Monkey See, Monkey Do

I'm onto my next venue of the marathon and I have a bad feeling about this one. This bad feeling is based on nothing more substantial than the name, but the name is The Monkey House, and that is enough.

I don't like monkies.

I really don't like monkies.

With their creepy monkey hands and their creepy monkey toes.

Nope. Not into it.

And don't give me that spiel about them being just like people. That's the problem. People are gross too. With their creepy people hands and their creepy people toes.

Yeah, yeah. I should have just called this blog the London Theatre Misanthrope. I get it.

Perhaps that will be my next project. If I ever manage to emerge from the hermit-hole that I intend to seclude myself in come January.

Anyway, it looks like I was right because I'm at the address and there's not a theatre to be found.

I'm right here. On Seven Sisters Road. And all I see is a William Hill where there's supposed to be a theatre. I keep on walking, following the pavement around the corner, and almost walk into a group of young and cool looking people. The sort of young and cool looking people who would be up for watching a play about the Jamestown cult at 6.45pm on a Wednesday evening.

I look up, and yup, the sign over the door says "Fourth Monkey."

This must be the place.

Inside the door, perched on a chair in the tiny foyer, sat at an even tinier table, is another young and cool looking person. But this one has a pile of papers in front of her. Looks like I've found the box office.

"Hi," she says with a massive smile as soon as I walk in.

"Hello. Err, the surname's Smiles?"

"Nice name," she comments as she draws a line through it on the list.

"Thank you."

Seriously.

I've been wearing this name for over three decades and it never gets old.

"Here's one of these," she says, pulling a castsheet free from the pile on the desk.

They are nice. Really nice. Full-colour headshots and printed on a heavy paper stock. It doesn't get much better than that.

"Um, where am I going?" I ask as I suddenly realise that I have no idea what lurks beyond this tiny foyer.

She points towards the door a few feet away from us.

"First floor," she says, then stops. "No. Second floor. The top floor."

I nod. "Okay. Is the house open?"

"It is, but you may have to wait in the kitchen."

Blimey. I mean, that's weird, right? Waiting in the kitchen? Let's hope they have the kettle on. Although, I'm not sure a stuffy old kitchen is where I want to be right now.

"I might wait outside," I tell her. "Bit warm."

"Okay," she says brightly, very sweetly pretending to care where I plan to send my pre-show time.

I go outside. And once more curse myself for putting on a great big pleated skirt on a breezy day.

After a few minutes wrestling to keep my skirt at least somewhere in the region of my legs, I give up and go inside. Through the door that the box officer had pointed out and into a secondary room. Which turns out to be another foyer. Or perhaps a vestibule. Or even a lobby. One of those. Can't tell you which because I don't know the difference. Let's just call it Foyer Number Two.

Whatever it’s called, it contains the promised staircase, which will take me up to the second, or possibly top, floor. And on the walls, in all capitals, is the missive: NO SHOE ZONE.

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For the first time I notice that the walls of Foyer Number Two are covered with boxy shelves. And that each cubby-hole is filed with footwear.

Shit.

But...

... they don't mean me, right? Not people going to the theatre? Right? This is just for the students... right?

Right?!

I look down at my boots. I still haven't sorted out the shoe situation since the last time I had to take them off for a show. I didn't think I would have to. Taking off your shoes to go into some's literal house is fair enough. To remove them in order to go upstairs in what I think is some sort of drama school seems a bit much. Especially when the shoes in question require straps to be unbuckled and a good deal of lacings to be loosened in order to get them off.

I look around at all the shoes on display. On the ground there is a wicker basket filled with soft slippers.

Oh gawd...

This is like going bowling. Which is something I don't do. And not just because of the public footwear situation.

I don't think there's any getting away with this. I think I'm going to have to do it.

With a massive internal sigh, I bend down and start on with the business of unbuckling and loosening. Leaning against the wall I manage to pull them off and I find a cubby hole to store them in for the duration.

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Only then do I dare examine the state of my tights. With no forewarning, I hadn't thought to pull out a pair without holes. It's unlikely that I'd picked one out by chance this morning.

I have a rule, you see. I don't throw out an item of clothing until it has been repaired at least three times. Sometimes I manage to stretch that to six or seven before I finally give up on them. Bit three is the minimum. So my tights are often held together by more of my terrible attempts at stitches than would be deemed acceptable for public viewing.

But the theatre gods have looked kindly on me once again, and brought about another miracle, because today, my toes are stitch-free. And there is not a single hole to be found anywhere. I've got the good pair on.

It feels really strange to be going upstairs in a public building with nothing more than sixty deniers worth of nylon between them and me. It makes me feel intensely vulnerable, which is not a feeling I want to be having before I've even stepped into the auditorium.

One floor up and there's an office. Over the open doorway the signage proclaims this place as "Monkey Business," which I have to appreciate, if only on a punnage level.

I ask the two ladies standing on the landing where I'm going, and they point me up one more level.

One more level it is then.

Up I go.

The sign above the next door says "Kitchen," but it's nothing like the kettle-totting kitchen of my imagination.

I've instead found myself in a large, comfortable looking room, with leather armchairs, a counter running down one wall, and a hatch serving as the bar for the evening. There are also strings of red fabric running from the lampshades off all over the place, with masses of cardboard axes swinging from them, a Sarah Kane quote on one wall, and an artwork that places the Vikings in front of the London Eye on the other.

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As I wander around, trying to find somewhere to stand which isn't in everyone's way, I tread on something.

I don't look down.

I don't want to know what it is.

I just keep on moving. Quickly.

No one else seems bothered the lack of shoe-action going on up here.

People stride around in their socks. A few have the wicker-basket slippers. Others have bare feet.

As a queue forms to get into the theatre, I spot a girl with socks so full of holes her toes clawing at the floorboards.

People hands and people toes.

Gross.

It takes a while to get through the corridor.

I'm not mad though. There's a Pina Bausch quote on the wall here. I love Pina Bausch. One of my prizest possessions is a signed Pina Bausch programme that I may or may not have lifted from work. And if I have to get stuck in a corridor with someone spouting out their views on choreography, I'm glad it's with her.

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Eventually we make it through.

The theatre is a black box. Seating has been set up on two sides, traverse style. With a small stage in the middle.

There's one seat going begging in the back row.

"Do you mind?" I ask the person sitting next to it.

No reply. So I take it he doesn't and sit down..

It's really hot in here.

Really hot.

But there's no time to get my fan out because the lights are going down and the play is beginning.

It's a drama school show (I think... I'm still not entirely sure on this) so I won't be commenting on the performance. But the play is pretty good. Zipping along with a familiar tale. You know the one. Don't drink the kool-aid and all that.

Someone a couple of rows ahead neglected that part though, as she starts coughing. And coughing. And coughing.

She gets up and after coughing more in the empty space behind the seating block, eventually goes outside.

A second later, a woman in the row in front follows her.

The bloke next to me twists in his seat, again and again, to see whether they are coming back, not focusing on the play at all, his attention completely with the coughing woman out in the corridor.

They come back soon enough. And we can all go back to watching the play.

As soon as the stage lights go down at the end, instant applause rings out. I've never seen it happen so fast.

But as soon as it starts, it peters out.

The actors do not return to the stage for their bows.

"Are they not coming out?" someone asks. "We're clapping."

"No, they don't do that here."

Well, what do you expect from people who don't wear shoes?

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The Two Ghosts of Queen's House

Seven o’clock starts are tricky as fuck. Especially when they’re in Greenwich. But after a slightly leg-jiggly journey on the DLR, I’ve made it to Romney Road with twenty whole minutes to spare. I can even see my theatre for tonight. Queen’s House. In all its gleaming white glory. The problem is, how to get there? The first pair of gates I passed were firmly locked. As were the second.

I keep on walking, my heart beating in time with my rushing feet. There doesn’t seem to be a way in.

Is there a password or something? Am I supposed to run full pelt at the railings with the firm believe that I can move right through them? Are iron bars nothing but an collision for those confined to the mediocrities of reality?

Just as I’m considering how badly I would hurt myself if I attempted to heave myself over the iron fence, I turn a corner, and find the car park.

Oh. Well, fine then. I’ll just go in this way, shall I?

Now I’ve actually managed to get myself within the confines of this handsome house, I can relax a little bit. I have plenty of time. And only a short walk over these peaceful green lawns.

And there it is. Queen’s House. Set back from whatever bustle Greenwich can throw at a person, amongst acres of green grass.

Not a bad place to catch a bit of opera, I must say. And a fucking impressive place for a performing arts college performance. Those Trinity Laban kids have it well swish, I can tell you that for nothing.

I stop to text Helen, letting her know about the whole getting in situation. She’s running late. Don’t want her trying to scale a fence in a panic.

That done, I walk up the path, and find a man holding a piece of paper, waiting to greet people next to a sign advertising tonight's performance.

“Do I give me name or…?” I ask.

“Are you a performer or…?”

No, mate. Clearly not. I want to ask if they’re missing a performer, but I fear he might ask me to step in. “Err, a ticket buyer?” I try.

“Right. Err let’s check if it’s here. What’s the name?”

I give it.

I’m not on the list.

“Right,” he says. It doesn’t sound like this is the first time his list has come up short. “That’s fine. I don’t know why they gave me this list. The reception is in the Orangery, around the Queen’s House, and past the colonnade.”

Well, okay then. I follow his instructions, around the house, through the colonnade, and out the other side.

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There seems to be a bit of a party going on through here. There are canapes. And drinks. And everyone looks very fancy. Too fancy.

I don’t think I’m meant to be here.

I text Helen again.

“Have you crashed a wedding?” she asks.

“Maybe?” I reply.

Hmm. Not sure what to do. I go back the way I’d come, pausing in the colonnade to peer into a covered courtyard. People are walking through. Holding programmes.

Okay, so it appears that the audience are going somewhere. And unless my geography is totally messed up, they are coming from the Orangery.

I go back, stepping into the fancy room. It’s nearly empty now. The trays of canapes desiccated. The wine drunk.

A young woman with a box of tickets in her arms rushes over.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m picking up tickets?”

“For the reception or the performance?”

“The performance. Sorry,” I say, seeing the look of panic in her face. The expression of someone who just spotted their dotty aunt approaching a new boyfriend with a handful of embarrassing baby photos on hand. “Sorry. I got sent round here, but I was like… this doesn’t look right. So I thought I better just ask.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh no! This is just for the reception. The box office is just inside the main door. Tell them you’re general admission.”

I apologise again and back away from the fancy room. Places like this are not meant for the likes of me.

Okay then. Back around the building, I avoid the man and his piece of paper and duck into the surprisingly lowly doorway, rushing down the Spartan corridor and emerging into a museum shop. This looks much more my level. There’s a proper counter, and I join the queue to pick up tickets.

They do have my name here, thank goodness, and the lady on the desk pulls my tickets out of the box.

“That’s two tickets, is that right?” she asks.

It absolutely is.

She picks two programmes up from the pile on the counter and hands them to me.

Oh, yeah. Free programmes. That’s the stuff.

“Loos are to the left,” she says, pointing further into the building. “And stairs to the Great Hall are on the right.”

The Great Hall, eh? Perhaps I will be getting all fancy tonight.

Helen turns up a few minutes later. Limping slightly from a blister on her foot.

“This way,” I say, leading her towards the stairs.

“Hang on, do you mind if I use the loos?”

Well, you can’t say no to someone who just hobbled all the way over to Greenwich to spend the evening with you, now can you?

The last people in the foyer make their way upstairs.

I use the opportunity to take some photos. It’s strange down here. Like being in a wine cellar, with that curved ceiling going on over our heads.

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“Ready?” I ask as Helen emerges.

She is, so we go up the stairs. The Tulip Stairs, according to the signage. That’s an unusually specific name, I think as we make our way up. Not that they’re not pretty, just not particularly tulip shaped… Oh. Oh, I see.

As Helen points her phone upwards to take a photo of the view above our heads, I find myself staring into a spiralling vortex of steps. They seem to go on forever, reaching up into the heaves, the steps unfolding, like, well, petals.

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And on the balustrades… iron tulips.

That answers that question then.

There’s someone giving a speech in the Great Hall. Well, I presume it’s the Great Hall. There are a lot of people in here. Sat around in those spindly golden chairs you get at weddings.

A woman standing on the other side makes a big circle gesture with her arms to indicate that there are seats going spare over in the far corner.

Helen and I pick our way over between the silent rows.

Oops. Bit late.

Never mind.

The speech goes on. A potted history of the house. … I zone out. This room is far too pretty to be listening to this sort of thing. It’s the kind of room where you want murder and intrigue, not dates of construction and alignments with the river.

Once he’s done, he’s replaced by someone else. With her own set of speeches. These ones about Trinity Laban, about the operas being performed, about how marvellous the patrons are in this room for giving their money to such a worthy cause.

Someone in the front row claps loudly. The sound reverberating around the square room. The rest of us join in, more out of obligation than agreement.

I’m just here to catch some opera, and get a venue checked off.

I look up. Halfway up the high walls is a slim balcony. There are men up there. Young men. In costume. They lean against the railing, watching the audience below, looking the kind of effortless cool that only the agonisingly young and talented can achieve.

Self-congratulatory speeches now at an end, we can get on with the business of opera. First off, some Monteverdi.

The men up in the balcony begin to sing. Their voices raining down on us.

And down here, on the small bit of space being used as a stage, a lone female laments at her fate.

I don’t know what they’re singing. It’s Italian.

But I get the idea. She’s sad, and it is oh so pretty.

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“I think that broke my heart?” says Helen as we all applaud.

I nod. I think it broke mine too. “It’s amazing in here,” I say. “The sound bouncing off all the walls…”

“Yes, the acoustics are great.”

“Yeah, alright. You and your big words.” Honestly, always the intellectual is our Helen. As Laban people bustle about removing the table from the last opera, and prepping the room for the next, I lean back, taking in the carved struts holding up the balcony, fat wooden scrolls picked up in gold. A bit of warmth in a white room. “It is beautiful in here. I might move in.”

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“Perhaps not in winter though… I feel it would be quite hard to heat?”

She’s not wrong. Those high ceilings and cathedral sized windows would be the very devil to keep warm. “This is so going to be your summer palace when you become dictator.”

“It’s coming you know!”

I waft my hand towards the window behind us, from where we can see the long pathway going down to the river. “You’ll have peasants marching up the lawns with pitchforks.”

Helen gives a dismissive wave. “Just get rid of them,” she says.

The boys from the last opera return, slipping into empty seats and crowding into the windowsill to watch the next piece.

A young man takes the empty seat next to me, and I squish up to give him room.

These chairs are really closely packed.

Just as the boys settle, a group of young women burst in, their voices trilling and whirling as they start the next work. A modern opera this time. About a hen party. Svadba.

It takes me far too long to notice that they sing unaccompanied. With no instrument other than their own voices, and… some tins with spoons in them.

The dunk the wooden spoons in, rotating them around the insides and taping at the exterior.

Bored of their sound effects, they hand them to audience members.

A man in the front row looks at his newly acquired prop in bewilderment. “Should I tap it,” he asks the girl who gave it to him, and gives the tin an experimental drum with the spoon.

She leaves him too it.

The friends dance around their bride, the swirling sounds of their voices echoing off the walls, layering and combining into a symphonic orchestra that builds so high I can feel my ears vibrating by the end.

“Have your seen the painting in there,” says Helen as the applause fades. She’s nodding towards a side room. On the wall is the portrait of a rather dashing young man.

“He’s… well.” Very.

“He’s a bit of an alright,” says Helen.

“He’s totes a historical hottie,” I confirm.

The applause is still going, and shows no signs of stopping. The cast has long vacated the stage.

I look at Helen. She looks at me. We both shrug. I mean, they were good. Great evening. But I haven’t clapped this much since… I don’t know… Carlos Acosta’s farewell from The Royal Ballet probably. And no offence to Trinity Laban students, but they haven’t quite yet put in twenty years hard labour as world leaders in their artform.

Eventually, it slows, and stops.

“I’m going to get a photo of historical hottie,” I say, slipping between the rows to go into the side room.

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“Oh look, they have ceramics,” says Helen, going to have a look at the display case. But I don’t care about them. I want attractive young men with swords and gold frogging from my art.

“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be in here,” I say. And right on cue, someone from Laban walks through. They don’t say anything though. And we’re left to gaze at the art in peace.

“Oh, look at the chairs!” I say, spotting a pair of translucent chairs.

“Oh, they’re the…”

“Ghost chairs? Is that want they’re called?”

“Yeah.”

I try to remember the name of the designer, but nope. I’ve forgotten it. Never mind. Ghost chairs. You know!

Strange addition to this room though. I wonder what they’re doing here, with historical hottie and.. I squint…a young Queen Victoria?

“We should probably go,” I suggest... I kinda want to go home while there’s still a chance of an early night.

But not before I get one final photo of the Tulip Stairs.

“Sorry,” I apologise to the couple stuck behind me.

“Don’t worry. One person took a photo and got the ghost. The Queen’s House ghost,” says the female half of the pair.

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“Oh my…” Oh my! “There’s a ghost? I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost,” I tell her.

“Well, you’re in the right place,” she says, having the grace not to sound too baffled by my exclamation.

I take this as confirmation that she’d like to hear more.

“I’ve wanted to meet one for years, but I don’t think they like me,” I say. “I’m just too keen.”

“They think you’re needy,” agrees Helen.

“They do!”

The couple slips away quietly. I can’t say I blame them. If even the ghosts don’t appreciate my enthusiasm for them, I can’t expect the residents of this mortal plane to get on board.

Still, the sun is still shining and it’s only…

“That was only an hour and a quarter long,” I say to Helen as we walk down the path back towards the road. “The perfect evening!”

“And look! They’ve opened the gates for us,” she says, pointing to the end of the path.

No going through the car park for us!

We can just saunter, or at least stagger, through looking all chic in our sunglasses and…

Shit.

“Shit,” I say. “I forgot my jacket,” I say, already turning round to run back in.

Through the foyer, up the Tulip Stairs, hurried explanation of my appearance to the usher, into the Grand Hall, dart between all the singers and patrons to get to my seat right at the back, reach under, grab my jacket, nod to the usher on the way out and…

“You just wanted to see if you could find the ghost, didn’t you?” says Helen.

“No!” Yes. “And I already saw a ghost anyway. Two of them,” I say, remembering the chairs.

It's not much, but you've got to take your victories where you can find them.

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Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque

Proving once again that London theatre defies categorisation, and thumbs it’s nose at my attempts to spreadsheet it, I only found out about the Silk Street Theatre a few weeks ago. Over the past six months I’ve had literally tens of people emailing me with the names of venues that I’ve missed off my official list, but this one has defied even their keen eyes.

It was only when I started trawling the Barbican’s website, clicking on all their theatrical events to see what they had going on in the Pit, that I found it listed as the venue for the Guildhall’s run of Merrily We Roll Along.

After a bit of digging, I found that the Silk Street Theatre is, as the name suggests, on Silk Street. And is part of the Guildhall complex, neighbours to our good friends, the Barbie and Ken (literally no one calls the Barbican this apart from me, and while I recognise that continuing to use it is basically just me trying to make fetch happen, it makes me laugh, and I need that, so back off).

This discovery had me starring at the wall for a good ten minutes. Could I pretend that I’d never seen it? None of my spies had noticed it’s absence. I could totally just not go, and no one would be any the wiser.

But wall starring is very unforgiving. With nothing to look at, you are left gazing at your own conscious, so on the list it went, ticket was bought, and I’m now on my way into the city.

I don’t know where precisely I’m going. The address is Guildhall School of Music & Drama. On Silk Street. I’m hoping that’s enough information to find it.

The building up ahead looks likely. I get out my phone and bring up Google Maps. I’m on the corner of Silk Street and Milton Street.

And yup, there’s some sort of signage going on just inside the doors.

“Milton Court Front Doors will open 1 hour before the event start time.”

What time is it now? About 6.30. I’m super early. For some reason, I’m always convinced the City is miles and miles away from my work. But it’s really just down the road.

I look around. There’s a woman talking on her phone just there. Hopefully she won’t notice me taking a photo. My memory is so bad now that photos are the one thing stopping me from becoming an Oliver Sacks case study.

“Hello, can I help?”

I turn around. The woman who was chatting on the phone is looking at me, her phone pressed against her shoulder.

“Sorry,” I say, not sure why I’m even apologising but feeling like I’ve been caught red handed with my photo-taking. “I was just reading the signs.”

“Right?” she prompts. She must be a Guildhall person.

“I’m seeing the performance tonight,” I explain.

“Oh,” she says with a nod. “That’s in the Silk Street building.”

“Okay?” I mean, we’re pretty close to Silk Street here. Right on the corner.

“Do you see the sign with the green arrow?”

I look over to where she’s pointing. I do see the sign with the green arrow.

“We’re in the Silk Street Theatre tonight,” she continues. “Because it’s bigger.”

“Nice,” I say. “I love a big theatre.”

I mean, I like small theatres too. But I seem to remember Merrily We Roll Along being quite a big show. With a big cast. It seems only right that the Guildhall students get a big theatre to play with.

I head over towards the sign with the green arrow, but I am really, ridiculously, early, so I go for a bit of a walk, edit my Park Theatre post, and then come back, returning to the scene of the arrow.

It points into a dark and narrow courtyard, at the end of which I can see the Corporation of London coat of arms stuck to the ugly pebbledash walls, and the Guildhall School branding frosted onto glass doors.

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Inside there’s one of those long reception desks, most of which seems to be empty, but the corner is in use. With three people sitting behind, tickets at the ready. Two for the guest list. One for the box office.

I join the box office queue.

There’s only one person in front of me. A very old man. Stooped, with a cane. He wants to buy a ticket. It’s all sold out though. The box officer picks up the phone and tries to organise something for him.

She doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Meanwhile, the guest list side of the desk remains empty.

I wait. And wait. And wait.

The box officer is still on the phone, trying to find this man a ticket.

The queue is growing behind me.

A woman goes over to the guest list side. They jump to attention.

“Do you have programmes?” she asks.

“Yes, over there at the cloakroom desk,” they say. And she leaves.

Left alone again, one of the guest list greeters looks over at the box office queue. “You’re all collecting pre-paid tickets are you?” she asks.

I confirm that yes, we paid for tickets and yes, we’re rather keen on the idea of picking them up.

“What’s the surname?” she asks.

I jump out of the queue slide over to her. “Smiles?”

She pulls over the ticket box and has a look through it. “Maxine?”

“Yes!”

She unfurls the ream and checks it. “Just the one ticket is it?”

“… yes,” I admit.

That done, I suppose I better get my programme. From the cloakroom.

That’s a funny place to be selling programmes, isn’t it? I mean, that’s not just me, is it? Do cloakrooms always sell programmes? I don’t usually check my things in, so perhaps they all are and I’m just not noticing, but it doesn’t feel all that intuitive. Hand over coat, get a programme. Is that how people are doing things?

“Can I get a programme?” I ask.

“Yes,” says the cloakroom dude, sitting up straighter. “Two pounds.”

Two pounds? Blimey. That’s the most expensive drama school programme I’ve bought. Double the price of the ones at RADA, and I was pissy enough about having to pay for that.

I dig out my purse. “I know I have another pound coin somewhere,” I say apologetically, digging around in the corners.

He laughs politely at that.

Second pound coin finally retrieved, I hand them over.

“You choose one,” he says, waving his hand over the fanned display.

I pick one out of the middle, because I’m an arse.

Programme in hand, I retreat to a wooden railing, overlooking the cafe below, and have a peruse.

There’s a page dedicated to former students. A kind of ‘where are they now,’ which is rather nice. I haven’t seen that before. Not even at RADA.

They even have programme notes.

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I do like proper programme notes.

I prop myself against the railing and settle in for a good read.

I don’t get very far.

These must be the most opaque programme notes I’ve ever attempted to get through. And I’ve read some pretty dense stuff in my time. Hell, I’ve edited some pretty dense stuff in my time. Working in contemporary dance has set the barre pretty high for my tolerance of impenetrable text. But this… bloody hell. It’s all stuff about the nature of time and regret. It sounds like one of those wedding speeches you get in mediocre romcoms. You know the sort of thing: “Webster’s dictionary defines love as…”

I thought I was here to see a musical! I mean, sure, it’s Sondheim. Not exactly fluff. But still.

“The performance of Merrily We Roll Along starts at 7.30. The auditorium doors are now open. We invite you to take your seats.”

Saved by the tannoy announcement.

I put the programme away in my bag.

That’s quite enough of that.

I’m going in.

The lady on Milton Street was right. This is a big theatre. Not massive. We’re talking space for hundreds of people, rather than thousands. But definitely on the larger side of things for a drama school. I think it must have both RADA and LAMDA beat on scale.

There’s a wide stage. Raised. And an orchestra pit. Sunken. Which I suppose is to be expected, given where we are.

I make my way to my seat and sit down, but soon find myself jumping up again to let people through. With narrow rows and no central aisle, I think I’m going to be doing this a lot before the show actually starts.

The old lady sitting next to me sighs and twists her legs round for the newcomers to get past.

I think there’ll be a lot of that going on too.

She looks to me like one of those old ladies who are always pissed off. Made of pointy elbows and tutting tongues.

She’s the kind of old woman that I’m going to end up being. My elbows were tailormade to stick in people's ribs.

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Up on stage one of the cast members comes out and sits down at the piano.

Above his head old photos are projected onto a screen. Except, they’re not totally old. The faces have been photoshopped into place, and by the sounds of laughter from the student contingent of the audience, those faces belong to their friends in the production.

Half way through the first act, as yesterday is done, and merrily we roll along, roll along, gathering dreams, and the date above the stage clicks back a few more years, my old lady neighbour starts to cough. A bad cough. Full of splutter. And I begin to worry.

Not that she might die. Thankfully that would be someone else’s job to clean up if she did.

But that she was not, as I had first assumed, the type of old lady I would become. But the actual old lady I would become. That she is me. Just fifty years ahead. Sharpened of elbow and tongue. And most annoyingly of all, still with this damn cough.

I try to convince myself that no, if I were an old lady who had harnessed the power of time travel and managed to journey back to 2019, going to watch a depressing Sondheim musical at the Guildhall School wouldn’t exactly be high up on my list of things to do. Even if it did involve the thrill of sitting next to me… Wait. Was she here to kill me? Was that what this was? She couldn’t do that! That’d be a paradox. And more importantly, like, really mean.

I’m saved from these terrifying thoughts by the end of the first act.

I get up to head back into the foyer but the old lady applies her elbows in all directions and barges past me with a barrage of tutting.

Oof. I’m going to be a bitch when I get old.

Once she’s cleared out the way, I follow on behind, taking up my old spot on the railing.

From here I can see all the students swarming beneath, buying drinks and necking them back as nothing but bottled water is allowed inside the auditorium.

Behind me are the boards. The ones drama schools set up with headshots of all the cast members, and their CVs for any casting directors and proud parents in the audience to take away. But next to them is a display of CVs for the backstage crew: sound mixers and prop supervisors and all the rest. Never seen that one before.

I’m beginning to suspect that the Guildhall likes to do things differently.

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It must be that brutalist architecture they got going on. All the cruel walls and car park levelling leaking over from the Barbican Centre does things to the brain. Twists the thoughts in strange directions. Not bad directions necessarily, but… okay, the programmes on the cloakroom desk are weird. And the hard-line stance on drinks in the auditorium is a bit precious. It’s not like their upholstery is even new. And the programme notes… let’s not talk about the programme notes.

But, this dude. The one standing in front of the boards and inspecting all the headshots. He’s cool. So cool that I literally can’t tell whether the outfit he’s wearing is a natty suit, or a pair of pyjamas. Honestly, with that fabric, it could go either way.

“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along will commence in three minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in three minutes.”

Oh well. Can’t stand around staring at suity-pyjamas, much as I would like to. It’s time to go back in.

“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along with commence in two minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in two minutes.”

Blimey, give us a chance, love! I’m going, I’m going.

The old lady is already there by the time I get in. She can shift herself, I’ll give her that.

She clears her throat and looks at me. I can feel it. Her looking.

A second later she clears her throat again, and mutters under her breath.

I ignore her. It’s very rude of me, I know. But I’m fairly confident that looking at a version of yourself from the future would have very bad outcomes. Like the end of time itself kinda bad. Like… what if she has terrible eyeliner? I’m not sure I could let the world continue to turn if I found out that I would lose my liner skills.

As the lights dim for the second act, she gives up and we both settle down to watch the rest of the show.

My god, Merrily is grim. Watching the cast get progressively younger, their hopes and happiness expanding with every new scene is chipping away at my own hope and happiness.

Even when they are at peak-optimism they are unbearable. With their bestselling novels. And their hit musicals. And their friendship. Gross.

Honestly, what a cruel musical to programme on students.

Treasure it now, kids. For tomorrow you’ll be old, bitter, and sitting next to an unpleasant old woman who is quite possibly your own destiny.

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The serpent beguiled me

hen the marathon is over and done, I swear, I am never getting on the Thameslink again. The stress of it all. I swear. There is literally nowhere in London that is worth getting on the Thameslink for. Waiting twenty minutes for a train and knowing that if you miss it, you've, well, missed it. Whatever it is. Nope. Not for me.

That's not happening tonight, though. I make it all the way to Peckham Rye without incident to anything significant beyond the state of my nerves. 

I hurry down the road, dodging away from a bike as it swerves in at me on the pavement.

"Nice dress!" shouts the cyclist before he returns to the road, making for what was quite possibly the scariest, and nicest, thing that has been shouted at me on the street.

Peckham is clearly a place of contradictions.

Like stepping off a high street, cluttered with crumbled cans, and into a bright square, with young people lounging around on the lush grass, and the gleaming tower of Mountview looking down on them.

Okay, it's not really a tower. Or all that gleaming. But sitting there stark against the blue sky, it does look mighty impressive.

There's a young woman walking just ahead of me, all bouncing blonde curls and pretty summer dress. I take her for a student, but her pause of confusion when she reaches the doors tells me that she is also a newcomer to the world of Mountview.

She steps back, and spotting the button which operates the door, gives it a quick tap.

The door heaves itself open, but so slowly I'm right behind her by the time it's wide enough for a person to fit through.

And there's another door. She makes a go of it, but it isn't shifting.

"Hang on," I say, hitting the button, but her shoulder has already done most of the hard work and we squeeze ourselves through before the door's gears properly kick in.

There's a big desk right taking up most of the entrance foyer, and there's no question that this is the box office. Chunky reams of ticket stock lie waiting on the counter, ready to be printed.

The blonde girl goes ahead, but queues at Mountview are not to be tolerated, and another box officer rushes forward and calls me to the counter.

"Picking up tickets?" she asks before I even have the chance to get out my usual line.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles."

With a nod, she reaches for the ticket box and pulls one out. "Maxine?"

"That's the one."

She hands me the ticket, and a freesheet to go with it. Ah, drama schools. You know where you are with them. Always get a free bit of paper to take away with you. Except RADA, who makes you pay for their programmes. Bastards. To be fair, they are really nice programmes. And only a pound. But still. Bastards.

"You can enter through either door," says the box officer, going into full flight attendant mode, with her hands outstretched to indicate the doors either side of the reception. "It's unallocated seating."

I look at the doors, and assess my options. "Mountview Theatre Auditorium Right," says the door on the right. I can't see what the one on the left says, because it's open and the outside of the door is hidden from view. But I presume it says the same, except left instead of right. Bit of a silly place to put signage but there we are.

I decide to live life dangerously for once, and go for the mystery door.

The front of houser standing guard beeps my ticket.

Paper tickets and a ticket beeper. We really are living the dream here at Mountview.

"The back row is reserved," he tells me. "But you can sit upstairs, downstairs, wherever you like."

Blimey, so many options. I don't know what to do with myself.

I go in.

It's nice in here. Modern. Kinda sleek looking.

The stalls are all set in front of a raised stage, and a balcony surrounds them on three sides. The seats are proper chairs, unfixed. But there's still a rake. With the floor set in steps. Seems a bit of an unusual combination, but the place looks good.

There aren't many people in yet. So I really can sit wherever I want.

I go for my usual third-row fix, but kinda in the middle, because I feel like switching things up a bit.

There's no one sitting in the first two rows. I've ventured the farthest forward of everyone in here. Which is not a situation I ever thought I'd find myself in.

If no one sits in the front row, can it be said to be the front row? Does the first occupied row become, by default, the front row? Am I now sitting in the front row? Am I a front rower all of a sudden?

These are not the sort of philosophical questions I want to be grappling with half-way through my marathon.

I turn around and will the next people to come through the door to sit ahead of me. Not in front of me. Fuck that. Just generally, you know, more forward.

"We should sit at the front, shouldn't we?" says a newcomer to her friend.

"Yeah, we should," is their reply.

Oh, thank the theatre gods for keen people.

But even these enthusiastic newcomers don't want to commit themselves to the pressures of the front row, and plump for the second. No matter. They've done what was required. I am no longer the first thing the young actors will see when they come on stage. Something that we can all be grateful for.

Still, prime position for photos, I must say.

That's a rather magnificent tree going on, which looks banging in pictures. All gleaming shadows against a galaxy-toned backdrop. Pieces of paper cling to the bark, and strings of faerie-lights emerge from the branches.

If the tree of knowledge really did look like that, you could have signed me up for a post-berry education, because I would have been sinking my teeth into those apples before the snake even hissed out his first sibilant.

Right, now that's sorted, I can relax and have a look at the freesheet. It's a folded piece of A3. Done on the photocopier. But there's no shame in that. That's how I do the freesheets at my work, so, you know, it's a Maxine-approved method and all that. They are actually doing a better job than me here, because this fine piece of work includes headshots, which I always refuse to include in mine. I have my reasons. Let's not get into it. You don't care.

Anyway, the benefit of headshots on this production is that I get to see all their lovely faces. Which is nice in itself, but extra special in this case because the entire cast of this musical is made up of women and non-binary students. Kinda excited about that, as I'm seeing Children of Eden, which is a musical about... well, you know, all that Old Testament stuff. God and Adam and Noah and all those other male names from My First Bible picture book. I mean, sure, there was also Eve and... Noah's wife? Whatshername? But considering Eve gets blamed for the entirety of human sin, and Noah's wife is credited as "Mama Noah" in the freesheet, I think some gender-switched casting is just what the good book needs.

I think I mentioned this when I went to the Embassy Theatre, that I don't name people at drama school shows, because they're students and like, they don't need a blogger turning up with her grouchy old opinions (even though I'm the opposite of grouchy at drama school shows, because I love them so much), so I think I'm going to have to meet you back here in the interval and regroup then. Ya?

Except, no. Hang on. I have something to say. Now, it' been a while since I sat GCSE RS but I don't remember the snake in the Garden of Eden being a cane-wielding cabaret star and I think the Rev Dr Wood would have been a lot more pleased with my essays if she'd mentioned that at some point. Because that is fucking great.

Kinda glad it is the interval though. It's freezing in here. I'd been sat there, wanting to put on my jacket for the past hour. And it's not like these chairs are even comfy. The freestanding ones never are. What you gain in manoeuvrability the audience loses in nerve endings.

I go out into the foyer to give my bum a break, finish by Embassy Theatre post, and that. It's weird editing something I wrote about one drama school while standing in another. Feels a bit wrong somehow. I quickly hit publish and try not to think about it.

Just in time, as it happens.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes a voice over the tannoy. "Act two of Children of Eden is about to begin. Please return to your seats."

I go back inside.

It's sweltering. They must have turned the air con off for the duration.

I keep my jacket resolutely on. That's how they got me last time. Tricking me into thinking I would expire of heat and then slamming on the fans. I won't be taken in again.

I get out my phone to take a few pictures of the set. They've done something to it during the interval. The tree now has a door in it.

"So sorry," says the ticket checker, coming to stand beside me, his hands clasped in embarrassment at the whole situation. "You can't take any pictures.

Oh. "Oh." Shit. "Sorry!" Double shit. "I won't. I'll... get rid of them," I promise.

I'm not sure he believes me. But doesn't stick around to check.

He bows away, and I don't know which of us is cringing more at this interaction, him or me.

I think we both know I’m not to blame. He should save his condemnations for the serpent and its tricksy ways with a bowler hat. They tempted me to take photos of the tree! I swear, I should never have done it if it were not for them…

I don't delete the photos. But yeah, in a small concession to the possibility that it was my fault, and not the actors playing the role of the snake, you won't be seeing them. Sorry about that. 

Although, that does make things difficult. Because I didn't take any pictures of the space that don't include the stage. And I won't be able to get any on the way out. Not now that he's pinned me as a stage-snapper. I think about this a lot during the second act. About the various ways I can surreptitiously take a photo. But I'm not much for subterfuge. I think you know well enough that I would make a terrible spy.

At the end, we all applaud the cast mightily. That was well good.

As the house lights rise, the band swing back into action.

Usually this is the audience's cue to escape, but people are hanging around. Chatting.

I make a dive for the exit, scooting past the usher who told me off.

So no photos.

Ah well.

I hit the button and squeeze myself out the automatic door and race for the station. But it's no good. There's a ten-minute wait just to get to London Bridge. Fucking hell, I am never living anywhere that doesn't have a tube station. I mean, seriously, fuck that noise.

I use the time to look through the photos. Hmm. I wonder if I can get away with showing you this one.

A bit of balcony, A few rows of seats. The side of the stage.

No tree though.

Let's risk it, shall we?

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Hell's bells and buckets of blood

Did you know the Central School of Speech and Drama was opposite Hampstead Theatre? Because I did not know that the Central School of Speech and Drama was opposite Hampstead Theatre. Even when I saw the address was Eton Avenue, I still didn’t twig. It was only when I rounded the corner, and saw the red rondel of Swiss Cottage station, stark against the blue hoarding of the endless building works round there, that I realised. The Central School of Speech and Drama is opposite Hampstead Theatre.

Funny you’d think all those young people hanging out at the Hampstead would be noticeable. But perhaps, like me, they can’t afford the ticket prices.

But I’m not here to throw shade at the Hampstead. Not today, anyway. I’m off to the Embassy Theatre, which apparently belongs to good old CSSD. No, I didn’t know about that either. It’s yet one more pin in the map of ignorance that is my brain.

Anyway, there it is, in all its stucco-fronted glory. The steps up to the entrance are crowded with people enjoying the good weather and having good theatre chat.

The steps themselves are carved with names. I spot Harold Pinter amongst them. And Cameron Mackintosh. And Laurence Olivier. Jennifer Saunders. Michael Grandage.

I’m just listing names now. I should really go in.

I hop up the steps, treading on Philip Glenister as I go (sorry Phil) and then stop. “Student & Staff Entrance,” says a laminated sign by the door. Oh. Well, that’s not me. I look over at the next set of doors. There’s a sign there too. “Visitors Entrance.” I guess that is me. Back down the stairs I go, around the railing, and back up the steps and towards the correct entrance.

Okay then.

Inside there’s a great big reception desk and I make my way over to it.

“Hi, where do I pick up tickets?” I ask. “Is that here?”

A radio beeps and the man behind the desk picks it up with a sigh and answers the call.

“Yes, here” he says with an apologetic smile once that business is dealt with.

“Great! The surname’s Smiles.”

From a box next to him on the desk he pulls a red admission pass and hands it to me. “It’s just through there,” he says, pointing at a wide set of double doors on the other end of the foyer.

There’s a pile of programmes on the counter, and I nab one of those before heading in the direction instructed.

There’s more laminated signs here, stuck on the glass. “Welcome to Thebes,” they say. Which, before you think I’ve gone and widened the scope of my marathon to epic proportions, is the name of the play I’m seeing. There’s some content warnings listed underneath. Flashing lights and the like. I don’t pay too my attention. I’m too excited about what’s happening on the other side of the door. Through the glass panes I can see it, the theatre. Or at least the doors.

Double doors. With a gleaming brass surround. Set into an arch. It looks like the portal to another dimension. Albeit one that was created in the jazz age.

This being a drama school, the boards are out with the headshots of the cast, and they are a gorgeous bunch, all fresh-faced and photogenic. Honestly, I don’t know why I like these drama school shows so much. You’d think I’d boak with jealously of being presented with so much talent and youth and whatnot, when I am so very much lacking in all of those things, especially the whatnot, but there’s something about them - the earnestness and the dedication of it all - that just charms me so frickin’ much.

I stand around near one of the boards, looking at the photos with the kind of soppy expression I get on my face whenever I see a clumsy puppy who hasn’t quite grown into his paws yet, and try to ignore the wafts of musty urine scent wafting out of the Gents every time the door is opened.

Gradually, the corridor fills out and we all gently bump into each other as people working on the show try to push through to get into the theatre.

If there’s a queueing system, it’s lost within the general hubbub and chatter.

“Good evening,” says someone standing underneath the arch. “And welcome to this evening’s performance of Welcome to Thebes.” The hubbub and chatter stills. “Make sure you have one of the little laminated tickets,” he continues. “If not, go to the box office to pick one up.” I check my pocket. Still got mine. “For run time, we’re looking at two hours and thirty minutes. There will be no readmittance. That’s not allowed.

“The production contains strobe lights, audience participation-

“-Fuck!” says someone, and I’m surprised to discover that it’s not me.

“…and scenes of an adult nature,” continues the announcer.

“I fucking hate audience participation.”

I’m with you there, mate. Not a fan of the old participation thing myself. But good thing we’re getting a warning about it, I suppose.

Or is it? As I hand my admission pass to one of the ushers on the door, I wonder how extreme audience participation needs to be to get a full-on pre-show announcement.

Just last weekend, I had someone crawling over my shoulder wearing a dance belt, and only a dance belt. And that had warranted nothing beyond a single line at the bottom of a sign, just above a plea for no photography. In that performance, the dancers were giving audience members firemen’s lifts, throwing their belongings around, and walking off with their children.

What could be more extreme than that? Perhaps tonight they won’t be giving the children back…

The Embassy is a proper little theatre. Rows and rows of fixed red seats. A proscenium arch. The works. It’s small. Small enough that the word ‘diddy’ is presenting itself for use. Kinda worn looking. It could do with a refurb. But it looks comfortable enough.

An usher offers me a programme, but I already got one at the front desk so I dedicate myself to the business of picking a seat.

There’s no way in hell I’m doing my end-of-the-third-row dealio at this show. Not with gale-storm levels of audience participation in the offing. I'm sitting in the middle of a row, dammit. As far away from any crusading actors as I can get.

A group of young women plonk themselves down in the row behind me. Students, I think, getting all cow-eyed again at the thought of them supporting their friends.

“Do you know the story?” one asks.

“I should do, I’m studying classics!” replies another.

Oh. So, yes to students. But no to them attending this place. Unless CSSD has a sideline in Ancient Greek that I’m unaware. I mean, that’s possible I suppose.

A third gets out a snack from her bag.

“There’s no eating. They said no eating!” says the first.

“Oh. I didn’t know!” comes the reply. And the snack is quickly put away.

Cow-eyes are officially back in play.

I should really stop listening.

“Oh my, that person isn’t a prop!” one says. “They were sitting so still!”

I look at the stage. My new friend in the row behind is right. There’s someone sitting in the middle of the stage. And they are sitting very still. Staring at the audience. It’s unnerving.

The lights dim

“Shut up!” says the definitely-not-a-prop actor

A nervous giggle spreads through the audience. But the actor isn’t joking around.

“If you’re still talking, shut up.”

“Close the doors!” shouts another.

The usher on door duty peers out nervously, but there’s no ignoring that order. She closes the doors.

“Put down those booklets. They’re shit.”

Does she mean the programmes? I hope not. They’re lovely programmes. Quite well done, even if they are basically freesheets. Nicely printed. Colourful. With headshots and everything.

On of the actors climbs out of the pit of the stage and starts marching back and forth, ordering phones off. They’re melting our brains, he tells us.

The door opens and a latecomer sneaks in.

The actors round on them. They are not impressed.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.

All my cuddly thoughts of drama students quickly vanish. These ones are not here to play.

We’re dropped into Thebes, where the dead are still rotting on the street, and the people too broken to treat their new democracy with anything other than sneering cynicism. Not while the bombs are still exploding in the streets.

Boom!

Oof. They are doing the sound design.

I don't usually credit people in drama school shows, cos no one asked for a blogger to turn up with her opinions, Rose Farbrother. .. I'm digging your shit.

Boom!

An actor with a folding fan flaps it in front of her microphone, so that the sound of a helicopter whirrs around the space.

Others sit down and play music. There’s a strange instrument that requires a bow and yet has no strings. Kinda like a musical saw. But not. Possibly a daxophone. I can’t tell from here. Whatever it is. it sounds eerie. Like the soundtrack to a horror film.

The sound desk is right on stage. The laptop and all the rest of the equipment, simply part of a set that is already placed in the aftermath of a war zone.

The actors race up and down the aisles, diving out one door to reappear round the other side - their voices staying with us as their bodies disappear.

No one tries to touch us. Or interact with us.

Not until the bloke playing Prince Tydeus starts his campaign to take on the presidency and works his way through the audience shaking hands and winning hearts.

Well, that’s not so bad.

But the girl playing Talthybia isn’t to be outdone. With a disco ball sending pinpricks of starlight around the auditorium, she clambers up through the seats, climbing between the rows until she reaches an empty space half way up. Just one single row in front of me. And there she stays, opening up her arms and expounding on the universe.

“I didn’t know what to do when that girl climbed over the seats,” laughs one of the young people in the row behind during the interval. “I didn’t know whether to look at the stage, or her. We kept on making eye contact, and it was really awkward.”

Next to me, a young man is explaining how the actors got from one point of the auditorium to the other. Taking us through all the back corridors and paths that they would have needed to use.

“You see those chairs, over there,” he says, pointing to the row in front. The space where Talthybia had shown us the stars. “The arms are all trashed.”

He’s not wrong. They do not look good. The upholstery is threadbare. And the stuffing inside is making a bid for escape.

“In tech, they have a big table and it goes right there. It gets carried over the seats, so that row gets fucked.”

Nice to know there’s a reason for this place’s… distressed take on decor.

There’s a strange sound. A scraping, almost crunchy sound. My head tingles.

I look over at the stage.

The actor playing Ismene is sat there, working a pestle and mortar. There’s a wire coming out of it. It’s been rigged up to a microphone. The sound shudders through us. Or me at least. It’s really nice. I don’t want it to ever stop.

On the other bench is Antigone. She taps at the side of the furniture. The taps echoes through the auditorium. That’s also be rigged up.

That sound designer, Farbrother… they’ve been watching too many ASMR videos. Crisps are eaten and scrunched right next to a microphone. A gun’s trigger is clicked again and again.

I don’t think these tingles are ever going to stop.

A red dot appears on Junior Lieutenant Scudor’s chest. The mark of a sniper. I brace myself. But when the boom comes, it’s only voiced by the actor. They don’t need the big guns here. There’s carnage enough as he drops, and two buckets of blood are tipped over the body, flooding the stage with the red stuff. Staining Eurydice’s white outfit. Coating the arms and limbs and chests and faces of everyone on stage.

There’s so much of it I swear I can smell it.

It smells so sweet.

And then the fans start. Blasting us from above. Filling the room with a strong wind. My skirt ruffles against my legs with the force of it. Sound roars over our heads as Theseus runs up the stairs to the back of the auditorium. It’s a helicopter. Coming to take him home to Athens.

And we are left with a couple. Dancing. They are planning their future. She spins him under her arm as they plot the destruction of anyone who stands in their way. Athens better watch out.

The lights dim. The sound quietens. And we are returned to London. A little shaken.

I really fucking love drama schools.

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Hoxton Hall, Apparently

Huh. This place... does not look how I expected. That's a bit embarrassing. I worked just round the corner from this place for a good 18 months. I've probably even walked past without even noticing. And why would I notice? This is not the type of place the name insinuated.

I mean, Hoxton Hall. I was expecting something a bit, well, grander. Or at least, grandeur. Not like a country house or whatever. I wasn't picturing Longleat here. But wasn't this place a music hall back in the day? Perhaps Wilton's has set up unachievable standards in my head. But this narrow slip of a building, with its sliding glass doors and taupe painted fronted really wasn't what I had in mind. Somehow music hall and subtly don't strike me as two terms that should ever be placed within the same sentence. But Hoxton Hall, if this is indeed Hoxton Hall, which I'm still doubting despite the multiple signs stating that this is exacting what it is, looks like nothing more than a tasteful townhouse next to the rackety family butchers next door.

If this place really is a former music hall, it must be the smallest music hall in London. I can't imagine more than three people, a pair of contortionists, and their dog, ever fitting in here. You'd think they' made more of a thing of it.

Inside it's bright and clean and modern, all creams and blond wood. There's a wide box office desk. The sort you'd see gracing the reception of an up-market dentist, except here, tiny display cases are set into the surface, housing artefacts of the buildings former glory days. Back when sawdust coated the floor instead of all these gleaming floorboards.

There's someone in the queue ahead of me. "I'm collecting tickets?" she says. Something tells me that this is not a transaction she does all that often.

"Yes? What the name?"

She gives it. "Oh, wait. Do you mean first name?" She gives that too.

"Right that's..." she opens up the ream of tickets and counts them. "Five tickets. If you could just make your way down to the bar area," she says, indicating the way.

It's my turn now.

"The surname is Smiles?"

The lady on box office reopens the small ticket box and digs out mine. "First name?"

"Max," I say, before remembering I never use that version when buying tickets. "Maxine."

The box office lady opens up the ream. It's a lot shorter than my predecessors.

"Just the one ticket?" she asks.

"Yeah..." Alright, love. Do you know how many friends I would need to have a companion at every show I saw? There aren't enough theatre-fans in the world to keep up with the likes of me.

She offers me a sympathetic smile. "If you could make your way down to the bar area as well..."

I walk in the direction she's pointing, down a long corridor. Very long. This building may be narrow, but it goes on forever. Past a display covered in headshots and CVs, past the dark wood doors to the auditorium, guarded by sentinels at every door, past stairs, past a lift, and into the bar.

Finally, things are beginning to look more music hally. The walls are red, and covered with framed portraits and old letters and whatnot. The blue-tiled fireplace is stuffed with show flyers. There are jam jars lined up on the mantlepiece. A box of PG tips is waiting at the end of the bar.

When I come in, people look around, but only for a second. They're already beaming and beckoning at the people behind me.

Hands wave, empty spaces on the sofa are patted. This truly is a bar where everyone knows your name.

None mine though. I'm not part of the gang.

A group of people are all being introduced to each other as they queue at the bar.

"Are you here to see someone?"

"Yes, Charlotte!"

"Charlotteeee!"

"Oh, this is Erin's mum."

"Hello!"

The chatter grows in volume as everyone tries to work out their connections to one another. It's like a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation. Except no one here needs more than two rounds.

Young people reel off their resumes to the parents of their friends, while the grown-ups talk about their brilliant kids while staring into their drinks in order to hide their proud smiles.

If you haven't already guessed, this is one of those drama school gigs. I'm branching out from the RADA and LAMDA diptych. I'm in Rose Bruford country now.

And, it turns out, Rose Bruford family country.

You don't get that at RADA, I can tell you.

I find an empty bit of wall to lean against and try to avoid getting swapped by a reunion.

I've already written up my last theatre trip so I'm left starting at the signage in lieu of something to do. To be fair, it's impressive signage.

"Lost?" it asks, with what I can only imagine is the same sympathetic tones of the box office lady when she handed me my single loner ticket. That smug question is followed up by a floor by floor breakdown of everything in the building. Want to know where the reading room is? This sign will tell you. The kitchen? Yup, it's got that one covered too.

Music studio. Art studio. Design studio.

This place has a lot of studios.

And a courtyard.

A courtyard? Now that's exciting. I do like a courtyard.

Basement level.

I mean, I could go. I have time.

There are windows in the stairwell, overlooking a grim little patio with a corrugated metal roof.

But there's also a plant and a table and I'm still fairly upbeat about the while courtyard thing.

There's another sign at the bottom if the stairs, and yet another when I turn left.

Hoxton Hall doesn't stint on the signage.

Except, I'm not sure where I'm meant to go now. The sign says right, but all that's right is the art studio and the loos. After that, nothing but brick wall. Unless this is some Platform 9 3/4 situation, I think I've gone wrong somewhere.

Unless it's through the art studio? It should be somewhere to the left of me. I have a peek through the art studio door, only to come face to face with someone coming the other way.

Not wanting to explain what I'm doing attempting to break into an art studio, I noe out of the whole situation and go back upstairs, my courtyard dreams dashed.

The house still isn't open and the bar is rammed. But my wall spot is still going spare, so I reclaim it.

"Sorry!" calls the man behind the bar over the sound of a hundred parental hearts popping with pride. "Hello, hello! Can I have your attention?

"Anyone who's been given a brochure, or one of these, " he says, flapping about a free drinks voucher between his fingers. "Will be admitted first."

No one moves. We aren't the lucky few. No free drinks vouchers here.

Talk resumes.

"Do you come to these things often?"

"Oh, I see everything. Ever since my daughter joined."

Her smile is so broad I can see all her back teeth. She is absolutely busting with pride.

The man behind the bar tries again. "Anyone been given a brochure or one of these?" he asks, giving the pink voucher another wave. "Now's the time. Anyone else?"

Nope. No one else.

I get out my programme. Always a bonus of these drama school shows, the free programme.

I try to remember which show I booked for.

It's Life, Apparently. Apparently.

A new musical created by two of the cast members.

This is either going to be brilliant, or excruciating.

I'm putting money on the later. For no other reason than the presence of that comma: Life, Apparently.

I don't think I can trust a title with a comma in it.

Although, I'm trying hard to think of other titles with commas in it, and I'm coming up short. There's Girl, Interrupted of course. But that comma was integral to the flow of the title. An interruption, if one will.

I can't think of any others.

It could be worse, I suppose. It could be an exclamation mark: Life! Apparently. That really would spell the end of days.

From my spot on the wall, I seem to have found myself in the queue to get in. A queue that is now moving.

"The toilets are an even worse stare than yesterday, if you can believe it," tuts a woman as she joins the queue after me.

I think I must be the only one who hasn't seen this show before. Who hasn't even been to this theatre before? I hope there isn't a test. Unless, there was a test and I've already failed it. They're probably all giggling about the woman who couldn't even find the courtyard back in the bar.

"That's not a ticket, that's just your address, " an usher says gently to the person in front of me.

I breath a sigh of relief. I'm clearly not the only one failing at tonight.

They retreat back from the queue as they attempt to find their ticket, and now it's my turn.

"The seats are unreserved except for the two back rows," says the ticket checker, checking my ticket.

There must have been a lot of people with free drinks vouchers because there is not a lot of room left.

I scan the stalls, looking for spare seats.

"Don't go too far," said a bloke as his companion rising a few inches from her seat. "We don't want to lose these spots."

Another guy is hovering at the end of his row, also clearly concerned about seat pillaging. He sees me eyeing up the empty seats further in.

"Do you want the three seats in the middle?" he asks.

I'm not sure I'll need all three sears, but I accept the offer anyway, and he steps out into the aisle so that I can get through.

"Hang on," says the woman he's with. "Let me get out too." She too inches her way out into the aisle.

Route cleared, I squeeze myself in. It really us a squeeze. The seats knock my knees as I shuffle my way in, and there's no room to turn around when I do get in. I have to kneel on my chosen seat, just to find the wriggle room to get my jacket off.

The chairs, thin and delicate, belonging more in a dining room than a theatre, and pressed in right next to each other.

"There's someone very tall this side, can we go that way," says someone in the row behind as the seat negotiations begin.

"Yeah, I can't see a thing."

"Granny can't see a thing!"

It doesn't look like there's anything to see quite yet. The high stage is empty except for a smattering of instruments tucked up amongst the ladders that seem to be serving as our set.

"If you want to report back that the chairs at not comfortable," says a woman in the row in front.

The reporter nods sagely. He will be having words.

I have to agree with them the chairs are not comfortable.

It's a good thing I'm got these three seats to myself. If I turn my body just so, I might be able to stretch my legs out a bit.

"Excuse me, are you expecting anyone?" asks a young man, indicating the spare seats. I have to admit that I am not, and we are soon all crammed in close to one another. Close enough that I can smell the vile coffee breath of the man sitting on my left, and hear the wet chew as he applies his teeth to his nails. Close enough that I can feel every time the man on my right attempts to shift his muscles as the ache sets in.

I look longingly at the two empty balconies surrounding the hall. Oh, to be sitting up there, looking down on the poor creatures below.

The show starts. The cast come on, performing stange unnatural arm movements that should be left in the artier end of contemporary choreography scale.

I try to sink into my seat, but I'm stuck.

I should have known that a drama school musical was a bad idea.

But the echoed arm movements still, and the music takes over and we are flung into the New York of the eighties, into the AIDS crisis, and the activist group ACT UP. And, you know, it's good. Like, really good. Yes, it's really bizarre how these supposed Americans are talking about waistcoats and swearing with two fingers, but there is a character called Maxine and she's blonde and cool and wears the hell out of red lipstick and within minutes I'm positive that I will die for her.

Unfortunately, it might come to that.

All around there is a creaking of old wood as everyone attempts to relieve the agony of sitting still too long, but there is nowhere to go. Not an inch of free space to move into.

Pain shoots up the back of my legs, but I am cemented in place, my arms traped to my sides, my legs cooped in by the seat in front.

I can't even hear the music anymore. All I can think of is escape. Counting down the minutes of an unknown run time. How long have I been sat here? An hour? Two? I can't tell. Time is an illusion. All I know is pain.

As the last notes fade, the audience leaps to their feet, but I can't move. My knees have fused solid.

I curl my shoulders around and try to stretch out my back, but I have to wait until my row neighbours have vacated their seats before I am able to test out my legs.

They're still working. Just about. A bit wobbly, a bit stiff, but we'll survive.

The corridor is clogged with people all raving about how good everyone was, how excellent the show was.

I push my way through, unable to wait for the way to clear. I have to get outside.

I stumble out of the sliding doors and almost fall onto the pavement.

The sun is still shining. I'm surprised. I thought I might have been in there for an eternity. I thought the world would have burnt itself out by now.

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Agitfop

It’s Saturday morning and I’m scrolling up and down the events page for the Platform Theatre. The theatre belongs to UAL, and today it’s the last day in their MA Directors’ Showcase run. There are four plays on offer. One of which is Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts. I should really book it. Even after last night’s cry-athon at Curious Case, I’m still in the mood for big snotty tears, and this play sounds like the one most likely to deliver. it’s also not on until 7.30pm, which means I get to spend at least the next six hours in my pyjamas, which I think we can all agree is the best way to spend a Saturday. Jumpers is the right choice. The sensible choice. The only choice, really.

I scroll back down, chewing on my lip, because here’s the thing. I never claimed to be sensible.

And there’s a play down here called The Fop Reformed, which I know nothing about except it has the word fop in the title, and I am totally into fops. If it weren’t for the tragedy of being born in the wrong time, and to the wrong gender, and, quite possibly, the wrong class, I like to think that I would have been in a fop. Or more specifically: a Macaroni, as it’s the fashion, rather than the foolishness, that I envy so much. The queued hair, the velvet coats, the satin britches. I was born to live that foppish-life. Honestly, the universe should be ashamed of itself for making me alive in this dismal time, lacking so badly in powdered wigs and lace cravats.

I book it before I have the chance to reconsider, and quickly run towards the shower. It starts at 1.30pm and I need to get all the way to King’s Cross.

There isn’t much time to pick an outfit, but in a concession to my foppish forbearers, I dig out my antique quizzing glass necklace and wind the long chain around my neck. There. With my floaty black dress this is very almost a look.

The Platform Theatre turns out to be in that fancy new part of King’s Cross. Or, at least, on a road that feels as if it’s kind of behind the fancy new part of King’s Cross. It is completely deserted back here. No shops. No bars. No people. I wander down this desolated street feeling like I’ve just wandered into a 28 Days Later re-enactment.

A window sign points me in the right direction, but as I reach it, I have to double check because this place doesn’t look like a theatre. It doesn’t look like much of anything. The great big windows that face the street are tinted dark, and inside I can just about make out a few tables and chairs, and beyond them, a great void of nothing.

In the entrance foyers there are twin a-frames displaying what has to be the most bleak set of messages I’ve ever seen in a place purporting to be a bar. “The prosecco party is over. Try our sparkling wines instead,” reads one, while the other kindly informs me that the place closes at 10.30pm on a Friday night. I know everyone jokes that Generation Z are all sober and in bed by 9pm, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so disheartened by a pair of blackboards in my life.

Thankfully, that seems to be it in the way of signage. I can only guess that the large counter on the other side of this bleak bar is the box office.

Someone else is there. He’s buying a ticket. Looks like I’m in the right place after all.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering why I always say this as if it were a question.

“Oh, sorry,” says the woman behind the counter. “I’m just shadowing today. I’m new.” She indicates the man by her side. The box officer she is shadowing, I presume.

I wait, and when the ticket buyer moves on, I side-step into his spot.

“Smiles?” I say, spelling it out, just to make it extra clear.

He peers at his laptop, and a second later the ticket machine by his side splutters out a ticket.

Well, that’s something. They may have a vendetta against joy, signage, and atmosphere. But you can still get a freshly printed ticket at the box office.

That done, I wander towards the only bit of colour in the room - a small display of headshots and production posters for the plays (and film) that form the showcase.

There’s a little table below the display. With programmes. Fuck yeah. I’d forgotten this was a thing at uni productions. Free programmes. I fucking love a free programme.

I grab one and settle into one of the low purple sofas in the corners.

“Have you seen these,” says a young woman, flapping around a programme to show her friend. “They are gorgeous. They never used to be. Just look at it!”

I take her and look at it.

It isn’t bad.

Nice double page spread for each show, and a full page biography for each director. My director, by which I mean the young lad directly The Fop Reformed, seems to be a big fan of the 18th century. I think we’d get along marvellously. Or end up stabbing each other in an argument over an enamelled snuff box.

“The house is now open!” comes a deep voice from the entrance of the theatre.

No one moves.

If anything, the small gathering sinks even further into their seats.

I busy myself, slipping my programme into my bag.

When I look up, everyone has gone. They’ve formed themselves into a queue. Beeps follow them as they get their tickets scanned.

There’s lots of chatter and “how are yous?” as the queue progresses. No doubt they’ve all been in a Rattigan production together at some point.

I try to look like I belong, but the whole business of being at least ten years older than this lot and wearing a quizzing glass around my neck isn’t really helping my cause.

I make it through the scanner without my presence being questioned. Not out loud, anyway. And I head through the doors.

The Platform is a black box theatre. It looks like the seating is changeable. It’s only chairs, and not even the fixed kind, but there is a rake, which is always good. There are also programmes set out on the seats. That’s some quality audience-care right there. I mean, okay. They want to make sure that all the producers and casting directors whatnot in the in audience know who’s involved, but still. I haven’t see that at LAMDA or RADA.

There’s lots of “I haven’t seen you in a while,” “what projects are you working on at the moment?” “it’s all go-go-go round my way,” type chatter as people find their oldest-friends-that-they-can’t-quiet-remember-the-name-of on the way to their seats.

I put myself in the third row, towards the side. I don’t want to take a prime spot from somehow who actually has some potential work on offer.

There’s classical music playing from the speakers. I recognise it, but can’t identify it, much to my shame. It sounds Baroque though, so I’m very happy. Even if it is being played on a loop.

I’d been worried that this might be a modern dress production. All Ancien Régime Parisian manners without the outfits to match, but no. We’re safe. It’s all there. Emerald coloured suits, heeled shoes rosettes on the toes, stomachers, satin, and side hoops. And for the next hour I’m in utter fop-heaven as our fop-hero wields his foppish-umbrella like a sword, flicks his foppish-hair around, wers the hell out of his velvet suit, and absolutely, positively, refuses to do anything as gauche as admit he has feelings for his fiancé.

Well, that is until his lady love and clever lady’s maid sorts him out.

Fucking fop-tastic.

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Xxx

Oh, LAMDA. I'll be sad to see you go. But part we must because I only have one of your theatres left and then it's goodbye forever... or at least, until next year.

Last up is the Linbury Studio. No, not that Linbury Studio. I was confused about that as well, but apparently, this city is big enough for two of them. Of course, there's the one you're thinking of. The one that lives underneath the Royal Opera House, terrorising the ballet girls with mask-wearing antics, and then there's the other one. At LAMDA. Where I am currently off to for a performance of Pomona.

Now, I've seen Pomona before, back when it was at The Shed (requiescat in pace). No, I didn't catch the original run at the Orange Tree. This was back in those happy days when I thought Richmond was way too far away to travel to just to see a play. I don't remember much about the play, other it being very dark, very complex, and being good enough to send me to Alistair McDowall's follow-up play at the Royal Court: X (the playtext of which still features as my absolute favourite of all time, but the ten or so pages in the middle that are filled with nothing but the letter X. Yes, it was performed. And yes, it was astonishing). And oh, it featured Cthulhu in some way that I really can't recall but there was some definite tentacle action going on.

Anyway, back off to Barons Court I go. I'm an old hand at this now. I'm not getting lost. I even know that the Linbury has a separate entrance to the other LAMDA theatres. Has its own little foyer and box office too. Well, I say box office. But it's really just a bar with a laptop. But, eh. It does the job.

I grab a free programme, and as soon as the house opens, head inside.

The Linbury is a bit of a strange shape for a theatre. Long and thin, with only two rows of chairs running up each side. The rows closest to us are already beginning to fill up, but there doesn't seem to be a way of getting to the other side without crossing the stage.

A small group of us dither, unsure of what to do. The beginning of a small pile up is beginning to form. The queue clogging up behind us. Where is the usher to shout at us for stepping on the stage? Apparently, that's not against the rules. Some brave soul decides to strike out, weaving their way through the huge concrete blocks that make up the ruinous set, leading us like Moses through the parted Red Sea, to the promised seats on the other side.

The front row has those shortened benches so beloved of drama schools. I ignore these. I don't want to be one of these people that say "people over thirty shouldn't..." but seriously, people over thirty shouldn't sit with their arses only two inches off the ground. It's murder on the knees. I leave that nonsense to the students. And there are plenty of those in tonight.

"Oh my god!" says a young girl pointing at the platform at the far end of the stage. "It's Chloe!" She waves. Chloe does not wave back. She sits, cross-legged, staring into the distance. Wearing a Cthulhu mask. The tentacles hanging down the front of her pretty white dress like one of the more outré Coachella outfits.

It's only then I notice that the stage is full of actors, slumped against the concrete blocks, lost in their own thoughts and agonies.

It certainly makes taking my photos a lot harder. What are the rules of taking pictures of students? I'm not a big fan of even capturing the professionals when they're on stage, and do my best to avoid them, angling the camera elsewhere as best I can, but sometimes there's no avoiding it, and well... I need photos, so there we are. But with students, it feels downright wrong.

Someone in my row gets out his phone, opens the camera app and aims it at Cthulu, zooming in so that she fills the entire screen.

Right then. That answers that question. Clearly the moral quandaries that I struggle with aren't universal.

Nor, apparently, is feeling the need to cross a stage. As our side of the theatre began to fill up, I notice that the newcomers hadn't come through the same door I had. They are coming through quite another door. A door that's on the same side of the stage as the one I'm sitting in.

Fuck's sake.

Bloody students, with their knowledge about where the doors are, and their youth, and their talent. Err, I'd hate them if they weren't so damn great. Look at how supportive they are, coming out to see their friends' plays on a Thursday night. I don't know about you, but I never go anywhere for anyone on a Thursday night. Or any night for that matter. At the moment I'm blaming it on the marathon - sorry love, can't go to your party, I'm theatre-ing until 2020 - but let's be real: I'm just a terrible, terrible friend. The warmth in this room is melting my heart and I don't like it.

Thankfully the play starts before I get any gooier, and we're thrust into a world of stolen people, hard underworlds, and RPGs. And oh, Pomona was so clearly written half a decade ago - riding high on the tsunami of dystopian fiction that threatened to engulf us in a thousand Hunger Games rip-offs, but that doesn't stop it being bloody excellent. I'd remembered the big reveal from the first time around, but I'd forgotten about the time loops, and how all the sub-plots fitted so neatly together, and, well... just how damn good the writing was. Dystopian story-lines may have had their day, but good writing never dates.

As the lights blink out and the cast come out for their applause, the front row leap to their feet in a standing ovation for their friends.

And why shouldn't they? If you can't rely on the people you love to cheerlead for you... what's the damn point of them. Be like LAMDA students. Give your peeps the standing ovations they deserve. For putting up with your nonsense, if nothing else.

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Feet of Klee

We've known each other a while now. I would say that we've grown pretty close over the last three months or so, wouldn't you? I've admitted some pretty shameful stuff to you, and you've... well, you've read it. I think we've built up a relationship of sorts. One based on mutual respect and affection. A bond of trust has formed between the two of us.

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RADA me than you

Not sure I have a lot to say about this one. I’ve been to RADA before after all and don’t really fancy repeating myself. So let’s do ourselves a favour and keep this one short.

Monday night and I’m back at the RADA building on Malet Street. I was off to the see some new writing at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, which was all rather exciting. The play was Gig. I did have some concerns about the appropriateness of asking a pile of graduating drama students to play the roles of newly graduated, out of work actors, but hey - they’re keeping it real, I suppose. Living their art. Or at least, their future. I mean potential future. And a very small potential at that. They’re all talented kids. They’ll do just fine, I’m sure.

On this marathon of mine, the most frequent question I get asked is “what’s been your favourite so far?” to which I can honestly answer - the drama schools. I’m hit up but RADA and LAMDA so far (with a few more trips to both still to go) and they have all been absolutely fantastic.

I mean, yes - the queues at box office are so slow moving I do wonder whether the staff are busy making sandwiches under the desk which they are looking for our tickets. And yes - I do frequently get lost in these places despite the fact that they really are doing the absolute most when it comes to signage.

But seriously, those kids.

I really shouldn’t call them kids.

They are all grown-ups, graduating from some of the most prestigious acting schools in the world.

But man… those kids.

I love generation z, I really do. It’s less, the children are our future, let them lead the way. But more, the future’s only hope is the children, and then are going to smash it. We just better be prepared to get out the way.

Even with this half-awed, half-terrified view of the youth of today, I don’t think I could ever love them more than when watching RADA and LAMDA graduation shows.

So talented. So enthusiastic. So damn earnest.

They really are the greatest generation.

Anyway, where was I?

Right, RADA.

“Which show is this for?” asks the lady on box office when I eventually make it to the front of the queue.

Err, that question again. I don’t know. I never know.

“Anyone here for The Philosophy Shop,” asks a front of houser. We all shake our heads. “That’s it,” he says, in his radio before wandering off.

“Woman and Scarecrow?” suggests the lady on box office.

No, it wasn’t that one either.

We finally land on Gig as being the play I’m seeing that night.

It was a full house at RADA. All the theatres pumping out performances at full steam as they process their graduating class.

Ticket acquired, I wondered off into the main foyer. Some sort of event was happening there, as there was a table with wine and nibbles, surrounded by important looking people.

At the other end, there was queue composed of decidedly less important looking people.

I join the queue.

A few minutes later, the doors open and we start shuffling in.

“Oh, umm,” said the ticket checker as I reach the front of the queue. “Gig, sorry, no.” He pointed away from the queue. “Can you wait there?”

I do as I’m told. Waiting there as the queue disappeared and then a new queue formed in its place.

Was I supposed to join it? In the end I decide that I should, and as I walk down to the end I creep on the tickets of those waiting. “Gig.”

Good. I was in the right queue.

Doors open and I make my way past the ticket checker.

This time he lets me pass.

Up the stairs. Ticket torn. And in I go.

In a first, not just for the marathon, but for life, I’m in a theatre with multiple levels and unreserved seating. I’d never thought such a thing possible. But there RADA is, breaking down boundaries once more.

I plump for the stalls. Well… you would. Wouldn’t you?

The Jerwood Vanbrugh is a funny space. At first glance it looks like a scaled down Royal Opera House. I mean, it doesn’t have two-and-a-half tonnes worth of red velvet curtains, and is lacking a bit in the gilt department, but the shape is the same. The seating is arranged in a horseshoe shape. But instead of having stalls seating in the gap, they have an extended stage-space. Like a thrust stage, I suppose. But softer. With all the hard edges sloughed off.

RADA (or should I say, designer James Cotterill) made full use of this extra space by sticking an entire living room in the extra space, while the more traditional stage area took up the role of kitchen (with an extra surprise lurking behind a screen just above it).

Very nice.

Even nicer, there was a programme seller right there on the stage. An improvement on my last visit to RADA when there wasn’t one to be found anywhere except when I was leaving, and even there I had to hang around like a friggin numpty for minutes on end before I was able to snatch her attention away from the person she was chatting shop with.

And even nicer still, by 9.15pm I was out of there and on my way home, so I had time to get a few hours on my other gig (err, this blog) before crashing face first into my pillow.

Right, how long was that?

940 words.

Crap.

So much for a short post.

Oh well. What can I say? I write a lot of words. I’m sorry.

Best sign off before I think up any more of them.

Oh wait… if you’re wondering what my second most asked marathon-question is, it’s “what has been the worst so far?” My peeps love them some drama. My answer has been static at Thriller Live at the Lyric for a long arse time now. But I think I may have a new winner. Yes, I’m still salty about the whole thing.

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Damn lies and run times

Ah, Southgate. I used to live there, many years ago. And work there, come to think of it. Back when I first moved to London to do my post-grad degree.

But despite going full ham on Southgate, I never made it up to the Chickenshed Theatre.

Probably because this was well down before I started working in theatre. Before I even started watching theatre. That’s how far back we’re talking here. A fresh-faced twenty-one year old, embarking on an MSc, with no time for things like art, or culture, or... Christ, what did I do back then? I seem to recall crying in the university library a lot…

Anyway, the Chickenshed.

My one and only encounter with the place actually happened last week, when a bunch of teenagers tried to blag a free bus ride by telling the driver that they were Chickenshed students and… nope. That was their sole reason. The driver waved them on. Mainly because it was nearly 11 o’clock at night and he probably didn’t want the murder of five teenage girls on his conscious. That, and they were Chickenshed students.

Good for him, I say.

As I walked down memory lane, or as it appears on the maps: Chase Side, I couldn’t help but stop to peer into half-forgotten shops along my way. Oh, look - there was the bank where some bloke tried to ask me out and got mad when I couldn’t remember his name. And over there, the supermarket where a guy followed me down all the aisles only to tell me I had nice shoes.

It was almost a relief when the street extended beyond the reach of shops and I was plunged into a dark road bordered either side by even darker games pitches. Remembering things is exhausting.

Eventually, even the darkness grew tired and I emerged blinking into the bright lights of the Chickenshed car park.

A very busy Chickenshed car park.

Children swarmed everywhere.

“Did you get the part?” asked one parent, slinging their child’s satchel up over their shoulder.

“Yes, but not the main part.”

I waited for them to clear so that I could grab a shot of the front of the building without risking any child protection laws.

Inside was another matter altogether. They were everywhere. Tables full of them as they sat eating their post-class suppers. I lurked to one side, editing my Time and Leisure blog post, and trying not to feeling like the creeper in the room, writing about an 18+ show while surrounded by the under eights.

"Would you like a programme?" came a voice from just behind my elbow. I jumped, hiding my phone and hoping very hard that the owner of the voice hadn't seen my extended description of excited moaning.

"Absolutely," I said, tucking my phone away in my pocket. "I clearly have the look about me of someone who is in need of a programme. And I totally am. Good spot. I love me a programme." I was speaking way too fast.

The programme seller looked at me nervously. "It's my last one," she said, holding it out so that I could see there was only one. "I've been asking everyone..."

"Oh..." I handed over the two pounds fifty and slunk away.

The house had opened, but there didn't appear to be any moves made from either parents or children towards the doors.

"Are you going to see the show?"

"The one tonight? Nah."

"What about you?"

"Nu-uh."

That was worrying. A room packed with theatre kids and not one of them wanted to see the show that evening. What else is the purpose of a 7pm start if not to make it accessible to those with bed-time before in still single digits?

I went over to the blue door, as directed by my ticket. No left or right at the Chickenshed. It's all red or blue over here.

One person on the door the check tickets, another inside to point you in the direction of your seat. The staffing was enough to serve the 300 seater auditorium. It's a pity that there wasn't an audience to match.

I looked around. The first four rows of the theatre were fairly few, but as soon as I turned around, nothing but banks of empty seats rose up behind me.

And not a single child.

Had a really risked both panic and heart attacks getting across London to be there before 7 o'clock, only to spend the evening with a bunch of grownups? Apparently so.

Still, it was a short show. 90 minutes, no interval. The bestest words you can ever hear in a theatre.

With a 20 minute walk back to Southgate station and a 30-minute bus home, I might make it back in time more my own single digit bedtime.

The massive stage, way bigger than any 300-seater theatre should have a right to, was flooded with performers. It was as if the director was inspired by those clown car clips from old TV shows. More and more people squeezed themselves on to dance, sing and tell us about their depression, in wave after wave of scenes.

90 minutes later, the stage emptied and the house lights rose.

No one clapped.

No curtain call.

"Is that the interval?" someone asked.

Interval? The theatre gods wouldn't do that to me. Would they?

Turns out they would, because: yes, it was the interval. The programme had lied to me. The show wasn't 90 minutes.

Like the ever-growing cast, more and more minutes were added.

When we were finally released, it was past nine o'clock. All hopes of being in bed before ten dashed.

I settled on napping on the bus instead.

It was empty.

All the Chickenshed students had left hours ago.

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Staging an intervention

“… is this an intervention?”

I thought it best to ask. I’d never had one before and I’d expected there to be more passive-aggressive daubing of the eyes with Kleenex.

The reply from Helen came quickly: “Max, you’re loved and valued…”

So it was an intervention then.

If the handkerchiefs were out, they weren’t coming through over the digital messaging system.

I took a grubby tissue out of my pocket and blew my nose before typing my reply. Just to show willing.

“The ‘me’ in my blog is just an exaggerated version of me,” I explained. “Not actual me.”

This is true.

Sort of true.

Everything I write in my blog is real. We don’t do fiction here at the London Theatre Marathon. If I started allowing myself to make things up, even small things, it wouldn’t take me long to embrace the click-bait and go full hog on a SEO-friendly spiral of lies.

There would probably also be listicles.

“How I learnt to embrace sitting in the front row”

“10 ways theatre improves your relationships”

“The cats of London theatre, ranked by snobbishness. You’ll be shocked by who’s at number 3!”

Wait, hang on. That’s a really good idea, actually…

Err, where was I? Right, lying.

I don’t do it. Everything you read has happened. I really did almost faint at the Sam Wanamaker. If I say I turned up to a show a month early, well - I am exactly as stupid as that makes me sound. Any dialogue that you encounter here is as close to an accurate transcription as what my memory can manage.

And I really do have anxiety.

Unfortunately. 

But while I may have put out more than 60,000 words since starting this blog, it might surprise you to find out that I’m fairly selective in what I chose to write about.

“Selective? Max, you spent half a blog post telling us how you turned up to one of your chemistry A-levels drunk the other day,” I hear you moan.

Yeah, and didn’t you enjoy that? Look, I could have done this marathon without ever starting this blog. A few photos and a two line review for Instagram would have served just as well. But, hey - I’m a writer. Of sorts. So that’s what I do. I write. And if I’m writing, I may as well attempt to be entertaining. Which means picking out the most interesting parts of my outings and making a pretty post out of them. Parts which very often touch on my anxiety as they are the cause of so much of my embarrassing fumbling.

And does it not work? Are you not entertained?

My name is Maximus Scaena Riseum, Runner of the London Theatre Marathon, General of the legion of theatre ghosts, loyal servant of the Theatre Gods.

Ah, yes. The theatre ghosts. What started as a silly story soon turned into a running joke and then...

“I’m not going to kill myself by jumping into an orchestra pit,” I messaged, just to be clear.

“I’m not worried about a dramatic suicide so much as wearing yourself out to a point where you are ill and miserable,” rejoined Ellen. “You know you best tho obviously,” she added, ever the diplomat.

Glad we’d got that sorted.

For the time being.

“I can’t believe I’m delivering Crosstown doughnuts while wearing a Greggs t-shirt,” I said, as I turned up at Helen’s flat that evening with Crosstown doughnuts and wearing a Greggs t-shirt.

I was at LAMDA that night, and a trip to Hammersmith is an excuse to buy doughnuts and visit Helen.

We had important matters to discuss.

Like my burgeoning writer-crush on David Ireland.

“He’s got a new play opening in Belfast,” Helen told me setting down a big mug of tea in front of me. She’d just spent the past five minutes dropping a load of intellectual chat about intertextuality and the use of language in Cyprus Avenue on me, which is the type of quality chat I’m after with my doughnuts.

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Damn and blasted

After venturing to LAMDA on Friday night, I was off to RADA on Saturday. Comparison wasn't my intention, but hitting up two major drama schools back-to-back, within a single weekend does rather beg for it.

And if there was a race between the two mighty institutions, it was RADA who got their running spikes on first - sending out a booking confirmation email that detailed the entrances to use for each of their venues, followed up a few days later by a reminder email packed full of access information, content warnings, bus routes, tubes stops with step-free access, and basically everything else a visitor could possibly need.

There was even a rehearsal shot featuring all the actors looking relaxed and happy - which was, if anything, an anti-trigger warning considering the play they were rehearsing was Sarah Kane's Blasted. 

"See?" their sweet, smiling faces seemed to say. "It's all fine. We're fine. You'll be fine."

I wasn't so easily taken it.

Still, that didn't stop RADA from trying to hold my hand. Metaphorically, of course.

Everywhere I looked were signs giving detailed instructions on where to go. Not just arrows vaguely pointing the way, but step-by-step instructions. Turn here, go past one staircase, take another staircase, right, than left.

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They really didn't want strangers wandering around and getting lost in their warren of a building.

I can't blame them.

Knowing my predilection for getting lost. they'd have probably found me, three years later, dazed, confused, clutching a diploma and muttering about the Stanislavski technique if it weren't for their signage.

So it was rather a relief to make it to the GBS Theatre and discover that I had indeed taken the right staircase (which is to say: not the main one, but the next one) and wouldn't have to make a life for myself in the RADA basements after all.

There were plenty of ushers down there. No doubt for when they inevitably needed to send out a search party to track down any missing audience members. Two on the door. One inside. Another busy making up the bed that composed the sole piece of stage furniture. I watched as he plumped a pillow case, rearranged the cushions, smoothed down the sheets and tucked everything in neatly. He made a much better effort than I can ever manage of a morning.

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But what the front of house team had in numbers, they lacked in programmes. There wasn't a single one to be had.

Ah. I had neglected to buy one while upstairs because the one person I'd spotted selling them had been busy talking to someone who sounded very important.

I looked back at the door, debating whether I dare risk the return journey up the stairs to get one, but I decided against it. While yesterday I may have been all for becoming a theatre ghost, starting a second career as the Phantom of the RADA hadn't been exacting what I was going for.

Programmes would have to wait.

I had a seat to select.

At LAMDA, I'd noticed that the bench seats varied in height so that the floor didn't need to. Here at RADA, they did have a raised dais for the seats to sit on, but still found the need to utilise the same multi-height trick. I'm beginning to think this must be a drama school thing, because I haven't seen it in action anywhere else. 

The first row of seats had legs as short and stubby as those of a Corgi. While four rows back we had their Great Dane cousins.

I made the Goldilocks choice of the third row (what would that be? The Labrador row?). Not very adventurous of me, but I've always been the sort to keep both feet on the ground.

And I have say, I got through the play easily enough. 

Perhaps it was those cherubic rehearsal shots sent out in advance, or the anxiety-reduction of the intensely detailed signage, but I made it through to the other side of Blasted with only a minimal amount of trauma.

Feeling pretty pleased with this personal success story of mine, I found my way back upstairs and went in search of a programme.

The programme seller was busy. Talking to someone who sounded even more important than the very important person of earlier on.

I waited, checking my emails.

He was still talking about his next project.

I moved closer, put on my best I-would-like-to-buy-a-programme-please face and waited a bit more.

Nothing. Not even a nod of acknowledgement from the programme seller.

The very important theatre person wasn't running out of steam. He was still talking about his project.

Would it be rude to cut him short? And if so, is it more or less rude than monopolising the time of someone at work?

Fuck it.

"Sorry to interrupt," I said, interrupting. "Can I just... quickly buy a programme?"

It turned out I could and that they were a pound.

I decided not to comment on how they are free at LAMDA. But, like, they are totally free at LAMDA.

I left them then. The programme seller and the important person. I wonder if they are still there. Talking about his project. With a line of people queuing up behind him. Unnoticed, unseen, and without a programme to occupy their time.

As for me. I had plans.

I was going to head home, bash out a blog post, squirrel under my duvet, and snooze.

I managed the first two.

And got half way through the third.

But then I started thinking about Blasted.

And those sweet faces from the rehearsal room, screwed up and tortured on the stage.  

And I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

Getting ready to meet the theatre gods

Wouldn't it be hilarious if I died on this marathon? Calm down, there's no need to panic. I have no intention of not seeing out this thing to the bitter end, but it would be quite funny, wouldn't it?

I don't mean getting hit by a car or anything so mundane. It would have to be a marathon related death. Tripping down some steps on my way to my seat perhaps. Or being murdered by a disgruntled duty manager. All excellent ways to go.

Death by theatre.

It certainly has a ring to it.

And if I did die in pursuit of this marathon, I could come back as a theatre ghost. And hang out with all the other theatre ghosts. They wouldn't be able to ignore me then. Not when I was one of them.

Anyway, all this is my way of saying that I have a cold.

A really bad cold.   

Scratchy of throat and runny of nose, I headed of to Barons Court, to see what the shiny talented folk of LAMDA were up to.

That was, if I could find the theatre.

LAMDA has three (as far as I'm aware) and neither their website nor their confirmation email contained any instructions on how to get to any one of them.

I was fairly certain I was on the right street though.

I paused, digging out a cough sweet out of my bag as I squinted through the darkness, trying to make out the buildings.

A car chose that moment to splash past, sending a wave of ditch water from the side of the road in my direction.

I tried to jump away, but it managed to catch me mid leap, coating my leg from my knee down.

Scratchy throat, runny nose, I then had a wet leg to add to my list of ills.

Things are going super well for me right now, as I'm sure you can tell.

It did help focus the mind though somehow, or perhaps merely the eyes, as I spotted a long, modern building up ahead.

It was LAMDA! There was even a brightly lit foyer, with a queue at the box office and a sign reading: The Linbury Studio. 

Oh.

That wasn't the one I was after.

I carried on.

Past the main door.

Past the entrance to the Sainsbury Theatre.

On and on until the lights dimmed and I was left on a dark patch of road surrounded by construction hoarding.

It seemed I had run out of building.

Where on earth was the damn Carne Studio then? 

I turned around and headed back. It had to be there somewhere. 

I've joked that theatres are making up venues just to torment me, but I didn't think they were actually doing it.

 

Until then.

I looked back over my shoulder, just in case I had missed it, and stepped right into a puddle.

Great. A wet boot to match my wet legs.

This was not the theatre-death I was after.

There was nothing for it, I would have to ask.

I squelched my back to the Linbury and asked an purple lanyarded usher who was tearing tickets. I hoped that she didn't notice the wet footprints I'd left in my wake.

She frowned, but whether at my question or my dirtying of the nice clean floor, I couldn't tell. "Hmm. I'm not sure the best way. I don't want to send you I'm the wrong direction. Hang on... Excuse me," she said, holding the door open with one foot as she leant out to flag down a nearby gentleman wearing a matching lanyard. "Where is the Carne?"

He sprung to attention. "Ah, it's very close - just head back outside, walk down the building and the foyer is right there."

I was fairly certain I had already walked down the building and the foyer had very much not been right there.

Seeing the panic in my eyes, he led me back out and pointed down the street. The very street I had just walked. Twice.

"Oh," I said, still unsure. "I've been all the way down, but didn't see it."

He looked surprised. 

"I did see the Sainsbury though," I added hurriedly, as if to prove both to myself and to him that I wasn't utterly unobservant.

He smiled, his face clearing. "That's the same foyer."

"Ah." 

That made sense. I guess.

"Start time is at 7.45," he added.

It was 7.25.

"Plenty of time."

"Oh yes, plenty of time," he agreed in one of those smooth, highly cultivated voices.

It's only when you meet a properly trained actor with a properly trained voice that you realise how scratchy and messy your own bleating attempts at communication are.

I popped another cough sweet in my mouth and set out.

Back through the dark. Back towards the Sainsbury.

"Am I the right place for the Carne?" I asked the lady at box office. Somehow I still doubted it. There weren't any signs.

She frowned at me. I was starting to get used to that look.

Was I pronouncing it wrong or something? That would explain the looks.

Or maybe it really was all just some super elaborate joke on the part of LAMDA.

A performance piece in its own right. I wasn’t there for as Schiller play. There would be no Don Carlos. Instead I would be taking part in The Search for the Carne Studio. An immersive promenade performance in one act.

I hate immersive performances. Especially the promenade ones.

I looked down. There, fanned across the counter were a series of sheets - featuring the fresh-faced headshots of the cast and their biographical information. One for each actor in the play.

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"Yes, you're in the right place," said the box officer at last, before asking my name and handing me a ticket.

Right then. I'd made it. Time to relax.

I found a table. And a programme. They have them out on display with a request to take one. "FREE," they proclaim from their covers. "Take one." I took one. 

"The bar has closed," came the sound of a plaintive voice behind me. "Why has the bar closed so early?" 

It was only 7.30. A full fifteen minutes before curtain up.

With the bar closed, we all gathered around the door to the studio.

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I began to suspect that might have been the cause of the closed-bar. The people of LAMDA were ganging up on us, with the express purpose of ensuring that we weren't late.

By the time the doors were ready to open, there was quite the queue waiting to be let in.

But for once there wasn't a rush for the front row. If anything, my fellow audience members were actively avoiding it.

It didn't take me long to figure out why.

The floor in the Carne Studio is totally level. No rake. No dais. 

Instead, it was the seats themselves that varied in height. With each row increasingly taller than the one in front of it, so that those who did chose to sit in the front row had a choice - half sprawl across the floor so that they looked like an awkward tourist in a harem, or crouch with knees up by their ears in the style of a squatting frog.

Neither appealed to me. 

I went for the second row. A reasonable height for my short legs.

Such important decisions made and seat committed to, I had the chance to take in my surroundings.

We were in a church. Or at least, that's what I took the set design to mean - with huge stone doors on either side and a large altar in the middle. The two sets of bench seating positioned either side of the aisle-like stage only added to the ecclesiastical vibes.

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As did the dense, smoke-filled air.

I unwrapped another cough sweet. The thought of coughing during a graduation show was nauseating. Which was then another worrying ailment I had to contend with.

I vowed to eat a fruit at some point this week. For the vitamins.

Thankfully, coughing didn't turn out to be a problem as I was too busy risking asphyxiation by holding my breath every time there was a fight scene. 

And there were a lot of fight scenes. Bodies flying all over the place. Blood pouring. Heads smashing against chairs.

Brilliant.

Who knew Don Carlos was so exciting?

Anyway, I'm going to have a little lie down now. Don't cry too hard if I don't wake up. I'm in a better place - hanging out with the Nudger, above the dome at the Royal Opera House - watching ballerinas chaîné into eternity.

 Good byeeeeee