Two things in life are guaranteed.
No, not death and taxes. Keep up.
Theatre ghosts disprove the first and Jacob Rees-Mogg the second.
No, the two things are: the steps around the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus will always be decorated with French teenagers. And no matter where you are in the West End, there will always be a b-boy battle raging nearby.
And so it is now. The French teenagers perch on the soaking wet steps, watching the hip hop dancers take it in turns to show off their moves. And I’m waiting outside the Criterion Theatre for my friend Allison to get here.
It was only a couple of days ago that I was telling you how the two of us met, back at the Albany theatre. Now look at us. Taking on the West End. One of us unwell and the other with soaking wet feet after stepping in a massive puddle this morning.
I’ll leave it to you to work out which is which.
“Shall we go in?” I say after sharing updates on the state of our immune systems and damp boots.
We get our bags checked and go inside.
“Collecting?” I ask to the usher in the foyer.
She waves us off towards the box office just inside the door.
I give my name to the lady behind the counter, trying very hard not to get distracted by the decor of this place.
I’ve raved about some impressively ornate West End theatres on this marathon, but I think we might have finally found a winner for the competition that I didn’t even know was raging inside my head until this moment.
There are mirrors. And tiles. And painted ceilings. And mouldings. And gilding. And…
“What’s the first name?” asks the box officer.
“Maxine,” I tell her.
She frowns, staring at the tickets in her hand.
“Do you have another name you might have booked under?”
Do I? I don’t think so. I’ve been Maxine for a long-arse time.
“Is there another name that TodayTix might have used? From a Facebook account or something?”
Now, here’s the thing. I can’t use my real name on Facebook. Because Facebook won’t let me. But it’s my surname it has a problem with. Not my first name. So that can’t be it.
I shrug. I don’t know what to tell her.
“Oh!” says the box officer, something clicking. “I see! They dropped the X. ‘Ma’. I was just thinking there can’t be another ‘Smiles’ in the house tonight.”
She laughs, the relief visible on her face.
I can’t blame her. It wouldn’t do at all to have multiple Smileses in the same building. At all. That’s a recipe for disaster right there.
Tickets acquired, I tell Allison to hang on while I tuck myself into a corner and try to take a photo of the foyer. It’s no good. There are too many people now and they are all getting in the way, cluttering up my image with their faces.
Honestly. This whole theatre-blogging malarkey is harder than it looks.
I give up, and we show our tickets to the usher on foyer duty.
“The upper circle is one floor down,” she tells are. “And the bar and toilets are two floors down.”
An underground theatre. Well, that’s fun.
Down the stairs we go, me pausing on every single step to get a photo of the fancy tiles on the walls.
Allison, bless her, waits patiently. As a semi-regular marathon guest, she’s been through all this before.
One floor down, we find a programme seller.
“Hang on,” I tell Allison. “I need to get a programme.”
“You need a programme.”
“I do need a programme!”
See? I told you this woman gets it.
“Can I get a programme?” I ask the programme seller.
I can. They’re four pounds.
“Do you have change for a tenner?”
“No, wait!” I say, with way too much passion. I think I might have frightened the poor guy. “I have a fiver.”
Allison coos appreciatively and the programme seller gives me an: “Amazing!”
Let it not be said that the entertainment I provide in real life matches the exact level you find on this blog.
“Do you want a drink?” I ask Allison. She properly deserves one.
We head down another level.
“Is it this way?” Allison asks. “No… Err…”
“What are you looking for?” asks an usher standing in the doorway to the Stalls.
“The Bar… oh I see it!”
A sign points us down a corridor and around the corner. And we end up in… well, this is not what I was expecting.
“This is not what I was expecting,” I say to Allison as we walk into a plain white room, with an equally plain bar tucked into the corner.
“No!” agrees Allison.
There’s no one here. It’s empty.
We keep on walking.
And then it appears. A long posing table runs down the centre of the room. Huge tiled panels that look like stained glass windows stretch up to the ceiling. And over there, the real deal glows, illuminated by backlights. And then uderneath them: the bar.
"What are you getting?" asks Allison.
"Gin," I say. Because, I mean. Obviously.
"They have Sipsmith!" she says, looking at the menu on the wall.
They do have Sipsmith. They have fancy Sipsmith.
"Shall we try the Sloe Gin and the Lemon Drizzle?" I suggest.
So we do, finding a place on the long table and trying each of the drinks until we settle which one we want. Sloe for Allison. Drizzle for me.
"We should probably go up," I say.
We take our drinks back up the stairs towards the upper circle.
"Oh, wow," I say as we step into the auditorium. "Look at this place! It's so cute!"
"It's nice!" agrees Allison.
"I've never been here before."
"Nor have I."
"That's the problem with long-running shows. It doesn't give you a chance to see the theatre. What was in here before? Do you remember?"
Allison thinks. "The 39 Steps? Or… 49 Steps?" she suggests.
That sounds right. The thirty-nine version anyway. I didn’t know there was a sequel. "Did you see that one?"
She shakes her head.
Yeah, I missed it too.
Well, the Criterion must have found a niche doing farcical thrillers, because we are here to see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Which, something tells me, is a comedy about a bank robbery.
We're in the front row of the circle. "Do you want the aisle?" I ask Allison. Front rows aren't exactly known for their legroom, and Allison is a good deal taller than me.
But when we sit down, we find that it ain't all that bad. When Allison offers to stow my massive bag next to her, I don't feel the need to take her up on that. There's plenty of room.
I get out the programme.
"I just want to check something," I say. "There was something I saw downstairs and I didn't know if it was a joke ot not."
"There was a cast change notice. 'The Role of Everyone Else will be played by Mr Tom Hopcroft.'"
I mean, this is the company that's been bringing us all the upside-down, misspelt, and generally messed up tube ads for their sister play: The Play That Goes Wrong, for half a decade. I can't see any of their signage now without thinking there must be a gag in there somewhere.
But no. There it is. "Everyone Else," I read in the cast list.
The show begins. We're in gaol.
Guards are with a prisoner in a cell. It's all very punny. I haven't heard this much cringey wordplay since the "Fork Handles" skit.
Allison is never going to forgive me for dragging her out of her sickbed on a wet and miserable day to watch... whatever this is.
But soon we're breaking out, the dire jokes transform, and things are moving.
I'm giggling. I can't help myself.
I look over at Allison and, thank the theatre gods, she's laughing too.
I think we might be okay.
By the time we get to the interval, I have a great big grin plastered on my face.
The West End is serving me well this week. I'm getting a core workout from all this laughing. Who needs the gym when we've got theatre, eh?
"Where do you want to go?" asks Allison.
"Shall we just stand somewhere?" I say, not really wanting to make the treck down to the bar.
We go to the back of the circle, where there is plenty of room, and even a railing to lean against.
"What shall we do with these?" I ask, looking around for a bin to place my empty cup into. There's nothing. No ushers with plastic bags. They're probably waiting on the door.
I tuck it away under the railing. Out of the way.
It really is a cute little theatre. Small, but not cramped.
The walls are a soft salmon, matching the plush upholstery on the seats, and the thick curtains swagged over the boxes. A chandelier hangs from the dome in the ceiling. Everything is trimmed with gold. It’s like sitting inside a Barbara Cartland novel.
Anyway, it's time for act two, and we got a diamond to steal. And Mr Tom Hopcroft, in his covering-role of 'Everyone Else' has a hell of a lot of characters to play. Including, but not limited to, having a three-way fistfight with himself. And I honestly don't think I'm going to make it to the end of this show without peeing myself with laughter.
I'm not the only one in difficulty.
Down in the stalls a woman is screaming with joy. Every outburst of her's sending giggling echoes around the audience, like a ripple-effect of guffaws. A second wave of hilarity after every joke.
I don't think I've ever heard anyone enjoy a show quite so much.
It's frickin' adorable.
During the curtain call, she gets her whoop on, and the cast all peer into the stalls trying to see the person responsible.
Before we leave, we're reminded that Mischief Theatre is taking over the West End. Three theatres they're in at the moment. Three. No wonder they have a cartoon at the back of the programme charting their rise to theatre domination.
Their mothers must be so proud.
I wonder what that feels like.