The Bunker. That’s a bar, right? In like, an old bunker left over from the war or something. Yeah, somewhere like Shoreditch. Yeah, yeah. I know the one. Full of hipsters. I mean, I don’t know at all, but I can imagine.
No? Really? A theatre? No. In Borough? What? No. Are you sure?
Turns out they were sure. And so The Bunker was added to the Official Website List™ for the London Theatre Marathon (as opposed to the unofficial list which lives on my laptop and is full of venues I’m still not entirely convinced actually exist).
Picking one solitary show to visit at a theatre I know absolutely nothing about is a bit of a challenge. I try and do a bit of research, visit their website, follow them on Twitter if I’m really feeling rigorous.
So, I did both those things. Nice website. Full of triangles. I like a triangle as much as the next person, so, you know. Good stuff. Quality info too. Nice copy. Very much enjoyed the mention of them testing each and every one of their chairs for comfort. Not sure I entirely believe that, or even know what constitutes a comfort test (I would have thought sitting quietly for two hours, not being allowed to move would be a good baseline), but it’s a nice line. Also stuff about e-tickets and QR codes and all that stuff which theatres always seem to bang on about on their websites, but never actually end up using in practice. I ignored all that. You can too.
Over on their Twitter feed we’ve got a lot of retweets. A lot of retweets. Let’s be real. It’s all retweets. And they’re from some very fervent and adoring fans. Not just about the shows either. They also like the loos (and the free tampons). And the writers’ snug. And the staff. And the music choices being pumped out in the bar. That’s all a good sign.
This trip was sounding more promising by the day. I just needed to pick a show. Any show.
I went back to the website, scrolling up and down the What’s On page, trying to figure out what would be the best option for me. Did I want poetry or political? An adaptation or a debut? I couldn’t decide. It was all very stressful.
But really, in the end, the best way to learn about the kind of work a theatre put on is to actually go there. Learn by doing and all that.
So I just picked a show, and booked.
Or rather, I cheated and booked two. In a double bill.
This blog is about the experience of going to the theatre and I was going to experience the hell out of The Bunker.
And, oh wow. It really is a bunker. Somehow this comes a surprise, despite the clue being in the name. Set back from Southwark Road, you slide down a long ramp that sinks below street-level until you get to a small door topped with one of those bunker-triangles that is now starting to make me think that this theatre has some illuminati tie-in.
Inside, water drips down the wooden walls and heaters try their damndest to fight against the chill blasting through the front door, but despite these grim conditions, The Bunker manages to avoid feeling like an air-raid shelter. In fact, I begin to think I might have been right the first time. This is a hipster bar in Shoreditch. I mean, let’s just examine the evidence shall we? We’ve got a circus colour scheme and faerie-lights to match. There’s a bar purporting to sell craft beers. Rugged wooden floors under our feet. And everyone here looks way cooler than me.
And like, not in a dungarees and beanie hat type of cool. But in a: I-work-in-the-theatre kinda way. I place a mental bet with myself that at least seventy percent of the audience tonight works in the theatre industry. I have no way of finding that out of course, but all the same, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win that bet.
I sign in at the box office. No need for e-ticket nonsense, I get given a paper wristband. Purple this time. I’m starting to build a collection. It will sit nicely against my BAC one. Purple and green. The suffragette colours.
Writstband acquired, I perch on the end of a bench and try not to lean against the wet walls as I listen in for theatre-related conversation.
“I am the patriarchy,” declares someone loudly.
The rumble of chatter at the bar stops.
A woman turns round in shock at such a blatant admission.
“Thank you!” she says. “I'd been wondering who it was! So happy to know it’s you!”
Well, I’m glad we got that sorted. But it doesn’t help me win my bet.
“The house is now open,” calls out a front of houser. “If you have a stamp or a wristband you can go straight through. If not, come see me at box office.”
Stamps for the light-weights only going to the first show of the night. Wristbands for the dedicated souls committed to seeing both of them… like me.
The three sides look like they each belong to a different theatre. On the right, the chairs have been pilfered from a pub somewhere. On the left, they definitely came from a board room. Whereas in the middle, we have colourful, squashy-looking benches. If The Bunker needs any help with their next round of comfort tests, I volunteer to tackle the centre block.
By the looks of it, The Bunker wouldn’t be short of volunteers, as we all headed for those soft and padded benches.
The stage is a good size for a fringe venue. Surprisingly spacious and not at all what I had in mind when I booked these shows - a pair of one-woman performances. If The Bunker had a mind to, if say they could fit a good fifteen actors in that space. Twenty if they didn't do much moving around and we're all prepared to breathe in.
Aoife Lennon was prepared to do no such thing. In fact, I don't think she breathed for the entire performance. An endless stream of words poured out of her, as she took us around her estate and introduced the residents with such clarity I could see them there, standing beside her.
Stepping out from between the fence of light-posts that marked out the stage, she sheds her characters and talks to us, explaining what it means to be a kid growing up with less, giving us the stats to sit alongside the story.
I sink low in my seat, the weight of my privilege pressing down on me as low as The Bunker’s ceilings.
As I struggle with the outrage and sadness that Kat Woods’ words are inflicting on me, I notice the person sitting in front of me. Writing. More words. So many words. Scrawled in a messy hand in a heavily used notebook.
In my experience, a notepad in the lap of an audience member for a non-press night performance can mean one of two things. Either the director is making tweaks, or there’s a blogger in the building. Director or blogger. Director or blogger. I have a lot riding on this. As he flips the page, his sleeve rides up and I spot a flash of purple. Ha! Blogger.
Oh… wait. That’s not what I wanted. My chances of winning this bet are falling rapidly.
Unless... do bloggers count as theatre people? No.
Bloggers are of the industry, but not in it.
This I decide based on no reasoning whatsoever.
Aoife Lennon takes her bows. I can't move. I'm pinned to my seat.
But I have to. We're being ordered out while they get the stage ready for the next performance. There's already someone there sweeping up the small circle of dirt that had comprised the set.
"If you don't have a ticket to Box Clever, but would like one, you can upgrade at the box office," says the front of houser.
I manage to struggle to my feet, feeling drunk on words.
I message to my friend Helen.
"Have you seen Killymuck????"
Yes, I used four question marks. It's a very important question.
"I have not," comes the reply. "It sounds like a play?"
"Yes. At the bunker." What I gain in question marks, I lose in capitalisations. "It's 70 mins and uses the F word," I type, focussing on the important things.
I consider this for a moment before adding: "(and I don't mean fuck...)"
It's only because of Helen that I know what the f-word-which-isn't-fuck means. And it's because of her that I also know that I'm not allowed to use it.
On the box office counter, they're selling playtexts.
Should I buy a playtext? I really want a playtext.
They’re five pounds. Ten if I end up loving the second show too and want both.
I can’t afford it. Can I? No, I can’t. I have a freesheet. That’s enough.
It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.
It's time to for the next play. I'm not sure I'm ready. I'm still feeling a bit raw from the first one.
We file back in, all taking slightly different positions on the comfy benches. The blogger is now sitting next to me. My old neighbour is out in front. The row behind me is packed. They all know each other
"I'm doing all the drama schools at the moment," I hear one of them say. "I was at RADA the other night and Guildhall last night. Yeah, it was really good. Lots of other agents there."
I knew it. Didn't I say?
I totally called it.
But I can't concentrate on the bet.
I put my jacket and scarf back on, feeling the chill radiating off of the cold concrete walls.
Redd Lily Roche comes out carrying a balloon. We all giggle as she sets it down, ever so gently, on the ground.
This is the second time within a week I've seen balloons used to represent children. I'm not surprised. It's a great metaphor. The fragility. The wonder.
But soon I’m the one left feeling fragile and full of wonder as I’m once again pummelled by all the words. This time belonging to Monsay Whitney.
Even my woollen jacket can’t protect me from the icy blast of pain as Redd Lily Roche’s character struggles against a system that has no room for her.
Blood coats her hands, her arms, her jeans. And we bleed with her. She hugs the balloon. It’s a startling image. Someone gets their phone out to take a photo but an usher steps in.
As the words end and the lights extinguish, the front row leaps up to their feet.
“You rock,” someone shouts out.
They’re not lying.
If this is the type of stuff The Bunker is doing, I know where I’ll be hiding out when Brexit hits.
Now, about that bet...