When I tell people about my theatre marathon, the reactions I receive fall broadly into two camps.
The first sounds something a bit like this. "256 theatres? That's very doable. You'll have over a hundred days off!"
As if going to every theatre in London was like reading the complete works of Tolstoy, or learning Klingon. Something that can be done on your own schedule, and not at the whims of programmers.
Unsurprisingly, the people who take this line, almost exclusively, work outside of the arts.
The second group, the ones who have jobs in theatre, take a rather different stance. "That must be costing a fortune!" they start with, eyebrows disappearing into their hairlines. "How many have you done so far?" When I tell them, they usually get embarrassed and mumble something about needing to go to the theatre more. And remember, these people work in theatre, so when we're talking about their theatre-going habits, it tends to be on a trips per-week basis. At this point in the conversation, they start thinking about the logistics. "Are you doing all pub theatres? There's millions of those. And what about all those funny art-centres that are basically cinemas with a stage?" they'll ask. "Or the open air summer ones?" They'll marvel briefly when I tell them about my spreadsheets charting seasonable and pop-up venues. And then they'll frown. "God, your list must be growing all the time," they'll say. To which I agree. People are always sending me links to venues. Sometimes it's one that I’ve missed. Occasionally its one I've never even heard of. This will then be followed by a moment of silence as they try very hard to come up with the name of a theatre that I've never heard of. "Have you got the White Bear Theatre on your list?" they'll ask. For some reason, it's always the White Bear Theatre.
Which is ironic.
No, it really is. Ironic process theory. Tell someone not to think of a white bear, and they’ll instantly think of a white bear. Ask someone to think of a theatre I’ve not hear of… they’ll think of the White Bear Theatre.
I'm telling you this, not because I want to shame you into giving me better intel than the existence of the White Bear Theatre (you know better than that already...) but in order to help explain the mix of emotions that I felt on Tuesday night when a member of the Greenwich Theatre audience stood up after the play, to tell us all about another production, in another venue. A venue I had never been to. A venue I had never heard of. A venue that was definitely not on my list.
A venue that I couldn't damn well find when I start googling as soon as I got on the DLR.
"Just down the road," he'd said. But all my searches of the name plus "Greenwich" weren't turning up anything. I opened Google Maps and started inching my way around, working through all the streets that surrounded Greenwich Theatre.
And I had neglected to note down the name of the play. I tried to remember what he'd said about it. Something to do with the red flag. And a woman. Who gets arrested.
I tried all these as search terms.
By the time I reached Bank, I still hadn't found anything and I was beginning to get frantic. What if I never found it? I'd have to live out the rest of this year, nay, my life, knowing that there was a marathon-qualified venue out there, in London, and I had missed it.
Just as I was seriously considering tweeting at the Greenwich Theatre to ask for their help in tracking this place down, it suddenly occurred to me that he might not have been literal.
"Down the road," might not actually be "down the road."
With that divine spark of inspiration, I changed "Greenwich" to "London" and eventually stumbled on a tweet. A tweet that linked to a blog post. A blog post that was reviewing the play. Which I now knew to be called Liberty. So, thanks Alex Hayward!
And thanks to the theatre gods too. They had done me a serious solid. We'd found it. Together.
I ask you.
Anyway, after moving some things around, I managed to arrange an evening free, and come the day I bought my ticket and...
"Please dress 1930s."
I looked down at what I was wearing.
I was not dressed 1930s.
The jumper might pass, just about, but my skirt was way too short and... oh dear. It was a church. The venue was a church. I was going to a church. Wearing a short skirt. Are short skirts allowed in churches? I don't know. I haven't been in one since I left school. Not a real one, one that still had services and things. And even then it was Sherborne Abbey and my main concern was how many layers I could fit under my coat to protect me against the massive cold stone walls and yet remain unobtrusive enough to avoid notice when I didn’t go up for communion.
And... can you tell I don't do well in churches?
Going through 14 years of religious schooling can do that to a person. Especially when it's 14 years of Christian schooling (Catholic convent school, with nuns and everything, followed by high church CoE) on a Jewish girl...
Oh well. It was too late to change.
Either my outfit or my religion.
We were just going to have to do this thing. We were going to Deptford. To the Zion Baptist Church. On New Cross Road.
Fun fact - I used to work in Deptford. My very first proper job in the theatre was at The Albany. That was a very long time ago. So long that I'd forgotten just how much time it takes to get there.
"No need to run," laughed the lady on the door. She was wearing the most fantastic pillbox hat on her head. I hoped she hadn't spotted my skirt.
"I've run the whole way from the station," I puffed in reply.
"Don't worry. Start time is at five past seven."
So, I wasn't late. I was... five and a half minutes early. Excellent.
She signed my ticket, pointed out the door to the loos, and then directed me to another door where the audience was gathering pre-show. "There's free tea and coffee," she added.
Through the door, and into a space that had the air of an Oxford don's room - all comfy chairs and low lighting and teacups... and can you tell that I didn't go to Oxford and have no idea what a don's room looks like?
Do they have dogs? Because this room definitely had a dog.
He scampered up to me, demanding ear scritches and back rubs.
"His name is Caleb," came a voice as I scritched ears and rubbed back. "He's the chapel dog."
"Hello Caleb. Aren't you lovely?" He really was.
And Caleb has to be the best possible name for a chapel dog. As, and you must forgive me if you already know this, in Hebrew Caleb and dog are homographs - they are spelt exactly the same. Isn't that great?
Caleb wasn't impressed by my compliments on his loveliness, nor by my scritches, and he was soon off to collect a fresh round from someone else.
Right then. I found a seat and settled into my pre-show rituals. Plug my phone into its charger, take photos. You know the drill by now.
"Would you like a slice of cake?" asked a woman holding a plate stuffed with slices of what looked like bundt cake. "It's yummy."
She was right. It was yummy.
A few minutes later I was offered chocolate. "It's Friday!"
Couldn't argue with that. It was Friday.
I took the chocolate.
I was settling in for an evening of stuffing my face, a man appeared holding a candle and offering to take us through, looking for all the world like the villain in an Ann Radcliffe novel. Except wearing a hi-vis jacket instead of a monk's robes. And the candle was scented.
Through another door. This one leading to a narrow wood-panelled corridor painted an alarming shade of red. Were we still in Gothic novel territory? I wasn't sure anymore. The colour reminded me of something. Something theatrical. Something a touch Ivo van Hovey.
The door closed behind us, sealing us into the red corridor.
"Everything you are about to see is based on real events," said our guide. "The words are all exactly as they were spoken. The halls where the events took place would have been just like this. And filled with smoke."
He held out the candle. I took a deep sniff.
"Remember that smell when you are in there."
I did my best, but my senses were soon overtaken by the sight of the intricately patterned galleries, the twisting staircases leading to the pulpit, the boxey pews, and the curved windows. Gothic novels sure feel different when they've had the heating installed.
"For the best experience, I advise sitting in the middle."
I spun around. "Sorry. Is their interaction?"
"Umm," said our guide. "Yes?"
Oh. Oh dear!
Suddenly the church didn't feel quite so warm.
But you know what, it was fine. Some policemen shined their torches in my eyes. We got shouted at a bit. But no one asked us to sing, and there was definitely no clapping in time with the beat.
In the interval, I got talking to the couple who'd been sitting in front of me. We talked about dogs and my blog and pub theatres and Philip Ridley, and Caleb brought over his ball and demanded a game of fetch, and then the hi-vis man sat down with us and he turned out to be the playwright and he talked all about Kath Duncan, the subject of the play who was costumed in a fiery red wig, Deptford's history, the inspiration behind the music, and and and...
"And we're now off to the Houses of Parliament," said our playwright-guide, as he led us outside, round the building and then in through the main doors this time.
Caleb was walked back inside the don's room. "He always barks at the police officers. Every time. Without fail," explained the pastor as he rushed him away.
"You've got him well trained then," laughed the male-half of the couple I'd been chatting with.
After the play finished, no one moved. We stayed in our seats, talking. The actors reappeared, and they hung about too. Eventually, we made it outside. But even then we couldn't leave.
Both Caleb and the pastor were waiting outside.
A few more ear scritches. And then our goodbyes.
I turned back to take a few final photos of the building. It really is lovely there.
And then something struck me.
At the end of the play, the actor playing the role of Kath Duncan had taken off her fiery wig, revealing the no-less startling platinum blonde underneath. She'd looked so familiar. The stance. The voice. And as I stood there, outside this venue that I had only made it onto my theatre list a few days ago, I worked it out. It was Emily Carding. I'd seen her before.
At the White Bear Theatre.
I left, humming Alanis Morissette.