I can't believe that there are areas of London where the trains only stop every half-hour. I truly cannot wrap my head around this. How do these people live? How do they work? How do they do anything or go anywhere? I cannot fathom living like that. And I grew up in a hamlet, with a once-weekly bus service. How do the people of Sydenham even theatre? Because that's what I'm here for, and I'm running late. My comfortable ten-minute buffer to get myself from the station to the next theatre on the marathon-list has now been compressed to six minutes. And I'm am not feeling good about the situation.
I run down the platform, dodging between some teenagers on some sort of official group outing that seems involve just hanging out on the stairs. Up the steep ramp and into the car park. Where now? Gawd dammit, Google maps is being an arse again. Okay, the blue circle has caught up. We're going left.
I race along the pavement, staring at my phone, willing the dot to move along the map screen that bit faster. My knee crunches under me, but I ignore it. There's no time for crunchy-knees right now. I've got an opera to get to.
I think it's the turning just over there. There's a guy walking ahead of me, his feet moving as fast as mine, his head bent low over his phone. Yup. I've found a fellow opera-goer.
We arch our way around the crescent, rushing along the narrow pavement, peering at each of the houses in turn. What number is that one? No. A little bit further. And look! There's a sign. Set up on an easel. With the title of the show that I can't type, so I'm going to have to copy and paste: THE鍵KEY.
This must be the place. Normal people don't set up show posters on easels outside their houses.
I turn the corner and there it is. Number 10, Tollgate Drive. My theatre for the afternoon. And someone's home the rest of the time.
Not what I expected, gotta admit.
When I booked to watch an opera in someone's private house, well... this low brick bungalow was not in the mental picture I'd put together.
But it has to be the right place. There are people out here. All hanging around. So unless there's a garage sale going on out back, this must be it.
I join the queue taking up the garden path, and a barefoot woman with a Tête à Tête Opera Festival tote slung over her shoulder makes her way down, taking names.
"Hi, it's Smiles?" I tell her when she reaches me. "I still need to pay."
Yeah. I made a bit of a boo-boo booking this one. In that I didn't book at all. I was waiting for payday. Which I really shouldn't have done. Tickets were only seven quid or so. But like, I have a lot of tickets to buy, and I tend to bulk order once a week. Get the hit on my credit card done in one big bash, so it has a few days to recover before the next round.
Anyway, it sold out. Because of course it did.
So I emailed them.
I'm not one to play the "I have a blog, you know," card all that often, but I played this one to the fullest. Begging, pleading, for a ticket. I had to. There was no other way of getting this venue. It's not like the owner of 10 Tollgate Drive will be putting on a panto in their living room come Christmas. There was once chance, and I was throwing everything I had at it to make it happen.
They put me on the waiting list.
Thankfully all my sacrifices to the theatre gods have finally built up enough karma points for them to take pity on me, and a few days ago I got an email from the people at Tête à Tête saying that there was a ticket going spare. If I wanted it.
Only the one ticket. Which was a bit of a problem as Helen had also wanted to go. But I'm nothing if not selfish in pursuit of my goals, so I took it. And didn't tell Helen. Here's hoping she doesn't read this, huh?
"You can pay by cash, or there's a card machine over there," says the barefoot woman.
"I think I have cash," I say, pulling out my purse. "Do you have change?"
"Would you like a programme?"
I would always like a programme. Especially when they're free.
She hands me an A5 card, which is a hella-swish way to do a freesheet, I must say. Full-colour printing. A satin finish and everything. Nice.
Barefoot lady points out the cloakroom. Accessed through a side door. Something tells me this is going to be one fancy-arse bungalow.
I hand over my bag. I'm already having visions of knocking over some priceless vase with it. Once I have my numbered ticket from the cloakroom lady, I'm back outside, ready to tackle the next item on my agenda.
Shoes. Or rather the lack of them.
With the confirmation of my ticket had come the warning that this is a shoes-off household.
I'd prepared as well as I could, trying on six pairs of tights this morning before finding one that didn't have holey-toes, or the evidence of my terrible darning-skills.
Unfortunately, these preparations hadn't started soon enough for my footwear. I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment. Which means I have one pair of shoes. My favourite pair of shoes. Which aren't shoes at all. They're boots. With laces. And straps. And they're a bitch to remove.
"Do you mind if I squidge in to take my shoes off," I ask the people sitting over on the long bench by the front door. A couple slid down the narrow plank to give me room. "Thanks. Sorry. I did not plan my footwear."
I wrestle with the straps and buckles and laces, and eventually manage to pull them off, and tuck them away under the bench.
Then I double-check my toes.
Phew. No holes.
The theatre gods are doing me a serious solid today.
"Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for coming," says the barefoot lady, making her way up onto the porch. "A couple of things before we go in. Can I ask you to take your shoes off." There's a shuffle as the few people who haven't got that far try to pull off their shoes without restoring to yoga-poses. An old man stumbles as he attempts to use the edge of the porch to scrape the heel of his brogues down. "There's a cloakroom and a bathroom," continues the barefoot lady. "But we ask you to use it either before or after the performance, if that's possible." Brave homeowners letting a bunch of opera-loving weirdos into their loos. Although with the whole side-door situation going on, they might just be letting us into the servants quarters. Or whatever the 2019 equivalent of that is.
"Feel free to move around the house," she continues. "We ask you not to open any doors that are closed, and to be respectful that we are in someone's home, and we are very lucky to be here. And... yeah. That's it."
That seems simple enough. It's like Punchdrunk, but we're not allowed to open drawers and rifle around in the closets.
And then someone is walking up the path.
She's dressed smartly. A cream cardigan buttoned up to the neck. Her hair pulled back with a taupe bow into a low ponytail.
She walks through us, stopping at the front door to turn around.
She introduces the tale. Telling us that when she found the key, well, that was the day everything changed.
She places her hand on the front door, and pushes it open.
She takes off her shoes, an slips on a pair of sandals, before disappearing inside.
We all look at one another. A man standing near me motions for me to go ahead.
Alright, I'll be the brave one. The first audience member to step through the door.
Inside there's a wide hallway, and beyond that a bright room with a wall full of windows overlooking the lush garden beyond.
A young woman in a smart shift dress waves her hand towards two rows of mismatched and multi-coloured cushions, laid out on the ground. We're to sit.
I take a cushion in the second row, curling my legs around to one side.
In front of us are a wall full of bookshelves, heaving with those heavy artbooks on one side, and travel guides on the other. All interspersed with interesting looking crockery. Helen would have really loved this house.
There's a desk. At which sits a man in a suit. That's Hiroshi Amako. And behind him, two musicians. One on a double bass. The other a bamboo flute.
From his desk, Amako begins to sing.
His marriage is unhappy. He's going to start keeping a diary. To record everything that happens between them.
And then he's off, leaving us, and we are left with the decision: where to go? Most people go in pursuit of the husband. But I head in the other direction, down the corridor, turning left, and in there, I find a girl. The daughter. Akari Mochuzuki.
She paces about, moving from bedroom to office. Her fingers delving into the shelves to pull free diaries, filled with sheet music.
More audience members creep in, taking up spots around the walls, shifting and moving whenever Mochuzuki comes near, not to get in her way.
The door to the front garden is open, and from across the way I can hear other voices. The husband and the wife, singing separately, but joined together by the music travelling on the breeze, overlapping and overlaying. English switching to Japanese, and back again.
But here, in this bright bedroom, the daughter sinks down onto her bed, alone. The man her mother is having an affair with, he was the guy she wanted to date.
So wrong. So many levels.
Her head drops.
It's time to go.
Back the way I had come, along the corridor, but this time I turn right. Here I find the wife, Akane Kudo. She perches on the end of a green-upholstered sofa as she tries to process everything that is happening. I'm the only one here. It's just me and her. And two musicians. My own personal concert.
Kudo gets up, moving to the kitchen. I slide along that wall so that I can keep her in sight. She pulls out a book. A diary. She tears it open, and from between the pages, a photo slips out, falling to the floor next to my feet. I step back and Kudo picks it up. A black and white image. Someone in bed. Their face towards the camera. Comfortable. Intimate. As close to the photographer as I am to Kudo.
More people start to appear. Hugging the walls as they come in.
The corridor behind me fills as people trying to keep both rooms in view - the husband on one side, the wife on the other.
And there's a fourth character now.
Moving slowly, his back curving back as the husband sing on from his desk.
This is the wife's new beau.
I can't say I blame her...
As our dancer, Shozo Ayaka, leans down to pick up his shirt, the audience scatters once more.
Should I follow the dancer? I kinda of want to follow the dancer.
I don't follow the dancer. I'm fairly confident that would be the creepy thing to do in this situation.
Instead, I go in search of the daughter.
But I find myself caught in the corridor, as Ayaka sprawls on the floor, music pouring in from all sides.
Oh well, I'll just have to be creepy then.
When I find the wife and the boyfriend together in the bedroom, I don't even pretend not to be a voyeur anymore. I lurk in the corridor, as the wife pulls off that pristine cream cardigan, and removes the smart dress, and puts on something colourful and floaty instead. The boyfriend, skirtless again, is... apparently making love to her duvet as she changes.
Back in the main room, I watch with the husband as his wife emerges from the main room. We see her leave the bedroom, stepping out into the garden. Our eyes following her through those big windows, as her boyfriend joins her out there.
"I've never seen that dress before," comments the husband, almost as an aside.
I want to tell him that she was trying it on in front of her boyfriend, but I decide now is not the moment. He's having a hard enough time. They're kissing now. The wife and the dancer. The husband doesn't care about the dress anymore.
We're being led downstairs now.
Into a dark room, with nothing in it but a daybed, and those twin rows of cushions.
I pick one, and watch as more audience members come in, following their cast member of choice.
This must be the end game. As everyone comes together for one final scene.
The husband collapses onto the bed.
The double bass player taps out the husband's heartbeat against the hollow wood of his instrument.
And then he stops.
One by one, the lights illuminating the musicians' sheet music are turned off.
The daughter leaves, drawing closed the door behind her.
It sticks on something. She bends down and flicks it aside.
She turns the light off, and closes the door with a final click.
We are left in darkness.
I feel the person next to me lifting their hands to clap. But they hold back. Just a second more to sit together, in the dark.
Our applause draws back the cast.
The light is switched back on.
Amako pulls the cloth that was covering his face away, and sits up grinning, alive once more.
I make my way back up the stairs, a little unsteadily.
Outside, one of the ushers is waiting, a basket full of forms and pens slung over the crook of her arm.
"Would you like to fill out a feedback form?" she asks us as we emerge.
Not for me. There's a train in nine minutes, and I am not going to miss it.
Boots on. Laces pulled and knotted. Strap buckled. And the same on the other foot.
Go. Go. Go. Go.
I won't miss it. Can't miss it. I have another show to get to and it's on Gray's Inn Road.
No time to dawdle...
"Would you like a brochure?" asks the barefoot woman as I prepare to run down the garden path.
I look at her. She's holding out a white paper gift bag.
I don't really care about the brochure. I really want the gift bag.
"Yes please," I say, taking it from her.
Then I speed off, ignoring the clunking of my knee as I power-walk to the station, out of breath, but very pleased with my party-bag.
There's one thought praying on my mind thought.
A touch of guilt.
Helen really would of loved this.