I seem to be spending a lot of time in the West End at the moment. Mostly because all the super-fringey theatres haven’t got anything happening over the summer months, but also because there just aren’t enough tourists around to fill up all those long-running shows and there are offers going all over the place.
As I make my way down the Strand, I spot a large queue outside Waitress, aiming itself at a tiny podium with the TodayTix logo on it. Now, I love me a bargain on TodayTix, I really do. This blog is testament to that. But when a theatre needs a whole queue just to accommodate buyers coming through a single, solitary, app, you do have to wonder if they overshot on the pricing.
Oh well. No time to worry about that.
I’m back in the Aldwych tonight, which I’ve come to think of the road that houses all the shows that I would never, ever, visit outside of the marathon.
We’ve already had the Tina: The Tina Turner Musical chat.
Now it’s the turn of its neighbour, the Novello.
Yup, I’m off to Mamma Mia.
May the theatre gods preserve us all.
“Yeah, sorry, there’s loads of people taking photos of some theatre,” says a young woman, striding past on her mobile.
I lower my phone.
Yeah, she got me.
But I’m not the only one.
I seem to have found myself within a small gathering of amateur photographers, all aiming our phone cameras upwards at the Novello façade.
It’s a nice façade. Paned glass and lots of swaged foliage carved into the stonework. The window-frames are lit up with a pale-blue glow that would be more fit for Frozen when that opens next year. It all looks very glamorous, somewhat at odds with the show that lives inside.
“Here, stand here,” orders a woman to her two daughters. “Let me get a picture of you to post on Facebook.” The pair of them make matching expressions of disgust. “Don’t worry,” she assures them, “I’ll edit it first.”
This appeases them enough to stand and pose in the small island in the middle of Catherine Street, as lines of black cabs rattle by on either side.
I dart in between them, past the sisters who are still in model-mode, and over to the opposite pavement.
There’s a large queue stretching out of the curved doors and working it’s way back down the pavement, sealed off by a Mamma Mia branded barrier.
I join the end of the line.
It moves fast enough. There’s two bag checkers and they are peering at our stuff as if we were all on the conveyor belt of The Price is Right, and coming up behind us is the cuddly toy.
Inside the foyer is a mass of movement as people try to figure out where they’re going.
There’s the merch desk on one side. A concessions stand on the other. And something else a bit further back, which I can’t quite make out but has one hell of a queue.
“Box office?” I ask the young woman on the door as I gaze in horror at this heaving crowd.
“Are you buying or collecting?”
“Just here,” she says, pointing to the big queue at the back. I inch myself through. There seems to be two counters, set behind windows in the wall. My favourite kind of West End box office, but all these people are setting off my anxiety, and I can’t tell where the queue even ends. It try to follow it back but somewhere along the way it appears to have looped back on itself.
“Who’s waiting?” comes a voice from the middle of the crowd. It’s a front of houser, and she’s doing her best to impose some form of crowd control, but there’s nowhere for them to go.
No one answers her. They’re all too busy shoving in opposite directions.
I squeeze myself towards her.
“Just here,” she says, pointing to one of the windows. And just like that, I’m giving my name to the box officer, and skipping the entire line.
“Maxine?” says the box officer, checking the ticket. “That’s one in the balcony.”
It’s a nice ticket. Got the show artwork on it and everything, which is something I appreciate. Love a bespoke ticket.
That done, I double back for the merch desk and ask for a programme.
“Would you like a small one for 4.50?” she asks, indicating the display on the counter. “Or both for ten pounds.”
Did I hear that right? A small one and a big one for ten pounds? I’ve always disapproved of this trend of selling souvenir brochures on top of the programmes. Yes, you can justify them as appealing to different audiences – those that want to read about the cast, and those that want big shiny production photos. But let’s be real here. Theatres want to empty your wallet, and will use any trick they’ve got to pour your coins into their till. But both for a tenner sounds like a fucking good deal. Those brochures can go for fifteen quid on their own.
Not that I want a brochure. I’m an old school programme gurl. I like my cast list, and my creative biographies. I like articles. And words. And yes, the odd pretty picture. But not enough to spend an extra fiver and change.
I settle for a small one.
That done, it’s time to go upstairs.
A not unfancy staircase, which makes a change from the usual route to the cheap seats. There’s carpet. And portraits. And even a bar.
A nice bar!
It’s large. With seating, and windows overlooking both the Aldwych and Catherine Street. The very windows I had admired from down on the pavement.
I’m a bit early so I plonk myself down at a window seat, a not unpleasant place to sit after the crush downstairs.
Two bar staffers serve the few audience members who have made it up here, taking care to explain everything with gentleness and patience to the touristy clientele.
“The programme is this one,” says one, pulling a copy of the shelf to show woman at the bar. “We don’t have the brochure here, but if you’d like it I can give you a receipt and they have the brochures inside. So they can give you one. The small one has the cast. The brochure is the bigger one, and has the pictures in it.”
“You’ll want the brochure then.”
“Separately the big one is eight, but you can get them together for ten pounds.”
“And I have to go inside?”
“You can buy them both here. I’ll give you a receipt and you can just show it to them, and they’ll give you a brochure.”
I use the opportunity to look at my own programme.
There’s a cast change slip already placed inside. Looks like we’ve got a few people out tonight, not that it makes much difference to me. I couldn’t tell you who anyone was in this show.
Apart from the biogs, and an interview with Judy Craymer (who apparently is the creator, but isn’t credited anywhere else in this thing), it’s pretty much the same programme I’ve bought at every Delfont Mackintosh theatre this year. I put it away in my bag and look around.
There’s a rather handsome wallpaper lining the walls, with golden Ws resting amongst equally golden laurel leaves.
That’s strange. I wonder if they had a couple of rolls left over from the Wyndham’s refurb…
I should probably go to my seat.
Up some more stairs, and there’s a ticket checker up here.
“Lovely,” he says, far too enthusiastically when he notices that I’ve already torn away the receipt and address portions of the ream. Honestly, theatre-goers really need to start doing this. Save your ticket checker some papercuts. He folds over the stub and tears that off. “Straight up the stairs here,” he says, nodding towards the closed door behind his shoulder.
And up I go.
There’s another ticket checker on the door to the auditorium. This one looks rather flustered. She’s talking to an equally flustered-looking audience member.
“You’ll need to go to the box office and speak to them,” says the ticket checker.
“Yup, you’ll need to go all the way downstairs, and make your way up again before the start of the show…”
“But should I go down...?” she asks, sounding a wee bit stressed.
“Well, you’ll need to speak to them…”
“Right.” And off the audience member goes.
I offer the ticket checker my torn ticket and a sympathetic smile.
“Front row,” she says, waving me in.
As I make my way down the steep steps, I spot the stressed audience member. “Let’s go,” she says, touching her partner’s shoulder.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“You need to be able to sit!” she insists.
That’s true. You do need to be able to sit.
Limited legroom has taken another victim tonight.
That’s not so much of a problem for me. Yes, my knees are bashing against the boards in the front row, but they’ve suffered through worse over the past eight months. I’ll survive.
I distract myself by looking around.
It’s a shame I’ve never been in here before. It’s a nice auditorium. Very Edwardian in its excess. All marble and cherubs and even gargoyle faces, leering at us from their nests.
There’s even a chandelier that looks like a dropped trifle. It’s magnificently ugly.
And Ws. Again. Large ones. Set in golden wreaths.
I get out my phone and search for the Novello’s Wikipedia page.
Turns out this place used to be the Waldorf Theatre, which explains it, I guess. Thing is, it hasn’t been the Waldorf for over a century, and only had that name for four years anyway. You’d think they’d have updated the wallpaper already.
The Novello name is because old Ivo had a flat here back in the day. A legacy that Cameron Mackintosh seems keen to continue as he’s having a penthouse set up somewhere in here. I do like the idea of living in a theatre. Not sure I’d pick this one though. While I appreciate a good ABBA singalong as much as the next person (as long as I’m not actually expected to singalong), I’m not sure I could cope with Supertrooper blasting out every night while I’m trying to eat my dinner.
Over the tannoy, there’s a proper old Big Bong. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Please take your seats. This evening’s performance will begin in five minutes.
“... three minutes.
“... two minutes.”
The house lights dim. There’s an announcement. Turn off your phones and whatnot. Plus a warning for those with a “nervous disposition,” that this show contains “platforms and white lyrca.”
With that terrifying thought, we begin.
Not that most of the audience seems to have noticed.
Phones stay out.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience which gives less of a shit as to what is going on onstage.
My neighbour jerks in her seat, getting out her phone, the need to check her messages too great to sit still.
She leans over to her friend and whispers something.
The friend grabs her bag and retrieves something. A tiny squeeze bottle. She hands it to my neighbour.
My neighbour pours the contents into her hand. Finds her phone again. Switches it to selfie mode and then... proceeds to reinsert her contact, picking and proding at her eye, the phone on her lap.
I have never seen the like in a theatre, and in truth, I’m a little impressed.
Exhausted by these antics, she spends the interval slumped down in her seat, curled up under her coat.
Again, I’m impressed.
These seats are narrow and highbacked, extending well above our heads.
I now have a new appreciation for the Queen. Turns out thrones aren’t all that comfy.
I stay where I am. I’m not all that convinced that on leaving this row, I’ll ever be able to get back in.
The five-minute warning goes. Then three. Then two. Then one.
My neighbour hauls herself out of her slumber, but within a couple of songs her head is sinking gently down, nodding out of time with the music. By the wedding, we’re in real danger of her falling asleep on my shoulder.
I will the cast to sing in double time and rap this story up.
We make it. My shoulder free of sleep-induced slobber. Thank the theatre gods.
The keyboard players in the pit wave at the cast, and the cast, in turn, reach down to shake the keyboard players' hands.
As we traipse down the stairs, I can hear Mamma Mia blaring, and I wonder if I’m missing an encore, but no. It’s coming from outside. A rickshaw, parked on the pavement, and with his soundsystem full blast.
That’s one way to do marketing, I suppose.
I really hope Mr Mackintosh likes listening to ABBA in bed...