It isn't often that I genuinely worry that I'll run out of District Line before getting to my destination, but we're really pushing the limits here. I'm so far down the line, there was some actual debate with a couple of friends as to whether this theatre even counted as a London resident. There was also some serious concern from certain parties that I might actually be heading towards, wait for it, Essex.
But as per the rules of the marathon, if I can get there on my Oyster card, then it qualifies for the marathon. And here I am, stepping onto the platform at Hornchurch station, just a short walk from the next theatre on my list: Queen's Theatre.
One of the unexpected thrills of heading this far out is not quite knowing what you're going to find.
I mean, when you're going to the West End, you kinda know what to expect. An old Edwardian building stuck together with gold and velvet. Pub theatres are all black boxes and faerie lights. Fringe theatres are coloured lights and mismatched furniture. But the further out I go, the less local knowledge I have on which to hook my expectations.
Would the Queen's Theatre be a converted church? A reformed synagogue? A born-again basilica? A doctored hospital? A reworked workhouse? A metamorphosed butterfly house? A remodelled model village? It could be anything!
As I walk down North Street, I peer at all the signs trying to work out which building it could be. I spy a church coming up. There's a large sign out front. "Dream big. Pray bigger!" it says in big round letters. Was that it? It isn’t. It can’t be. I’m on the wrong side of the road.
It should be somewhere on the left, according to Google Maps.
A couple strolling ahead of me turn left into a park. They look like the sort who might enjoy a good musical. I follow them.
And there, across the wide expanse of grass is a building that looks like it has been lifted straight from some college campus. The kind where you can imagine cool young people swarming about clutching textbooks larger than themselves. Or perhaps rushing up the stairs, their massive portfolio cases smashing against their knees with every step.
Was this it?
I squint my eyes against the last of the day’s sun, but I’m not wearing my glasses and I can’t make out what the sign says. But that brick monolith jutting out the back looks like it could be a fly tower.
The path gently curves, leading me to the front of the building.
There’s a wide staircase out front made up of floating steps, and a large sign stuck on the side of the building in huge orange letters. I have reached Queen’s Theatre it seems, and even better, returned to the seventies once more - back before apostrophes were invented, as the sign seems to be distinctly lacking in the punctuation department.
I wonder whether this was a mistake of the sign-makers, or part of some grand drive towards inclusivity. I’m not sure which is worse. Of course, it could be something truly dreadful, like me having spent the entirety of this post writing Queen’s when in fact the theatre was named for multiple majesties. This is not something that I am prepared to check, so we must all agree, right here and now, that it is the sign that is at fault. And not me.
There’s another sign next to the first. Smaller and considerably less orange. “Supported by the London Borough of Havering,” it reads. Phew.
Despite the proximity to the punctuation-lacking sign, I decide to put my faith entirely in the second one. We were still in London. And not Essex. The sign says so. Let that be an end to such discussion.
That settled, I go up the stairs, keeping to the edge of the railing just in case any students come flying down the steps, their portfolios flapping in the breeze, and head inside to pick up my ticket.
Oh, oh my… look at this.
It says the name of my blog. On the ticket.
Just above the title of the show: The Hired Man.
I can’t stop staring at it.
I’m stumbling around, not knowing where I’m going and I don’t even care.
There are press drinks downstairs, but what care I for wine when my ticket has London Theatre Marathon printed across the top.
This is it. This is the big time.
I’m going to need to frame this sucker when I get home.
I quickly put it in my pocket before I fall down the stairs. I may not be overly fussed by the prospect of press drinks, but I also don’t want to fall flat on my arse in front of the good people of Hornchurch. I spy someone wearing a gold coin down there. One of the big fancy ones that sits on the shoulders. The sort of mayor wears. Does Hornchurch have a mayor? Well, if it does, the man in the building and guilded up.
I make it down the stairs in one piece and start inching myself through the crowd. I bypass the wine. I shouldn’t be having it anyway. I’m actually stupidly ill and on antibiotics right now. But there is something far more interesting lurking against the wall. A table absolutely heaving with food. There are sausage rolls. And sandwiches. And wraps. And nowhere on the patient information leaflet for my pills does it say that I can’t mix penicillin with sausage rolls, or sandwiches, or wraps. I mean… I haven’t actually read it. But I fairly certain that it doesn’t all the same.
I grab a few and tuck in, not even caring if the mayor of Hornchurch sees me with pastry crumbs all down my front. I brush them off.
But then, just as I take a bit and shower a fresh set of crumbs all down my top, I spot someone.
Someone I recognise.
Someone very rapidly walking away from me.
I stumble after him, running up the steps, not even caring that I’m covered in the remanence of two sausage rolls.
It’s Ian! He’s quite a famous blogger, as it happens. But for the sake of me not having to ask permission to mention his name, let’s just call him Ian.
“Did you get your blog name printed on your ticket?” I ask, diving straight into the important question.
He shows me his ticket. It has his blog name printed across the top. I won’t tell you what it says, but I’m sure you’ve already cracked my code of secrecy.
“Have you tried the sausage rolls?” That’s my follow up question. Never let it be said that I’m not a brilliant conversationalist.
“Oh, I don’t go down there,” he says, waving at the press drinks pit dismissively. “With all the young people.”
“It wasn’t like this back with my old blog. No chance of ever getting a press ticket. And never any sausage rolls. How times change.”
Oh yeah, I’m not sure if I ever mentioned I used to be a theatre blogger in my twenties. I mean a real one. Who wrote real reviews. Well, kind of real reviews. Not diary entries of my theatre trips at least. I was a right catty cow though. How times change, eh?
“Where are you sitting?” I ask.
Turns out he’s sitting next to me. I grin as I show him my ticket.
“Oh fuck off,” he says, reeling back.
I think he’s joking.
Oh well. Time to go in.
Even given the campus-like proportions outside, I’m still surprised by how large it is in here. Not so much a case of “bigger on the inside,” but “bigger than I expected, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. Did I mention the fact that I am very, very ill? Because I am very, very ill, and I am blaming that for my lack of ability to estimate space based on relative sizing of available reference points.”
There’s a great big stage, and what looks like, if my poor tired eyes aren’t seeing things, a revolve sat on top of it.
I fucking love a revolve.
I am well excited.
“Did you choose to come to this, or were you just invited?” I ask Ian.
“I chose. It’s one of my favourite musicals.”
Blimey. That’s quite the statement.
I chose to see this one too. I do like a good musical. And with the marketing copy proudly proclaiming The Hired Man as “The best British musical in 40 years,” well, Hornchurch didn’t need to tempt my with the prospect of sausage rolls to get me on the train, that’s all I’m saying.
I take a few photos from my seat.
“No photography inside the auditorium,” says Ian, pointing at an image of a camera with a red line through it.
I take a photo of the sign.
The show starts.
Huh. This is not what I was expecting.
For a start, I thought there might be a story of some sort. But instead all we’re getting is a lot of songs about work. “Bitter work,” one character explains.
There is even a song called Work.
Perhaps I should have expected this. The title is, after all, The Hired Man. But, as I may have mentioned, I’ve been very, very ill.
In the interval, I tentatively ask Ian if anything will actually happen in this musical.
“Well, there’s the first world war…”
“Yeah, but that’s not exactly a plot point, is it?”
He shrugs good-naturedly. He’s happy. He’s watching one of his favourite musicals after all.
I’m fairly happy too. There are scones on offer in the pit, and I’m busy making a mess of myself scoffing on them while I try to make sense of the first act.
Plus, the sight of a cello having its rounded curved patted as it takes on the important role of Dog is a memory that is still lingering pleasantly. As is TJ Holmes playing the accordion with almost a religious fervour blazing in his eyes. Although, I do think there should be a limit imposed on the talents displayed by performers in a single performance. Acting? Fine. Singing? Definitely. Acting, and singing, and also playing a musical instrument? A little much. But if it leads to scenes of cello-patting and clarinets being brandished in the same manner a villager might lift up their rake before storming the castle… well, I can get on board with that. But acting and singing and playing multiple instruments?
Watching an actor jump off the revolve in order to take a seat behind one of the two pianos, bang out a tune, and then rush back to join in with a new song, flute in hand, is breath-taking in itself.
And despite all the enforced northern grimness, it’s very pretty. From the long skirts and even longer hair on the girls (not forgetting Lara Lewis' natty green jacket) and all those tasty puttees wrapped around the men's legs as they go off to fight. The music too. I guess. Folky and earnest. And yes, pretty. Even so, it’s not going to be knocking Six off my “Musical Bangers to Write Copy To” Spotify playlist anytime soon.
Because that’s it, isn’t it? It’s not a banger. It’s an intimate, sweet show. Too small and gentle for a theatre as large as Queen’s. In row H, I might as well have been sitting in the back row for the remoteness I felt from the characters. This is a musical that belongs above a pub. Where the audience is close enough to smell the anguish.
But I’ll tell you who disagrees.
The blooming mayor of Hornchurch.
As soon as the show ended, that man leapt up to his feet, turning round and waving with his hands as he tries to provoke a standing ovation from the rest of us.
I like his style. And not just because of his fabulous jewellery.
“Going back for seconds?” jokes Ian as we make our way out, and he spots me glancing into the pit.
I decline. It’s a long way home, and I still have to haul myself all the way back to the station. And besides, I am very, very ill.