Well, this is a little bit posh, isn’t it? As posh pub theatres go, I thought I had already reached the pinnacle of poshness with the Lion & Unicorn over in Kentish Town, but here we are at the Drayton Arms and they are smashing it on the la-di-da factor. I mean, we are in South Ken, so perhaps I should have expected it. But still. This place is naice.
It’s all dark wood panelling, and shiny floors, and leather upholstered seats, and chandeliers, and frosted glass, and, oddly, cherry blossom. There’s a chalkboard advertising their gastropub credentials, and the thought of that Shropshire roast chicken is making my stomach rumble.
It’s bank holiday Monday and having a roast in a fancy pub sounds pretty swell right about now. But unfortunately I’m not here for food. I’ve got to go watch some theatre.
There’s another chalk sign above I door that's just beyond the bar. THEATRE it says, in all caps with an arrow pointing up.
The door itself has its own sign. In gold. THROUGH TO THE GENTS. Gotta love a venue that sorts the latrines with the mise en scène.
Anyway, I go through. Not to the gents, but up the stairs. There are lots of frames gracing the stairs on the way up, which in any lesser pub-theatre would be show posters from all their previous productions. But the Drayton Arms doesn’t stoop to such vulgar exploits, and instead have old maps, and a portrait of Ellen Terry advertising Allen & Ginter’s cigarettes, and what looks like a Toulouse Lautrec print.
At the top of the stairs there’s another chalkboard. Two of them, actually.
The first directs you down to the bar if you want to buy tickets for The Orange Peel (great for that passing toilet-trade) and the other says: “Doors open at 7.20. Please wait in the bar until then.”
It’s 7.15pm. I’m the third in the queue.
As one, we all ignore this second sign.
By twenty-past, the line is extending down the staircase, all the way past Ellen Terry.
The door to the theatre opens. A woman looks at us, removes the sign from the table with what surely must have been the deepest of internal sighs, and gets out a clipboard. “Ready, who’s first?” she says.
We give our surnames and get a seat number in response. No fussy admission passes here.
The seat-selection should have been a clue as to how swish this place was. Even the Lion & Unicorn is unreserved. I’m trying to think of another pub theatre that has reserved seats and I'm coming up short. I’ll have to go back through my posts at some point, but that point is not now. I’ve got a seat to find before I forget which one the nice lady on the door said.
It’s a black box theatre. Floor level stage. And a raked bank of seats on the side nearest the door. I walk around it and head for the central aisle. Row C. And I’m on the left.
Except, there are people already there. They’d slipped through the other side, squeezing themselves through the tiniest gap between the seats and the railing.
“Umm,” I start. “Before you sit down, I think I’m on the end there?”
I know I’m on the end there, but pretend ignorance is the route to politeness.
One of them glances up, then goes back to examining the seat numbers. “C2, 3, and 4?” she says to her companions.
“I’m C1,” I say to the group in general.
They carry on.
“It’s at the end?”
They bustle towards me, heading for the aisle, walking right past C2, 3, and 4. I try to nip in past them but nope, they’ve already turned around and are heading back.
“Sorry,” I say, more forcefully this time, with a hint of arseinnes in my voice now. “Before you sit down, I am actually on the end there.”
They let me past.
Now, I’ve said this is a classy theatre, and the proof comes in the form of freesheets, resting on the arms in between the seats.
But not all seats are arranged equal, and both of my armrest are free of freesheets.
I look over to my neighbours. There are two to share between them. I consider asking for one of them, but considering the trouble I went to just to be allowed to my seat, I think I might be pushing my luck if I ask them for a free bit of folded paper too.
I reach over to the row behind and nab one of theirs.
Very naughty, I know. But my need is greater. I’m a blogger after all. Or something.
Besides, when I’d booked that afternoon, the house was no-where near sold out. I’m sure there will be enough to go around.
Then I remember the queue. There had been a good deal more people in that queue than tickets sold when I had bought mine a few short hours ago.
During my poking around of the Drayton Arms website I’d found my way to the venue hire page. I’d mainly been after a capacity number for the space, but my general nosiness kept me reading. In order to secure the space, artists need to guarantee they’ll be bringing a minimum number of people to fill up the audience and buy drinks at the bar. “If you ever feel like you are struggling for numbers, however, we are more than happy to point you in the direction of some papering clubs who may be able to help you fill seats,” they’d said. Now, I’m sure you know about the papering clubs, so I’m not going to get into that. But, and this is gross speculation on my part, as people pour into the space, and seats fill up all around me, I’m willing to put my reputation as a serious theatre blogger on the line here and say I think this show was papered. I mean, good for them. There is no shame in that game. I just wish I was allowed to join in. As someone who works for a performing arts venue, I’m barred from joining most of these clubs.
Seat numbers waft in from the landing.
“D2. A6 and A7. You’re E5,” and on and on it goes as more and more people come in. And then: “Hmmm. Did you book through an organisation?”
I listen carefully, leaning against the railings to get as close as I can. He did indeed book through an organisation. Now, that’s as sure as any confirmation I’m going to get to my theory, short of actually asking someone. Which I have no intention of doing. Not that they would tell me anyway. The first rule of papering clubs...
A man sitting in the row in front of me gets out a notebook. You know what that means! It’s time for a round of: Director or Blogger!? It’s an even shorter round than usual though, as I recognise this guy. We’ve met. He’s a blogger.
I let my attention drift elsewhere.
Two girls sitting behind me are talking about the playwright. It sounds like one of them knows him. “He wrote The Wasp’s Nest, which won an award. It couldn’t be performed, too many characters, but the writing won. And this play only has four characters,” she says before going on to reveal some information that I probably shouldn’t repeat (nothing bad, just… well, you know).
Moral of the story: write less characters and make less indiscrete friends.
Paid or not-paid, the audience is now seated and we can get on with the business of the show. Turns out there are more than four characters, but as they are all being played by only four actors, I think we can forgive that slip.
Good intel on the award though. I can see how this playwright would win. This writing is total award-bait. Lots of snarky jokes, and shrewd metaphors, and surreal tangents, and erratic shifts in direction. It really is excellent, and elevates would could be a rather overcooked tale of sibling rivalry and class warfare, with a substantial side-dish of family secrets, to something far tastier, where motivations are hidden and revealed and twisted as the characters leap nimbly from a kitchen sink drama to the more stylistic dystopia of a JG Ballard novel (the one I’m thinking of is High-Rise, but I suspect that’s mainly because playwright Karl Falconer sets the action in an eighteenth floor apartment).
One character in particular seems to have scooped up a lot of the cleverness. So much so that I begin to wonder whether he might, and I say this with more love than I have tactfulness, be a self-insert from Falconer himself. I don’t want to throw yet another insinuation around without proof, but when one character is dropping these sharp witticisms all over the place, and that character is also a writer, and the writer is also playing the role of that character, well… let’s just say, when you’re joining up three dots, you can make one hell of a giant tick.
Again, no shame. I’d want to write myself all the good lines too.
I mean, shit. I’ve managed to turn a whole damn blog about London theatre into my own personal diary. I get it.
As the audience leaves for the interval, the heavy door to the theatre slams shut. There’s a click. Have we been locked in? It sounds like we’ve been locked in.
A few minutes later, the door rattles.
“Is someone trying to get in?” says a voice behind me.
The door rattles again.
The owner of the voice, a young lady, nimbly leaps down and goes to open the door.
“God, thank you so much,” says the door rattler with such gratitude he might as well have been yanked onto the last train out of Dresden before the Red Army arrived.
There we are then. The Drayton Arms is so damn posh that the door to the theatre, like the one at Number 10, can only be opened from the inside.