I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms in Camden looking at my phone. I’ve just spent the last five minutes taking photos of the exterior and I’m now checking them to make sure they didn’t come out too fuzzy or too dark. I’m not much of a photographer, but I try.
There’s a theatre in this pub. Not that you get much of a sense of that from the outside. No proud proclamations of being a theatre pub up on the sign. No posters in the window. No hanging banners. All we get is an A-frame in the doorway with the Etcetera Theatre street-sign inspired logo, and the listings of the upcoming shows stuck beneath.
I zoom into the image, checking that the logo is legible.
But something catches my eye. Something small. I spread my fingers, enlarging the image even more.
There, on the poster announcing the show I’m there to see, is a line of text. The date. Tomorrow’s date.
I spin around. Looking at the poster in real life doesn’t help. It still says Wednesday 17th April.
Today is Tuesday.
I have turned up on the wrong day.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shitshitshit.
Okay. Don’t panic. It’s fine. The show has an early start. It isn’t even 7pm yet. I have time to get to wherever I am supposed to be.
I bring up my spreadsheet on my phone. Tuesday / 16.04.19 / Evening / Etcetera Theatre.
It was the spreadsheet that was wrong. The one thing that stands between me and total marathon-chaos has failed.
I can move Wednesday’s outing. It's a non-marathon thing anyway.
But what about tonight?
I suddenly have a free evening. I could go home. Eat a proper dinner. Maybe even, and this was really out there, do some laundry.
I start walking towards the tube station. If I’m quick, I could be home before 7.45pm. I could get at least two loads done before bed time. That’s woollens and whites. I’m almost bouncing with brimming potential.
And then I remember.
Eight theatres. I’d just found eight London-based, marathon-qualified, theatres that needed to be added to the list. A list that had already grown by twelve theatres over the weekend. 275 theatres. Plus eight that still need to be added to the website. 283 theatres.
Tonight was supposed to be theatre number 105.
That leaves… I’m too stressed to maths. It’s… a lot of theatres still to go by the end of the year.
I couldn’t let this evening go to waste on dinner and laundry. Not without a fight.
I retrieve my phone from my pocket, and recheck the spreadsheet. Could I move something up? Tricky.
I swipe the spreadsheet away and open up TodayTix instead. Perhaps there’s a bargain going in the West End. I can still make it if I get on the tube, like, right now.
Nothing. Booking has closed for the night.
I’m scrolling back and forth through my apps, as if one called Free Ticket For Anyone Facing A Spreadsheet Fail might leap out from between the icons.
There is something.
If you’ve ever visited the home page of my website, you might have noticed the map there. It has all (well, nearly all, I don’t update it nearly enough) of the marathon venues pinned. Red for the ones I’ve been to. Yellow for those I still need to visit.
I open it.
There are three theatres within a mile or so of the Etcertera: The Roundhouse. Teatro Technis. And The Lion and the Unicorn.
I start Googling.
Nothing at the Roundhouse. It’s dark tonight.
Teatro Technis’ show doesn’t open until Friday.
With shaking fingers I click my way to The Lion and Unicorn’s website.
Thank god. They have a show.
What time is it? Past seven. They might have already printed out the lists for tonight. I would have to turn up and hope I could buy a ticket on the door.
Was I really doing this?
Fuck it. No time for that.
I pelt it down Camden High Street, barely waiting for the lights to change as I turn right, then right again onto Kentish Town Road.
What street is in on again? Gainsford Road? Over there. Another right.
I slow down, catching my breath.
After the clutter and filth of Kentish Town Road, I seem to have stumbled into some gentile oasis. Tall stuccoed town houses line the streets. There are trees. I can even hear birdsong.
And there it is. Coming up on the left.
The Lion & Unicorn Pub.
I have never been so grateful to see a pub in my life.
There’s a chalkboard in the window, proudly proclaiming what’s on this month in the theatre.
I go inside.
“Theatre This Way” says a helpful little sign over a small door.
I go through, and find a makeshift box office balanced on a ledge beside the stairs.
“Err. Can I buy a ticket?” I ask, realising that I have no idea what show is actually on. That didn’t seem a particularly important factor up until now.
It’s been a long time since I bought a ticket in person. Turns out it’s a bit of a faff.
“Can I take your email?” asks the guy on ledge-duty, to whom I can only apologise to for making him type in my entire fucking email address on a tablet. That is not a fate that I would wish on anyone.
“First name Max I take it?”
“And surname Smiles?”
“That's a nice surname.”
So I've been told.
“Do you want to join the mailing list? Don't feel you have to say yes. I never do.”
Well, I would, but I won't be able to return until next year so… Probably best not to explain all that. I just cringe and decline.
Should I ask what the show is? Bit late, now that I’ve already bought my ticket. Might come off as a little… weird. I’m already coming off as weird. I should just keep quiet.
It’ll be a nice surprise, whatever it is.
I hate surprises.
That was the whole point of the spreadsheet. To prevent surprises.
“House should open in five or six minutes. Bar just through there, loos downstairs.”
I have a walk around the pub.
It’s nice in here. Very nice. A bit fancy even.
The walls are papered in a caviar print.
There’s black and white tiles near the bar.
And large wooden tables.
And… a dog bowl? Two dog bowls?
That’s either a sign that they are supremely dog friendly or… oh my god. There’s a dog. There’s a dog in the pub. He’s walking around, getting pets from the patrons. Oh, my lord he’s cute. And blonde. With curly fur.
My second pub theatre dog this week, and it’s only Tuesday.
He walks past me and I give him a little pat.
He’s not impressed by my pats. He’s probably had hundreds of them already today.
He moves on.
The bell rings. The house is open.
“You just bought a ticket,” the ledge-guy confirms, pointing at me as I go through the door. “We try and be paper free.”
Up the stairs, past a row of tasteful looking show posters (this place really is fancy…), following someone who looks like she knows where she’s going.
She opens a door. That's not the theatre.Ummm.
We get pointed in the right direction. Which is, in fact, left.
Ah. Here we are. The theatre.
Larger than I expected. Much larger than any pub theatre I’ve ever been in.
So fucking fancy.
There is a freesheet placed on every single sheet. A sure sign of a classy establishment.
I chose the first row with a proper rake. It’s the fifth row. After so many teeny-tiny pub theatres, this ends up feeling very far away. Fifth row and I'm complaining. Fifth row with suburb leg room. God this place is so fucking classy.
The benches are well stuffed and comfortable. I give a quick bounce in my seat to test them out. Yup. I thought so. Firm, and yet springy, with quality bounce action.
At 7.33 the bell rings again, and the last stragglers are chivvied upstairs.
It’s not often you get double-bell action outside of places like the Opera House.
So. Fucking. Fancy.
I pick up my freesheet and have a look.
Turns out I was there for Hatch Scratch. A night of new writing.
A woman comes to the front of the stage. The plays have all been written around the theme of “taboo.”
The first play of the night is about social anxiety, which I take as a personal attack. Bloody playwrights, bringing real things to life on the stage.
On the list of taboos we also have child abandonment, ISIS brides, and a mother struggling to cope with her child who has disabilities (“I’m a cunt,” she announces, which surely has to be the best opening line to a play, ever).
Ledge-guy reappears. “If you can all vacate the space, I’ll bring you back up after the interval.”
We all march downstairs. The actors are already there, at their own table, eating chips.
Good as his word, the ledge-guy rings the bell again. “The house is now open for act two of Hatch.”
We all heave ourselves up and head back towards the stairs.
“Please be careful on the stairs, there's a little spillage,” says the ledge-guy. There is indeed a small dribble of water on the steps. At least, I hope its water. I side-step it.
The second half is packed with more taboos. Suicide and masturbation (in the same play, which is quite the twofer), polyamory, and abortion. Plus, and I shudder to write this one down, chia-eaters.
I’ve seen a lot of scratch nights in my time. A lot of terrible scratch nights.
I don’t know how to take this one. The writing is good. The acting excellent.
Where are the crumpled scripts hanging out of back pockets? Where is the badly edited music padding out half-written scenes? Where are the rushed endings, and poor characterisation, and jokes that don’t land? What? Am I supposed to laugh at this funny lines that are being delivered perfectly?
As the actors all file back in to take their bows I can see that the stage is exactly fourteen actors wide, which is a hella impressive width for a pub theatre stage. Fancy fuckers.
Ledge-guy appears to thank the company and talk about the relaunched theatre. I’m feeling a bit bad about thinking of him as the ledge-guy now. Too late to change it though. I've committed to it. Perhaps I can play it off as slang. Like "that guy is a fucking ledge!" No? Oh well.
“I'll be standing just outside with a magic bucket. So if you have any share change, notes, coins, anything...”
Okay, ledge-guy. I just spent twelve quid on a ticket that I was forced to buy because I’m an idiot. I realise that’s not your fault, but I’m fresh out of funds for the week.
“Please take your glasses with you. It makes our lives that bit easier.”
He disappears through the door to rattle his magic bucket.
There’s a regular ping as coins bounce off the bottom. So I don’t feel too bad about not contributing to the symphony.
Next time. I promise.
2020, the year I manage to actually return to the venues I like.
Seriously though. The Lion & Unicorn is fancy as fuck.