Would you be shocked if I told you that I'd never been to Battersea Arts Centre before? Because it's not true, you know. I have been there. Just... not to see a show.
It's just one of those venues that feels impossible to get to. First the tube journey. Which isn't exactly a short one. Then the train. And then that calve-shaking walk up Lavender Hill. It took important work meetings to get me there in the first place, and a marathon to bring me back.
But I wasn't just going to the BAC to see a show. Oh no. I was going full ham on this expedition, hitting up three of their spaces in one night.
And you know what three venues result in? One hell of a long blog post. Get yourself comfy, my friend. Maybe even make a cup of tea. This might take a while.
"Which show are you here to see?" asked one of the young ladies behind the box office desk.
Always a challenging question at the best of times, but even harder when your answer needs to be given in three parts. I know my limits, so I don't even attempt to recite them from memory. I get out my phone and bring up the relevant email.
"High Rise eState of Mind," I started. "Then Frankenstein, and then Beyond Borders."
She didn't blink an eye.
There was a festival going on. Plenty of people would be doing a performance-crawl that evening.
"Here's High Rise," she says, handing me one ticket and then looking for the next box.
"This must be a nightmare for you," I say sympathetically as she tries to locate the one she needs amongst what looks like a dozen scattered across the counter. "So many shows."
"It is a bit," she laughs, finally finding the right one and flicking through the tickets until she finds the one that belongs to me. "And that's Frankenstein."
Beyond Borders was a little easier. From a plastic wallet she pulls out a sheet of green wristbands and begins tearing one off.
I roll up the sleeve of my jacket.
"Do you want me to put that on you?" she asks.
"Please. I'm useless at these things."
"No problem at all," she says, wrapping the paper strip around my wrist before giving me my instructions for the evening. "Your first show is on the first floor," she says. "There'll be a bell in the foyer when it's time to go up. Then you're in the Grand Hall. That's down towards the back of the building. And then you're on the first floor again." She must have seen the panic in my eyes at this point. That was a lot to remember. She smiles kindly. "Just ask someone and they'll point you in the right direction," she says, with all the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teenager who truly believes you got this.
Did I got this? I wasn't so sure. I'd not attempted three venues in a single evening before. Three in a day, yes. But that was a Saturday, started in the afternoon, required multiple hot chocolates to get me through, and resulted in me sleeping for eleven hours straight when I did eventually get home.
But, you know, sometimes all we need in life is for someone to believe in us. And I had box office lady.
The foyer is quiet, but it was the kind of quiet that throbs with the echoes of activity happening elsewhere in the building. The bar is full. The exhibition next door has a healthy number of visitors staring at the walls. People rush past, looking like they know exactly where they are heading, only pausing to say hello and hug a fellow rusher.
I stay in the foyer, not wanting to miss that bell, and had a great time taking photos of the bee-mosaics on the floor and sneakily listening into everyone's conversations.
The BAC really is the most extraordinary building. With its bee-mosaics and its massive marble staircase that looks fit for yet another Beauty and the Beast remake. The whole place is sending up those chateaux-vibes. Post-revolution, though. When the townspeople have moved in and start replacing the Rembrandts with their kids' drawings, and painting slogans over the priceless panneling.
The bell sounds.
A foyer that had previously just contained me and a couple of front-of-housers was now teaming with people aiming for the stairs, with seemingly no time in between. They weren't there, and then they were. Rung into existence by the bell itself.
They aren't wasting any time. They bound up the steps.
I follow their lead, attempting a bound for myself. But my legs aren't built for bounding. So, filled with regret and a new twinge in my knee, I make my way up the last set of steps with something more akin to a hobble.
At the top of the stairs, we turn left, aiming for a door that, without signage or ceremony, I would have walked right past if it wasn't for the ushers standing outside waiting for us.
The signage it seems has been reserved for the secondary door. The one after the ticket check.
"Recreation Room," it reads far too smugly for someone that came in so late to the conversation.
The Recreation Room is dark. Too dark to get a proper photo. Blackout curtains cover the windows. And any hint of what recreations this room would usually contain has been removed.
Chairs have been arranged in rows in church hall format, but to preserve against the kind of mishaps we discovered at the Horse & Stables, there's a small rake at the back. The BAC aren't newbies at this game. They know what they're about.
For a crowd that was willing to throw themselves up a flight of stairs in order to get themselves into this room, there's a lot of standing about as the relative merits of different rows are discussed.
"Is it sold out?" asks someone. "Shall we just sit here on the end and then move down if more people come?"
No one wants to commit to sitting next to a stranger if they don't have to.
Musical chairs ain't my game, so I pick the middle of the third row and hope the person next to me wasn't banking on having an empty seat for a neighbour.
Turns out more people were coming. And everyone has to move down.
A large group arrive. There are five of them. They scan the rows, looking for the mythical unicorn of five seats together in an unreserved theatre minutes before the show is about to begin.
"Do you mind?" asks one. Two people dutifully move down and the group manage to split themselves across two rows.
The Recreation Room door closes. The lights dim. Out comes the performers. And we are treated to an hour of tales from the housing crisis and class inequality in the form of storytelling and hip hop. As someone who has committed themselves to working in the arts, for reasons that must have made sense at the time, I felt every damn word. But hey, that's the trade off isn't it? No hope of ever having your own home, and the constant fear of ending up on the street and dying in poverty in exchange for... ummm, what was it again? Helping make art happen or something. We don't do it for the money, so my must do it for the love, I guess.
We're asked to raise our hands if we have a dream house. Somewhere we long to live that isn't where we're at now. Only about half of us have their hands raised. I look around the room at those with their hands in their laps and see a bunch of liars.
"Where would you like to live?" Conrad Murray asks a front row hand raiser.
"And where do you live now?"
We all nod sympathetically. That's rough.
Turns out she lives alone. And owns her place. Sympathy levels drop. Well, she doesn't work in the arts, clearly. And she probably will end up moving to America. She even gets a song improvised just for her.
Right. Show over. Next stop: The Grand Hall for Frankenstein. I wasn't the only one.
"Anyone seeing Frankenstein?" asks Conrad Murray.
Someone in the front row whoops.
"Well, I'll see you there! And if anyone would like a programme, with lyrics printed in them, we'll be selling them for three pounds."
Do I want a programme? Stupid question. I always want a programme. The real question is, do I have three quid on me. I'm fairly certain I gave my last note to the programme seller at the Trafalgar Studios, and I hadn't made it to a cash point yet.
In the queue to leave, I pull out my purse and try to cobble together the funds, trying to ignore the small voice at the back of my head that tells me that I should be saving the coins for a deposit, not blowing them on programmes. "Or at the very least, spend it on clothes!" says the voice. "You can sell clothes. No ones wants your second-hand programmes."
Yeah, well, I want my second-hand programmes. And you can claw them from my cold, dead, impoverished, and paper-cut hands after I'm gone.
I manage to make up three quid in change and hand it over to Lakeisha Lynch Stevens, who has swapped her role of spoken word artist to programme seller to see us out.
"That was so good," I tell her, truthfully. It really was.
Back down the stairs. Now where? People seem to be drifting towards the left. I follow them and see a sign of the Grand Hall. Super. We were all going the same way.
Down a corridor and a flight of stairs and... if I thought the main foyer was fancy, it was nothing to the space I was in now. Stone arches balanced on marble pillars. Grecian alcoves cradling statues of naked lady nymphs and boys with wings. There was even a dome. Made of glass.
"Are you picking up a ticket?" asks a girl as I stop to take a photo.
"Oh, no, sorry," I say, stepping out of the queue that I had managed to barge into without noticing. I'd been too busy gazing up in awe at that glass dome.
I manage to stop staring long enough to realise that the direction of the crowd was shifting down a corridor. I fall into step with them, but the convoy comes to a halt as we all stop to take photos. After the marble and glass of the foyer, the corridor is rocking a touch of monastery chic. The austere walls no doubt a remnant of the fire that engulfed this part of the building just over four years ago. I manage to almost convince myself that I can smell the smoke. Probably my overactive imagination, but there really does seem to some sort of strange scent - a touch of eau de polyester-top-that-has-been-left-too-long-in-the-dryer.
Finally, we all manage to put our phones away long enough to get to the end of the hallway and... oh baby. There it is. That's what I was after. The Grand friggin' Hall in all its glory.
I was there for the Beatbox Academy's new version of Frankenstein, a story that I am always down for watching a new interpretation of (I stan Mary Shelley so hard, she's the ultimate goth mother). There seems to be a lot of them at the moment. It's the story de jour, and I ain't complaining. Still, I'd like to know BAC's reasons for putting on the show. I mean, the tale of a battered and broken corpse, resurrected, rebuilt, and reanimated... seems like an odd choice of programming for the venue. But then, what do I know.
Tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling so that they flicker just above the stage like a colony of glowworms. Their orange lights don't have much reach, despite the coils burning brightly inside their glass homes.
I find my seat, with a tasty freesheet waiting for me on it. No stressing trying to find an usher to beg one off. A freesheet on your seat is the theatrical equivalent of a chocolate on your hotel pillow. It's a classy touch.
I crane my head back, trying to get photos of the ceiling. Intricate patterns spread out over us. It looks like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral rendered in MDF. Or an intricate paper cut out. Or perhaps a brand new colouring book waiting to be filled in.
Lights dim. Show two.
Except no. Conrad Murray is back. Just as he promised. He introduces the cast, all from the BAC's Beatbox Academy and then... oh no.
He's trying to recruit us. Worse. He's trying to teach us.
"Boom! Tee! Cha!" he shouts, getting us to repeat him.
I'm not ready for this. I definitely can't do this. And I don't mean in a cutsie "I'm too shy and quiet to let my voice shine," kinda way. I mean in a: "I cried every day for a year to be allowed to give up piano lessons," kind way. I'm not musical. I am the opposite of musical. If it's possible to have negative musical talent, that's me.
We've discussed how I can't clap out a rhythm multiple times on this blog.
My lack of musicality is my great tragedy.
Being asked to join in with this stuff just sends me into a shame spiral.
Everywhere around me people are Booming, Teeing and Claing.
And I'm... not. Very much not. I sit very quietly and wait for this all to be over.
"When I say B. A., you say C.," starts the call and response. "B. A."
I swear it’s Thriller Live all over again.
Audience (minus one) now pumped up, we could finally, finally, get on with the business of the show.
We’d been given permission to film it. I don’t mean that in the royal we sense. I mean everyone. Us. The audience.
A few phones raised in readiness of capturing it, but they didn’t last long. By the end of the first number, phones had descended back into bags.
I’ve always rolled my eyes when neo-luddites complain about the young folks and their phones. Not living the experience in real time, but banking it for later, and all that guff. But for once, it was true. I couldn’t get my phone. Physically couldn’t reach for it, too afraid that I would miss something. At the end of every number I had a brief “I wish I’d captured that,” but it was soon swept aside by the next tune.
At this point, the performers realise the audience are having it too easy. They grab at spotlight, roll it round, and aim it at us. That’s not the only thing they aim.
“Hideous,” they sing at us, as the spotlight roams from face to face, never settling for long. There isn’t time. There are at lot of people there and they are determined to get us all.
There’s something very cruel about a bunch of insanely talented young people insulting an audience, as only something truly spectacular can be cruel.
That wasn’t enough for them. As the show ended and applause raged, Conrad was back! He was going to show off the skills of the other Academy with a series of battles. I don’t think I’ll ever got over the sight of tiniest little beatboxers you can imagine, blasting out the biggest sounds.
“Liked the show? Buy a CD!”
Even my need for merch draws the line here. What would I even do with it? Hang it as a bauble on the Christmas tree perhaps. Put it on vinyl and we’ll talk.
Everyone was making for the exits. I looked after them longingly. It was ten o’clock. Almost past my bedtime and I still had my long trek home (march down Lavender Hill… train to Waterloo… tube home). But I had one more venue on my list that evening. I wasn’t giving up quite yet.
Back to the foyer. Where was I supposed to go? I looked around for someone to ask.
“Party upstairs! Guys, there’s a party going up upstairs!”
I make my way back up the stairs. Where now? There’s a man in a hi vis jacket standing infront of a door. It says it’s the Council Chamber. The Ayes door. I look across the way. There’s a matching door on the other side. That one is the nays door.
Am I an aye or a nay?
I’m damn tited, that’s what I am.
I head for the nearest door.
The man in the hi vis gives me a questioning look. Remembering my wristband, I lift my arm and flash the green.
That was the right thing to do. He opens the door for me and I step through, suddenly feeling rather cool.
Wow, it’s dark inside. Really dark. I blink, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Gradually, shapes begin to appear.
All I can see are silhouettes, moving against the coloured lights from the stage, and a few placards, left over from the earlier performance, leant against the wall. I almost trip over one, but manage to shuffle back just in time.
The silhouettes bop around, throwing cool shapes. The placards, thankfully, stay where they are.
I inch my way around the edge, playing the photographer. But even my Pixel 2 can’t handle this level of darkness.
The music’s loud. There’s a waft of something wholesome and savoury coming from a table on the far side of the room.
My head is starting to spin. I’m tired. Really tired. I’ve been up since 5.30 that morning. I want to go home.
I move over to the windows and again start with the photos. I really need something for the blog. My eyes are getting used to the darkness now. I can just about make out the room. It’s handsome. The windows have those tiny panes that always make me want to scratch my name in with a diamond ring, as if I’m in a character in a country house murder mystery. There are signs hanging on the walls. The post-revolution vibes of downstairs are gone. We are thrown back. The fight is still going. The revolution is in progress.
Should I dance? Everyone else is dancing. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? Join in. Experience the venue.
I’m not much of a dancer.
I can hear your voice nagging me. “Can’t dance? Don’t you work in dance?” Yeah, yeah. But you know what they say: those you can’t, write about those people who can. I leave the dancing to the professionals.
That’s it, I’m tapping out.
I don’t need to be reminded about my lack of talent anymore. I’m going home.
“That’s weak sauce, Max.”
It is. I’m sorry.
“It’s probably for the best. I had no idea how useless you were.”
“Can’t beatbox. Can’t dance. Can’t play the piano. Can’t even clap in time with a beat. Why are we even here? What can you do?”
I don’t know, man.
But I did just get you to read a 3,000 word blog post through to the end. So, there is that.