Behind the Pink Elephant

I have two thoughts as I make my way down to the Blue Elephant Theatre. Firstly, that it was a lot further south than I had anticipated. A lot further south. I thought it was close to Elephant & Castle tube, but I passed that ten minutes back and I’m still going. The other is that it after all this walking, it better bloody be blue. I’m willing to accept that my fantasies of it being shaped like an actual elephant may not come to pass, but a lack of blueness is will be unbearable.

“Watch it,” shouts a cyclist as he screams past me on the pavement.

Fucking hell. The cyclists of south London are intense. Only been here half an hour and that’s the third one who seems intent on murdering me.

I pick my way across the road carefully, checking both ways at least three times.

South London be dangerous, y’all.

Can’t even stroll down a pavement without… wait. Where am I?

The shops and bustling high street have fallen away behind me. I’m alone. Standing in what looks to be very residential area. Is there really a theatre here?

I check my phone. According to the theatre’s website, it should be just around this corner - opposite the large block of flats.

I turn the corner, feeling more than a little doubtful about the whole thing. Not being in the shape of an elephant was one thing. Not existing at all was quite another. I’d go as far as to say that I’d be quite upset if, after walking all the way from Islington, the Blue Elephant turned out to be, well, a pink elephant.

Thankfully, it’s not a drunken hallucination, because there it is, and… while not completely blue, there are definitely some blue elements. Doors and shutters and the swinging sign are all painted a very lickable shade of azure blue. And even better, the sign has the model of an elephant in it.

A family walk past, the little girl bouncing along in a Disney-print onesie.

“The theatre’s open today!" she shouts, excitedly pointing towards the building.

Her mum doesn’t seem impressed. They are running late. There is no time for possibly-non-existent theatres.

I’m running late too. I should go pick up my ticket.

It’s even bluer inside. Doors in that tasty azure shade are everywhere, surrounded by a more tasteful navy blue.

A (blue) sign points the way to the box office. Left, and up the stairs.

Not that I can go up them. There’s a couple of young ladies picking up ticket, and the three of us are taking up what little room there is on the few steps that separate the entrance from the landing that is serving as the box office.

They have one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall windows, but the space looks so small that the person serving is hanging out in the doorway, leaning into the office and the landing and back again, without moving his feet, as he processes the two woman.

By the sounds of it, they’re getting free tickets. Some sort of initiative for locals. Which I would be totally in favour of if it were not for the fact that my local theatre doesn’t seem to do these things.

Oh well.

Finally, it’s my turn.

“The surname is Smiles,” I say.

“Smiles! I remember the name ‘Smiles’,” he says, beaming. I laugh. I’m used to the reaction my name gets, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it every time it happens.

His finger runs down the list. “Ah, Max. Of course.”

Of course.

He hands me an admission pass. Laminated and a bit worn looking, but it’s large, and blue, and most importantly, it has an elephant on it.

“And your programme,” he says, handing me what is very clearly a freesheet. “The bar is upstairs.”

Up the stairs I find more blue doors. These ones with stickers of elephants on them. A pink elephant on the left. And a blue elephant on the left. The blue elephant has a moustache and a bowtie. The pink elephant has a flower tucked behind its ear. A presume this display gender-normative elephant-accessories is meant to indicate loos lurking on the other side of the doors.

I decide not to investigate further.

More stairs. And there’s the bar. It a nice room. Packed full of little tables covered in mismatched table-clothes. There’s a table over by the far side, and low stools around the perimeter. It’s saved from looking cramped by the high vaulted ceiling. The angled beams are painted deep navy blue.

And there are elephants. They’re hiding all over the place. One behind the bar. Another hanging from one of the beams.

I’m in serious danger of finding myself playing a game of hunt-the-elephant, so I go to sit down, picking a table covering in a sparkly tablecloth. I’m in that kind of mood.

The bar begins to fill up.

Everyone seems to know everyone else. I begin to wonder if I’m the only person here who actually bought her way in.

A woman walks over to the table behind me. “We’re starting a little bit late,” she says to them. “There are still, like, seven people not here. I don’t know who they are, but they’re on the list.”

Yeah, that’s the problem with free tickets. It’s very easy not to turn up when you’ve got one. It takes a financial commitment not to succumb to the lure of Netflix.

It’s well past eight now. I’m starting to get a little worried about the length of my journey home.

“Welcome to the Blue Elephant for the first night of Justice, taking place in the theatre downstairs,” says a woman, who has clearly also got home-time on the brain and wants to get this show rolling. She runs through a serious of warning: haze, depictions of sexual violence. “And, errr, one thing I’ve forgotten.” She pauses, trying to remember the last thing on the list.

“Nah,” calls out someone else. “That’s about it.” She turns to everyone else in the bar. “Sorry if there was something else.”

Everyone whoops and staggers to their feet. Ah. Not locals then. But mates of the cast. I’m sure of it. No one is that enthusiastic about theatre unless they know someone involved. Not even when the tickets are free.

But they are not making for the stairs. They have one more thing to get sorted before they go into the auditorium.

As one, they head towards the bar.

Definitely friends of the cast.

Back down the stairs. Past the pink vs blue loos. Past the boxy corner office. Past the entrance. And on to the theatre.

“Amazing,” says the guy from the box office, who is now on ticket checking duty. He takes my admission pass and I go in.

There’s a single bank of seating. Raked. The stage is at floor level. It’s covered in chairs. Both lined up down the sides in a way that sets my teeth on edge (actors sitting on the side of the stage in scenes that are not their own is a trope that went from being pretentious to hackneyed decades ago), but also piled up on the floor, and hanging from the rig. And there, along the back wall, is a tower of broken chairs, with looks like it has more than a passing nod towards the Iron Throne.

We’re not in Westeros anymore, Dumbo.

I ignore the chairs. I’m much more interested in the cushions.

Small. Fluffy. And lined up on the benches.

It looks like I’m in for a comfy evening.

Or a very uncomfy one. Depending on what they are covering up.

I squeeze myself down to the end of a row, so that I can lean against the metal bars on the end.

Now that I’ve sat down I can see that the rake isn’t all that great, and I am super pleased that no one is sitting directly in front of me.

As soon as I have that thought, the theatre gods intervene. The guy from the box office comes in. He looks around for a spare seat before deciding to ease himself down the full length of a row, and sit directly in front of me.

Now, I’m sure he had his reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years of theatre going, in my 120+ theatre trips this year alone, in thousands of shows, seen a front of houser sit anywhere that didn’t have easy access to the aisle.

And usually the one closest to the exit.

You know, to facilitate matters in the event of an evacuation, or, I don’t know, help an audience-member if they need help finding the pink loos.

He hoikes his elbow onto the back of the bench, and settles in.

I just pray there isn’t a fire.

The play is about knife crime. Or possibly the outrage of stop-and-search. Inequality in education. The ineffectiveness of the police. Class, maybe. Race, definitely.

The company is young. Very young. And they are trying super hard.

It’s rather sweet.

And wow, I’m super patronising.

Oh well. I’m sure they’ll go far as long as they ignore the bitter old trolls, like me.

At the curtain call, one of the cast members steps forward. They are raising money for Steel Warriors, a charity that melts down knives and builds playgrounds. They are asking for any spare change to be dropped in buckets as we leave.

Another cast member steps forward. “I’m supposed to talk about Wooden Arrow now,” he says, referring to their plays producers and looking very embarrassed about it.

Half the audience explode into laughter. No doubt the half that make up Wooden Arrow.

He goes through a short spiel, and looks very relieved when he reaches the end of it.

It time to go.

It’s still light outside. And warm. The perfect evening. Which I will spend trapped underground as I take the long journey home.

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Demon Theatre of Fleet Street

I thought I was well past the point where I was able to shock my coworkers with my theatre-going, but the expression on their faces as I wrap my scarf around my neck and breezily say that I'm just popping out to watch a play tells me that I've hit a new low.

Turns out, slipping into an empty seat at the back to catch the matinee in your own theatre is one thing, but running down to Bridewell Theatre in order to squeeze a short play into your lunch break is quite another.

Oh well. Doesn't matter. I'm already halfway down Farringdon Street and too out of breath to worry about my rapidly deteriorating reputation in the office.

I haven't been to the Bridwell Theatre before, but I've seen the signs for it, so I'm not entirely surprised when I step out of the smog of grey suits on Fleet Street and into a quiet little side-street that looks like it's pitching itself as a location for this Christmas' glossy Dicken's adaptation.

Two ladies chat outside the front door to the theatre, but apart from that, it's entirely deserted.

I'm guessing lunch-time theatre can't really compete with M&S sandwiches in the life of a city worker.

I'm up for it though. A 45-minute play in the middle of the day sounds great. It's just a pity that this place is too far from my work for me to ever justify coming here outside of my marathon. Best make the most of it.

Huh. This place is not nearly as exciting looking inside. After a brief interlude involving floor to ceiling tiling, those old Victorian stones have given way to white walls and grotty floors.

But no matter. There's a good old fashioned hole-in-the-wall box office. It even has a circular speaker thing set into the glass. The metal surround is inscribed with the directive to: SPEAK HERE. I do, giving my surname, and I'm handed a small entrance token in exchange.

They are small. And laminated. There's a picture of a sandwich on the front (cucumber on wholemeal) and a poorly hyphenated set of terms and conditions on the back. I'm disappointed. Somehow I had got into my head that the Bridewell was connected to the printing industry, but I couldn't imagine any proper printer producing this sort of nonsense.

To be fair, that connection may exist nowhere outside of my own fuzzy memories, and no be based on anything even approaching reality. In which case, the tokens are just fine. And cucumber sandwiches are totally ace. But like... not on brown bread. Don't be gross, people. No one wants that shit in their lives. It should be white bread or nothing when it comes to cucumbers. And plenty of butter. The good stuff. Yeo Valley, or Kelly Gold if you must.

"The house will open at five to one," says the man behind the window. "We'll ring a bell."

That's only a couple of minutes away. I better start exploring.

I follow the signs down to the bar.

Oh, blimey. That's not what I expected. There I was, traipsing down the white-walled staircase, never knowing that the basement bar was lurking underneath like the Phantom's lair. Bare brick walls. Metal beams holding up curved arches. And there, squatting between the tables like an old man waiting for someone to buy him a pint is, oh my god, is that a printing press?

I fucking love a printing press. I’m always trying to drop hints to our printers that they should invite me around for a tour, but they are doing the absolute mostest to change the conversation to one of paper stock, or types of fold, which I suppose is also good.

I go over to have a proper look at it.

I suppose it could be a printing press. If what you're printing is shirts and by press you mean, wash out the dirt. They're washing machines. I'm in an old laundry.

Oh.

I'm beginning to think I really did imagine the whole printing thing. Which is worrying.

Still, it is nice down here. I do like old machines, even if their purpose is to remove ink rather than print it. I like that you can see how they work. This wheel turns, that cog rotates, then this plate lowers, yadda, yadda, yadda, and your socks are clean!

It's surprisingly busy down here. All the tables are full.

I'm trying to work out how many of these people are here for a sneaky pint during their lunch hour. But none of these people look like the type to work around here.

There's less in the way of suits than I would expect. And far more anoraks than is reasonable.

I feel like I've somehow stumbled group in their pre-meet for a walking tour of the Lake District, rather than a bunch of city workers taking a short rest-bite from their heady day propping up capitalism.

There's a rustle of Goretex as they all stumble to their feet and make towards the door.

They must have heard something I didn't because the queue to get into the theatre is starting and if I don't hurry up and join it, I'm going to be stuck right at the back.

Back up the stairs, through the door by the box office, and via a small foyer taken up by some rather fetching blue curtains, and we're into the theatre.

It's a standard black box, with raked seating, and a rather fantastical lighting rig - meal bars jutting off at all sorts of wonderful angles. Each side of the space is lined with slim metal columns, the type you'd find on an old factory floor. I rather like it.

It takes a while for everyone to settle.

There are considerably more people here than I could ever have expected. Lunchtime theatre is clearly a thing, and I feel like I've been missing out. Someone needs to tell all the pub-theatres in Islington, because I want to get in on this action.

After five months in marathon-mode, even 90-minutes-no-interval is starting to feel like a chore. With a standard 7.30pm start, you're still not getting out before 9pm. And then there's the journey home, and by the time you've got your coat off, put the kettle on, and shoved all the clothes off of your duvet, accomplishing the coveted In-Bed-By-Ten prize is a bit of a challenge. If you ask me (and I'm sure you are), 45 minutes is the perfect length for a play.

I didn't know anything about this one, but with such a short run time, there wouldn't be much room to go wrong.

Even so, Stanley Grimshaw Has Left The Building manages to pack it in: family tensions, false allegations of violence, missed messages, Elvis impersonations, and not one - but two - twists, before the clock runs out. There's even a reverse of the man-sends-his-inconvenient-female-relative-to-the-madhouse trope, which was very pleasing.

I would credit those involved, but there wasn't a freesheet to be found. Which if the Bridewell really did have a connection to the printing industry would be really fucking embarrassing for them.

Now, I have to know - where did I get that idea from?

As I hurry up Farringdon Street on my way back to work, I quickly Google it.

"Housed in a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian building, St Bride Foundation was originally set up to serve the burgeoning print and publishing trade of nearby Fleet Street, and is now finding a new contemporary audience of designers, printmakers and typographers who come to enjoy a regular programme of design events and workshops."

They even have a library dedicated to printing and its associated arts.

Oh, Bridewell Theatre. Dedicated to the print trade and you can't even put together a freesheet. For shame. For shame!

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Wheely need a change

I’m feeling a bit down at the moment. A trifle low. A touch, if I dare say it, sad.

I hate admitting it. Not because I’m ashamed or anything like that. It’s the reactions I get to these statements that keep me quiet. I don’t know how it is for you, but when I tell people that things are a bit sucky in Maxine-land, they either brush it off with a series of dismissive noises, or they take the exact opposite approach, going into hyper alert, as if I’m about to off myself right then and there in front of them. When what I really want is for them to pat me on the head, agree that everyone is terrible, and tell me that it’s all going to be okay, because they are going to beat up everyone who has ever wronged me.

Okay, I hear it. You’re right. That’s not the way to handle things.

I can beat up my own damn people.

In the meantime, as it is mental health awareness week, I’m going to admit to you that the marathon is really getting to me at the moment.

It’s the relentlessness of the whole thing.

It just goes on and on and on.

For nearly five months, I’ve been going to the theatre almost every night. And then filling in every free moment in between shows with writing about them. Thousands of words. Hundreds of thousands of words. Three whole novels’ worth of words. I’m not even kidding. No wonder at least half of them are misspelt.

And, you know, it’s a bit lonely.

I don’t mean the going to the theatre part. Because I’m very often not alone. And, as someone pushing the limits on how far one can sit on the introvert scale, going to the theatre by myself never bothered me anyway. It’s the loneliness of the marathon itself. The fact that I am entirely on my own in this enterprise. The lovely people that accompany me on my trips don’t have to spend the evening desperately trying to recall fragments of conversations, or their intervals making notes on their phones. They don’t have to give up their lunchbreaks to writing blog posts. And their weekends to emailing PR companies. They don’t live within the confines of a spreadsheet.

I sometimes think about it akin to being jetted off on a solo mission to Mars. Thousands of people will be involved in the enterprise, but in the end, when it comes right down to it, no matter who is on the other end of the shuttle’s radio, they’re up there, all by themselves. But at least that lonesome soul goes in the knowledge that they have a place in the history books set aside from them. Somehow I don’t think they’ll be a ticker-tape parade waiting for me at the end of this year.

Anyway, all this maudlin moping is just a build up to saying that I was after something different. Something I hadn’t seen before. Something to shake me out of my funk.

So, I’m going to the circus.

Well, I’m actually going to Shoreditch Town Hall. But I’ll be watching circus. The new Barely Methodical show: SHIFT. I’m pretty stoked.

I even bought my ticket. With money.

Mainly because I just couldn’t face dealing with a press person long enough to ask for comps, but still.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love press people. I love especially theatre press people. They do a job that I in no way ever want to have to do (again). But putting in ticket requests requires being nice. And I’m in no mood to be nice right now. Wait. No. I don’t mean that. I am nice. Most of the time. I suppose what I mean is: positive. Asking for tickets requires a certain level of bouncy cheer and enthusiasm that I am not capable of at this moment in time. I’m too busy embracing my inner Eeyore to use the required amount of exclamation marks in an email.

Still, even after I’d made the decision to lay down my debit card in the pursuit of another check mark in my marathon spreadsheet, it didn’t mean I wasn’t in full money-saving mode.

And as I analysed the seating plan for tonight’s performance, I realise that the cheapest seats are all gone. Greyed out. Not there.

Dammit.

I click through a few more dates until I see them. There. Thursday night has some. Up in the balcony. Well, that was no good. I’d already made plans for Thursday. Oh well. Second price down it was then. I picked my seat and bought the ticket and then…

Shit.

I hadn’t clicked back to Tuesday. My ticket was for Thursday.

As soon as the confirmation email landed in my inbox, I forwarded it onto Shoreditch Town Hall with an abject apology and a begging request for them to exchange it.

Nine minutes later, it was done. Ticket exchanged. Followed by a friendly command to enjoy the show.

Ah. Now that’s the stuff.

While I respect press people, it’s admin staff that I really admire. They are the real heroes in theatre. The ones who turn chaos into order, dreams into reality, and an outing into an experience. I would lay down my cloak on the wet ground before them if they hadn’t already organised for building services to sort out that dangerous looking puddle outside the front door.

I could almost forgive them for having e-tickets.

Not that this stopped me from heading right over to the small podium positioned just inside the very fancy foyer of the town hall to absolutely double check that printed tickets were not a thing that would be happening in my life tonight.

They’re not. But I take it with relative good grace, and do not in any way express contempt for the future of this planet we call home.

They do have freesheets though.

There’s a stake of them on the counter. I take one and go off to explore.

As former town halls go, Shoreditch must be on the more sophisticated end of the scale.

Where Battersea Arts Centre is all collages and finger paintings and a bee strewn mosaic floor, Shoreditch has oversized faerie-lights and light up screens in place of posters and a more geometric approach to tiled flooring. They even have a ladies powder room, which I took to be the loos until I saw that they did actually have loos. Accessed through an entirely different entrance. The door to the powder door was blocked off, so in lieu of being able to ascertain its actual purpose, I’m going to imagine a line of vanity tables inside, complete with soft pink lighting and deeply padded chairs, where ladies touch up their makeup with fluffy puff-balls and leave a trail of lipstick-marks in their wake.

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Bollocks to the Planet

I’m on my second trip to The Pleasance, and I’m on a mission.

You‘d think that after 118 theatre trips since the beginning of the year, I’d have any preciousness knocked out of me, but you’d be well wrong. There are some things I will never get used to not having: tickets and freesheets.

What can I say? I love paper.

Okay, not paper specifically (although, I do love paper. As anyone who has seen my desk at work would know. If you ever want to keep my occupied for a few hours, just drop my in a stationary shop and I’ll be quite content until you come back to drag me away).

I just love have something tangible to take away from an ephemeral experience. Something that I can place carefully in a box, store for years, and then on a sad, wet, Sunday afternoon, open the box, sit on the floor, and take them all out to relive every blissfully painful memory that they conjure up.

Mostly these come in the form of tickets, programmes, and freesheets, but sometimes I get a real score from my trips.

I have a couple of balls from the ball pit in Teh Internet Is Serious Business that accidently fell into my handbag (the fact that I left my bag sitting wide open in the front row is neither here nor there). I have the paper flower I made from the title page of my script in Hamlet (An Experience) (which I’m fairly certain I wasn’t meant to take home with me). I have the West End Company sweatshirt from my days working at Shrek: The Musical (not sure I’m actually meant to have this either). A playing card from Alice’s Adventures Underground. An empty crisp packet from Fatty Fat Fat. A single sequin from Wolfie. Heart-vision glasses from L’elisir d'amore (another thing I wasn’t supposed to take home). Badges from Come From Away and Cursed Child. And probably lots of other stuff that I can’t remember right now.

I’m a hoarder. And Marie Kondo is not welcome in my home.

I just love stuff.

Especially theatre stuff.

On my first trip to this Islington venue, I was offended, outraged, and incensed when I saw other audience members flashing their paper-tickets, with braggadocios swagger, to the ticket checker, while I had the indignity of being beeped through the doors by barcode.

This time, I’m not having it. I’m going to get my hands on a damn ticket.

I time my arrival perfectly.

They have two shows starting at 7.30pm. Mine isn’t until 7.45.

I push my way through the doors at 7.31pm. The first two shows should have cleared by now, meaning I will have plenty of time to plead my case at box office.

Oh. Okay. There’s a bit of a queue. No problem.

When I’d booked to see a show in the StageSpace I’d figured that it was a tiny venue. From my endless browsing of The Pleasance’s website, it looked as if they programmed comedy and whatnot there. Things that don’t require a lot of, well, stage space, and usually have limited seating to match. So when a marathon-qualifying show came up, on a Monday no less, I leapt on it quick-smart. By which I mean I logged it in my spreadsheet and promptly forgot about it until this morning and realised I should probably buy that ticket.

Alas, too late to have it sent to me. But no matter. I was here. I was in the queue. I was going to get that ticket. Or cry trying.

There are signs on the counter saying that the QR code in our confirmation emails will serve as a ticket. I purposely look away from them.

It’s my turn.

I give my name.

“Do you have a confirmation email?” asks the guy on box office.

“Umm,” I say, to fill space as I get out my phone. It’s all a performance. I know damn well that I have a confirmation email.

He clicks away on his computer as I scroll through my email.

“Yes,” I admit, finally giving in.

“You can use the QR code to get in,” he says. “You don’t need a ticket.”

“But I like tickets,” I say, my voice turning into a whine. “I hate QR codes.” You can’t lovingly store a QR code. You can’t alphabetize a QR code. You can’t pet and stroke and touch a QR code.

“We’re saving the planet,” he counters.

“Bollocks to the planet,” I say.

I don’t mean that. Not really. I recycle, when I remember. I don’t own a car, or a cat. I buy vintage clothes. I walk.

But fuck it. Can’t a girl get a ticket?

It’s not like they don’t have them. They can’t plead planet-saving when other people are walking around with the damn things. What does a girl have to do to get her paper-loving hands on one?

The box officer gives me a strained smile. It’s no use. I’ve lost the battle.

I retreat to a spare corner to lick my paper-cuts and feel sorry for myself.

And then I see it. A big yellow machine tucked in next to the box office. A man comes up, sticks his card in, and then a streamer of tickets flies out into his hand.

It’s a ticket machine.

They have a fucking ticket machine. Spurting out tickets. To anyone who wants one.

I look at the box officer. I would have to walk right past him to get to it.

Do I dare?

I waver.

I really want a ticket.

I really don’t want him to see me.

I wimp out.

Of course I do.

I’m a coward.

A useless, ticketless, coward.

The crowds clear. Turns out the house opened late for one of the other shows.

There’s only a few of us left now.

A family try to head up the stairs. A ticket checker glances at their (paper) tickets. “Oh,” he says. “This one hasn’t opened yet. Two or three minutes,” he says, sending them away.

The older lady in the group stays on the stairs.

Her daughter tries to call her down with the promise of a drink, but the older lady shakes her head. She wants to stay. Make sure she’s first in the queue to get in.

“Mum,” says the daughter with a sigh. “You’re not going to miss it. There are like… six people here.”

But the older lady isn’t having it. She begins her slow creep back up the stairs.

Two or three minutes later, the ticket checker returns, and the six people traipse up the stairs towards the StageSpace.

I bring up my confirmation email and get present it for scanning, feeling like a failure.

I go in.

The StageSpace is pretty small. And dark. And kinda looks like a barn. Except smaller and darker.

It has those wooden vaulted beams that you see in fancy barn conversions.

And underneath, standing at the back of the stage, all hulking shoulder and blazing eyed, is... well, I don’t know who that is. I don’t have a freesheet to refer to.

As the show starts, he lumbers forward.

“Hello,” he says.

One person in the front row chances a “hello” back.

He grins. “Thank you,” he says. “Let’s try that again. Hello!”

I sink in my seat, I hate audience participation.

A second character comes out. Her hair is black. Her dress is too. She’s wearing a black velvet clock. I want to bury by face into it. And then snatch it off, before running all the way home. Wearing it.

She poses with a tea light, the tiny flickering light casting shadows across her face. She unfolds herself gently as she readies herself to tell her tale. What to do with the tea light though? She shoves it in the direction of an audience member, who duly relieves her of it.

She begins. Her story is a woeful one. And we are lucky to hear it.

The hulking fellow in the badly fitting suit turns out to be Podrick, and he will be assisting in the telling, playing all the characters in this tale of tragic beginning and eventual triumph. A journey that starts with a baby called Blanche, and ends with our heroine, the great Hertha Greenvail.

“Why do you wear black?” asks Podrick, in the guise of a homeless man the great Hertha meets on the street. He asks it as if the answer wasn’t perfectly obvious. “Is it that you’re frightened people will reject you like your mother did, and so you push them away before they get the chance?”

What the…?

Get out.

Right now. Out. Further out. All the way out. Keep going.

Nope. Not having it.

You’re wrong. So completely wrong, you wouldn’t even be able to fathom just how wrong you are.

Firstly: no. Secondly: how dare you. And thirdly: … look. You’re just wrong.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering to argue this. That’s how wrong you are.

I don’t push people away. I’m not insecure. I don’t fear rejection. It’s not like I’m some kind of useless… ticketless… cow- arghhh.

Hertha comes back on stage.

She’s not Hertha Greenvail. She’s Mia Borthwick. The writer. They’re taking the show up to Edinburgh and…

Oh god. I know this speech.

On cue, Podrick (still don’t know his name) capers out from behind the curtain at the back of the stage with an orange carrier bag from Sainsbury’s.

“Please give us you money,” he says, lumbering up to stairs and plonking himself in the back row, carrier bag open and read to receive funds.

I apologise to him on my way out.

“No, no, no, don’t worry,” he says, so sweetly that I’m immediately plunged into a hole of guilt.

Unfortunately the hole isn’t quite deep enough for me to turn out my purse into his carrier bag, but it’s def there. For sure.

Perhaps The Pleasance could donate the few pennies that they saved by not printing my ticket to them.

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So Pissed that I've already used "You’re in a cult; call your dad" as a Title

"If you don't understand it then I sure as hell don't understand it."

That's Helen after I try to explain the mystery that is Theatro Technis to her.

It's not often that I'm left stumped by a theatre, and I have never been as stumped by a theatre as I am by Teatro Technis.

It started early. Right from the moment I first go on the Theatro's website, I'm inflicted with the huge image of a Greek mask, rendered in black and white, and staring out of my screen. I quickly scroll down. That's far too terrifying an image for my innocent eyes. I only went there to find out what shows they had, not test my bladder control.

Further down there's some text about the theatre. Always helpful. "Independent theatre in Camden," it says. Nice. I like it. To the point. Helpful even.

I carry on, greedy for more intel about this new-to-me theatre. "'Teatro' speaks for itself," it starts. I'm not so sure about that, but let's press on. "'Technis' is an ancient Greek word. It come from a time when people made no distinction between art, work and craft. People didn't make theatre for money, they had to live, yes -but the work itself was rewarded enough. It was important then to have passion for what you were doing and to believe that your work benefited others too. That is Theatro Technis."

Right. Well, ignoring the typos, which I swear to god are not mine, that's a whole lot of words adding up to not a lot.

I decide not to dwell on it and keep scrolling. And keep scrolling. God damn. Does this theatre have any shows, or does it just specialise in the production of grammatically suspect manifestos?

I'm beginning to think there must be more to it. With every "Learn More" link leading me to ever more obtusely written pages, and no sign of a show to book, I am growing ever more suspicious. A number of conspiracy theories peek out from behind the Greek masks. "Perhaps it's a front," one of them suggests. "Who could ever suspect a small fringe venue as a location for shady drug deals?" The second one shakes her head. "Nope," she says. "You just can't translate Theatro. It's actually a corruption of the word thearchy, meaning ruled by the gods." She looks very smug about this theory. "It's a cult," she adds, just to make sure we all got it. The third one doesn't look impressed. "It's a hipster cafe," he says. "Tro is short for trophy. They only serve award-winning teas. Tea-tro. Get it? The Technis just means they won't kick you out for using plugging into your charger to the wall-socket."

Well, that's enough of them. I always find it pays not to listen to the voices in your head.

Moving on.

I eventually found a show and booked myself in. Despite all their best efforts to put me off, I was going. I have a marathon to complete and no amount of menacing mask images are going to put me off.

Besides, I had my own, slightly more mundane, conspiracy theory. That the website was part of the experience. Like when Punchdrunk has a new show. It sets the mood. Provides an atmosphere. Gets you in the right frame of mind for your visit. And if a certain queasiness in the stomach area was what they wanted to provoke in their audiences, well... they have certainly achieved that with me.

So, off I went, negotiating the crowds in Camden until I found myself on a quiet road, with a tall townhouse marked Teatro Technis half way down it. It's an interesting looking building. There's some sort of religious statue action going on over the front door. And the black wall down the side makes me think it used to have a neighbour that has since been disposed of.

There's also a sign. "THEATRE ENTRANCE," it says, in all caps, with an arrow pointing metal railing, behind which there is a wide alleyway with a door at the end of it.

Well, okay then. We weren't going through the statue-guarded front door. Down the creepy alleyway it is, then.

Inside, there's a small table, which I can only presume is the box office. But it's empty of both people and paper. Not the box office then. On the opposite end, there's a bar.

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

I'm taken aback. I mean, yes, I have an interesting surname. But my first name isn't usually ready to go at the front of strangers' memories.

I soon find out the reason for this immediate recognition. There's a print-out of the online bookers. There's me, at the bottom, being ticked off as I watch. Above me, there's only one other name. Two advance bookers. Oh dear.

Forget the masks and the alleyway. That's my worst fear: being in an audience with only one other person. Or even worse. Just me.

Thankfully, we are not there. Not quite yet. There are a few people more hanging out in this foyer.

I look around, trying to work this place out.

The door to the theatre is to the right of the bar. There's a door to the loos on the left.

Which begs the question - where's the townhouse? I'll admit, my geography isn't that great. But even I can't be this badly turned around. The saintly townhouse should be on the left as well, but unless those are some exceedingly luxuriously proportioned toilets, it can't be. Which means the two buildings are separate. Which in turn means... well, I don't know.

A couple push their way through the loo doors. They're each holding a glass of wine.

My pet conspiracy theorists each shrug. This is a mystery too big even for them.

The house opens. It's time to go in.

The room is large. And old. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two blocked off fireplaces behind the main bank of seats. It looks like an old village schoolroom, although given the statue on the main building, I presume it must be church related in origin.

I find a spot in the second row.

There aren't two of us watching the show. Or even four.

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

Light from the corridor floods in, as does the sound of glasses and chatter from the bar. By the sounds of it, there are more people out there than in here.

A woman sitting in my row stands up and tries to wave to the person in the tech booth, set high in the wall, but there's not much the tech person can do.

A latecomer arrives. The woman waves and points frantically at the door. He doesn't understand. He ducks his head and hurries into a seat.

The woman looks around, clearly ready to storm across the stage and close the door herself. But she is blocked in on either side. She sits down again and we spend the next few minutes listening to the talk over at the bar while the actors hold some kind of meditation circle.

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

I shift uncomfortably in my chair. My pet conspiracy theorists are nodding knowingly. It was all a test. A series of challenges designed to ensure that only the most dedicated would come here. The cryptic website with its unnerving masks. The impossible floorplan. And now this play. It was like those people hawking personality tests outside the Scientology Centre on Tottenham Court Road. "Come, watch a play. Perhaps you might discover something about yourself."

The thing that I was fast discovering about myself is that I wanted to get out of there. Right now.

I try and concentrate on the play. The cult on stage is falling apart but the one in the audience is growing ever stronger.

More people come in. A large group. Halfway through the play and suddenly the audience has doubled in numbers.

I look over. They're all young and shiny-faced, glowing with some inner contentment.

The perfect example of a cult member.

I can't look for long. The lighting cues are all over the place. One part of the room is illuminated for a scene, then another joins in to greet the arrival of more actors to the same scene. Too often we're plunged into darkness, left alone to stare unseeing at an empty stage. I am convinced they are trying to break my will.

When the play ends, my instinct is to make a burst for the exit. But I hold back, waiting for the young people to gather their things and leave.

Eventually, the path is clear and I get up, walking straight towards the exit, pushing them open without a backwards glance.

I don't turn back. Not until I'm safely in Mornington Crescent tube station. I jump onto the first train to arrive, not caring what branch it's travelling on. I just want to get as far away as possible.

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Dance to the Music of Time

Going to see a show at a venue that you used to work for is like going back to your old school to pick up your exam results. You're kinda excited about the possibilities, but that's buried deep under a mountain of fear, trepidation, and the deep conviction that you never wanted to see any of these people ever again, and you've somehow managed to forget all their names over the past three weeks.

I'm not saying that's how I felt walking to Canada Water Culture Space, but I'm also not not saying it.

Thankfully, a lot of time has passed since my time here, and everyone I knew has now moved on. But that didn't stop them popping into my head to say hello as the ship-shaped building appeared around the corner. So intense was that feeling of their presence, I could swear that I could hear them squawking in the distance. I decide to go check, crossing over the small terrace outside the building towards the water of Canda Water. I look down over the railing. Yup. There they are, tossing their heads and doing their very best to pretend that they had never seen me before and we definitely didn't spend our lunchtimes together on the reg. Ducking bastards.

Well, two can play at that game. I leave them to their ducking rude behaviour and go inside.

Everything is just as I remember it. The cafe on one side. The bar on the other. The bright orange walls, and the spiralling staircase. There's the doors which will take you up to the offices. And on the right are the ones that lead to the auditorium. Go further in and you will find bookshelves. Because CWCS just a theatre. It's also a library. Or rather, it's a library and a theatre. I'd say the ration between library and theatre is probably 85:15. So really, it more library than theatre. A library with a theatre attached, if you will.

Even so, there's the disconcerting shift. Where everything is the same enough to be recognisable, but just different enough to confuse and make me question things.

Like, where the hell is the box office?

I'd expected there to be someone with a laptop and a box of admission passes on the end of the bar. But there's nothing at the end of the bar apart from bar.

I'm not the only one looking around.

"I don't know, mate," says a bloke. He looks at his phone. "Ground floor it says."

A woman arrives. She's involved with the show. I can tell she's involved with the show because she spends the next five minutes loudly saying hello to people she recognises.

"I'm just going to pick up my ticket. I'll be right back," she declares with a regal wave of the hand before disappearing off towards the library half of the foyer.

Ah. I can see where she's going. There's a small desk set up over there, dwarfed and in the shadow of the library's one. What do we call that? The lending desk? The circulation desk? The desk you take the books to? Well, that one.

Stuck to the front of the small desk is a small sign. Box Office it says. I'm in the right place.

CWCS has gone up in the world since my day.

A real box office. Amazing. There are even freesheets piled up on the corner, just waiting to be picked up.

When I get to the front of the queue I give my name.

Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition.

"Here you go," says the girl on box office, handing me an admission token as if I were just some regular punter coming to see a show.

My fantasies that there might be some plaque dedicated to all my hard work somewhere in the halls of the building upstairs, perhaps something tasteful next to the kettle in the kitchen, are dashed.

"Thanks," I say, and move away to lick my wounds in peace.

I turn over the admission pass in my hands. These things have improved too. Gone are the laminated logos of four years ago. Printed on the photocopier and cut out by hand. They're now heavy plastic cards. Gold heavy plastic cards.

I put it in my pocket and turn my attention to the freesheet. It follows the standard formula. One I use myself when making these things: title and company name, then intro, then credits, then supporters. Simple, effective, and nothing out of the ordinary, except for the largest arts council logo I have ever seen in my life. They must have been extremely grateful for that funding.

This gets folded and put in my pocket too.

There's a long queue at the bar.

I want to recommend the matcha lattes. Matcha lattes were my drink of choice when I worked here. Me and the other girl in the office would go up onto the roof on sunny afternoons to drink the obscenely green froth and watch the reflection of the clouds pass across the high glass towers. Now that I think of it, I'm not entirely sure we were allowed to be on the roof, matcha lattes or no. But hey, it was a while back, and I'm sure the statute of limitations on roof-matcha drinking has now passed.

I try looking back through my old photos to find of the view, but all I have turn up is one of a duck on the roof. I don't plan on apologising though. You're getting a picture of a duck on a roof.

Oh dear. I seem to have spent a little too long on anecdote island. People are going in.

I follow them.

CWCS is a strange venue. And not just because it's inside a library. There are two banks of seating, but they are not on opposite sides of the stage as you might expect, but angled either side of an aisle, so that they hug the diamond-shaped stage like the setting of a ring.

I don't remember where the best seats are anymore, so I pick a spot near the aisle on the third row. It looks as good as any other.

To seats are slow to fill up. The queue at the bar is clearly in still in full force.

But there's loud music playing and the mood is high. Bonnie Tyler tends to have that effect on people, and I Need a Hero is an absolute banger of a tune.

Even the front of houser on door duty is getting in the mood, mouthing along to the lyrics.

"We went around twice and couldn't find it," laughs someone sitting behind me. "I was like, is it in the library...?"

Yeah, this place really needs better signage out there.

Still, plenty of people have managed to find it. The house looks full. Which is definitely different to how it was in my day. Though to be fair, it was all folk-music and flamenco back then. Nothing like the show on tonight, which from the looks of the freesheet features a spoken word artist and "two acrobatic dancers." Sounds good, although I'm not entirely sure what acrobatic dancers are. There aren't any biogs to draw clues from, but judging from the twitter handle of one of them, she's a b-girl. I guess that explains it. Breakin is fairly fucking acrobatic.

The spoken word artist comes out. He's Adam Kammerling and he's doing a show about masculinity and violence. He introduces the two dancers: Si Rawlinson, who was drafted in at the last minute, and the b-girl, Emma Houston, who trained in contemporary dance. Then he points to the tech desk. Rachel will be doing the lighting, and playing the role of his mother. I look over. Oh my god! It's Rachel Finney! I know her! Well, I mean. Know in the sense that we worked in the same place for a while. Aww. That's nice.

Introductions done, Adam invites the audience to heckle him.

I slip down in my seat, praying that it won't be that kind of show.

It's not. After Adam gets his heckle ("Cut your hair!") we're allowed to relax, or as much as one can relax in a super pumped audience.

Kammerling tells stories from his childhood back in Somerset and as a fellow Somerseter, I feel an instant kinship. Even if I ran with the young-farmers crowd rather than the car-park kids, some experiences are universal, even to those who grew up outside the confines of the West Country. I mean, haven't we all gone on Mission Impossible style expeditions to secure the new box of cereal from the top shelf? I didn't have the benefit of two dancer side-kicks though.

And oh god, the dancers are cool. Playing brothers and friends and bullies and furniture, they preen and pose and punch as Kammerling tells his tales. There are not mere props in a spoken word performance. Something to look at while we listen to Kammerlong's words. We all wince and groan as Rawlinson tells a story about falling during a performance, and laugh as the pair of them lend their knees as a seat for Kammerling.

They definitely didn't have shit like this in my day.

After the show, it's only a matter of going out one door and heading straight through another as I rush into the tube station that lurks directly underneath the building.

Part library. Part theatre. Part tube station. And built like a ship. That's CWCS. The weirdest damn theatre in London.

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Keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie

Nicki and I are in the lift, trying to get out of the office.

"What are you seeing tonight?" she asks, as the lift decides to stop on every single floor on the way down.

I hesitate. Fuck it. Nicki knows about the marathon. She won't judge. "A play about chemsex," I say proudly.

Nicki shocked face is reflected out into infinity in the lift's mirrors.

Perhaps that's not the kind of thing you're supposed to tell your coworker. I'll need to check the employee handbook.

"My life is weird," I explain.

"No. It's brilliant!" she says, recovering quickly. "Just don't take any poppers. They'll probably be handing them around."

With this caution from a collegue eight years my junior ringing in my ears, I set off in the direction of Old Street. I was off to The Courtyard, which is a theatre I have only visited once before, nearly four years ago, but remains the location of my top theatre experience of all time: King Lear with Sheep. For those that missed the heading days of 2015, King Lear with Sheep was a shortened version of the Bards great play, with only one actor, and lots of sheep. Real sheep. Really real sheep. You could smell them all the way down the corridor and half-way down the stairs. Hear them before they appeared on stage. Read about them in their biographies listed on the back of the freesheet. And cry with them. The Sheltand Sheep by the name of Snowdrop, who plays Cordelia, rested her head back against's Lear's shoulder with such swanlike grace, her death-scene still haunts me. It was masterful, magical, and completely mad.

And now I'm back. For a play about chemsex. Potentially with poppers.

I don't know what The Courtyard was originally, but it has a certain Scottish Baronial look going on with its high walls and turrets. And effect only added to by the forest green canopy over the entrance, hidden away down a side street. The lairds of this castle are down on their luck, and have opened up a B&B while they save up to dredge the loch.

Other than the canopy, The Courtyard doesn't really go in for signposting their presence It's only when you step inside the green corridor within (grass now, rather than forest) that you get confirmation that you're in the right place, with posters and flyers dotted around the place.

Down the stairs and round the corner is the box office. Or rather, that's where I remember the box office as being. The nook is closed tonight. But there's a man with a clipboard, and he's taking names.

"The show starts at 7.30," he says, as he ticks me off. "I'll make an announcement in the bar when it's time to go up."

Nice.

The highland theme extends into the bar. Leather sofas. Dark wood floors. Candelabras sitting on top of a piano. A traffic cone (no doubt left by a student. I went to a Scottish uni. I know what they're like). They've got a bit of trompe l'oeil action going on in the form of wallpaper printed with a bookcase design. And for true authenticity, they are completely lacking in signal. No bars in the bar. And not even a sniff of wifi to be found.

That wasn't the only thing conspicuously missing from the bar.

I looked around. And looked around again.

Yup, no ladies. Well, not many. Just me and... I looked around again, just to double check. Two others. Standing on opposite sides of the room, as if to prevent the air from becoming too saturated with oestrogen.

That was weird.

I mean... not surprising, given the subject matter. But a strange experience none the less. I don't think I've ever been in an audience that was not entirely dominated by women. Is this what blokes feel like when they go to the theatre?

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the one front of houser on duty. "The house is now open if you'd follow me to your seats."

He turns around and starts leading us down the corridor. Now that we've left the cosy bar behind, The Courtyard is beginning to look a bit like a school. Not Hogwarts. More like a secondary comprehensive. A nice one though, as we find out on our tour of the building - past some old-fashioned wooden lockers, up the stairs, and through what looks like a deserted dance studio, complete with mirrored walls, a forlorn-looking piano, and folding chairs stacked up against the mirrored walls.

The front of houser takes up position next to the door of the auditorium. Presumably so that he can count us back in and go in search of any audience members who got drafted into detention along the way.

For a converted school, laird's castle, or possibly library, the auditorium is surprisingly large. With a deep stage then seems to stretch back for miles, faced by banks of raked seating. But I know better than to trust the rake in fringe venues and stomp my way down the steps all the way to the third row.

There's something on the seat. There is something on all the seats. A freesheet. But not like one I've ever seen before. With the credits on one side and a full-page image on the back, these babies have been professionally printed. On a nice cardstock too.

These are going to make some quality programme-selfies. You know the ones. When a person holds their programme up in front of the stage to capture both the set and the paperwork in one perfectly lined up shot, as beautifully demonstrated by theatre bloggers everywhere.

One problem.

The stage isn't empty.

I don't mean the set. That's fine. The sofa and coffee table and whatnot aren't the problem.

The problem is sitting on the floor, snorting up white powder from that very same table. A coffee table which looks exactly like the one in my own living room. Without white powder though, just to be clear.

I still haven't quite worked out the rules of taking pre-show photos when there's a performer on the stage. My queasiness about the situation is probably indication enough that I shouldn't do it.

I do it anyway.

I mean, I have to. Right? It's what bloggers do. It's probably in the bylaws somewhere.

The seats around me gradually fill up and I left sitting in a cloud of cologne. I don't think I've ever been in such a well-scented audience. I dig out a cough sweet from my bag just in case my throat decides to rebel against the wafting perfumes.

The play begins. Two angels emerge from behind the back curtain. Stimulates and the spiritual combine with lots of talk of AIDS and sex and death. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit Tony Kushner, then yeah - I've been getting those Angels in America vibes too. It's even there in the title: Among Angels.

It's just lacking the themes of identity within a broader community told on an epic scale, against the backdrop of late twentieth-century American politics, with a mixture of wit, ruthless observations, and absolute tenderness. But hey, I get it. That's a bit much to ask for from a seventy-five minute running time.

We are treated to a heavy dose of meta-magic though as our main character, Stephen Papaioannou, is whisked away to the other side in an overdose-induced coma, finds himself in a theatre, and indulges us in a spot of the Prospero's "our revels now are ended" speech.

Angels come to listen to him, positioning themselves right in front of the front row, much to the annoyance of a member of the real audience, who turns to his neighbour with an expression of absolute outrage.

Even in the front row you can't escape the curse of the fringe theatre rake.

I take my time leaving. Packing away the freesheet carefully in my bag so that it doesn't crumple, and taking a moment to pay my respects at the sight of Cordelia's demise. Small groups stand around in the studio. There's more downstairs, talking quietly in the corridor. They could be waiting for someone who's involved with the show. That's the most likely explanation. But I prefer to think they were waiting to be called into the headmaster's office. I make a break for it, bursting out of the door before one of the teachers catches me.

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100 x 100

It’s the hundredth day of the year and I’m off to visit my one hundredth theatre of the marathon. That’s a nice little bit of synchronicity that happened quite by chance. With days when I’ve seen nothing at all, and others where I’ve rushed around from one venue to the next, reaching the centenary of days in the marathon and the theatres visited in it, at the same time, didn’t seem likely. It's a mini miracle.

Back when I started this journey, all those years ago on the 1 Jan, I had vague plans of doing something when I hit 100 theatres. A brief overview of everywhere I’d been. Crunch the numbers and count up the stats. But here we are, and I haven’t done any of the prep work.

So, let’s just dive in with theatre one hundred, shall we?

I’m on route to the Lantern Arts Centre, which, in case you didn’t know, is in Raynes Park. Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either.

It’s one of those tricky venues that doesn’t have much in the way of programming. The runs are short and far apart. So when something came up that fitted the marathon criteria, I put it in my spreadsheet without too much consideration as to what it was that I was actually booking.

As I sat on the tube, trundling my way down to south London, I looked up the show I was seeing. A Turbulent Priest. Ah. Thomas Beckett. I’m already feeling smug about my historical knowledge, although it extends just far enough to connect the phrase with the name and no further.

The show’s artwork is quite possibly the most terrifying picture I’ve ever seen in my life. Two men, one of them presumably Mr Beckett, locked in a violent embrace, with their tongues hanging out and their necks in choke-holds, all in a style that makes me ponder what would have happened if Goya was ever let loose in a stained glass workshop.

I closed the webpage and read the latest Brexit news on The Guardian. Much less distressing.

Turns out Raynes Park is rather a long way from South Wimbledon station. I good 40 minute trek distance.

It’s a good thing the show started at 8pm.

Actually, I fully approve of 8pm starts full stop. Because 8pm starts mean short shows. And short shows mean that I can still achieve the coveted goal of being home by 10pm, even with an 8pm start. I mean, a 7pm start combined with a 60 minute run time is the ultimate dream, but I suppose if one has to track all the way to Raynes Park in a post-work rush, then 8pm is more than acceptable.

Even with my walk, I rocked up with twenty minutes to spare, giving me plenty of time to walk around admiring the building. It really is rather spectacular. Red brick, with twin turrets that might have gone some way to explaining the name. It does rather have the look of a lantern. No one of those glass camping ones, you understand. But a brass one, covered in latticework that throws pretty patterns all over the walls. The type of lantern that you tell everyone that you found in a Moroccan souk, but probably started its life in a factory in China.

It won’t surprise you to know that most of the building is given over to a church, but turn the corner and you find a small door leading to the arts centre side of the enterprise.

I stop to take more photos. A young woman approaches. She tests the door. It doesn't open. So she rings the bell. Through the window we see a man come running to the door, opening it from the inside. "Hello!" he says cheerfully.

They both disappear.

A minute later, an old lady comes along. She's heading for the Lantern too. The door rattles as she tests the handle. It's not opening. She makes a disapproving noise under her breath.

"So sorry about that," says the man as he opens the door for her.

She goes in and the door closes one more.

I'm done taking my photos, but I don't want to knock on the door and send them man running to open it again. It must be a right pain in the bum having to answer the door for every audience member coming along. I hang around, waiting.

Soon I spot another woman coming down the pavement. She's taking on her phone. "Yes, the bus drops you right outside the building," she says. Looks like we have ourselves another person going to the Lantern tonight.

"Hello!" says the man, all smiles as he opens the door for us, his enthusiasm undiminished by his door duties.

There's a desk in the foyer, and when he returns to his post I give my name.

"The surname is Smiles?"

"Ah! I remember seeing that one," he says as he flips through the envelopes before handing me the one with my name on it. "Have you been here before?"

I admitted I hadn't.

"You need to head around the corner, up the stairs and the theatre is at the far end."

"Round the corner, up the stairs, on the far end," I repeat.

"Or just follow someone else," he says with a smile.

But there's no one else around the corner, so I journey up the stairs by myself. I find a small group standing at the top. They're wavering.

"That looks like it?" says one, indicating the sole open door.

"Yes, just through there," says someone, apparently on stair duty for this exact circumstance.

We go in just through there.

Or true to, anyway.

There's some bottleneck action going on as people gather to examine the merch table. Or at least, I presume its a merch table. I can't get close enough to look. I squeeze myself through, emerging on the other side in a wide room. White walls. A wood pannelled ceiling that looks like it was transported directly from the seventies. Small posters dotted around at intervals advertising dance classes. It looks like a church hall.

It is a church hall.

There's a raised platform on the end. The stage. With rows of chairs lined up in front of it.

Some brave soul is sitting by herself in the front row. She's keen.

I slip into the second row. Slightly less keen.

"With do little seating they could have allowed more legroom," says a man as he too comes to sit in the second row. He's not wrong. The six or so rows of seats have all been bunched up at one end of the hall, leaving a mass of empty space behind us. Good for those who want to sit close to the stage, I suppose, but not so great for those who want to wriggle their toes every so often.

His companion suggests stretching out his legs underneath the seat in front, which must have done the trick because their conversation soon moves onto the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not the Turbulent Priest, you understand. The current bloke. Who, I have just now realised, because I Googled it to check the spelling of his name, is no longer Rowan Williams, and hasn't been since 2012! Wow, I'm really not keeping up with things. Turns out things do occasionally move on in the Christian church.

Needless to say I can't follow the discussion. Something to do with the Pope. Which, and I've already admitted my ignorance of this whole situation, seems to me to be about five hundred years too late.

I drift out of their conversation and move onto the next.

Behind me a couple are also discussing the Arch-bish. The old one. The really old one. Our man Beckett.

I stop listening. I don't want any spoilers for the show.

The lights dim. The sound of monks chanting fills the space.

Two actors make their way up onto the stage, then hide behind a black screen in order to make their entrance.

They are Saint George and Thomas the Apostle. And Beckett. And Henry II. And a hundred other historical figures that I probably did get taught about at school but have no recollection of. They rush back and forth, diving behind the screen to change costumes as they try on new characters, covering for each other with meta asides to the audience and singing songs in between the historical reenactments.

They are doing the absolute most.

I say 'they' and not their names, because I don't know what they are. There was no cast-sheet floating around (admittedly, there may have been one on the merch table... but that was a battle I wasn't willing to fight) and there's no mention of them on the Lantern's website.

Sorry unnamed actors. You sang. You danced. You changed costume. You educated me on medieval English history. And I have no idea who you are.

Wait, hang on… did they say interval? I checked my phone. But we had a 8pm start? What kind of sicko programmes a two-act play with an 8pm start?

Hamilton rap battle between church and state

A hundred shows in a hundred days. I’ve been to see one hundred shows in a hundred days. Not only that, I’ve been to see one hundred shows, in one hundred different theatres, in one hundred days.

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Over My Dead Body

A couple of my friends have a running joke that on the 31st December they are going to put on a one-woman play in one of their living rooms, sell tickets... and then not tell me about. Thereby bringing down my marathon at the final hurdle. Now, they would never really do this. Firstly because they are not that mean. And secondly, I'm fairly confident that marathons don't have hurdling involved (I could be wrong though, I don't follow sport).

Anyway, as I arrive at my next theatre on the list, I begin to wonder whether perhaps I had stumbled on their plan a little ahead of schedule as Drapers Hall didn't look anything like the image the name had conjured in my head and instead looked like a pleasant suburban bungalow. Albeit owned by someone with severe privacy issues, as the garden is almost hidden behind some very heavy duty black gates.

If it hadn't been for the poster board outside, I would have presumed it part of the estate that it lives in.

Which I suppose is the point.

The homely atmosphere extends in off the street, as the hallway is full of people shrugging off their coats to hang up on the rail, wandering around clutching steaming mugs of tea, and flopping down on the sofas.

I grew suspicious. Perhaps it really was a home, and this entire trip had been a meticulously planned prank from my friends. It was a little late for an April Fools', but it was all too perfect. If I were going to send me off to a fake show in a fake venue, then an immersive Hamlet would be exactly the sort of thing that I would plan in order to torture me.

Confession time! I've never seen Hamlet. Well, I've never seen it all the way through. I've seen bits of it. A touch of Tennant's while it was on TV. A dab of to be or not to be, acquired through cultural osmosis. I’ve watched that Tom Stoppard Play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And The Lion King. Seen that one. The film. Still have to make it to the musical. Although the countdown is on to get to that one…

As for immersive... well, you should already know my feelings about that by now.

I do my best to shake off the feeling. My friends wouldn't do that to me. They couldn't possibly be so cruel. Not least because one if them was supposed to go with me, but had to back out because she needed to go to some academic thing I didn't really understand that was happening at Yale... Oh.

I'm a cynical old bag by nature, but this conspiracy theory was a touch too extreme even for me. Still, I am so struck by the feeling that I have literally just wandered into someone's living room that it takes me a moment to realise that I should be checking in.

This is done, via mobile phone, and my name is instantly recognised.

Now, that isn't unusual. My name is very memorable. But sadly, this isn't the Smiles-effect at work here.

"You were supposed to be here..."

"Last Friday, yes."

That was true. I had booked to go last week, but the lovely people at BAC offered me the chance to crack through three of their spaces in one night, and when it comes to marathons, three theatres beats one every time. It's just basic maths.

Thankfully the people at Drapers Hall are even lovelier, and allowed me to switch my ticket to a different night.

"There's tea and food in the kitchen just round the corner, in exchange for a donation."

Well, this needed thorough investigation.

There really was a kitchen around the corner. A proper kitchen. Not some little pokey corner-room with just enough counter space to fit a kettle balanced on top of a microwave. There was an oven, with five hob rings. A chopping board lay ready to use next to it. I could have knocked out a Sunday roast in that kitchen if needs be. But there was no shortage of food. Beside the still steaming kettle, there was a plate of custard creams and an array of milks and fruit teas. And on the other side, there were crackers and houmous and hot cross buns and crisps and apple juice. No one was going hungry tonight.

“Follow me!” comes the call when the doors are opened. “You can take your drinks in, if you like.”

Many people do like, and they go through, clutching their cuppas for comfort and leading to the bizarre sight of ten or so people trying to work out what do with their mugs as they take their seats. The rest of us join the circle without the benefit of a soothing hot drink, and try not to look anxious.

The space is a small one. Not round exactly, but hexagonal - or one of those other geometric shapes that I can’t remember the name of - with high vaulted ceilings that stretch up into a sharp point above our heads.

It’s dark. There are wood panels. Kinda like a sauna. I’m certainly sweating out my nerves.

In the centre, sat on the floor, is Emily Carding - a name you will be familiar with if you’ve been following this blog from the beginning, as this is the third time her name has popped up in my posts (now beating Shakespeare by a single entry).

The doors close, sealing us in. That’s it. It’s happening. There’s no escape.

Emily Carding leaps up, ready to shake hands and greet us. Are my hands sweaty? They’re probably really sweaty. I hope they’re not sweaty.

No time to think of that. Carding is explaining what’s happening. We’re actors. We’re going to be given roles. Scripts are handed out.

First up: Horatio. That goes to a man sitting across the circle from me. Carding explains that it’s an important role. A speaking role, no less. He nods. He’s up to the challenge.

Next up… Carding comes over to me. “Will you be my Ophelia?”

Err. “Sure?”

Now, I may not have seen Hamlet, but I’m pretty sure that Ophelia is a significant role. Hamlet’s love interest, no less. Carding warns me that it’s going to be tough going. I’m going to get spoken to with some not very nice words. I smile nervously, trying not to show my fear. That was apparently the right thing to do. We were on. The role is mine.

As the other roles are handed out, I look at my script. I’m to take a letter and hand it back. Stand up. Sit down. Listen as people talk to me. That all sounds okay. I can deal with that. I stand up, sit down, and listen to people every day.

I keep reading.

I have a line. No, two.

Well, alright. Speaking is fine. Been doing that for years.

I keep reading.

Oh. Oh! I had forgotten the thing about Ophelia. The very important thing about Ophelia. The one thing that ends up defining Ophelia.

I was going to have to die.

I read the instructions. Then read them again just to make sure I understood them.

I say instructions, but this was no IKEA step-by-step breakdown of a theatrical suicide, but rather a guideline. Firstly, I was to tear up my script. Fine. Nice. I like it. But then I had to crumple the pages into flowers. Poetic. Nice. I like it. Except… how?

Carding gives our Laertes a stage combat less with invisible swords. She’s amazing. She’s got the stance down. She reveals she’s done this before.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdear ohdearohdear.

We have a trained pro in our midst.

Don’t fuck up, Max, I order myself. And don’t you dare show fear.

A thought occurs. Perhaps showing fear was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. Is that why Carding picked me? She could see the raging anxiety behind the eyes? I didn’t know enough about the role to tell. This Ophelia-chick is clearly not having a good time of it. Perhaps I should be all shaking-nerves. In which case, I’m nailing this.

As the play kicked off and my fellow audience members began performing their assigned parts, I tried to figure out the problem of the flowers.

I could tear my pages in half. That would be very dramatic, I thought. And then perhaps roll each half into a tulip, twisting the length into a stem. No. That would take far too long. And besides, the script said to crumple.

Polonius and Laertes come over to sit with me. “He’s mad,” says Laertes. “Completely bonkers. Wouldn’t you agree, Polonis?” She ad-libbing, and she’s great at it.

I nod. My script says I’m supposed to listen to them, but I chance a weak “right…” of agreement.

Hamlet’s writing a letter. Carding looks up and locks eyes with me.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”

I mean… oof. That Shakespeare could write a mean love letter. No wonder Ophelia went barmy over this bloke.

I take the letter. My hands aren’t just sweating now. They’re shaking. I blame the contents. That is a damn inferno of words being held in them.

I hear my name. Ophelia’s name, even. That’s my cue. I get up. I’ve been told to return the letter to Hamlet. Carding won’t take it. I try again.

This is it. The scene I’ve been warned about. The letter is crumpled and tossed away. It looks so sad and pathetic on the ground. Like a child’s discarded homework.

“Get thee to a nunnery,” Carding orders.

I clutch my script. It creases under my grasp. That feels right. I try to leave, but Carding shifts to block me.

I’d always fancied that I’d make a rather good nun. I look great in black. But Carding says it with such venomous. My heart is thumping. Eventually, Hamlet is spent. The tirade is over. I’m allowed to return to my seat. I collapse into it.

Things aren’t going well for Hamlet either. He asks to sit in my lap while we watch a play, but Ophelia isn’t having it. A sentiment I can only sympathise with.

Hamlet kills Polonius and shouts at his mother, which is one hell of a day to be having.

“Tell Ophelia that Hamlet has killed you,” Carding orders the audience-member-formerly-known-as-Polonius.

This he does.

Oh god.

It was time for me to die.

I tear off a page of my script, crumpling it up and twisting the end to form a flower.

I offer it to the woman sitting next to me. She hesitates, then takes it.

The next flower goes to Laertes, sitting on my right.

I get up, crumpling the third page as I walk across the circle and hand over another flower. The fourth goes to Gertrude. The fifth and final page, the front cover which bears only the word OPHELIA, is given to Claudius.

I have no more pages left.

I go lie in the middle of the floor, crossing my arms over my chest, and close my eyes.

I try to channel Millais’ Ophelia. All wafting hair and serene expression. But I fear I’m more Elizabeth Siddal, freezing to death in the bath because she’s too frightened to tell the artist that the oil lamps keeping the water warm have gone out.

I can hear my fellow actors moving about. Eventually, Carding touches my arms, and I am released into the world of the dead, free to enjoy the rest of the play as an observer.

The invisible swords are back. Hamlet and Laertes are fighting. All rather exciting now that I’m a ghost.

 

Death after death follows. Laertes falls to the floor. Gertrude too. Claudius slumps back in his seat.

As Hamlet proclaims his final words, Laertes twists round to watch. Different rules apply when you’re a ghost.

Exeunt Hamlet.

We applaud, but Horatio steps forward to stop us. There is one speech left. He thanks us for our cooperation and bids us to applaud one another. This we do.

“You had a really tough role,” says Laertes as we pull on our coats.

Not quite as tough as hers. Making flowers is a lot less scary than sword-fighting.

“And your dress was so perfect!”

I look down. Oh. Yeah. I’m wearing my Forsythe dress. So called because it was once admired by the choreographer William Forsythe, and I like giving my favourite dresses names. Although it should more accurately be called the “Over my dead body” dress, because that’s what it says - right across the chest and down the arms. The arms I’d crossed over my chest while everyone had stood… over my dead body.

“That’s probably why you got picked as Ophelia.”

Probably. It must have been quite the sight when I was down on the ground being dead.

Hamlet may have escaped, but Carding doesn’t get away that easily. As we emerge back into the bright and welcoming light of Draper Hall’s foyer, we all queue up to thank her.

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The Sound of the Underground

The Bunker. That’s a bar, right? In like, and old bunker left over from the war or something. Yeah, somewhere like Shoreditch. Yeah, yeah. I know the one. Full of hipsters. I mean, I don’t know at all, but I can imagine.

No? Really? A theatre? No. In Borough? What? No. Are you sure?

Turns out they were sure. And so The Bunker was added to the Official Website List™ for the London Theatre Marathon (as opposed to the unofficial list which lives on my laptop and is full of venues I’m still not entirely convinced actually exist).

Trying to pick one solitary show to visit at a theatre I know absolutely nothing about is a bit of a challenge. I try and do a bit of research, visit their website, follow them on Twitter if I’m really feeling rigorous.

So, I did both those things. Nice website. Full of triangles. I like a triangle as much as the next person, so, you know. Good stuff. Quality info too. Nice copy. Very much enjoyed the mention of them testing each and every one of their chairs for comfort. Not sure I entirely believe that, or even know what constitutes a comfort test (I would have thought sitting quietly for two hours, not being allowed to move beyond a crossing and uncrossing of the legs would be a good baseline), but it’s a nice line. Also stuff about e-tickets and QR codes and all that stuff which theatres always seem to bang on about on their websites, but never actually end up using in practice. I ignored all that. You can too.

Over on their Twitter feed we’ve got a lot of retweets. A lot of retweets. Let’s be real. It’s all retweets. And they’re from some very fervent and adoring fans. Not just about the shows either. They also like the loos (and the free tampons). And the writers’ snug. And the staff. And the music choices being pumped out in the bar. That’s all a good sign.

This trip was sounding more promising by the day. I just needed to pick a show. Any show.

I went back to the website, scrolling up and down the What’s On page, trying to figure out what would be the best option for me. Did I want poetry or political? An adaptation or a debut? I couldn’t decide. It was all very stressful.

But really, in the end, the best way to learn about the kind of work a theatre put on is to actually go there. Learn by doing and all that.

So I just picked a show, and booked.

Or rather, I cheated and booked two. In a double bill.

This blog is about the experience of going to the theatre and I was going to experience the hell out of The Bunker.

And, oh wow. It really is a bunker. Somehow this comes a surprise, despite the clue being in the name. Set back from Southwark Road, you slide down a long ramp that sinks below street-level until you get to a small door topped with one of those bunker-triangles that is now starting to make me think that this theatre has some illuminati tie-in.

Inside, water drips down the wooden walls and heaters try their damndest to fight against the chill blasting through the front door, but despite these grim conditions, The Bunker manages to avoid feeling like an air-raid shelter. In fact, I begin to think I might have been right the first time. This is a hipster bar in Shoreditch. I mean, let’s just examine the evidence shall we? We’ve got a circus colour scheme and faerie-lights to match. There’s a bar purporting to sell craft beers. Rugged wooden floors under our feet. And everyone here looks way cooler than me.

And like, not in a dungarees and beanie hat type of cool. But in a: I-work-in-the-theatre kinda way. I place a mental bet with myself that at least seventy percent of the audience tonight works in the theatre industry. I have no way of finding that out of course, but all the same, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win that bet.

I sign in at the box office. No need for e-ticket nonsense, I get given a paper wristband. Purple this time. I’m starting to build a collection. It will sit nicely against my BAC one. Purple and green. The suffragette colours.

Writstband acquired, I perch on the end of a bench and try not to lean against the wet walls as I listen in for theatre-related conversation.

“I am the patriarchy,” declares someone loudly.

The rumble of chatter stops.

A woman turns round in shock at such a blatant admission.

“Thank you!” she says. “I'd been wondering who it was! So happy to know it’s you!”

Well, I’m glad we got that sorted. But it doesn’t help me win my bet.

“The house is now open,” calls out a front of houser. “If you have a stamp or a wristband you can go straight through. If not, come see me at box office.”

Stamps for the light-weights only going to the first show of the night. Wristbands for the dedicated souls committed to seeing both of them… like me.

The three sides look like they each belong to a different theatre. On the right, the chairs have been pilfered from a pub somewhere. On the left, they definitely came from a board room. Whereas in the middle, we have colourful, squashy-looking benches. If The Bunker needs any help with their next round of comfort tests, I volunteer to tackle the centre block.

By the looks of it, The Bunker wouldn’t be short of volunteers, as we all headed for those soft and padded benches.

 

 

In my experience, a notepad in the lap of an audience member for a non-press night performance can mean one of two things. Either the director is making tweaks, or there’s a blogger in the building. Director or blogger. Director or blogger. I have a lot riding on this. As he flips the page, his sleeve rides up and I spot a flash of purple. Ha! Blogger.

Oh… wait. That’s not what I wanted. My chances of winning this bet are falling rapidly.

 

All ordered out for the changeover - if you don't have a ticket to bx clever but would like one you can upgrade at the box office

 

Should I buy a playtext? I really want a playtext.

They’re five pounds. Ten if I end up loving the second show too and want both.

I can’t afford it. Can I? No, I can’t. I have a freesheet. That’s enough.

It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.

 

Reviewer or director has a purple wristband

 

The f word which I know both the meaning if and the need to call it the f word word from my friend Helen

 

Box office keeps disappearing - buy h a radio alteagu

 

 

 

I'm doing all the drama schools at the moment. I was at rada the other night and guildhall last night

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Chicken Soup for the Sausage Roll

“You can wait here if you like. The house should be opening any minute now.”

I’m the first one there. Which is a good thing, as the foyer space of the Jermyn Street Theatre is only big enough for one. Can it even be classed as a foyer? It’s certainly not intended for lingering. Perhaps the more appropriate word is a landing. And I do feel like I’ve landed there.

“Thanks, it’s awful outside. Hailing.”

The sudden downpour of stinging hail stones is the reason for my early arrival. When it came to deciding between digging an umbrella out of my bag, and just legging the remaining distance to the theatre, I plumped for legging it.

That may have been a mistake.

My legs are now legged out and feeling a touch wobbly. This body was not made to run.

Balancing here, on that landing, I manage to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. From the outside, the Jermyn Street theatre is a slip of a thing - a small slither slide in between a pizzeria and a clothes shop.

But step through the door and you are taken down below the streets of Piccadilly via a sparkling silver stairway.

The honking horns and hard hailstones that fill the thick air above are left behind, and I’m left recovering and slightly out of breath on the landing.

I’d been to the Jermyn Street Theatre (from here on in, the JST) before. But so long ago that I still manage to be shocked by just how titchy tiny wee it is. The box office is a proper little hole in the wall, but when the house is opened I find that the bar is to.

“Drink, ice cream, programme?” asks a lady from behind her small window. “There’s no interval, so now is your opportunity.”

I go for a programme, which turns out to be a proper playtext. I fucking love a playtext.

With the theatre to myself, I can get some proper pictures taken. But with only four rows of seats, this doesn’t take long. And with allocated seating, the rest of the audience is in no rush to turn up.

With a theatre this small, I’d usually expect there to be strings of fairy lights on the walls. Perhaps some cutsie signage pointing to the loos. But there’s none of that. Beyond the silver stairway, the decor is fairly spartan. The JST doesn’t go in for all the hipster aesthetic stuff.

So, I settle in and play my playtext game - finding a line near the end and seeing if I remember it by the time we get there in the show. Not much of a game, but it’s always nice to have something to look forward to during a rubbish performance.

Not that I was worried about that.

I was here on a recommendation. A Twitter recommendation. Which are often terrible, but this one was from someone who knew I’d loved Hundred Words for Snow and wanted to make sure that I knew the writer was currently directing this play. I didn’t. And I was more than grateful for the information.

Even better, the director was in that night.

How do you say hello to someone who broke your heart? On the list of awkward conversation starters it has to be right up there with your STD test results and telling them you ran over your dog.

After a short internal debate, I decided the best course was the simplest: Keep it real. “Hello. I’m Max. You smashed my heart into smithereens. Thank you.”

There. That wasn’t too bad. I didn’t even cry.

And people are starting to arrive now.

“I’m just going to pop to the toilet,” says a man as he walks in.

“Not that one though,” laughs a woman in reply, nodding towards the stage, where there’s a projected sign proclaiming TOILETS over one of the doors.

“Umm…”

“Is it... No!”

Yes! That door marked Toilets leads to the actual toilets and you need to cross the actual stage to get to them.

“The performance will begin in three minutes,” comes a disembodied voice over the tannoy. “The toilets are now closed.”

Sure enough the projected sign dims. The bar’s cubby is shuttered.

 

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The Wanderer Returns

It occurred to me while I was walking through Old Street that I was doing the exact opposite of what I used to do all the time a few years back. Walking from Bethnal Green to Angel was a regular habit of mine, as I left work at Rich Mix and went to see a show at Sadler’s Wells. Now that I work at Sadler’s, I find myself doing the reverse journey, down City Road, past Moorfields Hospital, round the Old Street roundabout, through Hoxton, past Box Park and the chain link fence covered with padlocks, up to Sainsbury’s, across the scary road I was convinced would be the death of me one day and… there it is. The place that had been my home for a-year-and-a-half back in the day.

It had been quite the traumatic journey. Seeing all the things that had changed (and even worse, the things that hadn’t). The newsagent that used to sell the most delicious, and yet worryingly cheap curries didn’t seem to be there anymore. But the car wash operated by staff a little too enthusiastic with their hoses still was (my feet remembered to cross to the other side of the pavement long before my brain did). There was the printers where I used to run down to hand-deliver my mock-up of how I wanted a flyer to be folded (now I do it via emailed clips, filmed on my phone - how times change), but it was shut so I couldn’t go in.

As I stood outside Sainsbury’s, on the opposite side of the street, I tried not to pick out all the ways the building at changed since I was last there. But, I couldn’t help it. Those vinyls are new. And the light-up poster-boxes have from the windows. I wonder if… I had to check. I ran around the building to look at the back. There’s a wall on Redchurch Street that runs along the length of Rich Mix’s backside. When I worked there it got painted with the name. It was pure Instagram bait, and I wanted to get hooked.

The words Rich Mix were still there, but they were different. Gone where the bright and blocky 3D typography and instead there was a more old school graffiti lettering going on. Metallic silver against a dark blue.

Change is weird. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Oh well, there was no use crying over lost street art. It’s time to go in and face the box office.

There is already a queue to get into the main space down on the ground floor - usually given over to the music performances that most people know Rich Mix for.

I ignore that. We aren’t here for a gig. Not tonight.

“I’m here for Stolen?” I said. I don’t know why I said it as a question. “Surname is Smiles,” I added, as if I was just a regular punter who hadn’t worked here for 18 months. Thing is, according to the box office system, I was a regular punter on a first time visit. I actually had to create a new account. Well, who needs to book tickets online when they have a box office a couple of doors down?

“The doors won’t open for another ten minutes or so, but you can hang out down here or go to the cafe,” the guy on box office suggested. I plumped for hanging out down there and busied myself admiring the new poster designs - so much better than the ones I put together during my time there.

The cushioned bench seats that line the front window were the same though. Still as ratty looking as I remembered. Comfy though. I perched, and edited my Theatre 503 blog post while I waited for the house to open.

By the time I got to the end it was 7.23 and I was pretty sure the house must have opened. Seven minutes before start time is cutting it close. I looked around. There was still a queue to get into the main space. And another one for the lift. Had there been an announcement? Did Rich Mix even do announcements? I couldn’t remember. I doubt I ever listened to them even if they did. With a staff pass, open times is just a bad pronunciation of the German banking family.

I scooted past the list and headed for the stairs, following the red line that is laid out on the floor in true hospital-style to lead cinema goers through the convoluted route up a level, past the popcorn and then around the main space’s gallery before reached the cinema-wing of this cumbersome building.

After the first floor however, the line peels off, and I am left to do the long walk up to the fourth floor alone. Really alone, as every level I pass looks dark and deserted. Still, nice views though.

The door at the top of the stairs takes you to the foyer outside of the fourth floor loos. If you’re quiet you can hear the bangs and screams filtering through from the cinema screen on the other side of the wall.

We have no time for second hand car chases though, so I turn left, through the double doors, past the lift and… there we are. Theatre space on one side, and the bar and more, shall we say flexible space, or the other.

“Sorry, can I tear your ticket?” asks one usher as I grab a freesheet from the other. Always doing things in the wrong order, me.

The theatre is already packed. These people are better than me at gauging when to go upstairs. There clusters of people sitting on the aisle end of the bench seating. No one wants to sit at the ends. Which is silly. The benches are all of three metres long. They only sit six bums or so at a time. Middle or end, it doesn’t make much difference.

“We’re pretty full tonight so move down,” says a lady who very much doesn’t look like an usher. “If people don’t move down for you… make them.” Golly. Hard line. I like it.

“I don’t mind squishing through,” I say to the three people sitting close to the central aisle. I really don’t.

They stand up, but that doesn’t help much with the whole getting past them as now their legs are in the way.

“Oh, sorry - I thought you wanted to go to the end?” says one.

Well, yes, but…

But they are already moving down the row. Oh well. Middle seat it is for me, then.

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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

“Are you here for Hopeful Monster?” she asked.

I was.

“25% of the ticket price goes to child.org,” she says, peeling off a large round sticker off an A4 sheet.

“Oh nice,” I say taking it from her.

It’s pink. “I [heart] my mum,” it reads.

I look around, not knowing where to stick it. Not sure I want to wear it on my coat. I leave it flapping around on my fingertips.

I tuck myself away next to the staircase and make friends with a horse’s head wearing a St Paddy’s Day Guinness hat. He doesn’t look overly happy about it, although whether it’s the hat or my need for company that’s distressing him I can’t quite work out.

Soon more people arrive to collect their stickers, each looking more perplexed than the last as they try to work out what to do with it. A man dances around as he bounced his stickered-up hand between coat and scarf as the final home of his sticker. He settles on the front of his hoodie and pats it down on his chest. The look on his face suggests that he has immediate regret.

One woman has it on the back of her hand.

The stickiness on my fingertips is starting to bother me. Without thinking about it, I grab my phone and smooth the sticker down on the back. Just like I would if I were at the Donmar and this was one of the stickers handed out to the fillers’ queue on press night.

I couldn’t see my face, but I imagine it looked just like the man in the hoodie.

Regret. Deep and sorrowful.

My phone is new. So new that I still haven’t managed to buy a case for it.

And now I had a cheap paper sticker stuck to it proclaiming how much I [heart] my mum.

People rush up and down the stairs and I press myself against the wall, out of the way while they lift chairs from unoccupied tables and carry them back up.

A seat cushion slips off one.

“That's not supposed to happen,” laughs the woman as she tries to fix the chair.

“Don't worry, I won’t tell anyone,” I whisper back.

Eventually, the procession of chairs came to an end and we were allowed upstairs.

“It's unreserved seating, but if you can leave the first two rows free for children that would be ideal,” said the person greeting us at the top.

The stage was small. A table, flooded with light from a totem pole of lamps set up on either side. Close proximity would be essential.

I dither next to the third row, trying to decide whether the aisle seat on the short right-hand row would be superior to the aisle seat on the slightly closer left hand row.

“It’s a full house,” calls the usher. “So if you can all move down.”

I panicked, and picked the long row on the left, going right to the end, next to the fireplace.

“A minute later they first two rows are completely filled with grownups.”

I looked around. There was not a single child to be seen. Reminds me of the Puppet Barge in Little Venice. These shows may be made with children in mind, but it takes a childless adult to want to traipse out to these things on a Sunday afternoon.

Now, you know that I don’t write a lot about the actual performance in this blog. That’s not what we’re about at the marathon. But in this case, I wouldn’t have been able to even if I wanted to. Because I didn’t see it.

No, I didn’t have to leave due to a near fainting incident. I assure you, I was in the room and in my seat the entire time.

I just couldn’t see it.

Literally, none of it.

Oh, I occasionally caught a glimpse of a hand when it was lifted far enough off the table to be visible over the heads of the people sitting in front of me. But not enough to establish any kind of storyline. For me, Hopeful Monster was nothing more than 40 minutes of listening to gentle music.

There was a giraffe at one point, I think. And some grass. And a creature which was possibly a pterodactyl. But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what the show was about or what happened in it.

Recently I’ve been playing with the idea of awarding badges to certain theatres. Best Madeleines. Longest queue for the loos. You get the idea. There’s one badge in particular that scratches away at my conscious. Forget the “I [heart] my mum” stickers. If I were going to hand out anything after this trip it would be the “If this were my first trip to the theatre, I would never return.”

 

 

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I summoned a Demon

"Hold this thread, please," says Katy Schutte, our host for the ceremony, as we step into the Pit.

I held the thread up by my head and Katy unwinds the spool down to the ground so that we now have a length of cotton that matches my height.

This is my last trip to the Vaults. Well, that's not quite true. I have one more Vault Festival venue to go. But it's not in the Vaults tunnels, so perhaps it doesn't quite count.

Now, I can see that look on your face. It's a look that says - Max, you lied to us. You said that Talented Mr Ripley was your last Vaults show. And now you're saying that not only was it lot your last performance at the festival, it wasn't even the last one to be taking place in the Vaults.

To which I say... well done. You got me. But if you recall a little further back, I managed to turn up to the Pit for this sho a whole month early. So really, if you think about it... this post is just an extension of that one. A four-week-long immersive experience, if you will.

And, following on from that train of logic, perhaps that is how it was meant to be. I was called to the Pit by forces unknown and unseen, for reasons that have yet to be revealed to me. Perhaps they wanted to make a measure of me too. In preparation for my return.

"You can take a seat to the south," she added, standing back up, helpfully pointing to a bench just in case I didn't know where south was (I didn't).

The Pit is the smallest of the Vaults venues, with just enough room for a narrow stage and three concentric circles of bench seats. The same benches I had found in the Cavern for Carnival of Crows. I think these must be the Vault Festival 'alternative' chairs. Their vintage/witchy/spiritual option, for vintage/witchy/spiritual artists. They're bloody uncomfortable.

"I have a task for you," said Katy, once we're all almost sat down. "In the centre of the circle, you'll find paper and pens. I want you to write a message to a man who did you wrong."

The ladies to my left burst out of their seats and scramble to get started. They have words that need to be said.

It's then I realise that we're nearly all women. I look around. Only four men, in a room of women.

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Playing gooseberry

Let me get one thing started before you go getting any ideas. I know what you're like. Always thinking the worst of me. But, and I cannot say this strongly enough, I absolutely and utterly did not gatecrash someone else's date night.

I would say, if anything, they gatecrashed mine.

I was perfectly content taking myself off to see my last show in the Vaults. I tramped up and down that black corridor, seeing plays about serial killers, and young people making mischief in foreign lands, and confidence tricksters, and I was ready to watch something completely different.

So I booked a ticket to The Talented Mr Ripley.

See, I have breadth. I can also watch a play about a young man who goes to Italy and ends up murdering multiple people while defrauding the father of a friend who thinks he's helping return the boy home...

Oh.

Um.

Anyway, as I was saying. I was fine going by myself. I had my ticket all booked already.

But then Martha saw the show in my spreadsheet and wanted to come along. So she bought a ticket to the show.

And then a few days later I get a Whatsapp message at nine in the morning from her. I knew it had to be important, as Martha isn't the type to send my Whatsapp messages at nine in the morning.

"Soooo I just told Luke about Talented Mr Ripley, and he was outraged that I hadn't invited him as it's his fave book and film... so I'm afraid we have a plus 1 on Weds, he's bought a ticket."

And that's a direct quote. Apart from the punctuation. I added that in.

So, you can see. I am not responsible and I refuse to accept the label as gooseberry. Are we clear? Great.

Moving on then.

Martha and I took the bus down to Waterloo. It was only Wednesday but it had already been the longest week since records began. This was not the evening for any form of activity that could even tangentially be linked to healthiness. We needed stodge. And alcohol. And to be dropped at the door with the minimal amount of walking possible within the confines of the TFL infrastructure.

“I can’t download my ticket,” said Martha, stabbing at her phone screen with a frustrated finger, as we made our way down Leake Street.

“You don’t need it,” I said, slightly hurt. It was true. She didn’t need it. But she would have known if she had read any one of my multiple Vault Fest blog posts.

“At all?”

“No. It’s only bag checks to get through the main door and then you give your name at the actual venue entrance.”

But of course, I don’t need to tell you this. You’ve been with me enough times to the Vaults to know the system off by heart.

But for once, I was going off script. I wouldn’t be heading straight to the venue door to start queueing. With a guest in tow, it was time to sample what the Vaults to offer in the way of emotion-drowning sustenance.

That is, if we could figure out how to get hold of it.

“Do we order at the bar?” Martha asked as we made our way past security and down the dark corridor of doom.

“Yeah, I think so. But which one?” By my count we had already passed two, and there was a third coming up.

“Shall we just sit down?”

That sounded like a sensible option. I am very much in favour of sitting down.

At barely past six o’clock, the Vaults were almost empty. We grabbed the end of a long table, coated with a thick later of flyers and festival listings, and a few other overeager festival-goers over on the other end.

“I do like the Vaults,” said Martha, as I struggled with the stools. Shaped like beer barrels, they needed to be tilted on their edge and rolled in order to shift anywhere. Which is fine, under the cushion topped falls off. I was way too tired for that shit.

I could only sigh my agreement.

The Vaults are a fine place to visit. When you’re young. Personally I like proper chairs. And tickets. And good signage. And not to feel like the oldest, most uncool, person in the building.

Being around Martha, and the newly arrived Luke didn’t help, with their young, fresh faces, and ability to sit on a barrel without looking like a plonker.

“Drinks?” asked Luke.

Fuck yes.

And food.

Frankfurters were on the menu. Which sounded just the right level of stodge and carbs for a night like this. Bonus points for being topped with curry sauce.

“This is really good,” said Martha.

It really was. Nice soft bread. Lots of onions. The side of roast potatoes was mediocre (too soft. No salt), but the currywurst was really doing their job.

The G&Ts didn’t hurt either.

“So, why do you love Ripley so much?” Martha asked Luke.

Ah! Now that was a good question. I’ve seen the film (who hasn’t), and started off the year with a play about its author, but we had a bonafide fan at the table and I was keen to hear more.

“He’s just a great character,” started off Luke.

“Sorry to interrupt,” said a woman, interrupting. “Would you mind if I gave you this?” she asked, flapping a flyer around. “It’s a dark and funny show about eating disorders…”

We all made polite noises until she went away again.

I looked at the table, strewn with flyers, and saw before me a league of performers, desperate to yank people into their shows.

“We should probably go in,” I suggested, picking at the last potato. They may not have been great, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to polish them off.

We gave our names on the door and were whisked off into a wide corridor.

“Would you be interested in using our captioning service tonight?” asked a lady, poised to pounce on anyone walking through.

I wasn’t. Neither were Martha or Luke.

We pressed on. Down the corridor and… up a flight of stairs. That was new. I didn’t even know the Vaults had an upstairs.

Although, if I were to have imagined an upstairs at the Vaults, it would have looked exactly that. Cramped up against the top of a tunnel, battered looking armchairs huddle together in groups on the opposite end to a neglected bar. In an effort to inject a form of whimsy, some plastic wisteria was draped around the doorway, giving the whole space a rather atticy vibe. Although I couldn’t decide whether it was more Jane Eyre, or Flowers in…

Across the room and we were transported to the back the Crescent’s auditorium, the rows of chairs descending before us.

Somehow, I had managed to save the best Vaults venue for last. It was a theatre. A real theatre. No temporary seating here. These chairs looked like they had been lifted from an art deco cinema - in the 1930s. Everything had a gently moldering air. As if we were the first people to step inside for decades.

Down on the floor-level stage, a man sat with his back to us, clacking away on a typewriter. The sound echoing against the rumble of trains above our heads.

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The Punctuation of Penetration

“What are you seeing tonight?” asked a colleague curiously.

“Pain-T” was my reply, using a hard 't' that forces its way past the teeth. I’d been saying it like that all day, much to my own amusement and everyone else’s bafflement.

“Right…” she said, quickly hurrying away.

In my defence. That’s how it’s spelt: Pain(t).

Slight pause before the t, before tackling the last, segregated, syllable with full force.

I’m nothing if not literal when it comes to titles.

You don't see it much in the word of theatre, but randomly punctuated titles is a running joke in contemporary dance. Or contemp/ary dance. Or quite possibly, con(temp)/ary dance. Or perhaps even, c⁰(t3mp)/RE d@nc3.

The more the title looks like an unsolvable algebraic equation, the higher the art. That's how it works.

You wouldn't believe the nonsense that I've prevented you lot from seeing. Forget those lists of the 100 most influential people in the arts. Those list-makers don't know shit. You want to find the people who are really making an influence? Go to any theatre's admin office. That's where they live. 

Slogging it out, making ideas happen. Or not happen.

I spend a huge chunk of my time putting myself in the way of artists’ intent on throwing the entire keyboard at their titles.

Like that time I was asked to make the title a colour. Not the word for a colour, you understand. The actual colour.

It must have been around then that I started pronouncing titles exactly as they are written.

“Yes, I’d like to talk about Eggs Plus Ham. Sorry, is it not called that? But, that’s how it’s written? Eggs plus-sign Ham. Oh, do you not want people to call it that? You’d prefer them to say Eggs AND Ham? Would you like me to change that to an ampersand? Yeah, thought you would.”

When you do end up seeing one of those titles crops up, what you're really witnessing is the death of a marketer’s soul. Try as hard as you might, you just can’t hashtag a bracket.

So spare a thought for the marketing team at the New Wimbledon, who as part of the Richard Foreman season in their studio (the Time and Leisure Studio - there’s another terrible name for you) had to deal with the unsociable Pain(t).

Spare a thought for me too, because I had just passed the theatre on my way to meet my friend Ellen for tea and cake and I had spotted something unexpected on the poster.

“It’s 18+,” I said. “I did not know that when I booked.”

“What does that mean? Nudity, I guess.”

Yeah. Nudity. Now, I’m not fussed about nudity on stage. Even on tiny, intimate, studio stages. But that age warning worried me.

“It won’t be that bad,” Ellen soothed as she walked me back to the theatre apres-cake. “It’s Wimbledon. Probably just a few bare bums.”

Well, that was cold comfort.

“Can I check your bag please?” asked the sole person standing in the studio foyer.

Tucked into the side of the New Wimbledon, the studio lurks between amongst a line of squat looking shops.

It’s a bit of a shock after the New Wimbledon proper. No marble staircases. No gilt curlicues stuck on the walls. No stained glass.

Instead I was directed up a grey staircase. Purposely grey. With paint rather than breeze blocks, but still. Grey. Its knock-off Farrow and Ball credibility knocked still further by the purple balustrade. Even the doors, still set with their stained glass panels, got the grey treatment.

 

Like the stained glass doors on just down the stairs, the bones of this old building had been covered up with all the sniffiness of a Victorian lady unable to look upon the bare legs of her dining table least it provoke inappropriate thoughts.

Talking of inappropriate thoughts, what was that noise?

Panting. Female panting. Very excited female panting. And moaning. Very decidedly female and distinctly excited panting and moaning.

The top of the stairs was crowded with men.

Somehow I didn’t think any of them were the source of this symphony of sex.

Nor was the woman balancing the tickets on a small ledge that I could only presume was serving as our box office that night.

“Name?” she said, barely looking up as she was buffeted by people squeezing past.

“Is my name in the programme?” came a voice loud with laughter from the back of the crowd. “My name better be in the programme.”

Let’s just hope the there was no one from the marketing team in ear shot. That’s not the kind of joke that anyone wants to hear after battling against a print deadline. Least of all after they’ve spent months having to deal with that blasted set of brackets.

Name or no, I grabbed a programme and went into the theatre. Red lights simmered in a haze over the stage, and the moans grew more intense. I peered through the gloom, trying to work out where I should sit. At the back. Obviously.

That decided, I made my way up the steps towards back, and promptly tripped down a step, making my entrance to the row rather more dramatic than I had intended.

“I would have done that too if I hadn’t seen another person trip earlier,” said a lady in my newly chosen row, not unkindly.

“It’s all part of some masterplan,” I said, recovering my bag and my dignity.

“They’re secretly filming it.”

“It’ll be all over the internet by next week,” I agreed.

Though if the Time and Leisure (that name…) really wanted to go viral, they should have kept the camera trained on my face during the show. Never have I put on such a varied display of facial expressions: from squinting against the lights being blasted into the audience, to bewilderment, perplexion, and puzzlement.

Now, I consider myself an experienced theatre-goer. I’ve been to the theatre more times this year than most would even attempt in a lifetime. But nothing in the 73 shows I had seen in 2019 could have prepared me for Pain(t).

The disconnected phrases. The lack of characters. The complete contempt for storytelling.

I had to go way back to 2012, to In the Republic of Happiness, to find a mental-match to store Pain(t) with.

After a while I let my brain off the hook, and started planning my dinner. At only 70 minutes long I could be at home before ten, throwing up a whole world of culinary possibilities.

Ellen had been right. It was only Wimbledon.

I’ll leave the genuinely 18+ exploits for Magic Mike Live.

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End of the line

Is the Network Theatre a cool theatre? For some reason, I’d always had it filed away in my brain as a cool theatre. Something to do with the location (down a scary road down the arse end of Waterloo Station), or the name perhaps. Whatever. I’ve always considered it one of the capital’s cool theatres, which is probably why I’ve never been before.

And why, when it came to get the Network ticked off my list, I couldn’t damn well find it.

According to Google Maps, I should be standing right on top of it, but there was nothing there but an empty road and a blank wall.

Thankfully, a small niggle of intuition told me that I should check the Network’s own website, and there I found the charming warning “Network Theatre is rumoured to be difficult to find, so check out the map and directions below before your first visit.” But more importantly, up top and in bold, they are the foresight to include: “While the VAULT Festival is on 30 January – 17 March 2019, please use the Launcelot Street entrance, located off Lower Marsh, between Greggs the Bakers and a repair shop. Festival Assistants will be there to guide you.” Brilliant. I knew exactly that was. I even knew what the Festival Assistants looked like. Pink jackets. That’s what they wore.

Back down the road I went, down a flight of stairs, road the corner, past Greggs, down Launcelot Street, and there, waiting at the bottom, was a pink-jacketed Vault rep.

“Hello,” she called out to me when I hurried down the road towards here. “Are you here for the Network Theatre?”

“I am!” I puffed back.

“For The Limit is it?”

“It is!”

“Excellent,” she grinned back. “It’s just this way,” she said, moving towards some tall metal gates. They looked very official what with their number key pad and signs and industrial lighting overhead. She pushed it open and held it open for me, using her free hand to point down the street beyond. Well, I say street, but really it’s a tunnel. If you ever take the exit from Waterloo Station that’s just past the MacDonald’s, the one that faces onto the Old Fire Station, and wondered what was down that dark and dingy alleyway on your right, the one always full of service vehicles and men in hi-vis jackets, well… it’s the Network Theatre.

“It’s on your left,” she explained. “There’s a big Vault Festival banner by the entrance.”

Good thing too, because even knowing it was on the left, I could have walked past it a hundred times without seeing it if it wasn’t for the banner.

If subtly is cool, the Network Theatre is by far the coolest venue in London. It’s like those fancy restaurants that don’t even put a number on their door, figuring everyone worth knowing already knows about the place, and everyone who doesn’t, they wouldn’t want turning up anyway.

Once you step through the door, there’s no question of where you are. I doubt Network Rail goes in for dark red receptions. Nor do I imagine them to be soundtracked by the distant strains of a vocal warm up.

For once at a Vault venue, there was no usher wearing a tablet slung over their shoulder on a string. There was a proper box office. With a laptop and everything.

“The bar is open if you want to have a drink before the show,” said the woman manning the desk after we’d sorted out the business of names. No need for tickets or even admission passes it seems. Give your name and go straight in. That might just be a Vault thing though. The Vault Festival doesn’t anything as old fashioned as tickets. It’s all tablets on strings and pdf e-tickets down their way.

Through the door on the right, and I was plunged into a dark corridor. Very dark. The red of the reception was left behind and was replaced by theatre blacks, a curtain separating corridor from theatre-space. The warbled notes of the warm up intensified.

My eyes searched for anything in the black, a corner, a seam, a crack -anything to guide me through. I kept on walking, and eventually a slip of light opened up on the left, pouring out from the bar. I dove into it, finding myself blinking against the sight of the mint green walls.

Oh… this was not what I was expecting. With the rows of faux leather chairs, and sad looking bookshelves, it looked more like a dentist’s waiting room than the bar of a theatre. Especially not a cool theatre.

Perhaps, I thought, with a flash that took me by way too much surprise, perhaps the Network Theatre wasn’t a cool theatre at all. Perhaps I’d got it all wrong. Perhaps the Network was really just only of those weird little outer London theatres that had mistakenly found its way to Waterloo after getting on the wrong train. It happens to everyone at some point, why not to a theatre?

But then, with an equally surprising flash, another idea took hold.

It was all part of an ironic aesthetic. A theme bar. And the theme was train station waiting room, circa 1974.

That made much more sense.

With a smug stride, I strode over to the bookshelves to check out what titles that they had on offer. Train timetables and trainspotters’ guides, I bet myself. And those official looking leather-bound tomes were probably some old bylaws of the rail network or something equally wryly dull.

I stood staring at them for a full twenty seconds before I my brain was able to process what they were.

Playtexts.

Normal playtexts.

As you might find in any theatre bar with literary pretensions.

Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard. John Osborne. Joe Orton. David Hare.

It was a good collection to be fair, but…well, it’s not quite the library at The Bush, is it?

I moved onto the leather bound books, hoping that there at least me might get a wink of wit.

I crouched down to get a proper look at them.

Readers Digests. Every one.

When I said it looked like a dentist’s waiting room, I didn’t realise quite how accurate that was.

“Can I have a Diet Coke?” someone asked at the bar.

I nodded approvingly. Good choice. The dentists’ choice.

“Its room temperature, just so you know,” said the barman as he placed a can down in front of her.

Warm coke? Ergh. Just the thought was enough for my stomach to roil over.

I escaped back to the safety of the black corridor, where such travesties are hidden in the shadows.

Thankfully, the house was open by this point (the black curtain had been drawn back), so I went in. This was lucky, as it meant I had a pick of seats, and I could select one that had a freesheet on it. Now I understand the logic of only placing one freesheet on every other chair, as most people going to the theatre tend to do it in twos, but as a frequent solo flyer, I don’t want to be left in the cold when it comes to knowing who’s in the cast.

Especially this cast… I mean, come on. A musical about a lady mathematician during the French Revolution… I was never not going to love it. I didn’t understand a word of the maths, but you know I love me some britches action.

At the end of the show, our star (who I know is called Nicola Bernardelie because I got me a freesheet. You won’t find that information anywhere else. Believe me. Not even the theatre company’s own website. I’ve looked. Sort it out, Bottle Cap Theatre) stepped forward and politely asked us to write a review and to get out, because the next batch of audience members would be arriving any minute.

I did as I was told. Both in the getting out quickly, and the writing of a review (ta-daaaa!!!).

Back out in the weird, tunnel-street, I struck off in the direction of Waterloo. I didn’t get very far.

“Oh,” I said, turning to the two women walking behind me… “I think we’re locked in?”

It did appear that way. Large metal gates blocked the exit.

“Just push it,” said one with a knowing smile.

I pushed it, and it swung open easily. I matched her knowing smile with an embarrassed one.

Whatever the coolness-level of the Network Theatre, it seems I’m not going to reach it any time soon.

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You’re in a cult; call your dad

After bidding goodbye to my intrepid theatre-pie tasters, it was time for me to head off to my next show.

Oh, you didn't think I was done for the day, did you? This is a four-show weekend, my friend. Five if you include Friday night's convoluted trip to the Barbican.

I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Not really. 

My next show was only down the road, in the basement of the Travelling Through bookshop.  

This is my first bookshop if the marathon. 

I've done the former library that is The Bush, and the library-library that is the London Library. But no bookshop. 

Unless we count the Samuel French bookshop being based in the Royal Court, but I think we can all agree that we won't be doing that. 

So, there we were. On Lower Marsh Street, about to find out if bring able to purchase the books on the shelves makes a difference to the theatre they surround. 

Travelling Through is a very small shop. Or at least, that's how it feels when you are crammed shoulder to shoulder with the rest if the audience, as you wait for one of the Vault Festival ushers to check you in on their, by now familiar looking, tablets. 

After Helen's comment at the Vaulty Towers, suggesting that waiting around while holding a pie was actually part of the show, I did wonder whether this close proximity to my fellow audience members was an attempt to show us what life was like for a book, tucked up on the shelf next to its brethren. But the house was soon opened and we filed downstairs, and I forgot all about it.

The little basement cafe is a cosy space. Long tables take up most of the room, but they'd managed to fit in enough tall poufs for us all to sit on.  Each one topped with a freesheet, which was a nice touch. You don't see many of those in the Vault Festival, which is such a shame. And not just because I'm a paper freak. Even with the wonders of the internet housed in our hand, its surprisingly tricky to find out the names of people involved in shows without one. Everyone talks big game about programmes having had their day, but I think we've still got a while to go before I'm made redundant. I mean, they're made redundant. They. Not me. I can do other things than producing programmes. I swear. Please don't fire me.

At one end, a woman cradled a mug of tea. Somehow she'd managed to score an entire table to herself. 

It was xxx. Our performer. 

We all pretended not to notice. 

"What's your view like," asked a glamorous looking woman as she took the pouf next to me.

I glanced over at xxx to assess the situation. 

"Limited," I admitted.

She considered this. "I think I'll sit on my leg, " she said, tucking up one leg under her. 

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Won't someone think of the children

“Everyone, step behind the yellow line,” came a shout from down the platform. “It’s for your own safety. The train is trying to leave.”

This was met by derisive laughter. There was no where to go. No where to step back to. Every inch of platform-space was filled with an impatient crowd of people who had just been ejected from their train, shoving against the tired commuters who had been waiting there for a train for more than half an hour by this point.

The platform was so full, there were still people stuck on the train. Unable to get off. They clung onto the frame above the doorway, rocking on their heels and swinging themselves in the void between train and platform, serene against the tirade of abusive that was being aimed at them.

“Get off the bloody train,” screamed a woman, hammering on the windows to get their attention.

The man inside looked up from his phone and waved at her.

“It can’t leave until you get off,” she screamed again, this time with hand gestures.

He looked back at down at his phone. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Guards in orange jackets squeezed their way up and down the platform, dogged by calls of “what’s going on? You’re not telling us anything!” everywhere they went.

“The train’s cancelled,” they would throw out at random intervals.

It was nearly seven o’clock.

I had to be at the next theatre on my list in 45 minutes.

As I was buffeted along by the movement of the crowd, I tried to focus my mind on the maths. It was a fifteen minute journey. Add another five minutes at the end for getting to the venue. 20 minutes. The train was going to take another ten minutes to get off this platform. At least. 30 minutes. The next train was four minutes away, but I couldn’t take that one. I needed the one after. 40 minutes. 40 minutes would work, as long as there weren’t any more delays.

A guard got on the train, chivvying off the last few hangers-on.

With a symphony of warning beeps, the doors closed.

Inside a man walked down the train.

“Where’s he going?” someone asked. “I thought the train wasn’t going to Enfield.”

A guard looked up from his phone. “He’s going the wrong way,” he muttered, quickly dialling a number. “The driver’s going to the wrong end of the train,” he muttered as everyone exploded into giggles.

Eventually the driver found the right end of the train, and removed it from the station.

A few minutes later, another train replaced it.

I had to plant my feet on the ground and pull of a near Matrix-level backbend to avoid getting swept onto it with the pure force of the people crowding on.

“I'm on,” shouted a man into his phone as his foot hit the get inside the door. “I'm on, I think I'm on.” He fell back onto the platform. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered, going in for another attempt. ”I’m on!” he cried out triumphantly as the doors closed, sealing him in.

Except his jacket had bunched up and was not sticking out between the doors. A man left behind on the platform helpfully prodded it back in.

 

 

Now you're on the far side, in the middle block, right on the other end

Far side, middle block, I repeated. Ignoring the seat specifics 

Oddly specific. I should have known better

Row c?

No, row b, I said staring at the second row.

There aren't seat numbers? I asked.

No, you have to count

 

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The importance of being invisible

There’s a school of thought amongst theatre-people, or more specifically, theatre-journalists, that arts venues should be integrated into the daily lives of the community. Not just serving the locals, but being right there, amongst them, in the most literal, physical sense.

The Guardian for one have been banging on about it for a decade now. Ever since the financial crisis - just over ten years ago. Get all those empty high street shops, and hand them over to some artists to play with.

Which, I suppose, is exactly what Tara Theatre did. Except 20-odd years before we’d even heard of sub-prime mortgages.

Before Tara Theatre was Tara Theatre is was a chiropodists. And before that an opticians. And before that, a drapers.

I know all this because I looked it up.  Because it was the least theatre looking theatre I'd ever seen. And I've been to a theatre on a barge.

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Part of a terrace of shops, and still sporting its large shop window, it blends in nicely with all the other businesses on Garrett Lane.

Which may go some way to explaining how I managed to walk right past it. Twice.

Thankfully, I was alone in my lack of geographical awareness, as the foyer was packed when I did eventually manage to fgure out that this lovely well-lit cafe was actually a lovely well-lit theatre.

To be fair to me though, as theatres go, the cafe elements are strong in this one.

From the bank of bottles behind the box office, to the neat little table and chairs in front of that window, to the reading nook, and the jar of cookies on the counter.

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I stared at the cookies while I waited to collect my ticket.

They looked good. They looked really good.

They had Smarties on them.

Thankfully, just as I was about to break out my purse, the queue cleared and I was next in line.

Ticket acquired it was time to explore.

Which, given that the front of house areas are all fitted into a floor space meant to contain a drapers, takes a surprisingly long time. Most of which was taken up by the tiny garden. Covered by a Mark of Zorro of multi-coloured fairy lights and dotted with small tables and chairs, the Tara terrace really is the most delightful spot. Even if the frighteningly warm February weather had forsaken us and a more appropriately spring-like chill had taken over.

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 “Another big set of Indian doors,” cried out a woman as she stepped out into garden. “Look!”

The man she was with looked as he was bid, and then, without another word, they both turned around and walked back inside.

The doors were very impressive. As were the ornaments that decorated the walls, high enough that they blocked any hint of the busy street beyond. I can just imagine it would be the perfect place to bask in the summer.

Not so much in February. But I basked anyway.

It was almost a shame to say goodbye to it and head into the theatre.

The huge, carved Indian doors that lead through to the theatre space had been flung open.

With the bare brick walls and high ceilings, it could have looked like any fringe venue in London. But trust old Tara to do things differently. High up on the walls are massive carved shutters, sitting on runners just waiting to be pulled back by bright red ropes.

As I snapped some photos, something else red caught my attention.

A paper napkin. Doing its very best to envelop the thickest cookie I had ever seen in my life. It was topped with Smarties.

My row was filling up. There was no way to get out without disturbing them. I was stuck in my seat. Without a cookie.

The cookie owner sat in the row in front of me. I stared at his cookie longingly, regretting every life decision that are led to me sitting there, cookie-less.

Just as I was thinking these thoughts, the cast came in (all two of them), introduced themselves (as Ayesha and Kudzanayi) built the set (put up a banner), introduced the play (The Importance of Being Earnest), and started shaking hands. 

Oh. 

That wasn't a good sign. 

Hand shaking this early on was a clear indication that there would be high levels of interaction later on. 

I was right. 

The hand shaking was followed up by the offer of invisible cucumber sandwiches to those sitting in the front row.

I was not in the front row. 

I did not get an invisible cucumber sandwich. 

Don't get me wrong. I would rather not have an invisible cucumber sandwich, but if I did get one, I'm fairly certain I would have eaten it.

Whether it was extreme politeness or some other reason, every single person in the front row took a sandwich and then abstained from eating it. I don't know what happened to them (it's hard to keep track of invisible foodstuffs) but I like to imagine that they all got swept away at the end of the night.

"Untouched, again!" the stage manager would say with a disapproving shake of her head. "Such a waste." And then with a heavy sigh they'll be disposed of in the brown bin.

Anyway, more fool them I say, because the front row was soon called upon to provide all sorts of assistance, and they could have done with the sustenance. From acting the flowers to Cecily's watering can, to playing actual roles with actual lines, this was a production that involved getting, well, involved

So much so that the house lights stayed on throughout, in an artistic decision that theatre people might call "shared light," (in that the actors are working by the same light the audience are in) but around here I call "really fucking uncomfortable."

I froze, and prayed to the theatre gods that Ayesha and Kudzanayi wouldn’t need to look deeper into the audience for their helpers.

It was very stressful maintaining such stillness. Especially when you need to laugh.

That is, until the tongue clicking started. 

Both determined to fill the role of Lady Bracknell and resigned to sharing it, Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford both gave her a characteristic cluck that sent tingles racing across my scalp. Yup, for the second time in this marathon, I'd had my ASMR triggered by a play.

So relaxing. I unfroze and allowed myself to laugh along properly.

Which certainly helped distract me from the sight of the young man sharing his cookie with his companion. 

That cookie really did look very good.

Although, saying that, it does strike me as a strange sort of snack to have in the theatre. Can't think why though. My reasoning is probably based on it not being a traditional theatre foodstuff, like ice cream and overpriced wine. If I started seeing cookies consumed around the West End, no doubt I would thinl it perfectly normal in a matter of months. I mean, it's quiet, self contained, and doesn't cause too many crumbs. Why shouldn't we all eat cookies to accompany our play watching? 

Nicki, who you might remember from the Adelphi pie-eating-trip, regularly sneaks baked goods into theatres. I say sneaked, but according to her, the bag checkers wave them through easily enough. They're on the lookout for sandwiches. No. Seriously. That's what they've told her. Fondant Fancies are fine, but baguettes are banned. 

No mention on the status of invisible sandwiches. Presumably they get through without being spotted.

The play over, I retraced my steps, trying to get the photos I'd missed on the way in. 

Two months into my marathon and I've become very brazen. I even asked an usher to move so that I could get a photo of those carved wooden doors.

Once I'd thoroughly annoyed everyone, in was time to go. 

But, I still had one bit of unfinished business to take care of.

"How much is the cookie?" I asked at the bar.

"£1."

Well, that settled that then. I was having me one of those.

"Having a cookie?" laughed a perfectly strange man as I tucked it away in my bag. 

Honestly, I don't see why anyone is interested in what people do or do not choose to eat. As if they have nothing better to occupy their thoughts with...

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