Watching theatre when you’re feeling a bit fragile is a risky business. Especially when the show you’re going to see is about teenage girls and dead dads.
But the siren call of “good writing,” was too much for me. And besides, I was feeling pretty boss. The season brochure I'd produced had come back from the printers looking damn slick if I do say so myself, the blog’s going well (hello!), and the marathon even better. I hit the one-third mark on Wednesday, which considering we aren’t even done with March yet is fucking impressive, isn’t it? I mean, yes, I do have a waiting list of theatres that I need to add to my Official Theatre List that lives on this website, so this victory is pretty short lived. But I was prepared to enjoy it while it lasted.
That was, until I was walking through the West End on my way to the Trafalgar Studios and it happened. You know. That thing when you find that you are no longer walking alone. You have someone walking with you. Keeping step. In a crowd of faceless strangers, one of them has all their attention trained on you.
“Oh god,” he says. “Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. That face. I’ve seen that face before.”
And look, I know it’s part of the female experience and all that. And it was fine in the end. He went away after I gave him a few short words (“Oh gawwwwdddd”) followed by a dismissive roll of the eyes. But still, there’s nothing like getting approached by a creeper on the street for making your skin feel like its suddenly two sizes too small.
I’d planned on popping by the Chinatown Bakery but I didn’t want to hang around. I strode down St Martin’s as fast as I could, clenching and unclenching my hand as I went, as if trying to shake off the memory of him.
Honestly, I’d rather hoped I would have aged out of that demographic by now. I mean, this type of thing didn’t happen to me when I was fat…
I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios feeling a little frazzled.
The foyer was rammed as the audiences of two shows fought for dominance.
I could barely make in it through the door. Usually I’d hang back. Let the first show of the evening, the one in Studio One, clear out. But I didn’t want to be outside anymore.
Queues to get out of the foyer crossed with the one at the bar on the other side. Both of them managing to block the box office on the far wall.
Breathing in, I aimed myself at a small gap and squeezed my way through, shooting out the other end like I was on a log flume ride.
“Err, the surname’s Smiles.”
The woman on box office nods and reaches for the larger of two boxes.
“It’s for Hundred Words,” I add, feeling pretty pleased that I not only managed to remember the name of the show that I had booked that morning, but also could drop a nifty shortened version of it.
She grinned. “Thank you,” she says, grabbing the other box.
Manning a single box office with two shows on an evening can’t be fun.
Although I have it on good authority that the Trafalgar Studios is a good place to work front of house. Well, good in comparison to other ATG venues. (“The pay is shit but they treat you nice,” was the exact wording).
Ticket picked up, it was my turn to join the queue to get out of this tiny foyer.
“Just down the stairs,” says the ticket checker when I make it to the doors. “The show is 75 minutes with no interval, so if you need to use the toilets I would suggest going beforehand as we might not be able to let you back in.”
I may still be feeling a little brittle, but even I can cope with sitting quietly in a seat for just over an hour.
I buy a programme while I’m there, and she deftly juggles the two separate show programmes and her money pouch as I exchange a five pound note for a programme and two pounds fifty in change.
Down the stairs, with the ceiling that looks like it’s been hewn from a rock in a fantasy film, and down in the basement, deep under Whitehall. This must have been what Churchill felt like heading down into his war bunkers. Safe, with all the chaos from above left far behind.
The Studio Bar does have a certain war-bunker feel to it, with it’s low ceilings and even lower lighting. The green glow that emanates from the bar itself could serve as a makeshift banker’s desk lamp. You know the ones. With the green glass shades and slim brass stand that you always see in films set in the forties.
Even down here though, there isn’t much in the way of space. People lean against the railings next to the loos, and by the steps. But despite the overcrowding, there’s a calm, with just the gentlest buzz of chatter.
“One minute left, ladies,” calls one of the female ushers into the women’s loos. “One minute for Admissions.”
I must tell you that Admissions is the play in Studio One before you think she was referring to the more bodily kind.
She comes back out and finds a male usher. “Can you quickly run into the men’s?”
A few seconds later a line of men emerge from their own aborted set of admissions. The women have yet to make an appearance.
“Ladies! We are past the call for Admissions,” I hear from inside the women’s loos a few minutes later. Eventually, the audience for Studio One is coddled and wrangled and chivvied into their seats and the bar settles back down, the buzz of chatter now noticeably gentler and the seats now free for the taking.
But there is no time to enjoy that as that now Admissions is up and running, it’s time to get Hundred Words for Snow warmed up. The house for Studio Two opens and we all dutifully file through the door and down the corridor to the smaller of the two theatres. Very much smaller. Studio Two is an actual studio, with only a hundred seats arranged in three sides around a small stage.
Suddenly, I feel unsure.
I’d been brave that morning. I’d been feeling good. I told you about the season brochure looking well swish, didn’t I?
I’d been feeling so damn good, and so damn brave, I’d booked for the front row.
The front row, in this tiny, intimate theatre. For a one-woman show.
I didn’t feel all that brave anymore.
As the auditorium lights dimmed, Gemma Barnett came bounding out, all youthful energy and smiles.
She wasn’t the teenage girl I had been, but perhaps she was the teenage girl I had wanted to be. Or at least, had wanted to be friends with. A bit geeky. A bit silly. Charming and brash, but also awkward and self-effacing. And with great hair.
And she was off on an adventure. To the North Pole. With her dead dad tucked away safely in her backpack, following in the footsteps of all those male explorers they had read about together, carving her own path as she went, all the while paying homage to the father she had loved…
The first tear was easy enough to wipe away. A smooth blink and it was gone.
But when one tear falls, there are bound to be more to follow.
And I was sitting in the front row.
As Gemma Barnett rubbed the dampness from under her eyes, I did the same. A second later she would turn round, all brave smile again, beaming at each of us in turn and all I could think about is… I hope she doesn’t see the tracks of eyeliner smeared across my cheeks
Dead dads and teenage girls. Gets me every time.
Because that’s it, isn’t it? To lose the only person who actually gets you, it’s the very worst thing in the world.
My father died when I was at university, but he was gone from my life long before that. And I could never forgive him for it. My mother could never forgive him for leaving her when she was still bed-bound following the car accident that would leave her permanently disabled. But I could never forgive him for removing the one person in my life who truly understood the need to create. Because he was a maker. He drew, and painted, and constructed, and fixed.
He’d built me a castle in our garden. A proper castle. With a turret and battlements and a slide going down into a sandpit. And a coat of arms with the letter M for Maxine carved into it.
And he saw the kernel of that need in me.
I would draw and paint and construct right alongside him. But after he left, so did my enthusiasm. I stopped doing woodwork at school. Gave up ballet. Stopped painting. Stopped making. Until the only creative thing I had left were my words. And that was only because I couldn’t give them up. I needed them. I had to write. Had to. Forced to. Notes to my teachers, hospital forms, cheques, and letters. Lots of letters. Letters of complaint, wheedling letters, and angry letters. Letters to banks and employees and shops and government bodies and MPs. Letters that were half-dictated and half left for me to fill in the gaps. Grown-ups letters written in my childish hand.
I had a mother who couldn’t write you see, who saw my ability with words as a weapon rather than a gift. To be honest, she still does.
No one in my family really understands the joy of creation. Of making something from nothing. To see value in something that can’t be bought.
When the subject of my writing comes up, its only to ask if I'm trying to get published. And if there's any money to be made in that.
It was just my dad. And he left. And then he died. And that was that.
So when Gemma Barnett tells Rory’s story, of her connection to her father and her need for this adventure, I could only think of my own dad, in a way I haven’t let myself think of him since I was that age. And as she reached the climax, and counted down the inevitable list that marks the finale, I couldn’t hold back anymore. I sensed it was coming, and as the final point checked off I burst into proper sobs. No gentle trickle of tears, but a flood.
“What writing,” gasped the person sitting behind me as I ducked my head as I rummaged around in my bag for my compact. “I haven’t heard anything like it.”
That’s for sure. Forgetting the emotion and the tears, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything written quite so skilfully in a long time. That Tatty Hennessy - she broke me. But at least she did it with finesse.