“Martha, have you been to the Hen & Chickens before?”
I thought if anyone would have been to the Hen & Chickens, it would be Martha. It’s a theatre pub. And Martha loves a theatre pub.
“No!” she cries, sounding distraught and a little bit ashamed about her lack of Hen & Chickens experience. “I really should. I love theatre pubs.” (Told you). “And it’s in Islington, isn’t it?” (It is).
To be fair, there are a lot of pub theatres in Islington. They’re like curry houses on Brick Lane. Bookshops on Charing Cross Road. Or estate agents in Finchley. Bloody everywhere. You have to be real dedicated to the pub theatre cause to go to all of them.
Thankfully, I am. Well, not specifically to pub theatres. But they are definitely part of my remit for the year. Along with barge theatres, museum theatres, outdoor theatres, and all the rest of them. So off I go, negotiating all the roadworks that are happening around Highbury and Islington station, as I try to make my way around the roundabout to get there (with a short pause to stick my hands through the barriers so that I can get a photo of the pub's exterior without the decorative addition of plastic railings - I told you: real dedicated).
Back over the road and I’m taking some close up shots of the chalkboards outside. They’re advertising the show. “Tonight!” one proclaims. “Killing Nana 7.30pm £15,” topped by a scrolling banner stating “The pub/stage/is you” (that one took me a while to work out).
Two young women walk past, look down at their phones then back up again.
They stop. They’re looking at the two chalkboards. Then back up at the door. I know what they’re thinking. I had the same thought as I was taking my photos. There’s no handle. How on earth does the door open?
“Is there another entrance?” one asks. They strike off, heading down the road. But the pub isn’t that big, and a minute later they’re back. This time they try the other direction, eventually finding a smaller, less impressive looking doorway. But while it may lack chalkboards to flank it on either side, it benefits from the presence of a handle.
They go in.
I follow them. Not in a creepy way, you understand. Just in a… I’m-done-procrastinating-with-my-photos-and-now-that-someone-else-has-confirmed-where-the-entrance-is-I-might-as-well-go-in way.
It’s packed inside. I have to squeeze myself through at least two groups just to get far enough inside to see what is going on.
To the left of the bar, and a little behind, is the box office. A little podium tucked away in the shadow of the staircase.
The box officer and I go about the business of getting my name checked off the list.
“You're going to go upstairs when the bell rings,” he says, with a directness that I can only appreciate in a new-to-me venue.
He hands me an admission pass and a freesheet. There’s an unspoken agreement that he doesn’t need to ask if I want one, and I don’t need to trouble him with the request to take one.
I make to put the admission pass in my pocket, but something catches my eye. I turn it over. There, scrawled on the back, are the details of the performance. It’s not an admission pass. It’s a ticket. And a weighty ticket at that. it’s the size of a business card, but if you were to get these printed by Moo, you’d be paying an extra fee for that heavy cardstock (I mention this to Martha. “Islington,” was her one word reply. Fair enough).
When the bell rings, there’s a rush to the stairs.
The walls are a rather tasty shade of teal. I want to take a photo but there’s already of queue of people behind me. I just manage to catch a snap of the quaint order not to smoke in the theatre. A sign from a bygone era.
As we step into the theatre, the teal is replaced by the more traditional theatre blacks.
It’s warm up here. Really warm. First thing I do is pull off my scarf, jacket and even my cardie. I’m still too warm. I need to sit down.
The seat shifts under me. As someone who once broke a bed while merely sitting on it, this is rather alarming. I hold myself very still. There is no further movement from the seat. I think I’m safe.
Time to inspect the freesheet.
Oh, look! The play was written by someone in Hollyoaks.
Aww. That takes me back. I used to love Hollyoaks back when I was of a Hollyoaks-watching age. I’d only given a brief glance of the marketing copy before going in, but now I can't help but think that yes, it did all sound very Hollyoaks. Tortured family dynamics. Shut-ins. Overcrowding. This is going to be brilliant.
Even the title is exciting: Killing Nana. For someone who is having serious Villanelle withdrawal, this sounds brimming with potential.
Music pipes in. Very familiar sounding music. Is that...? It is. It's only bloody Bake Off. Those Channel 4 contacts are clearly coming in handy.
We're in an overstuffed living room. Knick-knacks and empty food packets crowd every surface. There's a pair of boots discarded on the floor. I feel very at home.
It's GBBO night and things are about to kick off.
Lee Lomas, not content with being a Hollyoaks cast member and a playwright, is also playing the anxiety-ridden Stephen, who hides in his dressing gown and is almost entirely defined by the women around him - boyfriend to Renee Bailey's increasingly fed-up Kimmy, an extra charge for Gemma Acosta's sweetly manipulative Anne to look after, and blocker of quality TV watching to Sonja Doubleday's eponymous Nana.
It's a hard watch. All those recognisable family dynamics, squished up and compressed in this claustrophobic space, until the pressure builds so much you just know it's going to explode. They're awful to each other in the way only people who know each other as well as they know themselves can be awful, pinpointing the hurt and aiming a dart right at it.
No wonder Stephen just wants to lie face down on the sofa in his dressing gown and watch Blue Planet. I'm with you, man.
I have a trolley full of anxieties myself. And not one of those piddly sized ones you push around late on a Tuesday night because you don't feel up to lugging around a basket. I mean one of the big ones, with twin child seats, that's just done a Supermarket Sweep-style dash around the big Tesco.
Other people with their wants, and needs, and feelings are just an extra weight on an already overloaded scale, that has you tipping to one side as you reach for the breadknife.
Or the e-cig in this case.
I think this must be the first time that I’ve seen vaping on stage. Cigarettes are still very much de rigour. But really, it’s as quaint as the sign on the stairs. With one action, they’ve instantly made every other smoking scene in London look passé.
I do wonder what the Hen & Chickens stance on vaping is though. I didn’t see any signs disallowing it.
As we are released back into the outside world, and I struggle through the side streets around Highbury Corner, eventually emerging on Upper Street near Paul Bakery, I realise that vaping is not the problem. It's carbs.
If Nana had been allowed to watch Bake Off in peace. If Anne knew how to cut crusts off properly and didn't eat biscuits. If Stephen could go out and buy bread. If Kimmy hadn't found out about Stephen and Anna's cooking session. None of it would ever have happened.
The French know what's up.
Bread is pain.