More bag checks. It’s weird to think there was a time when this didn’t feel normal. That you could walk into a West End theatre without revealing on the embarrassing items that you tote around with you.
The bag checker on duty at the Gielgud clicks her little torch and peers inside the black depths of my rucksack. All good. The torch clicks off. “Mind the step and ticket collection is on the left,” she says all in one breath.
Right then. Better go left.
There’s a neat desk set into the wall over here. Which would seem like the perfect location for a box office. But the people at Gielgud Towers (or should I say Mackintosh House, home to Delfont Mackintosh, which is right next door) wouldn’t agree. Oh no. They have their ticket collection point on a small concession desk. The type where you’d expect to buy a programme, and maybe a bag of Minstrels.
But there's no bag of Minstrels here. Just tickets.
I join the queue and look around.
The Gielgud is a bit fancy, isn’t it? I mean, you kinda expect that from a theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, but this one really is glowing.
There’s an oval-shaped mezzanine above the foyer, and people are up there, leaning on the balustrade to gaze down on all the newcomers, like sneaky angels perching on the edge of an oculus.
Small spotlights are placed strategically to make the gilded walls glow and shimmer. It’s all rather spectacular.
It is entirely the wrong place to watch SWEAT.
This tale of the American factory workers is much better suited to its original home at the Donmar Warehouse. I saw it there last year. One of the last productions I went to before going into marathon-mode. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Perhaps it was just suffering from being overhyped, but I thought it was just a whole pile of words, and I wasn’t that into it. I mean, it was fine. It’s not like I thought it was bad. Watchable, you know? But the Pulitzer prize win baffled me.
So, yeah. When the West End transfer was announced, I wasn’t all that enthused about going again. But I couldn’t get my act together early enough to book into Company, and I really didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of the Les Mis holding cell. So here we are. At SWEAT.
But I’m not mad at it. The theatre is nice. The seats are comfy. I can just lean back and maybe have a little nap.
I reach the front of the queue, give my name, and get my ticket. No fuss.
Right, where am I sitting?
Row A. Stalls.
Okay then. No napping for me. Martha Plimpton might notice. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s offend Martha Plimpton. She scares me.
When Martha Plimpton asked me to get out of the way at Shakespeare in the Abbey, I got the fuck out of the way.
I better go in before she tells the ushers to keep an eye on me.
Hmm. Not sure where I’m going.
There’s a door to the stalls over here, just up these steps. But then there’s another one across the other way. Neither of them have numbers on them, and my ticket doesn’t have a left or a right on it.
I pick a door at random. Which basically means I select the one closest to me.
The ticket checker leans around his doorway and hands a single ticket stub to the front of houser standing guard at the staircase leading up to the circle.
“Here you go,” he says with a big grin.
That’s… odd. But perhaps she collects ticket stubs. If so, she’s sure in the right job.
He glances at my ticket and let’s me through. So, I guess my guess was guessed right.
Down some stairs with some frankly exhaustingly patterned carpet, and an equally enthused wallpaper. I slow down so that I can admire the posters. They’re properly old ones. From back when a typesetter was king. All text. No images.
Probably for the best, given that wallpaper.
Lots of John Gielgud shows, which I suppose makes sense.
There’s only so much lingering in stairwells you can do with only text-based posters to look at, and I make my way to the bottom and into the auditorium.
There’s a programme seller in here. Which reminds me. I have the programme from the Donmar run, because of course I do. I wonder what they’ve done differently.
I buy one. It’s £4. Which is an alright price. Almost a bargain.
Let’s see what’s in it.
I find my seat, in the front row, stuff my bag and jacket under the seat and settle in for a good peruse of the programme. There’s an article by Stephen Bush. That was in the Donmar programme. “Class hatred is Britain’s original sin.” Nice. What else? Another article! That’s what. It’s not often you get double articleage in the West End, I can tell you that for sure. This one’s by Jocelyn L. Buckner. “Blood, sweat and tears.” About how Lynn Nottage empowered the residents of Reading with their own story. That… that sounds familiar. I check the photo I snapped this morning. “Labor Negotiations: The Power of Community Forged Through Sweat.” By Jocelyn L. Buckner. Same article. But with a souped up West End title.
There's also a short piece about Les Mis, which we definitely didn't get at the Donmar. But it's all facts and figures and numbers and dates, and my god it's boring. I mean, come on, this is just glorified marketing copy. No one wants to read that. And I say that as someone who writes marketing copy for a living.
There seems to be rather a lot of that here. Marketing under the guise of editorial. There's a whole thing about Mary Poppins just a few pages further in. This is the kind of stuff I put in brochures. Not programmes. Oh well, I suppose we can just chalk 'em up as ads and move on.
“I haven’t got a programme,” says my neighbour. “Will you be offended if I don’t spend money on a programme?”
Well, actually I would rather… Oh, he isn’t talking to me.
I mean, perhaps he got himself one during the Donmar run. That might explain it. You’d have to be pretty darn obsessed with programmes to buy the exact same content, just in a different format, with added advertising...
“It’s stunning!” says his companion.
I look critically at the programme. It’s alright, I guess. Not quite the slick sophistication of the white and red Donmar programmes, but it’s got a nice image on the front.
She stands up to look around the auditorium.
My neighbour twists around in his seat. “Yes,” he agrees. “A real Edwardian gem.”
Honestly, it’s like these people aren’t even interested in programmes.
“The set is very evocative and very realistic. I don't think it's for doing things with, a la our national theatre,” continues my neighbour. “I suppose the men from the factory could come down from the pulleys but I don't think it’s the kind of play.”
He’s right. It’s not that kind of play. No swinging from the chandelier here. Although I’d have a great view of it if any of the cast fancy getting a bit acrobatic.
Someone in theatre blacks comes along to adjust all the small microphones set on the front of the stage. We all shuffle out knees around so that he can get through, but really, there’s plenty of room. I can stretch my legs right out and my toes don’t even touch the stage. Benefits of front rowing, I suppose. I should really do this more often.
The house lights dim and Martha Plimpton’s lovely voice comes over the sound system, telling us to switch off our phones. I’ve already put my phone away, but I get it out to double check that, yes, my phone is on airplane mode, and yes, it’s on silent too. Ain’t no buzzing going to interrupt Martha Plimpton’s flow. Not today.
Except, it’s not Martha Plimpton who comes out on stage.
It’s a man with tattoos. On his face. Nazi tattoos. On his face.
A man sitting really fucking close to me. With Nazi tattoos. On his face.
Shit. I’d forgotten about this.
I’m surprised about how uncomfortable it is. To be sitting so close to a man with Nazi tattoos. On his face. I know it’s not real. I know it’s just makeup. But I can’t help but think about the poor actor having to apply all that every day. And the momentary panic he must have every time they don’t wash off quite as quickly as they should.
But it’s only a framing device.
Soon enough, dust sheets are being pulled away, bits of set lowered from the rafters, and we're in a bar, and there's Martha Plimpton, dancing away. I think she might be a bit drunk.
At the Donmar, I was stuck right at the back of the circle. Watching the play from above. Here, well, I have quite the opposite angle. I can see right under the tables. I can even count all the bits of chewing gum stuck underneath.
And oh my lord, what a difference sitting close makes. I'm not going to start claiming that I believe in the second coming of SWEAT. But you know, it's good. I'm enjoying it.
And when Sebastián Capitán Viveros's Oscar flips over each of the tables in turn, and chisels off the chewing gum, I get a certain satisfaction seeing them turned back again, all clean and gum-free. Almost as if I'd hacked away at the white globs myself.
And when the fight scene comes, well, I find myself leaning as far back as I can, convinced that someone's going to come flying off the stage, legs and arms flailing, and quite possibly knock my nose off on their way down.
It doesn't help that it's a pretty fucking intense fight scene.
The audience audibly winces as Oscar takes a wallop to the stomach. A soft hiss of air escaping from between the audience members' teeth as he goes down.
Oof. That reqlly doesn't look good, mate.
Play over, I feel like I've been released. And not just because it was over two and a half hours.
I was pinned down for far too long. Pushed back into my chair with that heady stream of words.
I can see why people like sitting in the front row. But it's a bit too much for me. Too real. Too present. Too vulnerable-making.
And, let's be real. If a play is so intimate that it requires sitting in the front row in order to really feel it? Eh... I mean, perhaps a traditional theatre isn't the right place for it.
Anyway, another theatre checked off the list. Gielgud is done. And at least I don't have to debate with myself whether the staged theatrical concert version of Les Mis that's coming in next counts as theatre or not.