I need to learn to trust my my own instincts. I’m so convinced of my inability to read people, that when my spidey senses do end up tingling, I brush it off as my imagination.
There I was, walking though Highgate on my way to the theatre, and I could just feel someone following me. The fact that most of the time he was walking ahead of me on the pavement does not seem to have affected the queasiness in my belly.
After changing sides of the road three or four times, he stopped, stood at the side of the pavement, not looking at me until the very last moment before he turned around. And said something.
“You have beautiful eyes.”
The street was deserted. There was no one else there.
Of all the things to say to someone, it was not the most worry-inducing, but still. I was alone. Even worse: we were alone. I don’t want people creeping around me for minutes on end to make comments about my eyes. It’s not even true. I don’t have beautiful eyes. I mean, they’re alright. But it’s my eyeliner that’s doing the heavy lifting there.
I kept on walking, pretending not to have heard him, and don’t stop until I get to Jackson’s Lane.
That’s my theatre for tonight.
A first for me. I’ve never been here before. Although I’ve walked past a good deal. It's right opposite Highgate tube, and it’s pretty hard to miss. A massive red brick church, it does rather dominate the cross-roads if not exactly the horizon.
A couple are lounging on the steps outside what must have been the main door back when it was still a sanctified space. They are looking very young and glamorous together there. As if they’re posing for an Abercrombie and Fitch advert, or whatever brands young people are wearing these days. Something to do with Hype clothing or something, isn’t it? Christ I’m old…
Shit, probably shouldn’t blaspheme around a church. Even if it’s not a church anymore.
It’s nice in here. All fairylights and bunting and streamers and rainbows. I fully expect to turn a corner and get myself punctured on the horn of a passing unicorn. It’s like stepping into the ultimate children’s party. One thrown by some very dotting, and very rich parents. Thinking about it, this is what all the kids party around here must be like. Although, knowing Highgate mums, they probably hire Jackon’s Lane itself for their little darlings.
The young woman behind the box office looks up and grins as I come in. I go over.
I give my surname, and she pulls open a box marked “Pay What You Want tickets” on the top. I’m seeing a show as part of their Postcards Festival. When booking online there's a choice. Either get your ticket for free, with the caveat that you’ll pay some figure based on how much you think the show is worth, on the night. Or you type in your credit card details and get all that shit sorted in advance. For fifteen quid.
I went for the free option. No because I’m cheap. I am cheap, but that’s not the reason. I was intrigued to see how it would all work. I haven’t done this type of arrangement yet on the blog.
I’m not entirely sure how it all works.
“When you go in,” she says, handing me the ticket. “You'll find an envelope on your chair, at the end of the show just pop some cash in there.”
“I was just going to ask!” I say.
She grins. “I could sense it was coming. The door will open in about ten minutes,” she goes on, pointing towards the doors at the far end of the foyer. “The show is about fifty minutes.”
Fifty minutes? Holy sh..ugar. We’ll be done by 8.20pm. And I’m only a couple of stops from home. In bed by ten, here I come!
Ticket now acquired and rules of the game established, I have a walk around the space. It’s really nice in here. Usually this excess of decorations would have my anxiety flairing up, but it’s really laid back. Comfortable. People sit around tables chatting quietly. The queue at the bar is short and well managed. There’s a cafe space tucked away behind a low wall, which is dark and homely looking.
I go up there, and pull up a pew.
A literal pew in case you think I am indulging in cliché.
Looks like they got more than the building when the Christians moved out.
With the pew-based booths and miles of bunting, the whole place is very Pastel Goth. Not my personal style, but one I’ve always appreciated in others.
“Excuse me, can I sit here?” asks a bloke, pointing to the other side of my pew.
“Go for it!”
He’s brought food with him from the cafe. Something very savoury looking. Steam is rising off of it and the smell is making my stomach rumble.
I really miss hot dinners.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice from the foyer behind us. “The performance will start in two minutes.”
Blimey. Time to go in then.
I join the queue at the door.
The young woman from the box office is now serving as ticket checker. She smiles at every one in turn, thanking them as they hand over their tickets to be torn free of their stubs.
“Carrot, would you like a carrot?”
I can’t see what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure I just heard a voice asking someone if they wanted a carrot.
I turn the corner. There’s a popcorn seller. Or someone who looks like a popcorn seller. With that boxy tray hanging from a strap against her neck. The type worn by Cigarette Girls in cinemas back when smoking and pillbox hats were still things that happened.
“Popcorn? Loose popcorn? How about a carrot?” she asks.
The man she’s talking to consents to the carrot.
“Yes? You want a carrot? The carrots are very popular.” The next person also demonstrates interest in the carrots. “The carrots are all gone, I’m sorry. But I have loose popcorn? No? Take a party popper.”
She hands the party poppers out. I take one.
“Don’t pop it! Not yet!” she warns. “Sit at the front please!” she calls after a group kitted out with party poppesr.
I begin to make my way to the front, but something stops me. I remember the man from earlier. And I resolve to pay attention to my tingling senses.
I stop a third of the way down, and slip into a row, putting a good distance between myself and the stage.
From the entrance, there’s a bang.
“Did you pop the party popper?” shouts the popcorn seller in mock outrage. A second later, she recovers herself. “Thank you,” she says, friendly once more. Someone asks her something. “Yes, you can eat the popcorn.”
A group of young men with man-buns and ripped t-shirts sit in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. They are very tall, and the rake isn’t all that good. I move down a few seats.
Just in time. One of the young men leans back, his arms stretched taut over his head as he bends himself over the back of his seat, his hands reaching down into my row.
Something tells me these are all circus boys.
The queue has cleared.
She makes her way down the aisle, honking a horn and making sure everyone has party poppers. “Not yet!” she warns before disappearing into the wings, to be replaced by a woman in a sparkly red leotard and a black tail coat. Our ringmaster for the self-billed Greatest Show on Earth.
The show is… having some problems.
The cast of a thousand acrobats are trapped in Calais. Or is it Dover?
But the show, as they say, must go on. Our sparkly host will be persevering. With the help of popcorn seller Poppy, and… the audience.
She needs a horse.
I mean… oh sugar.
No, fuck that.
“Bring the house lights up so I can look at all your horsey faces,” she says, peering into the audience. I sink down into my seat, but her attentions are focused on the font few rows. “I need someone with luscious hair and a strong back.”
She extends her arm, her pointed finger wavering.
“You!” she announces as she selects her equine assistant.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to do it.
She copies him. Shaking his head. “You’ve got the moves already,” she says, encouragingly.
But he’s not having it. He really doesn’t want to do it.
No matter. She didn’t want him anyway. It was a test. And he passed. “Well done.”
The pointing finger finds another mark, and this audience member is more willing to play the pony.
“What’s your name?” asks the ringmaster.
After a short lesson in hoof display, trotting and dressage, James is really to ready for his rider. And as he bounces around with Poppy the popcorn seller balanced on his back, he’s offered a carrot to munch.
As James the horse is allowed to return to his stall, and the sparkly ringmaster performs a very unconventional aerial display, I think the worst is over. But nope. They need lions now.
And they’re holding auditions.
“Show us your lion claws!” orders the ringmaster. “Claw at your neighbour, the person in front of you. I want to see blood!”
The young men in front paw at each other, attacking shoulders and backs with curved hands.
A small child in the front row lets out a ferocious roar and we all laugh. Even the sparkly ringmaster.
The next stage of the audition is teeth.
The young men chew on each other’s arms and shoulders.
I’m sitting alone, so I’m spared the gummy mastication. I’m relieved. I’ve already been bitten once in a theatre. It’s not something I feel the need to go through again.
Last up, the thing that all trainee lions need to master: the roar.
We all wait for the small child in the front row. This is their moment. We are not disappointed. Over the feeble roars of the adults, the small child let’s all the hugest, fiercest, most terrifying roar ever hear by man or beast.
We all tremble in its echo.
But the sparkly ringmaster, for the sake of her own safety, decides to pick a grown-up for the role, and coming into the audience, declares she is going to insert her head between his jaws. We all cheer as Antoine, which has to be the best name for a lion ever, opens his mouth very, very wide, and she sticks her head in there. Sort of.
Sparkly ringmaster returns to the stage, and we are allowed to relax a little with some tent dancing.
But not for long. The house lights are going up again. We’re getting a lesson in trapeze catching.
Never drop the flyer. That’s the first rule. Eye contact. That’s important. Shout “up” when you release. And “mine” when you catch.
They go to fetch their flyer. With the acrobats all caught in Calais (or was it Dover?), the role of flyer would be played by… a cuddly toy owl.
Poppy and the Ringmaster practice a little with the front row.
“Up!” shouts the Ringmaster as she throws her little friend.
“Mine!” shouts the audience member as they catch.
And then it begins.
First the cuddly owl goes out. It bounces a little around the audience.
Then more come out. Snakes. Lots of snakes. A massive fish. A curly wig.
The young men in front of me grab anything that comes within ten feet, using their long arm spans to reach across seats and rows, scooping up the fallen friends.
Behind me, someone runs up and down the back row, collecting any flyers that fly too far, and lobbing them back into the fray.
A snake skims over the young men's fingertips and I find myself catching it.
“Up,” I shout, throwing it forward.
“Mine!” shouts back someone in the second row.
At the signal, the cuddly toy fights ends, and we pop our party poppers.
The room smells of gunpowder and traumatised toys.
And then we’re done.
I grab my purse and examine the envelope. Pay what you want, it says. “Based in how awesome you think the experience was.”
Awesome. Hmm. I mean, it was fun. And sweet. And stressful. Really stressful. Can awesome things be stressful? I suppose truly awesome things are very anxiety inducing. Like… space. And… lions.
I slip a note into my envelope.
Front of housers are out in the foyer, buckets in hand, ready to take them.
“I liked your roar,” says someone to the tiny child as we file out.
The small child doesn’t say a word. They’ve gone shy.
Or maybe not. Maybe they's sensed something. Something not right. And their lion's instinct has told them not to roar.