Like Twisted Lips

It’s very very cold. And very very wet. And very very windy.

If that dark and stormy night dude, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, were still around, I’d be asking him to cover the rest of this post, but as he’s been dead a good hundred and fifty years, I guess I will just have to get on with it all by myself. Just like I have every other post on this gawd-forsaken marathon.

You might be able to tell, I’m having a bad day. And I’m in Kingston. Those two points are not unrelated. Not that I have anything against Kingston.

Other than it being a right pain in the arse to get to, is cold, wet, and windy, and is also the location of a theatre that once rejected me for a job. The theatre I’m going to right now, as it happens. No, I’m not still bitter about it. But thanks for asking.

I scurry through to streets of Kingston, fighting with my umbrella as it attempts to fly me across the road. It’s okay though. I can see it. The Rose Theatre. Just there, up ahead. Doing it’s very best to light up the gloom. I shake out my umbrella and burst through the doors, quelling the desire to shake myself down like a dog. 

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The box office seems to be on the far end of a wide corridor, so I go over and join the queue. It doesn't take long for me to reach the front, so I give the lady behind the counter my surname and wait for her to pull my ticket from the box.

"And can you give me the address please?" she asks.

I give it.

She frowns.

"Shit, no. Sorry," I say, realising that I just gave her an address I haven't lived in for almost a decade. I manage to summon up the correct one, but as I walk away with my newly acquired ticket, I'm left a little dazed by the whole experience. This marathon is doing a number on my brain. Forgetting your postcode is one thing, but time-hoping back to your early twenties is quite another. I was not having fun back then. That period of my life is best forgotten and I don't want it coming up in a box office queue in Kingston. Shit be traumatic enough without that.

I pass another desk. This one selling programmes.

I join the queue. If anything can soothe me right now it's some papery programme goodness.

"There he is!"

A woman goes up to the man standing just ahead of me in the queue. They do the whole 'how are you' thing and then he looks at her.

"This is for programmes, not tickets," he tells her.

"Ah!"

She disappears.

Our queue lapses back into silence.

But the man ahead of me is restless.

He turns in a circle, almost trampeling me in the process. "So sorry," he says and then walks away.

Right.

I guess I'm next in line then.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask the programme seller.

"Sorry?" she says.

"I'd like a programme please?"

"Oh!" she says, her face clearing as realisation dawns that the person who has been waiting patiently in line at the programme desk might actually want to purchase one. "That's four pounds," she tells me.

I look in my purse. I don't have any reasonable amount of change for this transaction. All notes. And not even small ones. "Sorry," I apologise. "I just went to the cash machine."

"I'll give you change in pound coins," she says, half-threateningly.

Little does she knows that I fucking love pound coins.

Six shiny pound coins and a programme acquired, I go off to investigate what else the Rose Theatre has on offer.

Walking down the wide corridor, the space opens out into a cafe. In the centre, there's a massive fuck-off staircase which is very pleasing. While the walls are covered in black and white murals that remind me of the woodcuts I saw over in the other Rose theatre. The one over in Southwark.

The tables are packed with people enjoying pre-show drinks.

"This tea is sorting me right out," says a woman clutching a proper mug of tea between her hands.

Everyone looks the tiniest bit damp.

I take up position next to the staircase and try to work out what sort of person comes to the Rose Theatre on a miserable Saturday night to watch a play about a teenage girl who is raped, murdered, and spends her time in the afterlife watching her grieving family from heaven.

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Yup, I'm here to see The Lovely Bones.

And by the sounds of it, everyone here has read the book.

Even I've read the book.

Can't say I rated it much. I read it, gosh, I must have been in my very late teens. So, hopefully, things have changed since then and I'll have a new appreciation for the story now that I'm... very much not in my late teens.

There's an announcement over the tannoy. I can't make out a word of it, but given the time, I imagine the house is now open and I should be heading into the auditorium.

I go over to the nearest door and, yup, looks like this is the right one for my seat.

I join the queue. A queue to get into the theatre.

Can't say I find myself in those all that often.

It's moving slow. Real slow.

The Rose must have the most complicated seating system in London if it's really taking this long to get people through.

But when I make it through the doors, the usher is off somewhere else and I'm left to figure out where I need to go all by myself.

I peer down at the row letters. Huh. Okay. Turns out I'm not in the stalls. Or at least, not in the stalls proper. By the looks of it, I'm in the circle of seats that surrounds the stalls. The stalls circle, if you will. I haven't seen many of those on my marathon. The Royal Opera House has one, of course. And bloody expensive it is too. And RADA has one in one of their theatres. Which are significantly less expensive. And now the Rose. Priced somewhere in between at twenty-five quid to sit at an angle to the stage.

The angle grows larger as I make my way around.

I pause, looking at a seat number, and someone makes to stand up.

"Sorry," I say. "I got confused by the three." I point at the seat number. It is a three, but something about being positioned in between a twelve and a fourteen tells me that they lost a digit along the way.

I keep going, until I'm almost at the end, and have a look at my seat.

It's a double-wide. Another thing you find mainly at drama schools.

Can't say I'm a fan of them. You know how little coordination I have. Timing your seating with the person sitting next to you is hard enough when you know them, but even if you're on a theatre-date with someone, unless you have some meticulous research beforehand, there's a good chance you're going to be sharing your bench with a stranger.

Just as I'm thinking these thoughts, my neighbour arrives, and we both grip onto the seat, half-crouching as we attempt not to ram the backs of each other's knees as we lower the seat down.

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An usher comes over to talk to a sweet young couple, all of seventeen if they're a day, sitting in the row in front.

"Did we dispose of the bottle?" she says in her best headmistress tones.

"Yeah," says the boy.

"You left it outside?" she goes on.

He nods.

The usher gives them both a look, laden with significance, before leaving.

The girl sticks out her tongue at the usher's retreating back.

I love Gen Z.

Anyway, it looks like the doors are closing. I wonder if they're going to use that first line.

Blackout.

We all jump as a loud noise crashes into the auditorium.

An actor comes out.

"My name was Salmon, like the fish."

Oh.

I bloody hate that line. Put me off the whole book. "Like the fish?" Ergh.

As someone in the unusual-surname club, I disapprove of anyone who feels the need to be all twee about it like this. And yes, I know she's like, twelve or whatever. But still. Gross.

Anyway, we're off now.

The set is rather cool. There's a massive mirror over the stage. It's probably as a reflection of the duality of heaven and earth or something, but to me it's an indication of the bravery of the producer. You have to be damn sure you're going to fill a theatre if you are putting mirrors on stage, because damn, they can make a house look empty with even a few gaps in the audience.

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I spend a lot of time looking at that mirror. Especially during the rape and murder scene. I know it's integral to the plot. But I've already been traumatised enough this week. The crows are still pecking away at my brain from my visit to the Kiln.

Still, the rest of the audience seems to be into it. They're giving it their all during the curtain call.

Bet they all have boring surnames and think the "like the fish” line is cute.

Ergh.

Blood on the Dance Floor

When you are walking down a dark, covered, alleyway, what you really want it is to be overtaken by someone wearing a floor-length red cape.

If I wasn't already feeling like I was stepping into some other realm, possibly one with trolls and ogres and villains with fantastic eyeliner, I definitely am now.

At the end of the tunnel, the pathway opens up into a small courtyard, lined with diamond-paned windows.

Above the gothic arches however, is a very modern neon sign, all jumbled letteres spelling out: Toynbee Studios.

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It's taken a while to get here.

They don't have much of a theatre programme.

And even when they do, there's no guartentee that it will go ahead.

I had a show booked in months ago. All the way back in May, I think it was.

But it got cancelled. The artist pulled out. There was some controversy going on. I'm not sure exactly what it was. The cancellation email didn't fully explain it. It was all apologetic, but what it was apologising for remained unsaid. From what I could gather, there was a transphobic incident. But whether it was against staff, or artists, or an audience member, I could not tell.

Whatever, the result was the same: the artist pulled out, and I've had to wait five long months to find another show to book into.

And that was not easy.

Not the actual booking. That was fine. All online. Click, click, click, done.

It was the giving up on another venue that made it tricky.

I wasn't planning on being in E1 tonight. I was supposed to be in Edmonton. And quite another theatre. Another hard to book theatre. Another rarely-programmed theatre. And I had to choose between the two of them, knowing either one would result in my failing the marathon.

In the end, I chose Toynbee. Mainly because the show sounded more interesting.

I hope they appreciate that.

l go inside.

And there's a merch desk. Right there by the box office. It has t-shirts. And a crowd of people looking at them.

I stop to have a look.

I hadn't even heard of this guy, Ron Athey, but clearly he's a thing because most merch desks I see on my marathon travels are deserted. No one wants to be spending money at the theatre. But here they are, the fans, all queueing up and having serious discussions about designs and sizing.

I sneak around the queue and join the considerably shorter one at the box office counter.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say to one of the two box officers crowded behind it.

"Yup! Sure," he says, grabbing a clipboard and looking down the list. "Is that Maxine?"

It is.

The other box officer fetches something and holds it out. Into my palm she pours a single wooden ball.

I stare at it.

It looks like the kind of thing you put in your sock drawer to keep the moths away.

"If you hand that to the steward on your way in," says the first officer, pointing the way into a bar that is so packed all I can see is a shifting wall of people.

I'm not very good with crowds, so I go in the opposite direction, back through the door and out into the quiet courtyard.

I find a wall to lean against and breath in the cold night air.

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Within seconds, I'm trapped by a queue full of people trying to make it into the building. There's no room for them in the box office. So they're pouring at the door. Pinning me to my wall.

Not overly keen on this, but at least it gives me the opportunity to inspect all their outfits from up close. Because these people are serving up looks.

Red cloak lady was only the start.

We've got mohawks and backcombing and leather and eyeliner. So much eyeliner.

The post-punk crowd as come to Toynbee and I am here for it.

Introductions pour out around me as groups of friends collide.

"Do you know...?

"Oh yeah. I think we met a few years back..."

"Have you been to one of his shows before?"

But as the line grows, I begin to feel insecure about my medicore gothiness, so I find somewhere else in the courtyard to stand. Somewhere with an excellent view of the bar. Somewhere we I can get all my fashion inspo while being a creeper in the distance, which, I'm going to be honest, is what I've always wanted.

Except, by the looks of it, the crowd is starting to thin.

They're going in.

I should probably go too.

I squeeze past the line, apologising and hope they don't think I'm just queue barging. I hold my wooden ball like a talisman, ready to show it off to anyone who questions me.

Through the bar, and up towards the door on the opposite side.

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There's a sign listing trigger warnings which I skim over. Beneath them is a notice saying there's a quiet room to escape to, and that the pink lanyarded staff can help if we need anything.

That gives me pause.

I go back to the warnings.

BDSM. Violence. Ritual beheadings. Nudity. Blood.

Live blood.

Live bloodletting.

That's... concerning.

I mean, I don't mind blood. What woman does? But I do have a very particular blood thing that I am super not into, which makes me feel queasy when I see it on TV or whatever. A live demonstration of that very particular thing is going to have me throw up. Or faint. Or quite possibly both.

There's a corridor out here and front of housers are busy handing out branded plastic cups to those bringing in drinks.

"Go ahead if you have your ball," says one of them, spotting my lack of drink.

Something tells me the Toynbee front of housers really enjoy saying that.

Down the hallway and there's another usher by the door to the auditorium. She's carrying a canvas sack.

"Just put your balls in the bag," she says cheerfully.

Yup. The Toynbee staff love their balls.

I drop mine in, and go in.

And stop.

Okay, so like. I saw the courtyard. I saw the paned windows.

And yet somehow, I didn't see this venue coming.

It's big. And red. With a massive stage. And is doling out some serious music hall vibes. Or perhaps art deco cinema. One of those.

They should have dance performances in here. That stage looks made for it. Wide and deep. Lots of room for jetes.

The nearest block of seats is empty and I make my way over to them.

But the front of houser in here is directing people over to the other side.

"Sorry, did you say the centre or the far side?" I ask him.

"Yes," he says, turning to me. "Otherwise the view is a bit restricted from over here."

I look over at the stage.

It's really deep.

That thing goes back for ever.

And right at the back, on the wall, is a projection. With words. Lots of them. A whole block of text. Only half of which is visible from where I am.

Far side it is then.

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All the seats on the aisle are filled up, but I ask some nice girls if I can get past and they stand up to let me through. I leave a seat spare between us. Just to be polite.

But people keep pouring in.

The show is sold out.

A couple are inching their way into our row.

I stand up to let them past.

The guy goes on ahead, but the girl plonks herself into the skipped seat next to me.

"Oh..." I say, confused.

"Nah, it's okay," says the guy.

"Do you want to switch seats," I ask the girl. "So you can sit together?"

"Sure!" says the girl.

I look to the guy, but he isn't moving.

"Which way do you want to go?" I ask, more than happy to move further away from the aisle, well aware that I am the interloper here and I should be giving up my superior seat to true fans.

But the girl isn't having it. "You can have this seat," she says. "They're not assigned."

Well, okay then.

We switch.

I lean back, and look around, trying to get a sense of this place. It's massive. And yet only has one theatre show in an entire year. What on earth do they do with it the rest of the time?

"Have you seen him before?" someone asks their neighbour in the row in front.

"Yahhhh!" comes the enthusiastic reply.

"Oh, you know him?"

He confirms that he is familiar with Ron Athey's work.

"That's okay then." 

Is it? I'm not so sure.

"I hope it's not as dark as last time..."

I eye up the exit. Wherever the quiet room is, it's one hell of a journey from here, involving climbing over four knees and walking right in front of the stage.

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"What are you doing for Halloween this weekend?" someone asks.

"Halloween is next week," comes the reply.

"No?"

"It's Thursday!"

If these people are really Goths, then they are terrible at it.

Not that they aren't rocking it all the same. I am digging this person sitting just over there, with eyeliner right up to their hairline. That is a look and I am into it.

As the lights go down, the audience roars. I think they're excited.

Ron Athey appears. I mean, I presume that's him, given how the audience is jumping around excitedly in their chairs and giggling at everything he does. They laugh as he walks. They laugh as he counts. They laugh as he miscounts. As he sips water. Pauses in his speeches. Everything he does sets them off.

Not quite sure I get it myself. I feel I'm missing something. Like the first part in the series that sets up all these jokes.

Between each scene, the projection at the back changes to show what I can only presume is a type of chapter title.

Everyone on my side of the room leans over, craning their necks to read what it says before whispering it to their neighbours with a seriousness that confirms I am definitely not getting whatever they are telling me.

I'm just not high brow enough for all this. It's all big complicated words and I don't understand a thing he's saying.

As for the films... they're uncomfortable making. I'll give them that.

And then the blood letting starts and yup... not into that. Blood leaks down his chest from the slimmest of cuts. His assistant… co-star… whatever he is, applies bandages, pressing them against the wound.

It's... kinda gross.

But it's over now. Time to go.

As we file out past the stage, a young woman walks over to look at the bloody rags, hanging like flags at a tournament. Or laundry day at Sweeney Todd's.

On a wave of excited chatter, I hurry back out into the courtyard. It's freezing out here. Where's the nearest tube station? Aldgate East. Right. Let's go.

"The best thing about that show was the video of the man walking," says a doubtful sounding woman at the traffic lights.

Yeah, that was... something.

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Fred attends a Fancy First Night

Another week, another new London theatre. It would almost be hilarious if it wasn’t literally killing me.

Oh well. Off I go. To the West End this time. Which makes a nice change.

Turn off Shaftesbury Avenue into Wardour Street, slip into Peter Street and, gosh. There it is. There’s no missing it. The place has been decked out in balloons.

It’s opening night and the Boulevard Theatre is here to party.

I stand on the opposite pavement to get a good look at it.

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Two buildings, rising either side of a walkway, and linked by a glass bridge. Lots of glass. The whole thing seems to be mainly glass. The huge windows reveal the first audiences scurrying about, exploring the space, getting drinks, staring at the massive staircase the dominates the second building. Usually I hate those glassy walls. Too vulnerable-making. I like spaces I can hide in. But somehow, this place manages to exude warmth. Even on a chilly October evening.

Must be the balloons.

There are two security guards on the door. I slow down as I approach, just in case they want to check my bag. But they make no effort to stop me, and I walk on through uninterrupted, finding myself in a small lobby that makes me feel I’m about to check into a small, but very smart, hotel.

I give my surname to the box officer.

“And what’s the first name?” he asks.

I give it.

“Can you confirm the postcode?”

I hesitate. Two step authentications. That’s a first.

Well, I suppose there’s no telling how many Maxine Smileses there are in the house tonight.

Well… there is. Because I’m the only one. I mean that literally. There was another, but she got married and double barrelled up her surname. So now there’s just me. And I’m here. Having to remember my postcode.

I manage to dredge it up from the depths of my memory.

Satisfied, he hands over the ticket. “That’s up the stairs and across the bridge,” he says with the type of grin box officers are only able to summon up on their first day.

I follow his instructions. Up the curling stair that lurks just off to one side, and over the bridge.

I find myself in a restaurant. A very swanky restaurant. With pink walls covered in pictures. A very swanky restaurant that is also a very busy restaurant.

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Too busy for me.

You know I’m not a fan of crowds.

I retreat back across the bridge and towards the stairs. There’s a little enclave here. With windows overlooking Peter Street. And a counter to lean on. And potted plants. It’s very soothing.

“Yeah, she worked as a stripper,” a very loud-voiced bloke says as he plods up the stairs.

“Who?” comes the equally loud-voiced reply.

“Vicky.”

“Who’s Vicky?”

I never get to find out who Vicky is because the pair of them disappear off across the bridge, and their loud voices are swallowed up by the even louder hubbub of the restaurant.

No matter, the vacuum of their presence is soon filled by a couple of front of housers.

“Everyone’s happy,” says one. “Everyone’s got a drink.”

“It’s going really well.”

“It’s really exciting.”

“People will be sat in their chairs, with their drinks…”

Something tells me that a key component of the Boulevard’s business plan is based on bar sales.

Another front of houser comes up the stairs.

He is immediately rounded on.

“Have you left your position?”

The newcomer admits that he has left his position.

“Stay in your position!”

He returns to his position.

More people are arriving. Audience members this time.

Despite the instructions to cross the bridge, each and every one of them turns the corner and walks into my enclave.

“Nothing here!” they say, before darting back the way they came, as if the joy of this enclave was not precisely that fact.

As yet another person rounds on me, tutting under their breath at the lack of facilities in this dead end, I realise I’m not going to get the hermit-cave I crave. It’s time to move on.

Now, the sign on the wall says that the stalls are upstairs. But my ticket says I’m sitting in the pit. There is no sign for the pit. I dither, debating with myself as to whether ‘pit’ is a synonym for ‘stalls’.

The front of housers have all moved all. Presumably back to their positions.

Fuck it, I’m going to the stalls. I’m sure someone will stop me if I’m not meant to be there.

Back into the restaurant, and I head to the massive staircase that I had seen from the street belong.

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A front of houser stands sentinel at the base.

“Have you got your ticket?” he asks, eyeing me up with just the tiniest trace of suspicion. I must look like a right wrong’un.

I pull it out my pocket and show it to him.

“Great!” he says, suddenly all smiles and enthusiasm. “The house isn’t actually open yet, but there’s a bar.”

Super.

I head on up.

No pink walls up here. No pictures either.

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There is a piano, and dark blue walls. But other than that, it is entirely plain. And I’ll admit, a little unfinished looking. Like they blew the budget on the massive staircase before they reached the upper levels.

No matter. At least it’s not too crowded up here.

There’s also a bridge.

I go and stand it in, marvelling at the neon lights advertising the tattoo parlour next door.

The floor is glass too, but frosted up like a lace doily to prevent under up-skirt surprises for the people passing underneath.

The space starts to fill up as we all wait for the house to open. As my empty bridge comes under attack, I look around for somewhere else to stand, and spot something.

A programme. Sitting on top of the bar.

I’d been wondering about those.

Front of housers running about all over the place and none of them holding programmes.

Somehow I’d managed to convince myself that there weren’t any. It’s surprising the amount of theatres that can’t get it together enough to have programmes delivered in time for first night. Not my theatre you understand. Three years on the job and I’ve never missed an opening night when it comes to programmes. But you know… other theatres. The ones without a publications officer in constant fear of her job.

But it looks like whoever is in charge of programmes at the Boulevard is totes on top of things too, because there they are. Or rather, there one is. Single and solitary, sitting on the bar, just waiting to be picked up by any fellow passing with a full wallet.

I head on over, ready to claim my papery darling.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask the guy behind the bar.

“Of course you can!” he says with a wide grin.

“And can I pay by card?” I ask. I have cash, but I never like using it if there’s a card machine going.

“You can only pay by card,” he tells me.

“Even better.”

From behind the counter he brings out a fresh programme, and balances it on the bar so it’s standing up straight and proud.

That’s a really nice touch. Next he’ll be offering to gift wrap it for me.

He doesn’t though. Instead he grabs the card machine.

“Contactless?”

“Sadly not,” I sigh.

“Old fashioned,” he says sympathetically.

“No, just broken.”

As I busy myself with my pin number, he glances over and spots my elephant purse, resting on the bar.

“I love your pencil case,” he says.

Now, my elephant is not a pencil case. He’s really not. He’s leather. Lined with satin. And hand made. But I can see where the confusion comes from. What with his flappy ears and swinging tail. I would have loved to have him as a pencil case when I was six years old.

“Does he have a name?” asks the bar guy.

“He does have a name. He’s Fred! I’ve had him for over ten years so he’s a bit old and sad now.”

“He doesn’t look old or sad,” says the bar guy as he takes back the card machine. “Enjoy the performance!”

Aww.

I know that was just great customer service bants, but still… I do love a bit of great customer service bants. Especially when they compliment my Fred.

“Hello everyone! The house is now open. Feel free to take your seats.”

As one, the occupants of the bar turn towards the auditorium doors.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker and she nods me through into a dark corridor.

Another ticket checker waits on the other side, poised to direct us around the space.

“Front row, just go around until you reach your seat.”

Looks like he means that literally, because the seats here are all in a circle.

I step down into the front row and pick my way through the slim space between the stage and the seating until I find my spot.

“I’m just here,” I say to my new neighbour as she makes to let me through.

She looks at me. “If you don’t mind me asking, how much did you pay for your ticket?” she asks.

I tell her. Twelve quid. I booked with the roulette option. The one where you don’t get to pick your seat in advance.

Turns out my neighbour did the same thing, and we are soon deep in discussion about the theatre.

“Is there a second row upstairs?” she asks.

I look up. “No, I don’t think so. It’s a spiral, they just have a little overlap over there,” I say, pointing to the spot in the balcony directly opposite us.

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The seats around us begin to fill up.

“How much did he pay?” asks my neighbour, spotting a newcomer flapping around a large print-at-home ticket. “Can you see?”

I can see. He paid £28. And he’s only two seats away from us.

“Numpty,” I laugh. “Although, twenty-eight quid for front row in a central London venue isn’t bad. You’d pay more at the Donmar.”

“The Donmar also does ten-pound seats,” says my neighbour.

I shrug. I haven’t actually paid to go to the Donmar in years.

“Have you seen Dave Malloy’s work before?” she asks.

I admit that I haven’t.

“What sort of musicals do you like?”

I tell her that a current favourite is Come From Away. That seems like a safe bet right now. Mainstream enough that everyone has heard of it, but with just that level of quirkiness that I don’t get lumped in with the Lloyd Webber Phandom.

“Well, this is very different,” she says, knowingly. “Dave Malloy is very weird.”

“I’m okay with weird,” I tell her. “I’ve seen a lot of weird lately.”

“Not like this.”

I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s no time to think about it because the lights are going down and the cast is out.

Zubin Varla takes his spot behind the piano and introduces the show.

Ghost Quartet, here we go. Give me your weird.

Within a few numbers, I’m completely lost. I have no idea what’s going on. At first I thought the songs completely disjointed, but recurring characters suggest there is some sort of narrative happening even if I can’t work out what it is.

Still, I’m not not enjoying it.

The space is so small, it’s hard not to get swept away by the intimacy of the whole thing. As Varla picks up a shawl to place around his shoulders, it brushes against my leg. When he turns his head to give a look of exasperation, his gaze hits our eyes.

I smile along, feeling my chair shake as the person sitting behind taps his foot along with the music.

Carly Bawden comes over, holding a small, circular basket. She offers it to me.

I grab something at random.

It’s a small, pink egg.

I look at it, utterly baffled by what it is, or what I’m supposed to do with it. But as my fellow front rowers dive in and select their own items, I see they are all shaking them in time with the music.

I give my pink egg an experimental shake. It rattles pleasingly. It’s a maraca. Of sorts.

I do my best, I really do. But asking someone how can’t even clap in time with a beat to offer percussive support is too much. I can’t handle that level of stress.

When the time comes to return my pink egg to the pot, I do it gratefully.

A song about whiskey starts with a crescendo of breaking glass, which I don’t think was intentional.

The cast run around, pulling out drawers of tumblers, and splashing the amber liquid into the glasses before handing them around the front row.

A few people refuse, but most clutch onto it gratefully, passing around an ice bucket to their fellow drinkers.

“Is that real whiskey?” asks my neighbour.

“It looks like it,” I whisper back, watching someone across the way give their glass a tentative sniff before downing it in one.

And then, with the greatest reverence in the world, a very small bottle is brought out. Sixteen-year-old whiskey. Only one glass. For one very special audience member.

No ice. Because that would be sacrilege.

The lucky audience member takes a sip and gives a thumbs up, before passing it to his friend to share.

In the background, the tech team rush around, trying to get to the stage. But there’s no easy way through.

Someone fetches a pan and brush, and as the song ends, he hands it to Maimuna Memon.

“First time you’ve seen an actor clean up real broken glass on stage,” says Memon as she bends down to sweep it up. “That’s all of it. I think.”

Stage now glass-free, probably, we’re onto the next song.

Keyed up on alcohol, the cast start handing out instruments. Simple ones first. Cymbals and triangles. The type you’d have a bash at in kindergarten.

But then they start handing over their own. Bawden teaches a girl a riff on the autoharp. Varla demonstrates a motif on the piano. A heavily pregnant lady is taught to bang a large drum. And then slowly, slowly, the cast leaves them too it.

Our laughter ends the play, replaced by a standing ovation as the lights come back up.

“Did you enjoy that then?” asks my neighbour as the cast finish their bows and disappear off stage.

I hesitate. “It was pretty. And interesting. But I had no idea what was going on.”

She nods. That’s the reaction she expected.

It’s time to go.

“If I can figure out how to get out of here,” I say.

“I was just going to say…” says my neighbour, examining the slim space between the stage and the seats, now packed with people putting on their coats and generally dawdling. “It comes across as rude to go over the stage.”

“Fuck it,” I announce. “I’m going for it.”

“I’ll follow you then.”

So we strike out, weaving through all the instruments on stage, trying not to trip over the trunks.

One of the musicians brought out onstage, the heavily pregnant lady who took up the drum, bends down to pick up a fallen rose petal. A memento of the show and her part in it.

On the way out, a front of houser hands me something. A business card sized flyer. Something about having a chance to win tickets if we tweet about the show.

I wonder if a blog counts…

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I need me a Scarecrow

Can you believe that this is my first visit to the Kiln Theatre? And I'm not talking since the rebrand either. I ain't never been to the Tricycle neither. Shocking. I know. Even I'm surprised. Or I was until I got on the train to get here. Honestly, people who battle the overground in the pursuit of theatre are gawddamned heroes, they really are. Like, I know I complain a lot about trains. But seriously, they are awful and I want no part of them. Once this marathon is over, I'm never going anywhere that isn't within a ten-minute walking distance of a tube station.

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Anyway, I'm here. And there it is, the Kiln. Sitting right there, right on the high street. All cosy and tucked in between a cafe offering wood oven pizzas and the Daniel Day Lewis family's pharmacy, giving off some serious Tara Arts vibes.

Inside there's some sort of cafe or bar or something like that. I don't hang around to find out. My attention is entirely taken uo by the neon sign glowing at the end of a long corridor. A red neon sign glowing at the end of a very long, dark, corridor. A red neon sign saying "Kiln" glowing at the end of a very long, dark, brick corridor.

It's hella creepy.

I don't want to get all, you know, but walking along a very long, dark, brick corridor, towards a red light advertising itself as an oven... I mean, it feels a bit holocausty. Just saying.

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Dark, red-lit corridors are already hitting those horror movie tropes. We don't need to be adding kilns to the mix.

I make it down the corridor though, and emerge into a buzzing... again, cafe or bar or possibly restaurant, I can't tell.

A sign points the way towards the box office and I follow it into a brightly lit space. All white walls and tiled floors, and relief on my part.

I stand around, marvelling at the TARDIS-like architecture going on around me.

This place is unexpectedly massive.

It's not like Tara Arts at all. That whole high street frontage is a total scam. This isn't some diddy local fringe venue. This place is glossy as shiz. This is a venue that has done some serious deals with the devil. Which explains the horror hallway.

I suppose I better pick up my tickets.

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It's a great big box office. Long counter. With bollards to keep the queue in check. Not that there is one right now.

Terrified that I would be late, I'm in fact here far too early. Damn those trains for running on time.

"The surname's Smiles?" I tell the first box officer I reach. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

"Great!" he says, making a grab for the ticket box. "Can I take your first name too please?"

He absolutely can.

"That's one," he says, handing it over.

Right. Now what?

The cafe or bar or quite possibly restaurant, looks to be more on the restaurant side of the spectrum. No plopping oneself down at a table and taking up space without ordering. Over by the box office there are great big booths, large enough for ten to squeeze around the tables. Each of them seating a single person.

I don't really fancy sharing right now.

Over on the opposite side, there's a counter with high chairs. That looks pretty popular too. I'm not feeling it though. My short legs don't love sitting in high chairs. I like to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

But over there looks like a quite corner for me to stand in.

I hang back, waiting for someone to pass in front of me.

He stops, and glances over. "Box office is just that way," he says.

"Oh, I've got that sorted," I say with a wave of my hand which I hope suggests a casual appreciation for his concern.

Over by the bar, there's a clicking of switches and the lights go down.

We are clearly now in evening mode. Mood-lighting is a-go.

I check the time. Still a bit early to go in.

I should go buy a programme or something.

I look around. While there are waiters buzzing around everywhere, I can't see staff of the front of house-variety.

I go back to the neon sign, and find the entrance to the theatre.

Ah. There's a front of houser. She doesn't have programmes though. Huh. Maybe they just don't do them. Bit at odds with the schmancy vibe they've got going on here, but perhaps it's a statement about kilns, and paper burning, and I don't know... I don't pretend to understand what is going on anymore.

I show her my ticket.

As she sets about ripping it to shreds, I look down and notice something.

Down on the floor, propped up and balanced against the wall, are booklets with the When the Crows Visit artwork on their covers.

"Do you have programmes?" I ask doubtfully.

"I do!" she says, reaching down to grab one, "That's four pounds."

As we settle the business of me handing over a fiver and her finding my change, she goes over the rules. "Just to let you know, there's no readmission once the performance has started, but there is a twenty-minute interal." She pauses. "And no photography is allowed," she says, clearly clocking my sort.

Duly warned, I go inside.

Turns out I'm sitting in the back row, which is no bad thing, because it's a neat little theatre in here. One block of lightly raked seats, lined either side by narrow slips, and a balcony running around the top.

The stage is wide, and the set massive. Huge doors are separated by wide pillars.

All very nice. I make use of the near-empty auditorium to take some forbidden photos. A bell rings outside, and the rows begin to fill up.

An usher walks down the aisle holding a "please turn off your mobile phones," sign on a flappy bit of paper. He reaches the end, walks back up, and puts the sign away. Job done.

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The house lights go down. The play begins.

I shift around in my seat.

This is.... well, there's a lot of shouting going on. And I am super not into shouting.

But also, I feel like the playwright is trying really hard to be Ibsen right now. Like, all the component parts are there. And yet, somehow, they don't seem to blend at all. There's this whole crow motif going on, but it feels tacked on. And extra. If this is Ibsen, it's Ibsen-by-numbers.

Next to me, my neighbour's phone lights up as she checks the time.

I glance over, wanting the answer to that question too, but I'm too late. She puts the phone away.

Guess I'll just have to wait then.

And wait I do. As the house lights go back up again, I make a dive for my phone. And... oh my gawd, only an hour has passed. Holy...

I get out my programme in an attempt to distract myself. Let's see what my four pounds has bought me.

There's a piece by the puppet-maker who made the crow. That's cool. It doesn't really say anything. Not about puppets or making them. All bollocks about the beauty of shadows. But, I know how hard it is to get artists to write anything real. So, whatever.

There's an article about the patriarchy in India. That's depressing.

A memorial piece from the playwright about a producer. Which is nice. Not sure the relevance to this play. It makes me think the playwright made a special request for this to go in for her own reasons, rather than anything that would interest or educate the audience. But again... artists.

There's also an intro from the artistic director. And it mentions Ibsen.

I fucking knew it.

I have to hard not to air-punch in satisfaction.

I. Fucking. Knew. It.

Ibsen-by-fucking-numbers.

Two girls sitting in the row ahead of me return, balancing pastry squares on paper napkins.

Those look good. I wouldn't mind me one of those.

No time to think about that though, the lights are going down and my neighbour hasn't come back.

Half the back row is empty.

Looks like I'm going to have to sit through this ersatz Ibsen all by myself.

Oh, oh lordy... okay. Now it's hitting. I was not prepared for all these details.

Gasps of horror float back through the audience and hit me right in the chest, but I'm too far gone to make my own. This is gross and I don't want these mental pictures that I'm getting here.

My stomach is churning and I am so not into this. But I can't move.

As the applause fades, I make my escape. I want to get out of here as fast as possible.

I race towards the station, half driven by the memories of those words clipping at my heels, and half by Citymapper saying I have three minutes to catch my train or I'll be stuck in Kilburn for another twenty.

I have no intention of hanging around.

I speed up, overtaking a couple walking ahead of me.

They're talking about the play.

"I was not expecting that," says one of them, with a shudder of disgust.

You and me both.

You. And. Me. Both.

Two Bag Ladies go to the Theatre

“Which show?” asks the box officer, once I’ve given my surname.

“Made in China?”

That’s not the full title, but the truth is, I don’t know how to pronounce the first part of it, and I’m really not feeling up to guessing right now.

I’m still ill.

And feeling sorry for myself.

And it’s a Monday.

Even worse, a Monday evening.

At least I’m on familiar ground here.

I’m at RADA. For my third visit of the marathon. Of four. Or potentially just three. It’s hard to tell.

I thought this place had a studio theatre. I’ve seen it on the hire page. But in the ten months I’ve been tracking these things, I’ve yet to see a single show being programmed in that space.

I’m kinda hoping that it doesn’t exist.

Not that I don’t enjoy my drama school visits. Just, you know, at this point I’d run over my own grandmother for the chance to knock a row off my spreadsheet.

And before you get all offended, both my grandmothers are already dead. And no, neither of them were run over. Not by me, anyway.

The box officer switches boxes and starts looking through it, pulling out a ticket and tearing up the ream into its individual components.

“Ticket and card receipt,” he says, handing them to me. “There you are.”

From the box office, I walk into the cafe space.

I know how things work here now.

A queue lines up along a wall covered with student headshots. Doors open. Tickets are checked. And everyone files into one of the three (or potentially four) theatres. It’s a busy space and the front of housers take no nonsense.

“There’s seven tickets still uncollected,” says a young woman into a radio as she rushes from the box office over to the main doors.

A voice comes over the sound system. “GBS Theatre. GBS Theatre. Tonight’s performance of Stoning Mary is about to begin.”

That’s not me. I’ve already done the GBS. Shame really. I like the sound of Stoning Mary.

The bar is all decked up for Halloween. Cobwebs creep their way around the bottles of spirits, little paper ghosts bounce over the coffee machines in a row of bunting, and there’s even a pumpkin.

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I very much approve. So festive. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

At the end, a table has been set up with wine and snacks. Good snacks by the looks of it. No crappy bowl of crisps going on here. Oh no. These people have cheese twists.

Sipping wine and very much ignoring the excellent snacks, are the very important people. The casting directors, I presume. Theatre people.

I’m not a casting director, and barely count as a theatre person, so I table a normal seat at a normal table.

The tables are covered with photos of costumes. I hadn’t noticed that before.

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I settle in and look around for a programme seller. There doesn’t seem to be one around here. There is a sign on the wall though, listing the locations of all the theatre spaces.

The GBS is in the basement, the Gielgud on the first floor, and the Jerwood Vanbrugh or floors two and three.

No mention of the Studio theatre.

If it exists, RADA has no intention of owning up to it.

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A front of houser rushes over.

“Are you here for a performance?” she asks a woman standing near me.

I look around.

The woman is rolling a suitcase behind her.

The front of houser looks down at the suitcase with a significant glance.

“I’m like a bag lady,” says the woman with a sigh of resignation.

The front of houser tells our bag lady that suitcases are not allowed. But, she has a plan. “Unofficially,” she says, lowering her voice to emphasis that things are about to get sneaky here. “I can take it…”

And she leads off the bag lady to some back room, where the suitcase is put away. Unofficially. And the lady, sans-bag, can enjoy the performance. Officially.

“Welcome to this evening’s performance of Keffiyeh/Made in China,” says the disembodied voice over the sound system. Keffiyeh! So that’s how you pronounce it. “The auditorium is now open.”

Across the way, a front of houser opens the door which leads to the theatres, and a queue lines up against the wall with the headshots. I join them.

There’s no time to make friends with the headshots though. We’re on the move.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker and get nodded through with an instruction to head “upstairs to the Gielgud.”

As I turn the corner and make my way to the stairs, I can hear the ticket checker’s voice behind me. “Oh my god,” she cries out. “You’re Stoning Mary! That’s already started!”

The owner of the Stoning Mary ticket must have demonstrated some upset at this news because the ticket checker quickly switches to the role of calm problem-solver. “Don’t worry! Don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll get you in.”

But I’m half way up the stairs already, rushing down the corridor, trying to keep up with all the young people as they make their way to the Gielgud.

The ticket checker on the door is tearing tickets. I fold the tab on mine back and forth to make it easier for him.

Inside there’s another front of houser. This one with programmes. I was worried there. Thought there wouldn’t be any.

“Would you like one?” she asks with an enthusiastic grin.

I absolutely would.

“They are one pound.”

Bargain.

I mean, not really. The ones at LAMDA are free. But outside the world of drama schools, these would be a considered a bargain.

Pity I can’t find my damn purse.

“Sorry,” I say, as the rummaging drags on a second too long. “My bag is so full.”

“It’s one of those days,” says the programme seller cheerfully.

“It is! Such a Monday.”

“And it’s a Mary Poppins bag!”

It is huge. And I do keep an umbrella in it. Turns out RADA has two bag ladies on their hands tonight.

But my purse is located, as is the right change. “There we go, two fifty pees,” I tell her as I drop them into her waiting palm.

“Perfect. Here you go,” she says, handing me a programme. “Enjoy!”

That done, it’s time to find a seat. Shouldn’t be too hard. The Gielgud is a titchy tiny theatre. Only a few rows of chairs in front of a diddy little floor-level stage. Not that they haven’t done the absolute mostest with it. There’s a proper set going on, with walls that look like they are going to move around and provide all kinds of backdrops. As for the seats, there may not be much in the way of rows, but every single one is working for it. With raised platform and different height chairs meaning wherever the casting directors are planning on sitting tonight, they are going to get an excellent view.

I dismiss the front row immediately. Not just because it’s the front row, but because it has those hella awkward chairs with the cut down legs. Corgie-legged seats are the preserve of the young. I’m not about that nonsense. Instead, I go for the first row with normal height chairs. Which is to say, the second row. Right at the end. Because I do like me an aisle seat.

The man who sits next to me is immediately greeted by everyone around us, with the young people twisting around to say hello.

I slink down in my normal height seat and have a look at the programme.

I will give the RADA programmes this, they may cost money, but they are beautifully printed. Nice thick paper stock, and with a green seam hidden under the saddle stitch binding so you get a flash of colour every time you crack back that spine. That’s some classy shit right there, and I appreciate it.

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From the credits it looks like we’ll be watching a lot of short plays tonight.

I count them up. Nine. That’s a lot of theatre. I hope there isn’t an interval. Not that I don’t enjoy the whole RADA experience, but the experience of going home and having an early night is one I would enjoy a whole lot more.

Lights down. We begin.

And I find myself sitting on the side of the thoroughfare as the cast rush on and off stage. Coming together to shift the set around and then running back off again, leave behind only two of their brethren for the first shortie. It’s sad and confusing and opaque. The dialogue clipped, half-finished and layered. Hinting at a thousand past lives, and casting only shadows of the current one.

A scuffle breaks out in the aisle, and I flinch away to avoid getting hit as the actors blast past onto the stage.

Play after play, taking us from market stalls to children’s bedrooms, moving so fast there’s no time to get bored, with each one leaving a soft thumbprint on your heart that there is no opportunity to process or contemplate before the next one starts prodding at you.

And then it’s over.

One of the ushers steps out.

“Just to let you know, there will be a short after-show discussion if you want to stay for that.”

I do not want to stay for that. I slip around the seats and make my escape.

A few people follow on behind me.

“Didn’t you want to stay?” someone asks their companion as we slip back down the stairs.

“Nah, if I wanted it explained to me, the producers will do that down the pub.”

As for me, all I want explained is where the hell is the RADA Studio theatre.

Sneaking Feels

"Taxi!"

I'm not a taxi, but I look round all the same.

We're at the traffic lights on Waterloo Road and a man is hanging out of the window of his car, waving at the black cab next to him.

"What's that building called?" he hollers at the black cab. With a huge sweeping gesture, he motions over to big building opposite us.

I feel like shouting back that it's The Old Vic, but I think the cab driver has it sorted.

I cross the road and peel away. I'm not going to The Old Vic tonight. I've already been to The Old Vic. So, unless The Old Vic decides it's opening a new studio theatre, which wouldn't surprise me given that all the other theatres seem to be doing it at the moment, I have no business in the place before 2020.

Instead, I slip down Cornwall Road, away from all the cafes and restaurants and general bustle of the area, to a road that looks like it got lost on its way to an industrial estate.

There, little more than a door in the wall, is the Waterloo East Theatre.

And it's packed.

I can barely make it through that door in the wall, the corridor inside is so crowded.

Pushing through into the foyer area doesn't help. If anything, the press of people is even more, well, pressing, in here.

Through the jam of backs and elbows and shoulders, I can just about see a sign indicating the presence of a box office and I make my way towards it. Only through careful examination of who are holding tickets do I manage to work out the existence of a queue. I join it.

A minute later, it's my turn.

I give my surname.

"Ah yes!" says the box officer, turning to reach for the ticket box. "I was marvelling at that earlier. I had a wager with myself about whether you'd be really glum. But you're not!" he adds hurriedly.

"Well, with everyone saying how great my name is the whole time, it's hard to be glum." Which is true.

I spot something on the counter. A sign advertising programmes for two quid. Well, it's advertising ‘programs’ for two quid because apparently we're American here in the Waterloo East Theatre. That or they're actually shifting some really niche computer software. I decide not to point this out. Don't want the nice box officer thinking I'm letting my surname down.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask.

"Yes, but they're over at the bar, actually."

Somehow I manage to make it over to the bar on the opposite side of this miniature-sized foyer.

Past the loos and a ladder leading up to a terrifying-looking balcony.

At least, I think they're the loos.

The gendered signage in the forms of dancing silhouettes is a little confusing.

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As for the ladder.

"That convenient door," says someone. "I'm sure that's the entrance, and not rather up those inconvenient stairs."

"The stairs do look very inconvenient," comes the reply.

"I wouldn't want to try them."

Nor would I. I'm very glad to here that we will be accessing the space through a door. At ground level.

I reach the bar, and pay my two pounds. Getting a handsome programme in return.

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I have a flick through.

More American spelling. Theaters instead of theatres abound. They should rename this place the Waterloo Iowa Theater.

I wouldn't mind so much if they didn't flip-flop between the two throughout. Theatre or theater. Doesn't matter which. They need to pick one and own it.

The cover is very much on-trend, in that you would know you were seeing a gay play without ever having to read the marketing copy. Lots of abs. Lots of soft purple lighting. I'm beginning to think of it as the Above the Stag aesthetic.

Judging by the fire code violation that is this overstuffed foyer, it's clearly doing the job.

The men are out in force for Afterglow. And a couple of women. And by a couple I mean literally two. Me and another girl. She's over by the bar, buying herself a very small glass of wine.

The man behind the bar retreats through the convenient door, reappearing a few minutes later. "Apologies for the delay," he says to us all. "We had a slight technical problem which is now solved, so we'll be opening in a few minutes."

"Thank you!" someone in the crowd replies.

I use the time to look around.

Brick walls alternate with corrugated iron. All coated with a layer of framed playbills, and what looks like drawings of actors. There's Alan Rickman as Snape. And Carrie Fisher with her big bunned Princess Leia. And Charlie Chaplin as... Charlie Chaplin? Literally can't name any of his roles.

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A chalkboard advertises the price list for the Wet Bar, which is a term I know the meaning of, but will never understand.

The front of houser reappears. "We are about to open the house. It's very busy tonight so please sit in your allocated seats," he says, in what must be a first for this marathon. I've encountered a fair few seat-swappers along the way, but never enough to warrant that kind of announcement. Apparently, at the Waterloo East, seat numbers are only a suggestion.

"No phones inside the auditorium," he goes on. "Under any circumstances at all."

Shit. Well, that's okay. I'll just have to be super sneaky about my auditorium photos.

"Anyone spotted with a phone will be removed."

Double shit.

"Switch off social media and enjoy live performance."

Okay, Grandad.

I put my phone away in my bag. I don't want to get kicked out. I'll figure the photo problem out later.

The box officer is on the door now, and I show him my ticket as I pass through.

We file into the auditorium, the ceiling curving over our heads. We're in a railway arch. The natural home of fringe theatre in London.

The stage is tucked in at one end. With a proper, full on set.

Rising away from it is a very narrow block of seating. So that we're not just sitting inside a railway arch, we actually get the experience of sitting within the close confines of a train.

I climb the stairs until I reach my row, but am left blinking at the seats, not knowing where to go.

There are seat numbers. I can see them. But they've been stuck on the backs of the seats. Am I supposed to lean over to find out if I'm in the right chair? That sounds way more acrobatic than I am capable of on a Sunday night.

I look at the row in front. We're starting at 'one' on the aisle. That's simple enough.

I decide to count my way into my seat, and hope for the best.

"There's no seat numbers?" says a bloke staring out my row.

"They're here," says his companion.

They both stare at the numbers, before deciding to sit next to me.

I now understand why there's a pre-show announcement telling us to sit in our allocated seats. It really is more complicated then it sounds.

A second later, they are getting up and leaving the row.

They stand awkwardly in the aisle and a group of young women squeeze in.

"Shall I get out?" I ask, standing up to let them through, and realising there isn't much room for passing.

"No, it's okay," says one of them and they press on, my leaning as far back as I can and them side-stepping their way to their seats.

This must be what they mean by intimate theatre.

And then the play starts, and... I mean. I'd heard that things were rather... But this is very...

They are naked. They are all naked.

And it's fine. Because I am a grown up. At the theatre. And it's actually a rather good play. With excellent actors. Who just happen to be naked.

And... hey. I just got elbowed. The man sitting in front of my just elbowed me! Stuck his pointy arse elbow in between the seats and rammed it back into my knee. And... hey! He just did it again.

What a twat.

No matter. He seems to have got control of himself now. Back to the play.

I love all these characters. Even when they are awful And I swear if this ends badly, I am going to be very upset.

They've really got to stop having shower scenes though. I'm not sure I can handle any more.

Gasps ring out and there's a quiet moan of "noooooo," as one of them does something awful. Bastard.

The girl sitting next to me starts to sniff.

First a delicate one, but then a great big snotty one. She's crying.

Oh gawd.

She's not the only one.

Sniffs and sobs surround me on all sides.

Those bastards drew us in with well-lit abs, and now they making feels explode all over the place.

That's not fair.

Blackout.

We sit in stunned silence.

Then the applause starts.

The girl next to me sniffs and claps, sniffs and claps. The guys on the other side jump to their feet in full ovation mode.

Then it's time to leave.

I get out my phone and sneak a photo.

Well, it's not like they can kick me out now.

Plus, that's the least they can do after pummeling my heart.

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Just like that

Second theatre of the day, and I’m only going round the corner. To The Place. The journey’s so short, that as I ponder the possibility of perhaps stopping off for lunch somewhere, I turn a corner, and arrive.

Ah. Well.

I suppose I could still go in search of food. But the thought of foraging on the mean streets of Bloomsbury is too much for me in my weakened state. The sun is out. And The Place has tables and chairs set up on the quite pavement.

I go and have a sit down and try to edit a blog post instead.

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It’s not going well. I haven’t posted a blog in nearly a week.

I’ve been writing them. There’ll all there. Sitting neatly in the backend up my website. Unproofread. Lacking links and images.

I just can’t bring myself to get them over that final hurdle. It’s amazing that even half-dead I can still bang out a few thousand words before wheezing my way off to bed, but selecting a few photos to sit amongst those words? No. That’s too much and I simply can’t face it.

So, my blog posts remain unread. All evidence that I am, in fact, still out there, marathoning theatres, and checking off those venues, is lost to the internet.

Oh well.

You know I’m here.

I know I’m here.

Perhaps that’s enough.

I manage to correct a few typos before giving up.

Instead I huddle in my jacket, turning my face up to what passes as sunshine in October. This is my sort of weather. Bright and chilly.

And The Place is looking mighty handsome in it, with it’s old Victorian red bricks gleaming, and the hot pink banners barely wafting in the light breeze.

A few people emerge with drinks to take up tables, but for the most part, it’s just me. On this quiet road.

It isn’t the worst way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

But I can’t stay out here forever. And the time has come for me to rejoin the fray.

In I go.

The box office is tucked away in a side room. Low wooden benches with geometric cushions fit together like Tetris pieces. A notice on the wall proclaims that not only is Free Wifi available, you can also charge your phone if you so choose. There are magazines on the coffee tables. And potted plants on the windowsill, which wave signs, asking questions like “Why walk when you can dance?” which is a little disconcerting. But despite the intrusiveness of the fauna, it’s all very nice and comfortable in here.

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I go over to the box office desk.

“Hi, the surname’s Smiles?” I tell the box officer.

“Lovely,” she says, looking through the ticket box and pulling out a ticket. “Can you confirm the postcode for me?”

I can. Funny how that gets easier the longer I’m not actually based in that postcode.

Bit worrisome too.

I’m moving back to Finchley soon, and fully expect to forget the postcode overnight.

She hands me the ticket. And a postcard advertising a not uninteresting upcoming show. Sharon Eyal. She’s the one I saw at Bold Tendencies. You remember. That ravey dance show in a car park.

I grab one of the familiar looking freesheets from the counter. These brown paper wrappers are all over my work at the moment, covering the freesheets for our own Dance Umbrella shows.

I find a spot in the corridor and have a look at it.

Hocus Pocus.

This show is doing quite the tour. It’s going all over the place. Six London venues. That’s quite a lot. I almost ended up booking to see it three times as it popped up everywhere. But date after date fell away, giving up room on my spreadsheet as other, trickier, venues muscled their way in and claimed those days for their own, until none remained. But here it is again. After the matinee I was originally planning to see this afternoon cancelled. Or rescheduled. To 2020. Which is no use to me at all. So here I am. After yet another spreadsheet re-jig. Just like magic. Abracadabra. Alakazam. Hocus pocus.

I go and have a look at the cafe.

It’s nice.

There’s a table full of colouring-in supplies at the back. And each of the tables has a small stack of building blocks just waiting to be played with.

There are also a strange number of children.

The strangeness being that there are lots of them.

Lots and lots of them.

Have I booked myself into a kids’ show?

I don’t recall this being a kids’ show.

I’ve been specifically not booking kids’ shows after I announced that I would no longer be booking kids’ shows. Because I’m a grown up. A kid-less grown-up. And I think it’s creepy for me to be turning up at these things without a kid in tow. Which I don’t have. I don’t even have access to one. I’m so old even my nephews are practically grown up now. One of them just started uni, which is no help to me at all.

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I take a seat and try not to think about all the small people scurrying around.

There’s plenty to look at though.

The walls are covered in dance posters. Mainly Richard Alston ones, which is making me sad. His company is closing soon.

There’s another sign advertising the Free WiFi. But when I try to connect it asks for a password. Perhaps they meant the Premier Inn WiFi being pumped in from next door.

“Hello everyone!” says a woman, stepping out into the centre of the cafe space. “Welcome to The Place.” She starts on the usual spiel about turning off our phones, but just as I start to lose interest, her talk takes an unusual turn. “Make sure that there is no light other than what the artists are giving us in the theatre,” she says. “No phone. No watches.” Or, she says with a sinister low tone, the magic won’t work. “Be with your children and with the show.”

And with that, we are directed to the door on the far side.

I flash my ticket to the ticket checker on the door and she clicks at her clicker before nodding me through. In here is a corridor, painted that now familiar shade of hot pink. Through another door and we are into the auditorium.

I have expected to be stumbling through the darkness, but the house lights are on and ready to receive us.

The stage is floor level. And large, as you would expect for a dance venue. It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting much use out of all that acreage though. The set is nothing more than two twin strip lights, placed parallel, little more than a metre apart.

I glance over at the seats.  A huge bank of them. Purple. And with entirely the wrong numbers for what is on my ticket. Too low.

People squeeze around me in order to traipse up the stairs to their seats, inching their way down the rows and knocking the knees of those who’ve already taken their seats.

“Can I cross over the stage to go to the other side?” I ask the front of houser.

“Sure, sure,” she says, as if the answer was so obvious it did not warrant asking.

So I walk over the stage. A second later, my fellow audience members join me, and I lead them like Moses to the promised land of high seat numbers.

We’re told to sit in our seats, but warned that we may be moved. It’s all about getting those sightlines for the magic to work.

Seats on the aisles are all reserved. Presumble kept off sale as the angle is all wrong for that tiny set with its two parallel strip lights.

I’m as far to the edge as I can go. Surrounded by empty seats on either side.

Good thing. After my coughing fit this morning, I don’t want to be boxed in.

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But my island-state is drawing attention. A bloke sitting in the front row turns round and sees me. Then, twisting back into place, he leans over to his companion, whispers something, and then with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, points at me.

He glances back and I look away, not wanting to embarrass him.

Okay, not wanting to embarrass myself. I admit it. I don’t want him knowing that I saw his gesture.

A young woman and her tiny little girl are brought in and sat in the front row. The two men switch seats so that the pointer doesn’t have to sit next to the child. I smirk. The big tough man who likes to point at women sitting all on their lonesome is unable to sit next to a little girl.

“Keep her in her seat,” the front of houser warns the young woman. “Don’t let her run forward into the stage.”

The young woman nods. She’s up to the task.

The lights dim, and then go out.

We are left with only the parallel strip lights.

And the green glow of the fire escapes.

Between the lights, a shape emerges from the darkness. A shifting creature of skin and flesh, spine and sinew. A back. It disappears. Only to be replaced by an arm. Then another. Then another. Then another. They disappear the way of the back, returning in forms and patterns that repeat and retreat.

We’re back to backs. Two of them this time. Bumping into one another like balls on an executive toy.

“Is this the show?” asks a small voice sitting behind me.

“Yes,” comes the grown-up response.

“Yeah, but, is this the whole show?”

The grown-up shush represents a grown-up level of covering up. They don’t know. I don’t know either.

Turns out, this is not the whole show. The backs bend back and soon we have faces. Two of them. Victor and Lucas. Friends in the most back-slappy, mock-wrestling, definitely-want-to-kiss kinda way.

Lost in the darkness, they battle knights, drop into the ocean, and meet giant sea creatures. As one is swallowed up by a giant mouth the tiny girl in the front row crawling into her mum’s lap, while further along, two less-tiny girls lean forward out of their seats to touch the haze currently coiling its way through the auditorium. Eventually, the two men find one another again, just in time to indulge in some totally friendly wrestling.

As “Lucas” and “Victor” (or rather, Ismael Oiartzabal and Michaël Henrotay-Delaunay) disappear the front of houser comes back out.

“The company would like to invite you to step forward, to see if you can work out how it’s done,” she says. “And if you don’t want to find out, which is also legitimate, make your way to the back.”

I totally want to find out.

I make my way onto the stage, standing back a little to let the small people get close to the set.

Oiartzabal and Henrotay-Delauney reappear, and turn on the lights. The ones behind the set. And suddenly, it’s revealed, in all it’s glory. Bars to hang from. Wind machines and fabric for waves. Even the giant mouth of a sea monster.

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“What would you like to see?” asks Oiartzabal.

The questions come back fast. How did they float? How did they get eaten? Was that dry ice?

“Noooo. Not dry ice. It’s stage smoke.”

“Haze,” explains our front of houser who probably isn’t a front of houser but I don’t know what to call her at this point. “Dry ice would be dangerous.”

Oiartzabal gets out a small machine. “We use this long cigar,” he says pressing a button. And sure enough, a stream of white smoke spurts out the end.

And then it’s over. It’s time to go.

I skip out, utterly charmed by the whole thing.

“It’s so nice how they showed the children how it’s done,” says someone walking behind me.

Yes, it is nice. And being the overgrown child that I am, I’m glad they let the grown ups in too. I love all that shit.

Just rip my fucking throat out already

It's Saturday morning. And I'm still very, very ill.

Okay, it's past noon and I'm mostly just feeling sorry for myself, but the point still stands.

I'm tired. And I have a cough. And the only show I want to be seeing is the immersive drama: The Duvet. Very conceptual. It involves lying under a duvet. And then being left alone for twelve to fourteen hours. Cups of tea are lovingly placed on the bedside table next to you by a silent and unseen presence. Sadly, I couldn't get the funding. So here we are.

At the Bloomsbury Theatre, for another go at the Bloomsbury Fest.

I'm just gonna pause right now and say that I'm actually super grateful for the Bloomsbury Festival because I was having the absolute worst time trying to find a show in the studio space in the Bloomsbury Theatre to book for. Ten months I've been waiting for something to be programmed that not only qualifies for the marathon, but also, you know, is on a day I can actually attend. And yes, the festival has been booking up churchs and common rooms, adding extra venues to my already overlong list, but it's given me the opportunity to check off this one, so... I can forgive it.

This place is surprisingly big. Lots of glass. It could easily be a fancy office block. Home to hundreds of accountants. If it weren't for the oversized scribble of the Bloomsbury Theatre sign I would never have guessed what was lurking inside.

I go in.

The foyer is almost empty except for the excess amount of wood panelling striping the walls. There's a box office off to one side, sealed behind glass walls.

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"I'm collecting for Declan?" I don't know why I felt the need to say the name of the show. Something about this place makes me feel like I need to explain my presence. Perhaps because it's a university theatre. And the knowledge that I wasn't clever enough to go to UCL. And now I'm here. Creeping about their theatres.

"The surname's Smiles," I add hurriedly, just in case she thinks that I'm the Declan I'm collecting for. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

The box officer doesn't seem bothered by my stuttering incompetence. From behind her glass screen she looks at her computer. "Is that Maxine?" she asks.

It is.

A man appears at the counter next to me.

He leans in to talk to the other box officer. "We're performing on Sunday," he tells them. "And I was just wondering whether you could tell us our ticket sales."

I don't get to find our how well my neighbour's show is doing, because my box officer is sliding a ticket under her screen.

"Where is the studio?" I ask at the exact same time as she attempts to give me directions.

"That's just downstairs," she says.

I thank her and go in the direction she's pointing.

Wood panelling competes with dark brick walls as each try to prove that they are the most seventies.

Downstairs, the stripes of pale wood win out, as the dark bricks give way to white walls.

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It's busy down here. Turns out it's not just me prepared to wake up early on a Saturday morning to see a one man show in a Bloomsbury basement.

That's a cheering thought.

My biggest fear throughout this entire marathon has been the possibility of finding myself as the only audience member at a show. It hasn't happened yet, and by the looks of it, it won't be happening today. Not even close.

"Ladies and gentlemen," calls out a front of houser. "If you'd like to fill in from the front without leaving any gaps, that would be very helpful."

There's a gentle stir towards the door.

I follow them, handing my ticket to the ticket checker, who tears off the tab before waving me though into a small lobby.

There's a table and chairs in here. An old show posters on the wall.

Through another door, and we're in the studio.

It's small.

Well, it is a studio.

But even so. It's a small, dark, room. With rows of chairs, and black-out curtains covering the walls. Nothing more.

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Everyone ignores the front of houser's instructions to fill in from the front, and start dotting the rows with their presence.

I slip into the third row, remembering too late that, with my cough, I should be sitting on the aisle. Way too late. More people arrive.

"Are you saving these?" a girl asks.

"No, go for it," I find myself saying before I can stop myself, and a second later, I'm blocked in by a group of young people.

I rummage around in my bag and find a cough sweet. Hopefully, that will tide me over.

It's really warm in here. I'm wearing a sweatshirt. It's a nice sweatshirt. With dinosaurs on it. But it's a sweatshirt none-the-less. And I am rapidly overheating.

Still, it's a one-hander, in a basement studio, in a pre-lunch slot on a Saturday. We're not going to be in here long. I can do this.

Our performer is already on stage. Well, on the bit of the room that isn't taken up by chairs. Well, the bit of room that isn't taken up by his chair. He's sat slumped down. Asleep. Shifting around every few minutes to find a more comfortable spot. Can't say I blame him. These chairs aren't great. I wouldn't want to nap in them either.

People twist round in their seats, watching who comes in.

As they arrive, hands dart up, waving and beckoning the newcomers into the fold.

Eventually, the trickling stops, and the door is shut.

We begin.

Our man in the chair wakes up. I usually wouldn’t name him without a freesheet, but fuck it. I remember it from the website. Our man in the chair, Alistair Hall, wakes up.

He has a story to tell us. It seems to be distressing him. He just got bitten. On the bum. And if a bite on the bum wasn't enough, the biter then drank from him.

As updates to the vampire myth go, this one is truly concerning.

I pull my sleeves down over my wrists. It may be sweltering down here in this basement, but I don't think I've ever felt so aware of the veins under my own skin and I don't want to be giving the potential biters in the audience any ideas.

There is more to the tale then bum biting though. Our new friend has to tell us about a boy. Declan. A friend, yes. But also more than that.

Someone sitting a few rows behind whispers something to their friend.

"EXCUSE ME," cuts back the saviour of the audience.

The whispers stop.

The air is so dry in here. So dry, I can feel my throat rebelling.

I cough, hoping to clear it.

It doesn't work.

I cough again. And again. And again. I can't stop. Every attempt to do so has my entire body shaking with the effort. Now my sleeves are all the way down over my hand as I do my best to stifle the noise in this tiny, overheated room. I coil in on myself in embarrassment, praying to all the theatre gods that this cough will just stop.

I need a saviour. Someone to give me a withering "EXCUSE ME."

Or even a vampire. Fuck it, I'll even take a biter right now if he promises to rip my throat right out.

The girl sitting next to me leans forward and picks something off the floor. "Would you like some water?" she asks, offering me a cup.

"Thank you so much," I whisper back, trying not to choke on my own words.

The water helps. The cough subsides.

Not long after, our tale ends. I was right. It was a short one.

"Thank you so much for the water," I say to me hero as we put on our coats and prepare to leave.

She touches my arm. "No problem," she says with a smile, as if to say: us audience members need to look out for each other. There's probably some truth in that. I've given out my fair share of cough sweets to fellow theatre-goers in need over the years.

I pick up the cup and drain the rest of the water, leaving the empty plastic on the table out in the foyer.

I've got another show to go before my theatre-going is done for the day. Let's just hope my throat can handle it.

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When the moon hits your eye

It's Friday night and I'm off to church, which is not something I ever thought I would say. But hey, that's my life now. The Bloomsbury Festival is in full force and if they say they are having a theatrical event in a church, then dammit, ya gurl is off to church.

I'm actually a little bit excited about this one. Firstly, because it sounds fucking cool. Or at least, there is an element of it that sounds fucking cool. We'll get to that later. But mostly, I'm excited because it's taking place in a church I actually know. And by 'know,' I mean that I've walked past it a lot and vaguely wondered what it looks like on the inside.

So, even though I'm still feeling grotty as fuck, and it's raining down hella hard outside, I have a bit of a bounce in my step as I make my way down Cromer Street towards Holy Cross Church.

There's a security guard on the door, which is not usual practise round here as far as I know. I thought those guys are all busy looking after the synagogues. Guess that's the world we live in now. Everywhere is in need of a bit of muscle.

As I go up, there's someone talking to the security guy.

"But there should be a service now," says the someone.

"It's closed," says the security guard, pointing at a sign. "It's open again tomorrow morning."

"But what about now?" insists this guy, who has clearly got a real need to pray going on.

"There's an event now."

"But I should be able to go to church!"

The security guard shrugs. It's not like he programmed the festival.

With a wave of disgust, the guy goes, and the security officer turns to me.

"Hi. Box office?" I ask.

"You have a ticket?"

I show him the confirmation email on my phone and he nods with relief.

"Just there, they'll take your name."

And that's how you buy your way into church, I guess.

As promised, inside there is a table set up with people ready to take names.

"Hi! The surname's Smiles?" I say to someone wearing the Bloomsbury Festival STAFF badge that I recognise from my Goodenough outing.

"Maxine?" he says.

"Yup." That's me.

"Great. Take a programme," he says, patting a pile of freesheets on the desk in front of him.

I pick one up, keeping my eyes fixed on it while I move away from the table.

It's a dangerous move. Especially for someone who isn't all that steady on her feet even at the best of times.

But I know what I'm going to see when I look up, and I want to make sure I'm in the best possible spot before I do.

There's a good line of people here, all with their phones out, taking pictures. I think this is it.

I look up. And there's the mother fucking moon.

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Inside the church.

Probably shouldn't swear.

But can you see that?

The twatting moon! Inside the church!

It hangs there, slotted in between the stone pillars as if it had always been there, as if it were the church that came later. Built around this floating moon to house and keep it. A temple for those ancient moon-worshipping followers.

Down below, the pews have been set up in an elongated horseshoe, so that we may be the ones to orbit the moon.

I find a spare spot and sit myself doen, gazing up in wonder at this magical orb.

As I watch, staring, I start to see it moving. Gently swaying. Almost as if it were pulsating. Or breathing.

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According to the freesheet, the moon is seven whole metres across. It's made by an artist called Luke Jerram and goes by the name Museum of the Moon.

It then bangs on about all the performers who'll be in here tonight, but I'm going to be real with you right now: I don't care about any of them. I'm here for the moon.

We all sit back in our pews, staring at this mystical object.

I kinda want to touch it. To place my hand against it. To feel if it really is breathing in there. But I'm scared. Partly of the security guard who I know is outside. But also, I'm nervous about finding out what this moon is made of. Of discovering that all those crevices and valleys and pox marks across the surface, are, in fact, only printed on. I can't decide what would be more horrific, a rough and scratchy canvas, or a smooth rubber. The thought of either sends me into a shudder.

A photographer walks around, moving chairs and pews as he goes, clearing himself a gangway so that he can walk around the space uninterrupted.

Our host for the evening comes out. Sam Enthoven.

He asks if any of us don't know what a theremin is. An old lady in the row in front of me pips-out a shrill "No!"

A surprising about of people join in.

I appear to have found myself in a church full of people who don't watch American Horror Story.

But off we go. Enthoven on the theremin as Minnie Wilkinson tells us a story... and, I'm going to admit something now. I don't dig storytelling. Like, I actively dislike storytelling. It's just not one of the performing arts that I'm into. I'd probably rank it just below circus if I were to ever spend a very dull Sunday afternoon rating all of them,

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I don't know what it is. I think it has something to do with the telliness of way storytellers construct their tales. Because I have no issue with, like, audiobooks, so it's not the listening to a single voice that puts me off.

Instead, I focus on the moon, matching my breathing to it, and falling into a strange fantasy where the valuted roof opens up and the pair of us, me and the moon, sail off into the dark night.

A group of latecomers arrive. A front of houser walks them around the back, pointing out empty seats.

I twist my knees around so that one of them can get past and sit next to me.

She looks over at her friend in the next pew and they both giggle and raise their eyebrows.

The first tale comes to an end. We all applaud. Even the latecomers - though they do it with another shared glance and a giggle.

Jordan Campbell is up next, accompanied by the stunning Lou Barnell wearing a Grecian white dress. Now this story I can get into. Mainly because it has a werewolf in it.

But just as I find myself having to realign all my thoughts about storytelling, the photographer comes round and places himself right in my sightline, blocking my view of Campbell.

In an instant, the magic is broken.

Unable to see our performer, I look around at the audience instead.

It's a very white audience. A very very white audience.

A very very white audience, in the church on Cromer Street. Which if you've ever walked down it, you'll know it's not a white street.

That man who was turned away by the security guard? Yeah, he wasn't white.

I don't want to make this a 'thing' but it does make you think, doesn't it, when a venue whose very existence is dependent on locals, gives over its space for an event that is then attended by non-locals.

Now, I mean, it's for art. And art is great. And I'm sure the congregation was encouraged to attend. But still.

At least one man out there isn't happy about missing out on this evening's service.

And instead, all these white people are sitting around, gazing at the moon, and listening to bedtime stories.

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Enthoven reappears. There's going to be a ten-minute interval. "The nearest loos are in the pub across the road," he tells us.

The girl sitting next to me looks over at her friends. "I really need to go, actually," she says.

"Yeah, me too. Actually."

And off they go.

I make a bet with myself that they won't be back.

Underneath the moon, the people gather. To take selfies.

"Shall I face you, or face away?" a young woman says as she races out.

The man she's with tells her it doesn't matter and she raises her arms above her head.

"Nowhere near," he laughs.

"Did I do it?"

"Nah, you're way too short."

After a few experiments in perspective, they get it right, and have a photo of her balancing the moon on her fingertips.

We're recalled to our seats. It's time for the second act.

The seat next to me stays empty. As does the one in the next door pew. I was right. Those latecomers had no intention of coming back.

Enthoven comes back out to introduce to next set of performers. Apparently there had been some complaints about sound levels. But it seems to have been fixed now.

Or perhaps not, because I can't make out a word Laura Sampson is saying. It's lost over the screeching, saw-like noises made by Greta Pistaceci.

High above us, a wooden Jesus gazes down on the luminous moon, flanked by two figures, Mary and... yeah, I'm not Christian, I don't know who the other one is.

I wonder what they make of the whole thing. Their church given over to this event. Their congregation turned away. These new people brought in, but unlikely ever to return for a service.

At the end of their tale, a dozen or so people make a break for the exit.

One left.

Alys Torrance steps out under the moon to gaze at it in wonder. "What's in there?" she muses, before chatting with her musician. "Can you play the moon?" she asks Sylvia Hallett.

Hallett tells her to wait and see.

"It's like that, is it?" laughs Torrance. And then we begin.

Torrance really is an engaging storyteller. Stepping away from the microphone to use the entire space, use her body, and the audience, the air and the moon. I don't think I'll ever truly get into this art form, but for the first time, I think I understood the appeal.

The house lights rise and Enthoven sees us off, with a thanks for "supporting unusual evenings like this one."

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Hello darkness my old friend

I appear to have dropped into the countryside again.

One minute I'm walking down a perfectly normal high street with a Jussaic Park themed cafe, and the next I'm crunching down a drive in almost pitch darkness, getting freaked out by the silhouettes of all the old manor house lurking in the distance.

Now like, this is a bit embarrassing for me to admit. Me, queen of the shadows. lurker in the darkness, the enemy of sunshine. But I don't like countryside darkness. It's a completely different beast to city darkness and it freaks me out. Because here's the thing, I grew up in the countryside. More than that, I grew up next door to a twelfth-century graveyard, in the frickin' middle of nowhere. And you know what, try as I might, I never met a ghost. So that means, if there's a rustle from the bushes, I know damn well it ain't Caspar lurking in there, and that scares the crap out of me.

Turns out, the rustle in the bushes of Ruislip is a couple of sweet terriers going on their bedtime stroll.

The fact that they almost gave this theatre marathoner a heart attack doesn't seem to be bothering them in the slightest. They leap around each other, yapping after their mistress as she circles behind some great barn.

Yup. Barn.

Because tonight's theatre has been built within the confines of the Manor Farm. A medieval farmstead that is now open to the public in what I can only assume is Ruislip's answer to Disneyland.

Up ahead, one of the few lamps fighting this darkness, goes off.

I get out my phone, and use it to guide myself down the path, through a gap in a hedge, around a loop in the road, and there it is. The Winston Churchill Theatre.

I clamber up onto a grassy bank, soaking my shoes in the process, and try to get a photo. But even with the lights blazing outside, I can only get the slightest glimmer shining off the sign, to show up.

Apparently I'm at the Winston Chu tonight.

It looks busy though, which is good. The people of Ruislip aren't afraid of the dark, and they are out in force for some quality Hello Dolly action.

Inside, the foyer is buzzing, and the queue for the box office stretches all the way across the entrance.

I join the end and try to ignore the squelching in my shoe as seat plans are pointed at, positions are negotiated, and tickets bought.

"By card?!" cries the box officer in horror as the person in front of me offers his Mastercard as payment.

The car owner points out the presence of a card machine behind the counter.

"It's their machine, not ours," says the box officer.

Duly chastised, the card owner puts the offending bit of plastic back in his wallet and finds the cash instead.

My turn.

"Hi!" I try, my voice croaking. Yeah, I'm still ill. Very ill. And I'm not hiding it well. "I'm collecting. The surname's Smiles?"

"I'm sorry?" says the box officer, blinking and leaning forward.

Oh dear. I try again.

"The surname's Smiles? S. M. I..." What was left of my voice gives out.

"Did you book online?"

I nod. I mean, obviously I did. I'm the one person in this room under the age of seventy. And I'm not well. I try to avoid the whole social thing as much as possible. This conversation is already way longer than I can cope with at the best of times.

"Ah!" he says. "You just need to show them that then," he says, with a glance at the front of housers.

Christ. I know 2019 is the year of the e-ticket. The year everything changes. The year paper tickets are swept away in the face of the mighty QR code. But I really wish someone, somewhere, would standardise how audiences are meant to deal with them. You never know whether an e-ticket means queueing to sign in, or blazing right through to the auditorium without stopping. And there's no way to find out before getting there.

It's exhausting.

And box officers always make you feel stupid for not knowing.

I'm so over it. I just want to sit on the floor and cry right now.

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Bet the ushers will have loads of fun cleaning that mess up.

I manage to stay upright though, and stagger down the couple of steps that take me into the main body of the foyer.

A programme seller spots me.

"Would you like a programme?" she asks at the same time as I squeak out: "Can I get a programme?"

"One pound fifty?" she says, as I croak: "How much are they?"

Witch!

I quickly get the money out before she manages to reach the deeper levels of my subconscious. "There, exact change!" I say proudly as I hand her a pound and fifty pee coins.

She's not impressed. She clearly just found out my rant about e-tickets and that time, way back when, I got scared by two adorable small dogs all of ten minutes ago.

"I like your elephant!" she says, indicating my purse in what is definitely meant to be a distraction from her mind-reading abilities.

"Thanks! He makes having to pay for things that much easier."

She gives me an odd look. Unsurprising, as those syllables all came out as a garbled mess.

I slink away. I'm not fit for human company right now. Or ever. But very much not now.

The ticket checker is dressed very smartly. Black suit. Red accessories. Very swish.

He waits patiently as I struggle with the Ruislip 4G to download my e-ticket.

"Which seat number?" he asks.

I show him my screen. "Err, is that it?" I say, pointing at my screen. "K21? Does that sound right?" My brain is utter mush. I have no idea what a seat number should look like right now.

"You're in K21," says the very smart ticket checker. "On the far side."

I follow his pointing hand, down the corridor, towards the far side, and emerge in a large auditorium that looks like it's been stuffed into the local school hall.

The stage is very high, and an orchestra pit has been crafted with the use of black blankets slung over railings.

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I find my seat, on the aisle, thank the theatre gods, and I slump down in relief.

A pre-show announcement comes over the soundsystem welcoming us to the theatre and begging us not to take photos. Until the curtain call. Which we should then feel welcome to put on the socials.

Excitement is high.

The mayor is in.

At least, I presume the man wearing a medal on a red ribbon around his neck is the mayor. I have serious questions if it isn't.

As the lights dim, my fellow audience members whoop.

And now, I haven't seen Hello Dolly before. No, not even the film. But even so, I'm pretty sure I'm having a fever dream right now because this is intense. There's a girl crying the whole time. And strangers engaging in highly choreographed routines. And grown men crawling around under tables. And songs about hat ribbons.

And then I remember that's just how musicals were back in the day, and once I realise that this is not the last firework display of my dying brain, I actually manage to enjoy it.

I stay in my seat during the interval. Not sure I can cope with the world outside, with its programme sellers, and e-tickets, and roving terriers.

My row is proving to be a bit of a causeway, and I stagger to my feet and lean myself against it until the interval is over.

I have a look at the programme.

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I do love the biographies in amateur theatre productions. We have tales of a 'welcome retirement from the police force' squidged between instructions to sing along, and serious crimes against punctuation. It's so charming I want to boak.

Shit. Okay. Deep breath. Don't boak on the nice people of Ruislip. It's really not appropriate.

My row is all back now. I think I can sit down.

There. That's good. I feel a bit better.

Act two. And there's a bunch of waiters running around with their trays in what surely must be a direct contradiction of the EU directive for occupational safety and health. Not that any of that will matter in a couple of weeks’ time... I wonder if Ruislip is Remain or not. I decide it's best not to know.

Somewhere in the corridor behind us, a phone rings.

The audience giggles.

They giggle even more when the owner of the phone picks up.

"I'm at the show! Yeah, it's still on!" floats into the auditorium.

The front of houser leaning against the wall looks back, but doesn't move and we all giggle through through the rest of the conversation while the cast fight valiantly on with this tale of true love and gold-digging. At least, I presume it's true love. It's only been a day. Though there definitely is gold-digging, which I very much approve of. Being poor sucks. I need to find me a rich man to marry.

Or woman. But somehow I don't think I could convince a rich woman to put up with me. They've got smarts, those gals.

Either way, I should probably sort out this cold first.

I'm not exactly looking my best at the moment.

But first... I need to figure out how to get back to Hammersmith from here.

And not trip over my own feet in the dark.

Or get eaten by a small dog.

Or fall asleep on the train.

Or...

Come to the dark side. We have cushions.

I’m still ill.

But no longer dying. Which is nice.

Which means that I can make the long journey towards Walthamstow without worrying that I might collapse on the way, only to be found six years later, half-eaten by tube mice.

Feeling slightly sniffy and very sorry for myself, I make my way to the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. On Hoe Street.

No need to look at me like that. It’s not my fault that Walthamstow was doing a roaring trade in farm implements back in the day.

Anyway, if we’re talking names, then the alliterative triptych of Mirth, Marvel and Maud is much more worthy of contemplation.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot, usually when I’m walking in circles in an unfamiliar area, trying to find one of these blasted theatres, is what the locals call a place.

Do the residents of Stockwell call the Stockwell Playhouse the Stockwell Playhouse? Or is it just the Playhouse?

Is the Bromley Little Theatre the Bromley Little Theatre to the people of Brommers? Or merely the Little Theatre? Or perhaps the BLT? Or maybe the Sandwich? These are the questions I want answers to, but am too embarrassed to actually ask.

And it’s no different tonight. I don’t believe for a second anyone around here calls the Mirth, Marvel and Maud the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. For one, it’s ridiculous. And for two, it’s way too long. So, what do they call it? Is it the Mirth, as the towering letters on the outside of the building suggest? Or maybe it’s the Triple M. Or…

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“It’s the old cinema,” says a man as he holds the door open for his companion.

Well, okay then.

I follow them in.

The box office is just inside the door, with a fat letter M resting on the counter, glowing in the ambient (dark) lighting scheme they’ve got going on.

“Sorry,” says the box officer. “I also need to stamp her.”

The lady in front of me goes off in search of her friend and brings her back for a good stamping.

That done, it’s my turn.

“Hi,” I tell the box officer. “I have an e-ticket? Do I also need to sign in?”

Ah yes. The e-ticket.

Now, that had been a bit of work to acquire.

The Marvellous Mrs Maud have left their ticket providing services to Dice. Which is not theatre ticketing software. It’s an app. For gigs. An app that I did not have, and did not want, but was forced to download anyway.

Now, you know, I get it. Some theatres run music events. Some theatres are predominantly music venues. So, like, fine. But also, it doesn’t work and I hate it.

Case in bloody point. Door time. We all know what that means in gig-world. But in theatre? Is that when the house opens, or the show starts? Who knows? Dice certainly ain’t telling me.

And this e-ticket? Is someone going to scan it, or do I have to report into the box office, like I am now. There’s no way to know until I ask. And I hate asking.

Then there’s the whole having-reception thing. Dice won’t let you see the QR codes more than two hours before door time. Nor will they let you screenshot the page once you do have the code.

“Yeah,” says the box officer. “What’s the name?”

With a sigh, I realise the whole app thing was pointless. I drop my phone back into my pocket and give my name.

“Just you?” asks the box officer.

“Just me,” I say, now resigned to my fate of always having to admit my lonesome state at box offices across this city of ours.

She stamps me up high on the wrist, which is apparently a thing now. Backs of hands are no longer in vogue when it comes to stamping.

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“Can I get a programme?” I ask, spotting the display on the counter.

“That’s two pounds.”

“In the cup?” I ask. There’s a plastic cup with a scrappy bit of paper stuffed in it. “Programmes,” it says.

I drop my pound coins in it.

One question still remains.

“Where am I going?” I ask her.

She blinks at me. This is clearly not a question she gets often.

“Err, down the stairs?”

Okay then.

It’s ten minutes until door time. Whatever that means. So I go for a look around.

It’s a beautiful building this. Impossibly high ceilings. Panels. Chandeliers. The works.

There seems to be a trend at the moment with theatres. About making the foyer spaces accessible to non-theatre goers. They want people coming in off the street to have a drink and then not see a show.

Mostly I think that’s a nonsense. Not because of the ambition. You do you, theatres. It’s just that there aren’t many theatre bars I’d willingly spend time in without having to be there for theatre purposes. Too big. Too loud. Nowhere to sit. Nowhere to hide.

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But this place? This place is nice. A wooden carnival stall of a cocktail bar in the middle breaks up the space. Huddles of chairs and tables hug the walls. There are sofas.

It’s quiet, but not echoey.

Ornate, but not intimidating.

Large, but not overwhelming.

I could see myself coming here for a drink.

I mean, if it wasn’t in Walthamstow.

Bit of a trek for a G&T.

I lean against the back of the cocktail stall and have a look at my newly-acquired stamp. It says Marvel.

So, we’ve got Mirth. And Marvel. Where on earth is Maud?

This place may be nice to look at, but it seems to have picked looks over books.

There is a horrendous lack of signage.

Apart from the solitary chalkboard proclaiming the existence of toilets, I can’t see a single notice to direct me anywhere. Let alone the theatre. Which, I would have thought, would be an important element of the M&M&M experience.

I put my glasses on, just in case I’m missing on signs in the general blur, but nope. Nothing. Not unless I’m in serious need of a new prescription, my poor eyesight is not the problem here.

But the box office lady said to go downstairs. So I go downstairs. To the bar. And what do you know. There it is, a sign pointing towards the Maud. Between the water station and the loos.

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I follow where it's pointing, into a corrdior that smells like a lavatory, and right opposite the door to the ladies', is a bloke. He's standing next to a posing table covered with plastic cups. I think he must be the ticket checker. Or he would be the ticket checker, if this place had tickets.

"Got a stamp?" he asks as I approach.

I pull at my sleeve to show him the back of my wrist. "Yup," I say, and he nods me through.

Inside it's red.

Very red.

I mean, last night I was in a red theatre, so it shouldn't be that shocking. But if anything, the Hilariously Amazing Maud is even redder than the BLT.

The walls are red. The ceiling is red. The decorative mouldings are red. Even the chairs are of a reddish hue.

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I stand and stare at the chairs.

They are weird. And it's not the reddness that is bothering me. It's that they're evil.

And no, they're not evil because they're red.

I mean, they might be evil because they're red.

I don't know why they are evil. I just know that they are.

Because the powers that be at the Mirthiless Maud have banished them off to the sides of the room.

The rest of the space is given over to long wooden benches.

Clearly, the puritans are in charge in Walthamstow.

So as not to anger them, I take a pew.

Everyone else in here has decided to face the forces of evil arse-on, and sit on the sides.

The same conversation is played out over and over as people file in.

"Where do you want to sit?" a newcomer asks. "Shall we sit in the middle?"

"I might go for a softer seat..." comes the tentative reply.

Eventually, the chairs fill up and people are forced to turn to the benches.

A couple of women join me on mine.

A few minutes later, their friend arrives, and insists that I stand up to let her pass so that she doesn't have to go about the indignaty of walking around and entering via the other side.

Honestly. What is it with people? This is the second night in a row this has happened. Stop making strangers get up when you can ask your friends to get up instead. They presumably want you to sit with them. Me on the other hand, would rather not have to exert myself for that honour.

I'm beginning to think it's the curse of red theatres.

I knew those chairs were evil.

"It's warm in here," says the woman who can't walk round.

There's a pause, and I realise she's talking to me. I quickly hit the power button on my phone, sending the screen black. I hope she hasn't seen me typing all that shit about her.

"It is," I agree. Very warm. They have got the heating on blast.

"Why?" she asks, and I'm left stumped by this question.

"I do approve of heating in October," I say. "But this is a bit much."

She seems satisfied by that statement and she goes back to talking to her friends, and I go back to typing up smack about her in my notes.

Right, now that I have established myself as evil a character as those chairs, I check the time.

It's ten past eight.

Door time or start time, that question remains unanswered. Are we waiting for the clock to run down or has something gone wrong? Who can tell?

Across the way, I can hear the hand dryers rumbling away in the loos.

Sixteen minutes past.

I'm getting kind of bored now.

I twist round in my seat.

Someone is sitting themselves down at the tech desk. That's a good sign.

The stamp checkers closes the door.

The house lights dim.

We're off.

The cast emerge. Eleanor Bryne, Niamh Finlay, and Sara Hosford. They move around a stage cluttered with lamps, shifting things around and doing the sort of busywork that is probably supposed to set the mood but has me wiggling my foot and willing them all to get on with it.

But then we're on the line in a fish factory. Guts are flying everywhere and the talk is pouring out too. Life is hard in 1980's Dublin, even if the music is banging. Tainted Love is on the lips of all three girls, and although I'm a Manson Girl (Marilyn, obviously) I am not unappreciative of the Soft Cell version.

Our cast shimmy and sprint through the lives of an endless procession of characters. Less slipping into them and more running full tilt until they crash right in: bosses and boys and friends, so many friends, and babysitters, and first loves.

And I love them all.

The girls I mean.

The men in their life are terrible. The absolute worst of the worst.

And as we return to the fish factory, and see them on the line, dragging their knives against the firm flesh of those fishy bellies, I can't be the only one thinking those knives might have served a greater purpose.

Applause done. House lights up.

I try to stand but sharp pains run up and down the backs of my thighs.

I winch as I haul myself up to my feet and turn around to glare at the bench responsible.

I knew I should have embraced the dark side and taken one of the cursed chairs.

Being virtuous is a young person's game.

Curtains for Bromley

I'm dying. Literally.

I mean, not literally literally. Unless we're talking in the sense that everyone is on an unstoppable march to meet the grim reaper. I mean figuratively literally.

I'm just, like, really sick.

After spending the entire day trying to find the perfect napping-position that would not set off either my cough or the slop-bucket that is my stomach, I gave up, got dressed, and headed out into the night.

And just because the world hates me, I'm off to Bromley again tonight.

Not that I hate Bromley, you understand. I just hate going to Bromley.

There's a difference.

I stumble my way to the tube station, my arms crossed, my head down.

"Oy!" comes a voice as it whizzes past my ear.

It's a cyclist, and I seem to be in the middle of the road.

"Sorry!" I call after him.

"Learn the Green Cross Code!" he shouts back. "You're old enough."

I sigh. I want to tell him that I grew up in rural Somerset. They don't teach you the Green Cross Code in rural Somerset. They tell you not to cross a field with cows in it. That's what they teach you.

He twists around to look at me. "I'm only joking!" he shouts before riding off.

He must have seen the vacant stare, the drawn face, the pinched mouth.

I really am dying.

At Victoria I find myself pelting it across the main concourse towards platform two. One minute before the train leaves. It's packed. It takes five whole carriages to find one that I can squeeze myself into. But I'm on. And the doors are closing. And if I can just hang on for the sixteen minutes it will take to get to Bromley South, and I'll be fine.

It's very warm on this train.

I unwind my scarf. It doesn't help.

I pull the scarf free and shove it in my bag.

It's not enough.

Apologising to the person standing behind me I put down my bag and struggle my way out of my jacket.

There.

Except the carriage seems to have grown even hotter. I know I've been telling theatres they need to put the heating on, but I didn't mean for that to extend to crowded commuter trains.

My skin is clammy. My head is beginning to spin.

How much longer?

Ten minutes.

I can do that.

I try to distract myself with some mental admin, plotting out all the theatres I'm visiting this week and making a note of all the ones I still need to arrange tickets for.

That takes a while.

We must be nearly there now.

I check my phone.

Nine minutes.

I feel my shoulders slump. I tug at the collar of my t-shirt. There's no air in this place. I can't breathe.

"I'm so sorry," I say. Outloud. On this packed train. "Could I get a seat? I think I'm about to faint..."

The woman sitting next to me bursts out of her seat.

The man sitting next to her leans over to lift the arm rest.

I fall into the vacated space, spewing out thanks in every direction.

"Would you like this as a fan?" asks the man, offering up his newspaper.

"Do you want a sweet?" asks the lady across the aisle. "For energy."

Yes. That's exactly what I want. A kindly lady offering me a sweet.

"I'll take anything going," I say, sinking my elbows onto the table in front of me and trying to think cooling thoughts.

The mint does wonders, and by the time we role into Bromley South, that last station Oyster cards are accepted on this line, I'm almost feeling human again.

"Thank you so much," I tell the sweet lady.

"Don't worry, darling," she says as she packs up her bag. "Keep well." And with that, she disappears into the crowd.

I pause, finding an empty space, and start piling my clothes back on. It's a cold night and I've got a bit of a walk ahead of me.

Citymapper tells me it's a fifteen-minute journey, but as it senses my dazed dawdle it quickly recalculates and adds on an extra five minutes.

I don't mind.

I have time. And the walk's not too bad.

Bromley has a surprisingly swish shopping centre. A wide boulevard surrounded by Apples and Hotel Chocolats, and most pleasingly of all, a Steiff right next to a place called Bare Necessities. That later place sells fashion accessories, but if they don't have a line dedicated to the teddy bears next door, I will be very upset.

I can't investigate further, as it's closed. So I keep on walking. Down a dark street, and round a corner.

It all looks very different to the last time I was here, but I had to march my way up a very steep hill to get to the theatre.

I hope after all this, I'm heading to the right place.

With relief, I spot the sign for Bromley Little Theatre shining out from behind some pub's bunting. There it is.

And as I make my way around, I spot the funny shaped building that I remember so well.

Under the overhang, into the courtyard, through the narrow doorway, and up the even narrower stairs.

This time there isn't a person poised at the top to take names.

I turn into the bar, which had served as the theatre space on my last visit, and make my way over to the actual box office.

There's a short queue in front of me. Someone buying tickets. Trying to buy tickets, I should say, as by the sounds of it, the card reader isn't playing along.

Somehow, the pair of them manage to negotiate these difficulties and it's my turn.

"Sorry, my machine's broken!" says the box officer, staring down at her card reader in distress.

"Don't worry, take your time," I tell her, relieved just to have made it here in one piece. I'm really not feeling good. My throat is so clogged I'm amazed I'm even able to speak. I hate this feeling. This kind of sick grogginess. Trust me to manage to get food poisoning on the same night a cold hits. That'll teach me for popping into the Chinatown Bakery for some pre-show taiyaki to make myself feel better. Not that I blame the taiyaki, you understand. It's the open display counter and tong system that bakery has going on that's the cause of all my woes. Well, that's what I think anyway.

"Ah!" she says, her face brightening. "There we are. How can I help you?"

"I'm collecting? The surname's Smiles?"

She turns to her computer screen and starts checking. "Yup. Let me print that for you," she says.

As she does that, I look down at the counter. There are neat piles of programmes laid out across it. "And can I get a programme?" I ask as she tears away the ticket from the printer.

"Of course! That's one pound."

"Bargain!" I say, meaning it. I do appreciate a one pound programme, I really do.

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"There you go," she says, laying the ticket on top of a programme.

Perfect. Programmes and printed tickets. It doesn't get much better than that.

Well, there is one thing that could make it better. The box office is right next to the bar. And I can spot those little dishes on the counter which bars keep citrus slices in. And man, could I do with something sour to clear my throat.

There's a man ahead of me being served, but one of the bar people smiles to indicate that she's free and I slide around him.

"Could I get some ice water with lemon?"

Turns out I absolutely can. And it's free.

"Are you sure?" I ask.

She is.

I thank her. "You're a lifesaver, I was desperate for something sharp." Being ill always makes me feel pathetically grateful. Or perhaps it is just: pathetic. Either way, I'm glad of my icy water. And lemon.

"Are there hot drinks available?" asks the next person.

"Yeah, there's a set up on the counter over there. Help yourself."

There's also a table laden with water jugs and cups.

The BLT are not letting anyone get dehydrated. Not under their roof.

On the wall a screen rotates through all the theatre's messaging. Apparently the Little Theatre is now available to everyone, with even non-members now able to buy tickets to shows in the main auditorium. Which, considering one of the rules of the marathon is that performances need to be accessible to the public, is just super.

A couple come in.

"Do you want coffee?" he asks, indicating the counter.

She goes over to investigate, putting a cup under one of the machines and turning it on. "No, I can't," she says with a cry of despair and leaves.

It's only a few minutes later that I realise that machine is still boiling. I look over. The counter is flooded with hot water.

I leap over.

Boiling water is pouring into the overflowing cup.

I grab the dial and turn it off.

Everything is soaked.

Including the pile of napkins.

Behind the counter is a kitchen. I can see a tea towel hanging, just out of reach.

I should probably tell someone... but the theatre bell is ringing, and I am so tired. And so ill.

I leave it all and go in.

For a venue that goes around calling itself a little theatre, it ain't all that little. Rows and rows of seats line up in front of a proper proscenium arched stage. The walls are painted theatre-corridor red, which is a dramatic choice. Wooden rafters crisscross over our heads. The whole place is giving me Red Barn vibes.

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I hope we're not here for a horror tonight. I'm way too fragile for that.

I look at the programme.

It's a play by David Hare.

I mean, that isn't not terrifying.

But at least it's not set in a barn.

I find my seat, right by the door, thank goodness, and have a proper look at the programme. Looks like we're watching Stuff Happens tonight. About the build up to the Iraq war.

That's good.

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I mean, not the war. Or even the subject matter. Just in my delicate state it's probably a good idea that I'm at a play based on events I vaguely remember. The time between the Twin Towers coming down and the bombs raining on Baghdad coincide pretty much exactly with me attending a school that insisted we watch the news every night before dinner.

"G? Row G?" someone mutters behind me.

"G?" is the reply from their companion.

"G!"

"Did you say G?"

Yup, they definitely said 'G'.

"A. B. C. D. E. F... Geeeee!" sings out the first person as she finds row G.

There's a lot of energy in this room.

I slump in my seat and pray to the theatre gods that I don't have to move.

A few minutes later, we're all settled, the play starts, and I'm relieved to note that I still do remember who Colin Powell is. Kinda.

It soon becomes apart that my daily 6 o'clock news conditoning cannot really compete with the fog that has settled inside my skull, and soon I'm struggling. Who was that person again? He has a British accent but I could have sworn he was some American defence dude five minutes ago. It takes my dying brain way too long to realise their all role-swapping.

"Excuse me," says a dude, creeping along the row.

I twist my knees around, letting him pass, too weak to stand up.

As he disappears out the door I look over and see there's only one other person in our row. And no one in the row in front. He could easily have gone round. But that would have meant asking his wife to stand up. Instead of me. I will never, ever, understand why people would rather disturb strangers over the people they are with. Especially when those strangers are clearly dying. And watching a David Hare play. In Bromley.

Come on now.

A few minutes later he touches my shoulder, requesting entrance back into the row. Ignoring the entirely vacant second row.

And then it's the interval.

I stumble out, more out of fear that I will fall asleep in that chair than anything else.

The audience divides, peeling off to opposite ends. Those in search of caffeine heading in one direction. Those in need of a stronger pick me up in the other.

I find a bench to sit on. Not sure bench is the right descriptor here. It's more like a church pew. But lined with a red cushion. The kind of benches that you find in the outbuildings of old Tudor cottages, that have been there so long no one remembers how they got there, but everyone suspects that their great-great-grandfather probably knocked it while helping to fix the local church's roof.

A front of houser rings the bell.

"Did you hear ther bell?" someone asks. "I heard the bell!"

"The bells have tolled!" replies some wag.

"Take your seats please, ladies and gentlemen."

I heave myself off the bench and stagger back in.

Act two starts, and I think I've got the hang of all this now. Hans Blix is director of the CIA, the deputy secretary of the defence in the US is also acting as the head of MI6, and the French ambassador to the US is an Iraqi exile. Got it.

We make it to the end, and as everyone heads back to the bar I make my escape.

I cross my arms over my jacket and stumble through Bromley. Everything is closed. Apart from the Five Guys, staffed by one lonely looking boy cleaning a countertop.

I trudge on, peering into the darkened shop windows as I pass.

I see a sign. Advertising a play. Or a musical rather. Curtains. Huh. I wonder what theatre that's in. It doesn't say.

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I get out my phone and Google it. The Churchill Theatre. That's weird. You'd think we'd be a bit far from Ruislip to be advertising musicals. I keep on scrolling. I don't make it ten steps before I stop. My feet refusing to move under me. Curtains isn't at the Winstone Churchill Theatre in Ruislip. Oh no. It's at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. A theatre I didn't even know existed until this exact moment.

With shaking fingers I click on their website and scroll through their listings.

Main Auditorium.

Studio.

They have two theatres.

Two more theatres.

Two more theatres in Bromley.

I look back over my shoulder, back at the large sign which I swear is now glinting evilly under the street lamps.

That's it. I can't do it. Marathon over. I can't make this journey again, let alone twice more. It'll kill me.

I want to throw up.

No, like, I really want to throw up.

I take a few deep breathes of ice cold air until the nausea settles.

Right. That's better. Two more theatres. It's fine. I can do this. Plenty of time. It's fine.

It's fine.

It's...

If your name's not on the list

"Madam! Madam! The entrance is this way, the first left. Phoenix Street," comes the familiar call of the Big Issue seller on Charing Cross Road. 

I don't know how long he's been directing audiences to the correct entrance of the Phoenix Theatre, but he's there, keeping the crowds in check, almost every night I've been in the West End on this marathon.

I tweeted sometime back that the Phoenix should put him on the payroll, and I stand by that. He's already doing the work. Might as well make it official.

I am not in need of his assistance tonight though. I know where I'm going. Yes, onto Phoenix Street. But not to the Phoenix Theatre. I've already made my trip to the rock, and there's no time for a return trip before the marathon is over and I draw a thick Sharpie line under my theatre-going for the rest of my life.

I'm actually off to the theatre neighbour. The Pheonix Artist Club, which you might have rightly surmised, is not actually a theatre. But a club. For artists.

But as part of that remit, they have a programme of events. Cabaret. Music. Not marathon-qualifying stuff. Except tonight there's a scratch night. So off I go.

I've never been before. It's been on my list for years, but I never quite got round to it. And by that, I mean, I never managed to work out if I'm allowed in. I've heard from various people that you need to work in the arts to get access. But what that entails seems to differ depending on who you ask for. Some say it's members only. Others that you only need a business card proving you work in the industry to get through the door.

Oh well. No such restrictions exist for attending this show, so it looks like I'm finally getting my chance.

I tuck myself under the canopy and try my best to stay out of the rain as I use my final free minutes to edit a blog post. By the looks of it, this place is underground and I'm not sure what the WiFi situation is going to be down there.

A man comes over and starts singing to the guy next to me. "My old man's a dustman," he belts out, with hand motions to match. "How's your night going?"

The guy mumbles "fine thanks," before moving away.

"Excuse me, ma'am," says the Big Issue seller as he inches his way around me. His leading an entire procession of Come From Awayers. "That's the entrance down there," he tells them, pointing the way.

They thank him and skuttle through the rain towards the long queue where an usher with a strong Scottish voice is keeping everyone in check. "If you're collecting your tickets, it's the last door!"

Blog post vaguely proofread, I figure it's time to go in.

Or at least, try to.

There's someone standing in the doorway. He looks like he can't quite make up his mind about the whole thing.

Perhaps he also got confused about their entry requirements.

"Are you...?" I ask.

"No. Sorry. You go ahead."

So I do.

Inside there's a small podium desk. With a theatre mask stencilled on the front. Gold on blue.

The person ahead of me is trying to pick up their ticket. But by the sounds of it, their name isn't on the list.

Oh dear.

Even though I know I bought myself a ticket, I can feel the anxiety rising. Mainly because I never got a confirmation email. And yes, I checked my spam folder. Nothing. I have nothing to prove that I spent my coin to get in.

I look around in an attempt to distract myself.

There's plenty to look at. The ceiling is painted with a dramatic depiction of a bird. I'm guessing a phoenix, given where we are. Paintings line the stairwell, and there's a general sense of this place having been built into the remains of an antique store, with statues and chandeliers competing for attention.

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The person ahead of me and the box officer appear to have reached an impasse.

"Let me just deal with this person," says the box officer and he leans around to beckon me forward.

"Hi, I'm here for the scratch night...?" I say, feeling more unsure about everything with every passing second.

"Yup!" says the box officer.

Well, that's one hurdle cleared at least. There is a show happening. And it's the one I thought it was.

"The surname's Smiles? S. M. I. L. E. S." I say.

He looks down the list. I shift my weight from foot to foot as he works his way down one page, and then another.

"How is it spelt?" he asks.

I spell it out for him again.

"Ah!" he says, alighting on my name. "Maxine?"

"Yup," I say with relief.

"Got it. Enjoy your evening!"

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And with that, I'm off down the staircase and into the basement.

"Hiiii!" says a young man in a red waistcoat that I can only presume is an usher. Bit smart for this kind of joint, but I'm not complaining.

"Hello!" I say back. "Um, where's the best place to go?" I ask as I look around, trying to make sense of what is happening down here.

It looks like a regular old bar. Tables and chairs clutter the space. I can't even tell where the stage area is.

"Anywhere you can find to sit," he says with a wave of his arm. "Sit down."

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He makes a fair point. There doesn't look like there are many options going spare. Might as well grab any chair going.

I creep around the edge until I find an empty table against the wall.

There are cast sheets on the table.

Hastily edited cast sheets. Someone as gone over one of the titles with a biro. It's ‘NOT Been Fingered, ’ rather than ‘NEVER Been Fingered.’ Better remember that.

Looks like there are seven of them in all (with the Not Been Fingered acting as our finale). I hope they're short. I was rather hoping for an early night.

Now that I'm settled, I can have a look around.

This place is not somewhere that has ever said no to decoration. Rows of headshots top the bar. Chandeliers and disco balls hang next to each other. The walls are covered with signed show posters. A few even making their way onto the ceiling, finding their way into the small scraps of space that aren't crowded with gilded panels that look like they got knicked sometime during the dissolution of the monasteries.

A group of red waistcoated young people rush into the middle of the room, onto a platform which I can't see, but I presume must be a stage.

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They're not ushers at all. They're actors. Playing ushers. Or actors playing ushers while trying to make it as actors. Actors who, incidentally, I won't be naming as they are all acting students this evening. So really, they're... students trying to make it as actors, playing ushers, who are trying to make it as actors. All very meta. Anyway, they are not happy with the audience. Orders to turn off our phones fly in between sneers of disgust at our behaviour and mocking jibes at one another.

A great choice to start the evening. Make sure we're all on our best behaviour.

Between acts, a host comes on to keep the energy up and introduce all the players.

A woman sitting on the table in front turns around. "Can I take?" she asks, indicating one of the spare freesheets on my table.

I slide it over to her.

"Can we…?" This time it's the woman on the table next to me. She wants to bunk up at my table in pursuit of a better view. I slide across the bench, and both she and the guy she's with squidge in next to me. This bench really wasn't meant for three.

After the fifth short of the evening, featuring a woman awaiting her execution, our host returns to the stage. "I think it’s time for a five-minute break," she tells us. "Head to the bar and I'll call you back when we're ready to start."

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There's a scamper towards the bar, and the exit, as those who've already seen their friends perform make a bid for escape.

The table next to me frees up and I no longer have to share my bench as the interlopers make their way over in search of better climes.

"Ladies and gentlemen and everything in between," says our host. "We are good to go. Ting! Ting! Ting!" she says, mimicking a theatre bell. Adding: "Shhhh," when that doesn't work.

As we make our way into the final two pieces a man comes over from the bar and gestures towards the space next to me on the bench.

I gesture back, to indicate that he's welcome to it.

After being squished for so long, I'm beginning to feel a little lonely back here all by myself.

We make it through to the end. Seven plays. And not a single dud. That must be a record. Okay, one dud. But out of seven, that’s still very impressive for a night of new writing.

Though, I am a little concerned as to what was wrong with that banana in the last one. At least it had a clear moral though: don't be eating fingered food.

The host brings back all the actors for one mega bow session, which really has to be the way to do it. None of this stop-starting with curtain calls. Save it all for the end.

"Is that what we just watched?" asks my new neighbour. He points over to my cast sheet.

I slide it over to him and he reads it while I get my applause on.

I can't help but sneak glances over to the other end of my table though.

I really hope he doesn't want to keep that cast sheet. I took pictures of it. I'm not an amateur over here. But still. I kinda want to take it home with me. And by kinda, I mean: I will literally be thinking about that lost cast sheet for the next fifteen years if he doesn't give it back.

He does, but whether that's due to his lack of interest in the more papery things in life, or the feeling of my narrowed eyes watching him carefully, I don't care to ask.

I check the time.

Twenty-past nine.

Right then. That's a challenge right there: bed by ten-thirty. Here we go.

Cast sheet in bag. Jacket on. Umbrella out. I'm off.

Like a slow voice on a wave of phase haze

Goodenough College is a weird arse name.

What are parents supposed to do when they're bragging to their friends about the universities their kids have been accepted into? "No, Oxford didn't work out but she got into Goodenough College? No... no. Stop. Not a Goodenough College. Goodenough College. It's a post-graduate accommodation... yeah, I hadn't heard of it either."

Apparently they've got a dance show on this afternoon though. So here I am. Staring doubtfully at the iron gates sealing off a pretty looking courtyard from the nastiness of the world outside. The world outside being Bloomsbury in this case.

A group of young women are making their way down the pavement. I step back to let them past.

"It's probably easy to be a choreographer there," one says while the others nod enthusiastically. "If you just want to test some ideas, and then show it..."

They disappear through the brick arch, towards the iron gates.

Looks like I am in the right place after all.

"It's Sunday!" says a young woman coming the other way. "When you only have class once a week, it's easy to lose track..."

Yeah. Can't relate to that. I may not be able to remember where I was last night, but I damn sure know what day of the week it is. I have spreadsheets to tell me that.

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I go through the arch. The gates are locked. But there is a door. And a doorbell.

The young women sitting at the reception desk inside buzzes me in.

"I'm looking for the large common room," I tell her.

The confirmation email hadn't been very forthcoming on the location of this performance. "Large Common Room, London House, Goodenough College." With no directions on how to get there, or where I might find it.

"Though the door behind you," says the receptionist. "Across the courtyard and on the far left. You'll find it," she says, demonstrating a belief in me that I'm not entirely sure is warranted.

I step out the door she indicated, make my way down the long ramp, and out into the courtyard.

It’s nice here. The type of manicured niceness that requires Keep Off The Grass signs and that same sculpture you see in every single courtyard ever. You know the one. With lots of concentric circles making up a sphere. Yeah. That one. The artist responsible must be making a mint off that design.

I pick my way around the edge, careful not to accidentally flop onto the grass.

Across the courtyard, and on the far left, some steps lead up to a covered walkway. And there I find a desk. With someone wearing a big Bloomsbury Festival STAFF badge pinned to her clothes.

That nice young lady at reception was right. I did find it!

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There’s a bit of a queue, so I stand around on the steps, waiting my turn and doing my best to keep my skirts clamped down, despite the best efforts of the wind. Eventually, it’s my turn.

“Smiles?” I say. She makes a surprised face and I realise that I I should have probably explained my purpose before dropping in that surname of mine without explanation. Can’t go wandering around telling poor women to smile. That’s highly inappropriate. “I should have already booked?”

Her face clears. She finds my name on the list. “Yes!” she says, her voice laden with relief that I wasn’t one of those people. “Lovely. We’ll give you a shout in a minute to let you in.” She points over to the walkway, where my fellow audience members are standing around, keeping out of the wind, and taking photos of that immaculate courtyard.

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The chat is all dance and dance-adjacent, making me think I have found myself in the midst of dance people.

I try to convince myself that I am also a dance person. I work in dance. That makes me one of them.

Somehow I’m not entirely satisfied with this argument.

I don’t even look like these people.

For one, this body was never meant to dance. But also, and perhaps more importantly, I’m missing the key accessory: red Dr Martens.

I really want a pair.

They look so cool.

Not sure they would look quite that cool on my stubby legs. But still. I want a pair.

A ridiculously pretty young woman in an orange dress that also needs to be filed immediately in the I-could-never-pull-that-off-but-I-wouldn’t-mind-giving-it-a-go pile comes out and greets a few people as she walks around.

With a wave of her arms, she motions towards the door.

“Oh, is the house open?” I ask, quelling the desire to comment on her dress in the most effusive tones possible.

“Yeah! The house is open,” she says.

So off I go, skittering towards the now open door, before my gawping at the dress gets too blatant for everyone’s comfort. Including mine.

There’s a woman on the door. “Hi!” I say.

“Hello! Fill up from the front row, and any bags you’ve got, put under your seat,” she says, before letting me through.

Inside the Large Common Room I find… a large common room.

Thick curtains are doing their best to keep out the Sunday afternoon light.

A parquet floor squeaks under foot as I cross the stage area in search of an empty seat.

I decide to plonk myself in the corner, right next to the camera set up. I want to avoid getting myself on film.

Not sure that's quite working though. A photographer is doing the rounds, and is already pointing his camera at the audience.

Freesheets lie waiting on the seats.

Being the professional blogger I am, I hold mine up to take a photo of it.

“I hope you’re switched off,” says an old man to woman he’s with, with only the slightest of side eyes in my direction.

I ignore him, pointedly taking pictures of the room before turning my attention back to the bit of paper we’ve been given.

The music, if I can call it that, perhaps soundscape would be a better term… comes from the NASA recordings of stars. Light waves converted into sound waves. Or something like that. I presume that’s what they mean by ‘sonified’ anyway.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of sciencey-dance. I’ve seen a lot of it. Too much of it. It’s quite the thing amongst a certain brand of male choreographer. Wayne McGregor. Russell Maliphant. Alex Whitley…

And it's always accompanied by pounding music and brash projections.

It’s not that I don’t like science. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it (I definitely have) but, you know, I have an MSc. Science and me were well into each other before I jumped ship for his sultry cousin, the arts.

I just… I’m not sure science-inspired works do the business for me.

I’m simply not a Joey Tribbiani. When someone mixes together mincemeat and custard in a bowl and calls it trifle, I won’t be the one asking for seconds.

That and I'm not a fan of projection.

I tend to just end up watching them as dance, and trying very hard to forget the dense explanatory articles lurking deep within the programmes. Which is probably not the right way to approach it.

But this piece, Bodies in Space, was created by a woman. And I don’t want to be all sexist, but I am super interested to see if that makes a difference.

Plus: no projections.

It does rather feel like being back in school here though. With that parquet flooring and the clock on the wall and the large photograph of the Queen gazing down on us. I find myself waiting for the headmaster to come in so assembly can start.

Instead, we get the woman in the orange dress.

Turns out she's Helen Cox. The choreographer. She welcomes us all, and gives us the traditional housekeeping pre-show message. Then a reminder: "We're in the round, so please tuck your bags under your chairs. Like in an aircraft!"

I've already tucked my bag and I'm feeling pretty damn smug about that.

And then it's time for the performance.

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To sound which claims to be the music of the stars, but reminds me more like a vacuum cleaner in need of a cleaned filter, three dancers slowly twist around one another, their movements perfectly attuned as they poise slim wooden sticks between their fingertips, holding themselves to each other by the most fragile of connections. Sticks drop, clattering to the ground, but with the gentlest twisting, a negotiation is undertaken as the dancers sink down to retrieve it. Fingertips stretch out. The balance is recalibrated. They continue.

Behind them, across the square, the sound designer, Dougie Brown, flows between the sound desk and his laptop, doing whatever it is that sound designers do during live performances, twiddling knobs and pressing buttons.

The soundscape shifts. The sticks are taken away, and we move forward.

There's something special about watching performers this close. Close enough that your own presence distorts to way you view it. Seeing them even in their off-stage moments, as they wait to rejoin the fray. Natasha Arcoleo, Jordan Ajadi, and Andrew Oliver each take up separate corners, leaving us in darkness as the sound swirls around us, combining with their breathing as they prepare to make their returns.

We get to the end and it's time for the questions. Cox and Dougie talk a little about their work, while physics professor Fabio Iocco tackles the science. The audience ask a few questions (what did the sticks mean? And was that bit improvised? Cox answers the first: it means whatever you feel it does. The dancers, from their spot sitting cross-legged on the ground, take the second: yes it was, it's all about responding to each other in the moment), and then it's time to go.

Or at least, it's time for me to go.

As so often happens at these things, most of the audience stick around to chat.

I've got other things to be getting on with. Namely buying an apple pie and eating the entire thing in one sitting while pondering the great questions of the universe.

Hammer Time

"Ten minutes? Okay, we have to go pick up our tickets anyway," I tell the hostess in Honest Burger.

When she offers us the tablet to put a phone number into, Sarah grabs it to do then honours. Probably for the best. I'm not all that good with phone numbers. Or tablets for that matter. There's a reason one of us works in print and the other in digital.

Yup, I've managed to drag another of my poor coworkers with me on a marathon outing. I've begun to suspect that they are all taking it in turns to accompany me. Like some kind of corporate social responsibility activity that everyone needs to take part in.

For me, it's more a matter of helping them understand why I'm such a grumpy arsehole in the office.

We nip across Festival Terrace and slip in through the side door to the Southbank Centre.

It's busy. There's a queue over at the box office.

I keep on walking.

"I think we have to go over to the other building," I say, hoping that we do, actually, have to go over to the other building, and I'm not just leading my poor colleague on a nice tour of the place.

Through the building, out the main doors, and past the fountains, dry now that summer is very much over.

The Purcell Room shares an entrance with the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I know this because on the signs over the door it says “Queen Elizabeth Hall,” and “Purcell Room.” What I'm kinda banking on is that they also share a box office.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say to the box officer. "... for the Purcell Room?"

He pulls the Ss from the fancy wooden ticket box. "Maxine?" he says, reading the ticket sitting right on the top.

"Oo. First in the pile," I coo, as if that makes me special in any way. But you know, with a surname beginning with S, it isn't often that I get to be first. So, I'm taking it.

Sarah laughs. Not sure if it's a laughing-with or laughing-at type of laugh, and I decide it's probably best not to ask.

We leave, making our way back towards the Southbank Centre proper.

"We should find somewhere to sit," I say, looking around. There is very clearly no where to sit in this place.

"Shall we try outside?" suggests Sarah.

So we do.

"What about here?" I say pointing to a red bench.

Sarah looks at it.

The seat is curved like a smile, and is very clearly not designed to be sat on.

"How about over here," she says, walking towards a concrete bench that is actually a bench, and not an art installation.

I follow on meekly behind.

As Sarah checks her phone to see if the Honest lady has messaged us, a line of strange apparitions float past us. Dressed in red. Their arms extended in a gesture of supplication.

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"Oh my gawd! It's the Red Brigade!" I say excitedly.

"The who?"

"The Red Brigade," I repeat, as if I'd known about them forever and hadn't just read an article about them yesterday. "They're a performance art group that attach themselves to protests. They're hanging out with Extinction Rebellion at the moment."

"Right... that's cool... Shall we go check on our table? It's been ages."

I get up and skitter after Sarah as she heads back to Honest.

The Honest lady comes over. "I messaged you ages ago!" she says. My heart sinks. I really needed a burger. "Don't worry. I refused to give your table away. This way."

So we order burgers. And chips. And onion rings. Okay, I order onion rings. And... "oh my god, I was going to ask if you wanted a drink-drink. But they have milkshakes!"

So I order a milkshake.

"The burger, would you like that medium?" asks our waiter.

"Well done," I say, hurriedly. "Sorry, I'm not classy."

Across the table, Sarah smirks.

"Yeah, I love food, but I can't pretend to be a foodie. I'm tacky as fuck.”

"I'm learning so much about you tonight, Max."

Yeah, like the fact that flagging buses gives me anxiety and I'm a petty-arse bitch. She's never going to go out with me again.

At least the chips are good. So good that I don't even panic about how little time we have until I look at my phone and see that the show is starting in four minutes.

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We've got to go.

It's raining.

Like, properly raining.

Like, tipping it down raining.

No time for an umbrella. We need to run.

"How are you running so fast?" shouts Sarah from behind me as I slide into the side door of the Southbank Centre.

"I have longer legs than you," I shout back. It's my one and only chance for my five foot three arse to say that to anyone, and I’m not about to let that opportunity go to waste.

We run through the foyers, and back out the front door. I reach into my bag and grab my umbrella, holding it out for Sarah.

"You take this, I need to go ahead and get a photo."

"Now? Do it afterwards!" shouts Sarah through the downpour, but I'm already off, crashing across the flooded terrace.

There's so much water on the ground it's slopping in through the doors, and we have to jump over the puddle to get inside.

"My feet are soaked!" says Sarah.

Mine are too. But there's no time to think of that.

I stop in the main foyer and look around. "I have no idea where we go from here," I admit.

"Let's ask," suggests Sarah, going off to talk to one of the welcome deskers.

Turns out the Purcell Room is over on the far side. Right at the back.

"Will it freak you out if I run to the loo?" asks Sarah.

I mean, yes it absolutely will. But I can pretend I won't.

"Give me my ticket, just in case," she says,

"Do you mind if I go in?" I ask as I rip a ticket off the ream.

"No. You have to," she says, making a dash for it.

It's true. I do have to.

The massive doorway to the Purcell Room is marked with a smart sign saying Purcell Room.

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A queue snakes its way out into the foyer.

There's a man giving out freesheets.

"Can I get one of those," I ask.

"Are you here for Oona Doherty?" he asks, immediately clocking that I am not there for Oona Doherty.

"No, the Purcell Room?" I say. I have no idea what I'm here to see. Something dancey. I think.

Turns out there's a door to the Queen Elizabeth Hall is round here too, and I'm trying to nab myself the wrong freesheet.

I make my way to the front of the queue.

"First staircase up," says the ticket checker handing me a freesheet. The right one this time.

"Negative Space by Reckless Sleepers," it says.

That answers one question at least.

Inside and up the first staircase.

It's like a mini Queen Elizabeth Hall in here. Same seating. Same walls. Just a whole lot smaller.

The emergency exit over on the other side has extra messaging built in: Not to foyer.

Customised signage. This is a fancy joint alright.

Up on stage, the cast is already in place, leaning against the walls of a boxy white room.

I have a quick look at the freesheet.

The note on the back seems to have been written with the assumption that we're all fans of a work called Schrodinger. Which, considering I've never heard of Schrodinger, it's making it a tough read. Apparently, this piece is the exact opposite. So, presumably, the cat hasn't been poisoned, is out of the box, and is busy scratching the experimenter's eyes out.

I like it already.

Sarah appears.

"It looked way more sold out online," she says, indicating the empty seats on the side.

"I think they kept them offsale," I tell her. "Because of the walls of the set. The ones at the back were only a tenner because they are restricted view. But those ones at the front must be really really restricted."

We both look at the set, with its chunky walls taking up a very narrow area right in the middle of the stage.

"Maxxxxx.... this is why you're the blogger! I would never have thought of that."

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Nah. It's just Sarah lives a normal life with normal things to think about. Do you know how hard it was to pin her down to a date to go to the theatre? Stupid hard. There was a waiting list of people queueing up for her attention. I'm not even kidding. Sarah has friends. Imagine what that's like...

"Wait," says Sarah, looking at me properly for the first time. "Are those your glasses?”

Ah. Yes. I may have got my specs out while she was in the loo.

"Yeah... I only wear them for shows."

"Really?"

Yeah. Really. And now that I hear myself say it, it does sound rather weird. I should be wearing them all the time. But like... I'm vain, so...?

The ushers close the doors and slip into the front row. Right on the side. I hope they can see from where they are. It'd be awful spending the whole show staring at a wall.

The audience hushes itself into silence.

We all look at the cast.

The cast looks at us right back.

It's like we're all waiting for someone to make the first move.

It's the cast who break first.

Trapdoors open. Heads pop out.

The auditorium doors creek open and the latecomers are brought in. All sat in the empty seats by the side. The proverbial naughty step for theatre-goers.

Up on stage, a game of wall-touching starts.

Hammers are wielded. And then dropped.

And then the destruction starts.

"Jesus," breathes Sarah as the hammer plunges into the plasterboard wall.

She's not the only one. Shocked murmurs and nervous laughter eeks its way around the auditorium. I jump in my seat more than once.

There's no music. No dialogue. Nothing to hide our giggling shame.

As the walls start imploding, the exclamations grow.

"Oh my gawd!" winces Sarah as someone drops backwards through a wall.

An hour later, it's over.

"I really enjoyed that," I say, still clapping as the cast disappear offstage.

"Me too! It was really good."

A cast member reappears, clasping his hands and waiting for us all to redirect our attention back to the stage. "We're just going to take ten or fifteen minutes to... wind down, and then do a bit of a Q and A," he tells us. "So if you have any questions, we'll be back after we've had ten minutes to... calm down."

"The only question I have is whether I can have a go with the hammer," I say.

It did look very therapeutic. And it's not like they'll be getting much use out of that plasterboard now. It's shot to shit.

I race towards the stage to get a photo of what is left of the set. A line builds up next to me of audience members doing the exact same thing.

"Here's a good angle," I tell Sarah, just knowing she'll want a pic, being the fancy photographer she is.

We both get our photos. Me for the blog. Her for the 'gram.

It's time to leave.

"You know," I muse as we head back out into the foyer. "It made me think that the perfect man is one who gives you a flower, hugs you when things are getting intense, and then lets you push him right through a wall."

"That's so true," sighs Sarah.

And with that in mind, it's time to go, before the whole place gets flooded out.

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Extinction Ice Cream

Flags are waving. A drum is banging. Someone is giving an impassioned speech about trans rights. 

I creep through the closed roads around Trafalgar Square. 

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An extinction rebellioner holds out a leaflet towards me, before thinking better about it and handing it to the bloke next to me. 

I’m almost offended. 

I recycle…

… when I remember. 

The police are all lined up across the top of Whitehall, their hi-vis jackets gleaming under the street lights. They are quite the sight. A shuffling barrier between the party in Trafalgar Square and the deserted street beyond. 

I stop to take a photo. I’m not the only one. The dome of the National Gallery rising up above the police and the protestors is one hell of a visual. 

A cyclist sails through the blockade and whizzes past me. 

It’s only then that I realise I’m standing in the middle of the road. We’re all standing in the middle of the road. Not only that, we’re standing in the middle of one of the busiest roads in London, and there’s not a car to be seen. 

I am going to make full use of this. 

Traipsing down a bit further, I stand right bang in the centre of the lane and aim my phone camera at the Trafalgar Studios. 

Perfect. 

I dither, looking around. 

I’m kinda enjoying standing here, in the middle of the road, with the protest roaring in the background. 

I do have to go in though. Watch a play. Get another theatre checked off my list. 

I guess. 

I mean, I could just go off and join XR. Throw this whole thing over with only three months left to go. I’d be well good at it. Always up for a protest me. And, may I remind you, I do, on occasion, recycle. 

They might find out about that time I once said “bollocks to the planet,” which I fear would stand against me. But I was having a really bad day. And the theatre was refusing to give me paper tickets, which is something that even an extinction rebellioner would understand-

Yeah. You’re right. Probably not. 

They would have done with paper tickets and programmes and freesheets and every else good in life, wouldn’t they. I am the antithesis of everything they stand for. 

That sucks. 

Oh well. 

Best go to the theatre then. 

“Bag?” says the bag checker on the door. 

I open it for him, wincing as we both peer in. 

I’ve just done a Superdrug haul. Toothpaste and hairclips and cough sweets float around on top of the more permenant detritus in my bag. 

He does not inspect any further. 

I can’t blame him really. 

“Box office?” I ask an usher who is standing in the middle of the overcrowded lobby, trying to bring order to the chaos. 

“Yup, that way,” she says, looking over her shoulder to indicate the well signposted desk just opposite the doors. 

I join the queue. 

At least, I think it’s the queue. There isn’t really room for a proper line, so we’re all just hanging about, trying not to tread on each other. 

A box officer is freed up, and I nip forward into place. 

But I’m so distracted by the mass of people around me, I total miss what they say to me. 

“Err, the surname’s… Smiles,” I say, hoping that’s the correct response for what they asked. “Sorry, I had to think about that one.” 

The box officer laughs politely. “Maxine?” 

“Yup,” I say, making a mental note not to make any more attempts at humour tonight. I do not want to be that customer. As if ushers don’t have enough to be getting on with. 

Paper ticket acquired, it’s time I got me a paper programme. 

If I’m killing the planet, I might as well support my own industry while doing it. 

And will you look at there, there’s a hatch right next to the box office marked programmes. You almost never see that anymore. The few hatched programme desks are usually bordered up. It feels like an artifact from another age. A gentler age. An age when we didn’t have to worry about our children fighting over the last cup of water. 

I bounce my way over happily and ask for one. 

The programme seller is holding a fan of all the options, but uses her free hand to point to the copies laid out on the desk. “Is it for Fisherman or Joe Egg?” she asks, pointing at each in turn.

“Joe Egg,” I tell her. Because that’s what I’m here to see. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.  

“Lovely,” says the programme seller. “That’s four pounds fifty.” 

That’s not even unreasonable. “Do you take cards?” I ask. I’ve just been to the cash machine and I’m feeling a bit protective of my lovely new notes. 

“No,” she says with an apologetic shrug. “I can’t. But if you want to pay by card, then my colleagues at the bar…” 

I shake my head. “No. No. It’s okay. I have cash.” 

I can’t face dealing with the bar queue. Not when I’m so close to owning the papery goodness. 

That done, I fling myself into the bustle of the foyer to get a photo of the hatch, but just as I’m bringing up the camera app, the programme seller is closing the little window, sealing herself in. 

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If I'd been just a few seconds later, I would have missed my chance to buy from the hatch. 

Well, no use dwelling over things that never happened.  

I slip back through the crowd and head towards the doors. 

You’ve got to admire the ticket checkers at the Trafalgar. One set of doors. Two theatres. It would break my brain in seconds. And they handle it all with cheerful smiles pinned on their faces. 

I show the nearest one my ticket. 

“Great!” he says, all chirpy happiness. “Would you like a programme?” He holds out his little fan of them. 

“I already have one!” I say a touch too proudly considering, well... it’s just a programme. 

Still, he seems impressed. “Oh! Well done,” he says. I grin happily. At least someone appreciates me for my programme buying habits. “Right, you’re up the stairs here,” he says, pointing the way. 

Up the stairs it is. 

At the top, a sign points me over to the door on the left. 

Inside, there’s an usher waiting. 

“Hello!” she calls over as I walk into the auditorium 

“Hi!” I show her my ticket. 

“Up the stairs and you’re in the back row.” 

More stairs. 

At least I’m getting some cardio in, I guess. 

But as I make it to the back row, a couple of women are leaving. And there’s someone standing in front of my seat. She’s dressed very smartly. Excessively smartly. 

“Where are you sitting,” she asks, just as I twig that she’s an usher. 

I tell her. 

“Would you like to sit further forward?” 

“Err,” I say, for a lack of proper words. I was not prepared for this. No one told me there would be a quiz. 

“I think you should,” she says encouragingly. 

“Okay?” 

“How about F1?” she says, drawing a line through one of the highlighted seats on the map she has in her hands. 

“Okay?” 

“Great!” 

“Oh, wait. Can you write it down for me. I have a terrible memory.” And terrible anxiety. I need a paper trail of this discussion before going anywhere.  

I offer her my ticket and she scrawls the new seat number on it. 

Perfect. 

Back down the stairs. 

The front of houser by the door glances over as I traipse past. “Got an upgrade!” I say to explain my reappearance. 

“Lovely!” 

I find my seat. Right on the end of the row, and much closer to the stage. 

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I think I’ve lucked out, even if I do have to get up every thirty seconds to let someone into the row. At least half of those passing by step on my foot. Only one of them turns around to apologise. 

“It’s okay,” I tell her, still wincing with pain. 

It’s not, but you know, I appreciate the acknowledgement. 

To distract myself, I start taking pictures. First of the stage, and then twisting around in my seat to capture the auditorium in all it’s... can we call it glory? I don’t think so. Not that there is anything wrong with the main house at Trafalgar Studios. Studio 1 is just fine. The seats are fine. The sightlines are okay. The stage is reasonable. But that’s it. It’s modern. Ish. And clean. Ish. There’s nothing to irritate. But also, nothing to inspire. No fancy twirly bits. No chandelier. This is not a temple dedicated to the performing arts. It’s just a theatre. Plain and simple. Does what it says on the tin. Makes no promises, and doesn't break them.

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As I twist back, I catch a front of houser’s eye. He’s holding up a no photos sign. I put my phone away, shamefaced. 

The play’s starting anyway. 

Toby Stephens comes out, in full teacher mode, telling us to be quiet, ordering eyes front, hands on our heads. 

A few people in the audience oblige. 

I am not one of them. 

I’m really not into this. School was bad enough the first time around. 

Still, I do like Toby Stephens. I feel like I have a story about Toby Stephens, but I can’t remember what it is, or even how I might have come by it, as I have never worked on any of his shows. So, I’m probably just imagining it. But even so, I feel like my story about Toby Stephens, if I do actually have one, is probably very charming and shows us both off in an excellent light. Which is nice. 

Not sure about this play though. Bit depressing. And I’m not really in the mood for depressing right now. Especially this brand of depressing. The hopeless, bad ending, kind. I can tell it’s going to have a bad ending already. There are too many jokes for it to end well. 

In the interval, half my row disappears down onto the stage to get themselves an ice cream. 

It is way too cold in here for that nonsense. I pull out my scarf and wrap it around me like a shawl, trying not to shiver. 

What is it with theatres still blasting their air conditioning? It’s October. It’s time to put the heating on, people. 

As the interval nears its end, my row starts to make its return. 

They each, in turn, stand on my foot. 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says one. “I’ve done it again. Was it your’s again?” 

“It was. It’s okay,” I tell her. Again, it’s not okay. But like, at least she remembered it was me. 

“What was that?” cries out one of the leftovers as her friend returns. “I thought you’d disappeared!” 

The friend hands over an ice cream and slumps back down in her seat. “They all melted, and they went off to get some frozen ones!” 

The ones they’ve got now don’t look all that solid, but they make the best of it, polishing off the tiny tubs with their tiny spoons, just as the house lights dim for act two. 

I was right. 

It didn’t end well. 

There’s plenty of applause but we’re all curiously silent as we file out towards the exit. 

“I’m never going to a play ever again,” says someone standing near me. “I’m sticking to musicals after that.” 

As if to lift our mood, music is pumping out after us. 

A man stops the usher. “What’s the music?” he asks. 

She shakes her head. “No idea.” 

“Oh.” 

We go down the stairs, but the man still has his question. 

“What’s the music?” he asks the bloke behind the merch desk. 

The merch desk bloke doesn’t know either. 

But I’ve been checking my notifications, and my phone is claiming to know the answer. 

“It’s Dear Mr Fantasy by Traffic,” I read off my screen. 

“Dear Mr what?” says the man, rounding on me. 

“Fantasy.” 

“Traffic,” says his wife, helpfully. “We can just look up Traffic.” 

“We’ll look it up on Spotify,” he tells me. “It was good, wasn’t it?” 

I don’t know whether it’s the play or the song he’s referring to, but I quickly say ‘yes’ and then make my escape. 

Extinction Rebellion are still roaring. The flags still waving. The police still lined up across Whitehall. 

I bet they’re the ones that unplugged the ice cream freezer. 

Good for them. 

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Damn Commie Kids

“I’m visiting your alma mater tonight,” I tell one of my coworkers as he tries to do some photocopying. “ArtsEd?” just in case he’s forgotten where he studied. 

“Oh, right? What are you seeing?” 

“I don’t know,” I sigh. “I don’t book to see things. Hang on…” 

I bring up the confirmation email. “It’s a double bill. Zero for the Young Dudes and The Sewing Group,” I say, a little doubtfully. 

“Right… in my day we did Chekhov and things like that.” He checks his printing. “You know, there’s a great pub just by the station. Like right next to the station. It’s called the Tabard.” 

“You mean the one with the theatre upstairs?” 

“Oh, yeah,” he says, realising who he's talking to. “You must have been there.” 

I must indeed. 

“It’s called the Chiswick Playhouse now,” I tell him. 

He pulls a face. “Why?” 

That I cannot help him with. 

Anyway, as I was saying, I’m going to ArtsEd tonight. Or more accurately, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre that lives within the drama school. 

Out at Turnham Green station, past the Tabard Pub (and the Chiswick Playhouse), round the corner, and there it is.  

I try to step back to get a nice photo of the entrance, but young people are pouring through the door from every direction. Looks like everyone is in to support the troops tonight. 

Inside there is a small desk laden with ASOS parcels. And just beyond, some barriers. All open, and not in need of a student pass. 

I go in. 

The bar is directly opposite, with a curious lack of queue considering I’m surrounded by students. That’s generation z for you right there. Or rather, not right there. They’re all hanging around in the foyer space, leaping onto each other to envelope their friends in great big hugs, and talking excitedly about absolutely everything. 

I head over to the box office. 

I can tell it’s the box office because there is a tiny little sign posted off to one side of it. “Box office,” it says shyly, peeking out from in between all dancing heads crowding around the desk. 

Most of these people already have their tickets. The bright yellow cards flash as their owners bounce around, greeting a newly spotted friend. 

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Amongst the chaos I find the actual queue. Or at least I think I do, as when I make it to the front, I discover that there was an entirely different line, approaching from an entirely different direction. 

The box officer wavers between us. “Hi! Hi! Hi,” she says, her hands alternating between us as if she were playing a game of invisible two handed table tennis.  

For once in my lift, I’m going to pull age, if not rank. 

“I’m just going to sneak in,” I say, sliding up to the counter. And before anyone can complain, I give my surname. 

A quick flip through the ticket box, and I’m being handed my own bright yellow ticket. “Here you are!” says the box officer with more energy than I have ever been able to muster in my entire life. 

“Thank you!” I reply, attempting to draw on whatever dregs I have left and failing. 

“You’re welcome!” she sings back in return. 

It’s no good. I was never meant to be a performer. Better stick to what I’m good at. Sitting quietly and watching the pros get on with it. Well, the almost-pros in this case. The on-their-way-to-being-pros. The studying-hard-and-putting-the-rest-of-us-to-shame-as-they-fight-to-make-it-in-this-impossible-industry-but-have-a-good-a-shot-as-any-of-joining-the-ranks-of-the-pros. 

What was I saying? I don’t remember. Let’s move on. 

I work my back through the crowd, towards the bar, the only place which isn’t absolutely rammed. 

Sitting on the counter are a couple of booklets. I pick one up curiously and find that it’s actually the programme for tonight. I look around, and see no other copies. Good thing I found them before they were all gone! 

It’s nice enough. Printed on thick card. Inside there are lovely headshots of all the bright young things. A short intro into each of the two plays. And that’s it. Well, what more do you need, really. 

I check the time. It’s twenty-five past. I should probably go in. 

A large curved wall is marked up with the name of the theatre in huge letters against a deep red wall. There is no mistaking who paid for this theatre. 

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The nearest door has a massive queue stretching all the way out of it, but if I’m reading the tiny sign, posted high up on the wall, correctly, then there should be another door lurking being the Lloyd Webber sponsorship opportunity. 

I follow it around, past the loos, and into a small corridor. 

There’s an usher posted on the end. And a considerably shorter queue. It only has two people in it. Well, three now that I’ve joined. 

“Strictly speaking, one of you was supported to go through one door, and one the other,” says the ticket checker as he looks over the bright yellow tickets of the couple in front of me.  

“I’m sure they’ll forgive us,” says one. 

“They will! They will!” laughs the ticket checker. “Together forever. That’s how it’s meant to be.” 

And with that, he lets them through. 

Inside, I stand off to one side to get a photo. 

It’s nice in here. They spent that Phantom money well. 

The walls are made up of stripes, all painted shades of purple and red and pink. 

It’s like stepping into a Bridget Riley painting. Or perhaps wrapping one’s self in a Paul Smith scarf. Pick whichever metaphor makes me sound cooler, please. 

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The stalls are almost full. These young ones don’t fuck around. 

“Hello!” says my new neighbour with a massive grin as I sit down. 

Did I ever have that much energy and enthusiasm? If I did, it was so long ago that I no longer remember it. 

“This is a date,” says my neighbour’s companion. Or, his date, even. “Hold my hand!” 

After a bit of grumbling, my neighbour offers out his hand to his date.  

Aw. Young love. 

The house lights go down. 

The first play of the night starts. The Sewing Group. 

Two women bend over their hoops, working on their embroidery. As a new member is introduced, they speak in stilted sentences. Unable to get off the subject of their work without floundering, while the newcomer struggles to make sense of her new home. 

I can’t blame her. I’m struggling to. 

Statements contradict themselves and no one seems sure of their own backstories. 

Plus, there are bonnets. I love bonnets. Theatre needs more bonnets. Especially for the audience. It’s so cold in here even my ears are freezing. I’m regretting taking off my jacket. And my cardigan. And my scarf. 

Turns out just because a room’s walls are stripey, it doesn’t mean sitting in it really is like being wrapped in a Paul Smith scarf. 

Metaphors are lies. 

At least the play is good. 

It’s funny, and weird, and twisting, and sad, and surprisingly, not written by M. Night Shyamalan. 

But as soon as it ends I’m racing back out into the foyer to warm up. 

Cardigan very much on, I find a place next to the bar and get out my phone, trying to look as unobtrusive as possible. 

I love drama school productions, I really do. But being the oldest person in the audience by a good ten years is not what I’m after from my evenings. 

When the call comes to go back in, I’m once again baffled by the sheer verve and passion of young people. “Ladies and gentleman,” the woman on the tannoy squeaks. “Please return to your sets. This performance is now ready to begin. THANK YOUUUUUUU!!!!!” 

Honestly, I’m so glad I’m a bitter old hag now. I can have lie-ins. I mean, not now. I’ve got a stupid marathon to do. But 2020? Yeah, I’m not getting out of bed that year. And quite possibly, never again for the rest of my life. I will stitch myself into my pyjamas and surrender to my duvet for ever more. 

Bliss. 

“Is this the zombie one?” says my neighbour’s date back in the auditorium.  

“Ergh!” says my neighbour. “Don’t ruin it for me!” 

“But it’s got zombies in it!” 

Their date is going super well. 

As for me, I don’t care. I’ve never been fussed about spoilers, and am always up for some zombie action, 

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A girl comes out on stage, plonks herself down and starts eating from a bowl. She lowers her head, fixes her eyes on us, and gives us the most sinister smile I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to witness. 

Turns out, Zero for the Young Dudes! is not actually about zombies. It’s about young people. And I think we’ve both seen tonight that the young people have way too much fervor to ever be cast as extras in a Romero movie. Anyway, they’re fighting the power that is the old ones. Willing to sacrifice themselves and everyone else for the cause of socialism. Anyone over thirty is an evil capitalist traitor, and honestly... they’re not wrong. Old people are awful.

Both casts come out for the curtain call, and as soon as the house lights start to come up, I grab my bag and slip out. 

I love generation z, I really do, but that doesn’t mean a trust them for a minute. And that play was intense. I skitter back through the barriers and out the door, before they have a chance to get any ideas. 

The Pajama Game

“This is the final station where a TFL validated rail card or Oyster card can be used,” comes a voice over the tannoy as we approach Watford Junction. 

And so I reach the very edge of the London Theatre Marathon. My Oyster card will take me here and no further.  

Thank fucking gawd. 

I’ve never been to Watford before. 

Not even when there was a James Graham play in the Watford Palace. Which is quite the statement as I love me some James Graham. 

But apparently even this love has limits. And that limit is Watford. 

The play actually ended up transferring to the Bush, and I saw it there, so it all worked out just fine. But there’s no escape this time around. It’s now or never. I’m going to fucking Watford. 

“Stay behind the yellow line,” shouts a station worker as we make our way down the platform. “Please! We all want to go home.” 

And with that, I head towards the exit. 

Outside, the pavements are empty. But the roads are clogged with cars. 

I end up having the pick my way through a traffic jam just to cross a junction. 

But there it is, up ahead. It’s sign blazing out red in the darkness. “PALACE.” The Watford part presumably not requiring the neon, as we are, as I have said, in Watford. 

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I stand on the opposite side of the road, trying not to get run over by a reversing van, to take my exterior shots. 

No one goes in. No one comes out. And through the windows I can’t make out the tiniest shred of movement. 

I begin to worry that I perhaps got the wrong day. That they are completely dark on this chilly Tuesday evening. But no, there’s someone, coming down the road. I keep a close eye on her, standing in the shadows like the creepy lurker that I am. 

She pauses in front of the doors. 

I hold my breath. 

She carries on walking. 

Dammit. 

I hold back, scanning the pavement for any signs of life. 

Eventually a man arrives, walking with purpose if not exactly speed. 

I wait for him, glancing down at my phone in order to pretend that I’m not a weird stalker. I’m just reading a text. From a friend I definitely have. 

He’s approaching the doors.

He’s slowing down. 

He’s reaching out.

He’s grasping the handle. 

This is it. He’s going in! 

And so am I! 

I skitter across the road and slip my way through the doors before the man has even managed to get himself up the short flight of steps in the foyer. 

An usher spots me. “Hello!” he says, spotting me looking around, trying to get my bearings. 

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“Err, box office?” 

“Just this way.” He points down the corridor towards the large desk tucked away right at the end.  

“Hello there!” says the box officer as I approach. 

Everyone is very friendly this evening. 

“Hi!” I say, attempting to equal his enthusiasm. I don’t think I’m quite pulling it off. “The surname’s Smiles?” 

He jumps into action, diving into the ticket box to pull out my ticket. 

“Is there a programme?” I ask, spotting something large and programmey-looking at the end of the counter. 

“Err,” he says, taken by surprise. This is clearly not a question he gets called upon to answer all that often. “No there isn’t a programme, errr…” He visablly pulls himself together. “Let me get my words out. Um. The people on the door should have a… crew sheet?” He pauses, puzzling over that term. 

I think he means a cast sheet, but I’m not correcting him. 

“I don’t think there is an actual programme,” he finishes. 

“Even better!” I say, meaning it. Cast sheets are better than programmes because cast sheets are free. I mean, yes, they lack the brilliantly commissioned programme notes, the glossy double page spreads showing off beautiful production photos, the scrupulously edited biographies, but, eh, it’s still a piece of paper to take home at the end of the night. And I repeat: it’s free. 

And by the looks of it, the front of housers are busy getting them all sorted. 

They’ve taken over a long bench, and are sorting through various papery elements. 

“There’s more coming out of the printer,” says one. 

“Are we giving everyone both?” is the reply. 

“Yup!” 

Excellent. It looks like I won’t be walking away with just one piece of paper tonight. I’ll have two! 

I begin to realise that the front of housers probably don’t appreciate me looming over them as they sort the handouts into different piles. 

I take a stroll to see what the other end of the corridor can offer me. Turns out, it’s the cafe. And everyone’s in here! 

I find an empty spot on one of the high chairs by the counter on the side, and try very hard not to think about how much of a berk I must look like with my legs swinging limply, two feet off the ground. 

Tables and chairs fill up rapidly, and by twenty past this corner of the building is pretty darn full. 

“She said everything is like the original,” says a woman, showing her group the freesheet. “Except for this bit.” She points to a paragraph. 

“But otherwise it’s like the play?” 

“That’s what she said. Just this is different.” 

“How does that work then?” 

“She didn’t say.” 

How frustrating. I guess we’ll all just have to watch it then. 

A voice comes over the sound system. “Please take your seats, the performance will begin in three minutes. The performance will begin in three minutes.” 

My ticket says to take the door on the left. So I head to the door on the left. Well, the door that says it’s on the left. We both know that I’m still figuring out the whole left-right thing.  

“Lovely,” says the ticket checker as she checks my ticket. “Let me-“ 

“Could I get one of those?” I ask, rudely interrupting her in my desperation to get my hands on the freesheet action. 

She hesitates. “Yeah, of course,” she says, regaining her flow. She plucks a card and a sheet of paper from her pile and hands it to me. 

With that accomplished, I head inside the auditorium. 

And will you look at that. It’s full of proper old-school twirly bits. There are boxes. And gilding. And mouldings.  

No chandelier though. 

Or rather, there is, but it isn’t a glittery crystal fountain, but a snake-like coil of neon pressed against the more traditionally Edwardian ceiling. 

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I’m in the front row. Which is not my preferred seating choice, but the proscenium arch makes me feel safe. 

I dump my bag in my seat and snap a few pictures of the auditorium. 

It’s very sparse in the whole audience thing. 

Turns out, what can fill a cafe is not nearly enough to fill a theatre. 

By the looks of it, both the circle and the balcony have been shut off. 

It looks like a Gaslight revival on a freezing cold Tuesday evening in Watford is not that much of a draw.  

I’m surprised by that. 

No, seriously. I am. 

I am well excited for this production. And have been ever since it was announced. I’ve had this trip planned for months. Months! 

Although, to be fair, if I hadn't been prepared to make the journey for a new James Graham…  

Anyway, the play starts. We’re in a women’s refuge and the residents are putting on a play. Gaslight. 

They’re in their own clothes. Hannah Hutch’s Nancy seems to be in her duper comfy-looking jammies already, while Sandra James-Young's Elizabeth has opted for some sort of nightdress and house coat combo. And they are all working through some personal shit as they take on the roles of the residents of the Manningham household. With its disappearing paintings, and dimming lights. 

And it’s like, super intense. And a little bit distressing. I find myself wincing as Jasmine Jones’ Jack chews over a muffin, watching Sally Tatum’s Bella with calculating eyes as he plots his next move to torment and upend her. 

As Tricia Kelly, acting as both the master of ceremonies and Inspector Rough, calls time on the action, she sends both the actors and us off for a tea and tissue break. 

The curtain decends. We are left in darkness. The house lights aren’t coming up. I look around, wondering if this was part of the play. Was Jack wondering around above us, messing with the gaslight? But no, a few seconds later, the house lights come up and the auditorium is filled with music as Kesha tells us she don’t need a man to be holding her too tight and the members of Little Mix demand we listen up because they’re looking for recruits. 

I have a look at the freesheets. 

One is just a scrappy thing run off the photocopier, explaining how the cast have worked with the team from the Watford Women’s Centre Plus. The other is much fancier. All glossy and professional, with the cast list and headshots and whatnot. But both have a note at the bottom. 

“This show touches on potentially distressing themes around domestic abuse and specifically gaslighting. If you are affected by the themes in today’s production please talk to a member of our staff.” 

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I’m almost tempted to go ask an usher what happens when someone comes to them, but I fear that might set off alarm bells, and I don’t want to be the cause of any of that.  

The second half starts. We’re back in the Manningham household and things are kicking the fuck off.  

Somewhere at the back a phone goes off, and is hastely silenced. 

Honestly, I’m glad of the distraction. My heart was beating at a thousand beats per second. 

That thot Nancy is playing games and I am not able to deal with it. 

At the end, the women of the refuge all gather for a group hug. And I kinda feel I want in on that action. I’m really in need of having someone pat my head and tell me it’ll all be okay. 

Instead I have to venture back out into the freezing cold and get myself out of Watford. 

Still, I did get something out of this. I found out I’m a lot stronger than I thought. If James Graham brings another play here... I might not even wait for the transfer. 

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Language Fail

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately. Like, why am I dragging myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning to watch a show? (Answer: marathon reasons). Or, why did I book myself a second show to go to, on this same exact Sunday? (Answer: marathon reasons). And the ever constant: is this place even a theatre, Maxine? (Answer:… still working on this one). 

After making it back to Hammersmith, I spent the afternoon eating too many carbs and clutching the cat for comfort. But now it’s time to go back out. Theatre 239 waits for no blogger. 

Thankfully I don’t have far to go. Just around the corner, actually. I can walk it. Heck, I can probably sit down and sail there on a slide made of my own tears of exhaustion. 

I just really hope it is an actual theatre. 

It’s so hard to tell. 

Everywhere’s a theatre these days. Buses, boats, gardens and squares. And yet, also no where. I struggle to find a single play to book in spaces to claim to have that title. 

Well, there’s only one way to find out sometimes. 

I’m off to the Polish Social and Cultural Association to see what they’ve got for me and my marathon needs. 

I bundle myself inside my jacket and wander off down to King Street. 

The letters P. O. S. K. shine dully against the grey walls that look by rights as if they should belong to the local council. 

I head up the stairs and through the glass doors. 

There’s a reception just opposite, but there’s no one standing behind the desk. 

I look around, wondering what to do. 

Not for long though. Because there’s a queue on the other side of the lobby, and it’s lined up infront of a window marked “Kasa.” Which, if you don’t speak Polish, which I do not, is helpfully translated underneath. “Box Office.” 

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I join the queue. 

It moves fast. Most people seem to be in ticket purchasing mode rather than picking up, transactions happening in rapid Polish as cash is slipped across the counter. 

“Hi!” I say when I reach the front. “The surname’s Smiles?” 

“Smiles?” 

“Smiles.” I think I’ve just outed myself as a non-Pole here. “I booked online?” I say, turning around my phone so that she can see the Eventbrite confirmation on my screen. 

She looks through the ticket box. And then looks through again. Her fingers deftly move between letters as she searches all the possible spelling combinations. 

No luck. 

She beckons with her hand. “Can I see?” she asks, motioning to my phone. 

“Hang on,” I tell her as I hurriedly unlock it for her and hand it over. 

She prods at the screen, zooming in to read the information. 

Once she has confirmed that I did indeed purchase my ticket in advance, she slides my phone back over the counter. 

“How much was the ticket?” she asks. 

“22.15?” I say, reading the numbers on the screen doubtfully. Twenty-two fifteen. Hard to believe there was a time in my life where I would have baulked at paying that. The marathon does weird things to a person. 

“Two tickets?” she asks, holding up two fingers to indicate the number of the tickets. 

“No. One,” I say, holding up a single finger and thus demonstrating the other side-effect of this marathon – being a lonely loser on a Sunday evening. 

She nods, opens a small booklet, and tears out a ticket for me. A proper ticket. With a seat number and everything. 

In 238 theatres I haven’t seen the like. 

Tickets torn from a little booklet. 

Whatever next?

“How much are the programmes?” I ask, spotting a pile of them on the desk. 

The two fingers go up again. “Two pounds,” she says. 

“Great!” I find two pounds coins and give them to her, and she slips a programme under the window in exchange. 

That done, I walk around the lobby, trying to get a sense of where I am. 

It’s a bit fancy in here. Not at all like a council building. 

There’s a water feature in the middle of the foyer, surrounded by chairs. The walls are lined with lists of names, which I admit, I originally thought we’re there for depressing war reasons, but no. They are all names of people who contributed to the funding of this building, and that is the exact opposite of depressing. 

A pillar is being used as a noticeboard, advertising various events coming up, in Polish and English. 

A very small child runs in, banging into a roller banner with a smack of her chubby palms. 

“Posk!” she shouts out, clearly very pleased with her ability to read. 

Her dad runs up after her, removing the chubby palms from the banner before sounding out the letters for her, with the correct Polish pronunciation. 

At the back, there’s a gallery. I walk around the exhibition. The paintings are nice. Bright and brilliant and full of life. There’s even one of ballet students, wearing matching floating skirts. Obviously, I like that one best. 

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Back in the foyer and people are starting the make their way through the doors on the far side. 

There’s no signage, but I trust they know where they’re going, so I follow them. 

Corridors lead off in all directions, but the stairs looks like the popular option. So I take them too. 

A pretty blonde woman says something to me in Polish. I shrug apologetically, and she moves away without another glance. 

Up the stairs and everywhere is heading through a door marked as “Teatr.” I’m fairly confident that’s the theatre. 

People turn around, their faces lighting up as a man in a suit approaches. 

“Hiiiiiii,” they all say in that very particular way people do when they know someone involved in a show. “We’re so excitedddddd.” 

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I manage to make it through the fangirls, and I show my ticket to the woman on the door. 

“Ah,” she says. Followed by a string of Polish. 

“Err, sorry?” I say, embarrassed by my lack of language skills. 

She smiles at that. “You are upstairs in the balcony,” she translates, pointing behind me to the staircase. 

“One level up?” I ask. 

“Yes, up the stairs.” 

So off I go, up the stairs. 

There is no sign Teatr sign up here. But there is a man, who smiles welcomingly as I dither on the landing. 

I show him my ticket and he waves me in. 

And will you look at that. It’s a proper little theatre. The existence of a balcony should have been a clue, but still, it properness of it all takes me by surprise. It has proper raked seating. And a proper red curtain. And proper lighting running on rigs down the wall. 

What it doesn’t have, is very good numbers on the seats. Only a few of the original plaques remain, the rest are a collage of stickers and scrawls. 

“Sorry, I’m looking for thirteen?” I ask a man in the front row. 

He points further in. “That way.” 

“Sorry,” I say again. “I can’t count.” 

I inch my way past him, squinting at the underside of all the flip seats, trying to make out the numbers until a reach a woman sitting further in. 

“Sorry, what number are you?” 

She’s twelve. Finally. Found it, 

Turns out, none of this matters that much because no one else joins us in our row. The two of us sit next to each other, bookended either side by multiple empty seats. 

I can see why. The front row isn’t all that great. 

The barrier in front of us is high. As soon as I attempt to lean back, or even slouch, the entirety of the stage disappears behind it. 

I’m going to have to do something I never allow myself to do in a theatre. 

I’m going to have to lean forward. 

May the theatre gods forgive me, because the people sitting behind me certainly won’t. 

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I try to find the right angle. Not far enough forward that I can see the very small orchestra down in front of the stalls, but just enough so that I can see the stage. 

Perching here, on the edge of my seat, I can just about see the screen off to one side. It says Jawnuta on it. That’s the name of the opera I’m seeing tonight. An opera I know nothing about other than it’s in Polish. I think. 

I hope the presence of the screen means there are going to be surtitles, because, as I’ve just found out, I don’t actually speak Polish. 

Everyone starts clapping. 

The man in the suit comes in. He waves at the audience. Looks like he’s conducting tonight. 

A moment later, the very small orchestra are playing. 

The curtain rises. 

And we’re off. 

We’re in a Gypsy camp. Or a Traveller camp, I should probably say. In Poland. Jawnuta’s daughter is in love with the mayor’s son. There’s lots of songs about not wanting to work, stealing animals from the locals, and being starving but free. 

With plenty of references to ‘Jews,’ which is never worrisome at all. 

The music is nice though. Very jolly. 

In the interval, we’re joined by someone new in the front row. Probably got sick of staring at the backs of our heads and upgraded himself. 

Sucker. 

Some more applause for the conductor later and we’re into act two. The mayor totally does not approve of his darling son going off with a Traveller, but it’s totes cool, bro, because it turns out the girl and her brother were actually taken in by Jawnuta after their bona fide Polish mum was found dead. So, that’s all fine. And the two definitely-Polish-and-not-Traveller-kids can get married now. 

Art before political correctness was wild.  

The cast assemble for the curtain call. There’s millions of them, on that teeny stage. I try to count them, but get muddled somewhere in the forties. 

The orchestra come up to, squishing themselves in, and the singers stomp their feet in approval. 

As the curtain lowers, a whoop emerges from the stage, and more foot stomping. 

Sounds like there is going to be one hell of a cast party tonight. 

As for me, my pyjamas await. It’s been a long day. 

There is Nothin' Like a Dame

It's eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning and I am in King's Cross. Because that is my life now. By rights, I shouldn't even be awake yet. I should have a long day of shuffling around in my pyjamas ahead of me, tearing off chunks of bread direct from the loaf and applying heaps of butter without ever having to resort to such barbaric implements as knives. I should be catching up on my Netflix. I should be hunkering down under my duvet to watch the latest Bake Off episode, which I still haven't got to. Although, perhaps that's a blessing. Now that the Goth girl has gone. I suppose I could go back to The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell to satisfy my need for spider-shaped biscuits, but no: I can't. Because I'm here. In King's Cross. Fully clothed, I might add. As if this wasn't all nightmare enough. 

Anyway, I'm heading back to Kings Place. Which hasn't managed to acquire an apostrophe since my last visit. 

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Through the rotating doors and past the box office. I don't need to stop there today. I somehow managed to pick up the ticket for this performance last time around, which I didn't notice until I was standing over the recycling bin, my old bag in hand, throwing out all the ticket-off cuts and receipts that have been cluttering up the bottom, before I transferred the contents over to my new bag. 

I really love my new bag. I especially love that owning it means that I didn't throw away my ticket for this morning. And I double love that all this means that I don't have to talk to any box officer, because while I'm sure they are absolutely lovely, it is only 11am, on a Sunday morning, and I am really not up to that whole interpersonal communication thing right now. 

The long table in the foyer is already filled with people sipping tea and delicately nibbling on cake. And the queue at the cafe extends all the way out, past the fancy restaurant. Turns out that the coping methods of my fellow audience members on a Sunday morning also involve baked goods. And I salute every single one of them. We will get this this together. Whether we like it or not. 

Unfortunately, there's no cake vending machine around here, and I decide to forgo any cake that would require me to talk to someone, and instead let the long escalator down to the lower ground level calm my delicate, sugar-spun, nerves instead. 

The dead woodlouse is still there, resting on the floor, his legs tucked up inside his shell and pumping out a serious mood, which I am greatly enjoying. 

I look around, trying to work out if there are any programmes for sale, and if so, where. 

There seems to be a merch desk. It’s selling CDs of the piece being performed. I tuck myself up against a wall and keep an eye on it, treating the desk as a case study into the type of people that still own the technology to play a CD. While I cannot pretend that my methodology in this experiment is entirely sound, it is interesting to note that no CDs were sold in the several minutes I stood there, and the only person approaching the desk seemed to be after a chat rather than a compact disc. 

I decide to go and have a look at the gallery. I missed it last time, but the small glimpse I got while riding on the escalator past it was enough to intrigue me.  

I go find a flight of stairs and hop up them towards the gallery level. A level entirely bypassed by the escalator, though there are lifts. 

It looks like it’s an exhibition of self-portraits up here. I don’t stop to read the explanatory note. I move straight on to the pictures. 

Some of them are really rather good. I quickly become enamoured with a crinkled face, sprouting a hairdo of flowers that curl on themselves like Medusa’s snakes. But the four-digit price tag soon has me scurrying away. 

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As I walk around the near empty space, a woman barges in front of me, blocking my view.  

I get it. The lure of art. It takes me that way sometimes too. 

I move on, finding some more pieces I wouldn’t mind taking home with me if… well, if I didn’t actually work in the arts and could therefore afford to buy some. 

With a sharp blow to the back I find myself stumbling forward. 

It’s that woman again. 

Handbag out. Weaponised. 

I’m starting to get the impression that she doesn’t like me. 

I hurry away from her, looping around the mezzanine and back down the stairs. Where it’s safe. 

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I might as well go in now. 

I check my ticket. It says to take the East Door. Looks like that’s the one closest to me, which is handy. 

The ticket checker on the door glances down at my proffered ticket and smiles. “Would you like a programme?” he asks. 

Fuck yeah. “I would love a programme!” I say, so enthusiastically manage to give myself a headache. 

He takes it well. “There you go!” he says, way too cheerfully for a pre-noon Sunday, and hands me the slim booklet. 

Well, look at that. A free programme. Covering the entire festival that I didn’t even know this show was part of. 

I tuck it away and concentrate on the business of finding my seat. 

It doesn’t take long. I’m at the back. I work in the arts, remember.

Not that it matters though. Not in this place. Hall One of Kings Place is smaller than I had expected, but that doesn’t stop it from being a bit lush. Colonnades of wood panelling surround the room, lit up by blue and red lights. The floor slopes down towards the small stage, where there’s a glossy black piano lying in wait. 

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The seats are comfy. The leg room excellent. The sightlines… acceptable. Given that this is a music venue, I really couldn’t have expected more. 

“Are you together?” asks a woman, standing a few rows ahead of me. 

The man she’s asking nods his head. They are together. 

“You’re together. And we’re together,” she says, pointing to her companion. 

“Ah,” says the man. “Well, we had four and six so…” 

“And I have five, so if you…” 

They sort themselves out, reassigning their seats so that they can each sit next to their preferred person without the need of usher-intervention. 

How civilised. 

Two women sitting right in front of me are discussing the upcoming show of a choreographer I work with. Obviously, I’m now all ears. 

“We’re not in London,” sighs one. “Why are we paying London prices?” 

“How much are they?” 

“Sixty or seventy pounds!” she exclaims in horror. 

“They’re a hundred at Sadler’s.” 

The first woman draws in a deep breath. “That explains it then.” 

Personally, I’m always more outraged by the bottom end of the pricing spectrum than the top. That’s where you really find out how committed a venue is to accessibility. My attention drifts to the people sitting behind me.  

“You know, I’d often rather be sitting up there,” says one, meaning the upstairs seating. 

All around the room is a slim balcony with a single row of seats. It’s starting to fill up. 

I wonder why I didn’t buy up there. They must have kept it off sale until the stalls filled up. That or I was feeling flush. 

My neighbour arrives and sits down. 

She’s wearing perfume. At 11.30 in the morning. 

It hits the back of my throat and I dive into my bag to retrieve a cough sweet. Somehow I don’t think my hacking away is going to be appreciated at a show that is effectively a piano recital with a bit of talking. 

Turns out though, I’m not the only one with a touch of consumption. 

A loud, wet, chesty cough rings out in the row behind, but is quickly stifled behind a tissue. 

The red and blue lights turn to gold. 

Lucy Parham comes out, and starts playing the piano. I don’t know a lot about piano music, but it’s pretty, I guess. 

She’s joined by Harriet Walter. Dame Harriet Walter, I should say. She’ll be our narrator this evening. Telling the story of Clara Schumann in between piano pieces. 

Now, if that sounds familiar, it’s because I already saw a show about Clara Schumann, interspersed with piano pieces, over at RamJam Records. But that was called Clara, and this one is I, Clara. So they are clearly totally different production. 

I’m enjoying it though. If I have to be awake in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, I might as well have some gentle piano music to ease me along. 

The woman sitting in the row behind me might not agree. She’s struggling. Really struggling. As each piece finishes she coughs and splutters into her hankie. 

I grab another cough sweet, ready to turn around and hand it to her the next time she’s overcome with an attack. 

But then I hear something. Something less coughy and more, well, papery. 

She’s reading the programme. 

Not just the couple of pages dedicated to this performance. She’s not checking how many pieces of music are still to go. No. She’s reading the whole damn thing. 

Now, obviously I approve of programme reading. You should be digesting those things cover to cover. A lot of work goes into them, and you better appreciate it. 

But here’s the thing: not during a performance. 

Especially not during a quiet and gentle music performance. 

It’s rude. 

I unwrap the cough sweet and pop it in my own mouth. 

She don’t deserve my Jakeman’s. 

Just as Dame Walter is describing Schumann’s London fans waving her off with their handkerchiefs, a man gets out of his seat and walks towards the back. 

I think he’s making an escape, but no. He stops by the ushers. 

“There’s a strange noise,” he says in a whisper that carries loudly in this acoustically designed room. “Over by the doors. The doors at the back, over there.” 

The usher disappears. Presumably to investigate the source of the noise. That or sneak a cheeky cigarette outside.  

Either way, the man returns to his seat an remains there for the rest of the performance.  

Applause rings out. 

One man gets out his handkerchief to wave at the performers, which is a nice touch. 

Three times they are recalled to the stage. 

Parham steps forward, and the clapping stills long enough for her to talk. 

If we liked the music, an extended version is available to purchase out in the foyer, she tells us.

For those who still live in 2005 presumably. 

Personally, I’ll be waiting for it to hit Spotify.