I’m taking you somewhere exciting today. Somewhere I’m fairly confident that you haven’t been before. I know I certainly haven’t.
It’s just down here. On The Cut.
No, not The Old Vic. We've all been there. Carry on, keep on going. Yeah, yeah, not the Young one either. We’re crossing the road here.
Yup. That’s it. Over there. Or at least, I think it is. I have to admit that I’ve marched up and down this street a thousand times, making my way to one theatre or another (the aforementioned Vics, young and old, the Union further down, and the neighbour-theatres of the Menier and the Bunker further still, not forgetting the Vaults and the Network in the other direction) and I have never, not once, noticed this place.
I mean, sure. I could see there was a bookshop here. A theatre bookshop even. But I had no idea that there was a theatre lurking within.
I hope you didn’t either, or I’m going to feel rather stupid showing you this.
I stop outside, just to double check that I have, in fact, got the right place. I’m looking for the Calder Bookshop Theatre and the big shop sign says THE BOOKSHOP THEATRE. Ah, close enough. I go in.
There’s a wooden desk over on the right. I’m guessing that’s the box office for the evening. There’s a laptop sat on top, and that’s usually a sign of box officiness in the lack of… well, an actual sign.
There’s a group of woman standing in front of it. They are all talking busily. Are they in the queue? I can’t tell.
A second later, the man behind the desk spots me.
“Can we move over?” he asks the ladies. They shift half a pace to the left and start chatting again.
I make full use of this small concession of theirs and squeeze my way over to the desk.
“The surname’s Smiles?” I say. “I emailed a few days ago?”
Ah, yes. The email.
Here’s the thing. The Calder Bookshop Theatre doesn’t have online booking. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such a thing on this marathon. But it’s the first time that I’ve actually attempted to negotiate such a system. I’ve still yet to tackle Baron’s Court and their utter lack of a presence on the old interwebs. Thankfully, the Calder does have a website. And a note directing you to either call or email them if you are after some theatre ticket action in your life.
Well, there was no way I was calling. I haven’t willingly picked up a phone since 1989, and even then it was the Fisher Price variety and I was lured into it by the grinning face printed below the rotary dial. So email I did. A few days ago. Basically just asking how one goes about this whole process, as I have never negotiated a ticket purchase via email before. Turns out it’s easy. And someone emailed back that evening saying that a ticket had been reserved for me and I could pay on the door when I arrived.
The man behind the desk taps away at his laptop. “Ah yes! Paying full price?”
Yes. I mean… I guess…
I handed over the cash.
“How much are these?” I ask, indicating a pile of handsome looking programmes on the desk.
“Please take one! They’re free!”
I perk right up. The only thing better than a programme is a free programme.
There’s no need for tickets. So I’m left to wander the shop.
Wander is perhaps too strong a word. Shuffle would be the more accurate descriptor. It’s rather busy in here. Turns out the Caldor is not quite the secret I thought it was. Plenty of folks have managed to not only hear about this place, but also negotiate the tricksy ticket buying procedure.
Who are these people? And how did they get here?”
Calls of “how very nice to see you!” ring around the shop, growing ever more high-pitched with every passing round.
“Have your performed here?”
“No. Gosh no. Oh, wait… have I?”
“I’ve just finished on the poetry festival.”
“… the actors’ workshop.”
“… the writers’ retreat.”
They’re all bloody theatre people.
It always makes me cringe a bit when the entire audience is composed of people who make theatre. It feels so insular. So self-congratulatory. Like a private members’ club. A bit… “this is a local theatre, for local people; there’s nothing for you here,” if you get my meaning.
Even worse, I’m a bloody theatre person too. So, I’m just perpetuating the problem by being here.
I go off to the far corner and have a look at the books. Books are good. Books are quiet.
There’s a curtain back here. That must be the entrance to the theatre.
A woman emerges.
“It’ll be about three minutes until we let people in,” she says to the nearest person, who is apparently a dear friend. “We’re waiting for people to arrive.”
I commented on this holding of the curtain for latecomers back in my Blue Elephant post, and one of the artistic directors ended up tweeting me to explain it. But no justification is necessary. I think this is a great and wonderful thing for small theatres to do. Latecomers cause so much more havoc in small spaces, it’s far better for everyone involved to wait a few minutes. And besides, if your audience really is drawn from such a small community, you might as well do your damndest to serve it.
She disappears back behind the curtain, only to pop out a few minutes later. This time holding a torch.
“Are you happy to wait?” she asks the nearest person. “I just have to pop to Sainsbury’s to get some batteries for the actors that they can see.”
Well, it would be churlish to say no now, wouldn’t it?
She leaves the torch on top of a convenient bookshelf and leaves. Supposedly to get batteries.
I spend my time looking at the programme. “Victorian Woman in Bed,” it says in a curly script on the front cover.
I look at it very hard, so as not to get distracted by the books. You see, I have a problem when it comes to books. It’s not that I don’t like books. Quite the opposite really. I’ve got shelves and shelves of the damn things at home. Double stacked. With piles of them on the floor. On the window ledges. On top of the wardrobe. In the bathroom. The kitchen. On the stairs. You think I have a problem with programmes? You wait until I show you how many copies of Rivers of London I own (Three. People keep on buying it for me. It’s a great book. But please, I don’t need anymore).
I’m not going to pretend that it’s not an uncommon problem. I’m not one of those twats on Twitter that likes to pretend they’re quirky just because they have a pile of unread books waiting on their bedside table. There’s even a Japanese word for it: tsundoku. And if there’s anything to kill the eccentricity of a trait, it’s having its own special word to describe it.
And actually… I read all my fucking books. So, there.
The battery-buyer returns. Avec batteries.
I get jostled further into my corner as she retrieves the torch and starts slotting them in.
“Right,” she says, with the air of a job done. “I’ll go get the actors ready.”
They must have been prepped and ready to go, because the curtain is drawn back and we’re going in.
Gosh, it’s tiny in here. Really small, and rather cute.
The walls are bare brick, and the seating is upholstered in plum coloured velvet.
There’s only four rows. With a slim aisle down the middle.
I head to what is now officially my favourite seat in every small theatre: third row, right on the end.
The actors are already on stage. All dressed in their finest Victorian nightwear. One of them is even in bed.
Has there ever been a play more perfectly designed to attract me? Victorian women. In bed. I mean, fucking hell. That’s my soul, my dream, my aesthetic (as the kids say) in one simple sentence. It’s both what and where I yearn to be.
But what kind of Victorian woman in bed am I? That’s the question.
I’m glad I’m going to get four examples tonight to help me choose.
First up is Charlotte Brontë. Now obviously I’m a huge Brontë fan. Charlotte especially. Jane Eyre is my gal. Whenever I’m feeling poor, obscure, plain and little, it’s Ms Eyre I turn to for a dose of no-nonsense snappy comebacks. Although when I get to that quote, I have to stop, because I am actually soulless and heartless.
Charlotte’s taking-to-her-bed involves pregnancy. And a lot of throwing up. And a lack of clean nightclothes.
Not sure I’m really up for any of that. Especially the way Tracey Ann Wood is going for it here. Retching, doubled up. No thanks.
My fantasies are more of the frilly-nightgown variety. Vomit need not apply.
Moving on. And it’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poetess (a word I am determined to reintroduce, alongside aviatrix. Now, usually I hate gendered job titles, but these ones are so damn great I think they should be brought back with such enthusiasm and force, they take over and dominate to become gender neutral). She has squirreled under her blankets and she’s absolutely determined not to come out. For Kyra Williams' Barrett Browning, bed is her sanctuary. Her defence against the world. I can get behind this. Except staying in bed means spending the rest of her life with a nosy sister, and an overbearing father. Whereas getting up means being whisked away to Italy by a handsome man.
Hmm. Not sure about this one. Let’s circle back to it when we see what else is on offer.
Next up: Emma Hardy. Wife of Thomas Hardy. Now she has some fabulous hats. And I do enjoy a hat, even if I can't pull them off as well as Paul Carroll here. Plus, she’s a writer. This one has definite potential. Except there’s the whole Thomas issue. And the being unappreciated, unpublished, and unhappy.
Thankfully we still have one left.
And it’s the lady with the lamp, the ministering angel, the saviour of Scutari: Florence Nightingale. I do like Florence Nightingale. She invented the pie chart, you know. And I love a pie chart.
I think we might be onto a winner here.
Now, I’m not good at that whole, you know, caring thing. So being a nurse is out. But we’re past that by this point. Paddy Glynn's Florence is at home. In bed. And I am totally on board. She’s dictating letters. Ordering men about. And generally being the boss from the blankets. There are even cats keeping her toes warm. And you know how much I adore cats.
Yes. That's decided. When I take to my bed, I shall be doing it in true Florence style. Bonnet and all.