I’m on my way to the Shaw Theatre right now. And for once, I actually know where this theatre is. When the Northern Line crapped out last week, I had to get out at Euston and walk the rest of the way to work. A walk that took me down Euston Road as I headed into Islington. And as the red behemoth of the British Library loomed across my vision, I spotted something dangling in the way. It was a sign. For the Shaw Theatre.
Do you know about the Shaw Theatre? I didn’t know about the Shaw Theatre. It seems to be one of those theatres that is connected to a hotel. Like the Savoy but less… just less. Less glamourous. Less well known. And less programming. It’s taken me over six months to find a marathon-qualifying show for me to go to.
The Shaw seems to be the type of place that those regional music acts tour to. You know the kind of thing. Tribute acts and theme acts and cabaret acts and showcase acts. The type of acts that only seem to exist in these type of theatres.
They also have that Tape Face bloke, but I wasn’t altogether convinced that his stuff counted as theatre. So I took a pass.
But not tonight. Oh no. Tonight, I’m going to be seeing Rent.
Which I am rather excited about because I’ve never seen Rent before. I’m actually not all that familiar with it. I know that one song. You know, the one with all the numbers that every musical theatre fan seems to be able to reel off with only the slightest provocation.
Anyway, it looks nice enough. Modern. Glass. There’s some sort of massive sculpture action going on outside. A wire cage hanging above the carpark. Not sure what that’s meant to be but if it were being used as a prison to contain some supervillain or other, I would not be surprised.
I pick my way through the cars and head towards the main entrance.
As I approach, the door opens, held by a young woman in Shaw Theatre livery.
Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had the door held open for me at the theatre before. Not by a dedicated door person anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this place really is as swanky as the Savoy.
“Hello!” says the young woman, all bright smile and welcoming.
I thank her, still slightly surprised by all these gentility.
She makes use of my disorientation to hold out a pile of stickers.
They have rainbows on them. And the name of the theatre.
That’s how to do Pride. With multi-coloured stickers. I approve.
I thank her again, already feeling very positive about this trip. Getting the door held open for me and a free sticker? The Shaw is gunning for a top ten position in my end of year rankings, I can tell you that right now.
From there, I join the queue for the box office. It’s a rather long queue. And is moving very slowly.
Another young woman, this one wearing a smart blue jacket, makes her way down the line asking if we booked ourselves e-tickets.
The bloke behind me shows her a print out.
“Yup, that’s fine,” she confirms.
“So I don’t have to queue?” he asks, amazed at this revelation.
“No, you can use that.”
He trots off with his print out, very pleased.
“Ooo! Stickers!” comes a cry from behind me.
Heads turn, and soon the young woman on the door is besieged by people who missed out on the sticker action on their way in.
“Can I have a sticker please?”
“Can you get me one too, mum?”
Such is the power of a rainbow sticker.
From my position in the queue, I have a great view of the bar. It’s exactly the sort of bar you would imagine there to be in a hotel’s theatre. All dramatic hanging lights and stacks of mini-bar sized snacks hanging out alongside the bottles of more serious stuff.
A girl goes up to the bar and holds up a paper bag full of some sort of takeaway.
She asks the barman something, and after a moment’s thought, he takes it from her.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she calls after him as he disappears through the back door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she repeats when he remerges a few seconds later.
I think he was putting it in the fridge for her, which I have to say, is not something I’ve ever considered asking bar staff to help with, at the theatre or anywhere else, but my god, what a good idea. Especially in this weather.
“Have you got an e-ticket?” asks the woman in the blue jacket, doing another trawl of the queue.
“I think I’m picking up,” I tell her.
“What’s the surname?”
I tell her, and she goes off to the front to double check.
I do the same, but on my phone, and bringing up the confirmation email remember that I paid an extra two quid for this privilege. Fucking hell. No wonder she’s asking about e-tickets so much. What kind of idiot would pay two quid for the pleasure of a paper ticket? Apart from me, but we all know I have issues.
A few minutes later, I’m at the front of the queue.
“Is that Maxine?” asks the lady on box office when she checks her computer for my booking.
I tell her that it is and a second later the printer behind the desk buzzes into action. She checks the ticket, folds up the ream, and hands it to me.
Right then. Time to explore.
Apart from the bar and the box office, there’s a seating area over by the entrance to the theatre. All red walls and old theatre posters and low settees. There’s also the most extraordinary carpeting going on. I mean, if I didn’t know this place had a hotel connection before, this carpet would tell me everything I need to know. It’s all floral and swirly, with another pattern going on underneath that I can’t quite make out. It’s like one of those Magic Eye posters from the nineties. I couldn’t make them out either.
The entrance to the theatre itself is closed off by a red velvet curtain. That combined with the old posters gives this place a very strange vibe. The modern hotel combined with the old school theatre. I’m not sure even the Shaw knows what this place is.
“Good evening,” comes a voice over the sound system. “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre. The house is now open. The house is now open.”
Now, you may say that I’ve been marathoning far too long (and I won’t disagree with you on that), but that message surprises me. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard a house open announcement that doesn’t mention the name of the show. You know: “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre for tonight’s performance of Rent…”
I wonder if the message has been pre-recorded. It would certainly make it easier for everyone with all those one-night shows that they have going on.
No one else appears bothered by this. They all crowd themselves towards the doors, heaving in close to each other until them become unmanageable mass of people.
I hang back and let them get on with it.
Seating is allocated. There’s no rush.
Eventually the queue clears, and I make my way in.
The first ticket checker barely looks as me as I pass through the curtain. She has no interest whatsoever in whether I have a ticket, or what it says on it if I do.
So I continue on, making my way through a dark corridor, with George Bernard Shaw quotes hung up on the walls, in what must be an attempt to justify the name of the theatre.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself,” one states. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says another. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that old Shawie-boy was a bit repetitive in his choice of sentence structure.
That makes me suspicious. I can’t for the life of me think what play either of these are from. Neither strike me as something the writer of Man and Superman would come out with. But then, I’m not a massive GBS fan, so, who knows?
I get out my phone and Google the first one and immediately find a page asking “Wait, did George Bernard Shaw really say this?”
The answers seem to suggest that no, he didn’t. But I don’t have time to research any further, because I’ve reached the other end of the corridor and there’s a ticket checker waiting for me on the other side.
“D23?” I ask, showing her the ticket.
“D23. You will be…” her finger traces the horizon of seats, wavering between the middle and final block of seats. “Hang on, let me show you.”
And with that she leads me down to the second aisle.
“Twenty-three did you say?”
“Err, yes,” I say, double checking my ticket.
She hops up a few steps to the fourth row. “You’re just in here,” she says.
“Lovely! Thank you!”
Whatever their questionable use of George Bernard Shaw quotes, you can’t fault the service.
Nor the seating. It’s very plush. Wide, squashy seats, covered in fuzzy velvet. Pretty lush.
Someone in the row in front turns around. “Do you know how long this is?” he asks.
My neighbour shakes her head. “Sorry, I just know its two acts.”
Yeah, no freesheets tonight. And no programmes.
Still, we got rainbow stickers.
I settle back in my seat and get comfortable.
The people sitting behind me are having some great theatre chat. By the sounds of it they are both musical theatre professionals and the gossip is flying. Lots of talk of “Cameron,” the joys of auditioning on a proper West End stage, and the perils of being second cover.
As the lights dim, there’s a scurrying of movement as people move down to better seats.
A couple slowly make their way down from the back, clinging onto the rail as they go down the stairs, move across the front of the stage, and then sink into a pair of seats in the front row.
Thus settled, they start to enjoy the show. Really enjoy the show. The woman sways from side to side, waving her arms as she feels the music.
It’s rather beautiful.
As for me, I’ve just realised what Rent is. It’s La Boehme, isn’t it? That whole candle scene. I recognise that! That’s good. I feel on firmer ground now. Except I’m now worrying about what a potential wank I am that I’m more familiar with La Boehme then Rent.
As our Mimi (again, no freesheet, I have no idea who she is) gets down on her knees and Arghhh Oooos into the night, it’s simply too move for the lady in the front row. She just has to dance. She gets up from her seat and boogies her way into the corner, where she bows her head, puts up her arms, and moves to the beat, truly embodying the ‘dance like no-one’s watching’ mandate more fully than I’ve ever seen anyone do it before.
The man she’s with watches her for a moment, checks behind him to see how we’re talking it, beckons her back to her seat and then goes to speak to the usher.
They whisper to each other feverously, the usher and the man, with lots of pointing around the auditorium.
He doesn’t want his lady to stop dancing. Oh no. He wants to find her a place where she can get her groove on without disturbing anyone else.
The usher nods. She understands. And he returns to his seat.
A few songs later she sneaks into the front row, crouching down next to the pair.
She’s sorted something. She’s taking them somewhere.
So they go. Leaving their prime spots, our lady dances her way out of the theatre.
It feels strangely quiet now that we’ve lost our alternate cast member. But the performers up on stage don’t let us relax for long.
“Moo!” orders our Maureen. “Everyone this side: Moo!”
Everyone duly moos as ordered. Well, almost everyone.
I do not partake. I have audience participation intolerance.
But as our Mark jumps up onto a table, and the table tips, throwing him forward, oh, I gasp. I gasp along with everyone else. He recovers his balance just in time, throwing out his hand to show us he’s okay. And we applaud. How could we not after such a feat of daring do?
“Did you moo?” someone asks in the row in front once the interval hits.
“No!” comes the reply.
Okay, so I wasn’t the only one then.
The person from the row in front is outraged. “No? But you have to!”
“Can you believe they only had a week to do all that?” counters the non-mooer, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Aren’t they amazing!”
They are. But I still don’t know who they are.
Interval over and there’s a strangled squeal from the audience as the cast comes out. They know what’s coming. And I can guess. Yes, it’s the number song! 525,600 apparently. That’s a big number. How do people remember that? I never even managed pi to five decimals.
But it’s proper good.
And it’s sad.
And I might be sniffing a bit. A hint of watery eye. No, it’s okay. I’m not going to cry.
Oh poor Angel.
And poor Mimi.
Shit, I’ve gone. The first tear has fallen and there’s no stopping me now.
As the final notes ring out, we all burst from our seats into a standing ovation. I can’t believe it was only on Friday I was saying I rarely ovate. Only when a performance hits me in the gut, was my justification. Well, gut fucking hit. Full on bullseye right in the intestines.
I turn around, taking in the audience.
There, at the back, in the far corner, is our dancing lady. She’s still moving to the sound of the band as they play us out. Hands above her head, hips swinging. And the man she’s with watching her.
And I start crying again, because that’s love, isn’t it? Finding someone the space to be themselves and letting them go for it, to the fullest.