oh shit!

“Bring the house lights up so I can look at all your horsey faces,” she says, peering into the audience. I sink down into my seat, but her attentions are focused on the font few rows. “I need someone with luscious hair and a strong back.”

She extends her arm, her pointed finger wavering.

“You!” she announces as she selects her equine assistant.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to do it.

She copies him. Shaking his head. “You’ve got the moves already,” she says, encouragingly.

But he’s not having it. He really doesn’t want to do it.

No matter. She didn’t want him anyway. It was a test. And he passed. “Well done.”

The pointing finger finds another mark, and this audience member is more willing to play the pony.

“What’s your name?” asks the ringmaster.

“James!”

After a short lesson in hoof display, trotting and dressage, James is really to ready for his rider. And as he bounces around with Poppy the popcorn seller balanced on his back, he’s offered a carrot to munch.

As James the horse is allowed to return to his stall, and the sparkly ringmaster performs a very unconventional aerial display, I think the worst is over. But nope. They need lions now.

And they’re holding auditions.

“Show us your lion claws!” orders the ringmaster. “Claw at your neighbour, the person in front of you. I want to see blood!”

The young men in front paw at each other, attacking shoulders and backs with curved hands.

A small child in the front row lets out a ferocious roar and we all laugh. Even the sparkly ringmaster.

The next stage of the audition is teeth.

The young men chew on each other’s arms and shoulders.

I’m sitting alone, so I’m spared the gummy mastication. I’m relieved. I’ve already been bitten once in a theatre. It’s not something I feel the need to go through again.

Last up, the thing that all trainee lions need to master: the roar.

We all wait for the small child in the front row. This is their moment. We are not disappointed. Over the feeble roars of the adults, the small child let’s all the hugest, fiercest, most terrifying roar ever hear by man or beast.

We all tremble in its echo.

But the sparkly ringmaster, for the sake of her own safety, decides to pick a grown-up for the role, and coming into the audience, declares she is going to insert her head between his jaws. We all cheer as Antoine, which has to be the best name for a lion ever, opens his mouth very, very wide, and she sticks her head in there. Sort of.

Sparkly ringmaster returns to the stage, and we are allowed to relax a little with some tent dancing.

processed_MVIMG_20190717_200503.jpg

But not for long. The house lights are going up again. We’re getting a lesson in trapeze catching.

Never drop the flyer. That’s the first rule. Eye contact. That’s important. Shout “up” when you release. And “mine” when you catch.

They go to fetch their flyer. With the acrobats all caught in Calais (or was it Dover?), the role of flyer would be played by… a cuddly toy owl.

Poppy and the Ringmaster practice a little with the front row.

“Up!” shouts the Ringmaster as she throws her little friend.

“Mine!” shouts the audience member as they catch.

And then it begins.

First the cuddly owl goes out. It bounces a little around the audience.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Then more come out. Snakes. Lots of snakes. A massive fish. A curly wig.

The young men in front of me grab anything that comes within ten feet, using their long arm spans to reach across seats and rows, scooping up the fallen friends.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Behind me, someone runs up and down the back row, collecting any flyers that fly too far, and lobbing them back into the fray.

processed_MVIMG_20190717_201457_1.jpg

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

A snake skims over the young men's fingertips and I find myself catching it.

“Up,” I shout, throwing it forward.

“Mine!” shouts back someone in the second row.

At the signal, the cuddly toy fights ends, and we pop our party poppers.

The room smells of gunpowder and traumatised toys.

And then we’re done.

Show over.

I grab my purse and examine the envelope. Pay what you want, it says. “Based in how awesome you think the experience was.”

processed_MVIMG_20190717_193352.jpg

Awesome. Hmm. I mean, it was fun. And sweet. And stressful. Really stressful. Can awesome things be stressful? I suppose truly awesome things are very anxiety inducing. Like… space. And… lions.

I slip a note into my envelope.

Front of housers are out in the foyer, buckets in hand, ready to take them.

“I liked your roar,” says someone to the tiny child as we file out.

The small child doesn’t say a word. They’ve gone shy.

Or maybe not. Maybe they's sensed something. Something not right. And their lion's instinct has told them not to roar.

processed_IMG_20190717_201658.jpg

Offenbach Off

Well, this is rather worrying. Google Maps can’t seem to locate my next venue.

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

From Blackheath station I turn right and start marching up the hill. I’ve never been to Blackheath before. It’s kinda cute, in that way that south London villages so often are. As if they’re always on the alert for any roaming film crews scouting for a period location. With ever street filled with shops that seem to exist solely to furnish old ladies’ front rooms with knick-knacks.

There’s a great big red brick building over there on the left which looks likely. And yup, I can see the signage now. Blackheath Halls.

Turns out it does exist. Which is a relief. I was beginning to think I might have made the place up. It does rather sound like the sort of name my brain would come up with. It’s the Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way of theatre names. I bet Charlotte Brontë only used Thornfield Hall because Blackheath was just a little too on the nose to be taken seriously.

Music pours out. Singing. The cast must be warming up. Although there is a touch of the football chant to their repertoire. I’m beginning to wonder what on earth I’ve let myself in for tonight.

I’m seeing La Belle Helene. Which I admit I know exactly nothing about.

Maybe it really does have a scene set at Old Trafford.

Lots of people are perching on the steps outside the bright red doors. Unfortunately, none of them are Mr Rochester. So I go inside.

There’s a nice foyer in here. Big and square, with the box office down on one end.

I join the queue. There are signs all over the place advertising the twin joys of programmes and ice cream. Both of them three quid. But when I get to the front, there are no programmes on sale at the desk.

There is a notice proudly promising that the show is sold out though. I wonder how much walk up business they get all the way down here…

Not sure what to do now. There’s a bar off to one side. It’s pretty big but it is absolutely rammed. I decide not to join the fray. I hang back, examining the boards full of children’s artwork.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_183440.jpg

There’s a front of houser in the foyer, carrying a stack of paper in her arms.

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

“Sorry, is that the freesheet?” I ask her.

“It’s a synopsis for you,” she says, handing a copy to me.

“Amazing, thank you.”

I wander off to have a look at my prize. It’s exactly what she said. A synopsis of the opera and nothing more. A two page synopsis of the opera. The font is pretty big, but even so. Two pages. That’s worrying.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_183607.jpg

I decide not to read it. I’m a great believer in productions having to stand up by themselves without explanation.

Still… two frickin’ pages.

I’ve exhausted all the possibilities that the foyer has to offer. I should probably go and see what is happening in the bar.

I squeeze myself in, immediately getting bumped. First one way. Then the other. It’s impossible to move in here.

The doors to the auditorium are open and I consider going in, if only for the peace, but it’s far too early for that.

Instead I brace myself against a pillar and send a prayer to the theatre gods for their protection.

From my position, I have a good view of the door. “Great Hall. Door B,” it says. I check my ticket. There’s no mention of doors. I look back at the sign. No seat numbers. Right. It seems we’re just guessing our doors tonight then.

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

It looks nice enough, but there are no programmes on display.

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

Just as I start getting rather stressed about the whole thing, a front of houser appears bearing a huge wodge of them which she passes off to the ticket checker at Door B.

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

I walk over, but someone else gets in there first.

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

“Three pounds,” the ticket checker tells the man. I grab my purse and pull out the correct change while I’m waiting. I knew all those pound coins from the National would come in handy.

“Can I get one too?” I ask when the man ahead of me has gone inside.

“Of course!” she says. “Three pounds please.”

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

“Good evening and welcome to this evening’s performance of La Belle Helene,” comes a voice over the sound system. “The house is now open. Please take your seats as soon as possible.”

I check my phone. It’s 6.40pm. Fucking hell, calm down mate. We’ve got ages.

No one else in the bar seems to have noticed the time though, as soon there is a massive queue outside both doors and I have a nice procession of handbags to knock me as they pass by.

An old man decides to sit things out and pulls a chair away from one of the tables, ramming it into my knees as he sits down. He wriggles around, using his elbows to pummel me back into the pillar. What a twatting fucker.

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

I look up. It’s Ruth! I know Ruth. Do you know Ruth? She made a tiny uncredited cameo in my London Coliseum blog post. And here she is again!

“Have you been to any of the Blackheath Opera productions before?” she asks.

I have to admit that I haven’t. Between you are me, I don’t get on the train for opera. I don’t tell Ruth that. She is definitely the type of person to get on the train for opera.

“The soloists are professionals,” she explains. “The minor roles are Trinity students, and they have a massive community chorus.”

Well, that sounds good. I’ve seen the Trinity Laban students before, at Queen’s House, and that was… everything.

“They’ve just refurbished this place. Usually the productions are in the round, but they want to show off their fancy new raked seating on this one.”

“They even have it printed on the ticket!” I say, showing her mine.

“Raked Seating,” it says, just before the seat number.

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

I try Door B first. “Am I at the right door?” I ask. Turns out I’m not.

Take two then.

The lady at Door A checks my ticket and waves me through into a very dark corridor. Round the corner, down past the fancy new raked seating and there we are: the Grand Hall.

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

“Yup, through here,” she says pointing to the nearest aisle. “And right to the back.”

She’s right. I am right at the back. The row behind is empty, being used by the tech desk. This is as far away as you can get at Blackheath Halls.

“It’s going to get really hot up here,” says someone in my row.

“Didn’t there used to be fans?” comes the reply.

“They were taken out in the restoration. They were supposed to be replaced by what they call, not air conditioning, but an air cooling system.”

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

It really doesn’t. I get out my fan and try to move some of this thick air around, but it isn’t doing much good.

“I can feel a bit of air coming from somewhere!” says the first person.

Yeah. That’s me, love. You’re welcome.

One of the musicians in the orchestra waves at someone in the audience. Hugs and kisses and greetings are exchanged as the seats fill up. It’s going to be one of those nights. Where everyone knows everyone, and the rest are related to people in the cast. No wonder the run is sold out.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_185423.jpg

Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

We seem to be doing the story of Helen of Troy. But it’s a comedy. And a rather tedious comedy at that.

All around me the audience is laughing. The kind of performative laughter you get at Shakespeare plays. The “I get this, I’m clever,” type of laughter. Well, I don’t get this. I’m not clever.

Ruth was right. There is a massive community cast. Every time I think the stage is full, more people keep on coming out. There’s a whole classroom’s worth of uniformed kids up on stage now.

And the heat is astonishing. At first it was merely unbearable. It is now a hell inferno. I can feel the weight of it pressing down on my chest. I rub my collarbones, hoping to free them up. My skin is clammy and hot to the touch.

First act one hour thirty. Second act thirty minutes. I can do this. It’s fine. Just listen to the music.

But the music is terrible. The storyline ridiculous. The characters irritating.

I find myself rolling my eyes every time someone makes a joke. And there are a lot of them.

I can’t believe it’s only a few weeks since I saw that glorious, well-thought out programme at Queen’s House. And now I’m here. Watching this right pile of tut.

My eyes are beginning to hurt I’m rolling them so hard. I think I might have dislocated a retina.

There’s a light up board on the stage.

“1 ‘ere, 2 ‘eme, 3 ‘eme, Int,” it says. 1’ere has been lit up for a long time. I keep an eye on it. I was sure if was keeping track of what act we were in, but now I’m not convinced. It’s been stuck at 1 ’ere for ever. It must be broken.

Just as I’m debating whether the heaviness in my breathing is a precursor to me fainting or just throwing up, it switches to “Int.” I watch it hungrily, not even paying attention to what’s happening on stage anymore.

I have to get out of here.

A few minutes later, it switches again. “2 ‘eme.” Act two.

Oh my god. Only act two? Out of three?

No. Nope. Definitely not. I can’t do it. I can’t.

I will die. And throw up. And faint. In that order.

I look up, fuxung my eyes on the intucateoudlings in the ceiling, willing myself to get through to the end.

Not long now. I can cool off in the interval. And then just thirty more minutes.

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

I never leave in the interval. I hate leaving in the interval.

I’ve only done it once on this marathon. At an amateur performance when the room was swelteringly hot…

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

I mean, I don’t have to. I’m not on a press ticket. I paid to be here. With my own money. I’m under no obligation to stay.

I’ve given up on the performance entirely now. I don’t care what’s happening on stage. I’m thinking. A half hour interval. That’s time enough to go outside and sit in the shade for a bit, I tell myself. But half an hour though… in that time I could make it back to London Bridge. And be home by 10pm. And have an electric fan pointed directly at my face.

And who even programmes half-hour intervals? Followed by another half-hour act? That’s dragging on the evening a whole extra thirty minutes that we could be putting towards an early night.

Screw that.

I’ll see how I feel when the interval hits, I promise myself. If I want to go. I can go.

I try to focus back on the performance, but they are having some bizarre VR dream sequence now and if this goes on any longer I’m going to scream.

And then finally, finally. We make it. The stage lights darken. The house lights go up. We’re free. I burst out of my seat, grabbing my jacket and my coat and then… I’m stuck. The aisle is packed. There’s no way to get out.

I flick open my fan and try to cool myself, but it’s no good. I am going to faint.

“There’s a breeze coming from somewhere,” says a lady ahead of me.

“Yeah, it’s the woman with the fan,” says the man she’s with.

You’re welcome. Again.

processed_MVIMG_20190716_203734.jpg

But seriously, if you lot don’t shift yourselves, the pair of you are going to get yourself a vomit shower.

We creep out way down the rake, step by aching step.

“If the whole place went up in flames, it would take a long time to get out,” someone says wryly.

He means it as a joke, but I would willingly step into the heart of the fire right now if it got me out of this oven. Anything to end this agony.

Some front of housers open the side doors, and people start to pour out that way. The queue quickens.

I race down the corridor, back around the corner, squeezing myself through the bar, and the foyer, and I’m out.

Ruth spots me. Or more accurately, she spots my face.

“It is hot in there,” she says, as she’s confronted by the strawberry coloured woman in front of her.

“I’m making an escape,” I say. “I am going to faint.”

Ruth nods. “Fair enough. You head home.”

I don’t need telling twice. I’m gone. Back down the hill. Back to the station. My fan flapping the whole way.

James McArdle though…

Three hours twenty minutes. THREE hours twenty minutes. Three HOURS and TWENTY minutes.

That’s way too long for a play.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done the whole endurance theatre thing. I’ve seen Angels in America (8 hours 45 minutes). I did most the Almeida’s Iliad (15 hours, but I gave up around 11pm because I didn’t want to nightbus it home). The Cursed Child (5 hours 15 minutes). Twice. And Gatz (8 hours). Twice.

So, you know - I can take a long running time.

But three hours and twenty minutes? That’s too fucking much. Way too long to be convinced that the playwright has a tight while on the narrative. And yet, not long enough to feel like you’re going on an epic journey with the peformers. Plus, a 7pm start time means I’m rushing from work, so I’m already exhausted before I’ve even stepped into the building.

Which is the National in this case, because, well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? I’m seeing Peter Gynt.

Almost exclusively for James McArdle reasons.

I love James McArdle. And his Scottish accent.

I saw him, sans-Scottish accent, in Angels, and Platonov, and he was… just heavenly.

If anything can keep me awake until twenty past ten tonight, it’s James McArdle.

I decide to avoid the main entrance and slip in via the external walkways. Anything to avoid all those staircases going up to the Olivier.

The main terrace jutting out of the side of the National is filled up with people communing with the flowerbeds. High above, I can see people leaning over the concrete sides of the balconies, dark shadows against the pale concrete, like birds hanging out on power lines.

I don’t hang out with them. I’ve got a ticket to collect.

I aim myself at the glass doors that will take me into the Olivier foyer. I pass two girls rehearsing a  dance routine, using the dark windows as a mirror.

There’s a bit of a queue at the Olivier box office. There always is. No matter how early you turn up.

processed_MVIMG_20190715_183513.jpg

But it moves quickly, and soon its my turn.

I give my surname.

The box officer types it into her computer as I spell it out. Her eyes narrow. She’s not finding anything.

“I bought it through TodayTix if that makes a difference,” I say, suddenly realising that I might not even be in the system.

“Ah! Yes it does,” she says, moving away from the computer and grabbing a pile of tickets from the counter. “Maxine?”

“Yes.”

“One ticket?”

“… yes.”

She tears my ticket away from its TodayTix friends. “You’re in the circle,” she says as she hands it to me. “One level up.”

processed_MVIMG_20190715_183818.jpg

So up I go. It’s actually two levels to the circle. Or at least, two sets of staircases.

I’m really not fit enough for this nonsense.

I huff and puff my way up to the Olivier circle foyer, pausing at the top of the stairs as I get my breath back.

“Hello!” calls out the programme seller from behind her little trolley.

The programme trollies at the National always confuse me. They’re grey and industrial looking, and their ubiquitous presence in every foyer make me sad to look at them. But they’re full of ice cream, so… they’ve git that going for them.

The programme seller is slipping her stack of programmes. Inserting a small piece of paper into each one. There must be a cast change tonight.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask.

“That’s four pounds fifty.”

Blimey. Do you remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid? I remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid. I know some people mark their aging souls by the increasing youthfulness of policemen, but for me, it’s the price of programmes. They go up every damn year.

Still smarting from the cost, I get out my purse. Ah. Bit short on the whole change thing right now.

“Do you have change for a twenty?” I ask apologetically.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, checking her drawer. “But you’ll need to take a lot of pound coins. I hope that’s okay.”

Of course it’s okay. Pound coins are brilliant. They feel like proper money. Not like those measly five pence pieces which I lose as soon as I look at them. Pound coins are the best coins. Better than two pound coins even. I can never get enough of them.

“That’s fifteen pounds fifty in change,” she says, giving my two whole fivers and five pound coins alongside the fifty pee. This is literally the best change day I’ve ever had in my life. Fivers! Two of them! “You might want to count that,” she advises. But I trust her.

“And here’s your programme,” she says as I put my purse away. She touches the small white tongue of paper sticking out of the top of my programme. “There’s an indisposition tonight.”

Indisposition. What a quaint word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in this context. It’s usually ‘an injury’ in the dance world. And ‘cast illness’ in theatre. Indisposition makes it sound like some louche actor has been partaking of a touch too much opium and cannot remove himself from the chaise longue in time to get to the theatre.

With my programme in hand, I decide I need to head out onto the terrace to nurse my own tired head.

It’s nice out here. Not as nice as the grand terrace below. No flowerbeds to get friendly with, and no chairs either, unless you like perching on the low windowsills. But we’re high enough to get a breeze coming off the river and that’s pretty much all I want right now.

I’m enjoying it so much out here that I don’t even notice the bell that must have gone off inside, because the next time I turn around to look through the windows, the bar has cleared out and everyone has gone in.

I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder, hurrying inside.

The note on my ticket says I need to go to aisle four, which is on the left.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker on the door, but she’s not interested in that. Her eyes are pinned to my rucksack.

Shit. I’d forgotten about that. The National are super strict about the sizes of bags that go into the auditorium.

I’ve been carrying this bag for years, and it seems to be the exact right size to confuse the ticket checkers. Most of the time I get it in, but I have had more than one hurried sprint to the cloakroom when my pleading failed to melt the ticker checker’s heart.

She reaches out and grabs it, giving it a good feel. “Hmm, it’s quite empty, isn’t it? Furtherest aisle!” And with that, she lets me through.

I walk into the shadow-filled corridor, turning left and heading to the furthest door, as directed, patting my bag back into shape and trying not to feel violated.

I pull the heavy doors open and go in, taking a moment to stand up there, right at the back of the circle, to appreciate this aeroplane hangar of a space.

The Olivier is huge. Vast. If the National ever needed to raise funds, they could rent this space to Amazon to use as a central London warehouse.

I trot down the steps towards row D, peering as the seat numbers as I try to find the one that belongs to be.

A woman grabs her bag and jacket, removing it from the seat next to her and stuffing them behind her knees.

“Don’t worry, I’m here,” I say, pointing to the next seat along.

“No worries!” she says.

Even being so high off, and frankly, a little too far off to the side, the view is great. I can see all of that massive round stage, apart from a tiny clip in the corner. Plus, from here I can spy on what the band are up to.

Oh yes, there’s a band. A live band. For a play.

No expense spared here.

There’s a school group sitting behind me. or at least, I think they’re a school group. There’s defiantly a teacher amongst them “Now, the curtain is about to go up, so turn off your phones. Not on vibrate. Off. All the way off. And snacks away. I don’t want to hear your rustling.”

“The curtains are already up though,” comes the plaintive reply.

“There aren’t even curtains.”

That’s true. There aren’t even curtains.

“How do you know it’s about to start?” says one student

“It’s past 7pm. It was supposed to start at 7pm,” counters another.

The lights dim.

The band starts.

“Off,” orders the teacher over the sound of the music. “Now. Off, I said.”

May the theatre gods protect us from overzealous educators.

Just as the lovely James McArdle appears, someone starts making his way down our row.

“Sorry, excuse me,” he says he squeezes past someone.

He plonks himself in the seat next to me, and then leans in to whisper: “sorry, what seat number are you?”

“Err, sixty…?” Honestly I can’t remember. It’s a high number.

“Sixty?”

“Hang on,” I reach down to my bag to check, but it’s no good. I’d never be able to read my ticket in this low lighting. “I don’t think it matters,” I tell him. “No one’s going to move you.”

That seems to make sense to him. “I think I’ll just stay here.”

So he does. And thus settled we watch all one hour twenty minutes of the first act.

Peter Gynt is a weird play, isn’t it?

I didn’t really know the story. But I do know the Grieg music. Back when I was all of ten years old, I badgered my mum for weeks to by me a cassette tape of Peer Gynt. Which, now I say it, is probably the most revealing thing I’ve ever told you. Yes, I am that old. I yes, I was that much of a pretentious wank when I was ten years old. You thought that was a recent acquisition? Oh honey… no. If anything, I’ve mellowed.

Anyway, because of that, I knew there would be a hall. And a mountain king. But this is pure loopy-loo.

Logic was not issued with a staff pass when this production went into rehearsal.

As the house lights go up for the interval, my new neighbour leans over again. “Sorry to disturb you,” he apologises.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him.

“I think I’m actually meant to be in the seat on the other side of you.”

The seat on the other side of me is indeed empty, now that bag and jacket has been removed from it.

“There’s so many empty seats, I think you can sit anywhere.”

We look around the auditorium. There are a lot of empty seats. A lot of empty seats.

With one last glimpse, I go back out to the terrace for the interval. I need to stretch my legs. There’s a long way to go.

“It didn’t feel like one hour and twenty minutes,” says one of the students behind me when I return.

“It’s so good!”

“Everything is happening!”

“Yeah! It’s so good.”

So good.”

Bless. I love young people. So enthusiastic.

processed_MVIMG_20190715_203312.jpg

I’m not sure the rest of the audience agrees. An already thin house is noticeably thinner. We’ve lost the entire row B down at this end. And there are patches all over the circle.

My neighbour with the coat and jacket hasn’t come back.

Things don’t get better after the second interval. My friend who couldn’t find his seat? Yeah, either he’s upgraded himself to the stalls, or he’s gone to catch a train home.

There’s only a few people left in my row, and we are all spread out like buttons on a shirt.

So we all take the only reasonable course of action. We lean back and lounge around, lolling over the arm rests in a way that we don’t have the opportunity to do all that often in the theatre, and we are making full use of the opportunity.

“That was brilliant!” says one of the students as the cast disappear after the applause. Presumably for a good lie down.

“Literally the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

“So good.”

So good.”

Not sure I can quite agree. Don’t think it’s even the best thing I’ve seen this week. Which is saying a lot as it’s only Monday.

Still, James McArdle though…

Shawly not

I’m on my way to the Shaw Theatre right now. And for once, I actually know where this theatre is. When the Northern Line crapped out last week, I had to get out at Euston and walk the rest of the way to work. A walk that took me down Euston Road as I headed into Islington. And as the red behemoth of the British Library loomed across my vision, I spotted something dangling in the way. It was a sign. For the Shaw Theatre.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_185951.jpg

Do you know about the Shaw Theatre? I didn’t know about the Shaw Theatre. It seems to be one of those theatres that is connected to a hotel. Like the Savoy but less… just less. Less glamourous. Less well known. And less programming. It’s taken me over six months to find a marathon-qualifying show for me to go to.

The Shaw seems to be the type of place that those regional music acts tour to. You know the kind of thing. Tribute acts and theme acts and cabaret acts and showcase acts. The type of acts that only seem to exist in these type of theatres.

They also have that Tape Face bloke, but I wasn’t altogether convinced that his stuff counted as theatre. So I took a pass.

But not tonight. Oh no. Tonight, I’m going to be seeing Rent.

Which I am rather excited about because I’ve never seen Rent before. I’m actually not all that familiar with it. I know that one song. You know, the one with all the numbers that every musical theatre fan seems to be able to reel off with only the slightest provocation.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Modern. Glass. There’s some sort of massive sculpture action going on outside. A wire cage hanging above the carpark. Not sure what that’s meant to be but if it were being used as a prison to contain some supervillain or other, I would not be surprised.

processed_IMG_20190714_190043.jpg

I pick my way through the cars and head towards the main entrance.

As I approach, the door opens, held by a young woman in Shaw Theatre livery.

Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had the door held open for me at the theatre before. Not by a dedicated door person anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this place really is as swanky as the Savoy.

“Hello!” says the young woman, all bright smile and welcoming.

I thank her, still slightly surprised by all these gentility.

She makes use of my disorientation to hold out a pile of stickers.

They have rainbows on them. And the name of the theatre.

That’s how to do Pride. With multi-coloured stickers. I approve.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_190110.jpg

I thank her again, already feeling very positive about this trip. Getting the door held open for me and a free sticker? The Shaw is gunning for a top ten position in my end of year rankings, I can tell you that right now.

From there, I join the queue for the box office. It’s a rather long queue. And is moving very slowly.

Another young woman, this one wearing a smart blue jacket, makes her way down the line asking if we booked ourselves e-tickets.

The bloke behind me shows her a print out.

“Yup, that’s fine,” she confirms.

“So I don’t have to queue?” he asks, amazed at this revelation.

“No, you can use that.”

He trots off with his print out, very pleased.

“Ooo! Stickers!” comes a cry from behind me.

Heads turn, and soon the young woman on the door is besieged by people who missed out on the sticker action on their way in.

“Can I have a sticker please?”

“Can you get me one too, mum?”

Such is the power of a rainbow sticker.

From my position in the queue, I have a great view of the bar. It’s exactly the sort of bar you would imagine there to be in a hotel’s theatre. All dramatic hanging lights and stacks of mini-bar sized snacks hanging out alongside the bottles of more serious stuff.

A girl goes up to the bar and holds up a paper bag full of some sort of takeaway.

She asks the barman something, and after a moment’s thought, he takes it from her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she calls after him as he disappears through the back door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she repeats when he remerges a few seconds later.

I think he was putting it in the fridge for her, which I have to say, is not something I’ve ever considered asking bar staff to help with, at the theatre or anywhere else, but my god, what a good idea. Especially in this weather.

“Have you got an e-ticket?” asks the woman in the blue jacket, doing another trawl of the queue.

“I think I’m picking up,” I tell her.

“What’s the surname?”

I tell her, and she goes off to the front to double check.

I do the same, but on my phone, and bringing up the confirmation email remember that I paid an extra two quid for this privilege. Fucking hell. No wonder she’s asking about e-tickets so much. What kind of idiot would pay two quid for the pleasure of a paper ticket? Apart from me, but we all know I have issues.

A few minutes later, I’m at the front of the queue.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the lady on box office when she checks her computer for my booking.

I tell her that it is and a second later the printer behind the desk buzzes into action. She checks the ticket, folds up the ream, and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to explore.

Apart from the bar and the box office, there’s a seating area over by the entrance to the theatre. All red walls and old theatre posters and low settees. There’s also the most extraordinary carpeting going on. I mean, if I didn’t know this place had a hotel connection before, this carpet would tell me everything I need to know. It’s all floral and swirly, with another pattern going on underneath that I can’t quite make out. It’s like one of those Magic Eye posters from the nineties. I couldn’t make them out either.

The entrance to the theatre itself is closed off by a red velvet curtain. That combined with the old posters gives this place a very strange vibe. The modern hotel combined with the old school theatre. I’m not sure even the Shaw knows what this place is.

“Good evening,” comes a voice over the sound system. “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre. The house is now open. The house is now open.”

Now, you may say that I’ve been marathoning far too long (and I won’t disagree with you on that), but that message surprises me. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard a house open announcement that doesn’t mention the name of the show. You know: “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre for tonight’s performance of Rent…”

I wonder if the message has been pre-recorded. It would certainly make it easier for everyone with all those one-night shows that they have going on.

No one else appears bothered by this. They all crowd themselves towards the doors, heaving in close to each other until them become unmanageable mass of people.

I hang back and let them get on with it.

Seating is allocated. There’s no rush.

Eventually the queue clears, and I make my way in.

The first ticket checker barely looks as me as I pass through the curtain. She has no interest whatsoever in whether I have a ticket, or what it says on it if I do.

So I continue on, making my way through a dark corridor, with George Bernard Shaw quotes hung up on the walls, in what must be an attempt to justify the name of the theatre.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself,” one states. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says another. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that old Shawie-boy was a bit repetitive in his choice of sentence structure.

That makes me suspicious. I can’t for the life of me think what play either of these are from. Neither strike me as something the writer of Man and Superman would come out with. But then, I’m not a massive GBS fan, so, who knows?

I get out my phone and Google the first one and immediately find a page asking “Wait, did George Bernard Shaw really say this?”

The answers seem to suggest that no, he didn’t. But I don’t have time to research any further, because I’ve reached the other end of the corridor and there’s a ticket checker waiting for me on the other side.

“D23?” I ask, showing her the ticket.

“D23. You will be…” her finger traces the horizon of seats, wavering between the middle and final block of seats. “Hang on, let me show you.”

And with that she leads me down to the second aisle.

“Twenty-three did you say?”

“Err, yes,” I say, double checking my ticket.

She hops up a few steps to the fourth row. “You’re just in here,” she says.

“Lovely! Thank you!”

Whatever their questionable use of George Bernard Shaw quotes, you can’t fault the service.

Nor the seating. It’s very plush. Wide, squashy seats, covered in fuzzy velvet. Pretty lush.

Someone in the row in front turns around. “Do you know how long this is?” he asks.

My neighbour shakes her head. “Sorry, I just know its two acts.”

Yeah, no freesheets tonight. And no programmes.

Still, we got rainbow stickers.

I settle back in my seat and get comfortable.

The people sitting behind me are having some great theatre chat. By the sounds of it they are both musical theatre professionals and the gossip is flying. Lots of talk of “Cameron,” the joys of auditioning on a proper West End stage, and the perils of being second cover.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_192525.jpg

As the lights dim, there’s a scurrying of movement as people move down to better seats.

A couple slowly make their way down from the back, clinging onto the rail as they go down the stairs, move across the front of the stage, and then sink into a pair of seats in the front row.

Thus settled, they start to enjoy the show. Really enjoy the show. The woman sways from side to side, waving her arms as she feels the music.

It’s rather beautiful.

As for me, I’ve just realised what Rent is. It’s La Boehme, isn’t it? That whole candle scene. I recognise that! That’s good. I feel on firmer ground now. Except I’m now worrying about what a potential wank I am that I’m more familiar with La Boehme then Rent.

As our Mimi (again, no freesheet, I have no idea who she is) gets down on her knees and Arghhh Oooos into the night, it’s simply too move for the lady in the front row. She just has to dance. She gets up from her seat and boogies her way into the corner, where she bows her head, puts up her arms, and moves to the beat, truly embodying the ‘dance like no-one’s watching’ mandate more fully than I’ve ever seen anyone do it before.

The man she’s with watches her for a moment, checks behind him to see how we’re talking it, beckons her back to her seat and then goes to speak to the usher.

They whisper to each other feverously, the usher and the man, with lots of pointing around the auditorium.

He doesn’t want his lady to stop dancing. Oh no. He wants to find her a place where she can get her groove on without disturbing anyone else.

The usher nods. She understands. And he returns to his seat.

A few songs later she sneaks into the front row, crouching down next to the pair.

She’s sorted something. She’s taking them somewhere.

So they go. Leaving their prime spots, our lady dances her way out of the theatre.

It feels strangely quiet now that we’ve lost our alternate cast member. But the performers up on stage don’t let us relax for long.

“Moo!” orders our Maureen. “Everyone this side: Moo!”

Everyone duly moos as ordered. Well, almost everyone.

I do not partake. I have audience participation intolerance.

But as our Mark jumps up onto a table, and the table tips, throwing him forward, oh, I gasp. I gasp along with everyone else. He recovers his balance just in time, throwing out his hand to show us he’s okay. And we applaud. How could we not after such a feat of daring do?

“Did you moo?” someone asks in the row in front once the interval hits.

“No!” comes the reply.

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one then.

The person from the row in front is outraged. “No? But you have to!”

“Can you believe they only had a week to do all that?” counters the non-mooer, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Aren’t they amazing!”

They are. But I still don’t know who they are.

Interval over and there’s a strangled squeal from the audience as the cast comes out. They know what’s coming. And I can guess. Yes, it’s the number song! 525,600 apparently. That’s a big number. How do people remember that? I never even managed pi to five decimals.

But it’s proper good.

And it’s sad.

And I might be sniffing a bit. A hint of watery eye. No, it’s okay. I’m not going to cry.

Oh poor Angel.

And poor Mimi.

Shit, I’ve gone. The first tear has fallen and there’s no stopping me now.

As the final notes ring out, we all burst from our seats into a standing ovation. I can’t believe it was only on Friday I was saying I rarely ovate. Only when a performance hits me in the gut, was my justification. Well, gut fucking hit. Full on bullseye right in the intestines.

I turn around, taking in the audience.

There, at the back, in the far corner, is our dancing lady. She’s still moving to the sound of the band as they play us out. Hands above her head, hips swinging. And the man she’s with watching her.

And I start crying again, because that’s love, isn’t it? Finding someone the space to be themselves and letting them go for it, to the fullest.

Fuck yeah.

 

processed_MVIMG_20190714_192237.jpg

Credit where it's due

It feels kinda weird getting off the tube at Angel on a Saturday. This is the station I use for work. And now I'm here. During the weekend. This is all levels of wrong and I don't like it. I'm turning right out of the station though. Going up Upper Street. Because tonight, I'm at the Almeida.

I do like the Almeida. I haven't been in a while though. For Robert Icke reasons. I just... can't with his stuff. We've talked about this before. I know you think he's a genius. Everyone thinks he's a genius. Perhaps he is. I just don't get it. And I've given up trying. So, yeah. I haven't been to the Almeida in a hot minute, as the YouTubers used to say.

But tonight, I make my return. And as far as I'm aware, this play has nothing to do with Robert Icke. Which is one hell of a selling point for me.

Better still, it has Tobias Menzies in it. And I adore Tobias Menzies.

I even have a Tobias Menzies story. And that story is that I once ordered him a taxi. And he was very nice.

Hey, I never said it was a good story.

But still, isn't it lovely to find out that talented people are also nice?

I was an intern at the Donmar when he was in The Recruiting Officer, and I was trying to arrange all the cast to get to some patrons' shindig, which I'm sure none of them wanted to go to. So like, he did not even have to be slightly polite to me. And yet he was. So, he made a life-long fan in me.

Anyhoo, enough of that. We're here. As ever, when the weather is good, half the audience seems to be hanging out on the pavement. The Almeida is on a little side street. Almeida Street. Hence the name. So there isn't much in the way of traffic. There's pretty much only the theatre on one side, and a restaurant on the other.

Still, they have some security person standing guard in the middle of the road.

He watches me as I stroll across to get my photo of the exterior. There are too many cars parked on either side, so I'm forced to stand in the middle of the road to take it. The security person does not look impressed with my blatant disregard of all the traffic that is very much not driving down the road, and he keeps an eye until I make my way back to safety.

I go over to the box office that's right inside the door. There's usually a queue for tickets, but I'm early, and as I said, everyone is outside soaking up those rays.

I give my name to one of the box officers sitting behind the counter and she pulls out the chunk of tickets living behind the 's' tab in the ticket box, and finds mine.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" she asks.

I want to tell her that gurl, I am six months and 169 theatres into a marathon right now, and there is no way I can remember my postcode, but some synapse or other snaps into action just in time and I manage to get it out.

"Perfect. That's one ticket in the stalls," she says, and hands it over.

Right then. What now? Programme purchasing time, I think.

There are two programme sellers positioned near the front door, all primed and holding playtexts and programme in their arms like a bouquet of papery flowers, but they are busy talking to someone, so I bypass them and head right to the back, where there's a merch desk.

You might be asking yourself why a producing house theatre in Islington has a merch desk, and that would be a good question. The Royal Court doesn't have a merch desk. The Young Vic doesn't have one either. But the Almeida go hard on stuff. Posters and playtext and programmes and everything to make my little publications officer heart sing.

"Would you like a deal?" asks the lady behind the counter when I ask for a programme.

"What's the deal?" I say, getting excited

"It's a script, programme, and tote bag," she says, pointing to each item in turn. "For fifteen pounds,"

Fifteen pounds? I mean, I love merch, but... fifteen pounds! "Ah, no," I tell her feeling a bit guilty after all my previous enthusiasm. "That's too much. I can't cope with all of that."

So I just get the programme. Which is four pounds. Much more my level.

Although... I wonder if I can come back for the deal after seeing the play. Might be more willing to invest on the playtext side of things once I know if it's actually any good.

Right. Let's find somewhere to sit down and read this thing.

processed_MVIMG_20190713_185950.jpg

Everyone's outside, so I get a prime spot on the end of the long benches that line the pit-like foyer.

The Almeida foyer is a strange place. With its white walls and glass ceiling, and wipe-clean upholstery, it's kinda like sitting in a fancy sanatorium. An expensive one in the mountains, where handsome young porters wheel you around in bathchairs as you take in the clean air.

Except there's a bar all down one end and everyone here has wine-breath. Which somehow I don't think is part of the hospital's regime.

processed_MVIMG_20190713_185946.jpg

Then there's the show artwork taking up the big wall overlooking the foyer. Which is usually cool. A photo opportunity. Instagram bait.

Bit quite so much for this show. It’s a massive blown-up picture of Tobias Menzies' face, which is lending the space a slight Orwellian-vibe,

There's a great big close up of Tobias Menzies on the front cover of the programme too, which now that I have my back to the ten-foot version of the picture, is very pleasing. But even though I love me some Tobias Menzies, he's not the thing I'm most excited for tonight.

I am actually here for the movement. I page through the programme until I get to the biographies and yup, there he is. Botis Seva. Movement Director. I'm actually currently producing the programme for his show at my work... which I notice his biography doesn't mention. Hmm. There's his Olivier Award win. That's nice. And a few other projects. But not the one that's opening next week at my theatre. Huh. That's rude. I mean, fucking hell - the Almeida is just down the road from us. A fifteen-minute walk, if that. Where's the Islington loyalty? I ask you...

It is mentioned in the Movement Assistant's biog though. Which is something. I suppose.

Enough about that. What else have they got? Three articles. Which is generous. Although with really inconsistent formatting, that makes me think they just dropped in the copy direct from the writers without any attempt to enforce a house style on them. Now, usually, I wouldn't even mention this. But like, this is the Almeida... not some struggling fringe venue, or a money grabbing West End venue who just want to flog programmes without going to the bother of making them. Do they not have a style guide? Someone over there really needs to get a grip on what their quotation marks are even for.

From the corner of my eye, I spot something. Something pink. And wriggling.

I look over.

My bench neighbour has taken off her shoes. Her toenails are painted the colour of a strawberry milkshake and she's swinging her legs like a child in a high chair.

I lift up my programme, using it as a shield between the sight of her naked feet and my eyes.

This is not acceptable behaviour. I think theatres need to start adding that to their pre-show announcements. Switch off your phones. No re-entry after the show has started. And keep your bloody shoes on you nasty people.

Gawd, I fucking hate summer.

Speaking of pre-show announcements, there's one now...

"The house is now open," says a voice over the sound system. I get out my phone to note down what she says, but the rest is lost over the noise of audience chatter. I can't make out a single word other than something about plastic cups.

Oh well.

I should probably go in.

There's a massive queue of people coming in from outside, all trying to get up the very narrow steps to the theatre, so I nip along the long ramp to avoid all that nonsense.

processed_MVIMG_20190713_192345.jpg

"Show your tickets to my colleague," says the bloke on the door. "Enjoy the show!"

I show my tickets to the next person. And she points me in the direction of my seat. Right at the back. Behind a pillar. Or, two pillars, as I find out when I sit down.

Now, you probably already know this, but the pillars in the Almeida are so not a big deal, and their presence is actually amazing, because the seats that are supposedly restricted by their presence are super cheap. I paid a tenner for where I'm sitting now. Which is a hella bargain. I would always, always, take a pillar seat in the stalls over an unrestricted one in the circle. I've been in the Almeida circle. It's rubbish up there.

I mean, yes - from back here I'm missing the top of the set. What looks like a greenhouse or something. And I don't get the full effect of that amazing brick back wall that makes you feel like you're watching theatre in a monastery, but...

"It's nice having a signature back wall," says my neighbour. I look over at him, slightly worried that he's been reading my thoughts. "It's a good thing to have," he continues. "Other theatres don't have it."

That's not quite true. The Donmar has a great wall. So does the Royal Court, although we don't get to see it all that often. The Globe's is pretty spectacular. And the Rose's is spectacular in it’s absence. I don't tell him this. He's not talking to me and I'm sure he doesn't care about my list of pleasing theatre walls.

A woman comes on stage. She's making an announcement. Is a cast member sick? Has the stage broken?

processed_IMG_20190713_203406.jpg

Nope, the house lights are going down. It's part of the play. Okay then.

And there's Tobias Menzies with his lovely deep voice. And the movement, we’ll it's very Botis Seva.

And... what is this play? I mean, I'd kinda heard people talking about it. But are we really doing this? In the year of someone or other's lord 2019? Is this what we want from our theatre in a post-#metoo world?

Ew.

And I know, I just know, if we were to ask, we'd get some statement prepared by the press team to the effect of "oh, it's starting important conversations," but like, we all know that's code for "our Artistic Director wanted to do the play and we had to come up with a reason to justify it." And it's so frickin' tedious. Art is not viewed in a vacuum. You cannot hide behind the security blanket of provocation. Not unless you are going to put in the work and guide those conversations yourself. Don't just place a bomb on the table and then run away, leaving the rest of us to work out how to diffuse the damn thing all by ourselves.

Just as I'm getting all riled up, a dog comes out! And all my brain can thing of is doggie-cuddles. Oh, gosh, he's cute. Look at his curly tail! And his snubbed little snout! He's so fluffy. He must have had one hell of a brush down before coming on stage. Aww. What a good boy he is.

There's a crash from the upper circle as someone drops something, and the dog's head snaps up. But he manages to recover his character and is soon back lolling around on the stage, yawning and being adorable.

What was I talking about? I can't remember. It's the interval now anyway.

I get stuck in the queue to leave the auditorium. There's only one door, and it ain't very wide.

"It's every man's worst nightmare," says an old guy in the line in front of me.

Oh, fuck you, old dude.

Seriously.

If that's the conversation this play is provoking, we should burn the whole thing down right now.

I go outside. I need to get away from all this... stuff.

There's a group out here talking about Tobias Menzies.

"I recognise him," says one woman.

"Oh yeah, he's definitely been in stuff," says a bloke.

"Like on TV?" says another woman.

The bloke gets out his phone. "Ah, here we are. Err. Casino Royale? He was definitely in Game of Thrones. He was, err, he was a lord. One of the lords. But, yeah. He was definitely in Game of Thrones."

Now, this is a perfect example of why up-to-date biographies are important.

As we go back in, something occurs to me and I pull the programme out of my bag.

I scan the cast list. Then the production team. Then the creative team.

processed_MVIMG_20190713_203600.jpg

Huh. That's weird.

I go to the biographies and check there, just in case.

Nope.

The dog isn't credited. His handler is. But there's no mention of who is playing Max.

What kind of bullfuckery is this? What kind of person doesn't credit a dog given half a chance?

We've got Dying and Breakdown, Chaperones, Masks, Tech week buyer (I have no idea what this is...), Masks, a Safeguarding Consultant (I really don't envy the person doing this role), and, yes, Dog Handler. But no dog.

He's out there. Every night. Doing some spectacular work. And we don't even know his name?

I am outraged and offended and...

The plays starting again.

I sit and seethe until Max reappears. Aww. He really is lovely. I adore big dogs. Especially ones as handsome as this.

Stuart Campbell's character gives him a treat and kisses him on the snout.

What a darling.

The dog I mean.

I swear if anything happens to him...

Oh, you absolute fucking fuckers.

Mmmama who bopped me

I have to admit, I don't know anything about my next theatre. Not for lack of trying though. I've been on the Stockwell Playhouse website a lot, but even with that research happening, the things I've learnt are limited to the following: it's in Stockwell, there is lift access to all floors, and they have very short runs of musicals, spaced very far apart. That's it. I don't know whether it's a receiving house or a producing one. I don't even know if the shows are amateur productions. I just know that they have Spring Awakening on tonight, and I am going.

I've never seen Spring Awakening before, but I hear it's rather good. Nicki from my work, who went to see Six with me all those months back, claims it's her favourite musical. She saw it on Broadway, because of course she did. I'm perfectly willing to believe it's great. Duncan Sheik did the music after all, and I'm a major fan of American Psycho: The Musical.

Anyway, here I go. Short walk from Stockwell tube station and... that is not what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting. But not that.

There, directly opposite the traffic lights, is a large, modern building. With a glass-fronted ground floor. It doesn't look anything like a theatre. If I had to guess, I would say... I don't know... a gym maybe? But that's it. And the reason I know that's it, is because there are twin screens over the doorway, flashing and displaying the name: Stockwell Playhouse, as if we were standing outside some regional cinema or something.

Lots of people are going in.

Looks like Spring Awakening is the hot ticket in Stockwell tonight.

Inside there's a small foyer, and then the box office, in its own little hut. The box officer sealed off behind glass windows.

I join the queue and half a minute later it's my turn.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193103.jpg

I give my name and to my surprise the box office starts flicking through a ticket box. For some reason, I hadn't expected there to be paper tickets. I thought we'd be fully in check-list country here but it seems not. There it is, in my hand. With no fuss whatsoever. I didn't even need to confirm my first name. It was just given to me.

Well, I better go see what's happening upstairs then.

First stop, the bar. It's very busy in here. Very, very busy. So busy, I'm not sure I could even squeeze myself in. There's a pink light glowingly hazily over the crowd. I try to get a photo, but there's just too many people for me and my inferior photography skills to capture any sense of the space, so I move on. Further down the corridor.

On the walls, rehearsal photos have been arranged in neat patterns. I've noticed that this seems to be rather a thing in amateur theatre. This sticking of photos on the wall. Kinda reminds me of when I was at school, and they'd blutack all the play photos to try and convince our parents to purchase copies.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193156.jpg

There's a group of young women getting their tickets checked at the door to the theatre and chatting about some mutual acquaintance

"Can I interest you in a programme?" asks the ticket checker, putting on her best sales assistant voice. "Only one pound fifty."

"Does it have a picture of him in it?" asks one of the girls.

"It does!" The ticket checker flicks through the pages and turns around the programme to prove the existence of this photo. "There," she says, pointing to one of the headshots.

"Well, alright then."

"You have to get it," says her friend. "So you can ask him to sign it."

"Exactly!" agrees the ticket checker.

The girl is convinced. She reaches for her purse.

The other ticket checker spots me, and she leans around the group to reach for my ticket.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask. I want in on this headshot action.

"That's one pound fifty," she says, pulling one from her pile in readiness as I try to find the coins.

"Bargain," I say as I hand over the funds. It really is. By the looks of it, there is quite a few pages in that thing.

"Enjoy the show!" she wishes me as I take the programme and move on.

Everyone is so cheerful tonight. I can feel it in the air. The energy is crackling.

Although, that could just be the air con.

I'm in the theatre now and it's like a fridge.

I shiver as I find my seat in the front row and take off my jacket.

It's big in here. Like, properly big. No circle on anything, but the stalls go back quite a ways. And it's, you know, a theatre. Fixed seating. None of that temporary nonsense, or a room filled with chairs. Even the front row is on a rake, with a little step up from the entrance. And there's a raised stage. A bit thrusty, but nothing major. And a good size for a musical. I like it.

"Oo. It's cold in here," says a man as he walks in.

It is. And it's wonderful.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193327.jpg

I have a look at the programme, and yup. It’s an amateur production. There’s a note from the director. You only ever get those in am dram programmes. And yes, look - there’s that crediting line you always get at these things: “This amateur production is presented by arrangement…” blah blah blah.

Well, that’s one mystery solved at least.

A young woman comes in. She's carrying far too many drinks.

"There you are!" she cries out to the other, equally young, woman sitting two seats away from me.

"What's all this?"

"This one's yours," she says and through some shared shuffling they manage to get a bottle out from between her fingers. Then she turns to me. "Sorry," she says. "I don't know you but can you hold this?"

She's holding out a plastic cup of water. "Don't worry," I say, taking it from here. "I have a spare pair of hands."

Now down to only two drinks she can get on with the business of organising herself and sitting down.

"I like your t-shirt, by the way," she says to me, dumping her bag down. "I want to a Hanson Christmas concert a few years back..." She then tells me this story about how they didn't sing MmmBop, because, well, it was a Christmas concert, and her friend never forgave her because of it.

I nod along and make sympathetic noises.

I don't have the heart to tell her it's actually a joke Nirvana t-shirt.

Oh well. No time for that anyway. The show is starting.

And, oh great. I'm getting a serious case of costume envy again. Everyone is dressed in black and white. The girls in black dresses with white detailing and the boys in natty breeches and jackets. I really want some. The breeches I mean. They look so comfy. Like pyjamas. And yet with that whole 19th-century German schoolboy groove going on.

The music's good too. It's very Duncan Sheik. Can spot his stuff a mile off. If only because he has this habit of building up a serious tune, and then suddenly stopping it just as it gets going. Like an Oscar's speech cut off when it gets too political. Like, we all want to hear some A-lister ranting on about the president, but there's a time limit and we've got six major awards to get through before the commercial break.

Now, I’m all for short musicals. The shorter the better, quite frankly. A nice ninety-minuter fits in well with my whole in-bed-by-ten way of life. But come on Duncan, finish the damn songs.

Still, it's fun. Even as they warn us about the dangers of an abstinence-only sex ed policy. Who can resist the sight of these prim Calvinist kids rocking out to these serious bangers?

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193410.jpg

In the interval, there's a race to the bar. I don't know how they all fit in that room, but they must have done, because when the audience comes back, they've tipped over from pleasingly tipsy to properly pissed.

One young man starts pulling out Dairylea Dunkers and handing them out to his mates, which is a hell of a choice of something to be munching on in the theatre. Crunchy and dippy? That's intense. Is this the future of theatre snacking? What next? Houmous and crudites?

As the lights dim, the drunken shushing stretches well into the first song, and the audience is there, right in the action.

You can hear the wimpering when the gun comes out, and as it gets aimed under a chin a cry of "Jesus Christ!" echoes down from the back of the auditorium. Followed by cries of "oh no! Don't!" as one of the girls gets led off. We all know what's going to happen. And this lot are really feeling it.

At the end, there's a standing ovation.

I don't join them.

Not because it wasn't good, just, you know, I see a lot of shows and I can't go around ovating for everything. I like to save them. Hold them back for the productions and performances that kick me right in the belly and leave me utterly winded.

"Night folks!" says one of the front of housers as we make our way back down the stairs.

No one replies. They're all too busy humming the tunes.

Wyrd Smells

This seems to be the week of controversial theatres. It was only last month that the Courtyard Theatre was getting dragged across The Stage for late payment of artists and “unclean working conditions.” There was mention of mice, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a theatre in London without them. At one of the theatres I worked at, we could feel the mice running across our feet all day while sitting at our desks. And that wasn’t some crummy arts centre or dodgy fringe venue. Quite the opposite. It was a rather fancy producing house. The type that has West End transfers on the reg. So, you know, not sure complaining about mice should really be a thing. Late payment though… yeah, that sucks.

Anyway, it’s a return visit for me. Done the Main House already, and now it’s time to tackle the Studio. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been checking the website every week since January, looking for a show in this space. For months, there was nothing. Just the odd music gig, which doesn’t count. But finally, finally, I got one. A play. In the studio. On for one night only, but no matter. I switched my plans around and got myself booked in.

The fact that it’s Shakespeare. And even worse, Macbeth, hardly seemed worth worrying about.

Inside, down the green stairwell, and I'm thinking that not much has changed since my last visit other than a switch up in the posters stuck to the wall, but no... I was wrong. I turn the corner and stop. I can't go any further because there's a queue taking up the last few steps. A queue leading to the box office. The proper hole in the wall one. Not just some front of houser with a clipboard.

We shuffle our way down the steps as we get checked in.

"It's a company ticket?" says the girl in front of me as the box officer tries to find her name. "My friend organised it."

"Ah!" He switches to a different list. Nods as he finds her, and hands her a freesheet.

She immediately opens it and turns it upside down. "Oh wow! He's actually in it!" she exclaims, before heading off to the bar with a big grin on her face.

They're clearly very close.

My turn.

"Is it company tickets or did you buy them online?" asks the box officer when I give me name.

"I actually bought a ticket," I say, with the same tone you'd use when admitting the designer gear you're sporting is fake. "With money," I add, just for added clarification, that yes, it's from a dodgy market stall and definetly made by child labour.

"You bought a ticket?" he says surprised, switching from the handwritten list to the printed one. "Great! Can you remind me of the name."

I spell it out for him again. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

"Smiles," he says, finding it on the list and drawing a line through it. "There you go." He hands me a freesheet.

It's rather handsome. Black cover. A red sword-tree hybrid thing going on. And the title, in a pseudo-Mackintosh font (Charles Rennie rather than Cameron) that shouldn't work, but kinda does. Must be some deep underlying Scottish aesthetic connection.

I don't actually know where the studio theatre is in this place, but I do know where the bar is, so I go there. This place is a warren of corridors and stairwells. The type of place where you have to be lead about by a front of houser, who have all presumably spent decades training so that they know the different routes. Ushers at the Courtyard are the sherpas of the theatre world.

It's pretty busy in here. This surprises me. Somehow I didn't have a fringe Macbeth performed in a studio space for one night only being much of a hot ticket, but look at all these people, drinking and laughing and... reading their freesheets upside down.

Hang on. That's weird. Even for Shakespeare audiences.

I get out my own freesheet.

And immediately turn it around the other way.

Ah, I see the problem. They forgot to switch the printer options to flip on the short edge rather than the default long edge. An easy to make mistake. Which is why you must always do a test print when making folded freesheets.

processed_MVIMG_20190711_191408.jpg

But, you know, apart from the printing snafu, they're alright. They even have a spoiler section in the synopsis, which is frickin' adorable on a four hundred year old play if you ask me.

Plus, a two hour run time. Which suits me just fine because I am so tired everything is starting to look a bit fuzzy around the edges.

More people are coming in and there's lots of kissing and hugging as they all recognise one another. I try to get a photo of the bookshelf wallpaper that covers one side of the bar, but there are too many people in the way.

"Do you know someone in the show?" a woman asks a guy she just got talking to.

"No, we just thought we'd check it out," comes the reply.

She nods slowly and stares into her drink. "Niceee," she says before quickly walking away.

"Ladies and gentleman," calls a voice from the doorway. "The house for Macbeth is now open. If you'd like to make your way through the door here."

I sling my bag up over my shoulder, ready for the long trek through the building, but the front of houser has only taken a few steps into the corridor and is now holding a door open that leads to the room right behind the bookshelf wall.

It's dark in here. Really dark. And filled with haze.

I'm vaguely away of a railing on one side of my, leading me around the back of the room and down a ramp.

processed_MVIMG_20190711_210022.jpg

At the bottom of the ramp I blink into the glare of a spotlight and try to make sense of the space. There's a wooden floor. A low ceiling. The walls are black. A single rows of chairs on each side, and multiple rows at each end.

I'm not sitting on the sides. That's all front row, and while Macbeth isn't usually interactive, you can never trust studio-based Shakespeares to stick to the script.

I'm going to the far end. Second row. The third row is up on a platform. A really high platform. I think it might actually be the stage. Which is taking the rake a bit too far if you ask me.

Anyway, from my second-row seat, I can see straight through the door that leads backstage, and I keep on getting glimpses of tartan, which is rather pleasing. And what looks like a tin bath full of bricks.

processed_MVIMG_20190711_192936.jpg

It is warm though. Very warm. We are basically in an underground heat trap. The low ceiling and intense spotlight aren't helping.

Everyone starts wafting themselves with their freesheets.

I dig around in my bag and pull out my fan. Two hours down here is going to be a bit of a challenge.

More people come in, shading their eyes against that intense light.

The seats are filling up.

A group of women walk down towards my end of the room and examine the stage situation. They can't work out how to get up there. One brave soul slings her bag onto the stage, and then using her knee to heave herself after it, crawls her way up with a grunt.

The things we do for theatre.

The seats are all full now. Well, not quite. There's a few strategically placed reserved signs dotted around. A girl comes over and looks at the one in the row in front of me. And then looks around elsewhere. There's nowhere left for her to go.

Using a well of logic that I've never had access to, she slips behind me and sits herself down on the edge of the stage.

Right then. We're ready to begin.

Macbeth. Act one.

processed_IMG_20190711_192957.jpg

You'd think this would be the perfect Shakespeare for me. What with the dark themes and murder and intrigue and strong women and daggers and tartan and misty backdrop. But no, I think it's super dull. And while I'm not hating this production, the source material ain't doing anything for me.

Also, I'm noticing a strange smell. Musty. And damp. Like a swimsuit that's been shoved inside a suitcase at the end of the holiday and never unpacked.

Is this part of the design? An olfactory layer to the play? I have another sniff. It's not there all the time, but it comes in strong waves whenever one of the actors wearing tartan appears. Oof. Poor them. That must be really unpleasant to be wearing. Like having a wet dog deciding they want to sleep on your lap all evening. Petrichor, but like... gross.

As the story moves to the feast, actors filled the reserved seats so that we are all sitting around the table, staring Macbeth freaks out at the sight of Banquo and his gory locks.

As soon as the actors clear the stage for the interval, I bolt back up the ramp, through the bar, up the green staircase and outside.

It's still really warm out here, but I lean against the outside wall in bliss, enjoying what little breeze there is.

Soon I'm joined by all the smokers in the audience and from their chatter it becomes very clear what type of people I'm spending the evening with.

"My mum directed him in a play."

"Yeah, so I got accepted into that playwrighting scheme."

"Are you taking it to Edinburgh this year?"

"We did a show together at university."

One of the front of housers comes around the corner holding a carrier bag, looking for all the world like he just popped into the corner shop during the interval. "Anyone for Macbeth, the show will be starting again in a few minutes," he says as he wanders back through the doors.

We all follow him.

The theatre is almost empty. Everyone is still up in the bar.

There's some stormy, drumming, atmospheric song filling the space, which my phone assures me is Helvegen by Wardruna.

One of the actors appears and starts removing the reserved signs from the seats. We're done with that part of theatricality.

A bell rings. A proper theatre bell. And soon the audience begins to make it's way back down from the bar.

And we're back. This time with swords. And I'm betting they came from the same place they got the tartan because those fuckers look heavy.

As the blades clash, a woman in my row jumps, her feet creeping up onto her seat as she hugs her knees and leans back as far the fuck away from the stage as she can least she get stuck by a flying weapon.

The three witches take up spots in the corner of the room, breathing through open mouths, almost growling like dogs as they weave their spell around the characters, leading off the dead to have their wicked ways with the entrails offstage.

And then it's over. And I can go the fuck home.

I hurry out, aiming for Old Street station. Straight up the Northern Line and home by 10, that's the plan.

I get out my phone to check the time. 10.15pm. Ten-fucking-fifteen.

Dammit.

But to be fair, it's my fault.

You should never trust a Shakespeare play that claims to be only two hours.

Who let the dogs out?

I’m back at the Young Vic tonight.

And no, we’re not talking about all that stuff going on. I’m not getting involved. I don’t know what’s going on and I refuse to have an opinion on the matter.

Not that I haven’t been thinking about it. A lot. And talking about it. A lot. It doesn’t help that one of the upcoming shows at my work features a dancer in… that show. I mean, how do you credit that in a biography without sounding like you are taking sides?

No. We’re not talking about it. Not here.

The controversy doesn’t seem to have damaged attendance figures though. The Cut is absolutely thronging with people having a last drink and a cigarette before going in. That Death of a Salesman is a juggernaut, and nothing can get in its way.

I’m not here to see that though.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say to the lady behind the box office. “It’s for Ivan and the Dogs,” I add hurriedly as her hands reach for the larger of the two ticket boxes on the counter. I allow myself a smug smile. It isn’t often I manage to remember the name of a play in these situations.

She nods and digs out my ticket. “Maxine? You’re in the far corner,” she says, pointing off to the other side of the bar.

Ticket in hand, I launch myself into the crowded bar and head in the direction she was pointing. And find myself back in the exact same place I queued for Bronx Gothic on my last visit. The signage, stencilled onto the brickwork, is on the same patch of wall. And the arrow is pointing towards the same door.

I begin to panic.

Don’t tell me that I booked into the same venue twice. Please don’t tell me that.

I check my ticket.

Nope. It’s the Clare. Not the Maria.

Okay then. We’re alright.

There’s an usher on the door. Sorry, scrap that. There’s a member of the Welcome Team on the door. But no one else. It’s too early for the queue to start forming. And I’m not about to start it.

I turn around and go outside, finding a spare patch of wall to prop myself against and check my emails.

I seem to be leaning against some posters. I look over my shoulder to see what they are advertising.

Oh.

It’s Tree.

Because of course it is.

“Are you watching the show tonight?”

I look up. It’s a Welcome Teamer.

“Yes?”

“Death of a Salesman?”

Ah. I see. “No. No. No,” I assure here. “I’m here for the other one.” Which I’ve already forgotten the name of.

“That’s alright then,” says the Welcome Teamer, and she’s soon off rounding up any other wall-hangers.  “Are you watching Death of a Salesman? Are you watching Death of a Salesman?”

I wait a few more minutes, until the start time of the main house show has safely passed, then I go back in.

The bar is empty.

Well, relatively. Can the bar at the Young Vic ever be said to be truly empty?

At the far end, there’s a queue under the Ivan and the Dogs sign.

processed_IMG_20190710_193121.jpg

Not a big one. But then, it’s not a big venue. I hurry over and join the end of it.

A Welcome Teamer makes his way down the line. “I’m going to tear the tickets now,” he explains. “Make it nice and easy when you go in. The show is an hour and five minutes, and no interval.”

I give him my ticket, and he rips off the stub. And a large chunk of the actual ticket. But no matter. I may be precious about getting paper tickets, but what happens to them afterwards doesn’t bother me. I probably don’t need to tell you that I am the sort of person who cracks the spines of her paperbacks and folds down pages to mark my space. Adds character, you know.

The line is growing, almost reaching the box office now.

We wriggle and flow, breaking apart and shivering back into place, as people squeeze past us.

“Beep, beep!” says a staff members pushing a flat trolley. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The queue goes into Red Sea mode, parting for him and then splashing back into place as soon as the Deliverer of Trollies has passed through.

I jump aside for people going to the loo. For a waitress returning plates to the kitchen. For Welcome Teamers. More piss-takers. And more bar staff.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says a waitress as she moves nimbly through the queue up towards the bar.

Honestly, the Young Vic really need to get this queue situation sorted. It’s impossible. I hope it’s next on the list after… well… you know.

I use the time to massage my hands. Work is really doing a number on me at the moment. I thought it would be the marathon that would kill me, but now I think my job might get in there first. Eleven pages of programme amends typed up before 10am this morning, and my hands are cramped the fuck up.

“Hi guys!” says the Welcome Teamer on ticket duty. “If we could make a little room for my colleague here,” he says, leading the way for the trolley pusher, now with his vehicle laden with two huge bins full to the brim with empty wine bottles.

We all shuffle out of their way, reforming the queue in their wake.

“Have I ripped you?” asks the Welcome Teamer as the trolley pusher disappears through the doors. We all nod. All ripped round here.

As one, the two Welcome Teamers open up the double doors with such ceremony I almost expect there to be a trumpet player on the other side ready to launch into a fanfare.

Instead the cry of “Has everyone been ripped?” reigns out as we walk through.

“Just remember to turn off your phone,” comes the voice of a Welcome Teamer as we make our way down the hall. “Straight down and to the right.”

I try to work out were we are in relation to the Maria, but it’s dark and this place is a labyrinth. I just focus on following everyone else and not getting lost.

Straight down. Turn right.

And there we are. The Clare. Bright and shining after so long in the dark.

A Welcome Teamer in a red polo shirt is handing out freesheets. “Wherever you like,” he says, indicating the multitude of options there are with seating.

The stage is a small square, set in the middle of the room at an angle. Around in, on four sides, are four matching banks of seats. Two rows. Seats set into wooden fortresses. The same colour as the walls, which look like someone has been having a lot of fun with panels of plywood and a nail gun.

I pick a seat in the second row, on the end, so that I’m forming a point of the diamond.

The seats begin to fill up.

“If you’re holding drinks,” announces the Welcome Teamer, “keep hold of them and don’t put them on the floor.”

“What did he say?” asks my neighbour.

“Don’t put your drinks on the floor,” her friend replies, with an audible roll of the eyes.

I say fair enough though. There isn’t much legroom and cups are liable to get kicked down there. And with all this pale wood… well, I wouldn’t envy the poor sod attempting to scrub red wine out of it.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts inspecting it. “This doesn’t tell you what it’s about,” she says. “It’s just who’s in it.”

I open up my own to have a look for myself. She’s not wrong. There’s a cast list. And two biogs. One for the writer. One for the director. Nothing about the actor… which seems like a strange decision to make when there’s only one of them.

No dogs I notice. I do enjoy a dog on stage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the top things I enjoy seeing. I’ve even been known to book a show on the strength of its canine casting. I would say the same about cats, but I think I’ve only seen a cat once on stage. In an opera. She was called Girlie and she was very talented. Really captured the essence of ‘cat’ by sleeping and then running off stage.

“They’ve added in these seats,” my neighbour continues. “I wonder if they had complaints.”

Yes, I was wondering about that. Not the late addition of them, I’ve never been in this space before. But their arrangement. Actual chairs, sunk into wooden structures. Their legs hidden in the box below. “Before you just sat on it,” she explains.

That doesn’t sound all that comfy. This arrangement is much better. Even if it is a little bit odd-looking.

processed_IMG_20190710_194752.jpg

The actor, Alex Austin comes out and perches on the edge of the stage. He looks sad. I’m not surprised. Probably got a look at those freesheets.

The Welcome Teamer is hanging out the door, peering down the dark corridor, on the lookout for latecomers.

Someone does come in.

She takes one of the reserved seats, just across from me. She gets out a notebook and positions it on her lap.

Time for another round of Blogger or Director? Nah. I recognise her. No missing that fabulous hair. So shiny. Straight out of a Pantene ad. She used to work at my work. And now look at her! A fancy director.

The lights dim.

Austin gets up. He’s ready to tell us a story. A story of fists and fear and running away. A story of hunger and hiding. A story of dogs.

He pauses, grinning as he looks around the audience, after telling us about how the white dog ate his potato.

We all aww in response. A couple sitting across from me look at each other and smile.

We are all utterly charmed.

The lights flash back on. I’m left squinting against the brightness. Austin turns around, holding our stares, not allowing us to blink.

I curl round my shoulders and try to hold his gaze against the onslaught of the light, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

Just as my poor eyes grow used to this blazing light, the theatre dims once more.

Austin finishes his story. A few snuffles make their way around the audience.

He’s moved on. Started a new life.

And at the end, it is the empty stage that gets the spotlight.

Our applause brings him back though. He bows in one direction, and then the other, before bouncing off the stage and out the door in a gigantic leap that he must have learnt from the dogs.

Pas de Door

Honestly, for someone who actually went and sat through the whole grinding ninety minutes of Magic Mike Live, I’m feeling more than a little awkward walking into the Above the Stag to see Boy Toy. The artwork doesn’t help. With the half-nakedness and very shiny pants. But that’s the Above the Stag for you. Shiny pants seem to be the default setting for their marketing.

In my defence, if a defence is required, I picked this show because it’s based on the ballet Coppélia, and I love Coppélia. Okay, I don’t love Coppélia. It’s a bit silly, even by ballet standards, and doesn’t have the genius of a choreographer like Ashton to elevate the silly story into silly art. But you know, it’s alright. I enjoy Coppélia, and watch it quite happily whenever it’s revived.

If you don’t know the story, and frankly, I can’t imagine you would, think Pygmalion. But the original one. As in, the Greek myth where a sculptor falls in love with a statue. But in Coppélia’s case, the statue is a mechanical doll, and it’s not the maker who goes falling in love, but a passing young man, who sees the doll in the window and decides that the porcelain princess is way hotter than the girl he has waiting for him at home. As you can imagine, the girl isn’t all that impressed by her boyfriend trying to get with a wind-up doll, and decides to get her own back on him. Chaos ensues but true love prevails. Eventually.

So, here I am to see William Spencer’s take on this ridiculous tale.

processed_MVIMG_20190709_183936.jpg

It’s pretty quiet. No nearly as busy as the last time I was here. There’s no one at the bar and most of the tables are empty. That’s what happens with a 7pm start in a studio space, I suppose. No one wants to be drinking that early on a Tuesday. Or perhaps everyone is still getting over Pride weekend. The Pride flags are still out in force outside the theatre, in a rainbow coloured bunting running out to the nearest tree.

I take up position on the end of the bar, the end with the huge TICKETS sign glowing above, and wait. Someone joins me and soon we are a nice little queue waiting for service.

It looks like the bar staff are having a meeting down the other end, but they spot us soon enough and one of them comes over.

I give my surname and he scrolls around on the touch screen in search of my booking. “Maxine?” he asks.

I confirm that I am indeed Maxine and soon my ticket is chugging on the little printer they have behind the bar. The one that spurts out soft paper, like a receipt. I rather like them.

“Oh, um,” I say, suddenly remembering something. “I think I ordered a-“

“Programme?” he says, completing the sentence for me. He grabs one from the display on the counter and hands it over.

processed_MVIMG_20190709_184417.jpg

That’s the kind of service I like. Providing the words that my brain can’t form in the moment.

With my programme and ticket, I set up shop at one of the posing tables and look around, taking in the theatre goers. And for once, the other theatre goers are also looking at me. I can’t blame them. It’s becoming increasing obvious that I am not the target audience for this show, being as I am, how shall I say this… a woman. Now, I don’t want to make any presumptions here, but I think I can safely say I have the only female presenting person in this bar right now.

I don’t think this has happened yet. I mean, yes - audiences have been heavily male at some shows. Not many. But some. There was that chemsex play at the Courtyard and ummm… no, I think that was it.

Outside, there’s a small group of people drinking beside the tree. And look - there’s a woman! But when the doors open and we start going through, the group stays outside. Whatever brought them to the Above the Stag tonight, it wasn’t a Coppélia retrelling.

I show my receipt paper to the ticket checker and he nods me through the door. Here, instead of turning right into the main space, we go left, into the studio.

As studios go, it’s not a bad stage. Long and thin, taking up almost the entire length of the space. If you’re going to put dance in a studio, this is the kind of space you want. Give the dancers a bit of room to leap around.

There’s only three rows of chairs, set up against the long wall.

I go for the back row.

I don’t want to be taking away any good seats from the core audience here. But as it turns out, the third row is pretty popular. It’s the second row that people are avoiding. No one likes being trapped in the middle.

A young man comes in and after testing out a few places in the bank of seats right on the end, comes over to me.

“Is any one…?” he asks, with a hand gesture that encapsulates the rest of the question.

“Oh, go for it,” I say, with a matching hand gesture.

The two of us, this young man and me, have to be the only people in the audience below the audience below the age of fifty. We are in serious middle aged white male territory here. It’s almost like being at the Royal Opera House.

The music that’s been filling the room comes to a sudden halt, and a man runs in from the foyer to manually set it up again before rushing back out into the foyer. Looks like the tech team are also on front of house duty tonight.

It’s past seven now. We should have already started. They must be holding the start for some latecomers.

I have a look at the programme. At only £2.50 it is quite the bargain. I mean, it’s not stuffed full of interesting articles or glossy photos, but it does the business, and is a nice enough souvenir. Even if it does have a typo on the first page. Seriously though, no judgement. I’ve done plenty worse in my programmes. And anyway, what do you want for £2.50? Especially for a studio theatre work. I sure as hell don’t make proper programmes for the stuff in the studio where I work. Audiences get freesheets and they’re grateful for it.

Surely we must be starting soon?

I put the programme away in readiness.

The tech person is still out in the hall.

Probably on the lookout for those latecomers. Bet they’re stuck on the Northern Line somewhere. What a fucking kerfuffle that was this morning. Our driver kept on telling us to get off, that despite all the announcements to the contrary, the train was going to be diverted to Charing Cross any moment, and then, as soon as we get to Camden, he blazes right through the Bank branch and I end up exactly where I want to be. Honestly, is it any wonder that Londoners cannot follow signage. We’re taught from our first day in this city that it’s all nonsense. It doesn’t take more than a month to find out that No Entry signs on the underground are nothing more than an indication that there’s a short cut happening nearby.

While we wait, I sit back and take in the set. It’s very simple. Three doorways, all lit up in neon. Rather effective in real life, but an absolute arse to capture effectively in a photo.

processed_IMG_20190709_190023.jpg

Finally, the tech person comes in and takes up his spot behind the desk in the corner.

Looks like we’re ready to begin.

Music starts.

The doorways flash in time with the beat.

Someone near me gives an appreciative snort.

Looks like we’re getting a dance of the flashing doorways. One could say it’s a… Pas de Door.

Oh, come on! That was a fucking fantastic pun and you know it. So, don’t you dare pull that face.

Well, funny or no, those doors are still dancing. Looks like we’re getting the full on overture. Seems a bit much considering the entire show is only an hour. You’d think the choreographer would want to use every second, but hey - I’m not a dance-maker. I’m sure there is some artistic reason for this very long intro.

Eventually, we get some dancers. And some rather fab punnage. I mean, not as good as mine. But nothing in the world is going to top Pas de Door this century. But we get our cast partying at the Gay Barre, before popping into Cocksta for their morning coffee, and then escaping Homo Sweet Homo for a rather balletic sex scene.

As for the doll… well, he’s a mannequin in a sex shop window, because of course he is.

But doesn't Saul Kilcullen-Jarvis look an absolute darling dressed up as the doll? With his little t-shirt and shiny shorts. Good on Andrew Beckett for making those designs happen. And, I mean... that is some great casting right there. I don't think I've ever seen someone how looks so like a Ken doll brought to life than this handsome fellow.

In fact, they are all darlings. I just want to pinch their collective cheeks.

Although perhaps not while they are in the midst of a dildo fight. That looks dangerous.

It is a shame that they're using the Delibes music though. Or at least, music based on the Delibes. I just can't imagine those jaunty tunes being played within the back room of a sex shop somehow. Not very sleazy Soho. Feels like a wasted opportunity when they could have had some proper club bangers for them to pirouette too. William Forsythe managed it in Playlist. Okay, he's Forsythe. Literally the greatest living choreographer. And the all-male cast of English National Ballet dancers was pretty spectacular. And they too looked darn cute in their costumes, matching red American football jerseys, with their surnames printed across the back. And yeah, it's true, Playlist 1, 2 ranks as perhaps the greatest piece of dance I've ever seen. So great I almost went to Paris to watch the follow-up works of Playlist 3, 4. But like, if I wanted to watch boys dancing around to a nineteenth-century ballet score, I'd book tickets to see the Trocks.

Oh well. Can't have everything, I suppose.

I got my puns. I should be content with that.

As the dancers give their final bows, someone sitting near me leans over to the person he's with. "Now, where else could we find high art like this?"

Where indeed.

Still, we're just a short walk to Vauxhall station. Up over the bridge and there we are.

Not even that much past eight right now. I can pop into Tesco on my way home. Perhaps even shove some laundry in the machine, Need to finish that blog post on the Gielgud too... Oh god. So much for an early night.

As I stand on the platform, an announcement pumps through the speakers. "The Northern Line will close at 21.30 to allow our engineers to repair a fault. This means you should complete your journey before 21.30."

Fucking hell... Closing the Northern Line... as someone who both lives and works on the Northern Line, this week has been fucking brutal.

Thank the theatre gods for short plays and early starts. I may have had to sit through unnecessary Delibes, but at least I don't have to get the bus home afterwards.

processed_MVIMG_20190709_200530.jpg

Sweat-proof and transfer-resistant

More bag checks. It’s weird to think there was a time when this didn’t feel normal. That you could walk into a West End theatre without revealing on the embarrassing items that you tote around with you.

The bag checker on duty at the Gielgud clicks her little torch and peers inside the black depths of my rucksack. All good. The torch clicks off. “Mind the step and ticket collection is on the left,” she says all in one breath.

Right then. Better go left.

There’s a neat desk set into the wall over here. Which would seem like the perfect location for a box office. But the people at Gielgud Towers (or should I say Mackintosh House, home to Delfont Mackintosh, which is right next door) wouldn’t agree. Oh no. They have their ticket collection point on a small concession desk. The type where you’d expect to buy a programme, and maybe a bag of Minstrels.

But there's no bag of Minstrels here. Just tickets.

I join the queue and look around.

The Gielgud is a bit fancy, isn’t it? I mean, you kinda expect that from a theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, but this one really is glowing.

There’s an oval-shaped mezzanine above the foyer, and people are up there, leaning on the balustrade to gaze down on all the newcomers, like sneaky angels perching on the edge of an oculus.

processed_MVIMG_20190708_191650.jpg

Small spotlights are placed strategically to make the gilded walls glow and shimmer. It’s all rather spectacular.

It is entirely the wrong place to watch SWEAT.

This tale of the American factory workers is much better suited to its original home at the Donmar Warehouse. I saw it there last year. One of the last productions I went to before going into marathon-mode. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Perhaps it was just suffering from being overhyped, but I thought it was just a whole pile of words, and I wasn’t that into it. I mean, it was fine. It’s not like I thought it was bad. Watchable, you know? But the Pulitzer prize win baffled me.

So, yeah. When the West End transfer was announced, I wasn’t all that enthused about going again. But I couldn’t get my act together early enough to book into Company, and I really didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of the Les Mis holding cell. So here we are. At SWEAT.

But I’m not mad at it. The theatre is nice. The seats are comfy. I can just lean back and maybe have a little nap.

I reach the front of the queue, give my name, and get my ticket. No fuss.

Right, where am I sitting?

Row A. Stalls.

Okay then. No napping for me. Martha Plimpton might notice. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s offend Martha Plimpton. She scares me.

When Martha Plimpton asked me to get out of the way at Shakespeare in the Abbey, I got the fuck out of the way.

I better go in before she tells the ushers to keep an eye on me.

Hmm. Not sure where I’m going.

There’s a door to the stalls over here, just up these steps. But then there’s another one across the other way. Neither of them have numbers on them, and my ticket doesn’t have a left or a right on it.

I pick a door at random. Which basically means I select the one closest to me.

The ticket checker leans around his doorway and hands a single ticket stub to the front of houser standing guard at the staircase leading up to the circle.

“Here you go,” he says with a big grin.

That’s… odd. But perhaps she collects ticket stubs. If so, she’s sure in the right job.

He glances at my ticket and let’s me through. So, I guess my guess was guessed right.

Down some stairs with some frankly exhaustingly patterned carpet, and an equally enthused wallpaper. I slow down so that I can admire the posters. They’re properly old ones. From back when a typesetter was king. All text. No images.

Probably for the best, given that wallpaper.

Lots of John Gielgud shows, which I suppose makes sense.

There’s only so much lingering in stairwells you can do with only text-based posters to look at, and I make my way to the bottom and into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. Which reminds me. I have the programme from the Donmar run, because of course I do. I wonder what they’ve done differently.

I buy one. It’s £4. Which is an alright price. Almost a bargain.

Let’s see what’s in it.

I find my seat, in the front row, stuff my bag and jacket under the seat and settle in for a good peruse of the programme. There’s an article by Stephen Bush. That was in the Donmar programme. “Class hatred is Britain’s original sin.” Nice. What else? Another article! That’s what. It’s not often you get double articleage in the West End, I can tell you that for sure. This one’s by Jocelyn L. Buckner. “Blood, sweat and tears.” About how Lynn Nottage empowered the residents of Reading with their own story. That… that sounds familiar. I check the photo I snapped this morning. “Labor Negotiations: The Power of Community Forged Through Sweat.” By Jocelyn L. Buckner. Same article. But with a souped up West End title.

There's also a short piece about Les Mis, which we definitely didn't get at the Donmar. But it's all facts and figures and numbers and dates, and my god it's boring. I mean, come on, this is just glorified marketing copy. No one wants to read that. And I say that as someone who writes marketing copy for a living.

There seems to be rather a lot of that here. Marketing under the guise of editorial. There's a whole thing about Mary Poppins just a few pages further in. This is the kind of stuff I put in brochures. Not programmes. Oh well, I suppose we can just chalk 'em up as ads and move on.

“I haven’t got a programme,” says my neighbour. “Will you be offended if I don’t spend money on a programme?”

Well, actually I would rather… Oh, he isn’t talking to me.

Ah.

I mean, perhaps he got himself one during the Donmar run. That might explain it. You’d have to be pretty darn obsessed with programmes to buy the exact same content, just in a different format, with added advertising...

“It’s stunning!” says his companion.

I look critically at the programme. It’s alright, I guess. Not quite the slick sophistication of the white and red Donmar programmes, but it’s got a nice image on the front.

She stands up to look around the auditorium.

My neighbour twists around in his seat. “Yes,” he agrees. “A real Edwardian gem.”

processed_MVIMG_20190708_191934.jpg

Honestly, it’s like these people aren’t even interested in programmes.

“The set is very evocative and very realistic. I don't think it's for doing things with, a la our national theatre,” continues my neighbour. “I suppose the men from the factory could come down from the pulleys but I don't think it’s the kind of play.”

He’s right. It’s not that kind of play. No swinging from the chandelier here. Although I’d have a great view of it if any of the cast fancy getting a bit acrobatic.

Someone in theatre blacks comes along to adjust all the small microphones set on the front of the stage. We all shuffle out knees around so that he can get through, but really, there’s plenty of room. I can stretch my legs right out and my toes don’t even touch the stage. Benefits of front rowing, I suppose. I should really do this more often.

processed_MVIMG_20190708_220935.jpg

The house lights dim and Martha Plimpton’s lovely voice comes over the sound system, telling us to switch off our phones. I’ve already put my phone away, but I get it out to double check that, yes, my phone is on airplane mode, and yes, it’s on silent too. Ain’t no buzzing going to interrupt Martha Plimpton’s flow. Not today.

Except, it’s not Martha Plimpton who comes out on stage.

It’s a man with tattoos. On his face. Nazi tattoos. On his face.

A man sitting really fucking close to me. With Nazi tattoos. On his face.

Shit. I’d forgotten about this.

I’m surprised about how uncomfortable it is. To be sitting so close to a man with Nazi tattoos. On his face. I know it’s not real. I know it’s just makeup. But I can’t help but think about the poor actor having to apply all that every day. And the momentary panic he must have every time they don’t wash off quite as quickly as they should.

But it’s only a framing device.

Soon enough, dust sheets are being pulled away, bits of set lowered from the rafters, and we're in a bar, and there's Martha Plimpton, dancing away. I think she might be a bit drunk.

At the Donmar, I was stuck right at the back of the circle. Watching the play from above. Here, well, I have quite the opposite angle. I can see right under the tables. I can even count all the bits of chewing gum stuck underneath.

And oh my lord, what a difference sitting close makes. I'm not going to start claiming that I believe in the second coming of SWEAT. But you know, it's good. I'm enjoying it.

And when Sebastián Capitán Viveros's Oscar flips over each of the tables in turn, and chisels off the chewing gum, I get a certain satisfaction seeing them turned back again, all clean and gum-free. Almost as if I'd hacked away at the white globs myself.

And when the fight scene comes, well, I find myself leaning as far back as I can, convinced that someone's going to come flying off the stage, legs and arms flailing, and quite possibly knock my nose off on their way down.

It doesn't help that it's a pretty fucking intense fight scene.

The audience audibly winces as Oscar takes a wallop to the stomach. A soft hiss of air escaping from between the audience members' teeth as he goes down.

Oof. That reqlly doesn't look good, mate.

Play over, I feel like I've been released. And not just because it was over two and a half hours.

I was pinned down for far too long. Pushed back into my chair with that heady stream of words.

I can see why people like sitting in the front row. But it's a bit too much for me. Too real. Too present. Too vulnerable-making.

And, let's be real. If a play is so intimate that it requires sitting in the front row in order to really feel it? Eh... I mean, perhaps a traditional theatre isn't the right place for it.

Anyway, another theatre checked off the list. Gielgud is done. And at least I don't have to debate with myself whether the staged theatrical concert version of Les Mis that's coming in next counts as theatre or not.

processed_MVIMG_20190708_192106_1.jpg

But you always knew that you'd be the one that work while they all play

"Can I check your bag?" asks the bag checker.

You sure can, my good man.

I open the zip to expose my fresh haul of cough sweets and hayfever tablets. Let me tell you, I am having a swell time this summer. With the itchy eyes and runny nose to add to that neverending cough of mine, I sure am the ideal theatre-goer at the moment. And I'm carrying it off so well. Really, I've never looked better. I've always though watery eyes were a hard look to pull off but I think I'm making it work.

He doesn't flinch.

Perhaps three bags of bright yellow cough sweets aren't the weirdest thing he's come across lately.

Search complete, he steps back and lets me through.

The foyer in the Leicester Square Theatre is tiny. A metre square, if that. With a proper hole-in-the-wall box office. My favourite kind.

There are already two people ahead of me in the queue. So I hang back, lest we end up getting a touch too cosy for so early in the evening.

"What's the name?" the lady behind the window asks.

"Err," he says, with a pause that goes on way too long for that kind of question. "The initials are KJ? I don't really want to say."

Blimey. Either he has a really dodgy name, or there's a new papering club that I haven't heard of.

Oh, yeah. I should probably say. I don't use any of those theatre ticket clubs for my marathon. Not because I don't want to, you understand. But because I'm not allowed to. Nothing to do with the blog. It's my job, you see. Can't become a member if you work in the industry. I mean, I suppose I could lie. But I'm kinda on record of working for a venue, so, yeah, that's out.

Anyway, good luck to this man and his ticket acquisition skills. And no shade meant to any venue or show that needs to fill a few seats. We've all done it. Trust me.

Mr KJ gets his tickets and moves on. My turn.

Now, I have a perfectly normal surname, so I just give that, and after confirming my first name, get my ticket.

After that, I go down the stairs. The walls are a deep, dark red. Which seems to me to be entirely the wrong colour to paint the walls of a stairwell that takes you down into a basement. But perhaps that's just because I'm watching Stranger Things at the moment. I’m primed to see monsters lurking behind every corner.

And it's not that scary down here. Yes, the walls are still red. But there's a massive concession counter taking up one wall. And things can't be scary when there are sweets on sale. I mean yes, Hansel and Gretel. But that witch wasn't selling and those kids were just little arseholes.

Anyway, there's a ticket checker on the door here.

"You're through this door," he says, pointing at the one just next to us. "There are bars inside."

"Thanks!"

"You're welcome," he says, handing my ticket back.

Aww. So polite. Bet he never stole gingerbread from an old lady.

processed_MVIMG_20190705_184329.jpg

Down a few more steps and I'm in the theatre. It's larger than I expected. All on one level. With a high stage. Which is a good thing, as when I sit down I discover that the rake is really terrible.

Without the benefit of anything happening on stage, all I have is a bloody good view of the backs of all the heads of the people sitting in front of me. Bent down as they read their programmes.

Hang on. Why don't I have a programme?

I look around. There aren't any programme sellers anywhere.

Perhaps I missed them at the concessions desk.

There are bars though. Two of them. One either side of the auditorium.

processed_MVIMG_20190705_184356.jpg

And both of them are branded up. With the name of the show emblazoned on the wall, and the merch covering every surface.

Right then.

"Hi, is there a programme?" I ask the bloke behind the bar.

He looks at me with confusion. Behind his head, draped across the back shelves are Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare t-shirts. Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare tote bags. And Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare hoodies. Surely it isn't too much to ask for a Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare programme?

"Err," he says. "They should be on the seats?"

"Umm?"

"Are they not?"

I turned around to look back at my row. If there are programmes, they must be Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare invisible. "No?"

He reaches under the bar and pulls one out.

Honestly. Good thing I asked.

As I return to my seat I notice that all the front rows have the things balanced on the armrests but my row? Nothing. Programme-less and empty.

We're being denied programmes just because we sit at the back of the theatre. As if we don't enjoy a good programme just because we are last-minute ticket buyers. Which is very untrue. There is no one in the world who loves programmes more than me.

To tell you the truth, I'm a little offended.

Especially because these are like, super nice programmes. They’re shiny. Very shiny. So shiny the words “wipe clean” pop up in my head and refuses to go away.

I decide very firmly not to think about the significance of that.

Instead I turn to the contents. My favourite thing in the whole world is when programmes reflect the show they're made for. And if this programme is anything to go by, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare is going to be full of drunk humour and dirty uncle jokes.

processed_IMG_20190705_184816.jpg

They even have the grown-up equivalent of when you add “Earth, The Milky Way, The UNIVERSE” to the end of your address when you're a kid - providing carrier pigeons coordinates to their contact us details. Coordiantes which, according to Google, are in a wind farm off Herne Bay... I may have typed it in wrong.

Let's try again.

51°44'26.67"N 1°13'52.35"W

Oxford.

Okay, that sounds much more likely. Drunk Shakespeare. Yup, sounds like Oxford to me.

Shame though. Rather liked the idea of them all getting pissed in an off-shore wind farm.

"Hello! Are you looking forward to this evening?"

I look around. There is a woman with the most extraordinary glittery eyeshadow standing in the row behind me. She's wearing a top hat and tails. Oh my...

"Oh, yeah," I say, as the only appropriate answer when asked this question by someone wearing sequins on their eyelids.

"Is this your first time here?"

I admit it is. As someone who likes neither Shakespeare, nor drunk people, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare is not a show that I would naturally gravitate towards.

"How did you hear about it, if you don't mind me asking?"

Oh… Am I doing this? Fuck it, yes I am.

"It's a bit of a strange one," I say. "I'm doing this challenge..."

And I tell her, all about this fucking marathon of mine.

Her eyes widen and her expression turns into what I like to think of as The Marathon Face. Slightly shocked, but mainly fighting between the twin emotions of horror and amusement. A kind of: oh god, who is this crazy person, and how can I get away from them, but also, can I get that URL?

"That's..."

"Yeah."

"How did you think of that?" she asks, leaning back against the chairs as she tries to take this information in.

I give her my potted answer. Had the idea a few years back... yadda yadda yadda. You've heard it.

"So, how many have you done?"

"160. Ish." The truth is I've forgotten. It's somewhere around there.

"And how many are there?"

"About 300." Yeah. About. I don't know the answer to that one either. In my defence though, it keeps on changing. Do you remember back when I started, and my original count was 231 theatres? Those were good times.

"Are you getting deals? Because that must cost a lot!"

"Yeah..." I sigh and tell her about press tickets and all that shit. I may not have access to papering clubs, but I have contacts... Not that I even have time to use any of them anymore. It takes... so long. Like seriously. It's so much effort. All that back and forth and negotiating dates and ergh... I don't... I just can't...

Still slightly baffled she heads off, probably feeling a lot more content with the way her own life is going. My marathon tends to have that effect on people.

I go back to the programme. And yup. There she is. Natalie Boakye. Favourite drink: Processo Rose apparently. And the worst thing she's done while drunk? "Thrown up in my hands, in a club, before midnight on NYE."

I try to think what's the worst thing I've ever done while drunk. Sitting my Chemistry A-level was always my go-to answer on this one. But I think we have a new winner now: going to Magic Mike Live.

I won't be forgetting that in a hurry.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. This evening’s performance will commence in two minutes," comes a voice over the sound system. I don't think I need to tell you who that voice belongs to. "May I remind you that any recording if this performance is strictly prohibited. Anyone caught going this may be asked to leave the building."

Wow, intense. I'm glad I've got all my auditorium photos done already. I don't want another Mountview situation.

Two minutes later, my top-hatted friend is up on stage, her sparkly eyes flashing as she whips up the audience.

"Cheer if it's your a first time," she shouts. The newbies duly cheer. Yes, including me. I can't let my new friend down now, can I?

"And if you've been here before..." She puts her hands up in twin claws and the Sh!t-faced Sycophants growl in response.

She explains the concept. One actor in the company has spent the past four hours getting drunk. With the finesse of a magician's assistant, she whips back a cloth and shows us what they've had.

A bottle of vodka.

I mean, okay. That's a lot. But sitting there, alone on the little trolley, it doesn't look all that impressive.

But never fear. There's more.

She brings out a bugle. "Who wants to have a go blowing on my horn?"

Someone in the front row volunteers. He isn't very good at it.

"Don't worry, you've got an hour to practice," she says.

Hopefully it won't take an hour, because that horn needs to get blown as soon as our drunk actor starts to sober up. On the sound of the horn, they get given another drink to down.

Next up, a gong. That goes to an audience member down the other end. Same rules.

Then there’s the bucket. A very large bucket. The sort they'd use for laundry in a bleak drama set in a mining town.

I don’t want to think about the bucket.

Not the wipe-cleaness of the programmes.

But just in case, our host has her own weapons. Which she'll bring out if the actor is either too sober, or... too far gone.

She runs off, giving way to the cast and... is that... is that Imagine Dragons? A... a slightly medieval sounding version of Imagine Dragons? It is! It's Believer! And the reason I know this (and I swear, if you tell anyone this, it'll be the end of you) is because I actually really like Imagine Dragons. Yeah, yeah. I know. They don't really mesh with the whole... whatever I've got going on, But look, some days I just need more from my tunes than Amaranthe can deliver. And Imagine Dragons does the business. Now you, shut up or I'll start commenting on what you have on your Spotify playlist.

Anyway, those banging beats done, we're off. Hamlet. With Hamlet himself played by David Ellis in a post a bottle of vodka capacity.

It doesn't take long for that bottle of vodka to make itself known, and Ellis is soon sucking Saul Marron's finger and making incest jokes with Claudius.

"We need a Polonius!"

Oh yeah. They don't have one of those. Turns out even when you cut down Hamlet to an hour and change, you still need a Polonius.

The audience is called open to provide, and a brave soul is brought on stage and given a hat to wear.

"Can you remind us what your first name is?" they ask him, in possibly the cruellest move that has ever happened on stage.

"Err, yes?" says the newly hatted Polonius, probably having GCSE English Lit flashbacks right now.

"Yes? Ah! The old Dutch name, Yaass," says Madeleine Schofield's Gertrude.

He's soon dismissed back to his seat, to enjoy an evening of Hamlet newly set in Broad City.

A few minutes later, the bugle sounds. Or at least, there's a spluttering whisper which I can only take to be an attempt on the instrument.

"You thought this was going too smoothly?" Ellis asks the bugle-player, and Boakye comes back onstage to pour out a bottle of beer and hand the pint to our Hamlet.

Ellis takes a break in drinking to tell us that when he's not being an actor, he works in a restaurant, and he just got fired tired.

Someone awws in the audience and he points in their general direction. "Someone went there. Thank you."

When we get to that speech, you know the one. The speech. The soliloquy. It's taken as a run-up and collapses into laughter halfway through the first line. We all hold our breaths as Ellis attempts to force the rest out in a single stream, and the relief when he gets to the end is released in a massive cheer.

The gong goes.

More beer!

Ellis wanders on and off stage, the pint glass in hand. Even when he's in the wings he manages to distract his fellow actors, as they react to his off-stage antics.

Boakye keeps a close eye on him. Replacing his dagger with a stuffed snake ("Nagini!") so he can't hurt himself, or anyone else. Although to be fair, he does his best. Even chucking the poor creature in the direction of the front row.

As for Yorrick, Ellis picks something out of the skulls eyesocket. "Sorry," he tells Beth-Louise Priestley's Horatia. "I stuck some chewing gum in there earlier."

But no amount of picking can save the ill-fated Ophelia. Or what's left of her anyway.

When her shrouded body is carried out on stage, Ellis makes a grab for it. "She's light as a feather," he announces. "But not stiff as a board." And with that, he lobs the corpse into the audience.

"No!" says Boakye. "No throwing things."

Ellis looks suitably contrite.

He still can't be trusted with a sword though. As Ellis and Matthew Seager's Laertes prepare to fight, Boakye runs on stage to grab the weapons, returning a second later with a pair of inflatables.

"I've got a stiff banana," yells Ellis as he attacks Seager with it.

Well, quite.

After that, it's only a matter of time before everyone is dead.

And as the cast all stick their middle fingers up at the audience, we get some more Imagine Dragons to play us out.

Ah, fuck yeah. It's Warrior. Yasss. I mean, yes!

What a fucking tune.

... Just don't fucking quote me on that.

processed_MVIMG_20190705_201235.jpg

Who watches the watchmen?

Another 7pm start again. But this time, I’m feeling rather more positive about it. Mainly because my theatre for tonight is only down the road, which means that I get to stay at work for an extra half-hour. Oh. okay. Maybe I’m not on team 7 o’clock-start quite yet. Mad rush across London or staying late in the office isn’t that great a choice.

But I can’t blame the King’s Head for that. If anything I should be grateful that I only have to stroll down Upper Street to get to them. Won’t be able to do that much longer. They’re moving next year. That’s a lie. Not the bit about them moving, they’re doing that. The bit about me not being able to stroll there after work. They’re only going down the road. God, I rambling, aren’t I? Sorry. I’m so fucking tired right now. This weather… I’m really not doing well at the moment. Can’t sleep. Can’t think. Can’t breathe. And my poor hair… let’s not talk about my hair. It’s too distressing.

And the whole this is made worse by everyone else loving it so much. Soaking up the sun like lizards on rocks.

Look at them, sitting out there outside the pub, with their faces tipped up to the sun, and their drinks, and their smiles, and their happiness. Ergh. I hate them.

I better go inside. Where it’s dark and cool.

It’s been a while since my last visit here, so I’m very pleased to see the massive KING’S HEAD THEATRE sign up on the back wall, leading the way to the box office.

processed_IMG_20190704_184448.jpg

It’s a funny old set up they have here. Not for them the laptop propped on the end of the bar, oh no.

Instead they build a kind of barricade between the theatre and the pub, and on top of this, they set up shop with money box and printed lists. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a pub theatre, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond these walls.

I give my name to one of the box officers on the barricade and get my name checked off the list.

He grabs a tiny scrap of paper and scrawls my seat number on it with biro.

“Let’s do you a nice bespoke, DIY ticket,” he says before handing it over.

“Well, that’s completely unforgable,” says some wag in the queue next to me.

Ah, bants. You gotta love it.

processed_MVIMG_20190704_184632.jpg

I’m shocked. Not about the hand-made nature of the ticket. That’s very King’s Head, after all. No, it’s more the fact that I have a seat number at all that is surprising me. Now that I think about it, I vaguely remember selecting a seat while booking, but still… I think that’s a first on this marathon. A pub theatre that actually assigns seats.

“The doors will open soon,” he says, then looks behind him as the doors to the theatre start shifting from the inside. “Oh, they’re opening now!”

I’m not sure I want to be first through the door. That’s a level of keenness that I don’t want to be showing off. Not at the King’s Head.

I step back and tuck myself against a shelf and watch as other theatre-goers pick up their tickets.

“There we go,” says the box officer to the next person in line. “A nice bespoke, DIY ticket for you.”

Ah. If a line’s that good, it deserves repeating.

Time to go in.

The usher on the door takes the scrap of paper from me. “C11? That’s third row, either this side or the other, you’ll need to check. They keep on switching them over.”

I don’t get the scrap of paper back.

I’m on my own.

processed_MVIMG_20190704_184735.jpg

C11. C11. C11. C11. C11.

I repeat it again and again so I don’t forget. In my head, of course. Just to be clear. I’m not that weird.

I head for the furthest aisle and start checking the seat numbers. They’re written on tiny little plaques screwed to the backrest of the benches. And I saw written, because that’s what they are. Not printed. They look like they’ve been scratched out and rewritten a hundred times over.

You got to love it, don’t you?

I hope they bring these battered badges with them to the new venue. I can’t wait to hear what the swanks in Islington Square head office have to say when they hear about it.

C11, as it turns out, is in the last block of seats. In the third row.

That was pretty easy to find. After all, I can count all the way to a hundred. And I know my alphabet. Sort of. (I get a big confused around the Qs and Ss, but I can run through it pretty snappy if I remember what the tune is).

I don’t mean to sound smug. But the other audience members seem to be having a bit of a problem.

“Do you know what row you’re in?” a lady asks me.

“Yes, row C. It’s written here,” I say tapping the badge on the back of my seat.

“Oh.” She doesn’t sound convinced. She looks about her, turns, and then leaves.

Perhaps I should have offered to sing her the Alphabet song.

The ticket checker rushes over to the front row. “Sorry Sir,” she says, waving at a man squeezing himself into the front row. “You’re over here.” She points to a spot over in my block. In the second row.

“Ah! I thought you meant over here,” he says, the invisible light bulb above his head lighting up, and he makes his way over to the correct seat.

The lady who asked me about my row is back, still looking lost.

The usher tries to help. Pointing her to the seats just behind me.

“Is that row C?” she asks.

“D,” says the usher. “You’re just in here.”

“Where?”

The usher points again. “Just here. The three seats right at the end.”

“But we’re not all together.”

“No, one of you is in row C.”

“C?”

“Yes, this row,” she says, pointing at the row I’m sitting in.

“That’s D?”

“No. C.”

“C?”

“Yes.”

“And one of us separate?”

“Yes, in row C.”

“D?”

“Three of you are in row D.”

And on and on it goes. I’m beginning to think I really will have to sing the Alphabet Song to her if this continues.

“This,” says the lady, pointing up at the ceiling. “Is intolerable.”

She’s quite right. It really is.

“Sorry,” says the usher. “They’re turning it down.”

Oh. She meant the music. Huh. I was rather enjoying it.

My neighbour twists around on our bench to look at me.

“How long is this?” he asks.

People faffing around finding their seats? A fucking eternity. Oh, he means the play.

“70 minutes,” I tell him.

“70 minutes?” he nods and turns back to face the stage, apparently satisfied with that answer.

Eventually, with a lot more usher assistance, everyone manages to find their seats. You have to admire the King’s Head for their dedication to the cause of allocated seating. Lesser venues would have through it over in favour of the free-for-all years ago.

As we all settle down, the guy from the box office comes in, brandishing a bucket and with a tote bag slung over his shoulder. I think we all know what that means. It’s the upsell.

“Welcome to the King’s Head Theatre,” he starts before introducing himself. Should I mention a front of houser’s name? Is that appropriate? I don’t usually. But I guess, he gave his name willingly, so… it’s Alex.

He has a prepared speech. The King’s Head isn’t subsidised. They need to raise a hundred grand a year. The pub and the theatre are separate. The theatre gets none of that revenue. “If you ordered a double at the bar tonight, you’re not helping us,” he says, as if that was ever the point of ordering a double.

But never fear, theatre audiences, Alex has a plan.

“When people ask where you were on Thursday night, you can tell them you were at the King’s Head Theatre,” he says, straightening out the tote bag so that we can all see the design. “It’s fairtrade. It’s organic. It’s only five pounds.

“But what do you put inside the tote bag? Well, how about a Brexit playtext?” he says, pulling a handsomely covered book from the bucket. “Only five pounds and available from the box office after the show. Or,” he says, pulling something else out of the tin bucket. “A DVD documentary about the King’s Head Theatre.” That’s only three pounds he tells us, which sounds like a right old bargain to me until I remember I haven’t owned any kind of tech capable of playing a DVD in around seven years. “Or,” he goes on. “I have this bucket. It’s a tradition at the King’s Head. If you have any spare change, unfold it and drop it in.”

That gets a laugh. Hopefully it also gets them some fivers.

processed_IMG_20190704_184915.jpg

That done. It’s on with the play.

Brexit.

I can well and truly say that I’ve had my fill of the subject. But, well, I thought it would be appropriate. Pin this marathon into the calendar like a still wriggling butterfly into a frame.

And it’s funny. It really is. With lots of backroom dealings and double-crossings and clever wordplay and references to ‘Matron’ the former prime minister.

Set in the near future, where everything is exactly the same but even more so. Endless rounds of talk, with no one capable of making a decision. The withholding of closure on an entire continent.

As the applause fades, I reach under my seat to grab my bag.

“You seemed rather detached from that?” says my neighbour as I re-emerge.

Did I? “I’m just very tired,” I say, which seems to be my answer for every bit of criticism I’m receiving at the moment. No matter what it is. Missed a deadline? Tired. Finished of the last of the biscuits? Tired. Forgot to pay the gas bill? Again? So. Fucking. Tired. I mean, it's not like we even need gas. Not in this weather.

“I did enjoy it though,” I clarify, just in case he thinks I’m dissing the play. I’m not. I really did enjoy it.

He sits back surprised. “You’re American?”

“Err… no?” I say, equally surprised. I’m really not American, and couldn’t even do the accent if I tried.

He doesn't say anything to that. I'm not sure whether he's pleased with my lack of Americanness or not.

I get up to leave, but his comment is still playing on my mind, even when I'm halfway down Upper Street.

Detached? How would he even know? Perhaps I wasn't laughing enough. That could be it. But I'd say the general reaction to Brexit (the play) is more of a giggle than a guffaw. So that can't be it. Surely. I must have been acting very strangely for him to feel the need to point it out. Have I started talking to myself? Oh god, I've started talking to myself, haven't I? I'm doing it right now, aren't I? Shit. Don't answer that. Talking to yourself is one thing. Getting an answer is quite another.

Whatever I was doing, I can't help but think that this is punishment for my blog. After passing judgement on the audiences of over 160 theatres, they've now finally turned on me.

You know what…? I think I just got reviewed.

And I did not get five stars.

The Two Ghosts of Queen's House

Seven o’clock starts are tricky as fuck. Especially when they’re in Greenwich. But after a slightly leg-jiggly journey on the DLR, I’ve made it to Romney Road with twenty whole minutes to spare. I can even see my theatre for tonight. Queen’s House. In all its gleaming white glory. The problem is, how to get there? The first pair of gates I passed were firmly locked. As were the second.

I keep on walking, my heart beating in time with my rushing feet. There doesn’t seem to be a way in.

Is there a password or something? Am I supposed to run full pelt at the railings with the firm believe that I can move right through them? Are iron bars nothing but an collision for those confined to the mediocrities of reality?

Just as I’m considering how badly I would hurt myself if I attempted to heave myself over the iron fence, I turn a corner, and find the car park.

Oh. Well, fine then. I’ll just go in this way, shall I?

Now I’ve actually managed to get myself within the confines of this handsome house, I can relax a little bit. I have plenty of time. And only a short walk over these peaceful green lawns.

And there it is. Queen’s House. Set back from whatever bustle Greenwich can throw at a person, amongst acres of green grass.

Not a bad place to catch a bit of opera, I must say. And a fucking impressive place for a performing arts college performance. Those Trinity Laban kids have it well swish, I can tell you that for nothing.

I stop to text Helen, letting her know about the whole getting in situation. She’s running late. Don’t want her trying to scale a fence in a panic.

That done, I walk up the path, and find a man holding a piece of paper, waiting to greet people next to a sign advertising tonight's performance.

“Do I give me name or…?” I ask.

“Are you a performer or…?”

No, mate. Clearly not. I want to ask if they’re missing a performer, but I fear he might ask me to step in. “Err, a ticket buyer?” I try.

“Right. Err let’s check if it’s here. What’s the name?”

I give it.

I’m not on the list.

“Right,” he says. It doesn’t sound like this is the first time his list has come up short. “That’s fine. I don’t know why they gave me this list. The reception is in the Orangery, around the Queen’s House, and past the colonnade.”

Well, okay then. I follow his instructions, around the house, through the colonnade, and out the other side.

processed_IMG_20190703_184503.jpg

There seems to be a bit of a party going on through here. There are canapes. And drinks. And everyone looks very fancy. Too fancy.

I don’t think I’m meant to be here.

I text Helen again.

“Have you crashed a wedding?” she asks.

“Maybe?” I reply.

Hmm. Not sure what to do. I go back the way I’d come, pausing in the colonnade to peer into a covered courtyard. People are walking through. Holding programmes.

Okay, so it appears that the audience are going somewhere. And unless my geography is totally messed up, they are coming from the Orangery.

I go back, stepping into the fancy room. It’s nearly empty now. The trays of canapes desiccated. The wine drunk.

A young woman with a box of tickets in her arms rushes over.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m picking up tickets?”

“For the reception or the performance?”

“The performance. Sorry,” I say, seeing the look of panic in her face. The expression of someone who just spotted their dotty aunt approaching a new boyfriend with a handful of embarrassing baby photos on hand. “Sorry. I got sent round here, but I was like… this doesn’t look right. So I thought I better just ask.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh no! This is just for the reception. The box office is just inside the main door. Tell them you’re general admission.”

I apologise again and back away from the fancy room. Places like this are not meant for the likes of me.

Okay then. Back around the building, I avoid the man and his piece of paper and duck into the surprisingly lowly doorway, rushing down the Spartan corridor and emerging into a museum shop. This looks much more my level. There’s a proper counter, and I join the queue to pick up tickets.

They do have my name here, thank goodness, and the lady on the desk pulls my tickets out of the box.

“That’s two tickets, is that right?” she asks.

It absolutely is.

She picks two programmes up from the pile on the counter and hands them to me.

Oh, yeah. Free programmes. That’s the stuff.

“Loos are to the left,” she says, pointing further into the building. “And stairs to the Great Hall are on the right.”

The Great Hall, eh? Perhaps I will be getting all fancy tonight.

Helen turns up a few minutes later. Limping slightly from a blister on her foot.

“This way,” I say, leading her towards the stairs.

“Hang on, do you mind if I use the loos?”

Well, you can’t say no to someone who just hobbled all the way over to Greenwich to spend the evening with you, now can you?

The last people in the foyer make their way upstairs.

I use the opportunity to take some photos. It’s strange down here. Like being in a wine cellar, with that curved ceiling going on over our heads.

processed_IMG_20190703_185442.jpg

“Ready?” I ask as Helen emerges.

She is, so we go up the stairs. The Tulip Stairs, according to the signage. That’s an unusually specific name, I think as we make our way up. Not that they’re not pretty, just not particularly tulip shaped… Oh. Oh, I see.

As Helen points her phone upwards to take a photo of the view above our heads, I find myself staring into a spiralling vortex of steps. They seem to go on forever, reaching up into the heaves, the steps unfolding, like, well, petals.

processed_MVIMG_20190703_185723.jpg

And on the balustrades… iron tulips.

That answers that question then.

There’s someone giving a speech in the Great Hall. Well, I presume it’s the Great Hall. There are a lot of people in here. Sat around in those spindly golden chairs you get at weddings.

A woman standing on the other side makes a big circle gesture with her arms to indicate that there are seats going spare over in the far corner.

Helen and I pick our way over between the silent rows.

Oops. Bit late.

Never mind.

The speech goes on. A potted history of the house. … I zone out. This room is far too pretty to be listening to this sort of thing. It’s the kind of room where you want murder and intrigue, not dates of construction and alignments with the river.

Once he’s done, he’s replaced by someone else. With her own set of speeches. These ones about Trinity Laban, about the operas being performed, about how marvellous the patrons are in this room for giving their money to such a worthy cause.

Someone in the front row claps loudly. The sound reverberating around the square room. The rest of us join in, more out of obligation than agreement.

I’m just here to catch some opera, and get a venue checked off.

I look up. Halfway up the high walls is a slim balcony. There are men up there. Young men. In costume. They lean against the railing, watching the audience below, looking the kind of effortless cool that only the agonisingly young and talented can achieve.

Self-congratulatory speeches now at an end, we can get on with the business of opera. First off, some Monteverdi.

The men up in the balcony begin to sing. Their voices raining down on us.

And down here, on the small bit of space being used as a stage, a lone female laments at her fate.

I don’t know what they’re singing. It’s Italian.

But I get the idea. She’s sad, and it is oh so pretty.

processed_IMG_20190703_192252.jpg

“I think that broke my heart?” says Helen as we all applaud.

I nod. I think it broke mine too. “It’s amazing in here,” I say. “The sound bouncing off all the walls…”

“Yes, the acoustics are great.”

“Yeah, alright. You and your big words.” Honestly, always the intellectual is our Helen. As Laban people bustle about removing the table from the last opera, and prepping the room for the next, I lean back, taking in the carved struts holding up the balcony, fat wooden scrolls picked up in gold. A bit of warmth in a white room. “It is beautiful in here. I might move in.”

processed_IMG_20190703_192311.jpg

“Perhaps not in winter though… I feel it would be quite hard to heat?”

She’s not wrong. Those high ceilings and cathedral sized windows would be the very devil to keep warm. “This is so going to be your summer palace when you become dictator.”

“It’s coming you know!”

I waft my hand towards the window behind us, from where we can see the long pathway going down to the river. “You’ll have peasants marching up the lawns with pitchforks.”

Helen gives a dismissive wave. “Just get rid of them,” she says.

The boys from the last opera return, slipping into empty seats and crowding into the windowsill to watch the next piece.

A young man takes the empty seat next to me, and I squish up to give him room.

These chairs are really closely packed.

Just as the boys settle, a group of young women burst in, their voices trilling and whirling as they start the next work. A modern opera this time. About a hen party. Svadba.

It takes me far too long to notice that they sing unaccompanied. With no instrument other than their own voices, and… some tins with spoons in them.

The dunk the wooden spoons in, rotating them around the insides and taping at the exterior.

Bored of their sound effects, they hand them to audience members.

A man in the front row looks at his newly acquired prop in bewilderment. “Should I tap it,” he asks the girl who gave it to him, and gives the tin an experimental drum with the spoon.

She leaves him too it.

The friends dance around their bride, the swirling sounds of their voices echoing off the walls, layering and combining into a symphonic orchestra that builds so high I can feel my ears vibrating by the end.

“Have your seen the painting in there,” says Helen as the applause fades. She’s nodding towards a side room. On the wall is the portrait of a rather dashing young man.

“He’s… well.” Very.

“He’s a bit of an alright,” says Helen.

“He’s totes a historical hottie,” I confirm.

The applause is still going, and shows no signs of stopping. The cast has long vacated the stage.

I look at Helen. She looks at me. We both shrug. I mean, they were good. Great evening. But I haven’t clapped this much since… I don’t know… Carlos Acosta’s farewell from The Royal Ballet probably. And no offence to Trinity Laban students, but they haven’t quite yet put in twenty years hard labour as world leaders in their artform.

Eventually, it slows, and stops.

“I’m going to get a photo of historical hottie,” I say, slipping between the rows to go into the side room.

processed_IMG_20190703_201425.jpg

“Oh look, they have ceramics,” says Helen, going to have a look at the display case. But I don’t care about them. I want attractive young men with swords and gold frogging from my art.

“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be in here,” I say. And right on cue, someone from Laban walks through. They don’t say anything though. And we’re left to gaze at the art in peace.

“Oh, look at the chairs!” I say, spotting a pair of translucent chairs.

“Oh, they’re the…”

“Ghost chairs? Is that want they’re called?”

“Yeah.”

I try to remember the name of the designer, but nope. I’ve forgotten it. Never mind. Ghost chairs. You know!

Strange addition to this room though. I wonder what they’re doing here, with historical hottie and.. I squint…a young Queen Victoria?

“We should probably go,” I suggest... I kinda want to go home while there’s still a chance of an early night.

But not before I get one final photo of the Tulip Stairs.

“Sorry,” I apologise to the couple stuck behind me.

“Don’t worry. One person took a photo and got the ghost. The Queen’s House ghost,” says the female half of the pair.

processed_IMG_20190703_201614.jpg

“Oh my…” Oh my! “There’s a ghost? I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost,” I tell her.

“Well, you’re in the right place,” she says, having the grace not to sound too baffled by my exclamation.

I take this as confirmation that she’d like to hear more.

“I’ve wanted to meet one for years, but I don’t think they like me,” I say. “I’m just too keen.”

“They think you’re needy,” agrees Helen.

“They do!”

The couple slips away quietly. I can’t say I blame them. If even the ghosts don’t appreciate my enthusiasm for them, I can’t expect the residents of this mortal plane to get on board.

Still, the sun is still shining and it’s only…

“That was only an hour and a quarter long,” I say to Helen as we walk down the path back towards the road. “The perfect evening!”

“And look! They’ve opened the gates for us,” she says, pointing to the end of the path.

No going through the car park for us!

We can just saunter, or at least stagger, through looking all chic in our sunglasses and…

Shit.

“Shit,” I say. “I forgot my jacket,” I say, already turning round to run back in.

Through the foyer, up the Tulip Stairs, hurried explanation of my appearance to the usher, into the Grand Hall, dart between all the singers and patrons to get to my seat right at the back, reach under, grab my jacket, nod to the usher on the way out and…

“You just wanted to see if you could find the ghost, didn’t you?” says Helen.

“No!” Yes. “And I already saw a ghost anyway. Two of them,” I say, remembering the chairs.

It's not much, but you've got to take your victories where you can find them.

processed_IMG_20190703_201706.jpg

Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque

Proving once again that London theatre defies categorisation, and thumbs it’s nose at my attempts to spreadsheet it, I only found out about the Silk Street Theatre a few weeks ago. Over the past six months I’ve had literally tens of people emailing me with the names of venues that I’ve missed off my official list, but this one has defied even their keen eyes.

It was only when I started trawling the Barbican’s website, clicking on all their theatrical events to see what they had going on in the Pit, that I found it listed as the venue for the Guildhall’s run of Merrily We Roll Along.

After a bit of digging, I found that the Silk Street Theatre is, as the name suggests, on Silk Street. And is part of the Guildhall complex, neighbours to our good friends, the Barbie and Ken (literally no one calls the Barbican this apart from me, and while I recognise that continuing to use it is basically just me trying to make fetch happen, it makes me laugh, and I need that, so back off).

This discovery had me starring at the wall for a good ten minutes. Could I pretend that I’d never seen it? None of my spies had noticed it’s absence. I could totally just not go, and no one would be any the wiser.

But wall starring is very unforgiving. With nothing to look at, you are left gazing at your own conscious, so on the list it went, ticket was bought, and I’m now on my way into the city.

I don’t know where precisely I’m going. The address is Guildhall School of Music & Drama. On Silk Street. I’m hoping that’s enough information to find it.

The building up ahead looks likely. I get out my phone and bring up Google Maps. I’m on the corner of Silk Street and Milton Street.

And yup, there’s some sort of signage going on just inside the doors.

“Milton Court Front Doors will open 1 hour before the event start time.”

What time is it now? About 6.30. I’m super early. For some reason, I’m always convinced the City is miles and miles away from my work. But it’s really just down the road.

I look around. There’s a woman talking on her phone just there. Hopefully she won’t notice me taking a photo. My memory is so bad now that photos are the one thing stopping me from becoming an Oliver Sacks case study.

“Hello, can I help?”

I turn around. The woman who was chatting on the phone is looking at me, her phone pressed against her shoulder.

“Sorry,” I say, not sure why I’m even apologising but feeling like I’ve been caught red handed with my photo-taking. “I was just reading the signs.”

“Right?” she prompts. She must be a Guildhall person.

“I’m seeing the performance tonight,” I explain.

“Oh,” she says with a nod. “That’s in the Silk Street building.”

“Okay?” I mean, we’re pretty close to Silk Street here. Right on the corner.

“Do you see the sign with the green arrow?”

I look over to where she’s pointing. I do see the sign with the green arrow.

“We’re in the Silk Street Theatre tonight,” she continues. “Because it’s bigger.”

“Nice,” I say. “I love a big theatre.”

I mean, I like small theatres too. But I seem to remember Merrily We Roll Along being quite a big show. With a big cast. It seems only right that the Guildhall students get a big theatre to play with.

I head over towards the sign with the green arrow, but I am really, ridiculously, early, so I go for a bit of a walk, edit my Park Theatre post, and then come back, returning to the scene of the arrow.

It points into a dark and narrow courtyard, at the end of which I can see the Corporation of London coat of arms stuck to the ugly pebbledash walls, and the Guildhall School branding frosted onto glass doors.

processed_IMG_20190702_184133.jpg

Inside there’s one of those long reception desks, most of which seems to be empty, but the corner is in use. With three people sitting behind, tickets at the ready. Two for the guest list. One for the box office.

I join the box office queue.

There’s only one person in front of me. A very old man. Stooped, with a cane. He wants to buy a ticket. It’s all sold out though. The box officer picks up the phone and tries to organise something for him.

She doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Meanwhile, the guest list side of the desk remains empty.

I wait. And wait. And wait.

The box officer is still on the phone, trying to find this man a ticket.

The queue is growing behind me.

A woman goes over to the guest list side. They jump to attention.

“Do you have programmes?” she asks.

“Yes, over there at the cloakroom desk,” they say. And she leaves.

Left alone again, one of the guest list greeters looks over at the box office queue. “You’re all collecting pre-paid tickets are you?” she asks.

I confirm that yes, we paid for tickets and yes, we’re rather keen on the idea of picking them up.

“What’s the surname?” she asks.

I jump out of the queue slide over to her. “Smiles?”

She pulls over the ticket box and has a look through it. “Maxine?”

“Yes!”

She unfurls the ream and checks it. “Just the one ticket is it?”

“… yes,” I admit.

That done, I suppose I better get my programme. From the cloakroom.

That’s a funny place to be selling programmes, isn’t it? I mean, that’s not just me, is it? Do cloakrooms always sell programmes? I don’t usually check my things in, so perhaps they all are and I’m just not noticing, but it doesn’t feel all that intuitive. Hand over coat, get a programme. Is that how people are doing things?

“Can I get a programme?” I ask.

“Yes,” says the cloakroom dude, sitting up straighter. “Two pounds.”

Two pounds? Blimey. That’s the most expensive drama school programme I’ve bought. Double the price of the ones at RADA, and I was pissy enough about having to pay for that.

I dig out my purse. “I know I have another pound coin somewhere,” I say apologetically, digging around in the corners.

He laughs politely at that.

Second pound coin finally retrieved, I hand them over.

“You choose one,” he says, waving his hand over the fanned display.

I pick one out of the middle, because I’m an arse.

Programme in hand, I retreat to a wooden railing, overlooking the cafe below, and have a peruse.

There’s a page dedicated to former students. A kind of ‘where are they now,’ which is rather nice. I haven’t seen that before. Not even at RADA.

They even have programme notes.

processed_MVIMG_20190702_191139.jpg

I do like proper programme notes.

I prop myself against the railing and settle in for a good read.

I don’t get very far.

These must be the most opaque programme notes I’ve ever attempted to get through. And I’ve read some pretty dense stuff in my time. Hell, I’ve edited some pretty dense stuff in my time. Working in contemporary dance has set the barre pretty high for my tolerance of impenetrable text. But this… bloody hell. It’s all stuff about the nature of time and regret. It sounds like one of those wedding speeches you get in mediocre romcoms. You know the sort of thing: “Webster’s dictionary defines love as…”

I thought I was here to see a musical! I mean, sure, it’s Sondheim. Not exactly fluff. But still.

“The performance of Merrily We Roll Along starts at 7.30. The auditorium doors are now open. We invite you to take your seats.”

Saved by the tannoy announcement.

I put the programme away in my bag.

That’s quite enough of that.

I’m going in.

The lady on Milton Street was right. This is a big theatre. Not massive. We’re talking space for hundreds of people, rather than thousands. But definitely on the larger side of things for a drama school. I think it must have both RADA and LAMDA beat on scale.

There’s a wide stage. Raised. And an orchestra pit. Sunken. Which I suppose is to be expected, given where we are.

I make my way to my seat and sit down, but soon find myself jumping up again to let people through. With narrow rows and no central aisle, I think I’m going to be doing this a lot before the show actually starts.

The old lady sitting next to me sighs and twists her legs round for the newcomers to get past.

I think there’ll be a lot of that going on too.

She looks to me like one of those old ladies who are always pissed off. Made of pointy elbows and tutting tongues.

She’s the kind of old woman that I’m going to end up being. My elbows were tailormade to stick in people's ribs.

processed_IMG_20190702_192119_1.jpg

Up on stage one of the cast members comes out and sits down at the piano.

Above his head old photos are projected onto a screen. Except, they’re not totally old. The faces have been photoshopped into place, and by the sounds of laughter from the student contingent of the audience, those faces belong to their friends in the production.

Half way through the first act, as yesterday is done, and merrily we roll along, roll along, gathering dreams, and the date above the stage clicks back a few more years, my old lady neighbour starts to cough. A bad cough. Full of splutter. And I begin to worry.

Not that she might die. Thankfully that would be someone else’s job to clean up if she did.

But that she was not, as I had first assumed, the type of old lady I would become. But the actual old lady I would become. That she is me. Just fifty years ahead. Sharpened of elbow and tongue. And most annoyingly of all, still with this damn cough.

I try to convince myself that no, if I were an old lady who had harnessed the power of time travel and managed to journey back to 2019, going to watch a depressing Sondheim musical at the Guildhall School wouldn’t exactly be high up on my list of things to do. Even if it did involve the thrill of sitting next to me… Wait. Was she here to kill me? Was that what this was? She couldn’t do that! That’d be a paradox. And more importantly, like, really mean.

I’m saved from these terrifying thoughts by the end of the first act.

I get up to head back into the foyer but the old lady applies her elbows in all directions and barges past me with a barrage of tutting.

Oof. I’m going to be a bitch when I get old.

Once she’s cleared out the way, I follow on behind, taking up my old spot on the railing.

From here I can see all the students swarming beneath, buying drinks and necking them back as nothing but bottled water is allowed inside the auditorium.

Behind me are the boards. The ones drama schools set up with headshots of all the cast members, and their CVs for any casting directors and proud parents in the audience to take away. But next to them is a display of CVs for the backstage crew: sound mixers and prop supervisors and all the rest. Never seen that one before.

I’m beginning to suspect that the Guildhall likes to do things differently.

processed_MVIMG_20190702_190554.jpg

It must be that brutalist architecture they got going on. All the cruel walls and car park levelling leaking over from the Barbican Centre does things to the brain. Twists the thoughts in strange directions. Not bad directions necessarily, but… okay, the programmes on the cloakroom desk are weird. And the hard-line stance on drinks in the auditorium is a bit precious. It’s not like their upholstery is even new. And the programme notes… let’s not talk about the programme notes.

But, this dude. The one standing in front of the boards and inspecting all the headshots. He’s cool. So cool that I literally can’t tell whether the outfit he’s wearing is a natty suit, or a pair of pyjamas. Honestly, with that fabric, it could go either way.

“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along will commence in three minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in three minutes.”

Oh well. Can’t stand around staring at suity-pyjamas, much as I would like to. It’s time to go back in.

“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along with commence in two minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in two minutes.”

Blimey, give us a chance, love! I’m going, I’m going.

The old lady is already there by the time I get in. She can shift herself, I’ll give her that.

She clears her throat and looks at me. I can feel it. Her looking.

A second later she clears her throat again, and mutters under her breath.

I ignore her. It’s very rude of me, I know. But I’m fairly confident that looking at a version of yourself from the future would have very bad outcomes. Like the end of time itself kinda bad. Like… what if she has terrible eyeliner? I’m not sure I could let the world continue to turn if I found out that I would lose my liner skills.

As the lights dim for the second act, she gives up and we both settle down to watch the rest of the show.

My god, Merrily is grim. Watching the cast get progressively younger, their hopes and happiness expanding with every new scene is chipping away at my own hope and happiness.

Even when they are at peak-optimism they are unbearable. With their bestselling novels. And their hit musicals. And their friendship. Gross.

Honestly, what a cruel musical to programme on students.

Treasure it now, kids. For tomorrow you’ll be old, bitter, and sitting next to an unpleasant old woman who is quite possibly your own destiny.

processed_IMG_20190702_210213_1.jpg

Know your Onions

It’s the Park Theatre today!

I am very excited. Can you tell?

Not that I give a crap about the Park Theatre you understand. I mean, I’m sure it’s just swell. I’ve never been, so I can’t comment.

No, what I’m excited about is the theatre’s Getting Here page on their website.

A strangely specific thing to get worked up about, you may think. And I’ll grant you there is some truth in that. It is both strange, and specific. But I have my reasons. And those reasons are dog related.

After providing (very good and detailed) instructions on how to get to the theatre from the tube station, they go on to provide a video of the route. Featuring a dog. Called Hazel. It is super cute, and Hazel is adorable. And whoever came up with this idea is an excellent person and I approve of the entire endeavour.

My only criticism, and I’m not sure they are even taking notes at this stage, is that they say the walk takes four minutes, and yet the video is all of thirty seconds. If I had a touch more time on my hands, I’d be campaigning for real-time Hazel walkies. But as it is, I’m a bit busy. So off to the Park I go. Taking the suggested route, from the tube station. It takes about four minutes.

When I get there, the big glass windows at the front of the building are all open, and people are making full use of the the evening sun, sitting outside and doing the mostest to bring some European cafe culture to Finsbury Park.

There’s no sign of Hazel, but I’m sure she’s inside lolling around on a cool floor somewhere.

processed_IMG_20190701_190643.jpg

I go in, have a quick look around for any potential dog action, and with no wagging tails in sight, head over to the box office.

I give my surname, and the box officer pulls the ticket out of the box and hands it to me.

I look at it and start laughing.

“Mr Today Tix?” I ask. “I like that.”

You see, when you buy tickets through the TodayTix app, as I did for this trip, theatres usually process the company as the buyer, and then handwrite the audience member’s name on each one in time for collection. I think almost all theatres that use the app do this. With the Southbank Centre as the notable exception. They actually went and keyed in my information so that the ticket printed with my actual name on it. But the Southbank Centre are some swish bastards. They’ve got the resources for that kind of service.

Saying that, I don’t think I’ve come across a theatre to offer the app a title so far.

It's nice.

There’s a small display of programmes on the counter. Three quid. Not bad.

“Can I get a programme?”

I can, and we go about the business of my handing over cash and him sorting out my change.

Now what?

There doesn’t seem to be much seating here. And it’s too early to go in.

I wander outside and find a bollard to lean against, and start sorting out all my stuff.

I make to slip the ticket in my pocket, but give it one final look.

Mr Today Tix.

How silly.

Out of interest, I get out my phone, go to the Park’s website, and try to set up an account. They’re running the standard Spektrix system to handle their bookings, and the Title field is freetext. Not a dropdown. Meaning that whoever set up TodayTix as Mr Today Tix has some thoughts on the matter of titling inanimate software.

I’m not sure how appropriate it is to be gendering apps, but still… I got a giggle out of it.

Right, ticket analysed, it’s time to turn my attention to the…

Shit.

I trot back to box office.

“Sorry! I didn’t actually take a programme,” I say, feeling like a right idiot. I’m really getting old. I can’t deal with late nights and alcohol. Despite all the shenanigans last night, I woke up feeling quite fresh this morning. Tired, yes. But not furry of tongue and sticky of eye. I was fine. It was only when the headache hit after lunch that I realised that the reason I didn’t wake up with a hangover, is because I woke up still drunk.

Honestly, once this marathon is over, I’m fully committing to a 10pm bedtime.

“Oh, did you not?” says the box officer, having the grace to sound surprised.

I take one and go back outside.

It’s a nice little programme. There are interviews and things. I’d pay three quid for it. I mean, I did actually pay three quid for it. But even outside the confines of the marathon, and research, and whatever else I’m using to justify my programme buying habit, I would pay three quid for it. It’s worth the coin.

From inside there’s an announcement. The house for Napoli, Brooklyn is now open.

I suddenly realise that I've come across has a comma in the title.

That's unusual. We had Life, Apparently at Hoxton Hall. And I'd made a big fuss about the comma then.

I hope this isn't becoming a trend. Punctuation confuses me.

People start to make their way back inside. But slowly. No one wants to give up the sun quite yet.

I wait a few minutes. I’ve still got time.

But then I remember I hate being in the sun, so I follow everyone back in.

Back across the foyer, past the box office and bar, down a short flight of steps and then…

processed_IMG_20190701_192222.jpg

Getting out my ticket again because there are two different doors and I need to check my seat number to find out which one I need.

Funny. There’s no one out here. Both doors are free of ticket checkers.

I’m on my own.

Which is fine.

I know what I’m doing. I know my seat number and can work out which door I need like the big girl I am, but still. There’s usually someone directing traffic at these junctions.

For a brief moment I wonder if time has slipped away from me, that I stepped into a faerie ring on my way in, and without knowing, took hours to get to the other side. Perhaps the show has already started, and that’s why there’s no one out here.

I go through the nearest door, into a small antechamber, and emerge on the other side at the back of the stalls.

And there’s a ticket checker waiting.

Oh. Right.

That’s okay then.

“C43?” I ask as she comes over to me. The door I took had said seat numbers up to 43, so that must mean… “Am I on the end here?” I say, pointing towards the furthest seat on the back row, right down by the back corner of the thrust stage.

“Err. Yes,” she agrees and off I go.

The view… isn’t great.

Okay, it’s not bad. I’m sure I won’t miss anything of importance. But there seems to be a kitchen in my sightline.

processed_IMG_20190701_192308.jpg

Well, I suppose that’s what you get if you shudder at the thought of paying more than fifteen pounds for anything.

Looks like quite a few people were shuddering. The theatre has been filling up, but the side rows are still on the sparse side and it looks like the balcony has been closed off.

As for my ticket, what fifteen pounds gets you is a spot on a bench right next to the wall. Wait, is it a wall. It seems to be moving… Just as I begin to wonder whether I’m hallucinating, or possibly still drunk from last night, the wall that isn’t a wall moves again. Like a curtain with the window open behind it. And then I hear voices. People are talking on the other side.

A second later, the house lights are down and an actor is emerging from behind the wall and placing a halved onion under each of her eyes in turn, trying to make herself cry.

My row is still half empty. While Madeleine Worrall’s matriarch Luda tries to get her cry on, I slide down the bench to get a better view.

The onions can’t get the job done. She must be all cried out. I would be too, if I had a daughter sent to a convent, with a broken nose after facing the wrath of my husband. Or a second daughter who refuses to eat. Or a third who had to be pulled out of school in order to help bring money in, and has cuts all over her hands as the result of hard labour.

That’s a well that even an onion can’t fill.

But oh, they try.

While one onion can barely make a space, a wagon-full may bring up the water level.

By the end of the first act, the stage is covered in the things. Hundreds of them. A few have bounced off the edge, despite the presence of the guard rail, presumably put there to keep the pesky things in.

Audience members in the front row pick them up as they retrieve their bags from under their seats. A few of them send their bulbs ricocheting across the stage like air hockey pucks, and they bounce into the set with a small thud.

But it was all in vain, as stage managers come out to reset for the second act, and they bring the big brooms with them, sliding the onions off into the various corners. Out of the way, but still very much present.

One of them starts to read off a check list of items why another confirms their presence.

“Six forks on the left.”

“Yup.”

“Six knives in the middle.”

“Yup.”

“Six plates with napkins on top.”

“Err. Three, fourfive. Yup.”

“Tea towels?”

“Yes.”

And on they go, detailing out this well stocked dinner service.

As the family settle down to eat, I wonder why I’m not feeling hungry, as I usually do when actors are munching away on stage. They keep on talking about what a great cook Luda is (and she herself agrees with that assessment), but all we’ve seen her do is pick at a few green beans. There’s no onstage cookery going on here. No working hob. No warm and hearty smells swirling around the auditorium.

I could do with something warm and hearty right now.

It’s not warm at all in here.

I put on my jacket and cross my arms, shivering in my seat.

Across the way I see a woman bring out her scarf and wrap it around her shoulders.

It’s freezing in here.

I can’t stop shaking.

Even when I emerge into what’s left of the sunshine, I have to keep on rubbing at my arms until the warmth manages to eke its way under my skin.

As I retrace my steps back to the station, I make a mental note to save my trip to their studio space for when it’s really hot. That air con is top notch after all.

When August hits, I might ask to move in.

processed_IMG_20190701_213056.jpg

The Safe Word is Unicorn

You’ve read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. We’ve all read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. The tears. The drama. The fist-pump to female empowerment. A battle cry for female desire. It was an unmissable read.

I can tell you right now, that’s not what you’ll be getting here.

Because I do not want to go to Magic Mike Live.

Let me say that again, just so that we’re really clear: I do not, under any circumstances, want to go to Magic Mike Live.

The fact that I have to go to Magic Mike Live, in order to check off the theatre that lurks within the Leicester Square monolith that is the Hippodrome Casino, is something that has been giving me a great deal of stress over the past six months.

And it’s not because I’m a prude.

The fact that I’m a prude has nothing to do with it.

“I would honestly rather go to a real strip club,” I tell Helen and Ellen, as we do our best to get very, very drunk, somewhere below street level in Soho. (“Pre-loading,” Helen calls it).

“Really?” Helen is baffled by this. She’s looking forward to the show. Or rather, she’s looking forward to me not enjoying the show. “Why?”

“Because in a strip club, you are the one in power. You can tell the dancers to go away without feeling that you’re ruining things. It’s a one-on-one transaction. Not part of this, whole… thing.” I wave my hands about to demonstrate the scale of the… thing. One drink down and I’m already getting expansive. This place doesn’t mess around with their measures.

Earlier today I’d done something I’d never done before.

I told Twitter where I was going to be tonight.

I’ve always been very careful not to do that. Stalkers be scary, you know.

But I’m not worried about that anymore. If anything, I was courting that danger. Encouraging it. Asking for it. “Bring your arsenic and find me in Soho,” I told my followers.

A jokey “kill me,” that was only half a joke.

I really don’t want to go to Magic Mike Live.

A co-worker of mine went last week. She loved it.

“They’re really good dancers,” she said excitedly the next morning.

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who works at one of the most famous dance-houses in the world.

“But is there…” I pause, not wanting to use the word grinding, but not being able to come up with a suitable alternative. “Audience interaction?”

Yeah, okay. This is the real issue. Some rando stranger grinding on me is not something I want. If it were, I would go to a club, and you know what, I'd probably get a free drink into the bargain.

“Oh yeah. Where are you sitting?”

“In the balcony.”

“You won’t be taken on stage then.”

Thank fuck. “So, I’m safe then?”

She laughs at that. “No. They will find you!”

“Oh…” Oh fuck… “I think I’m going to have to get really drunk.”

Half way through the second drink and my head is starting to spin. Whatever the fuck they put in these cocktails is working. Every time I turn my head, I feel like I’m leaving my thoughts behind. That’s good, I tell myself. A couple more sips and I’ll be in a full on dissociative state. Just what I need to get through the next few hours.

It’s time to go.

We stagger back up to the street and start walking down to Leicester Square.

Helen and Ellen are all in a rush, though I keep on saying we have plenty of time.

Helen dives across Shaftesbury Avenue. Right across the road.

I jog behind with a squeal of “we’re going to dieeee,” before remembering that getting hit by a car was a great excuse for not going to see Magic Mike Live tonight. No luck though.

I point out the casino, but really there’s no need. Even from the back, it does rather loom.

There’s a kind of mural thing going on here. All lights and images and I’m not really able to focus on the presise nature of it, but I feel I should take a photo anyway.

processed_IMG_20190630_213636.jpg

“Sorry,” says a bloke, who on seeing me taking a photo of the wall display thing decides he also wants in on the action.

“Don’t worry, I’m done.”

“You also seeing the show?”

“Yes,” I say, in the tones of someone saying they’re just about to sit their Chemistry A-level.

“We are too!” He sounds super-duper excited about the whole thing.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

“Oh yeah. Aren’t you?”

“Not really.”

“Ah. Well, see you in there!” he says with a cheery goodbye.

I have really got to get my shit sorted. Me not having a good night is fine. I mean, it’s not fine. But it’s fine.

However, me being the cause of someone else not having a good night… well, that’s taking the whole marathon thing too far, isn’t it?

processed_MVIMG_20190630_213733.jpg

In a move of openness that must have the Royal Opera House nashing their teeth, the box office is fully open to the street.

I stop, the cogs in my brain slowed by the excess alcohol.

“Do we go in here, or…?”

A man on the door sees my confusion and steps in. “Are you picking up your tickets?” he asks.

I nod. “Yeah.”

He waves me through and we join the queue.

There’s a man leaning on the counter and as I give my name to the lady at box office he starts rummaging in a Magic Mike Live branded gift bag.

“How many of you are there?” he asks.

“Three.”

He pulls out three envelopes. “Unfortunately a few of our cast members have a bug and won’t be performing,” he says. “There’s a drinks voucher in here, and a letter. We’d like you to come back and see the show properly, for free of course, as long as you promise to buy lots of drinks.”

Gosh, well. Okay. We take the envelopes, and our tickets, and join the queue to get in.

There's a red carpet.

A young woman stands on the door. She has a stack of envelopes in her hand.

“We should put our letters away,” I hiss at the other two. “Might get another one!”

Ellen gives me a look. I don’t think she’s ever seen me this drunk before.

“Max, are you leaning against the wall?” she asks.

I may be leaning against the wall. Hard to tell. It keeps on moving.

She gives me another look, but puts away her envelope all the same.

“Hi ladies!” says the young woman on the door. “A few of our cast members are off sick. The others will still be going on, and it’s the same show, exactly the same length. But we’d like to offer you’re the chance to come back and see it as it should be seen. For free of course,” she says, counting out more envelopes for us.

We now have two envelopes each.

Score.

If the bag checker notices this excess of envelopes he doesn’t say anything.

He does pick up on Helen’s water bottle though.

“It’s water!” she protests, but it’s no good. She has to go outside and down the whole thing.

“It’s very fancy in here,” I say, noting the old mirror with the Hippodrome’s name faded on the glass and the chandelier handing overhead. “Watch out if you don’t want to be in the photo.” Ellen jumps out the way.

processed_IMG_20190630_214338.jpg

“I’m very well hydrated,” Helen says on her return, and as the bag checker wishes us a good evening, we head up the stairs.

The stairs take us up straight to the loos. The Hippodrome clearly know their audience.

“It’s a ninety minute show, ladies,” says an usher. “Toilets are here and down there.”

I hang around, people watching as Helen and Ellen partake of the facilities. Everyone is dressed really fancy. Like, really fancy. Not just going out fancy. But going out out fancy. Hotpants and sequins and satin and tiny mini dresses.

I look down at my own efforts. A black dress. Vivienne Westwood. It’s really nice. But not nearly showy enough. I consider opening another button for added cleavage, but my fingers are all fumbly and I don’t think I can manage it. The mourning brooch pinned to my lapel was probably also a mistake. As were the stompy boots. Although considering my wall-leaning, perhaps its best I didn’t attempt heels.

Plus, I doubt any of these women just came from church.

“They have so adapted this place for women,” says Helen on her return. “There are urinals in the ladies’ loos. They must have transferred them over. Although you know what Caroline Criado Perez said about unisex loos?”

I do know what she says about unisex looks. “Only men use unisex loos with urinals. But they also use the ones that don’t have urinals. So, there’s even longer queues for the ones without urinals than if they were just ladies’ and gents’. Wait…” I stop. “Are we seriously having feminist discourse outside the loos at Magic Mike?”

“Oh, look, a hen party,” says Ellen, bringing the tone right back to where it needs to me.

The Hen, in her shiny satin sash, looks over and gives us a big grin, and we all grin back.

We go to the bar.

A girl walks past with a massive fishbowl of a drink.

“Wow,” says Ellen, gapping at the drink.

The girl laughs. “They just told me it’s a ninety minute show without a break,” she says with a shrug of resignation.

There are screens all over the place, warning us to take our seats because the show is about to start. I check my phone. There’s still ten whole minutes. I mean, I get that moving hundreds of drunk women into their seats might be tricky, but ten minutes!

“Hello ladies, are you seeing the show tonight?”

“Yup!” says Ellen, looking up from the drinks menu.

“Well, the show’s about to start, so you should probably take your seats. You can order your drinks from there. Don’t worry, it’s exactly the same menu, same choice, same everything.”

“Oh, okay then!”

“Can I see your tickets?”

I hand them over and he points us in the right direction, but a second later, we’re lost, having gone up a flight of stairs that we should not have gone up.

“I’m going to get a programme,” I say, spotting a merch desk on our way back down.

I glance over at the price list, kinda squinting as I do so because I don’t want to know. Ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty probably.

“That’s seven pounds, please,” says the woman behind the desk.

Oh. “Oh!”

Well, I mean, it’s hardly bargain of the century, but selling a programme for only seven pounds to an audience who are probably drunk enough to empty out their purses on the counter…. well, that is some Saint Simeon Stylites levels of ascetic restraint right there. Hang on, did I just say the word ascetic? Fucking hell, I must really be drunk right now. I’m not sure I even know how to spell that when sober. Or pronounce it. Wait, what’s going on?

“Are you taking pictures of the merch, Helen?” I ask, spotting Helen kneeling on the ground in front of the glass display.

“Just of the underpants.”

Well, that’s alright then.

“I don’t want one, but how much are these?” she asks, now back on her feet and poking through a bowl of temporary tattoos.

“Five pounds,” says the merch lady. Very patiently.

“We should probably go in…” I suggest.

We find the door. There are two ticket checkers. Both men.

“There are a lot of men working here,” I say, looking around. “Almost all men.”

Yes, there was the young woman on the main door. And the one at the merch desk. But everywhere else: bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke.

“And they’re all so nice!” says Ellen. “Like the guy who told us to go to our seats. He could have just said it, but he made the effort to tell us we could order drinks in there.”

Helen is nodding away enthusiastically. “And it’s not just nice it’s…”

“Gentlemanly,” I say.

“Yes!”

“And like, not sleazy. At all.”

There’s more enthusiastic nodding from the pair of them as we get to the front of the queue.

“I’m just going to put this stamp on your hand,” says one of the ticket checkers, with the air of a paediatric nurse telling their young charge not to worry about the needle. It really won’t hurt.

“It’s a unicorn!” says Ellen, examining her new hand print.

I look at mine. I have to twist my arm in a very unnatural way to see it properly. It is a unicorn!

processed_IMG_20190630_215801.jpg

“Oh dear… it’s really small in here,” says Ellen as we go into the auditorium. She doesn’t sound overly happy about that. She’s not a fan of intimate theatre. Even when the performers are fully clothed.

“Hang on ladies, I’ll be right with you,” says yet another (male) usher.

We hang around as he seats another group.

“Oh god…” I say to the world in general.

“I know!” says a woman right back. “I’m dreading this. I keep on thinking about all the failed decisions in my life that brought me up to this point…”

I nod along sympathetically. Me too, love. Me fucking too.

A minute later, our usher is back. He bounds over with a grin, executing a neat spin as he approaches us.

“You alright?”

“Yeah!” I say, very much impressed by the spin. I show him the tickets and he points out our seats.

Front row.

Oh.

I remember booking these. Vaguely.

processed_IMG_20190630_215819.jpg

“You’re over here. One, two, three,” he says, counting out the seats. “Wait, hang on,” he says as I make off. “Just some things I need to tell you first.” And he launches into a short speech. We’re allowed to take photos. But we need to keep the cameras close to us. He demonstrates, holding an imaginary phone close to his chest. “No leaning on the railing. The dancers will be moving around everywhere. So keep your drinks close, and your bags under your seat.”

And with that, we’re released.

The seats are wide and comfy. And there’s plenty of leg room.

The leg room is worrying me. As is the glass platform that is running around the outside of the balcony.

The lights go down.

A roar goes up from the audience. A blast of pure animal noise.

A male MC in a blue suit comes out on stage and starts stirring up the crowd.

A front of houser comes over with a drinks menu.

He crouches down and lean in as Helen and Ellen order.

“What do you want?” asks Ellen, handing me the menu.

I stare at it, but can’t make anything out. Is this even in English? It’s all just swirly lines on a page.

I hand it back. “It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t want anything.”

“Are you sure?” asks Ellen.

“Err.”

“It free,” Helen reminds me.

“Shit, err…” but it’s no good. It’s too dark. And too loud. I can’t focus. “What are you having?”

Ellen says something but it sounds like nonsense string of syllables.

“That sounds good,” I say. I trust Ellen’s drinks order than I do my own sense right now.

The MC has gone out into the stalls. He’s talking to an audience member.

A dancer comes over.

Oh, god. He’s grinding on her. The grinding has started.

This is so unpleasant.

The MC asks if she’s wet.

I am so grossed out right now.

She says no, but that answer just earns her a trip on stage where a dancer dressed as a firefighter pulls out a hose from his trousers. It squirts.

No euphemism intended on my part. That’s all on them.

The woman looks down out her outfit. Covered in a pink mess.

“Stop!” she shouts.

The dancer stops.

We all stop.

Lights change. A disembodied voice comes over the speakers.

Who is that?

Channing Tatum?

What the fuck is going on?

The audience member is outraged. This isn’t what she wants. Male MCs asking if she’s moist, and dancers throwing around double entendres. And she’s not having it.

A microphone descends from the rig.

She’s taking over.

Ellen leans into me. “I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

Nor do I.

Nor. Do. I.

But it looks like we’re under a new regime. The girls are taking over.

She wants the firefighter costume off. He duly obliges, throwing it into the audience and revealing a crisp white t-shirt and nice pair of jeans underneath.

Blimey, that’s… well, that’s much better.

“He’s kinda hot,” says Helen.

I nod. He is kinda hot.

And so it begins.

Our new MC introduces the dancers. We have a CEO. A man holding a baby (not our baby, she is quick to clarify. That’s not part of the fantasy going on here). The boy next door.

The audience duly roars with every new revelation.

The dancers strut their stuff in routines that seem mainly made up of lighting changes. But even in my sodden state I can see that they’re not bad. These guys can dance.

And they don’t stay still.

A minute on stage, and they are off, prowling around the audience, shifting seats around to give themselves room to show off their moves.

Our drinks arrive.

Mine is very pink. It has a straw.

I give it a sip.

It seems to be primarily made up of sugar, with the merest dash of alcohol.

“It’s very sweet,” says Ellen. She puts her’s down under her chair.

I carry on drinking.

Helen tries to say something to me, but I can’t hear her. A second later she’s showing me her phone. “The way you look next to them…” it says. She points at the girls sitting next to me.

They’re screaming. Properly screaming. And bouncing around in their seats.

They are very drunk.

Drunker than me.

Drunker than I have ever been in my life.

I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to get that drunk. The world would run out of alcohol before that happened.

As dancers gyrate their way around the glass platform, the girls scream at them, wave at them, reach for them.

They are so happy.

And all the while, young men in smart shirts and red aprons dart between the rows, taking orders and bringing drinks.

I catch Helen looking at me again. “You’re watching the audience, not the stage!” she shouts over the music.

“I’m here as a professional,” I shout back. But she’s right. I am watching the audience. It’s fascinating stuff. Seeing the excitement. The enjoyment. The letting go.

A rope descends from the rig just in front of us. I nudge Ellen and point at it.

We raise our eyebrows at each other.

Looks like we’re going to get some aerial work going on.

Someone appears next to our row.

He’s not a dancer. He’s a stage manager or something.

He grabs the rope and starts tightening knots and getting it ready and… gosh, he’s very attractive.

Fuck. No. Stop Maxine. Don’t do that. Don’t perv on the poor stage managers, who are just trying to do their jobs.

Honestly, it is so on brand of me to go to a strip show and end up getting a crush on one of the backstage team.

I look back at the stage.

The dancers are doing their very utmost. Shirts are coming off. Abs revealed. All very impressive.

And our MC is keeping them under strict control.

A dancer rubs her shoulders before moving down to her feet.

“I don’t need my foot rubbed,” she snaps back. “I’m trying to do a show here. What about her?” She points at a woman in the front row, and the dancer trots over as bidden, sits on the edge of the stage, and holds out his hand, ready to receive the audience member’s foot.

She needs a little encouragement from our MC, but soon enough, her sandled foot is getting a rub down.

Our MC has found herself a prodigy. A young neophyte she wishes to mold into the perfect man.

“What’s the most important thing when dealing with a woman?” she asks him.

There’s a pause as he considers the answer. He leans in, speaking into her microphone. “Permission,” he whispers.

The effect is electric. The room almost bursts as 300 women levitate from their seats at that word.

The MC decides what we need is a safe word. “Unicorn,” she decides. If anything happens that we don’t want to be happening, just say unicorn “and they will listen!” she promises.

Women are starting to come up on stage. They get picked up, danced over, and gyrated against.

A few of them cover their faces with their hands not knowing what to do with their faces as they get lain back on tables and danced on top of.

“Look, they’re sweeping!” says Ellen, pointing back at the stage where yes, a few stage hands have run on to clean things up while we were all distracted.

My neighbour flaps her hand in front of me. “Look! Look!” she says in my ear. “He's coming up!”

I look. One of the dancers is climbing up to the balcony.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend, or a partner,” says our MC, “sing you your favourite song?”

The dancers come back out, this time with instruments.

Helen jumps in her seat. “This is my favourite song,” she shouts and laughs, unable to keep her joy contained.

I can’t tell you what Helen’s favourite song is. I don’t know it. I haven’t recognised any of the music tonight come to think of it.

But I seem to be the only one because everyone is having great fun singing along.

I sit back and decide to wait until they bring out Marilyn Manson’s greatest hits.

A dancer comes out with an arm full of roses and starts handing them out, even lobbing a few into the balcony.

Helen catches one.

She's doing really well tonight.

And then it comes. The bit I’d been dreading.

“You’ve all had hard days,” says our MC. “You should get a lapdance! Just remember. The safe word is unicorn. Say it if you need to and the dancers will listen.”

“They are working fast,” I say, watching as the dancer assigned to the balcony moves and grinds his way along the front row, not spending more than a few seconds on each person.

He pauses a few times, to push back hair and whisper in ears, but never for long. There are a lot of people to get through.

Finishing the end of the row, he crosses the aisle and dives into the row behind us. From there he goes to the other end of our section, working on one woman then leaving again.

“It’s beginning to feel a bit pointed,” says Ellen, not sounding overly disappointed at not getting a dancer thrusting at her.

But that’s not it. I’ve noticed something. It’s been happening all night.

They’re reading the room. The dancers. Or at least someone who is telling the dancers.

Girls wearing shorts were lain down on stage. Ones wearing trousers had their legs lifted in the air. Larger girls where presented with dancers to feel up. Smaller ones were lifted around.

And those three woman sitting in the balcony who weren’t on the feet, dancing around with everyone else? Yeah, someone noticed that they weren’t totally into it. And they made sure that they didn’t need to unicorn their way out of anything.

Down in the stalls, a woman has spilt her drink. One of the red aproned front of housers runs over with a roll of paper towels. He spins out reams of the stuff. Feet of it. Metres. Making a spectacle of the paper towels flying around as he cleans up the table for her.

And I want to laugh, because that’s it, isn’t it? That’s how you look after an audience. Not just one composed of drunk women. Any audience. You look after them. Make them feel cared for. And safe. And give them an out. Just in case they need it.

“It had the kind of camaraderie you find in night club bathrooms,” says Ellen as we try to find our way out. “Girls lending each other their mascara, you know?”

“That was an amazing feeling,” says Helen, inspecting her rose. “Like, the audience is the most important part of a show. You can’t have one without them. But to feel it… to have the experience focused on you…”

Yup.

The show isn’t for me. I didn’t expect for it to be.

But what I expected it to be was awful.

And it wasn't that either.

It was all perfectly fine.

In a week when I have been thinking so much about audience consent, from the assault on audiences at 10,000 Gestures, to the warning-laden A Web in the Heart earlier today, Magic Mike Live feels like a shining example of how to treat them. And yes, Boris Charmatz fans may point out that the results here are hardly art. And the extreme behaviour of his dancers served some higher purpose. But in 2019, as the world goes to shit, perhaps what we need, what we all need, is not some choreographer’s intellectual fantasy, but reasonably priced programmes, ushers who actively want their guests to have a good time, and a safe word to arm ourselves with.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to concentrate very hard on not throwing up as I try to find the night bus home.

IMG_20190630_232757_1-ANIMATION.gif

Weaving the Web

I almost got away with the idea of not going to the Union Chapel. After they cancelled their summer run of Nunsense (a musical about nuns, inspired by a line of greeting cards, apparently), I was ready to scrub them off my list, but alas, when I gave their website one final check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I spotted a show I hadn’t seen before. They must have sneaked it in when I wasn’t looking. A Web in the Heart. On for only one day. Three performances. Immersive theatre. My favourite thing.

The web copy looks intense. Not just the blurb about the show. Under all that there are six whole paragraphs worth of content warnings and access info. Loud noises. Small rooms. Blacked out spaces. Enactments of racially motivated state violence.

With the promise of further content warnings during the performance.

So a nice cheery way to spend a Sunday afternoon then.

I get there early. Doors times for theatre shows at music venues always confuse me. Am I supposed to turn up at the time on the ticket or no? Turns out no. And I definitely shouldn’t turn up even earlier than that, like muggins over here has.

Thankfully there’s a small park right next to the chapel. A slip of greenery between the church and the road. And I go plonk myself on a bench and soak in my leather jacket.

From my spot I can just about see the main doors of the Union Chapel and I keep an eye on them, waiting as people gradually turn up. They sit on the steps, turning their faces up to the sun, and generally make a show of enjoying this hell inferno that we are currently living in.

When we reach three waiters, I walk over, and lean myself against one of the bollards in the shade. But I don’t get to stay there long, as someone has come out through a side door and is making an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “If you’d like to come in here.”

Well, I for one would very much like to. So I follow him.

On the other side of the heavy wood door I find a narrow brick corridor. There’s a table set up in here as a makeshift box office.

“Are you on the list?” the box officer asks each of us in turn.

“I think I bought tickets for the later show,” someone ahead of me meekly admits.

“Oh, that’s fine,” says the box officer. “As long as you show up…”

That’s the attitude!

“Are you on the list?” she asks me when I reach the front of the queue.

“Hi, yes. The surname’s Smiles.”

She checks down her list, her pen tracing down the names. “Who did you book with?” she asks, her pen having reached the end of the page.

“Err, you? On your website.”

She looks again. “And was it for this time?”

I get out my phone and bring up the e-ticket. The time spot is blank. “It’s doesn’t say, but I definitely booked for 4.30. But it was at, like, 2pm, so maybe you’d already printed the lists?”

“Today?”

“Yes?”

“Okay,” she says, eyeing up the queue that’s been building up behind me. “I’ll check on the computer. How do you spell your surname?”

I spell it for her.

She nods. “You can go through,” she says, with a wave to the door at the end of the corridor.

I do, and it leads out into another corridor, where an usher is posted and waiting. “Just up the stairs to the bar,” she says.

Right then. Up the stairs, and into the bar. And blimey. Okay. This is… well, it’s less a bar and more of a barn. Impossibly high ceilings with wooden beams, red walls, and a massive stone fireplace.

processed_IMG_20190630_163724.jpg

I take a pew. Literally. Though it feels less like a thematic design choice and more of a make-use-and-mend method of furnishing the place. The other chairs on offer have more than a whiff of assisted living about them.

Gradually, the room fills up. More people turn up than I would have thought for a promenade performance about institutional racism on the sunny Sunday afternoon.

A couple of young woman take the table next to me.

“Is this a church?” one of them asks, suddenly looking around her.

“Yeah, it’s a chapel.”

“I’ve never seen a bar in a church before.”

“Oh, loads do. They’re all converting to become bars and community centres.”

“But they don’t still have services though!” she says, sounding scandalised by the very idea.

An usher comes round, hand delivering sheets of paper to the audience members.

“Programme for today,” she says, placing a freesheet on the table in front of me.

“Oh, thank you!” I do love a freesheet.

The usher moves onto my neighbours.

“Is that the stage?” one of them asks, pointing to a raised platform at one end. There’s a piano up there. And speakers.

“No,” the usher says. “It’s happening in the chapel. You’ll go through in about five minutes.”

And sure enough, five minutes later, there’s an announcement.

“Please head over to the chapel now. No alcohol is allowed in the chapel, so please finish your drinks in the bar.”

With that mixed messaging, we traipse back down the stairs the way we had come, and nip through a side door, into the chapel.

There’s someone playing piano.

And oh man… I’m not a religious person. And even if I was, I wouldn’t be Christian. But there’s something about seeing light filter through church windows that hits me right in the spiritual-zone.

As one, we all get out phones out and start aiming them upwards.

processed_MVIMG_20190630_184111.jpg

The ushers must be used to this reaction because they stand back, giving us time to take our fill of photos before gently guiding us into the first few rows of pews, where there are more pieces of paper waiting for us.

I take a seat and look what we’ve been given. It’s the words to I vow to thee my country. But different. Changed.

Oh god, I really hope they don’t make me sing. I’m not a singer. And, like, I’m a Jewish girl. Sort of. And in a church. And like, I’ve sung I vow to thee plenty of times. But that was at school. And I had to. And I hated every single enforced moment of it.

The cast come out. They sing. And then invite us to join in with them. Could I do it? Would I do it?

I compromised by standing up and mumbling along vaguely. Thankfully the cast are doing most of the work here. Good thing, as I vow to thee is a trickier hymn then most people remember, and with new words to fit into those convoluted rhythms, we needed all the help we can get.

The cast leave.

An usher comes up and starts counting.

“Right, this row,” she says, indicating the front row. “And you four,” she says, counting four people into the second row, with me as number two. “Please go through.”

“Do we leave these?” my neighbour asks, indicating the hymn seat.

“You can just put them in your seats.”

“But can I keep it?”

“Oh, yes. Keep it if you like!”

Excellent. Good on neighbour-lady for asking the important questions. I fold mine up and put it in my bag, hurrying to follow the others out though a low door and into a small foyer decked out in William Morris-esque wallpaper. From there, we move into a small room. Very small. Right. This is the room we were warned about.

We shuffle forward, but we’re bottle necking in the door, and the cast are already coming up behind us.

One of them gently pushes me aside so he can get in, and we all manage to shift and find room inside.

The two actors greet each other in delight, and then the lights go out.

Sound pounds around us. Shouting. A dog barking.

Someone near me gets out their phone and lights up the screen. Another phone appears on the other side.

The actors switch on torches. They aim them at around the room. They’re showing us something. Words. Writ large in capital letters on banners overhanging the windows. Printed in tightly spaced lines on sheets of A4 stuck to the walls.

They hand the torches over to two audience members. And then they leave, shutting the door with a click behind them.

The torch-bearers stare at their newly acquired props for a moment, but then they realise what to do. They point them at the words. Lighting the way for us to read.

processed_IMG_20190630_172730.jpg

Stories of detention centres. Of cruelty. Of being kept in ignorance. Personal tales of anguish and pain.

“Is everyone ready to come to the next room?” asks the usher.

We nod. We are.

There isn’t far to go this time. Just down the corridor.

A grey room, filled with rows of seats.

Without being told, we all sit down.

An actor comes in. She introduces herself. She’s not here in character. She just wants to tell us something before the scene begins. There’s going to be racist language, she tells us. “You are very welcome to leave the room, and to come back. Feel free to use this room as you wish,” she says.

When she returns, she is in character. She’s a trainee officer in a detention centre. And so are we. She plays out a scene with her instructor.

We’re given small sheets of paper. What to do if you see someone being questioned by immigration. They want to teach us how to get around these meddling bystanders. An audience volunteer joins the actors to run through a scene.

processed_IMG_20190630_175102.jpg

At the end, we’re graduating. Fully fledged immigration officers. We’re told to take a hat out from under our chairs. There’s nothing there. The hats are imaginary.

We put them on.

The actor who greeted us returns. Not in character.

“You don’t have to spend the rest of the performance as officers,” she assures us. “Take the hats off.”

We do.

“Just remember,” she adds. “You’ve taken your hats off now, but I haven’t.”

We’re going back up the stairs now.

An actor calls us over to the bar.

“Free Ribena!” she says, handing out glasses of the stuff. “This is a Ribena bar! Come close. Take a drink. I want to ask a favour of you…”

There are three people in the bar. Each sitting at their own tables. We’re to join them. Talk to them. Cheer them up, if we can.

I go over to a young woman weeping into her wine glass. “Mind if I join you?” I ask.

processed_IMG_20190630_181014.jpg

She apologises for her tears. And then she tells her story. She’s a teacher. Her pupil is starving. He can’t claim free school meals. What can she do?

I don’t have the answers.

The next table is a woman writing. A page filled with the word ARAB, over and over again. She’s raging about the laws being pushed through, about NHS staff having to report on the nationalities of their patients, about immigrants having to pay more than the treatment actually costs.

“There’s a campaign,” she says. “Docs not Cops. If you just search that…”

“Docs not Cops?” I repeat.

She nods. “There’s also a hashtag. #PatientsNotPassports,” she says with a small smile of humour at the phrase.

There’s only two other people at the next table. A young woman, and our actor. He’s a landlord. He just chucked out his tenants, because one of them didn’t have the immigration paperwork.

He doesn’t sound very remorseful about the whole thing.

“What would you do?” he asks us.

“I’d turn a blind eye,” says my fellow audience member.

I shrug. I wouldn’t be a landlord. That’s what.

I did not like him.

“I didn’t feel sorry for the landlord at all,” says the young woman as we leave for our next destination.

“I gave him a really hard time,” pipes up another audience member.

“Property-owning capitalist pig,” I inject.

We really didn’t like him.

We’re going back down to the chapel. We retake our seats in the pews. We’re going to do some Theatre of the Oppressed. I’ve never done Theatre of the Oppressed. I’ve never wanted to.

Cardboard Citizens used to bring their Theatre of the Oppressed shows to Canada Water Culture Space back when I worked there. I always felt that I should go. Just to see what it was all about. But then I’d read a description of how it all works, and I would very firmly pick up my coat at the end of the day, and make sure I was safely at home by the time it kicked off.

If you don’t know what it is, I suggest reading their website, but basically, the actors run a scene, the audience yells stop at a turning point in the story, and then the help to reshape what happens. Changing the scene to form a better outcome.

Our MC for the show steps up and explains this.

They run through the scene.

We all shout STOP.

“Right at the beginning!” says our MC. “So you know how to help things. But why didn’t our character?”

Audience members starts shouting out answers.

“Fear.”

“She feels powerless.”

“Indifference!

“And how would you show that?” the MC asks.

He jumps onto the stage. “I want you to come up here, and move the actors into position. They’ve given permission for us to touch them, but it’s nice to ask. It’s polite.” He turns to one of the actors. “May I touch you?” The actor nods. “You can pose them,” says the MC, pushing down one of the actor’s shoulders so that he's lopsided. “And you can show them. But you cannot describe what you want them to do.”

Three volunteers from the audience go up, and after asking nicely, mould their actors into the appropriate positions to convey the emotions.

“And can you help?” asks the MC. “How do we conquer these emotions?”

More people go up. They talk to the actors. Give advice.

One woman explains to the actor representing fear, that she must fake it till she makes it.

One man reads the pamphlet we were given earlier to the powerless actor, giving him the tools he needs.

The scene runs again. This time with an audience member in place of an actor. She steps in. Stopping the detention officers. Informing their target of his rights.

We all applaud.

She did very well.

And then it’s time to go. But not before we are reminded that we have to do our things our own way. That we must do what we are capable of. In whatever way we can.

Just like being an audience member, I suppose. Each of us taking part as much as we are able. Drink the Ribena, chat to the actors, but draw the line at going up on stage? That’s fine. We all have our limits.

Knowledge is power, and content warnings mean you can be prepared.

“The bar is still open, if you like,” says an usher.

I wouldn’t mind. But I have somewhere else to be.

Somewhere where the name is it’s own content warning.

I’m going to Magic Mike Live…

processed_IMG_20190630_170008.jpg