All my many sacrifices to the theatre gods have really been paying off recently.
After weeks and weeks (and weeks) of trying to get tickets through the National's Friday Rush, I finally managed to score a spot at not one, but two shows! They not only got me into the West End transfer of Home, I'm Darling on Thursday, but also got me a prime central stalls seat for the Saturday matinee of Tartuffe. Now, some might claim it was because everyone in the queue was distracted by a desperate urge to see Follies, but I like to think it was the theatre gods doing me a solid after so two months of intense loyalty to their cause.
So when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I was in a pretty good mood, ready to dedicate myself to the gods once more as I made my way for the first of three trips to the Vatican of British theatre this year.
I have to admit, I don't actually like the National. Or at least, not the building that it lives in.
All that concrete.
I'm sure it's an architectural wonder, and I'm just too bourgeoisie in my tastes to truly appreciate its genius, but to me, it all too heavy and grey. It looks like the twisted offspring of a factory and a car park, inseminated in a cemetery. All of which feel like the antithesis of what a national home to art should look like.
Still, no one ever said serving the theatre gods would be fun. It was time to stop hanging around, gazing at the ugly foundry and go inside to see what they've been manufacturing lately.
Queues, by the looks of it.
The ground floor box office, the one that serves the Lyttleton theatre, the first of the National's three venues that I would be checking off on my marathon, had a line stretching all the way across the foyer.
I joined the end.
A moment later, an older couple did the same.
That is, they joined at exactly the same point in the queue as I had. Right next to me.
I glanced at the pair of them, and then at the space behind us. There was plenty of room, but for some reason, they thought the queue needed a right angle, and they were prepared to start off that change in direction.
With four desks open at the box office, the queue was moving quickly.
The people in front of me step forward. I follow their lead, closing the gap.
The old couple does too, knocking my bag as they keep right beside me instead of dropping in behind.
"Sorry," I said, turning to them. "I think we're getting a little muddled together here." I smile as nicely as I could while still being really rather pissed off.
The woman's eyes widen in innocence. "You're in the queue, and we are after you," she sounding like a five-year-old who's just been told she can't take her teddy to school.
It takes me every little bit of emotional resource that I have left over on a Saturday afternoon not to roll my eyes at this display. Rudeness I can take. The mock-offended tones of someone you can't admit their wrongdoing when called out on it is too much to bear.
"Fine," I say, ignoring her as continues to pull the big-eyes. But when the queue shifts again I step forward and they get in line behind me.
People. I ask you.
Theatres would be so much more pleasing to visit if they didn't exist.
I soothed myself by buying a programme. Surely the best programmes in London (except for mine... obvs) and only £4.50. Though I had a little moment of surprise when the usher gave the price. I remember when they were only £3, Travelex tickets were only £12 and the police force was made up of grownups...
Those were the days... when I was still young enough to sit in the front row. My back couldn't tolerate it now. Those tickets might be cheap, but so are the seats. For reasons that I could never work out, except for a sneaking suspicion that whoever designed them thought that poor people should not be indulged with such frivolities as comfort, the backs of the seats in the first four rows are incredibly low. Meaning that you having to sit ramrod straight in them. I was willing to put up with it in my youth. But the combined effects of age and falling down an icy flight of stone steps way-back-when means that I usually take my cheap-arse up to the back of the circle nowadays.
But those brave souls chancing it on Saturday afternoon were justly rewarded when Denis O'Hare came out and started making his way down the row, offering them each, in turn, a daffodil.
As with the front row at the Tara Theatre, the first few refused, but they soon got into it, taking the man's flowers. I hope, unlike the invisible cucumber sandwiches at Tara, they were properly appreciated and didn't need to be swept away at the end of the show.
Come the interval, I was left in a bit of a quandary.
Sitting right in the middle of the row in the Lyttelton means that leaving the auditorium can be quite the undertaking. Those rows are hella long. And there is no central aisle.
But I had a blog post to finish, and for some reason, I can never get signal within the National's theatres. Not a sniff of a single bar. Now, I'm not saying that the National using mobile phone jammers, because that would be illegal of them, but I'm also not saying that it isn't ever-so-slightly suspicious that in one of the flagship venues for an industry that dislikes all forms of sensory output caused by phones, they don't feel the need to ever put up warnings or make announcements telling their audiences to switch them off. It's almost like they know that phones won't be going off during their shows...
So back into the foyer I went, where I could use the National's dodgy, but thankfully free, wifi to finish my post before beginning the long traipse back to my seat.
"Sorry," said my seat-neighbour as we did the awkward dance past each other. "I was looking at your t-shirt! It is Firefly! With... the guy!"
She meant Nathan Fillion, who was gazing out from around the edge of my cardigan.
I tried to explain it was technically not a Firefly t-shirt, but Spectrum - a made-up show devised by Alan Tudyk (who's face was lurking, hidden underneath the cover of my cardigan) in his semi-autobiographical web-comedy series, Con Man.
That must have been the wrong thing to say.
My seat-neighbour looked at me, nodded, and promptly didn't speak to me again.
It looked like I wouldn't be making any new friends at the National that day.
With a couple of hours before my evening show, I found a spot on one of the large doughnut-shaped stools in the foyer and set up camp, putting pictures into my post and doing a cursory proofread before posting.
"The time is approaching six pm," came an announcement of the tannoy. "Therefore we ask those using the catering facilities who are not seeing a show to kindly vacate their seats. Thank you for your cooperation."
No, thank you for reminder, NT. It was time for me to leave.
I set off, doing the reverse of a journey that I took most evenings. Through the West End and up to Islington.
I'd been trying to put off visiting Islington venues during my marathon. I work in Islington, so I'd been half-arsedly attempting to save these theatres for later on. When I'm worn out my months' worth of intense theatre-going, I thought it might be nice to have a few places left on the list where I need to do nothing more than stumble down the road.
But that night I was heading to the Little Angel. The Studios rather than the Theatre. Not that it makes much difference, as they both show puppet productions. Puppet productions aimed at children.
Now, I have nothing against kids' shows. But I don't want to see them. Not by myself. I've already done that on this marathon, and it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. So when I saw that the Little Angel had a show coming up, Carbon Copy Kid, aimed at grown-ups... well, I almost broke a key on my laptop in my efforts to book that ticket.
So, there I was. Back in Islington. On a Saturday. I ended up walking past my theatre. To compensate how wrong and unnatural it felt being there on the weekend I popped in and said hello to the ushers on duty... and yeah, no, sorry. That didn't happen. I ducked my head down low and sped past, hoping no one would recognise me.
I think I got away with it.
Fifteen minutes later I was wandering the back streets of Islington, thinking there couldn't possibly be a theatre amongst all these apartment blocks, when I saw a large sign: Little Angel Studios. I had found it.
"Surname's Smiles?" I said to the girl on the desk that was serving as box office. For some reason, I always pitch this as a question, as if I'm not sure about what my name is. For the record, I'm fairly confident my name is actually Smiles. Improbable as that seems.
"Is that M Smiles?" She laughed,. "I mean, is that Maxine?"
No tickets to be had at the Little Angel, but they do have tasteful blue admission vouchers. Cornflower for adults and baby for, well, babies.
"The house is open, you can head up the stairs," she said.
There wasn't anything worth sticking around for downstairs, so up I went.
I have to admit I am a little baffled by this building. On route to the stairs, I passed a large room which appeared completely empty except for a massive trough-like sink. The walls of the hallway are all stark white, with no indication that this place has anything to do with a puppet theatre, until you find the stairwell and suddenly there are old show posters on display.
It's a little creepy.
I didn't end up taking any photos apart from this one in the stairwell, partly because of the creepiness, but also because I worried that in taking a photo of a white corridor, I wouldn't be able to capture that creepiness and then all I get is you saying, "Maxine, it's just a corridor, what's so creepy about that?" and I wouldn't be able to explain why it was creepy, and then you'd think I was weird, and we'd both have to live with that. Forever.
"But at least you got a photo of the actual theatre-space, Max?" you say. "Right? Right?"
Well no. I didn't.
But I have a good reason for that.
When I made it up the stairs and into the studio, the... actor? Puppeteer? Dude doing the show, was already on stage. He was all set up behind a sloped desk, holding up pieces of paper to communicate with the audience who'd already made it to their seats.
As I sat down, he held up one with a sketch of a mobile phone. There was a massive X over it.
Ah. No mobile signal jammers here there. I put mine on aeroplane mode and tucked it away.
I don't think he would have appreciated me taking a snapshot.
Pity though, as I really like the setup.
Around the desk, and framing our illustrator, was a proscenium arch, complete with curtains, made of paper - the swags and folds detailed in marker pen. I tried Googling the show to see if there were any pictures on the interwebs that I could show you, but found nothing. So, it's up to your imagination to fill in the gaps on this one. Sorry about that.
The drawing of a phone was followed up by an old-school landline handset (no calls), a snoring man (no falling asleep), a bomb (no terrorist action during the show please), and a sweet... wait, what? No sweets? I quickly popped a cough sweet into my mouth while he was greeting the next set of arrivals. I mean, come on - they're medicinal!
Through the medium of paper messages, he told us the duration (One hour, twenty minutes), gently berated latecomers (congratulations, you're the last people to arrive...), advised us when we were to begin (2 or 3 more minutes), and prompted us to applaud the man on the laptop who was also in charge of the sound effects via the medium of a loop station and microphone.
Nicely done. Cute even.
After that, I went straight home, and fell into bed. Only to wake up eleven hours later still wearing my clothes and with a new coating of eyeliner smeared over my pillowcases.
It's been a really hard week.
The theatre gods are hard masters to serve.