I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned this before (and do stop me if I have), but I’m not a born Londoner. I grew up in the arse-end of Somerset, in a house on top of a hill, almost completely surrounded by woodland. Through the small gap in the trees we had a view of an 11th century church and, on a clear day, Glastonbury Tor. For the majority of my childhood, my only choice of footwear was my black school shoes, and my green wellies. I didn’t own a coat that wasn’t waxed until I was at university.
My village didn’t have a shop. There was the church, of course. Open one Sunday a month, and on Christmas Eve. A pay-phone at the bottom of the hill. A post-box. And cows. Lots of cows. During long summers, they would grow restless and break the fences, storming into our garden and baying at the moon until I was sent out in the middle of the night, a Barbour jacket slung over my pyjamas, to knock on the doors of the local farms, until I found the farmer responsible and convince him to come over, all grumbling and tired, and fetch his livestock home.
In the morning we would wake up to find the grass overturned by hoof prints. The flowers trodden down. And the dog in hysterics.
Still, the cows invading was better than when the hunt came through. They were technically banned from crossing our land (we were always a friend of the foxes), but they never listened. They would burst through the hedges, leaping over fences to cross our fields, leaving chaos and my mother’s curses in their wake.
Curses that would be repeated bloodily down the phone to the water company whenever our supply ran out, like clockwork, every August. Massive lorries would inch their way up the tiny lane towards our house to deliver bottles of the stuff, to tide us over until the water tanks could be refilled.
The power-companies weren’t so easily bullied. We were often left without electricity for days on end whenever the lines went down.
Anyway, this long nostalgia-fest is just my way of telling you that there definitely wasn’t a theatre. I didn’t see my first proper, professionally-staged, play until I was fourteen, on a school trip.
I thought it was dreadful.
I didn’t go again until I was well into my twenties.
All this is to say, I don’t have any fond memories of going to the theatre as a child to draw on in this marathon.
When my native London friends get all misty-eyed over the Polka or the Half Moon, I’m left to counter with tales of the Bath and West show, or the local sheep dog trials.
So as I arrive at the Unicorn Theatre this sunny Saturday afternoon, it is my first ever visit to the famous London Bridge venue.
After the pokiness of the Polka, I’m surprised by just have vast this place is. And modern. And bright.
Stepping through the automatic doors, I’m met by a photographic mural of swimming goldfish, which does rather make me wonder about the huge glass windows.
“Are you here for Dido?” an usher in a purple polo shirt asks me, in the gentle voice of someone who is used to a rather younger clientele.
I tell her that I am, and she directs me towards the box office.
She doesn’t look surprised that a grown up woman has turned up to a kids’ theatre without a little one in tow.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out why.
There aren’t any children here.
I look around as I wait to pick up my ticket.
This place is packed with grown-ups.
A few months ago, back when I was booking my ticket, I’d spent whole minutes debating whether the age guidance of 11 - Adult was inclusive of adults, or if it had a cut off before the age of majority. But, by the looks of it, the fully-grown population of London have had no such qualms.
Now, I don’t know much about the story of Dido, it’s a long time since my (limited) classical education, but I presumed, it being a co-production with this most illustrious of kids’ theatres, that it would be suitable for children.
Finally, it’s my turn at the box office, and my eyes land on a sign balanced next to the freesheets. “Dido’s suicide will be presented on stage,” it reads.
What the hell is this opera?
I grab a freesheet, and a synopsis (which for some reason are two separate documents) and start reading.
Dido, queen of Carthage… blah blah blah… love… gods… rejection… kills herself. What the actual fuck.
Who wrote this thing?
Oh. I mean…. Okay.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Henry Purcell. Adore him. The Baroque era is totally my jam. You can keep Stravinsky’s angry strings, and Britten’s boring drones. I love the orderliness of Handel and Vivaldi and Corelli and Bach. Well, not so much Bach. Johann Sebastian can do one, quite frankly. But the others, for sure.
Plus, after a sneaky non-marathon trip to catch the new Larbi piece at the Opera House, I had fallen in love again with Purcell’s Cold Song, and was keen to hear more.
But for an eleven year old?
I don’t know, man. This whole thing doesn’t strike me as particularly adapté aux enfants. And I say that as the type of pretentious wanker who can’t say ‘suitable for children’ in English like a normal person.
The house isn’t open yet, so I have time to wander around.
It’s really nice here.
There are vinyls on the floor instructing you JUMP and GIGGLE. I bet parents love the one saying HAVE AN ICE CREAM.
I manage to convince myself that if you perform all the actions, in the exact right way, and in the exact right order, a portal into some magical other world will open and take you off for a fantastic adventure.
I must have done it wrong, because when I gaze at the ceiling, by order of the vinyl message to LOOK UP, I see nothing but white up there.
I knew I should have bought an ice cream.
The house is open now, and we begin the long traipse up three floors worth of steps, past little balconies full of toys, and a deconstructed piano.
The ushers are all primed with freesheets and plastic cups, wet wipes, and indulgent smiles. Slightly strained looking indulgent smiles to be honest, as if they don’t quite know how to deal with a pile of old opera-fans brandishing pink ENO tickets instead of their usual patrons.
Round the corner, through the door, and there it is: The Weston Theatre.
It’s big. Much bigger than I expected.
The seating is curved round a thrust stage, which goes back and back and back into the far distance. And I’m suddenly jealous of everyone who grew up in London and got to enjoy shows on this massive stage instead of splattering their way through cowpats in order to drag their dog away from a very aggressive badger.
The cast are already out there, warming up their voices and their bodies. One lady is sprawled on the floor, twisted her hips, first one way, then the other.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of set, but there are what looks like three conifer trees hanging from the lighting rig, and I am very excited about them.
As I lean forward to get a better look at these arboreal flying wonders, the pages of the freesheet cascade from my knee onto the floor.
I crouch down, off my seat, scrabbling to pick them up.
Damn booklet wasn’t stapled.
I shove the folded pages back together and stow it safely in my bag.
Just in time. The lights are dimming.
The harpsicord strikes up a tune. Oh, that’s the stuff.
But just as I am about to lose myself in the lush geometry of Purcell’s music, I realise something.
I can’t make out what the hell this lot are singing about.
One scene slips into another. Dido (I think that’s Dido) sips wine while curled up in a very uncomfortable looking armchair. A great sprawl of fake grass is rolled out. The trees descend from the heavens. There’s a picnic. Dido’s bloke takes over a glass of champagne to the conductor (she sniffs it delicately before placing it on the ground, untouched). Dido’s bloke then stands at the front of the stage and gets rained on. I think this is my cue to feel sad.
“What’s going on?” whispers a small voice from a few rows behind me.
I await the answer eagerly. I could do with some help on the matter too.
No reply comes, though whether this is due to the small voice’s caregiver wanting to respect the code of audience silence, or the lack of an answer to give, I cannot tell you.
A few minutes later, the small voice asks again: “What’s happening?”
I don’t know, kid. I just don’t know.
What is happening? Or rather, what happened to make the people at the Unicorn and ENO think that a child’s version of Dido was something that needed to be staged?
As Dido takes a total of three pills before lying on the ground to die I can’t help but question: Who asked for this? And why?
And why didn’t they staple the damn freesheet?