Next time I say something like the idea of walking from Tufnell Park up towards Highgate might be a nice thing to do of an evening, please remind me that I'm not a fit person to be making such statements. That I'm not a fit person at all. Because that hill is not fun. It is the opposite of fun. If there was any fun to be had, it got left behind in Archway.
Shaky of limb and red of face, I make it to The Gatehouse pub and stand back to admire it in all its mock-Tudor glory, and catch my breath.
It's a fancy pub. I can tell that by the menu being posted outside in a shiny glass and metal box. The steps leading up to the door are a checkerboard of ivory and terracotta. A glass lantern hangs overhead. And a cherub watches me balefully from his panel tucked under the door's canopy roof.
Something about the cherub is bothering me. His smug fatty cheeks, and the wings coming out of his head, just seem to say: you can't come in here. Well, I won't be talked to like that by any plaster pipsqueak, so I walk all the way around the building looking for another entrance.
Over on the opposite side, there's another door. No cherub. But it does have a sign. "Pub & Theatre Entrance," it says in golden serifs.
It's almost like I knew. I've never been here before, but this marathon is starting to give me a sixth-sense about how these places work. Well, that's what I think. And it's either that or the cherub really was a smug little bastard who didn't want me walking in under him.
I go in. It's very dark in here. All wood panelling and low lighting. The kind of pub you could imagine falling asleep in with a hot toddy and waking up a century later to find everything looking exactly the same. Sadly, barring any accidental encounters with a spindle, hundred year sleeps are not on the agenda for me right now. There's a door marked "THEATRE ENTRANCE" right here, so I think that's where I'm supposed to be going. The wood-panelled aesthetic continues into the small foyer, offset by a pile of Edinburgh Fringe brochures and a chalkboard advertising interval drinks. Through another door (this one marked "Box Office Upstairs" with a handy arrow to point the way) and... I seem to have walked into a juniper berry.
Everything is purple. Or lilac, rather. The walls. The window frames. The ceiling. It's like the theatre had a mid-life crisis while reading that Jenny Joseph poem.
When I am old, I shall paint myself purple. With a notice board which has too many posters, and looks a bit messy. And I shall spend my ticket income on sets and new writing.
And... well, you get it. I'm not a poet. My lack of rhythm extends beyond my inability to clap in time with music.
Up the stairs, round the corner, up more stairs and here we are, I guess. They really weren't kidding when they called this place Upstairs at the Gatehouse, were they?
And blimey, they're not short of room up here. A wide foyer, with the box office in its own separate room up ahead, and what looks like another bar off to the left (the "Green Room") and the theatre entrance on the right.
I go to the box office. No lurking in a corner, or balancing on a ledge going on over here. This box office has a proper counter, larger than most off west end houses. It's also purple.
And there are headshots everywhere. I'm beginning to think I might be in the lair of a serial killer. One who is obsessed with fringe theatre.
I give my name to the box office lady, get my name checked off on a piece of paper, then she does something on the computer and a few seconds later, a paper ticket is printing. That's a sure sign of a box office system that is made up of far too many processes cobbled together over time, patched up, and in need of a good overhaul, but I don't even care because I got myself a paper ticket out of it, and it's frickin' purple.
"Can I get a programme?" I ask, spotting a display of them on the counter. They're three quid, which is a bit of a bargain as it look like there's quite a few pages going on there.
Programme and ticket acquired I make my way back to the foyer. The house is open already, so I figure I should go in.
There's a pair of furry creatures balanced on a low table by the door. They're wearing dresses. I want to take a photo but the ticket checker is looking at me so I scoot over to her and show her my ticket instead.
Seats are unallocated, so she just waves me inside, and I walk straight into a living room.
Green walls. A sofa with cushions. Coffee table. The type of bookshelves that someone who doesn't read would own.
And about 100 chairs facing it.
The stage at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is massive. Yes, in pub theatre terms, but even more than that. It just goes on and on. Fitting what looks like an entire flat in it. A flat larger than most people in London would ever even get the sniff of a chance of living in.
I pick a seat someone in the middle row, forgoing my usual end of third row choice, as the end of the row is all the way in the distance and I'm not sure my legs can take the extra mileage after all those stairs and my mighty trek up the highest hill in the world, or at least London, or at least north London, or at least... I'm not Googling this. Just take my word for it. The hill is very high.
It's still early, and there aren't many people in yet, giving me a good opportunity to turn around in my seat and inspect what's happening behind me.
The seats all have those little plaques attached to them, where theatre fans have given money in exchange for the honour of having someone sit on their name until the upholstery gives out.
The back row is different though. Blue seats where the rest of us have red. Wider, and comfier looking too. And every single one of them has a reserved sign attached to it. Like, literally attached. As in the word 'reserved' is printed on a satin banner which flips over to indicate the reserved status of the seat.
Gradually people come in, and sure enough, most of the reserved seats are claimed.
The rest of us space ourselves out a bit more. Most going for the front row, but a dedicated contingent choosing the separate seating block over at the far end.
And almost all of them... gosh, how can I say this politely? Hmmm. Let's go with: almost all of them look like they live in Highgate. Yeah, that'll do. You know what I mean.
A man in a waistcoat leans against an empty seat to chat to some second rowers.
There's a lot of then going on. Chatter between the different rows.
Local theatre for local people.
It's a thing, I'm telling you.
The man with the waistcoat disappears, and comes back with a small stack of programmes.
"Does anyone need a progamme?" he asks, making his way down the row of seats, the programmes displayed in an attractive fan.
They are nice programmes, with a wrap-around image of a block of flats on the cover, which I'm enjoying. There's a short note from the playwright. And wee little pictures of mice scurrying around in between the biographies. Most interesting of all though, is the programme designer, Corinna Bordoli, is credited amongst the creatives for the production. And why not? Programme designers are integral to the theatre-going experience. At least, they're integral to my theatre-going experience. I like it.
Waistcoat-man is back again, hands-free of programmes now.
"I don't know if you're here for the post-show talk," he says, taking up position at the front of the stage area. "If not, I've got a nice surprise for you! The cast and the writer will come out and we'll have a nice chat about the play. It'll be in here. Not the pub. There's too many of us, though we'd all like to go to the pub." He throws out his arms as an apology for the lack of pub-location. "We'll give you a few minutes at the end, just in case you don't want to stay, but please do." Another apologetic gesture with his arms. "Anyway, we've got a play to get on with..." he finishes, leaving the stage.
His voice is replaced by one of the sound systems.
"Please take your glasses down to the bar during the interval, or at the end of the show," the disembodied voice says. "Switch off your mobile phones, or anything that beeps or vibrates."
"That would be interesting," a lady sitting in the third row whispers loudly as the lights dim.
Jennifer Matter rushes on stage, all Waitrose bag and fabulous trench coat. A minute later, she sits down, by the window, crossing her legs, one over the other. Her red dress rucks up, revealing lacey stocking tops and suspenders.
There's a shocked gasp for a woman in the front row.
More gasps, and indeed, titters, follow as Matter takes off the red dress, to reveal the exact type of lingerie that you are probably imagining. Black. Sheer. Uplifting.
Ah, I can see what sort of play this is going to be. And yup, sure enough, despite the multiple references to millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the rest of it, we are firmly in the realm of seventies farce. With all the door slamming, mistaken identities, outfit nicking, and gender confusion of it all.
It's kinda enjoyable though, and the interval rolls around soon enough. I go off to explore what exacting is the Green Room and what happens in there.
Eating ice cream, apparently. Because that's what everyone is doing. With the pub below, the drinkers have all gone downstairs to fill their glasses. Everyone else is in here, buying two quid ice creams out of the massive freezer.
A bell rings, calling us back to the theatre.
And the capers continue. Along with all the modern references, delivered with a broad wink for an audience that presumably has only come across the term 'intersectionality' in a Guardian hot take.
It feels like Flat Out’s writer, Jennifer Selway, not only wants to have her cake and eat it too, but also wants a slice of everyone else’s. She’ll put in all those grandiose lines of there being nothing wrong with a gentlemen enjoying a good pencil skirt, but she has no qualms with using said gentleman for laughs when he puts on a dress. She wants us to nod knowingly along when a character declares she couldn’t sleep with someone who voted to Leave, but then uses a character’s Ukrainian accent as the basis for a crude joke.
It’s all a little tiresome.
Who is this play meant for?
The guffawers of Highgate? Or those young millennials, who Jake Mitchell’s property developing scoundrel so rightfully points out, aren’t prepared to feel sorry for someone with a second home in South Ken any time soon. Even if it does have rats.
As with all farces, the final scene takes a long time to wrap up, but we get there eventually.
I don't stay for the talk.
The one good thing about Highgate, is I'm only a few stops from home.
In bed by ten. That's the bloody dream, isn't it?