“Wait for the bell. Go upstairs. Sit where you like. You can take in a drink.”
I’m in the Old Red Lion pub. The granddaddy of them all when it comes to pub theatres. And these are the instructions I’m given as the box office lady picks up one of the laminated admission tokens from a pile on the counter and hands it to me.
I’m grateful for them. The instructions I mean. This evening sounds like it’s going to be a bit challenging on the old brain-front, and I think I’m going to need all the guidance I can get.
I’m here for Theatre Without Sight or Sound, which I’m going to admit right now, is a bit naughty of me. I mentioned a few posts back that I have rules, and I have rules: the official ones, and the not-so-official-but-equally-valid ones. One of those unofficial rules is that I try to avoid seeing hires. Then three weeks later, what am I doing? I’m booking for a show listed in the visiting companies section of the theatre’s website, that’s what.
In my defence - I thought it would make a good blog post. Yup. That’s it. I wanted to write about it. That’s my reason.
Anyway, they’re my not-technically-the-rules, and I’ll break them if I damn well please.
I grab a sofa. One of those leather chesterfields that make you feel like you’re waiting to tell that nice Dr Watson and his creepy acquaintance with the calabash pipe all about your missing Aunt Gertrude. It’s curiously unoccupied. Curious that is, until I realise that it’s positioned to face the loos.
After the second time I get my foot trodden on by someone with eyesight even weaker than their bladder, I realise that I should probably move. After the third time my stubbiness kicks in and I sink defiantly into the cushions. On the fourth time my toes get squashed, I’m ready to do some squashing of my own…
The bell rings.
There’s now a queue to get into the theatre, and from my position on the sofa, I seem to now be right at the front of it.
I consider feeling guilty about this but, hey, I’ve had my foot trodden on four times and I didn’t even hit anyone. I deserve this.
We traipse upstairs. Old show posters are wallpapered up the steps. They date back to the nineties, when tickets were a fiver, and London still had a 0171 area code.
The corridor upstairs is red. Very red. Pub theatre red, as I’m now starting to think of it.
“Put this on,” says a woman by the door to the theatre, handing me a blindfold fresh out of the packet.
I decide that this instruction is one that needs a little delay before following through on. There’s still the matter of finding my seat to get through first.
The seating at the ORL is built up on two sides. They’re made up of wooden benches, akin to church pews but significantly less wholesome looking. Something about the addition of the buttoned red fabric makes it look distinctly debauched. These benches must have seen a lot over the years.
I go for the second row, opposite the door. I like to be able to keep an eye on the exit. Especially for the type of show where you get handed a blindfold. There’s no telling what might happen at the type of show where you get handed a blindfold.
Thankfully, we have someone to explain.
The first three plays of the evening are to be performed without sight (that’s where the blindfolds come in). After an interval, they’ll be another set of three - these ones without sound.
“Try to keep the blindfolds on to preserve the theatre magic. But if you need to take them off to rub your eye it whatever, that's fine,” we’re told. "Place your wine in your hand, not under the seat. Once you put your blindfold on, I promise you won't be able to find it."
Right then. Blindfold on. It’s time for the first play.
Oh god, this is going to smudge my eyeliner, isn’t it? I try to put in on carefully, but it’s no good. I might have well sat myself down in the splash zone at Titus Andronicus for the mess it's going to make.
Well, there's nothing for it. I say goodbye to my wings and put on the blindfold.
Things go a bit scifi in the first play, In the Shadow. A bit Black Mirror. A soul is trapped in the dark. And we're trapped with it. I imagine the benches as shelves in a lab. And all the blindfolded audience members as brains in jars, lined up and watching as our fellow consciousness struggles with his new reality.
As the play ends, loud clapping bring us back into the theatre.
Are we allowed to take our blindfolds off? I pull mine up tentatively. Others are doing to same. We blink into the light.
I wipe under my eyes, but there's no time to get out a mirror. The next play is being introduced: Two to the Chest.
I pull the blindfold back down and surrender to the darkness, but it's no good. I keep on getting pulled back. Someone is rustling a plastic bag behind me and I can't concentrate. The words seem to float around without meaning. I can't follow what's happening. Something about wrestling? I have no idea.
Voices move around the space. Coming close to me and then retreat. I shrink back into the seat, suddenly very aware that the actors can see us, but we can't see them. The power balance feels all wrong. Distorted. As if we're in a dock, being judged, and unable to face our accusers.
The back of the bench is hard against my spine. I can't move. Every time I shift my weight it sounds like a symphony of creaking wood.
I try to concentrate on the play, but it's impossible. I can't focus.
When the applause breaks through, I don't hesitate to push my blindfold up onto my forehead. I crave the light. To know what is happening around me.
There's a few people in the audience who don't bother. The sit stoic, their black masks undisturbed.
Last play. The Monkey’s Paw. A story I despise. I have no patience for repetitive storytelling devices. Three wishes from the genie's lamp. Three ghosts of Christmas past. Three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. Three big yawns from ya gal, Maxine.
It's a radio play, with some very dodgy sounding advertisers.
There's some proper foley action going on. I itch to take off my blindfold, but not because it's uncomfortable, but because I'm desperate to see what is going on. Bollocks to the theatre magic. For the first time, I get the sense that something is happening beyond the words. That the blindfold is actually preventing me from witnessing something interesting. The loss of a sense is a proper loss.
I sit on my hands, veering between delight and desperation as the play crackles on. This is it. This is the stuff. Here's were the writing (Jack Williams and Sara Butler) and direction (Matthew Jameson) have run with the idea of the lack of sight and made it into something beyond the mere absence of visuals.
"You can now take the blindfolds off," says our host.
The actors line up for their applause and we get to see them for the first time. Who was who? I can't tell. I check the freesheet. "The Monkey's Paw. Performed by Sophie Kisilevsky & Liam Harkins." Only two actors? I was convinced it was three. Blimey.
I reach into my bag and grab my compact. I'm a mess, with lines all over my face. I've aged forty years in forty minutes.
"Would you like me to take that back for you?" asks my neighbour, indicating the discarded blindfold sitting on the bench next to me.
Clearly she senses my pilfering fingers. I do love to steal an audience prop given half the chance.
I let her take it away.
Feeling woozy, I stumble back down the stairs to the pub. I'm not sure what to do with myself. Everything is too bright, but at the same time, not bright enough. My eyes dart around, unable to latch onto anything, until...
I don't mean to alarm anyone, but there's a dog on the sofa.
A massive dog.
A frickin' adorable dog.
He's asleep. No doubt exhausted from a hard day of pub theatre management.
I bite the inside of my mouth, trying very hard not to squee. Important dogs don't like being squeed at. Especially when they're sleeping.
I really want to pet him.
I back away slowly.
Back up the stairs and I notice something. There's a door set high into the wall. And it's open. Cool night air pours in.
Outside I catch a glimpse of a terrace.
Not letting myself think too hard about whether I was allowed out there, I climb through.
There's not much of a view, but it's glorious all the same. I hadn't realised how stuffy it was inside until that moment.
I walk around a little, letting my limbs click back into place and my senses realign. This is just what I needed.
I'm ready to go back in.
"Here you go. Earplugs," says the woman on the door to the theatre handing me a small packet.
I really hope that they don't want us to give these back.
Our host reappears and we're given a short lesson on how to use them. Squish them down and stick 'em in, basically. Then wait for them to expand.
I don't know whether you've ever worn earplugs before, but let me tell you, they are next to useless. They're little better than placing a finger over your ear when you're trying to have an important phone call in the office. They take off the edge, but in no way do they cut out sound.
Our host speaks to us through the medium of cue cards. A game of charades. People call out their guesses. We can hear the guesses. And yet, we all pretend that we're deaf to the world around us. That's the real charade.
The plays without sound start. First off, A Silent Farce. Set in a world where no one speaks. Actors hold phones to their ears and yet never say a word.
We don't hear anything, not because of the earplugs, but because there is nothing to hear.
The same in the next play, Tick-Tock. No one speaks. Communication is via touch and significant glances.
I'm beginning to wonder what the brief was for these plays. Did the writers know how the audience would be watching their work?
The host reappears in between each play, with his cards. Except this time he's brought the wrong ones. "Say it's carol singers," the first one reads. We're being Love Actuallied.
Eventually, the mistake is realised, and the cards swapped out with the tech desk, for one with the name of the next play: Quest Invisible.
Reece Connolly comes out. He sticks a sign to his chest. "Stork," it says.
He pulls a rolled up blanket from a basket and sticks a sign on that too. "Baby."
Something tells me things are going to get weird.
Five minutes later I find myself being handed a piece of paper with a large sperm drawn onto it. Connolly mimes that we should crumple up the paper and lob it at an egg he's placed onto a chair.
This we do. Wadded up paper balls fly across the stage, landing everywhere but on the chair. Connolly sighs. We failed to fertilise the egg.
Another sign is brought out. A gold one this time. "Super Sperm."
An audience member is dragged onto the stage. He's ordered to kneel down while the golden sign is folded into a paper aeroplane on his back. He can get up now. To throw the dart. It misses. It wasn't a very good dart. So much for super sperm.
Jessica Wren, our mother-to-be, rushes back and forth across the stage, carrying fruit to indicate how big her baby is now.
A silent game of heads or tails is played with another audience member, to decide the personality of the baby, like we're building a new character in the Sims. Heads for yes. Tails for no. Sporty? Heads. Kind? Heads. Intelligent? Tails.
When the laughter gets too much, Connelly presses his fingers to his lips. Shh. We'll wake the baby! he mimes. It's so hard though! The writer, Rebekah King, didn't just create a world without sound, she made one where sound exists, but we're not allowed to use it.
As if to prove my point, Connelly goes up to his chosen one, the Super Sperm, after the curtain call. "Sorry," he apologies. "But it had to be you."
He can talk after all... when the baby's not around.