Soft Hearts, Wet Sponges

I'm at the Iris Theatre tonight for a bit of outdoor promenading. This is a first for me. Not the outdoor promenading (though it may be... I can't think of one I might have done before) but the going to the Iris.

I have however been to St Paul's. No, not that St Paul's. The one in Convent Garden. The one that's called the Actors' Church to avoid exactly this confusion.

Back in my interning days in the West End, I would come here during my lunch break, to sit in the gardens, eat my sandwich, and try to convince myself that giving up my sweet corporate job to start again at the bottom, and in the arts of all things, was absolutely a good life decision.

That came to an end when I accidentally gatecrashed a funeral.


I mean, in my defence, they usually would close the gates when there was a service. But for some reason they just let me saunter on in without comment that day.

Probably because my look is very... black. It's black. I wear a lot of black.

I decided to have my lunches elsewhere after that, and my next job was in Deptford, which was a bit far to think of coming back for a sandwich.

Anyway, I am back. Without a Tesco meal deal in hand.

After walking around the block, trying to work out what entrance I needed to use, I join the queue going through the tunnel from King Street.


The queue is moving slowly. Mainly because the one box officer on duty has to tell everyone the photography policy.

"Absolutely no photography after this point," he says. "No photos can be taken after go through. If we see you taking a photo, we will ask you to delete it."

Wow. That's one hard line.


Still, at least it gives me plenty of opportunity to contemplate the signage telling us that it'll cost us fifty pee to spend a penny at the nearest public loos. And I thank the theatre gods that I have resisted every attempt to make me review theatre loos. Seriously, I'm not doing it. You can't make me. I don't want to.

A group a few places ahead asks where they should sit.

"For now sit anywhere you like," says the box officer. "It's a promenade performance so you'll move around." They don't look overly satisfied with this answer. "I don't want to spoil the surprise!"

That does the trick. They move on.


Eventually, I shuffle my way up to the front and give my name.

There's a basket of programmes on the desk, and as he checks my name off the list, I pull three pounds out of my purse in readiness.

"Here's your ticket," he says, handing me a small scrap of paper with the Iris Theatre logo. He spots the coins in my hand. "Are you after a programme?"

"Yes please!"

He's so distracted about the business of programme-selling that he neglects to give me the photography spiel which I take to mean that I now have plausible deniability on the rules.

The little terrace area just in front of the church looks like it's been boarded off. Huge brown-painted screens are keeping us in one corner. There are benches. And a bar.

The programmes are very handsome, with the church bells, and the title treatment proclaiming "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" over the backdrop of old Paris.

I risk a photo of it.


No one arrests me. Or asks me to delete it.

I contemplate the hoarding, wondering if I can get a shot of that.

There's a sign.

"Please no photography beyond this point."

I stare at it. Do they mean the area beyond the boards, or are they including our little holding area here?

I aim my camera upwards and take a photo of the bunting. Surely there cannot be any harm in bunting-photos. It's pretty bunting. Red, white, blue. Very cheerful. Very liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Not super 1482, but then, nor are the candle-flame bulb lights woven in with it. I don't think they pinned candles to bunting even in the 15th century. Candles were expensive. They wouldn't waste them on all this peasanty frippery. Plus, fire. But then again... medieval times.

Still, it's all very jolly.


The benches are all taken now, but I find a convient low wall to perch on.

Without anywhere to sit, people are starting to gather near the blocked off bit.

"I feel we're just moving about," somewhere says as they push their way as close to the hoarding as they can get.

I feel you are too.

A secondary queue forms near the other possible entrance. This one a wooden doorway, topped with a gothic arch and closed off with a green velvet curtain, complete with tassels.

"Ooo," says someone. "Maybe it starts here."

High above us, the church bell dongs seven times in what has the be the most dramatic use of the theatre bell I've heard in this marathon.

A man looks up towards the bell tower. "I wonder if they're setting it here because the venue has been burnt down..."

He pauses.

"Yes... it's a tragedy."

A lady sitting behind me is laying down some theatre truths. "Of course, I like going to West End shows," she says to the person she's with. "But I like to go to the fringe theatres because they put on the more interesting things. They can afford to take more risks which the big theatres can't with their overhead."

I want to raise my hand and offer her a "Preach, theatre-sister!" but I don't want to draw attention to myself. I'm still trying to get a decent photo of this place.

But it's too late now. I hear music.

The cast is coming out.

They emerge from the side of the church, instruments in hand.

"I'm going to have to ask you to move," says the leader to the man standing next to me. "This is my stage." She indicates the low wall I'm perching on. I shift to the other side, just avoiding a young man strumming at a guitar.

The leader of the troupe, Darrie Gardner, introduces them. They are the Left Bank players. Not to be confused with the Right Bank Players, lead by her ex-husband (they all spit to the ground at the mention of his name) and they are all one big happy family.

With a wave of their arms, they beg us to follow them.

The hoarding as been pulled back.

We're going on.

"Watch out," says a front of houser, wearing a pale blue cloak over her street-clothes.

She points down to the wooden support sticking out from the board.

"Ah," I say, raising a finger. "Thank you!" I'd almost tripped over it.

The pretty facade of St Paul's (not that one) is on our left, but we're turning right, going down the path and across the lawn over on one side.

The players chatter along with the audience as we go. "Have you been to the Festival of Fools before?" they ask.

"I like your dress," says Robert Rhodes, our Quasimodo, to a woman walking near me. "It matches the streamers."

I'm not sure that's a compliment. There are a lot of streamers here. Thousands of fabric strands hanging on strings that run between the trees. Benches have been placed around, forming an oval-shaped stage in their midst.

We all shuffle in, taking our seats where we can find them.

I would show you a photo, but I’m too scared. So here’s one I took of the St Paul's (not that one) churchyard in 2012.


I don't think I need to get into the business of the story, we've all seen the Disney version. But the leader of the Left Bank Players takes the role of narrator, introducing Quasimodo, who hangs half-way up a tree, and Esmerelda, who swirls and dances before us, and all the rest. Katie Tranter's Pierre tries to play us a ballad on her mandolele and we're all encouraged to boo her.

I'm not really into that. Not even in make-believe.

Rhodes comes down from his tree and asks a tiny girl in the front row if she'd dance with him.

She shakes her head.

Undeterred, Rhodes moves over to her sister, an equally tiny girl. This one is more than happy to join in, and the pair of them dance around together.

Izzy Jones' Esmerelda bends down next to the first tiny girl. "Are you sure you don't want to dance?" she asks, but OG tiny girl isn't having it. She shakes her head again.

As the festivities go on, the sounds of the piazza drift over from the other side of the church. The calls of the real street performers drifting on the breeze into our little Parisian enclave as Jones starts to sing.

A love song.

She opens her hand to all the pretty ladies in the front row, singing of their beauty. One of them winks back. I think she's made a conquest.

When a fight breaks out, Tranter slips into the audience, rubbing at her arm and hiding behind the small girls who do their best to shield her.

It's time to move on.

We're divided up. Half to go out one exit, half the other. And we're taken across the path to the other lawn.

More low wooden benches. This time set up either side of an aisle. We're in the gipsy encampment. Esmerelda's home.

Max Alexander-Taylor takes a seat amongst us.

An audience member dithers nearby.

"You can sit anywhere you like," he tells her. "But not this seat. It's mine."

It's starting to get cold. I pull on my jacket.

A man has been given a beanie hat to wear. Not quite a concession to the chilly evening. It has goat ears. He'll be playing the role of Esmerelda's pet. He doesn't seem upset about this. When Tranter's Pierre goes over to pet him, giving his beanie a good stroke, he preens under her attentions.

But, oh dear. Quasimodo is being led off.

Are we're being asked to follow.

Ed Bruggemeyer shows us what to do. "Shame. Shame. Shame," he chants, pointing a jabbing finger towards Rhodes.

I'm really really not into that. I follow on behind. Not chanting. Or jabbing. I'll leave the Game of Thrones recreations to the kids.

They seem to be enjoying it.

As Rhodes is stuck in the pillory, they're all brought foward and given sponges to throw.

"Wet sponges!? You said they'd be dry," shouts Rhodes at the troupe leader.

But Gardner can only shrug an apology. They must follow their art, after all.

The children all throw their sponges.

And then a cry of mercy rings out. One the audience is encouraged to join in with.

This I can get on board with.

No actor should have to suffer the indgnity of wet sponges.

But it's not all wet sponges.

The goat is brought back out to do a trick, which he performs masterfully.

And not to be outdone, Pierre reappears in a jester's outfit. "Nothing like this has been done anywhere near here," says Tranter, before showing off her juggling balls. That gets a giggle as we all wonder how many balls are being juggled on the steps out on the other side of the church.

But the giggles don't last for long, and soon there's a body on the floor.

"Nothing to see here," say the soldiers as they spread out their cloaks, hiding it from view. "Move along now."

We’re hurried out back through the hoarding, the boards closing shut behind us, sealing in the crime scene.

"Is this an interval?" someone asks the world in general.

It is.

Somehow I end up back in my old spot, on the low wall.

I should probably move.

I tuck myself up against the wall of the church, where the bunting brushes against the top of my head every time the breeze blows.

There's a queue at the bar.

A girl buys a cup full of tri-colour sweets, but a second later they're scattering over the flagstones.

"Ten-second rule," someone calls as her family scrambles to pick them all up.

I spot the goat-man. He still has his hat on. He seems rather happy with it.

"Les enfants!" The cast are back. And they've found the tiny girls again. "Would you like to join the circus?”

"Yesss!" The girls bounce around. They are well up for joining the circus.

As Esmerelda teaches them how to play a drum, the others ask their parents if they're cool with their children joining the troupe.

Turns out they are. "Of course!" I mean, who doesn't want their kid pursuing a career in the arts...

After a brief catch-up on some backstory, the boards are drawn back once more and we are off again.

This time, we're going to court.

"I need someone with a big clear voice!" calls out Tranter, while wearing a white judges' wig.

A dad points to the boy sitting in his lap.

Tranter looks unsure. "There are a lot of big words..."

But the little boy's great big eyes get the better of her and she hands them the lines. "Perhaps if you read it together..."

They do, and do it marvellously.

Goat-man says his piece too, bleating whenever his name is called.

And then it's time for the execution.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop," calls out Bruggemeyer as he instructes us in the proper way to follow a condemned person. But by the time I get out the garden they're already well ahead. We all hurry to keep up.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop."

"If we keep on step stopping we'll never get there," says a man hurrying next to me.

We keep on stepping, and do our best to avoid the stops. Eventually making it to the gallows.

A drop of rain lands on my cheek.

Oh dear.

I look up, and see others around me doing the same.

Another drip. Tiny. Barely noticeable.

I sit very still, waiting for the next one. But it doesn't come.

The theatre gods are having fun with us tonight.

The rain seems to have stopped though. Just in time for the battle of the church steps.

Bruggemeyer pulls out the kids from the audience to serve as Esmerelda's army, and the adults take the side of the king. But there aren't enough children on the side of right, so the rest of us are pulled over.

Buckets of sponges are handed around. They're wet.

I give it a test squidge. It leaves a dirty mark on my palm.

I try not to contemplate what they've been soaked in.

When the battle cry goes out, I lob it over to the other side, and tens of wet sponges come hurling over the other way.

I don't have the nerves for war, and soon it is a fight between the children and the actors. Both scrabbling on the floor to renew their ammo. Gardner takes shelter behind her bucket, but the children are relentless, throwing sponge after sponge in her direction.

Child armies can't last though.

And the King declares victory.

The soldiers are storming the church.

We go in, taking our pews. Red light and thick haze fills the church, giving an alarmingly fiery aura to this stand-in Notre Dame.

I needn't have worried. It gets worse.

Sword fights.

Sword fights in the church.

The echo of the blades clashing reverberating off of the walls.

I twist around in my seat, not wanting to miss a moment.

I fucking love a sword fight.

And then after a little epilogue, we're done.

The audience rises to their feet. An ovation.

We follow the cast out. The sky is dark. The air still.

Good and righteousness have been restored.

And I really need to wash my hand.