I ATEN'T DED.
I know, I know. You were worried. I drop a blog post about being very, very ill and then disappear without another word. I meant to put a banner on the site to let you know that I'm, well, n't ded, like an internet-squatting Granny Weatherwax, but then I realised that if I did actually die, there would be no-one to take the message down, and while I would appreciate the humour of my determined declaration of non-death surviving me until the payment on my domain is due, I figured that the other ghosts might laugh at me, and even worse, attempt to stage an intervention.
So, anyway. I'm not, in fact, dead. I am quite the opposite. I am risen. Like the Phoenix. Or the daffodils. Or any other spring-appropriate return-to-life metaphors that you can to think of. And while we all debate whether I am the messiah or a very naughty boy, can I take a moment to say how much I've enjoyed all the responses I've had to my... sickness. Over the past week I've been compared to Mimi from La Boheme, Violetta from Traviata, Marguerite from Marguerite and Armand, and... errr... Satine from Moulin Rouge. And while I revelled in being cast among the canon of sex-workers-dying-from-consumption (who knew it was such a trope?), I'm not sure I belong among those aria-singing delicate creatures. Personally, I see myself more as a Billie Piper in Penny Dreadful, spluttering all over that nice Mr Dorian Grey. Like... it was intense. Blood everywhere. Seriously, I had to have a shower and put on a load of laundry before going to the hospital.
Right, now that I've finished my course of antibiotics and thoroughly grossed you all out, it's time to take you with me to the next theatre on the marathon list: Hampstead Theatre. I do like the Hampstead. Firstly because it requires little more than falling out of Swiss Cottage tube station in order to get to, and secondly because it makes me feel like I'm making a real contribution when I'm there. I swear, I bring down the mean age of the audience by a good decade the second I stumble through the door. It's not often that I get to feel so young and cool, and believe me, I relish every moment of it.
But as I arrive in the foyer, I find it devoid of octogenarians to compare myself to. Devoid of anyone of any age.
The place looks deserted.
One of the lady’s on box office beckons me forwards.
“Err, the surname’s Smiles,” I say. Her hand is already on the box of tickets and she is flipping through them before I’ve even got the first syllable out.
“What was the name again?” she asks, still riffling through the box.
“This is the final call for Jude,” comes a booming voice over the tannoy.
Ah, that explains the frenzy.
“It’s for The Firm,” I tell her. I thought the information might calm her. The Firm, the play in their smaller, downstairs, theatre, doesn’t start for another 15 minutes. But she barely pauses, thanking me and reaching over for the other ticket box to flick her way through the tickets there.
“Here you go,” she says, unfolding them to check the tickets before handing them over. “You’re downstairs.”
I go down the stairs, passing the great bulbous curves of the main space, which bulge out like the bow of a ship, giving me flashbacks to when I watched Pirates under the hull of the Cutty Sark a few months back.
There’s a large foyer down here, filled with the kind of tables and chairs that make me think I should be in the subsidised cafe of some trendy modern university.
Not one is using them now.
Seating is unreserved and the queue is already stretching from bow to stern.
I push my way through and join the end of it. No wonder the box office lady was so stressed. This queue is massive.
I’ll admit it’s been a while since I managed to make it to one of the Downstairs shows at the Hampstead. Been a while since I was Upstairs, come to think of it. Gosh, when was I last here? Suddenly it comes to me. Gloria. How could I forget that? Best interval cliff-hanger since… well, ever…? I spent the entire interval stumbling around, staring into the distance, and whimpering. That Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one hell of a playwright. I really think he has the potential to go all the way, you know.
I frown, trying to conjure the name last Downstairs play I saw, but I’m failing. Perhaps because it didn’t have an interval. Downstairs shows rarely do.
Queue up, sit down, watch a play, then get the hell out. That seems to be the motto of the downstairs space.
Well, I’m sure it was just great, whatever the hell the play was.
The queue is moving.
There’s a sign by the door.
The play is only an hour and a half. No interval.
Ah. Was that good? I can’t tell. Usually that would be good. But now I’ve remembered Gloria and my interval stumbling and I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.
We file through the door, down a very dark corridor, and emerge in what looks like a fancy cocktail bar.
My position at the back of the queue doesn’t seem to have affected my seat selection. There are two banks of benches, arranged at an obtuse angel to each other, and I manage to nab a spot close to the central aisle, in the third row back.
I’m well pleased with that.
I’m even more pleased to find a programme on my seat.
I’m said before that a freesheet placed lovingly on the seats is the sign of a swanky theatre, but the Hampstead being, well, the Hampstead, just have to go one step further and offer up a full-colour, 16 page, proper programme. The sort I would charge a whole two quid for. And here they are, just lying around, to be picked up. For free.
I go to flick through it, but I don’t get much further than the third page.
“Hampstead Theatre would like to thank RADA for the loan of beer pumps.”
I can’t help it. I laugh.
Bless them. Isn’t that just the must perfect sentence ever committed to paper? How gloriously middle-class. Congratulations to everyone involved. Especially to RADA, for their stock of beer pump props.
Eventually, I manage to move on. But not by much as I find another gem on the centre-fold.
Well done programme-maker of the Hampstead Theatre, whoever you are. And to the playwright, Roy Williams, I suppose. I’m certainly feeling all kinds of damn aches at the moment. In places that I didn’t even know I could ache. And, I know I’m on a marathon and everything, and marathons are notoriously bad on your joints, but I didn’t think that applied to the theatrical variety.
But then, I didn’t think people seriously coughed up blood in this post-industrial revolution, post-slum, era of socialised medicine that we live in, and yet here we are, so….
Anyway, you don’t care about that. Just pour me a shot of self-indulgence for this pity party of mine and let’s move on.
Back to the theatre. And the play. Which is starting now.
Looks like they are getting ready for a party, and not of the pity variety. It’s a welcome home jobby. They even have a banner.
The Firm, in true John Grisham style, is a gang of, Ooo, what shall we call them? Thugs sounds too violent, although there’s plenty of that. But I think the word thug suggests a certain mindlessness to their brutality and there’s nothing mindless about this lot. Everything is thought of, worked over, considered. Words are tested and tasted and thrown around.
Ne'er-do-wells perhaps? Nah, too cutsie. And these blokes aren’t cutsie.
Mobster? Too Godfather. We’re in London not New York.
Gangster then? Very East End circa the 1960s. Very Jez Butterworth’s Mojo.
And it is all very Mojo. With the bar and the gang of… whatever they are. Just… without the mojo.
Okay, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s lacking in the grimy glamour of the sixties which is a huge portion of Mojo’s mojo. And the Soho seediness that can never be replicated south of the river, no matter how hard the people of Streatham try.
But it does has that hot guy from Fleabag in it. No, not that one. The other one. The lawyer, not the priest.
So, it does have a little mojo. Just not Mojo levels of mojo.
Not gangster then. Besides, a gang of gangsters is some weak-arse writing. Even for me.
Let’s just move on, shall we?
The man sitting next to me certainly is. He’s not paying attention at all. He’s got his coat over his knees and I can see it moving as he scratches himself underneath.
At least, I hope he’s scratching.
I slide away from him a little on the bench.
It’s alright. There’s plenty of room.
This is the Hampstead after all. No Finborough-style packing them in over here.
I bump into something.
It’s a handbag, belonging to my other neighbour. She’d placed it rather pointedly between us on the bench when I came to sit next to her. A makeshift wall to divide us. A fencing off of her personal space. I wanted to tell her the show was sold out, and that if it wasn’t me, she’d have someone else sitting here. But I didn’t. Mainly because I was worried that she would reply that her problem wasn’t with anyone else, but with me, specifically.
Looks like I’m stuck between a bag and a hard… ummm.
Let’s leave that there.
The play’s over anyway.
It takes a while to get out. The seats might be generous, but the audiences of Hampstead Theatre like to take their time, and the gangways are all full as they chatter about the play.
“It was good, but I didn’t understand a word of it,” observes one lady. She must have been a fan of those beer pumps.
Finally, I manage to escape and I make a break for the stairs.
But half-way up I realise something. I stop, blocking the man behind me.
“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m wrestling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to bring up the camera.
There, staggered up the steps, is The Firm’s artwork.
That is such a nice touch. Swish as fuck.
Perhaps that’s way I love the Hampstead.
They do good marketing.
I respect that.
Not sure about their press though. Could I get a ticket out of them. Not for this play. Not that I tried for this play. The ticket was only a fiver, and I feel a bit mean about putting in a request for a ticket that well-priced (plus… free programme. Fucking bargain). I mean for the main house. Rejected. Bastards. Looks like I'm going to have do some serious saving up to get the upstairs space ticked off my list.
Pity about the penicillin. With my bloody cough I could have made a fortune wafting around with a stained hankie…