After whinging and complaining about the ticket prices at the Hampstead Theatre when I was here last time, I’m back, in the main house, and the somewhat proud owner of a fully bought and paid for ticket. And only twenty-five quid, which, while not exactly a bargain, is definitely on the right side of almost reasonable.
Anyway, it’s the first production in the new AD’s first season. And Roxana Silbert has programmed a play with a title so striking, I just had to book myself in: The King of Hell’s Palace. I mean, come on. That sounds really me, doesn’t it?
As I step through the glass doors, I instantly feel ten years younger. I have a spring in my step and am filled with the joyous optimism of youth. It’s very disconcerting.
I try to enjoy it. It’s not often that I, being in my… don’t make me say it… mid-thirties now, get to be the youngest person in the room. But bar a few shiny-looking ushers, I am a mere child in comparison to the rest of tonight’s crowd.
I bounce my way over to the box office counter, side-stepping to avoid a very elderly man who is shuffling past at such a lilt I’m fearful he won’t make it to the other side.
Thankfully, we both make it to our destinations, and I give the nearest box officer my name, and he pulls the Ss free from the ticket box.
“Can you just confirm your postcode?” he asks.
I can. And do.
He unfolds the ream and inspects it. “You’ve got a programme voucher,” he says, tearing it free. This is news to me, I must have felt ballin’ when I bought this ticket. Still, it saves me fifty pee, and three quid isn’t bad at all for the hefty programme he hands me with a cheerful “here you go!”
“You’re entering through door number one,” he goes on, pointing to the doorway at the end of the gangway just next to us. It is indeed marked with a huge number one. Two number ones, actually. One handing down from the ceiling, and another affixed to the wall. This doorway isn’t shy about showing it’s dominance.
I get out my phone to take a photo and one of those shiny young ushers freezes just as she was about to step into my shot.
“It’s okay,” I tell her.
She dithers, not wanting to ruin my photo.
“Really, it’s fine,” I assure her, waving her across. And with that, she belts her way across the walkway, diving through the premiere door in order to keep the inconvenience of her presence to a minimum.
I have a flick through of the programme. They’ve changed since I was here last. Paper is thicker, and uncoated. The binding is perfect rather than saddle stitched. This place has upped its game. The programmes look well fancy now.
One of the box officers calls over a front of house. She has a radio. I’m thinking we’ve got a duty manager in the vicinity.
“Can you tell the voice of god to announce the house is open?” asks the box officer.
The suspected duty manager duly makes the request and a few seconds later…
“The house is now open,” comes god’s voice over the sound system. “May I remind you…” but the rest of her message to us mortals is lost in the hubbub of the foyer. I just hope I remember whatever we needed to be reminded of.
I decide to go in before I forget anything else.
Down the gangway that takes me right over the foyer of the downstairs theatre, past the side of the curved hull of the theatre, and through door one.
There’s a ticket checker in here.
“First row of this section, just up the stairs,” he says, indicating the way.
I follow his directions, going up the short series of steps that take me towards the back of the stalls.
It's like a mini balcony back here. Slightly raised from the rest of the stalls, and yes, I'm in the front row of it - contained behind a dividing wall.
"'Scuse me. Sorry. Do you mind?" I say as I inch my way through to my seat.
An older man, looks up at me as I approach. "Are you...?" He points to the empty space next to him.
"No," I tell him. "I'm a bit further on. Sorry," I had as he disgruntedly gets to his feet.
In my seat I get down to the business of getting play-ready. Jacket off. Glasses on. Check my phone...
"There must be a way to knock them out," says the old man's wife, giving me some serious side-eye. "Theatres should do something. Stop the signal."
"Phones are always going off," agrees the old man.
I roll my eyes. My phone is on silent. It's been on silent since 2007. No one under the age of fifty has a ringtone nowadays.
But nice to know that I'm sitting next to people that would rather theatres indulge in illegal phone jamming then put up with the odd noise from someone who never managed to convince their grandkids how to change the settings on their phone.
I put my phone on airplane mode and shove it away in my bag.
I have a bloody good view of the stage. Almost in the middle and with no heads blocking the way. I can see the whole stage. Even the thrusty bit sticking out into the stalls. There's a travellator there. No, wait. There are two travellators there, running all the way to a pair of doors at the back of the set. I'm not sure about this. I've seen my fair share of travellators on stage before. It's almost never good news. Still, I've got some excellent legroom here. Lots of it. Time to get comfy.
I lean back and wriggle my shoulders. Hmm. No, that's no right. I pull my jacket free from behind me, shove it under my seat, and try again.
Yeah. No. There's still something there.
I shift forward and look behind me.
Sticking out of the back of the seat is what I can only describe as a bolster cushion. It juts out, like the arch support of an orthopaedic shoe. I can only imagine its existence is designed to sit within the small of the back, but my spine does not want to conform. I try again, first sitting up really tall, and then slouching back down, trying to work out whether I am too short or too tall for the anatomy of these seats. Neither seems to work. There is clearly something very wrong with my backbone.
Too late to worry about it now. The play is starting. We're flung back in time. To the 90s. In China. After making it through the Great Famine, everyone is determined to make it rich. The peasants are selling their plasma, and the city-folk are more than happy to buy it. Even if they don't have enough centrifuges in the clinics to keep all the blood separate before pumping it back into bodies.
In a fit of dancing exuberance, a red baseball cap goes flying into the audience. During the interval, a front-rower retrieves it, laying it carefully on the thrust part of the stage so that it can be retrieved by a stage manager.
My neighbour returns and immediately gets her phone out. I consider making a comment about how theatres really should do something about blocking signals within the auditorium, but I'm tired, and I finally managed to find a position in this seat where the back cushion isn't trying to paralyse me.
She puts it away, and the second act starts.
A fever is spreading. But it can't be AIDS. AIDS doesn't exist in China, And it's illegal to say otherwise.
But the peasants are growing peonies. My absolute favourite flower. And there are thousands of them. In all the colours. Covering the stage with their blooms until it starts to look like a Pina Bausch performance.
I think I'm in heaven.
Or hell. I can't tell.
When Yin Yin's husband unpacks her suitcase, and finds five whole bottles of sriracha, well, I have never felt so seen. I wouldn't be fleeing the country without an adequate supply of the hot stuff either.
We make it through to the end, and not a single phone rings. Not even mine.
Turns out you can trust the masses to think for themselves. Sometimes.