I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.
So I didn't.
Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.
And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.
Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.
Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.
I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.
Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.
Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.
Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.
There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.
I guess that's where I'm heading.
Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.
There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.
I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.
There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.
It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.
The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.
Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.
It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.
Then I figure it out.
I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.
Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.
"Are you here for the show?" he asks.
"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.
"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."
Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.
Except, there wasn't any signage.
Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.
I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.
"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.
"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."
I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.
I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.
The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.
A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.
Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.
Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.
I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.
Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.
... I wear black.
A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.
A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.
"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."
As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.
I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.
"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.
See, I knew that bell was troublesome.
Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.
When we get to me, I give my name.
"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.
It really is dark down here.
I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.
"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.
"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."
It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.
The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.
There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.
It's a small room. Tiny.
Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.
In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.
Behind are rows of chairs.
And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.
I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.
I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.
I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.
So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.
"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.
There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.
The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."
We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.
"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."
Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.
I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...
First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."
I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.
Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.
The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.
Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.
Thankfully we're now back in 2019.
As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.
Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.
As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.
I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.