“I’m just waiting for a friend,” I tell the stage door keepers at the National, feeling a heady mixture of swishified fanciness and gnawing anxiety that they probably think I’m after an autograph or something.
I don’t know what it is about stage doors that put me on edge. It’s not like I don’t use the one at my work every single day. But still, there’s something about them. And that look the keepers give you. Ever so slightly suspicious and disapproving, while at the same time being unfailingly polite. A look borne of years of putting up with fangirls with no appreciation of crowd control. And actors. They’re the worst.
Thankfully just as I’m starting to shuffle nervously, Nicki appears.
“Shall we pick up the tickets?” she asks. “Or get a drink first?”
“Pick up the tickets? It’s only next door…”
We’re seeing Faith Hope & Charity at the Dorfman tonight. The smallest theatre space this place has to offer, and my final visit of the marathon to this our National Theatre, and, as it happens, only next door.
I let Nicki lead the way, back outside and over to the Dorfman entrance. On its private concrete terrace, a little raised from the quiet road round the back of the building.
The foyer is empty.
Just a few lone figures sit hunched at the long tables.
Behind the bar, a couple of front of housers busy themselves setting up in preparation for the crowds that will be descending on them soon enough.
Nicki goes over to the small box office that takes up the other end of the counter to the bar. She gives her name, gets our tickets, and then asks what I want to do.
“I can show you around?” she offers. “I can take you up to the walkway that looks down on where they make all the sets.”
Well, obviously I’m up for that. It’s not every day that you get a private tour. And I love all that scenery shit.
She takes me upstairs, dropping facts with every step as we go through to the backstage walkway.
“That’s the Drum Road,” she says, pointing down over the edge to a pathway cluttered with boxes and props and sinks and ladders and trunks. “It’s called that because the Drum is over there.”
“I fucking love the Drum revolve,” I tell her. That’s no exaggeration. I really love the Drum revolve. Honestly, a show in the Olivier Theatre that doesn’t make use of that rotating symphony of hydraulics is a waste, and everyone should be ashamed of themselves for letting it happen.
We peer down, watching tiny figures in distant corners do busy and important things.
“Shall we go to the Green Room?” Nicki suggests, as she runs out of stories to tell me about this part of the theatre.
She sure can!
We head back out onto the slim terrace hugging the outside of the building and walk around.
I stop to take a photo as she leads me into a cosy bar, covered in show posters and faerie lights.
The bar is closed. But we carry on, out into a notice-board heavy corridor and then… the staff canteen.
It smells… really good.
“Do you want to eat here?” Nicki offers, but her heart isn’t in it. This is where she has lunch everyday. “Or we could go to Burgerworks and get chips or something?”
I look at her. “You really want chips, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I really want chips.”
“Then let’s get chips then!”
So we do. Back downstairs, round the building, and into the pop-up restaurant currently living next to the National’s Understudy Bar.
It’s still early. Barely half past six. And there’s no queue.
Nicki orders mac and cheese and bacon bites. And chips. I lob in a programme. They’re all on display. On the counter. Very handy.
"What do you think of the programme?" Nicki asks. "I want to hear your proffesional opinon."
"They look very sophisticated now," I say, turning over the matt-covered booklet in my hand. Gone are the shiny slim versions, with the poster artwork printed on the front. Now they look a good deal more arty. Very small press chic. "But they've changed the size. That's going to take me years to get over. My collection's all over the place now."
With a flash of Nicki’s staff lanyard, we get a discount. But don’t worry. Obvs I’m paying.
With one of those flashy things in hand, we go round the corner to the Understudy bar and get drinks sorted.
“Oh, we could have ordered food in here…” says Nicki, spotting the Burgerworks menu over the bar.
Honestly. Can’t get the staff these days.
Still, another flash of the lanyard, and we’re off with our slightly-more-reasonable-priced drinks, off to find a spot at one of the long tables outside.
The chill has set in, and the acres of tables that had been packed mere days ago, are now empty. We find one of the few dry ones just as the flashy thing starts flashing, and Nicki goes off to collect the food.
She comes back laden with cardboard trays of fried stuff, and bottles of ketchup and sriracha tucked under each arm. It’s so nice grabbing dinner with someone who understands your condiment needs.
I'm gonna be real now. The chips are disappointing. And a bit cold. But the G&T is doing wonders, and the Cinnamon Scrolls I brought with me from Crosstown Doughnuts are going down a treat.
Fully carbed up, we waddle our way back to the Dorfman,
It's packed now, the little foyer a hive of buzzing gossip.
Nicki goes over to the bar to swap her pint glass for one of the National's fancy reusable plastic glasses. My drink is long gone, so I just try to stay out of everyone's way until she gets back.
Right. Time to go in.
Good thing we have Nicki's access to house seats because I'm not a fan of the Dorfman sight-lines. Those slip seats in the upper levels are outrageously overpriced, and I really can't get over the fact that someone signed off such restricted view seating in a new-built venue.
Three levels. Squashed into what is supposed to be the National's studio space. Unlucky enough to be sitting on the sides, and you'll find yourself having the lean forward every time a cast member crosses the half-way point on the stage below you.
Even from the central stalls, things aren't great. As I sit down, I find myself staring straight into the back of the head belonging to the person sitting in front of me. The seats aren't off-set at all. And the rake is miserable.
Honestly, some designers shouldn't be allowed near theatres.
Still, the set's a bit good. There's all sorts of doors and corridors and hatches and courtyards and things going on.
"There's an actor!" I say to Nicki as I spot Cecilia Noble dropping a bag-for-life on the counter and starting on the business of prepping the half-hidden kitchen.
The lights dim.
The play begins.
We're in some sort of community hall. Lunch is being served. And later... there'll be choir practise.
It's miserable. And heartwarming. And painful. And life-affirming. All at once.
We're plunged into darkness, surrounded by a whirlwind of noise.
Lights are back up.
The scene has changed. We've shifted forward a few hours.
My heart is thumping. It takes a good few minutes for me to realign to the gentle torture of Alexander Zeldin's play.
A few more trips to lights-off-land later, we make it to the interval.
"What do you think?" asks Nicki as we shuffle our way out to the foyer.
"I'm not sure about those overdramatic blackouts," I tell her. "They don't really fit in with anything else."
The foyer is filled with chatter. Mostly about the play.
Nicki points someone out to me. A playwright.
"Oh my god, are you serious?" I say, when she tells me who he is. "He looks like, really young." It's true. He does. Not what I was picturing at all. "Shall we go over and tell him how much we love him?"
"No!" says Nicki looking shocked. "I can't. I have to work with him soon."
Ah yes. She's got a reputation to look after now. "Okay, I'll go over and tell him I totally stan him."
"If you want..." She watches me expectantly as I fail to move.
He... looks busy. He's talking to people.
I'll tell him how much I adore his work next time.
Time to go back in. And you just know things are going to get worse for these gentle souls, who just want to have a hot meal together, and maybe sing a few songs.
Actors come and sit in the front row, taking up free seats amongst the audience.
Not really sure why that's happening. There are plenty of chairs onstage. Like the blackouts, whatever the director's reasoning for this is, it's lost on me. The people in the front row seem to be enjoying it though, twisting around in their seats to get a proper look at their new neighbours.
The characters limp sadly through to the end. Broken. Beaten down. But not yet defeated.
And I'm left with the lingering feeling that I really shouldn't be complaining about cold chips.
"Did you see the vomit?" asks Nicki as we make away down the Southbank to catch the tube.
"No!" I'm genuinely upset about this. I heard the vomit. I saw Susan Lynch's back heave as the vomit was happening. But there was a bloody great head blocking my view of the actual vomit.
My stomach gurgles as it does it's best to get through my carb-travaganza.
Oh well. Might get my own personal vomit display at this rate. Cold chips and all.