Sollocks to all that

I race across the courtyard of Questors just as the house announcement plays over the tannoy.

"Just to let you know, we have two intervals this evening."


I stop, my hand on the door. Two intervals? That's... a lot of intervals. Double the amount of intervals that I was expecting. Acceptable for an opera. Or even a ballet. But a play for a play, two intervals is way too many intervals. An unreasonable number of intervals, one might say. What play was I seeing again? I slip through the door and check my phone, bringing up the confirmation email just in case I'd accidentally booked for the amdram premiere of Angels in America. But nope. That's not it.

Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Not exactly a two-interval kind of play.

The set changes better be hella impressive, that's all I'm saying.

I join the queue for the box office.

It's a big one.

The box office and the queue.

This isn't just amdram, this is Questors amdram. Everything is on a larger scale here.

Someone needs to remind the person standing behind me of that. She's tutting and sighing so much I fear she may crack her tongue.

But it's my turn now, so I don't have time to worry about that.

I give my surname to the box officer behind the window.

"This is for Private Lives?" she asks.

It is. I've already hit up the studio. I'm here for the main house tonight.

She digs around in the correct ticket box and hands me the ticket.

Right then. Time to explore this joint.

Most people seem to be heading towards the bar, but I follow the signs for the theatre, into a stairwell.

As I dart to one side to avoid a group coming the other way, I spot something on the wall.

A sign.

"Please DO NOT," the DO NOT is underlined here, "put props chairs / tables & scenery etc in front of the radiators as it stops them from working."

In front of the radiator are five poles used to hold queuing ropes, and a table.

We're all going to freeze tonight.

Halfway up the stairs, I spot a giant bell.

I really hope that's the theatre bell and not some prop from an old production of Titanic or something.

It is truly magnificent.


There's also some kind of interesting chandelier action going on back here. A starburst of white and blue lights. As I try to take a photo, I spot something. Another sign.

"Judi Dench Playhouse."

I had forgotten that's what the main house was called around here.

This isn't just amdram, this is... Oh wait. I've already done that joke. It's true though.

At the top of the stairs I find myself in some sort of cafe area. It's filled with displays from previous shows, with loads of extravagant looking costumes.

Bunting crisscrosses across the ceiling, all cut from playtexts. Priestly and Shakespeare and Gilbert.

I do enjoy bunting, but custom bunting... that's very... well, it's very Questors now, isn't it?


Time to go in.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker and get waved inside.

The seats hug around the thrust stage in a horseshoe shape.

I traipse my way down the stairs towards the second row, and dump my jacket on my chair.

My neighbour arrives. He's holding something. Something very interesting looking.

"Are there programmes?" I ask him.

"Yeah, there's a guy by the door flogging them for a pound."

"Makes a change from the West End," says my other neighbour.

I leave them bonding over the extortionate cost of West End programmes and race back up the stairs towards the door.

Turns out the ticket checker had programmes all along. I ask for one, give him a pound coin, and skip my way back to my seat to see what my one pound has bought me.

It's a photocopier jobbie, but there's no harm in that. There's a nice little intro from the director, with lots of neat facts about the history of the play. Apparently Coward wrote it in only three days, which, to be frank, I think is a bit rude. All these talented people, showing everyone else up. It's really not on. Some people need to learn when to rein themselves in. Take a break. Have a lie in. Give the rest of us a chance to catch up.


"I found out there's no cloakroom," says my neighbour. "So it's coats on the floor."

"Eh," I say, bundling my own jacket into a ball and shoving it under. "My coat's been through worse."

He laughs at that, as he folds his own jacket and places it neatly under his chair.

I really should take better care of stuff.

"We're within spitting distance," he continues, now that the coat issue has been dealt with.

I look at him in horror. "Well, I hope you don't try!" I say. Honestly, I expected better from a man who folds his coat.

"No!" he says, equally horrified, pointing to the empty stage. "No, I meant them. When they get enthusiastic."

I flap my hand in the direction of the people sitting in the front row. "We have a barrier," I tell him.

There isn't much to say after that. We both go back to reading our programmes.

A few minutes later, the show starts.

And, oh my gawd, I know it isn't cool to admit it, but I fucking love Noel Coward, I really do.

There's something about his plays that makes ever actor in them so fucking attractive. Like, seriously. It is impossible to be dull-looking while saying those words. I don't know what the science is, but there is no denying it. Something about the cut-glass accents, and the effortless snark. It just does it for me.

I escape from my seat and go and stand in the cafe to have a break for all the glamourous shenanigans.

A group gather to trade their favourite badly-remembered lines.

"Do you love me? Do you really love me? Kiss me! Three times."

"Late forties! He's sixty-one!"

Not quite as Noel Coward intended, but they're having fun.

"This isn't a bar," says someone walking past. "This is a cafe," he adds with a sneer. "Shall we go downstairs?"

Another guy has a similar idea, but found on a better way of doing things.

"I sent the wife down to get me a beer," he tells his friend.

His wife reappears just in time for the five-minute call, struggling to keep hold of a glass, two bottles, and a packet of crisps. "I wish you'd come down with me next time," she says with a sigh as the crisps fall from her arms.

He doesn't reply. He's too busy opening his beer.

I go back inside. The only marital breakdowns I like witnessing are ones accompanied by cutting words and secret pied-a-terres in Paris.


My other neighbour is reading aloud an article about the Naga Munchetty thing from his phone. "A single member of the public complained," he says with an outraged sigh.

"Probably another racist," says his friend.

I mean... probably.

A couple sitting behind me are discussing the diversity of the audience. "In the West End you get lots of different people. Young people, you know?"

"There's quite a mix here tonight..." comes the reply.

This is met by silence.

The only mix I'm seeing is different variations on the salt and pepper hair-scheme going on.

Yeah, there's a couple of young-un's over on the far side. But we are in serious middle-aged white people territory here.

But, as some who is pretty darn white and not exactly far away from middle age myself, I can't complain.

After all, we are at a Noel Coward play. The patron saint of the white middles.

By the time we get to the second interval, I am in love with everyone, and overcome with a need to loll around in silk pyjamas and dropping bon mots in between sips of brandy.

But when I emerge back into the cafe, there's no brandy on offer. Just crisps and people saying "sollocks" to each other and laughing in increasingly high pitched tones with each repetition. Which isn't in keeping with the meaning of the word, considering our characters have been using it to declare a cease-fire in their exchanges. But okay.

Third act, and there's been some shifting around of the furniture. The piano has made it's way to the other side of the stage, so like, I guess an interval was needed. Or a pause anyway. A pause would have been better.

The brandy has been replaced by a soda fountain, which you just know is going to be sprayed at someone. The real question is who.

Turns out it's Victor. Poor sod. He should have called sollocks.

Lots of applause, then it's time to go.

As I cross the courtyard I remember something and turn around to check.

Hey! Look at that!

They fixed their neons since the last time I was here.

That's nice.