It’s just past 6 o’clock. The evening one. The sun is blazing. And I’m in Finchley.
This is weird. I haven’t been in Finchley at 6 o’clock in a good long time.
I’m not sure I even remember what this place looks like in daylight anymore.
Did I get the time wrong? Have I, perhaps, left work two hours too early today? I check my phone.
Nope. But I do have a message from Helen.
“I’m just walking from the station!”
“Me too.” I reply. “I’m next to the Barclays.” I pause. Barclays maybe isn’t quite the landmark I think it is for people who don’t actually live in Finchley. “Opposite Tesco,” I add.
There’s no missing the Tesco. It is honestly the single best thing about living in Finchley, that Tesco. It’s a nice one. Big enough that it has everything you could possibly need (from my favourite Sriracha, to a decent Kosher section for all my Bamba and halva needs) and yet not so big that you walk out of there staggering under fifty kilo bags of jasmine rice and an equestrian fly rug.
But I haven’t dragged Helen all the way to the end of the Northern Line to shop in the big Tesco. Oh, no. We have something far more exciting planned.
We’re going to the theatre.
My local one.
For once I’m going to be the one to stroll home post-theatre in time for an early night, curled up under my duvet and happy in the knowledge that Helen is still on a train somewhere.
I’m really quite excited.
“Oh okay I see a Tesco”
And I see Helen. Waving at me and standing out from the Finchley locals like a Bengal tiger in a pet shop. With her huge, circular, mirrored sunglasses, she looks like some sort of exotic bug. I doubt Finchley has seen the likes of Helen before. And I’m not sure they’re quite ready for her yet.
“I brought cupcakes!” I say, holding up the pink and maroon Hummingbird bakery bag. Its Helen’s birthday tomorrow, and we’re celebrating in style. Theatre and cake. A classic combo.
“This way,” I say, taking the lead.
It’s not often that I get the opportunity to walk someone around my home-town. It’s rather fun.
We’re not going to the theatre quite yet. We have to stop to make first.
Just to make sure that Helen gets the full Finchley experience, we’re going to meet a neighbour of mine. Someone who has made an uncredited appearance on the blog before, but now it’s time that you meet properly: it’s David. Arts writer extraordinaire, master of prose, tamer of choreographers, and most importantly, a Finchley native.
“Oh. My. God,” I say as Helen and I make our way into David’s kitchen and see the table laden down with plate after plate of food. There’s an asparagus and pastry thingy. A bean salad thingy. A beetroot and cucumbery doodad. And olives and almonds and bread and… I am suddenly the hungriest person in the world, because let me tell you, David can fucking cook, and this all looks proper amazing. He’s even used herbs from his own garden, which is just plain showing off if you ask me.
I would take a photo. I really want to take a photo. It’s all so damn pretty. But it feels like it’s probably wrong to take a snapshot of someone else’s cooking. So I don’t. Sorry. You’ll just have to take my word for the deliciousness of the spread.
The sun is still shining, so we take it all outside.
“I haven’t read Orlando,” says Helen, casually, as the subject of the show we’re seeing comes up.
“I’m sorry, what the hell?” How on earth has Helen managed to get through life without reading Orlando?
“Of course!” Twice actually. But I don’t like to brag.
“How do you have time to write your blog, work full-time, go to the theatre every night, and still read all the books you do?”
Oh, Helen. Such a flatterer. But it’s true. I am a miracle.
Not that Helen’s a slacker. She’s currently finishing off a masters as is about to embark on a PhD.
“I’m not sure if you have this problem,” she says, as the subject of writing her dissertation comes up. “But I have trouble finding a way in. I know what I want to write.” She pauses. “Sort of. But it’s finding the…” she finishes with a jabbing hand gesture.
“You just need to start anywhere,” I say, as if I have any business giving writing advice. “Lay some words down and worry about the opening later. You find out what you want to write by writing.”
Thankfully David, an actual real and proper writer, is able to give some real and proper guidance on the matter. Plagiarism. Apparently.
“Now, Robert Icke,” says David, knowing exactly the kind of reaction he’ll get from the pair of us at the name of the young director.
Helen eagerly leans forward, keen to hear more. She loves Robert Icke. I, on the other hand, slump back in my seat with a groan.
It’s a good thing it’s time for cupcakes. Eaten in a hurry because we still have to get to the theatre. Honestly, I’m not mad at it. While a Hummingbird cupcake should probably be savoured, there’s something luxuriously hedonistic about chomping the whole thing down in two bites, and then running out without helping to tidy up...
But there was no getting away from Icke. I’m in the presence of two superfans. It was always going to come up.
“Look,” I say. “I just… don’t like the way he makes his characters speak. They sound. Asif. They. Were. Dropped. Onthehead. As. Babies. I mean, why do they have to talk so slowly? I can’t stand slow talkers. Not in real life. Not on the stage. I feel I’m a very tolerant person-“ Helen laughs…. rude. “-but I can’t deal with slow talking.” I pause. “Or cyclists.”
That matter now cleared up, and with the sun in our eyes, we race up to Tally Ho corner (“Finchley sounds bucolic,” was Helen’s reaction to that place name) around the bus depot, past the Lidl, and there we are: the artsdepot.
I scurry across the square to grab a photo. David and Helen aren’t waiting. There’s no time. They’ve gone in.
“You don’t even have to pick up your ticket any more,” David says wryly as I finally make it inside. “You have people to do that for you.”
Helen is at the box office counter. Presumably pretending to be me.
She must be doing a good job of it, because she’s been given the tickets and we’re off again, crossing the large foyer that seems to take up the entirely of the ground floor.
“Take a photo of those,” orders Helen, pointing to the pretty origami lamps above our heads.
“On it,” I say, pointing my phone in the lamps’ direction.
“You can write that we approve of the lights,” says David.
“Right.” I make a mental note. “What are we feeling about the escalator?” I ask as I hang back to get a photo of them riding said escalator.
But they’ve moving upwards, and if they had an opinion it’s lost in the growing distance between us.
I enjoy it though. It’s not often you get to have a go on an escalator in a theatre. At least, not outside the West End. The Opera House has one. So does the Gillian Lynne. I can’t think of any others in London, but believe me, if there are any, I’ll find them!
The escalator takes us up to another vast space. Huge white walls soar upwards countless floors, and brightly coloured chairs cluster around tables. This must be what it feels like to hang out in a Crayola box.
A very neat Crayola box. Very neat. And empty.
Oh god. Everyone’s gone in. We must be late.
We head straight for the studio. There’s no time to faff around-
“Ooo! Programmes!” I say, catching sight of some rather fetching ones on display.
David and Helen go on ahead, while I bring a new family member into my programme collection. And this one is rather handsome. Tall and thin and dark and… yes, I’m still talking about the programmes. Honestly…
“Sorry,” I say to Helen and David as I catch them up. They’ve been waiting at the door for me. I’ve still got Helen’s ticket…
“There are some seats free if you all want to sit together,” says the ticket checker as she looks at where we’re all sitting
Well, we definitely all want to do that.
We plunge down a dark red corridor, and emerge into a sleek and modern looking theatre. This is no poky black box situation here. There’s a wide stage, proper flip-down theatre seating, curved around the front of the stage, and the most intensely packed lighting rig I’ve ever seen.
Like the naughty kids at assembly, Helen and I are in the back row, and terrible influences that we are, we’re dragging David with us.
I begin to wonder whether we are in the wrong place, whether we had, by mistake, wandered into the main auditorium. But no. There’s Rebecca Vaughan, all shiny blonde hair and even shinier black breeches, and she’s introducing herself as Orlando. Right play. Right theatre. It’s just the most boujee studio I’ve ever sat in.
Well, that’s Finchley for you.
And wow, Vaughan is flying. She must have heard my irritated rant about Icke, because there are no strange pauses going on here. There are no pauses at all. She is off! The starting pistol a mere echo in the distance behind her as she speeds through the words at a rate so fast it surely must be breaking some kind of law.
The young nobleman, in love with everyone and everything, flitting between Russian princesses and English queens, but saving the most sacred core of his heart for the oak tree, which try as he might, he cannot capture in words.
Vaughan slumps down on the stage. She’s spent. The words have dried up. A voiceover takes over. This is a pause, the voiceover soothes. A very long pause. A worryingly long pause. There’s a giggle from the audience as the metaness of it all takes hold.
Pause paused, Vaughan bursts up, renewed.
Helen jumps in her seat, surprised by the suddenness of it all. This return to Olympic-level oration.
And how Orlando despairs over the written word, wailing at the thought of the endless cycle of writing and rewriting, and editing. The three writers in the back row all turn and smirk at each other. We know that feeling well enough, us three: the blogger, the academic, and the pro.
There's another set of significant glances when Orlando declared he's "thirty, or there about." Although with my birthday looming, the aboutness is becoming rapidly less there.
No time to dwell on that though. I am currently in the throws of having serious costume envy as Orlando seeps through the centuries in style.
Breeches are let down and narrowed to become Jacobean, a ruff is replaced by a cravat. The doublet is removed to reveal an 18th century bodice, and then covered with a fischu to become Victorian. Vaughan steps in and out of skirts as she slips between genders-streams.
And all of it a deep, inky black.
Oh, that Kate Flanaghan is a temptress. I wonder if she takes non-theatrical commissions...
“Is that it?” asks David as I slip my jacket back on. “You’re done? You’re not going to stay and inspect the toilets? Ask to examine the drains.”
“Nope. I’m done.”
He looks disappointed.
There isn't much to investigate anyway. The gallery looks closed and the bar is shut. All that's left is to have another go on the escalator.
"It's changed direction!" I exclaim, far more delighted than I should be by this revelation.
"But how did they know we were coming?" asks David.
I think he's taking the piss.
"Are you taking a photo?"
Better a photo of the escalators than the drains.
Helen is concerned.“But isn’t it going to be a bit… thin? I’ve done a few of these trips with you, and nothing really happened?” says Helen. “What on earth are you going to write about?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. “I’m sure I can pull two thousand words out of my arse somehow.” After all, that’s what I do. "I'll walk with you back to the station. I really need to pop into Tesco..."
I putter about, stocking up on milk and sriracha, happy in the knowledge that I'll be home in ten minutes, long before Helen even gets off that train.