So, here's the thing: my marathon has rules. Not many of them. But they are rules.
Theatres only count if I can get to them by Oyster card. They need to put on actual theatre, or dance, or opera. They need to have publically accessibly performances, and I need to actually watch the show. You know all this. You've read my FAQ.
But there are the rules, and then there are the rules.
The unofficial ones. The ones I don't publish anywhere because they only live inside my head. The ones that drive my booking decisions.
Throughout the marathon, I've been picking the shows I see with two things in mind. Firstly (and most importantly) I try and go to something that I'm actually interested in. Or the thing I have the most potential to be interested in based on what is on offer. This can be tricky, especially when theatres only announce their season a few months in advance. Do I book this semi-non-awful looking scratch night? Or do I hold out and hope they have some phantasmagorical musical later in the year? The second thing I try to do, is pick a piece that is in keeping with the general artistic values of the theatres. Where possible, I avoid hires (when an outside company pays money to show their work there, rather than being invited to perform by the artistic team at the theatre, or a work that is produced by the theatre itself), and I also avoid things that stand out - not because they look brilliant - but because they are so starkly different to the rest of the programme. If a theatre specialises in say, Restoration comedies, I don’t feel comfortable booking a night of political poetry, just because I fancy a bit of spoken word that week.
Now this is even trickier.
There are some theatres that almost exclusively programme cabaret or comedy, neither of which count towards my marathon, but are included because every so often they put on a play. Obviously, in these situations, I need to go with the play.
Other times, the options look so completely awful that I cannot, simply Can Not, bring myself to go to them. I hold on, waiting, hoping, begging them to bring something more within the realms of what I'm into, until... thank the lord. Something appears on their website.
So it was with the Rosemary Branch.
Months and months of interactive game nights filled their space, and I just couldn't do it. Not for the marathon. Not for you. Not for nothing. I’m sure they are just brilliant, but to quote the great Elle Woods: “Suffice to say, it was just wrong, all wrong. For me, ya know?”
And then, while doing by fortnightly blitz through all the websites that belong to the remaining theatres on my list, I spotted something. A scratch night. Theatre. Plays. Written by women. And it was free! My patience had been rewarded. I booked so fast I broke a nail (true story).
That sorted, I was off to the Rosemary Branch.
Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. Which is shocking as it’s a pub theatre within walking distance of my work. And I love a pub theatre within walking distance of my work! When talking pub theatres, Islington is the land of Milk & Honey (name of my pub theatre when I open it in Islington). So, I was more than happy to add another one to my mental roster.
After a short stop at the Paul on Upper Street I wind my way down through all the wide streets of gorgeous terraced houses towards Shepperton Road. The dogs I pass along the way all crane their heads to get a sniff of the Pavot Poulet baguette I have in my bag. They’re right to. It does smell good (and taste good. Just had it for my lunch while writing this here post. Yum).
Turns out the Rosemary Branch is right next to a park, which would explain the number of four-legged friends I had made that evening.
On their website they claim to be a former music hall. From the outside, I can see no evidence of this. It looks pure London pub to me.
Inside, it’s quiet. Well, it’s early on a Monday evening, so I’m not expecting heaving crowds at the bar.
I look around, trying to work out what sort of pub theatre it is.
Oh yes. I’ve started classifying them!
From what I can tell, there are two sorts of pub theatres. There are the ones where the theatre is fully integrated into the life of the pub. Box Office is set up one end of the bar, and you’re expected to grab a drink and a seat before a bell summons you upstairs (see: The Hope & Anchor). The other keep their activities separate. Box offices are tucked away upstairs with their theatres. Pub patrons are different from theatre patrons, and never the twain will meet (see: The White Bear). Okay, that isn’t fair, I’m sure lots of theatre-goers pop down for a pint after the show, but we’re using broad brushstrokes to paint this picture here. I mean, at the Gate Theatre, a venue which is only above a pub in the very loosest sense, advises the audience that they can bring up a drink from the Prince Albert pub, no problem.
Then there’s the Vaulty Towers, which doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is, but is doing it anyway.
After a quick glance around, I pinned the Rosemary Branch as a one that is divided by a common venue. The door to the theatre (with a helpful large sign handing over it) is closer to the entrance than the bar.
The steps that lurk behind are lined by faerie-lights and old posters, with more signage at the top leading you through the next set of doors (propped open by a heavy bust). If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Rosemary Branch, it’s the signage. It’s everywhere. From arrows guiding you in the right direction, to politely worded messages advising you to keep away (“Dressing Room. Artists Only”). I liked it immediately. I mean, you know how much bad signage (or even worse: no signage) irritates me, so seeing it done well is incredibly pleasing.
“Do I give my name?” I asked the young lady positioned behind the box office counter.
“How many is it?”
“Just the one.”
With a nod she handed me a small admission token.
“We’ll ring the bell when it’s time to go in,” she says, indicating that I can wait in the next room.
There’s already a small group of young people in what I presume is the pub’s function room. There’s a bar on one end, with a glass drinks dispenser waiting on it, and a stack of glasses nearby. Massive sash windows line up on two sides, and the spaces in between are filed with plants and Tiffany-style lamps. There are sofas, and armchairs, and a fireplace. It’s a lovely room.
“They didn't even ask my name,” whispers one young person when his friend arrives. By the sounds of it, she’s connected with the show. “They just gave me a ticket.”
“Probably means it hasn't sold very well,” she says with a shrug.
“Oops,” he giggles.
But more people arrive and soon there are small gatherings dotted around the room.
Soon enough the bell sounds and it’s the tinkliest little bell I’ve ever heard. So tinkley it must have brought a few faeries back to life all by itself.
I show the woman on the door my admission pass, but she just waves me through, not taking it from me. I just checked, and yes, I still have in it my coat pocket.
“You can sit anywhere,” she says. “But it’s best to sit at the front.”
The Rosemary Branch theatre is very small. A true black box. But the unrelenting darkness of the walls is broken up by strings of lights on the ceiling, while the mismatched cushions on the chairs give the room the feel of a Bedouin tent. Or at least an overpriced yurt at Glastonbury.
You know my feelings about the front row. But I took her advice to heart and sat in the third.
There’s a fine rake to the seating here, and the third row is just fine.
My row, and the two in front, fill up and I begin to regret my seat choice. The chairs are very close together and my shoulder is getting smushed into a wooden plank nailed to the wall.
Four short plays. All written by women. All acted by women too. All excellent, but with two major standouts to my tired eyes. Tiger Mum by Eva Edo and HoneyBEE by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. Both one-woman shows. Both performed by their writers. But otherwise completely different. A mother looking to protect her son against the world, and a millennial trying to find her place in it. A plaid shirt, and a sequined jumpsuit. A bus stop, and a festival.
Keyed up by exciting lady-theatre, I get up to leave. The rest of the audience looks like they are intent on hanging around. They all know someone in the production and are determined to celebrate.
I squeezed myself between their excited hugs and out I go, walk by the canal, tube it home, and am in bed by 10pm with a cup of tea and a chocolate éclair from Paul.
Life doesn’t get much better than that, my friend, now does it?
No, wait. It does. Apparently the Shrill Voices Showcase wasn’t a one off. It’s part of a series. Which means now I have an opportunity to go back to the faeries’ yurt… next year.