I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undeterred. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.
On the right night.
I’ve checked. Multiple times.
The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.
“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.
I don’t smoke.
“So, what’s your name then?”
Christ. Do we really have to do this?
I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.
So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.
I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only bloody Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.
I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.
"That bad?" I'd laughed.
"No. Just... um..."
I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...
There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.
I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.
The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.
Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.
I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.
Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.
Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to see it. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.
And yet I'm the one going. And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.
Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etcetera Theatre signed off tonight.
If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.
It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.
That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.
Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.
But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.
"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.
Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.
It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).
It's nice out here. Quiet despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.
"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etcetera Theatre, subject to availability."
That's clever. I like that.
The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.
I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.
Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.
The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.
The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister or something. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.
The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.
There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club night.
Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.
I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.
"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.
She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."
It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to slide down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.
Is it starting?
A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.
She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.
Everyone seems a little nervous.
I think it's the set.
Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.
It's a school room.
I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise laid out in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.
Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I am well up for that.
Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...
Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.
But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they try to get as far away from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.
What it is, is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.
Like the protagonist of Killymuck at The Bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.
I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.
When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.
What a difference an hour makes.