I have two thoughts as I make my way down to the Blue Elephant Theatre. Firstly, that it was a lot further south than I had anticipated. A lot further south. I thought it was close to Elephant & Castle tube, but I passed that ten minutes back and I’m still going. The other is that after all this walking, it better bloody be blue. I’m willing to accept that my fantasies of it being shaped like an actual elephant may not come to pass, but a lack of blueness will be unbearable.
“Watch it,” shouts a cyclist as he screams past me on the pavement.
Fucking hell. The cyclists of south London are intense. Only been here half an hour and that’s the third one that seems intent on murdering me.
I pick my way across the road carefully, checking both ways at least three times.
South London be dangerous, y’all. Can’t even stroll down a pavement without… wait. Where am I?
The shops and bustling high street have fallen away behind me. I’m alone. Standing in what looks to be very residential area. Is there really a theatre here?
I check my phone. According to the theatre’s website, it should be just around this corner - opposite the large block of flats.
I turn the corner, feeling more than a little doubtful about the whole thing. Not being in the shape of an elephant was one thing. Not existing at all was quite another. I’d go as far as to say that I’d be quite upset if, after walking all the way from Islington, the Blue Elephant turned out to be, well, a pink elephant.
Thankfully, it’s not a drunken hallucination, because there it is, and… while not completely blue, there are definitely some blue elements. Doors and shutters and the swinging sign are all painted a very lickable shade of azure. And even better, the sign has the model of an elephant in it.
A family walk past, the little girl bouncing along in a Disney-print onesie.
“The theatre’s open today!" she shouts, excitedly pointing towards the building.
Her mum doesn’t seem impressed. They are running late. There is no time for possibly-non-existent theatres.
I’m running late too. I should go pick up my ticket.
It’s even bluer inside. Doors in that tasty azure shade are everywhere, surrounded by a more tasteful navy blue.
A (blue) sign points the way to the box office. Left, and up the stairs.
Not that I can go up them. There’s a couple of young ladies picking up tickets, and the three of us are taking up what little room there is on the few steps that separate the entrance from the landing that has been requisitioned as box office.
They have one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall windows, but the space behind it looks so small that the person serving is hanging out in the doorway, leaning into the office and the landing and back again, without moving his feet, as he processes the two woman.
By the sounds of it, they’re getting free tickets. Some sort of initiative for locals. Which I would be totally in favour of if it were not for the fact that my local theatre doesn’t seem to do these things.
Finally, it’s my turn.
“The surname is Smiles,” I say.
“Smiles! I remember the name ‘Smiles’,” he says, beaming. I laugh. I’m used to the reaction my name gets, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it every time it happens.
His finger runs down the list. “Ah, Max. Of course.”
He hands me an admission pass. Laminated and a bit worn looking, but it’s large, and blue, and most importantly, it has an elephant on it.
“And your programme,” he says, handing me what is very clearly a freesheet. “The bar is upstairs.”
Up the stairs I find more blue doors. These ones with stickers of elephants on them. A pink elephant on the left. And a blue elephant on the left. The blue elephant has a moustache and a bowtie. The pink elephant has a flower tucked behind its ear. I presume this display gender-normative elephant-accessories is meant to indicate loos lurking on the other side of the doors.
I decide not to investigate further.
More stairs. And there’s the bar. It a nice room. Packed full of little tables covered in mismatched table-clothes. There’s a table over by the far side, and low stools around the perimeter. It’s saved from looking cramped by the high vaulted ceiling. The angled beams are painted deep navy blue.
And there are elephants. They’re hiding all over the place. One behind the bar. Another hanging from one of the beams.
I’m in serious danger of finding myself playing a game of hunt-the-elephant, so I go to sit down, picking a table covering in a sparkly tablecloth. I’m in that kind of mood.
The bar begins to fill up.
Everyone seems to know everyone else. I begin to wonder if I’m the only person here who actually bought her way in.
A woman walks over to the table behind me. “We’re starting a little bit late,” she says to them. “There are still, like, seven people not here. I don’t know who they are, but they’re on the list.”
Yeah, that’s the problem with free tickets. It’s very easy not to turn up when you’ve got one. It takes a financial commitment not to succumb to the lure of Netflix.
It’s well past eight now. I’m starting to get a little worried about the length of my journey home.
“Welcome to the Blue Elephant for the first night of Justice, taking place in the theatre downstairs,” says a woman, who has clearly also got home-time on the brain and wants to get this show rolling. She runs through a serious of warnings: haze, depictions of sexual violence. “And, errr, one thing I’ve forgotten.” She pauses, trying to remember the last thing on the list.
“Nah,” calls out someone else. “That’s about it.” She turns to everyone else in the bar. “Sorry if there was something else.”
Everyone whoops and staggers to their feet. Ah. Not locals then. But mates of the cast. I’m sure of it. No one is that enthusiastic about theatre unless they know someone involved. Not even when the tickets are free.
But they are not making for the stairs. They have one more thing to get sorted before they go into the auditorium.
As one, they head towards the bar.
Definitely friends of the cast.
Back down the stairs. Past the pink vs blue loos. Past the boxy corner office. Past the entrance. And on to the theatre.
“Amazing,” says the guy from the box office, who is now on ticket checking duty. He takes my admission pass and I go in.
There’s a single bank of seating. Raked. The stage is at floor level. It’s covered in chairs. Both lined up down the sides in a way that sets my teeth on edge (actors sitting on the side of the stage in scenes that are not their own is a trope that went from being pretentious to hackneyed decades ago), but also piled up on the floor, and hanging from the rig. And there, along the back wall, is a tower of broken chairs, with looks like it has more than a passing nod towards the Iron Throne.
We’re not in Westeros anymore, Dumbo.
I ignore the chairs. I’m much more interested in the cushions.
Small. Fluffy. And lined up on the benches.
It looks like I’m in for a comfy evening.
Or a very uncomfy one. Depending on what they are covering up.
I squeeze myself down to the end of a row, so that I can lean against the metal bars on the end.
Now that I’ve sat down I can see that the rake isn’t all that great, and I am super pleased that no one is sitting directly in front of me.
As soon as I have that thought, the theatre gods intervene. The guy from the box office comes in. He looks around for a spare seat before deciding to ease himself down the full length of a row, and sit directly in front of me.
Now, I’m sure he had his reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years of theatre going, in my 120+ theatre trips this year alone, in thousands of shows, seen a front of houser sit anywhere that didn’t have easy access to the aisle.
And usually the one closest to the exit.
You know, to facilitate matters in the event of an evacuation, or, I don’t know, help an audience-member if they need help finding the pink loos.
He hoikes his elbow onto the back of the bench, and settles in.
I just pray there isn’t a fire.
The play is about knife crime. Or possibly the outrage of stop-and-search. Inequality in education. The ineffectiveness of the police. Class, maybe. Race, definitely.
The company is young. Very young. And they are trying super hard.
It’s rather sweet.
And wow, I’m super patronising.
Oh well. I’m sure they’ll go far as long as they ignore the bitter old trolls, like me.
At the curtain call, one of the cast members steps forward. They are raising money for Steel Warriors, a charity that melts down knives and builds playgrounds. They are asking for any spare change to be dropped in buckets as we leave.
Another cast member steps forward. “I’m supposed to talk about Wooden Arrow now,” he says, referring to their play's production company and looking very embarrassed about it.
Half the audience explode into laughter. No doubt the half that make up Wooden Arrow.
He goes through a short spiel, and looks very relieved when he reaches the end of it.
It time to go.
It’s still light outside. And warm. The perfect evening. Which I will spend trapped underground as I take the long tube journey home.