Nicki and I are in the lift, trying to get out of the office after a long day.
"What are you seeing tonight?" she asks, as the lift decides to stop on every single floor on the way down.
I hesitate. Fuck it. Nicki knows about the marathon. She won't judge. "A play about chemsex," I say.
Nicki shocked face is reflected out into infinity in the lift's mirrors.
Perhaps that's not the kind of thing you're supposed to tell your coworker. I'll need to check the employee handbook.
"My life is weird," I explain.
"No. It's brilliant!" she says, recovering quickly. "Just don't take any poppers. They'll probably be handing them around."
With this caution from a colleague eight years my junior ringing in my ears, I set out in the direction of Old Street. I was off to The Courtyard, which is a theatre I have only visited once before, nearly four years ago, but remains the location of my top theatre experience of all time: King Lear with Sheep. For those that missed the heady days of 2015, King Lear with Sheep was a shortened version of the Bard's tragedy, with only one actor, and lots of sheep. Real sheep. Really real sheep. You could smell them all the way down the corridor and half-way down the stairs. Hear them before they appeared on stage. Read about them in their biographies listed on the back of the freesheet. And cry with them. When the Shetland Sheep by the name of Snowdrop, who played Cordelia, rested her head back against Lear's shoulder with a swanlike grace... well, let's just say that her death-scene still haunts me. It was masterful, magical, and completely mad.
And now I'm back. For a play about chemsex. Potentially with poppers.
I don't know what The Courtyard was originally, but it has a certain Scottish Baronial look going on with its high walls and turrets. An effect only added to by the forest green canopy over the entrance, hidden away down a side street. The lairds of this castle are down on their luck, and have opened up a B&B while they save up to dredge the loch for monsters.
Other than the canopy, The Courtyard doesn't really go in for signposting their presence. It's only when you step inside the green corridor within (grass, rather than forest) that you get confirmation that you're in the right place, with posters and flyers dotted around the place.
Down the stairs and round the corner is the box office. Or rather, that's where I remember the box office as being. The nook is closed tonight. But there's a man with a clipboard, and he's taking names.
"The show starts at 7.30," he says, as he ticks me off. "I'll make an announcement in the bar when it's time to go up."
The highland theme extends into the bar. Leather sofas. Dark wood floors. Candelabras sitting on top of a piano. A traffic cone (no doubt left by a student. I went to a Scottish uni. I know what they're like). They've got a bit of trompe l'oeil action going on in the form of wallpaper printed with a bookcase design. And for true authenticity, they are completely lacking in signal. No bars in the bar. And not even a sniff of wifi to be found.
That wasn't the only thing conspicuously missing from the bar.
I looked around.
Yup, no ladies. Well, not many. Just me and... I looked around again, just to double check. Two others. Standing on opposite sides of the room, as if to prevent the air from becoming too saturated with oestrogen.
That was weird.
I mean... not surprising, given the subject matter. But a strange experience none the less. I don't think I've ever been in an audience that was not entirely dominated by women. Is this what blokes feel like when they go to the theatre?
"Ladies and gentlemen," says the one front of houser on duty. "The house is now open if you'd follow me to your seats."
He turns around and starts leading us down the corridor. Now that we've left the cosy bar behind, The Courtyard is beginning to look a bit like a school. Not Hogwarts. More like a secondary comprehensive. A nice one though, as we find out on our tour of the building - past some old-fashioned wooden lockers, up the stairs, and through what looks like a deserted dance studio, complete with mirrored walls, a forlorn-looking piano, and folding chairs stacked up against the mirrored walls.
The front of houser takes up position next to the door of the auditorium. Presumably so that he can count us back in and go in search of any audience members who got drafted into detention along the way.
For a converted school, laird's castle, or possibly library, the auditorium is surprisingly large. With a deep stage then seems to stretch back for miles, faced by banks of raked seating. But I know better than to trust the rake in a fringe venue and stomp my way down the steps all the way to the third row.
There's something on the seat. There is something on all the seats. A freesheet. But not like one I've ever seen before. With the credits on one side and a full-page image on the back, these babies have been professionally printed. On a nice cardstock too.
These are going to make some quality programme-selfies. You know the ones. When a person holds their programme up in front of the stage to capture both the set and the paperwork in one perfectly lined up shot, as beautifully demonstrated by theatre blogger instagrams everywhere.
The stage isn't empty.
I don't mean the set. That's fine. The sofa and coffee table and whatnot aren't the problem.
The problem is sitting on the floor, snorting up white powder from that very same table. A coffee table which looks exactly like the one in my own living room. Without the white powder though, just to be clear.
I still haven't quite worked out the rules of taking pre-show photos when there's a performer on the stage. My queasiness about the situation is probably indication enough that I shouldn't do it.
I do it anyway.
I mean, I have to. Right? It's what bloggers do. It's probably in the bylaws somewhere.
The seats around me gradually fill up and I am left sitting in a cloud of cologne. I don't think I've ever been in such a well-scented audience. I dig out a cough sweet from my bag just in case my throat decides to rebel against the wafting aromas.
The play begins. Two angels emerge from behind the back curtain. Stimulates and the spiritual combine with lots of talk of AIDS and sex and death. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit Tony Kushner, then yeah - I've been getting those Angels in America vibes too. It's even there in the title: Among Angels.
It's just lacking the themes of identity within a broader community told on an epic scale, against the backdrop of late twentieth-century American politics, with a mixture of wit, ruthless observations, and absolute tenderness. But hey, I get it. That's a bit much to ask for from a seventy-five minute running time.
We are treated to a heavy dose of meta-magic though as our main character, Stephen Papaioannou's Chris (another nod to the religiosity of it all - I see you, Timothy Graves), is whisked away to the other side in an overdose-induced coma, finds himself in a theatre, and indulges us in a spot of the Prospero's "our revels now are ended" speech.
Angels come to listen to him, positioning themselves right in front of the front row, much to the annoyance of a member of the real audience, who turns to his neighbour with an expression of absolute outrage.
Even in the front row you can't escape the curse of the fringe theatre rake.
Bows taken and applause over, I take my time leaving. Packing away the freesheet carefully in my bag so that it doesn't crumple, and taking a moment to pay my respects at the sight of Cordelia's demise. Small groups stand around in the studio. There's more downstairs, talking quietly in the corridor. They could be waiting for someone who's involved with the show. That's the most likely explanation. But I prefer to think they were waiting to be called into the headmaster's office. I make a break for it, bursting out of the door before one of the teachers catches me.