“You can wait here if you like. The house should be opening any minute now.”
I’m the first one there. Which is a good thing, as the foyer space of the Jermyn Street Theatre is only big enough for one. Can it even be classed as a foyer? It’s certainly not intended for lingering. Perhaps the more appropriate word is a landing. And I do feel like I’ve landed there.
“Thanks, it’s awful outside. Hailing.”
The sudden downpour of stinging hail stones is the reason for my early arrival. When it came to deciding between digging an umbrella out from the bottom of my bag, and just legging the remaining distance to the theatre, I plumped for legging it.
That may have been a mistake.
My legs are now legged out and feeling a touch wobbly. This body was not made to run.
Balancing there, on that square metre of space we're calling a landing, I manage to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. From the outside, the Jermyn Street theatre is a slip of a thing - a small slither slid in between a pizzeria and a clothes shop.
But step through the door and you are taken down below the streets of Piccadilly via a sparkling silver stairway.
The honking horns and hard hailstones are left far behind, and I’m left recovering and slightly out of breath on the landing.
I’d been to the Jermyn Street Theatre (from here on in, the JST) before. But so long ago that I still manage to be shocked by just how titchy tiny wee it is. The box office is a proper little hole in the wall, but when the house is opened I find that the bar is too.
“Drink, ice cream, programme?” asks a lady from behind her small window. “There’s no interval, so now's your opportunity.”
I go for a programme, which turns out to be a proper playtext. I fucking love a playtext.
With the theatre to myself, I can get some proper pictures taken. But with only four rows of seats, this doesn’t take all that long. So, I wait for my fellow audience members to arrive. But with allocated seating, they don't appear to be in much of a rush to turn up.
With a theatre this small, I’d usually expect there to be strings of fairy lights on the walls. Perhaps some cutsie signage pointing to the loos. But there’s none of that. Beyond the silver stairway, the decor is fairly spartan. The JST doesn’t go in for all the hipster aesthetic stuff.
So, I settle in and play my playtext game - finding a line near the end and seeing if I remember it by the time we get there in the show. Not much of a game, but it’s always nice to have something to look forward to during a rubbish performance.
Not that I was worried about that.
I was here on a recommendation. A Twitter recommendation. Which are often terrible, but this one was from someone who knew I’d loved Hundred Words for Snow and wanted to make sure that I was aware that the writer of that soul-wringer of a show was currently directing a different one. I didn’t. And I was more than grateful for the information.
Even better, it turned out that the director was going to be in that night.
How do you say hello to someone who broke your heart? On the list of awkward conversation starters it has to be right up there with your STD test results and telling them you ran over your dog.
After a short internal debate, I decided the best course was the simplest: Keep it real. “Hello. I’m Max. You smashed my heart into smithereens. Thank you.”
There. That wasn’t too bad. I didn’t cry and she didn't run away in terror.
And people are starting to arrive now.
“I’m just going to pop to the toilet,” says a man as he walks in.
“Not that one though,” laughs a woman in reply, nodding towards the stage, where there’s a projected sign proclaiming TOILETS over one of the doors.
“Is it...? No!”
Yes! That door marked Toilets leads to the actual toilets and you need to cross the actual stage to get to them.
“The performance will begin in three minutes,” comes a disembodied voice over the tannoy. “The toilets are now closed.”
Sure enough the projected sign dims. The door is now nothing more than a feature of the set
Across the room there's a bang as the bar’s cubby is shuttered.
We're ready to begin.
I have to admit that at this point that I know nothing about the play. Only that it may or may not involve a person called Mary, and, quite possibly some babies, that Tatty Hennessy was directing, that someone on Twitter said I should go, and at some point near the end sausage rolls were going to come up in dialogue.
Enough for me to go, for sure. But was it enough for me to figure out what on earth was going on.
A framed display of names flashes as character after character is introduced to us. Caroline and Gracie and Rita and a ventriloquist who doesn't get a name - they're simply ventriloquist - with Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens shape-shifting between the endless list of people who populate this play. But though the ventriloquist is denied one, there are still too many names and only two actors. I couldn't keep up and then...
It happened so gradually, I don't even notice. I wasn't even looking at the names anymore. I didn't need to.
There was Kieran with his taut lips and rounded shoulders. And Ethel with her wide eyes and sweet smile. And Bret, all swagger as he pushes back his hair from his forehead.
No Mary though. She was long gone before the start of the story, but the echoes of her flow through the narrative like inherited traits through a family line.
The eponymous Mary ran a clinic that specialised in artificial insemination. And her story lives on long after her death as the children she helped bring into world, thousands of them, clash and bumble into each other. The threads of their DNA pulling them together in unexpected and alarming ways. That sausage roll that I had committed to memory managed to set off Milly's gag reflex as she attends her new-found half-sister's babyshower, the baby shower where she bonds with another half-sister, Kate, who also had a violent reaction to the sausage rolls on offer, and...
I just noticed something while looking up that sausage roll line in the playtext.
Six lines up. We're at the same party and Charlotte and Jack are discussing their indifference to Marmite.
This is madness. I love Marmite.
I'm eating it now. On toast. For breakfast.
I haven't had Marmite for ages.
I just bought a jar the other day... on my way home from this play.
Well, I suppose I need to have Kieran's egg sandwich for lunch now. I do like an egg sandwich. That's not a bad idea, actually... And possibly cook up a batch of Gracie's chicken soup. I am feeling a bit grotty right now...
I'm not saying that I'm easily suggestible, but if the playwright ever decides to pen a follow-up, where Mary is reanimated by an underground network of scientists to fight back against the rise of designer DNA (working title: Mary’s Grandbabies: Mary Returns) it would be great if someone could convince Maud Dromgoogle to write in a vitamin-rich-vegetable-obsession to the museum-quality beings. That would really help the old cold-fighting. Not sure Marmite is quite doing the trick.
I blame the hail.