It’s Tuesday night, and I’m crouching on the ground in the middle of what looks like an industrial wasteland, clucking my tongue. It has just started to rain.
The reason I’m here is that I think there might be a theatre around here somewhere. I’m not exactly sure though. I’m just following my intuition on this one. I find, that when you’re in doubt about the location of a fringe venue, it’s always best to take the route that looks most likely to contain your murderer. That’s where fringe theatres tend to live. In the most scary of all the available options.
As to the ground crouching and tongue clicking, I've just met a cat. Pure white and very pretty. We’re making friends.
The cat sniffs the back of my proffered hand, and allows me to give their back and sides a good rub down, before skittering off past the bins and away in search of something more interesting than the weird lady crouching on the damp tarmac.
It’s probably time I found this theatre anyway, before the murderer get me.
I walk down the railway arches, all blocked off with heavy blue shutters, until I find a likely looking one. There are kegs piled up outside, and a sign swinging from the brick wall: Matchstick Piehouse, it says. That’s the one. That’s my theatre for tonight.
Inside it’s all squashy leather sofas, low lighting, and bunting.
There’s a small bar tucked away in the corner, surrounded by a chalkboards spread like black wings around him.
I think that’s where I’m supposed to go.
“Box office?” I ask, feeling a little unsure. It doesn’t look like a box office, but then, if the marathon has taught me anything, it’s that there are no rules on box office decor. Sometimes you just have to go with follow your gut, wherever they lead - whether it be down a long line of railway arches, or to the bar.
Turns out it is the box office, so I give my surname and the guy behind the bar checks me in on the touchscreen (“Great name!” he says. He’s not wrong).
“Would you like anything else?” he asks.
Gosh. Do I? I examine the flock of chalkboards. “What have you got?”
He steps aside to reveal the drinks board behind him. “Wine, kombucha, cider, pies…”
The last word lingers in the air. I don’t need much tempting. I mean… this is a piehouse. The sign swinging outside says it is. Might as well get one. For research purposes, obviously.
“Pie sounds good.” Pie sounds really good. “What would you recommend?”
He pulls a face. “That’s the person to ask,” he says, indicating a young woman leaning on the side of the bar. “The magic of pies has worn off for me.”
I laugh. “You’re over the pies.”
Behind him someone wipes off the beef and ale option with a rag. “Beef and ale is bad,” he says, before disappearing into a back room.
The young woman steps in. The magic of pies is clearly still enchanting her. “They’re both good. But the sweet potato one is another level.” she makes a gesture with her hand to indicate the anotherness of this level.
Well, sweet potato and goat’s cheese it is then.
“What would you like,” says the guy behind the bar, this time pointing to a sign above his head. “Pie and gravy? Pie, gravy and a drink?”
“Uhhh,” I say, floundering. I’m not good with choices. “With a drink?” I say, as a question. “Umm, cider sounds like a good combo?”
“Cider and sweet potato does sound good,” says the guy behind the bar, ever so slightly indulgently.
He gets out a stamp and presses it into the back of my hand. I have a look at what I’ve been branded with. It’s the Matchstick logo. I’m surprised. I would have put money on this place being the admission token type of venue.
A newcomer arrives. “Sorry!” she cries as she moves past me to go in for a hug with the young lady. Then she leans over the bar for more even more hug action with the guy behind it.
Hugs now complete, the bar guy gives an apologetic shrug. “These two are a nightmare,” he says, indicating the two young ladies.
He puts a spoon on the counter. “Random number,” he says, then gets my cider. “This stuff is really good. It’s made by two locals.”
I’m not sure what to say to that. As a Somerset native, who grew up with an orchard at the bottom of her garden, I feel I should be a little sniffy about London cider. You need proper fog for good apples. Not sure London smog quite counts.
But I take it, and the randomly selected spoon (number 34 as it happens) to one of the squashy sofas and settle in.
The cat saunters in.
Another sofa-settler makes kissy noises, but the cat doesn’t waver.
“Hi Ghost!” says one of the ladies at the bar.
I almost gasp. Ghost?
It’s a theatre ghost. A proper theatre ghost. You know how much I've wanted to encounter a ghost, and a theatre ghost specifically. And here we are. After so long, I’ve finally found one. An actual, real life, theatre ghost. And a theatre cat. A theatre ghost and a theatre cat. All rolled into one.
Today truly is a blessed day.
Ghost heads over to the people at the bar.
They know this cat well.
My first theatre ghost sighting. My first theatre cat sighting. At the same time.
I will never get over this.
I’ve had a few dogs crop up on the marathon, but so far cats have eluded me. Which is very unfair, as I am definitely more of a cat person. Don’t get me wrong, I love a dog, with all their clumsy paws and adoring faces. But cats will forever have my heart. I get cats. I understand cats. We are simpatico. They like to sleep, eat, and be left alone. I too like all of those things. It’s why we get on so well. I mean, I’m not overly keen on the whole hair-ball situation, but I can’t judge. I’ve had this cough of mine for what… eight months? We can hack away in each other’s companies quite easily.
Greetings now complete, Ghost heads back towards the entrance, a trail of kissing noises following in their wake.
Ghost doesn’t pay any attention. I doubt they are ever short of attention. They can take or leave your kissy noises, and they are very much leaving them at the moment.
The pie has arrived. “Sweet potato and goats cheese pie, mash, vegetables and gravy,” says its deliverer, the same guy who had wiped the beef pie of the menu, as it’s exchanged for my spoon.
It looks good. It looks really good.
I dig around with the wooden cutlery, breaking apart the pastry to get inside. Hearty cubes of sweet potato tumble, getting stuck in the gravy and mash. Steam rises, fogging up my glasses. Looks like I’m going to need to have that cider on standby.
I’m really hungry. It doesn’t last long.
It’s only when I’m finishing up the final bites that I realise that I don’t know what the vegetables are. I had taken the green mash as mushy peas at first, but the taste was all wrong for that. Broccoli perhaps? Can you mash broccoli? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Mash is mash, even when it’s green. And I frickin’ love mash. In all its varieties.
More people are arriving now, and most are ordering pies.
“How long does it take?”
“About ten minutes.”
It’s nearly 7.30pm. Not much time before the show starts, but no one seems concerned about this. In fact, the whole atmosphere here is very relaxed. Everyone seems to know everyone, but somehow, this doesn’t bother me. There’s no air of cliqueness. No side-long looks and pointed comments. It’s warm and welcoming and… well, there's pie. The great leveller. You can’t be a stranger once you’ve eaten someone's pie.
People are starting to heave themselves up from the sofas.
The curtain next to the bar has been drawn back.
Looks like we’re going in.
“Show me your hands” asks the pie deliverer, and now curtain watcher, as we pass through. “Watch your heads when walking across the stage!”
I stop, trying to make sense of the space.
We’re in a railway arch. A new one. The ceiling curves up over us, as white as Ghost. A makeshift cathedral built to worship the theatre gods.
The stage, or at least the space assigned for the business of theatre, seems to be running down the middle lengthwise. Either side is a single rows of chairs. What I like to think of as school assembly chairs. The type with plastic moulded seats and thin metal legs.
I pick my way over to the other side, watching my head to avoid the cardboard cutlery hanging from overhead.
There are two little platforms, one either end. Each with a microphone and an actor on it.
We are sitting very, very close.
The lights stay on. Bright and glowing in this white arched space. Trains rumble overhead like thunder.
The seats begin to fill up. Someone takes a seat on the steps behind us.
Bar stools are brought in, and are soon being sat on.
But no one wants to sit on the strange leopard print cinema seats at the back. Can’t blame them. They look sinister. They are definitely haunted.
Someone comes and sits next to me. He’s got a pie in his hands. He gobbles it down hungrily, breathing out long streams of air in between bites.
The play starts. Also strange and sinister. A woman, Simea Holland, has a valve in her leg. An actual valve. The type you use to blow up paddling pools and bicycle tyres. It’s been put there by a company offering rejuvenation and instead providing vulnerability. Laura Wheat and Aneirin George convince and cajole with the soft and detached voices of those speaking from a higher, more spiritual, plain of existence. Preaching the existence of another, better, way.
The actors huff into the microphones as the valve is released, and blow into them as they get reinflated. The same sound my neighbour made while eating his pie. There must be a lot of burnt tongues amongst the cast with all these pies on offer.
Latecomers start to come in. The pie deliverer sneaks a bar stool in through the curtain.
My neighbour has finished his pie. He looks around for somewhere to put his cardboard tray, and then settles for tucking it under his seat. With nothing for his hands to do, he gets out his phone. I glance over. He’s Whatsapping someone.
On the stools tucked in over by the curtain, a phone is passed down the line.
The person on the end takes it, looks at the screen, and starts typing.
They’re messaging each other. During the play.
I mean, you’ve gotta admire the balls of it.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. With the lights being on, I mean. The only person they appear to be distracting is me, and I think it’s hilarious. An added layer of surreality for this very already very strange play.
Holland stalks the stage with a clicking pen, intent on destruction. You can apparently do a lot of damage with a clicky pen when you are surrounded by walking blow-up dolls.
I’ll give Laurence Pritchard this, he’s got one hell of an imagination coming up with that scenario. I’m not entirely convinced I’m not going to get nightmares from all this.
I’m shivering. I realise that I’m still wearing my jacket. It really is cold in here. The type of cold that necessitates blankets.
Might be a bit messy with the gravy, I suppose.
Makes for a quick getaway though.
It’s raining. Not quite enough to be worth putting up an umbrella for, but just enough to make me hurry down to road to New Cross station.
As I go, I start to make a mental list of all the people who would love this theatre, with its warm atmosphere and incredible intimacy, both on and off the stage, and of course, the pies. The list is surprisingly long. Then I make a second list, of all those who’d hate it. That one is pretty long too. In fact, I’d say it’s a fairly even split. The name I’m most surprised by however, is my own. At the beginning of the year, I would for sure have been on the second list. But now, five months into my marathon, a veteran of intimate, and even immersive theatre… well, I fucking loved it.
Not gonna lie. I’ll admit I was swayed by the pie. And Ghost, of course. But still… this marathon has fucking broken me.
I think I’ll need to go back, after the marathon has ended and my brain chemistry has had a chance to return me to my normal, cynical, standoffish, self.
If only to find out what on earth happens when Ghost wants to take in a show...