As if 2019 wasn't hard enough, we've got yet another new theatre to deal with. Well, you don’t. But I do. And that's bad enough.
The Troubadour Wembley Park. Sister venue to the Troubadour White City, which is currently dark after the... limited… success of the Peter Pan transfer from the National.
It seems the good ole NT have learnt from their mistakes, and are throwing every penny of their marketing budget at the next expedition of one of their shows. The walkway to Wembley is lined with huge banners advertising War Horse. I'm not gonna lie. It all looks fucking spectacular, with those famous arches silhouetted against the night sky in the background.
It's almost a shame to leave the crowds behind in order to turn down the dark and bare side street that will take me to the actual theatre.
Now, War Horse should be a sure bet. It managed to squat in the West End for years, and has done more national tours than I can count. War Horse is fucking amazing. No one is disagreeing with that. Not even me. Which is why it might surprise you to find out that I am not actually here to see War Horse. I'm checking off this venue before War Horse has even managed to step out of the stable.
Not because of timings or anything like that.
I just... can't face it. I do not want to be sitting in a big barn of a room, losing my shit, crying over Joey. Or, even worse. sitting in a big barn of a room, losing my shit, not crying over Joey. Because if the White City branch of the Troubador empire has taught me anything, big barns are atmosphere vacuums. And there's a good chance the story, even though it is epic both in scale and scope, will get totally lost.
But hey, maybe I'm wrong. I haven't even seen the theatre. I'm speculating here. For all I know, Wembley Park’s Troubadour could be a intimate fringe venue, with weekly poetry readings, squashy sofas, and a paddock out back for the puppets to graze happily in.
Something tells me that's not the case.
The Troubadour looms over the Lidl next door. It's red neon lettering is stark in the darkess.
There's a gap in the fencing and I pause, wondering how I'm supposed to get from here, over there.
This must be a common reaction because a security person comes forward. "Shaolin?" she asks.
Yup. I'm here to see The Soul of Shaolin. Because I'm too good for War Horse. Don't want to be crying in some tacky barn conversion in Wembley. So I'm going to be watching some fake-monks instead. And it's not like I haven't even see the real monks. Because I totally have. But here we are. Turning up my nose at puppets while I go watch kung fu.
"We're just checking bags," she goes on, pretending not to notice the tiny breakdown I'm having there on the pavement. "And then you can go in."
I open my bag for her and she has a look inside. The contents being deemed safe, and therefore acceptable, she steps back to let me pass.
"Go to the curtains," she says. "The box office is on the opposite side."
It takes me crossing the courtyard and reaching the massive doorway for me to realise that yes, she really did say curtains, and yes, they really are there. The heavy fabric hangs over the loading-dock sized opening. Presumably to keep the heat in without having the need to result to anything as prosaic as actual doors.
Inside, there, on the opposite wall, is the promised box office. On the far side is the bar, backlit by a series of rainbow panels. Above my head, red and pink neons zig-zag their way across the ceiling.
But, despite the fancy lighting design, I can't help but feel that this place looks really familiar. And no, it's not what you're thinking. It isn't like the other Troubadour at all. The ceilings are three times as high. The foyer four times as big. It's like being inside an aircraft hanger, or... oh gawd. That's it. It reminds me of the factory my parents ran when I was a kid. It has those same grey corrugated walls. The same huge doorways, large enough to back a lorry against. The only thing missing is the smell of melting plastic from the injection moulding machines.
I guess factory-chic is cool. Just probably not for those people whose after-school activities involved fishing plastic brush handles out of the vast cooling tanks for hours on end before falling asleep on the office sofa while waiting for a parent to remember to take you home.
Still, that's my baggage. Not yours.
I press on to the box office.
Both of the box officers are busy so I hang back, waiting my turn.
As one transaction finishes, the box officer looks over and smiles at me. But the customer she's just finished with isn't ready to move on. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, sorting through all the sections to make sure it's worthy of receiving his tickets.
I attempt a step forward, but he doesn't even glance up at me. He's too busy making sure his receipts are in order.
The box officer's smile is beginning to look a little strained.
Fuck it. I'm going in.
I march my way over to the counter, turning my shoulder to indicate to this counter-hoarder that he is no longer welcome here, and he should take his wallet-business elsewhere.
Miracle of miracles, it works.
The box officer and I grin at each other.
"Hi!" I say, feeling very powerful right now. "The surname's Smiles." See, didn't even phrase it as a question. That's how much of gawd-damn commanding I am.
She doesn't even ask my postcode before handing over my ticket. It's clear I know what ticket I'm picking up, and I won't be delayed by nonsense questions.
That business accomplished, I'm off to see what else I can find happening on the factory floor.
There's the bar, of course, but I have no interest in that.
My attention is entirely on what's happening on the other side of the bar.
There seems to be some sort of staircase-action going on. A series of steps, leading precisely nowhere, with the sole apparent purpose of providing seating. It's doing its job marvellously well. Every level is packed with bottoms.
Next to the steps, is a merch desk. I wander over to have a look what's on offer. Troubadour umbrellas and totes nestle up against fans and silk scarves, presumably containing some connection to the Shaolin lot. No programmes though. I double-check the price list. I can buy Buddha beads in three different size variations, but nothing containing a cast list. What they do have, however, is a sign stating that there'll be a post-show photo op for those that drop their coin at the merch desk.
I am a little bit tempted by the fans, but for the price they're charging I could be well on my way to getting one of the fancy Duvelleroy ones I love so much. So I pass.
"The house is now open for this evening's performance of The Soul of Shaolin," comes a voice over the sound system.
I check the time. Too early to go in. But I also seem to have exhausted the possibilities in the foyer.
I walk around, checking I haven't missed anything.
Above the bar is a panel pointing the way to Door One. I get out my ticket. I need door two. There doesn't seem to be a matching panel for door two. The place where I'd expect there to be a panel advertising the whereabouts of door two, is blank. Broken.
I go around anyway, trusting the chain of pointing neon light on the back way to guide me.
Sure enough, there's a door around here. Door 2.
There's a big group here, all fussing about with their tickets.
I hang back waiting for them to finish.
Unfortunately, door two is positioned right on route to the toilets, and I find myself getting bashed by every parent rushing past with a desperate child.
"We're got door one," says a woman walking past, staring at her ticket. "Door one? This is door two."
Another woman comes the other way, also staring at her ticket. "Entrance door two," she reads. "Two, two, two."
They both look up just in time to avoid a collision.
When it's my turn to get my ticket checked, I step forward, feeling a little bit frazzled.
"Thanks for waiting!" says the ticket checker, pointing her scanner at my barcode. "Oh dear," she mutters to herself. "The scanner isn't working."
"It's always my tickets," I tell her. I think they sense my hatred of technology and my fear of the impending takeover of e-tickets. The barcodes squirm under my death-glares.
"Really?" she laughs. "No, it's not you."
Rude. I can totally make a barcode squirm if I want to.
"I'll tell the next person who has trouble you said that. 'It's the scanner. Not my ticket.'"
She laughs again. "There we go," she says triumphantly as the scanner beeps. "Thanks for waiting. Enjoy the show!"
And in I go, Through a twisting corridor made of black curtains, and up a flight of stairs, into the auditorium.
"V14?" I say to the usher waiting at the top.
"Lovely," she says. "It's that way. Up the stairs."
I follow the direction she's pointing, go up the stairs, and look at the seat numbers. They'll all in the forties and escalating.
I don't think that’s right.
Back down the stairs, I pass the usher and go the other way. Ah. That's better. The numbers are all in the teens over here.
There's a film playing on the screen up on the stage. Something about the difference between western and Chinese art. I watch it suspiciously, wondering if I've booked myself into some sort of propaganda performance. The martial arts answer to Shen Yun.
Film finished, a pre-show announcement rings out. No filming. No flash-photography.
The audience takes this as a challenge, and immediately switch their phones to the camera app as soon as the cast comes out.
Most of them remember to turn the flash off.
"Is this a movie?" pipes up the small boy sitting behind me.
"Just watch," says the small boy's dad, getting his phone out.
"Yes, but is it like a movie?"
If it is, it's not quite Crouching Tiger.
The fight scenes may be impressive, but the storytelling comes via a series of long paragraphs, projected onto the back of the stage between scenes, thereby making the actual performance entirely redundant.
The auditorium shakes as people move about, crashing down the stairs as they take loo breaks, or make more permanent bids for escape. It's hard to tell.
A man sitting a few rows ahead of me lifts his phone and starts filming.
An usher sprints into action, standing sentinel at the end of the row and flashing his torch at the ground a few times. it doesn't work.
"Excuse me," he says to the person sitting in front of me, squeezing into that row and making his way along. But by the time he gets there, the phone has been lowered. The usher stands, and then a second later, makes his way back out again.
As soon as he's gone, the phone is raised once more.
The interval rolls around soon enough. The projection changes to tell us that merch is available from the foyer, and they'll be a post-show photo-op for anyone who cares to buy themselves some Buddha beads.
Back out in the foyer, people walk around clutching flyers in lieu of a programme. I don't see anyone with buying beads.
"This evening's performance of The Soul of Shaolin will begin in five minutes. Filming and flash photography are strictly prohibited inside the auditorium."
We head back inside.
"Good evening and welcome once again," comes a voice over the sound system. "May we remind you that filming and flash photography are strictly prohibited inside the auditorium."
The auditorium is a sea of phone screens as act two starts.
To be fair, if you're going to focus on banning the flash, it does rather suggest that everything else is totally fine.
I sit back and watch the rest of the not-unimpressive action, clapping dutifully in between acts.
As we get to the end, a message flashes across the backdrop.
They are not actors, it informs us. They just love kung fu.
That's sweet. Does kinda make me wonder why they insisted on presenting a narrative work rather than just a kung fu showcase, but still: sweet.
"Photo sessions right here if you want to line up!" directs an usher on the way out.
Two small, robed figures, stand, ready to pose.
There's quite a queue already.
Maybe I should have bought a fan after all...