A few days ago I was debating whether I would tell you if I ever got stood up. Turns out I absoluetly would, because it's happened. Your gurl has been stood up. Although I'm not sure it counts as a true standing up if you get advance notice. Okay, I got cancelled on. Surely that is bad enough?
Anyway, cue me contacting every single person I have ever met in my entire life to dangle the offer of a free ticket to a new musical in front of them. After a few tense hours, it is Allison who takes the bait. We haven't had a theatre outing together since Valentine's day, when she ditched her husband to come to the Donmar with me, and I think we can all agree three months is far too long to wait for a second date. But I can't complain. Not when Allison is stepping in the rescue me from embarrassing solitude once more. That's true friendship, that is.
We meet outside the theatre, pop in to pick up our tickets, and then head out for the really important part of the evening: dinner.
"Where do you wanna go?" asks Allison.
I'd suggested Borough Market and leftover cupcakes from my work's bake sale in my tempting messages that afternoon, but the situation has since developed and I have my eye on the Mercato Metropolitano marketplace on the other side of the road.
"Wow, that looks intense," says Allison as we peer through the open doors at the long queue getting searched by multiple security guards.
"Let's try the next door," I suggest. In my earlier recognisance walk-by, I'd spotted that the last door seemed to be the most lax on the whole security-thing.
We try the last door, and get our bags checked.
It’s Friday night and the place is packed.
Every chair, table, and vaguely flat surface, is occupied. But curiously, each of the stalls is utterly devoid of people wanting food.
The two of us walk around, trying to decide what we want to eat.
“Turkish German?” says Allison. “That’s a weird combination.”
“That is a weird combination… but oh, look! They have currywurst! I love currywurst!”
Allison has never had currywurst before, so it becomes my personal mission to educate her on the joys of sausage in curry sauce, and I order two.
“I’ll buy you a drink,” offers Allison as I shove my card in to pay.
“We have drinks vouchers,” I say, pulling them out of my pocket to show her.
“It’s just like a real date,” she laughs.
“I have cupcakes in my bag, remember. I know how to show a girl a good time.”
We’re handed one of those buzzer things, which I immediately pass off to Allison. I can’t be dealing with those things. They make me anxious.
We find somewhere to sit down. Well, Allison finds somewhere to sit down. I balance precariously on a table. And we wait for the black box to beep.
Ten minutes later we’re still waiting.
“I thought this was place was supposed to be fast food,” says Allison.
“Do you think we should go and ask?”
We do. Or rather, Allison does.
“Two minutes,” says the guy in the stall. Behind him we see the cook running around, busily making our currywurst.
Five minutes later, it arrives. On two plates.
“Err, can we have it to-go?” I ask, looking around at the complete lack of free tables to sit two large plates on.
After much huffing and puffing, we get the currywurst in a to-go container.
I immediately open mine and tuck in.
“The chips are cold,” I say.
Oh well. We head back to the Southwark Playhouse and set up camp on one of the small tables outside. Perfectly positioned to be able to see what is going on in the bar, and primed to launch ourselves inside when the doors open.
It’s also the best possible set up to show off to Allison my ability to put away astonishing quantities of food in a very short space of time.
“Oh my…” says Allison, as I use my last chip to mop up a dollop of mustard.
We both look at her dish. It’s still half full.
“Don’t worry, we still have…” I check my phone. “Five whole minutes. No rush.”
But the doors are open and the crowds in the bar are starting to go in.
Allison admits defeat and we head inside. Slowly. Currywurst doesn’t sit lightly on the stomach.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue. Or rather, everywhere seems to be part of the queue. Within seconds Allison and I are jostled apart. I reach out my hand to her, hoping to pull her through the crowds, but we’re too far away from each other. I let myself be swept forward towards the doors of the theatre.
It’s press night tonight and the smaller of the Southwark’s Playhouse’s two venues, The Little, is crammed full of industry folks and their mates.
“Where shall we sit?” I ask Allison as we finally manage to find one another.
There aren’t many options left.
“Shall we try the other side?”
Somehow, the good people of the Southwark Playhouse have managed to fit multiple rows of benches on three sides and still have room for a stage. We pick our way around until we make it to the other side. There’s some free spots round here. In the front row.
Now, we all know how I feel about the front row, but I think we’ll be safe. We’re here for a musical. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, no less. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of show that will have interaction.
But then, one never knows with theatre. I mean… I’ve told you about the immersive Hamlet, right?
I put on my best “don’t talk to me face,” and settle in.
The cast come out. They’re carrying instruments. They strike up a tune. It’s folksy and earnest. Which, if that description sounds familiar to you, is because I used it to describe the music in The Hired Man. But where the power of that musical got lost in the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, there’s no chance of that in this tiny, intimate space.
Sitting in the front row, with nothing before me but these musicians bouncing around and strumming their tunes, I feel like I’m in some West Country pub, listening to the local band singing about the town’s resident folk hero - long drowned in legend - the truth of his tale forgotten.
And because it is a legend, we don’t have to worry about the silly matter of logic. Or even why the American writer’s tale, originally set in Baltimore (yeah, I've done my research - I’ve read the Wikipedia page), has been moved to Cornwall.
A large puppet is carried onto the stage. It’s Benjamin. His father gawps and him, and so do we, as we all puzzle the impossibility of such a birth.
No matter. The story moves on and so do we. Even the puppet gets replaced by a real boy.
“It’s really good!” says Allison as the house lights go up for the interval. She sounds surprised.
“Shall we get a drink?” I say, pulling out the drinks vouchers that come as part of the press night experience.
The queue for the bar is intense, but we stick close to each other and soon make it to the front.
“What can we get for these?” Allison asks the lady behind the bar.
“Anything!” comes the joyful reply. “Beer. Wine. Spirits.”
Well! I plump for a Gin and tonic, because I'm not letting this opportunity go. Allison goes for a beer with a very romantic sounding name that I immediately forget. “It feels right for the show,” she explains. I hadn’t been the only one picking up the pub-vibes then.
A few minutes later, there’s an announcement that it’s time to go back in.
“Can we take our drinks do you think?” I ask, looking with concern at the large quantity of G&T left in my glass. I may be a trougher when it comes to food, but downing a large alcoholic drink in one has never been part of my skill-set.
“Yeah, they just said,” says Allison. I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.
We go back in and settle in our seats, listening to the conversation flowing around us.
“It’s really gooood.”
“Well done, darling.”
I love press nights. So much audience enthusiasm as everyone congratulates their friends and themselves.
“Do you want a tissue?” someone in the row behind us asks her friend. “I saw it last night and the second act is a bit of a weeper.”
I mean: yay. I have a hankering for a show that makes me cry those big snotty tears. But also, I’m wearing a lot of eyeliner today.
Thank god I’m here with Allison. She won’t judge me if I get my face covered with black tears.
The sniffs start quickly. Everywhere around me people are touching their fingers to the corners of their eyes. Soon there are nose wipes taking over as sniffs are no longer affective against this onslaught of emotions.
There’s something in my eye. I blink. That was a mistake. The tears I’d been so carefully holding back start to spill. I press the back of my hand against my cheek, hoping to get rid of them before my makeup melts.
The cast bows.
We stare at them. Clapping because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Our minds still not fully caught up with what’s just happened.
A few people stagger to their feet.
Gradually, more join them.
Allison gets up.
I follow her.
The cast start up again. A few people try to clap along with the beat, but the rest of us are too spent for such a thing. We fall back into our seats, crying happy tears as the performers play on.
The final note fades away. Grinning, the cast disappear. But we don’t stop clapping. Can’t stop clapping. This is it.
The cast aren’t coming back, but we still aren’t stopping.
Minutes later, they return for one final bow and are hands are allowed to still, the business of showing our appreciation now satisfied.
“I counted five people crying during the infirmary scene,” says the woman sitting behind us. “I love that,” she adds,as we all gather our belongings together.
Allison and I quietly make our way out. I'm not ready to talk just yet.
It wasn’t the infirmary scene though. I mean, if you’re going to go and die, doing so in the arms of a handsome young man who adores you doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It was what came after that really got me. The diminishment of the self. The shrinking of Benjamin’s mind alongside his body. The memories fading into nothing. Perhaps because it comes to us all. Eventually.
As I trudge my way back home, I remember something. I hadn’t given Allison her cupcake. Shit. I had completely forgotten.
I’m a terrible date.