“Ooo,” cooed an old woman as she walked past me. “It’s a real boys’ club in there tonight.”
I followed her gaze through the bank of glass doors and into the theatre foyer, slightly surprised. Not just because theatre audiences are notoriously dominated by women, but because I was there for a play about the women chain makers of Cradley Heath, with a cast composed of two-thirds women, and called Rouse, Ye Women!. Somehow, I didn’t expect a massive male turn-out.
But there they were.
Waiting at the box office to collect their tickets.
Blimey. I wonder what it’s like at the Greenwich Theatre on a less testosterone-fuelled evening.
Still, she didn’t seem unhappy about the development.
“Squeaky door,” she giggled as she pushed her way in. The door squeaked obligingly.
I followed behind, getting my own set of squeaks as I squeezed myself through the heavy door.
I was a little bit early. After my run across the city (well, at least the well-posh portion of it) on Monday, I was determined to take it easy. Public transport all the way - starting with the tube and ending with the DLR. Not quite a door-to-door service, but I think calling an Uber for the last quarter-of-a-mile might have been a little extreme, so we can forgive the short walk I put myself through at the end.
The men were gone by the time I got to the box office, so without the ability to properly inspect such a transcendental phenomonen, I was left looking at my ticket. Brown and purple. Not a colour combination that you get to see that often.
There was a lot of it at the Greenwich Theatre though.
The squeaky doors were purple. The floors were brown. Everything else was varying shades of beige.
It was not what I expected.
If I’d been the betting type I would have put money on something a bit more, well, nautical in flavour. It’s not every theatre that has the literal damn Cutty Sark sharing a postcode with them.
But perhaps that was a bit obvious. A touch gauche even.
As I contemplated my unsophisticated imagination the church bells tolled outside.
I checked the time.
I was getting that sense of cognitive dissonance again. The world had gone all weird and lumpy. Brown and purple. Time had either stood still, or sped up. I couldn’t tell.
The door squeaked.
A cool looking woman wearing a scarf as a headband was stuck in the door, her shopping bag trapped outside. Someone rushed forward to help her. A few frantic squeaks later, she tumbled into the foyer like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
I checked the time again.
It was still 7.11pm.
Time to buy a programme.
“That’s one pound,” said the programme seller.
“Bargain,” I said, reaching for my wallet and dropping my ticket at the same time.
Too many things.
I hefted my bag further up my shoulder, stuffed my phone and charger into my pocket, retrieved the ticket, found a pound coin, handed it over, and took the programme.
Now what to do with that?
It was large. A4. Or rather than A3, folded in half (for my publications peeps, we’re talking a 4pp A4 with a half-fold, printed in full colour on satin finish 80gsm paper, if I’m any judge). What was I supposed to do with it?
I didn’t have any hands free. I’d be flapping around this programme all night if I didn’t find somewhere to put it.
“You can go through if you like,” said the programme seller.
I went through the doors, and made for the nearest flat surface. I needed to fix this mess.
I carefully slid the delicate programme in after it, careful not to get it caught on any stray keys or umbrella spokes.
Zipping back up my bag, I looked up and almost started laughing.
There is was! Hidden away in the merchandise corner.
Greenwich was officially here. Lurking behind the ice-creams.
The bell rang. The house was open.
I gave my best Cheshire grin.
That was no normal theatre bell.
It was a ship’s bell.
Sharp and clear enough to bring this fuzzy world back into focus.
Up the stairs and into the theatre, I headed right to the front of the huge bank of seats. No brown or purple nonsense here. The upholstery was blue. And in between each seat: a flag. Red. The better for waving in front of charging bullies.
This isn’t the first time this year I found a flag on my seat. I’d been provided with a Union Jack at The Yard.
I eyed it suspiciously as I pulled off my coat and gloves.
For someone who loves theatre ephemera as much as I do, I should have been more excited. But I am an experienced theatre goer. I know what props left on seats mean.
Interaction. Immersion. All the terrible I words.
I sat down. Nudging the flag away from me with my elbow, as if denying its presence would prevent the inevitable.
Here’s the thing about the inevitable though. It always arrives eventually.
Half way through a rousing union song, our Mary Macarthur opened her arms invitingly. She wanted us to participate.
I thought perhaps this was done for effect. A welcoming to the invisible women she was speaking with to join her in song. You know, acting.
I was wrong.
All around me, voices lifted and harmonies layered in rich sound.
“We are the union, the workers bound as one…”
Wait, what? I looked around me, amazed.
“We have the strength of unity, and victories can be won…”
Mary Macarthur stepped off the stage, picking up her skirts as she made her way into the audience to rouse us all.
“Together we are stronger, our voices have more power...”
How did these people know the words? Was this some famous union song? Was I on the brink of being kicked out for not being socialist enough to participate?
“And joined in a trade union, we’re sure to win the hour."
Is this something people do? Jump into a song half way through, knowing the chorus well enough to sing along? Is that just a regular thing that regular people can do? Or is Greenwich stuffed full of lyrical savants?
I mean… it’s well established that I have all the musical skills of a badger, but I’m still shocked by this.
“But Maxine,” you say with a heavy sigh. “Of course this is normal. Just look at all those Americans learning their own history through the medium of Lin-Manuel Miranda. People remember things if you put a beat to it. Even you did. Look. You literally just wrote the lyrics down.”
To which I say: yes. I did. But I copied them out of the programme. A programme which no one was reading during the sing-a-long.
And as for Hamilton. I have probably bopped around to that cast recording, Oooo… three hundred times, maybe. And I’ve seen it live. Twice. If it came down to it, life-or-death situation styley - I could probably rap along to a fair chunk of it.
But not during a first listen.
Not half-way through the damn song.
The music ended. The sole male-actor came forward. “We’ll now take an interval of fifteen minutes. Just wait for the house lights. There they are. See you in fifteen minutes.”
That should have been my cue to make a run for it. To escape. We'd only made it through act one and we were already singing. Act two could only get worse. And we still hadn’t even touched the flags.
I stayed in my seat, unable to move. I was, as the Tumblr kids say, shook.
I was right. There was more singing. And clapping along. And a fair bit of flag waving.
Mary Macarthur even whipped her programme around in lieu of a manifesto. The edges were torn and rumpled.
I nodded to myself. I was right to put my programme away so carefully. This is what happens when you just shove it in your bag with no concern for the delicate nature of the paper stock.
As the show closed, the man stepped forward again.
There was going to be a Q&A.
Before I could even reach under my seat to make a grab for my coat, the guest speaker was already on the stage. I couldn’t leave. I was in the front row. There was no getting out.
She was going to give a short talk first. There was a sheaf of paper in her hands.
Too much paper. Too many pages.
And then… okay, that was an interesting bit about Mary Macarthur. And that was good too. And wow… shit. She was one cool lady.
“I have a comment, then a question.”
Here we go.
The man stood up. “I just wanted to show you all my t-shirt. I didn’t know I was coming to see this show until 6pm, but perhaps, somehow, I did…” He was wearing a union t-shirt. With an image Rosie the Riveter. We all clapped in appreciation.
“Sorry,” said another man. “Can I just say that if you’ve enjoyed this play, you might enjoy another play taking place just down the road…”
The ballsiness of this move was lost on me in the moment. I was too busy letting out scream of internal swear words. Shitshitbloodybastardbloodyshit. The play wasn’t in a theatre. Not a proper, dedicated-use theatre. It was a pop-up.
And it wasn't on my list.
I quickly made a note of it on my phone.
“It runs until the 30th,” he finished before sitting down.
Eleven days to get there. Short notice. But doable. If you ignore the fact it’s February. I put away my phone.
Another man raised his hand.
The old woman had been right. It really was a boys’ club in there that night.