Gawd, I love the Southwark Playhouse. No, I really love the Southwark Playhouse. I can't think about it without getting a dopey grin on my face. I have such happy memories connected to that place. From waiting for a friend who was working front of house there during a run of Philip Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, back when the theatre was still under the arches at London Bridge, and getting handed one of the flaming red feathers when she eventually appeared (I still have it, Emma!). To going to the new (well, current) venue with the Chief Exec of the theatre I was then working for, and bonding in the interval over a shared love of weird musicals. To drinks with friends in the bar. To watching the weird musicals by myself (Xanadu…).
I fucking love the Southwark Playhouse.
It's one of those places, like Wilton's, that draws fierce affection from its fans. The vibe is cool, the atmosphere chill, but the work is smoking hot. Even when it's bad, it's brilliant (Xanadu again…).
I’d been trying to ‘save’ my visits to the Southwark Playhouse for when I was feeling a bit down, a bit in a need of a pick-me-up, a bit marathon-weary. But with my first season brochure of the year off to print, I thought I deserved a treat, dammit.
And besides, with the Playhouse announcing that they were opening two new venues this year, I needed to get a move on.
Plus, if I needed another reason (and I really don't) the glorious Ruby Bentall was doing a show in the larger of their two current theatres, so, I mean, I couldn’t really be expected to miss that now, could I?
Almost did though. It closes at the end of the week. For all my spreadsheets, I’ve still managed to cut this one fine.
No matter. I was off, marching across Blackfriars Bridge, through Newington, and there, gleaming out through the darkness, was the jaunty sign over the door, its angle, tilted like the hat of Second World War’s rakish villain, telling you everything you need to know about this place.
“You know you still have some Pay-As-You-Go tickets on your account?” says one of the ladies on box office as she looks up my account.
“Do I?” I’m genuinely surprised. I thought I had blasted my way through those ages ago.
She confirms that yes, I do intend have some left.
I couldn’t keep that dopey, Southwark Playhouse-grin from my face. That was a bit alright. Only been in the building five minutes and already I’ve got some great news.
For those who aren’t in the know about these things, the Southwark Playhouse runs a scheme where you can pre-pay for five tickets vouchers at a discounted bulk-buy rate, and then use them towards your future visits. It’s basically like getting a free ticket, paid for by past you. Which I guess is like every ticket… but somehow it doesn’t feel that way.
Anyway, it’s a great deal. And an even better investment as there’s no expiry date (I don’t think…), and so, like postage stamps, hold their value.
That sorted, we rapidly check off all my key points of a great theatre: real tickets (the tearable kind), proper programmes (two quid), excellent signage (both charming and clear, the winning formula), somewhere to sit down…
As I wander round trying to find the best place to park myself, I stubble on the smallest room I’ve ever seen. At first I think it’s a cleaning cupboard (yeah, seriously, that’s how small we’re talking here), but being the nosey parker that I am, I mean the intrepid blogger that I am, I have a look inside. Chairs. There are chairs. And a bookshelf. And a safe. Which has to win the prize for quirkiest place to set down your drink.
Now, I may be a long-term Southwark Playhouse fan, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for the cupboard seats just yet.
Instead, I found the perfect little corner table, just the right size for one lonesome theatre-goer, with a clock to keep me company as I proofread my Rosemary Branch blog post.
My proofreading doesn't last long. The pair at the table next to me were having good theatre-chat. And theatre-chats are always worth listening into. Yeah, I’m admitting to it. No shame here. Theatre-chats are public property, I feel. Are at least, in the public interest, and therefore worthy of publication.
“You know why they cast a woman, or a cat, in the lead role?” says the man, leaning back as he prepares to lay down some quality intel. “It’s to get the young people in.”
Was he…? That was a joke… right? He wasn’t really comparing female lead actors to cats? Was he?
The rest of his conversation (which I won’t type out, to protect the guilty) suggests that no, he wasn’t joking. And that that yes, he really was that insensitive to, well, everything from the importance of diversity on our stages to the benefits of creative interpretations of classic texts.
My blog post remained unproofread, serving as just something to rest my eyes on while I listened to this man talk at his female companion about everything that was wrong with modern theatre.
Eventually they got up and left.
Time to watch some theatre.
Back into the bar, down the chandelier lit corridor, past the appriopriately named Little theatre, and into the very largely signposted Large theatre.
There’s always a moment, when you step out of the blazingly lit corridor and through the door of The Large, when you are plunged into darkness. Blinking against all that blackness, you creep slowly around the corner, through a second door, and then suddenly the space widens up in front of you and you find yourself standing in this vast room with massively high ceilings and an usher rushing towards you, ready to walk you over to your seat.
No confusing instructions and vague pointed fingers to show you the way at this theatre. With the seating currently set up in traverse for the run of The Rubenstein Kiss, you are guided over to the right bank of seats and practically waved away with a sandwich in your bag and a clean handkerchief tucked away in your pocket.
That famous aria from Madama Butterfly filled the space, and I breathed it in as I took off my coat and settled into my seat, feeling more than a bit smug about recognising it.
My smugness was soon cancelled due to bad weather and I began to wish that my metaphorical sandwich and clean handkerchief had been supplemented with a reminder to wear a warm vest. It was freezing in there.
It was hard to even watch the cast, especially poor Ruby Bentall and Eva-Jane Willis, fussing about the stage in vintage summer dresses. Their arms bare against the chill. Although, I suppose (allegedly) selling state secrets to the Soviet Union helps keep you warm.
You know, it occurred to my last night that almost all of my knowledge of US history comes from theatre. I can’t be the only Brit to be able to trace every fact they have on the founding fathers back to Hamilton. Despite studying the Cold War at school, I had gleaned almost all my knowledge of the couple sent to the chair for nuclear espionage from the ghostly apparition of Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America. So, thanks go to Tony Kushner and Lin Manuel Miranda. Without you I would be even more ignorant than I am now.
And I guess thanks go to James Philips too. His play may only be inspired by rather than based on, but it helps fill some of the larger gaps in my brain with some form of narrative that no doubt will aid me in another play down the line.
In the interval, I made sure to exit the stage via one of the doorways on the set - a tall column reaching up to that high, high ceiling, printed with the snaking staircase of a New York fire escape - giving myself a nice thrill as I was able to turn back and see the opposite side of the tower - from which Ruby Bentall had pulled all manner of props from during the first half.
For the interval, I found a quiet corner to finish off my blog post, and closed my ears to distraction. Somehow listening to theatre-chat didn’t feel quite so harmless anymore. But the Playhouse wasn’t having it. The music was turned up and I was soon bopping about to the sounds of Madonna and her critic of global consumerism while I dragged and dropped the images into place.
For the second act, I wasn’t taking any chances. I put on my coat.
But the team at the Playhouse had been busy, and hot air was being pushed into the space by a very loud blower. Very loud. Loud enough to explain why they couldn’t have it on during the performance. When it cut off, I realised that Madama Butterfly had been playing all along, imperceptible under the roar of the blower. Which is hella poignant, and I’m choosing to believe, utterly intentional.
In fact, everything about the night is beginning to feel intentional.
From the private conversation that I really shouldn’t have listened to.
To the jokey First Rule about the Pay-As-You-Go subscriptions (You DO NOT talk about the Pay-As-You-Go subscription) on the Southwark Playhouse’s website.
To the gentle reminder from box office that I should really keep an eye on my account.
To Madonna’s tale of caution of choosing love over tangible benefits.
To the icy Siberian chill in the theatre.
The threads all came together, jumbling themselves into a knot of red string that I couldn’t untangle.
Has the Southwark Playhouse been running the most subtle immersive experience in London? Or could it be that in fact, darker forces are at work. I could not help but ask myself: how deep does this conspiracy go? Had the theatre's talent for signage slipped off of the chalkboard and into the very air? Why? And under who's orders?
This intrepid blogger… will not be pursuing this case any further. I’m sure it’s mere coincidence and nothing more. Now stop asking.