Back on the Southbank again tonight. I’m going to have to move. Get a second home. Or at least find a sofa to crash on down here. This is getting ridiculous.
It’s the turn of the Underbelly tonight. The Belly specifically. Neither of which I have ever been to before. All that cabaret and comedy ain’t my thing. But there’s a circus show on at the moment that looks interesting Transit,, so here I go. Under Hungerford Bridge and off to the world of cow puns.
But first, the box office.
Things are off to a good start. There are purple signs pointing to the place, and the building itself, a wooden structure that looks like it spends its winters fulfilling the role of writer’s shed for some big time fantasy author, is right on the Southbank. There’s no missing it. It has BOX OFFICE posted outside in massive foot tall lettering. And an even larger sign next to the service windows, listing all the shows.
I’ll give Underbelly one thing. They know how to make a statement.
There’s only a couple of people at waiting. This might be because I’m a little early, but far more likely is the fact that they push e-tickets hard here. Even on the email confirming my order (when I selected the option to pick up my tickets, natch) they take time to tell you how glorious e-ticketage is (“If this email has a barcode at the top, there's no need to queue at the box office!”) and let you know that changing your mind about the whole printed ticket business is only a matter of replying to the confirmation and everything e-tickety will be sorted out for you. No fuss.
This, I like.
I know that e-tickets are the future. I see it. I’m not stupid.
But Underbelly are still finding a way to serve old foggies like me, while also gently nudging in the direction of progress.
They haven’t got me this time. But, who knows… maybe next year.
For now, I’m waiting in the queue to get the real deal.
“Do you want to see my confirmation email or is just my surname okay?” I ask once it’s my turn. I don’t know why I ask this. Perhaps all that talk of barcodes threw me off.
“Err,” says the box officer, who is clearly also not sure why I felt the need to ask this. “Let’s go with surname first, shall we?”
I give it. And a second later a neat paper ticket is puttering out of the machine.
“What’s your first name?” he asks, double checking the ticket.
I give it, and with a nod, I’m handed my ticket.
Hurrah. What now?
I wander back the way I had come.
There’s a entrance here which looks fairly magical. All wooden decking and overhanging plant life. But there are two bag checkers on duty and they look ready to check the fuck out of my bag. I keep on going. I’m sure there was another way in slightly further down.
There is. This one is slightly less magical. More of the astroturf and sunshine, and less of the faerie-glade. But the bag checker here doesn’t look nearly as intense, and I walk in without hindrance.
People are sitting around on the fuzzy green floor. That doesn’t look comfy. Apart from the likely wet bottom scenario going on there, I can well remember sitting on the all-weather hockey pitch back at school, and ending up with legs pox-marked with indentations from the end of my culottes to the start of my socks. I mean, that was a long time ago. So perhaps the fake grass industry has improved matters, but that’s not something I really want to explore right now.
I carry on.
The space widens out into something an area that makes me think I might have stumbled into a summer wedding.
Picnic tables huddle under bowers of flowers. Young women waft around in long skirts. And everyone has a glass of something bubbly clutched in their hands.
There are stalls everywhere. If you want crepes, there’s a stall for that. Burgers? Yup. Wraps? Yup. Prosecco? Double yup. That’s gone a whole area set off to one side.
All in the shadow of the massive curved tent that is The Belly.
I take a circle of the square. There’s a lot of people here. They can’t all be seeing the show.
A huge chunk must be here just to… hang out? Eat? Drink? Be merry?
They all seem very happy, laughing away in their groups.
I begin to feel a little awkward being there by myself.
This place doesn’t really seem built with the lone theatre goer in mind. There’s nowhere to stand that isn’t utterly in the way. And nowhere to sit that wouldn’t mean requisitioning a chair from people who actually have friends.
There’s some young women hanging out near the entrance to the theatre space. So I go over there too, tucking myself in against a blue shed which claims to be selling tickets and merchandise, but isn’t open for business.
A queue forms.
Someone comes out of the door, and squeezes himself around the rope bollard.
“Can I see your ticket?” he asks the young women.
They start flustering around, trying to dig out their e-tickets.
I pull my printed ticket from my pocket, and feel very smug about the whole thing.
But the ticket checker doesn’t want to check my ticket. He bypasses me and heads straight to the queue.
I get it. He probably thinks I pushed my way in front. So I stand around, waiting for him to double back to me.
The next lot are also fussing about with their phones.
With an internal sigh so great I can almost see it, he turns to me.
“Can I see your ticket?”
I show it to him.
“This is for our Sirloin Seats,” he says, taking it from me. “They have priority.”
“Oh?” I say, not knowing what to make of that.
“The queue for standard seats is over there,” he says, pointing to the door on the other side. “Enjoy the show!” He rips the ticket and hands it back to me, before moving onto the next person. Who still hasn’t found their e-ticket.
Well. Okay then.
I go over to the other door. But not before looking behind me to check the signage. There are signs. Next to both entrances. Both advising on queuing. And in fact, both saying the exact same thing. “QUEUE HERE FOR SHOWS IN THE BELLY THEATRE.” I mean, I don’t know about you. But on reading that, I would queue there for shows in The Belly Theatre.
Oh well. I join the second, Standard Seat, queue.
“It’s already been ripped,” I tell the Standard ticket checker.
“That’s fine,” she says, and waves me through.
And in I go.
Up some metal steps and into the dark cavern of the tent.
It’s like walking into a cave. Cramped, with only a glimmer of light coming from the stage.
Seats are unallocated, so I edge myself between the rows until I get to the central block, about half way back. Yeah, that looks good.
I sit down.
Oh. Shit. Um.
Leg room. There’s a leg room issue. Or rather, there’s a lack of leg room issue.
Tell me, do you have these problems? It surely can’t just be me. I mean, I’m a little. Not in the kink way. In the literal way. I’m short. And I’m still struggling here. Is this normal? Do other people’s knees hit the seats in front when they go to these fringey theatres? If yes, then these places really need to sort their shit out. And if no, and it really is just me, then can I get this fixed? Is there a cure? Because I bruise easily, and purple knees aren’t fun.
More people are coming in through the Fillet Steak entrance. I’m not sure why they need priority access. They have seats reserved for them right there, in the front few rows. Surely the real benefit would be swanning in at the last moment, when everyone else has been queueing and waiting and getting their knees bruised in these cramped conditions.
There’s a tannoy announcement. Sounds like we’re all about to take a flight.
“Please switch off personal devices that might distract you,” says the disembodied voice amongst pieces of advice about forming human pyramids on the plane.
The performers come out. I don’t know who any of them are (no freesheet), but they are all very bouncy.
It’s hard to feel sorry for my knees when this lot are literally throwing leaping off massive trunks mere feet away from my tortured legs.
Now, I’ll admit. I’m not big on circus. I find it hard to get worked up about tricks. I wish there was a circus show out there with a proper narrative, rather than just the barest excuse for a story for the performers to hang their hula hoops off. But it is all very impressive. Even if they are just killing time while waiting for a delayed flight.
But the performers aren’t the only things flying around.
The audience flinches and cries of “ewww,” whip around as a freshly chewed piece of banana is spat into our midst.
I shudder. Then remember my poor knees. There’s no room for that sort of reaction here.
But proving they can take it as well as dish it out, our waylaid travellers start spitting sweets up, into the air, dropping neatly into their fellows' mouths. Or on the floor. To be picked up. Reinserted. And sent on its travels once more.
With one sweet remaining in play, the inevitable happens, and it is spat into the audience.
“What would you do, if this was our last show together?” they ask each other.
The answers differ. One wants to beat a world record. One thinks having four diablos in play would be a feat with going out on. Another fancies having a go at lifting the entire troupe on his broad shoulders. Yet another voices a wish to perform the aerial straps at twice his body weight.
I should have seen it coming.
The inevitable happens.
It’s their last show. They are to disband.
“They gave me these back stage,” says the performer who wanted to double his weight. He holds out a plastic tray of doughnuts. He’s changed. He’s wearing a suit. A proper suit. With a shirt and whatnot. And under that... a fat suit.
He shoves a doughnut into his mouth, and offers out the tray to the audience.
Someone takes him up on his offer, and the doughnut is duly thrown in their direction.
I see where this is going. You can too, can't you?
He won't be strapping on diving weights. Or any sort of weight. There's no need. This isn't an expression if skill. It's a comedy routine.
He just has to look fat. That's enough.
I don’t think a smile has ever left my lips so fast.
He makes his way onto the stage and threads his wrists into the aerial straps, a doughnut still stuffed into his mouth. And up he goes, crashing into the set, twisting himself into ungainly knots, and chasing after his new found sugar addiction. The balletic grace of his former turn replaced by clownish capers.
I have absolutely zero patience for fat suits. And even less for fat jokes.
Fuck. That. Shit.
I still in angry silence, and cannot bring myself to applaud as he sinks heavily to the ground.
I am in no mood to play along when we are called upon to grant our next performers final-performance wish: to be treated like a rock star.
Underwear is thrown into the audience. Boxes of it. Bras and pants of every colour.
A white pair of pants lands on me. Not my style personally, but they’re clean, which is a relief.
“Here, anyone not got one?” they shout.
More are brought out and lobbed around until we are all knickered up.
At the call, we all lob our pairs of smalls down towards the waiting rock star. I’m surprised and a little bit pleased with myself that I manage to get mine down to the stage. Turns out I do actually have a muscle somewhere.
But my success does little to rid the bad taste of fat shaming in my mouth.
I mean, seriously.
Fuck. That. Fucking. Shit. Right. In. The. Bumhole.