Huh. This place... does not look how I expected. That's a bit embarrassing. I worked just round the corner from this here for a good 18 months. I've probably even walked past without even noticing. And why would I notice? This is not the type of place the name would make you think of.
I mean, Hoxton Hall. I was expecting something a bit, well, grander. Or at least, with grandeur. Not like a country house or whatever. I wasn't picturing Longleat here. But wasn't this place a music hall back in the day? Perhaps Wilton's has set up unachievable standards in my head. The professional Instagrammer of the theatre world. But this narrow slip of a building, with its sliding glass doors and taupe painted frontage really wasn't what I had in mind. Somehow 'music hall' and 'subtle' don't strike me as two terms that should ever be placed within the same sentence. But Hoxton Hall, if this is indeed Hoxton Hall, which I'm still doubting despite the multiple signs stating that this is exacting what it is, looks like nothing more than a tasteful townhouse next to the rackety family butchers next door.
If this place really is a former music hall, it must be the smallest music hall in London. I can't imagine more than three people, a pair of contortionists, and their dog, ever fitting in here. You'd think they' made more of a thing of it.
Inside it's bright and clean and modern, all creams, blond wood, and amber hanging lights. There's a wide box office desk. The sort you'd see gracing the reception of an up-market dentist, except here, tiny display cases are set into the surface, housing artefacts of the buildings former glory days. Back when sawdust coated the floor instead of all these gleaming floorboards.
There's someone in the queue ahead of me. "I'm collecting tickets?" she says. Something tells me that this is not a transaction she does all that often.
"Yes? What's the name?"
She gives it. "Oh, wait. Do you mean first name?" She gives that too.
"Right that's..." the box office lady opens up the ream of tickets and counts them. "Five tickets. If you could just make your way down to the bar area," she says, indicating the way.
It's my turn now.
"The surname is Smiles?"
The lady on box office reopens the small ticket box and digs out mine. "First name?"
"Max," I say, before remembering I never use that version of name when buying tickets. "Maxine."
The box office lady opens up the ream of pretty turquoise tickets. It's a lot shorter than my predecessor's.
"Just the one ticket?" she asks.
"Yeah..." Alright, love. Do you know how many friends I would need to have a companion at every show I see? There aren't enough theatre-fans in the world to keep up with the likes of me.
She offers me a sympathetic smile. "If you could make your way down to the bar area as well..."
I walk in the direction she's pointing, down a long corridor. Very long. This building may be narrow, but it goes on forever. Past a display covered in headshots and CVs, past the dark wood doors of the auditorium, guarded by sentinels at every entrance point, past stairs, past a lift, and into the bar.
Finally, things are beginning to look more music hally. The walls are red, and covered with framed portraits and old letters and whatnot. The blue-tiled fireplace is stuffed with show flyers. There are jam jars lined up on the mantlepiece. A box of PG Tips is waiting at the end of the bar. Okay, not particularly music hall in aesthetic, but at least we've moved on from the private dentist's surgery.
When I come in, people look around, but only for a second. They're already beaming and beckoning at the people behind me.
Hands wave, empty spaces on the sofa are patted. This truly is a bar where everyone knows your name.
None mine though. I'm not part of the gang.
A group nearby are all being introduced to each other as they queue at the bar.
"Are you here to see someone?"
"Oh, this is Erin's mum."
The chatter grows in volume as everyone tries to work out their connections to one another. It's like a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation. Except no one here needs more than two rounds.
Young people reel off their resumes to the parents of their friends, while the grown-ups talk about their brilliant kids while staring into their drinks in order to hide their proud smiles.
And, it turns out, Rose Bruford family country.
You don't get that at RADA, I can tell you.
I find an empty bit of wall to lean against and try to avoid getting swapped by a reunion.
I've already written up my last theatre trip so I'm left starting at the signage in lieu of something to do. To be fair, it's impressive signage.
"Lost?" it asks, with what I can only imagine is the same sympathetic tones of the box office lady when she handed me my single loner ticket. That smug question is followed up by a floor by floor breakdown of everything in the building. Want to know where the reading room is? This sign will tell you. The kitchen? Yup, it's got that one covered too.
Music studio. Art studio. Design studio.
This place has a lot of studios.
And a courtyard.
A courtyard? Now that's exciting. I do like a courtyard.
I mean, I could go. I have time.
There are windows in the stairwell, overlooking a grim little patio with a corrugated metal roof.
But there's also a plant and a table and I'm still fairly upbeat about the while courtyard thing.
There's another sign at the bottom if the stairs, and yet another when I turn left.
Hoxton Hall doesn't stint on the signage.
Except, I'm not sure where I'm meant to go now. The sign says right, but all that's right is the art studio and the loos. After that, nothing but brick wall. Unless this is some Platform 9 3/4 situation, I think I've gone wrong somewhere.
Unless it's through the art studio? It should be somewhere to the left of me. I have a peek through the art studio door, only to come face to face with someone coming the other way.
Not wanting to explain what I'm doing attempting to break into an art studio, I nope out of the whole situation and go back upstairs, my courtyard dreams dashed.
The house still isn't open and the bar is rammed. But my wall spot is still going spare, so I reclaim it.
"Sorry!" calls the man behind the bar over the sound of a hundred parental hearts popping with pride. "Hello, hello! Can I have your attention?
"Anyone who's been given a brochure, or one of these," he says, flapping about a free drinks voucher between his fingers. "Will be admitted first."
No one moves. We aren't the lucky few. No free drinks vouchers here.
"Do you come to these things often?"
"Oh, I see everything. Ever since my daughter joined."
Her smile is so broad I can see all her back teeth. She is absolutely busting with pride.
The man behind the bar tries again. "Anyone been given a brochure or one of these?" he asks, giving the pink voucher another wave. "Now's the time. Anyone else?"
Nope. No one else.
I get out my programme. Always a bonus of these drama school shows, the free programme.
I try to remember which show I booked for.
It's Life, Apparently. Apparently.
A new musical created by two of the cast members.
This is either going to be brilliant, or excruciating.
I'm putting money on the later. For no other reason than the presence of that comma: Life, Apparently.
I don't think I can trust a title with a comma in it.
Although, I'm trying hard to think of other titles with commas in them, and I'm coming up short. There's Girl, Interrupted of course. But that comma was integral to the flow of the title. An interruption, if one will.
I can't think of any others.
It could be worse, I suppose. It could be an exclamation mark: Life! Apparently. That really would spell the end of days.
From my spot on the wall, I seem to have found myself in the queue to get in. A queue that is now moving.
"The toilets are an even worse state than yesterday, if you can believe it," tuts a woman as she joins the queue after me.
I think I must be the only one who hasn't seen this show before. Who hasn't even been to this theatre before. I hope there isn't a test. Unless, there was a test and I've already failed it. They're probably all giggling about the woman who couldn't even find the courtyard back in the bar.
"That's not a ticket, that's just your address, " an usher says gently to the person in front of me.
I breath a sigh of relief. I'm clearly not the only one failing at tonight.
They retreat back from the queue as they attempt to find their ticket, and now it's my turn.
"The seats are unreserved except for the two back rows," says the ticket checker, checking my ticket.
There must have been a lot of people with free drinks vouchers because there is not a lot of room left.
I scan the stalls, looking for spare seats.
"Don't go too far," said a bloke as his companion rises a few inches from her seat. "We don't want to lose these spots."
Another guy is hovering at the end of his row, also clearly concerned about seat pillaging. He sees me eyeing up the empty seats further in.
"Do you want the three seats in the middle?" he asks.
I'm not sure I'll need all three sears, but I accept the offer anyway, and he steps out into the aisle so that I can get through.
"Hang on," says the woman he's with. "Let me get out too." She too inches her way out into the aisle.
Route cleared, I squeeze myself in. It really is a squeeze. The seats knock my knees as I shuffle my way through, and there's no room to turn around when I do get in. I have to kneel on my chosen seat, just to find the wriggle room to get my jacket off.
The chairs, thin and delicate, belonging more in a dining room than a theatre, are pressed in right next to each other.
"There's someone very tall this side, can we go that way," says someone in the row behind as the seat negotiations begin.
"Yeah, I can't see a thing."
"Granny can't see a thing!"
It doesn't look like there's anything to see quite yet. The high stage is empty except for a smattering of instruments tucked up amongst the ladders that seem to be serving as our set.
"If you want to report back that the chairs at not comfortable," says a woman in the row in front.
The reporter nods sagely. He will be having words.
I have to agree with them, the chairs are not comfortable.
It's a good thing I'm got these three seats to myself. If I turn my body just so, I might be able to stretch my legs out a bit.
"Excuse me, are you expecting anyone?" asks a young man, indicating the spare seats. I have to admit that I am not, and we are soon all crammed in close to one another. Close enough that I can smell the vile coffee breath of the man sitting on my left, and hear the wet chew as he applies his teeth to his nails. Close enough that I can feel every time the man on my right attempts to shift his muscles as the ache sets in.
I look longingly at the two empty balconies surrounding the hall. Oh, to be sitting up there, looking down on the poor creatures below.
The show starts. The cast come on, performing stange unnatural arm movements that should be left in the artier end of contemporary choreography scale.
I try to sink into my seat, but I'm stuck.
I should have known that a drama school musical was a bad idea.
But the echoed arm movements still, and the music takes over and we are flung into the New York of the eighties, into the AIDS crisis, and the activist group ACT UP. And, you know, it's good. Like, really good. Yes, it's really bizarre how these supposed Americans are talking about waistcoats and swearing with two fingers, but there is a character called Maxine and she's blonde and cool and wears the hell out of red lipstick and within minutes I'm positive that I will die for her.
Unfortunately, it might come to that.
All around there is a creaking of old wood as everyone attempts to relieve the agony of sitting still too long, but there is nowhere to go. Not an inch of free space to move into.
Pain shoots up the back of my legs, but I am cemented in place, my arms traped to my sides, my legs cooped in by the seat in front.
I can't even hear the music anymore. All I can think of is escape. Counting down the minutes of an unknown run time. How long have I been sat here? An hour? Two? I can't tell. Time is an illusion. All I know is pain.
As the last notes fade, the audience leaps to their feet, but I can't move. My knees have fused solid.
I curl my shoulders around and try to stretch out my back, but I have to wait until my row neighbours have vacated their seats before I am able to test out my legs.
They're still working. Just about. A bit wobbly, a bit stiff, but we'll survive.
The corridor is clogged with people all raving about how good everyone was, how excellent the show was.
I push my way through, unable to wait for the way to clear. I have to get outside.
I stumble out of the sliding doors and almost fall onto the pavement.
The sun is still shining. I'm surprised. I thought I might have been in there for an eternity. I thought the world would have burnt itself out by now.
No such luck.