Is the Network Theatre a cool theatre? For some reason, I’d always had it filed away in my brain as a cool theatre. Something to do with the location (down a scary road somewhere around the arse end of Waterloo Station), or the name perhaps. Whatever. I’ve always considered it one of the capital’s cool theatres, which is probably why I’ve never been there before.
And why, when it came to get the Network ticked off my list, I couldn’t damn well find it.
According to Google Maps, I should have been standing right on top of it, but there was nothing there but an empty road and a blank wall.
Thankfully, a small niggle of intuition told me that I should check the Network’s own website, and there I found the charming warning “Network Theatre is rumoured to be difficult to find, so check out the map and directions below before your first visit.” But more importantly, up top and in bold, they are the foresight to include: “While the VAULT Festival is on 30 January – 17 March 2019, please use the Launcelot Street entrance, located off Lower Marsh, between Greggs the Bakers and a repair shop. Festival Assistants will be there to guide you.” Brilliant. I knew exactly that was. I even knew what the Festival Assistants looked like. Pink jackets. That’s what they wore.
Back down the road I went, down a flight of stairs, road the corner, past Greggs, down Launcelot Street, and there, waiting at the bottom, was a pink-jacketed Vault rep.
“Hello,” she called out to me as I hurried down the road towards her. “Are you here for the Network Theatre?”
“I am!” I puffed back.
“For The Limit, is it?”
“Excellent,” she grinned back. “It’s just this way,” she said, moving towards some tall metal gates. They looked very official what with their number key pad and signs and industrial lighting overhead. She pushed it and held it open for me, using her free hand to point down the street beyond. Well, I say street, but really it’s a tunnel.
If you ever take the exit from Waterloo Station that’s just past the MacDonald’s, the one that faces onto the Old Fire Station, and wondered what was down that dark and dingy alleyway on your right, the one always full of service vehicles and men in hi-vis jackets, well… it’s the Network Theatre.
“It’s on your left,” she explained. “There’s a big Vault Festival banner by the entrance.”
Good thing too, because even knowing it was on the left, I could have walked past it a hundred times without seeing it if it wasn’t for the banner.
If subtly is cool, the Network Theatre is by far the coolest venue in London. It’s like those fancy restaurants that don’t even put a number on their door, figuring everyone worth knowing already knows about the place, and everyone who doesn’t, they wouldn’t want turning up anyway.
Once you step through the door, there’s no question of where you are. I doubt Network Rail goes in for dark red receptions. Nor do I imagine them to be soundtracked by the distant strains of a vocal warm up.
For once at a Vault venue, there was no usher wearing a tablet slung over their shoulder on a strap. There was a proper box office. With a laptop and everything.
“The bar is open if you want to have a drink before the show,” said the woman manning the desk after we’d sorted out the business of names. No need for tickets or even admission passes it seems. Give your name and go straight in. That might just be a Vault thing though. The Vault Festival doesn’t anything as old fashioned as tickets. It’s all tablets on straps and pdf e-tickets down their way.
Through the door on the right, and I was plunged into a dark corridor. Very dark. The red of the reception was left behind and was replaced by theatre blacks, and a curtain separating corridor from theatre-space. The warbled notes of the warm up intensified.
My eyes searched for anything in the black - a corner, a seam, a crack - anything to guide me through. I kept on walking, and eventually a slit of light opened up on the left, pouring out from the bar. I dove into it, finding myself blinking against the pastel glare of mint green walls.
Oh… this was not what I was expecting. With the rows of faux leather chairs, and sad looking bookshelves, it looked more like a dentist’s waiting room than the bar of a theatre. Especially not a cool theatre.
Perhaps, I thought, with a flash of realisation that took me by way too much surprise, perhaps the Network Theatre wasn’t a cool theatre at all. Perhaps I’d got it all wrong. Perhaps the Network was really just only of those weird little outer-London theatres that had mistakenly found its way to Waterloo after getting on the wrong train. It happens to everyone at some point, why not to a theatre?
But then, with an equally surprising flash, another idea took hold.
It was all part of an ironic aesthetic. A theme bar. And the theme was train station waiting room, circa 1974.
That made much more sense.
With a smug stride, I went over to the bookshelves to check out what titles they had on offer. Train timetables and trainspotters’ guides, I bet myself. And those official looking leather-bound tomes were probably some old bylaws of the rail network or something equally wryly dull.
I stood staring at them for a full twenty seconds before I my brain was able to process what they were.
As you might find in any theatre bar with literary pretensions.
Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard. John Osborne. Joe Orton. David Hare.
It was a good collection to be fair, but… well, it’s not exactly the library at The Bush, is it?
I moved onto the leather bound books, hoping that there might at least be a wink of wit.
I crouched down to get a proper look at them.
Readers Digests. Every one.
When I said it looked like a dentist’s waiting room, I didn’t realise quite how accurate that was.
“Can I have a Diet Coke?” someone asked at the bar.
I nodded approvingly. Good choice. The dentists’ choice.
“Its room temperature, just so you know,” said the barman as he placed a can down in front of her.
Warm coke? Ergh. Just the thought was enough for my stomach to roil over.
I escaped back to the safety of the black corridor, where such travesties are hidden in the shadows.
Thankfully, the house was open by this point (the black curtain had been drawn back), so I went in. This was lucky, as it meant I had a pick of seats, and I could select one that had a freesheet on it. Now, I understand the logic of only placing one freesheet on every other chair, as most people going to the theatre tend to do it in twos, but as a frequent solo flyer, I don’t want to be left in the cold when it comes to knowing who’s in the cast.
Especially this cast… I mean, come on. A musical about a lady mathematician during the French Revolution… I was never not going to love it. I didn’t understand a word of the maths, but you know I love me some britches-action.
At the end of the show, our Sophie Germaine (who I know is actually called Nicola Bernardelie because I got me a freesheet. You won’t find that information anywhere else. Believe me. Not even the theatre company’s own website. I’ve looked. Sort it out, Bottle Cap Theatre) stepped forward and politely asked us to write a review and to get out, because the next batch of audience members would be arriving any minute.
I did as I was told. Both in the getting out quickly, and the writing of a review (ta-daaaa!!!).
Back out in the weird, tunnel-street, I struck off in the direction of Waterloo. I didn’t get very far.
“Oh,” I said, turning to the two women walking behind me… “I think we’re locked in?”
It did appear that way. Large metal gates blocked the exit.
“Just push it,” said one with a knowing smile.
I pushed it, and it swung open easily. I matched her knowing smile with an embarrassed one of my own.
Whatever the coolness-level of the Network Theatre, it seems I’m not going to reach it any time soon.