There are some theatres that it is just plain shameful to admit to not having ever visited. You can be a dedicated theatre-goer and not have gone to say… the Lyric (it could almost be argued that a true fan of theatre would not, in fact, have ventured anywhere near the Lyric), but can you imagine saying the same thing about the Royal Court? Or the Young Vic? I would class the Finborough Theatre in that category. Being a regular theatre-goer in London, going to the Finborough is pretty much essential. Not having been is like… I don’t know, never having seen Hamlet. It’s such an essential component that it is almost a qualifying feature. Can you honestly say you’re into theatre if you haven’t? I mean, really, it’s practically shameful.
Which is why I will never admit to not having been there. Because I absolutely have been there. Now.
I’m downstairs in the pub, waiting in the queue for the box office, which is a small desk towards the back of the bar. I can’t help but admire the t-shirts being worn by the two young people sitting behind it. They are grey marl, with the theatre’s red and black logo printed across the front, and so ugly that they must be deeply cool.
As one rifles through the tickets in search of mine, the other gives me the speech.
“The house is now open,” he says, in the unhurried but practised tones of someone who has said exactly this several hundred times before. “If you take up a drink it needs to be in a plastic cup. The loos are downstairs, the theatre is upstairs. And programmes are three pounds.”
Well, that’s everything of importance covered in four sentences.
I decide to avoid the business of the bar and head upstairs. While my ticket may have my name scrawled across the top, the seats are unallocated and I want to bag a good one.
There’s a door just opposite the box office desk. “Toilets & Theatre this way” reads the sign painted over it. I can’t help but smile at the priority given to those two things.
The downstairs has a look that I imagine pubs in Scandinavia might have. All white walls, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork. The staircase that would lead me up to the theatre comes as a bit surprise. Red walls. Red balustrades. Photos and flyers are cramped into every available space. This is what the inside the head of a theatrically inclined serial killer must look like.
At the top of the stairs, there’s another cool young person waiting, in one of those grey marl t-shirts. She takes my ticket a rips a tiny tear into the top.
“There's no readmittance,” she says, handing my ticket back. “But there is a fifteen-minute interval. Also, there's five people to a bench.”
I peek into the theatre and look at the benches. Blimey. Five people. That seems a little ambitious. Looks like I’m set for a very cosy evening.
I slide myself to the end of the second row. I don’t want to have to be shifted along by any latecomers. Plus, there’s a nice gap between me and the wall. Perfect bag-dumping ground.
“Mind if I just put my bag down there?” asks a man in the front row, already heaving his bag over the back of his seat.
I drag mine out of the way.
“I'll put my coat there too,” he says, squashing down his massive puffer into a neat parcel which expands to fill the entire space as soon as he lets it go.
Two people join my row. That’s four of us now.
My new neighbour gets out a notebook and pen. You know what that means, right? Yup. It’s time to play another round of Blogger or Director! My favourite game.
She writes the title of the show: Maggie May. Then underlines it.
That was a short round.
More people are pouring in. Everyone begins shuffling about.
Two men appear. They want to sit together, but there isn’t enough space. They split up. One taking a spare slot on the second row, and then other climbing up to join us in the second.
My neighbour the blogger tries to get me to move along, but there isn’t anywhere left for me to go. “I’m already right at the end,” I say apologetically, but I wriggle over a fraction, just to show willing.
It wasn’t enough.
As the performance starts, my new blogger friend did her very best to introduce her elbow to my ribs, constantly jabbing and poking and moving until I am almost forced to consider taking a seat on the floor alongside the collection of coats and bags.
You’d think someone who writes about theatre, and presumably goes on the reg, would have learnt how to roll her shoulders in. I just hope her review is worth the irritation.
Bloggers, ey? Who’d have ‘em.
The audience aren’t the only ones having to watch where they put their elbows.
I made an offhand comment in my post about The Bunker, that they could have fitted fifteen performers onto that stage if they’d had a mind to. But the Finborough has only gone and done it. On a stage the size of my front room, they managed to squeeze dock workers, sailors, sex workers, a staircase, policemen, and a piano.
At one point I counted thirteen actors on stage, all singing and dancing. And that’s not including the pianist who was providing all the live music for the evening.
So rambunctious was one dance, Natalie Williams’s earring went flying, skittering off out of sight underneath the staircase, and had to be retrieved by one of the blokes, who slipped it into his pocket. The next time Williams appeared on stage, she had both earrings once more and a cracking good line. “That’s disgusting,” she says in her thick Liverpudlian accent as Kara Lily Hayworth's Maggie May admits her love for James Darch's firebrand Patrick Casey.
I can’t help but agree.
The eponymous Maggie May is the sailors’ favourite. The classic hooker-with-a-heart. But her heart was long spent on her teenage beau, Casey. As union fever takes over the Liverpool docks, it’s Maggie who gets overheated when Casey comes back into her life.
Honestly though, I don’t know why this musical is called Maggie May, because although it follows her around, it isn’t her story. If anything, it’s about Casey. A man she’s been obsessed with her entire adult life, even going so far as to call all her clients: Casey. Without him, she doesn’t seem to have any direction or purpose. She drifts from man to man, waiting for Casey to return, waiting for Casey to take her out, waiting for Casey to fall in love with her, waiting for Casey to finish his campaign against the men in suits. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Forever waiting.
In the interval, half the audience tramp down to the bar and those that remain are left with the sound of gulls to keep us company. I get out the programme and have a good read, noticing with delight that the company had rehearsed in the Lantern Arts Centre, which was where I was last night.
A loud bell stops my reading. At first I thought it the theatre bell, calling the audience back up from the pub, but as it goes on and on, I begin to wonder…
“Is that the fire alarm?” someone in the opposite bank of seats asks.
No-one replies but we’re all looking around now.
The air above the stage-space looks curiously smokey.
“Are you sure it’s not the fire alarm?” comes another voice, sounding more concerned now.
The bell is still ringing.
I look at the door, fully expecting an usher to burst in and tell us to get our arses out of there. But the doorway remains usher-free.
Is this it? Am I going to die in here? I’m feeling very calm for someone who is about to expire from smoke inhalation. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m going to be a theatre ghost, and I’m not mad about my soul being trapped in the Finborough. I can hunt the creepy red stairwell. It'll be brilliant. Free tickets for the after-life!
I think I could do good work here.
Not sure about my outfit though. I do like this skirt, but I’m not convinced it’s something I want to be stuck in for all eternity. Oh well, too late now to change, I’ll just have to…
The bell stops ringing.
I guess we're not dying tonight then. Nevermind. Stand down everyone. Cancel the flowers and stop penning that eulogy. Ya marathoner still has a few more theatres left in her.
The cast start to re-emerge, beating most of the audience, leading to the pleasing sight of negotiating themselves around the performers as they made their way back to their seats.
Gone are the flat caps and boiler suits from act one. We're being treated to some quality James Dean stylings with tight white t-shirts and cuffed jeans, while the ladies are decked in the brightest colours known to science. The sixties have arrived, and they've brought mini skirts.
Maggie May really is a product of the sixties, and frankly should have been left where it belonged, but the Finborough… well, I'd very much like to discuss my future career in hauntings management with them, although perhaps first on the list should be a little chat about that bell of theirs...