Friendly Fire

On my last visit to the Park Theatre I promised myself I’d be back before the end of the summer in order to soak up that sweet, sweet air conditioning. 

It’s now September, and while we haven’t quite completed the descent into fall, it’s definitely on the way, so I better get a shift on. 

I make my way over to Finsbury Park, stopping just long enough on Clifton Terrace to take a photo of the outside of the theatre and almost get run over by a double decker. 

Inside it’s bright and buzzing and the woman on the box office gives me a great big smile as I go over and give me name. 

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“Huh, that’s strange,” she says, rummaging around in the ticket box and clearly not finding anything. 

I begin to panic, worrying that I booked the matinee or something equally stupid. 

Seitching to the evening won’t be easy. It’s all sold out.

“Shall I get my confirmation email up?” I ask, pulling out my phone. The email is already loaded behind my lock screen, because you know, I like to be prepared. It’s the anxious person in me. 

“These items can be picked up from Box Office. Warheads on Saturday 07 September 2019 at 19.45 in Park90.” 

It is Saturday 7 September. I didn’t make a mistake. For once. 

The box officer looks at her computer screen and frowns. “It says it’s already printed,” she says, sounding a mite confused. I can’t blame her. I’m a mite confused too. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do a print-at-home thingy, for one because I hate that shit, but also because I don’t have a printer. 

“Ah ha!” says the box officer. “Here you go. It’s with a programme!” 

Oh yeah! I’d forgotten I’d preordered one of those. She hands me the programme with the ticket slotted over the top. 

“The one time I try and be efficient,” I sigh. 

“That’s all on me,” the box officer says. 

“I just knew I wouldn’t have change!” I try and explain. “Never again. I promise you.” 

“I really appreciate you preordering a programme,” she assures me, and I realise that my attempts to good-naturedly take the blame on this issue are making me sound like an arse. 

I better get out of here. 

I scuttle off up the stairs and follow the signs to Park90, the smaller of the two Park spaces. 

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Up onto the landing, through a door, and down a long, red, corridor. 

A front of houser rushes the other way. 

“There you go,” he calls at me as we pass. “That way. Ushers will sort you out.” 

Well, alright then. 

At the end of the corridor, a ticket checker stands guard on the door. I show my ticket. She stares at it. The seconds tick past. I wonder if I’m supposed to do something at this point. Provide some sort of supplementary information. Perhaps I should get out the programme to show her. But whatever she was looking for, she seems to find it, and waves me through. 

The Park90 is a black box space, set up in traverse for tonight’s performance. I look around, trying to work out where I want to sit. Now usually in unreserved seating, I like to go for the end of the third row, but here there are two third rows and I need to decide what view of the stage I want. Throw in the fact that the third row is actually the back row (on both sides) and I’ve got all kinds of thinking to do before I sit down. As I try and process all this, I spot something large and fluffy down by my feet. 

It’s a dog. 

A very beautiful dog. 

An Alsatian. 

Or at least, I think it’s an Alsatian. It’s hard to tell. It’s really dark in here. 

Whatever breed, it’s definitely a dog, and they are lying down quite contentedly next to the end of the front row, beside their master. 

Well, that throws all my cogs back into a whirr because now I have to add in the extra dog-based element into my thought-processes. Do I want to sit near the dog? I do, of course, want that. But I also want to be able to see the dog, which would mean selecting a seat on the opposite side. 

I look back down at the dog. 

They are wearing a service dog harness. 

That settles it. 

I pick my way over to the other side of the stage. 

I don’t want to be near the dog, because being near the dog will mean I’ll be tempted to pet the dog, and I’m fairly certain you’re not meant to pet service dogs while they’re on duty. So I’m going to find a place where I can stare at them adoringly every time the play gets dull. 

Third row. At the end. 

No, wait. That’s too far away. 

Third row. In the middle. 

Perfect. 

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I get out my programme, but it’s far too dark to read in here. 

So dark that people have to lift their hands to wave as friends come through the door, lest these newcomers end up sitting next to a stranger. 

The front of houser I’d met in the corridor directs people around, helping them locate their plus ones, and filling in the gaps. It mat be a sold out show, but by the looks if it, some audience members must have got stuck in the bar, as there’s a big chunk of empty seats still going spare when the doors are closed. 

The blokes next to me sure spent a good deal of time there. 

They came in carrying beers, but I don’t think it’s their first round of the night. 

They are very actively not watching the play. 

One gets out his phone, flicking between apps while this tale of men broken by combat plays out mere feet away from us. 

He shifts seats, moving away from me to whisper something very loudly to his mates before sliding back again. I wonder if he too is trying to get a good view of the dog. 

I look over. The dog is sitting up. They don’t look overly keen about the whole combat thing either. As our soldiers shout and throw themselves across the tiny stage, the dog sits up, backing away towards the door. 

The usher leans down to stroke the top of the dog’s head. 

The owner looks back, but doesn’t say anything. 

Unlike my drunk friends in the back row who are only pausing in their conversation long enough to loudly exclaim at every plot point. Well, two of the friends. The third one buries his head in his hands, clearly hoping one of the explosives will blow a sink-hole into the earth for him to crawl into. Occasionally he lifts his head long enough to attempt to shush them, but these two lads are way too far gone to notice. 

And way too gone for anyone else not to notice. 

Even the actors. 

Taz Skylar rounds on them as Craig Fairbrass’ Captain flashes his torch in their direction. 

“If you fuckers don’t stop talking,” shouts Skylar, fully in character as a soldier in the depths of a PTSD-caused breakdown. 

They try to say something but Skylar isn’t having it. “You fat fuck, shut up!” 

There’s a cheer from the other side. 

The lads lapse into silence. 

For a few seconds. 

My neighbour leans over to his mate to say something. 

Joseph Connolly, playing the flatmate, and looking for all the world like he’s just found dishes in the sink for the third day running, gets up, leaning right into our row and narrowing his eyes at the talkers. “You’d better leave,” he says. 

The third friend sinks low, hands covering the top of his head as if the actors’ words were live ammunition. 

I look over at the usher. She’s over on the other side, grinning at the dog and rubbing his ears. They both look very happy. 

But we all make it through to the end of the play. 

A front of houser hands us leaflets on our way out. They have stats about the links between military service and homelessness on them. It’s shocking and depressing and I don’t know what to do with it other than shove it in my pocket to think about later. 

“I have never been so embarrassed in all my life,” says someone as we file out down the red corridor. 

“I’m going to have words with them,” a young woman says darkly. Because that’s the thing. They all knew each other. The cast. And half the audience. It was the last performance in the run. And all those threats of this-is-your-last-chance-to-see-me had paid off. 

At least they turned up. 

If those empty seats were any indication, at least one contingent never made it out of the bar. 

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Hello!

I'm back at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre this evening. Turns out they have another venue.

I actually already knew this. When I was there last time, and we were led off to the small room in another building, I had definite memories of having gone to the Bernie Grant before, and it not involving trans-courtyard travel.

But I didn't mention it, because I am a strong believer in ignoring things until they go away.

Turns out these beliefs are unfounded though, and the actual theatre at the Bernie wasn't going away no matter how long I looked in the other direction.

Which I find very rude of it, but what can you do.

Still, the show should be good. My friend Helen went to see it the last time it was doing the rounds, and I remembered her telling me that she not only enjoyed it, but it lead to having thoughts. I'm not sure I have the brain-space for thoughts right now, but I'm willing to give it a go.

So, back in Seven Sisters I am, and into the main building.

It looks busy tonight. There are people hanging out in the courtyard and there's a queue at the bar.

I'm going in the other direction though. Towards the box office.

There's someone already there. A woman looking at one the flyer for tonight's show.

"It's a play," explains the box officer.

"When does it start?"

"At 7.30. It's 80 minutes without an interval," she says, getting straight to the most important selling point.

But this woman doesn't seem convinced. "Let me ask..." she says, wandering off.

Hmm. Well, I'm sold. 80 minutes no interval? The best damn type of play there is.

"Hello!" says the box officer.

I bounce over to the counter. "Hi! The surname's Smiles?"

"What's the first name?"

I give it and a second later she's handing me my ticket.

But I'm not paying attention. I just spotted something on the counter. A pile of somethings.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask, picking up one of the programmes. There's no price indicated, but you can never be sure with these things.

"Of course!" she says.

So I do.

I take my prize out to the courtyard to have a look.

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It's a freesheet. Just credits and biogs. But it's very nicely printed, and, well... it's free. So I ain't complaining.

"There's no signage!" someone cries out.

I look over. A lady sitting on a shiny mobility scooter is complaining to a front of houser.

He tries to calmly give her directions, but she doesn't look very happy.

"But you didn't tell us this before! And there are no signs!"

She moves off and the front of houser trots after her, giving directions with big hand movements that suggest a very long journey.

I go back to my fancy freesheet.

Looks like they're turning Black Men Walking into a TV show. So that's exciting.

More people keep on turning up. This is clearly the place to be tonight.

A bloke standing near me is talking about the protests.

"Yeah... there were a few thousand," he says. "But Boris just didn't give us enough notice. You need three weeks to plan something like that properly. Organise coaches to get people down from the north and all that."

Yeah, I can't imagine why Boris didn't give three weeks' notice for the protesters to organise themselves.

I look around, through the glass walls of the Bernie Grant. A queue is forming.

I better get myself in it.

The entrance to the theatre must be down the other end, becuse the queue is going right past the box office, in front of the main entrance, and down towards the bar, neatly blocking off everything of importance.

Newcomers squeeze through us to pick up there tickets, and then squeeze through us again to get down to the end of the queue.

As set ups go, it's not great.

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Someone with a radio makes a noble attempt to move us. "Over this way please," he says, flapping his hands to indicate that we should press back against the doors.

The lady with the scooter inches herself through.

We all shuffle dutifully out if the way.

The house opens, and the queue begins to move.

Slowly.

As I approach the front, I begin to see why.

People hand over their ticket reams, still attached to the booking info and receipt, forcing the usher to unfold and refold them to get to the ticket section.

I have mine all prepped and ready to go. The receipts and whatnot torn off and stowed in my bag. It has never occured to me up until this point that this wasn't standard behaviour.

But my new-found oddness isn't my big concern right now. Last time I was here, we had our tickets taken from us, and never returend. As if they were personalised admission passes and not perfectly normal paper tickets. I keep a close eye on the front of houser, making sure he hands the tickets back. He does. Thank the theatre gods.

It's my turn.

I had my ticket, and only my ticket, over.

"Fantastic!" he says, handing it back and I get that glow satisfaction of having done something right. I look around smugly. This is how you do it, everyone! Tear those tickets! Don't be handing over any useless ticket-stock. The ushers don't need to be knowing your address.

Through a door and into a dark corridor we go.

There's someone already on stage. A young woman. Gazing out into the distance. That's Dorcas Sebuyange, according to the freesheet.

And yes, this is the place I remember. This is the theatre. Floor level stage, with a big bank of seating rising off from it.

I start climbing. An usher blocks off the steps, guiding us to fill the rows from the front. "Just fill up this row," she orders, waving us in. "All the way down, please."

"Can we sit further back?" asks the lady standing behind me.

The usher considers this for a moment, then agrees, stepping out of the way so that they can pass.

There are those double flip-down seats, and no one wants to share, so that even with the ushers best efforts, there are gaps all over the place.

As the rows fill up, new arrivers have the squeeze through in order to find spare spots.

I shift down to allow a couple to sit next to each other.

The woman doesn't look impressed. She peers over my shoulder and points to a spare bench in the middle. "Is anyone sitting there?" she asks, ignoring the twin jackets that are very obviously saving a spot.

"Yeah, sorry," comes the reply.

With an irritated sigh, she takes the clearly inferior bench next to me.

The house lights dim.

The play starts.

We're in Yorkshire. A group of black men are meeting up for their monthly walk.

I do enjoy a play that fulfills the promises made in its title.

And I can see why Helen liked it.

As the men very pointedly say hello to every person they pass, I'm reminded of the cliff walk I went on with some friends last year. Helen (I don't need to remind you who she is, do I? She’s a blog regular) spent the entire nine-odd mile walk wishing everyone we encountered a cheery good morning, and grinning herself silly at their stilted and awkward replies. It was the first time I'd witnessed her style of aggressive politeness in action, and I've been in slightly terrified admiration ever since.

And yes. There are thoughts. Little thoughts. That fit in my head.

"Sorry," says the bloke sitting a few places down from me.

He wants out.

And there isn't room to escape.

We all twist around in our seats, shifting out knees to one side so that he can crab-walk along the row and out.

An usher follows him out the door.

A few minutes later, the play ends.

So that was pointless.

On the way out, I decide to walk. Not all the way to Hammersmith, that would take all night. But to Turnpike Lane. Which is quite far enough.

I've always been a walker-thinker. My feet are connected straight to my brain.

And as I dart across roads, and make my way around a scary-looking park, small thoughts turn into medium-sized thoughts. And by the time I get off the tube in Hammersmith, the medium thoughts have grown into big thoughts, and they're crowding out my brain. All I can think about it the search for connection to the landscape that surrounds us, to the history that lies beneath our feet. Of staking a claim to the place we call home. Of aggressive politeness.

It's late now. And dark.

A guy passes me on the pavement, talking on his mobile.

He stops. "Bonjour!" he says to me. "Ça va?"

The big thoughts shatter.

"Ça va, fuck off," I very much don't say as I keep on walking.

I think I'll leave the people person bullshit to Helen.

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A Goth goes to Redbridge

I've just travelled from one end of the Central Line to the other, and I feel like I have stepped up the train into another county. I'm in South Woodford. Redbridge. Which is not a part of London I'm familar with, and yet recognise instantly. The shops are all exactly the same as anywhere else in London. There's a Starbucks. And a Marks. And I can spot a Waitrose coming up ahead, but even so. Something feels off.

I feel different.

Or rather, I look different.

Which is odd because I'm wearing my classic combo of great big black skirt and black t-shirt.

And then I realise, it's not me that's changed. It's everyone else.

Do you remember back when I told you about my trip to the artsdepot, and I mentioned how out of place my friend Helen looked in Finchley? Well, that's me in Redbridge.

In a world of untucked pastel t-shirts, I'm walking around looking like Joy Division wrote my personal theme song.

Although apparently, I'm yet to perfect my resting bitch face as everyone is smiling at me. It's making me feel paranoid.

A homeless man sitting on the pavement offers me a cheery "Hello Miss!"

A group of men all wearing flip-flops grin as the shuffle past me.

Everyone is happy.

It's weird.

I'm beginning to think they must pump something into the air around here.

The confirmation email I got from the Redbridge Drama Centre after booking my tickets has been the chirpiest I've received to date on the marathon, and by far the most delightful. Following an assurance that Emily and Molly will be busy stuffing my tickets into envelopes as I read, the email goes on to promise a "rather unique!" box office if I "thought better of it and will be picking up tickets."

With nothing further to go on, my brain has been going all sort of wild places (Up a tree! Underground! A hole in the wall you must whisper your darkest secrets into before being allowed inside!), but nothing could have prepared me for the next email.

The show had been cancelled.

That was a serious blow.

I could actually feeling my heart sinking as I read it.

This isn't the first time this had happened to me. I'd planned to get to the Redbridge right at the start of my marathon. It would have been one of my first venues. I had it all diarised and planned out. And then the day before, when I went on their website to buy the ticket, there was nothing but a note to say that the show was no longer going ahead, but I could see it at some other theatre on its tour. Which was no bloody use to me.

The disappointment was compounded by the problem that, despite the name, the Redbridge Drama Centre doesn't have all that much drama going on. It's taken nearly half a year for me to find another marathon-qualifying event on their appalling website for me to go to.

So, I was feeling a wee bit stressed about the whole thing.

But all was not lost.

It was not really cancelled. Just postponed. Moved from the Friday to the Saturday.

I didn't need to do anything. My tickets had been moved across to the new date. All I had to do was turn up.

Fair enough. I could move things on my end. I wasn't missing out on what might be my last chance to get to this place before the year runs out. Except, the email didn't end there.

"If there are any problems with this," it went on to say. "Please let us know and we will be able to make arrangements for you to see the show on the Friday still."

What on earth...

The show on Friday was cancelled. But I could still see it.

It was all very strange.

I began to wonder whether I had done something wrong. If perhaps I should have paid homage to the keepers of the box office in advance. Perhaps they just already knew that my secrets aren't dark enough.

Maybe it was all a test. And by turning up on Saturday, I have already failed it.

So, it's with some trepidation that I turn off the main road, walk through a housing estate, and pause in front of what looks like an old school building to get a photo of the outside.

There's a ramp leading the way down to the main entrance, which I follow around and go in.

I find myself in a barn-like space. Brick walls painted white. The bar takes up one side, decorated with black umbrellas and a street sign hanging from the ceiling pointing out the way to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (in completely different directions).

In the corner is a model of a cow. I don't have the brainpower to process that right now, so I move on.

Over the other side is... I'm not sure, I have to take a few steps to one side to fully understand it. It's the front of a tube train. Bursting out of a brick tunnel which leads to a back office. The TFL logo is painted on one side, and the driver's seat has a computer next to it.

It must be the rather unique box office!

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They weren't lying.

There's no one sitting inside, so I hang around, trying to make sense of this place.

A woman comes in and slips into the tube carriage. "The box office is now open," she half-sings through the front window, with a Broadway-style opening of her arms.

I sidle my way over as someone in the office calls out: "And the bar!"

"And the bar," the box office lady confirms. "More importantly."

"Everything is open!" I say, not wanting to be left out.

"Are you picking up tickets?" the box office lady asks me. "What's the surname?"

"Smiles?"

"What a lovely name," she says. "I would love that to be my name. I would smile every day."

I give her my standard patter that I dole out whenever anyone shows interest in my surname. It's Scottish. It means small.

"Aww," she says, as she hands over my ticket. "Well, smile through the performance!"

The Redbridge air must be getting to me, because I leave the tube grinning from one ear to the other.

There are a few tables dotted around, but over by the cow (I'm still not ready to contemplate the cow) there's a black sofa that looks mightly comfy and more in keeping with my aesthetic. I lob my bag and myself onto it and watch all the people come in.

It's soon packed. Every table is full of people chattering, excited about the upcoming show. Music is playing. Someone dims the lights. A party atmosphere starts to form.

I just hang out with the cow.

We start by merely side eyeing each other, before I realise that it's not the cow that's looking back at me. She seems to have a see through centre - a glassed off compartment where her four stomachs should be, and through that a poster of two men peer out. It's most disconcerting.

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"The auditorium is now open!" calls a voice from the door on the far side.

I sigh in relief, and head over to join the queue.

The door takes us through a corridor lined with show posters, around a corner, through another room that looks like it belongs in a hospital, round another corner, and this time into a hallway lit by a row of chandeliers. Very la-di-da.

An usher stands guard by the door, checking tickets.

The boy infront of me shrugs.

"You don't need a ticket," she laughs, clearly recognising him. "You just turn up!"

I can't just turn up so I flash her my ticket and she nods me through.

The old man behind me tries to hand his over. "I'm just looking at them," she explains, and he is also nodded through.

Inside is a floor level stage, with a good-sized bank of seating rising up away from it.

I clamber up the stairs, making my way to the back. I don't want to be taking any of the good seats away from these people. But it's not a large theatre, and even from the back few rows, I'm still not all that far from the stage.

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One of the front of housers comes and asks for a surname. "Can I have a show of hands?"

Said owner of surname shows his hands and the front of houser goes over to him. "These are yours I believe," he says, handing over a pair of tickets.

Now, I don't think I've ever seen in-seat ticket delivery. I bet ATG are pissed they didn't think of that.

Tickets all delivered, the show starts. Five minutes late, but no one seems to care. They're all so happy.

I can't say it lasts for long. The show is Elergies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and it is super depressing. A serious of monologues from people who died of AIDS, interspersed with songs.

And that finale, with a massive cast busting out a tune together, filling the entire stage... Really not sure I can take on that on a Saturday night. My poor emotions.

As the doors open, I slip out quickly and hurry back to the tube station.

It's a long way back to Hammersmith.

It's a long way back to anywhere from here. I'm almost grateful that the theatre's programming is so infrequent. The chances of me ever feeling the need to come back here are very slim. Shame though. I did like that box office.

As I cross the North Circular, a man dances out of my way, and then stops, startled.

"Hey!" he says. "I saw you coming the other way."

I give him a confused look and keep on walking, but as I pass his friends I realise that yeah, I do recognise them. They're all wearing those frickin flip-flops!

Oh dear.

It's probably for the best I'm not coming back. Only been here two hours and already people are starting to remember me. They'll be talking about this for years: The day the Goth came to Redbridge.

I better get out of here.

Not my President

So, apparently, The Tabard is not the pub where all the Globe volunteers go to get drunk after having a hard night corraling Shakespeare fangirls.

I am slightly disappointed about this, but mostly relieved. I really didn't want to have to deal with one of those ushers crying into my shoulder as they swear they are going to hang up their red tabard for good if they have to listen to one more dick joke.

It is a pub though. And a pub theatre at that. And with the paned windows, and facade hanging out over the pavement, it does have that look of Tudor England about it. I might be walking past The Swan, if I weren't in Turnham Green. So, who knows. Maybe I'l get lucky.

The effect doesn't last long though, as I walk past the beer garden and spot the entrance to the theatre.

An external staircase, rising out from between the tables in a tunnel that makes me think immediately of those jetways you use to get into planes.

I stop to take a photo, standing far back on the pavement to get it all in: the tunnel, the beer garden, and a little bit of the pub in the background.

But something's wrong with the picture.

I look up.

Someone's waving at me.

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I lower my phone, and he grins.

Do I know him? I don't think I know him.

"It's alright, go on!" he says.

"Sorry!" I apologise, but he just waves his hand in a gesture that suggests I should get on with taking my photo. So I do.

And then I go hide, because I'm now really embarrassed.

But I can't hide forever, and witness protection isn't a thing for theatre marathoners, so off I go, through the beer garden, past the waver, and into the tunnel.

Posters advertising tonight's play, Harbor, line the wall, interspersed with headshots of the cast, and creative credits. So, there's really no excuse not knowing people's names. I dutifully take photos just in case there's no freesheet to be found upstairs.

There's a landing up here, with a low bench under the window. Someone has set themselves up in the corner with the papers and they look very comfortable, I must say. Like having your own personal conservatory, with a pub attached.

I've never been one for hanging out in conservatories though, so I go through the door and find myself in the box office. It's a big one. Big enough for the walls to be lined with counter space, so I'm thinking this is where people hang out during the interval.

I join the queue, give my name to one of the box officers, and get my ticket.

"And there's a complimentary programme for you," she says, handing it over.

Sweet.

I decamp to the corner to have a look at it.

It's not a programme, let's be real. Despite it saying “Programme” on the cover. It's a freesheet. But it's a super-swish freesheet. Professionally printed. Super thick cardstock. Little bit too thick, because that combined with the black background means we've got some cracking on the spine, but that's pretty common with that combo. Which is why you should always spring for lamination when you're a fan of black ink and heavy card.

Yeah, okay. I'm sorry. I'm a print professional. Don't get me started on paper coatings or we'll be here all day.

Inside, there's a nice little biog about the writer. Chad Beguelin is a six-time Tony nominee, apparently. Making him the playwright equivalent of Amy Adams. Always the bridesmaid... Aww. Well, I'm sure his little play is just super.

It's still early, so I hang around in box office, earwigging on all the audience members as they come in to pick up their tickets.

This one sounds a bit upset. She hasn't received any emails from The Tabard in a while, and she's feeling a mite neglected.

"When did this happen? Was it recently?" asks the box officer, all concern. "Because you know, with the introduction of GDPR, the law has changed. We had to start the mailing list from scratch. You should have received an email..."

Never underestimate the public's inability to read an email until they stop getting them.

I should probably go in.

The route takes me past one of those magnificent paned windows overlooking the street, and then into the darkness of the auditorium.

So dark I have to squint to make out the seat numbers.

The bloke in front gets out his phone to use the screen light to guide him to his seat, but I can just about cope without.

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The Tabard is on the larger side of titchy. With proper flip-down, raked seats, and a central aisle. The stage is floor level, and the packed set, a fully-furnished living room by the looks of it, is making everyone who comes in super cautious as they try not to trip over a throw pillow between the entrance and their seats.

With no ushers in the auditorium, the guy sitting across the aisle from me has taken on the role for himself.

"This is D," he says to someone eyeing up the seats in confusion. "The numbers go that way."

And therein lies the problem with having allocated seats in small theatres.

"This is D," he says, raising his voice above the Bruce Springsteen that's being pumped in. "I am six, and the numbers are going up."

A bell must have gone somewhere, because there's suddenly an influx of people and I have my own baffled person standing at the end of my row.

"D?" I ask, figuring if the bloke across the aisle can act the usher, then I should probably give it a go too.

"I need two..." she says.

"It's down that way," I say, pointing at D2 and feeling very pleased with myself about the whole thing. I would make a fucking great usher. I can count! I can point! I can be polite. Sort of. The front of house manager at my work doesn't know what she's missing out on.

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But half-way through drafting my letter to her requesting some shifts, the house lights go down and we're in a vehicle with Jessica Napier's Donna and Constance Des Marais' Lottie, mother and daughter respectively. And you can tell they spend a lot of the time on the road because Lottie is reading and she isn't even the tiniest bit car sick. Plus, the book she's reading is House of Mirth, so, you know she's smart. I mean, yes. I was a pretentious brat as a teenager whose bookshelf was chocked full of classics, and like, I'm a fucking idiot now. But I never read those books in the car. Reading in the car was reserved for trashy novels and maths homework. Unimportant things that I didn't mind throwing up over.

This travelling pair are off on their way to visit Donna's brother. But the fact that she hasn't seen Kevin in over a decade and he's unaware of his rapidly approaching sibling is something Donna doesn’t think worthy of worrying about.

But, you know, Douglas Coglan's Kevin takes it well. Controls his rage, anyway. As does his husband, Ted. And they become one big happy family. Drinking martinis. Looking through scrapbooks. Getting stoned...

Now, The Tabard is a small theatre, and the curls of smoke soon fill the auditorium.

The woman sitting next to me pulls her sleeve over her hands and covers her nose. I'm just glad that I thought to pop in a cough sweet before the show started.

I'll give Beguelin his due. It's a funny play. Even the silent bits are funny. As a character pauses, I find myself grinning just anticipating their next line. I honestly think he'll go far. So, like, don't give up, Beguelin! Seventh time lucky and all that.

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In the interval, the audience buzzes as everyone heads out. No one hangs around in the box office. It's off to the bar with the lot of them.

"It's so good. I didn't know what to expect," says one as she walks past me. And I agree. I didn't know what to expect either. But here we are, and I'm really enjoying it. Even if I am severely troubled by the year this thing is set in. They talk about iPods and Richard Simmons, and don't have mobile phones, which makes me think the early 2000s, but when they go to McDonald's they're drinking from paper straws which doesn't seem right. We were in pure kill-the-turtles mode back then. Very odd.

I use my time to Google the play, and turns out Harbor premiered in 2012 which throws all my theories up in the air and I don't know what's going on or what to think anymore.

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When I go back in, I start examining the set for evidence.

Nicholas Gauci's Ted is wandering around the set wearing a party hat and blowing up balloons, but I ignore him. I have more important things to concentrate on. There's a bookshelf and a few volumes are thick enough that I can read their titles. There's a biography of Bill Clinton, which, okay, whatever, that doesn't help. Likewise the Abraham Lincoln. But next to those, is SPQR. The Mary Beard history of Ancient Rome. Now, that I can use. Because I remember all the fuss when that book came out and it wasn't that long ago. I turn to Google. Published in 2015. Hah. Wait. What?

Okay, so, it's fine. Kevin and Ted are super into British historians and got a copy of the first printing. 2015. That's cool. They just don't like mobile phones. Some people are like that. The rays giving them cancer, or whatever. As for the iPod... Lottie is a weird kid. She likes Edith Wharton after all. Perhaps she's into retro music-devices. Like hipsters with vinyl. She doesn't want an iPhone because... who's she going to call anyway? The dad she doesn't even have a phone number for? Ha. As for all the other apps and things that would be super useful so that she doesn't have to borrow her uncle's laptop the whole time... I don't know. Reasons.

Things become even more confusing when Napier sites George Bush as being in charge, but then the fog clears, and I realise what's happening.

The year doesn't matter, because this isn't our world. Smartphones haven't been invented. Trump isn't president. Instead, there's George Bush. No, not that one. George P. Bush. The son. Or grandson, depending on who your 'George' is. Everyone is super green, with even the multinational fast food companies offering up paper straws as standard.

It's a kinder world. A gentler world.

A world where Mary Beard has her rightful place on every bookshelf.

Which makes it all the harder to cope with all those lovable characters not being able to get their shit together long enough to make each other happy.

As it's time to say goodbye, Donna asks her daughter about House of Mirth. How did things end up for the main character, Lily? Because that's what you do when in the midst of a life-changing event. You ask about a book you had a short conversation about three months back. Lottie is happy to oblige, letting her mom know that everything went wonderfully for the main character.

And so everything's great and everyone is happy, and they are all going to live long and fulfilling lives and... hang on. That's not how House of Mirth ends is it? Fuck.

Bloody Beguelin.

Holding out for a heroine

I'm nearing the end of my Camden Fringe adventure. And it has been an adventure. All these funny little spaces that I wouldn't have had the chance to see without their epic programming. I can almost forgive them for adding venues to the marathon. Almost.

Without the Camden Fringe I wouldn't have needed to check out any comedy venues. They're not part of the remit. But those igenious folks at the festival found a way to stuff some theatre onto those tiny stages, so off I go. To 2 Northdown this time. A place I've never been, or even heard of, which is something I'm starting to get bored of saying relation to Camden Fringe locations.

2 Northdown is on Northdown Street. Number two, as it happens, which is a pretty amazing coincidence. Don't you just love it when that happens.

I've arrived far too early, but there's already a group hanging around outside, waiting to go in.

I hang back and try to get a sense of the place.

It's small. Or rather, narrow. Like a terraced house. Except there are great big doors taking up the ground floor and a winch over one of the upstairs windows, which makes me think this building must have had a more industrial past. It looks nice though. Smart. A little bit classy.

Not sure I want to be hanging out on the pavement outside though.

So I go for a walk, up to Caledonian Road and around in a loop. By the time I get back, it's five minutes before showtime, and the group outside have all relocated. Presumably inside.

I follow their lead.

There's a tiny little foyer inside the door. Just large enough for one person to turn to the left, where there is another door.

Here a posing table has been set up, complete with cash wallet and printed lists. Looks like I've found the box office.

I give my name the girl on table-duty and she draws a line through my name.

"Got you," she says, and she steps back to let me through.

Two steps in and I'm already almost crashing into the back row.

This place is small. A single room. With the bar on one side and the stage on the other.

Even the loos are in here. One on either side of the stage, like soldiers standing sentinel.

There's a bench pressed against the wall, which seems to have become the unofficial line for the loo. The two sides aren't divided by gender. In fact, both of them have a male and female little icon on them, which seems a very binary approach to take for loo-inclusivity in 2019, but oh well. There's a sign underneath, which I figure might be there to explain that the loos are for anyone who wants to take a piss, but when I get my glasses out, I see it's nothing of the kind.

"Please don't use the bathrooms during the performance," it says. "They're not soundproof and it's awkward for everyone."

Ew.

I turn my attention to the decoration.

Framed show posters cover the walls, and by the looks of it, they're all signed. They're from some pretty famous comedians. Famous enough that even I have heard of them, and that's saying something.

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The rest of the space is filled with chairs.

And almost every single one of them is taken.

I spot a single spare seat at the end of the row, and ask the girl sitting next to it if I can take it.

"Yeah!" she cries out enthusiastically.

I don't think I've ever seen someone so happy to have a stranger sitting next to them.

But then, the excitement in this room is at last-day-of-school levels. Everyone is chattering and drinking and hugging.

As new people come in, cries of recognition echo around the room.

My neighbour squeals as she spots a friend and stands up to hug her, leaning right over me to do so.

Something tells me they all know the cast, and they are super pumped to see them on stage.

It's all rather sweet.

And impressive.

There's no way I could pack out an entire venue if I were to put on a show. Maybe, if I really laid on the guilt thick, I might fill out the front row, but the fact that every seat in this place is taken tells me a lot about these performers. Whoever they are.

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Flyers had been left on our seats and I have a look at mine to find out.

Let's see. It's Denni-Tyla Bell and Olivia Martin performing in a play they wrote themselves: Bananas are a funny shape.

I mean, they're not wrong. Bananas are a funny shape.

They're also apparently being sponsored by Bonnie Tyler and in their list of thanks, they credit Russell T Davies. So, my expectations are currently sky-rocketing.

The house lights go down.

There's a roar from the audience. They are here for this.

Although, I'm not quite sure what here is.

The stage lights have gone on, but I can't see anything.

I lean out to the right and catch a glimpse of an arm, but whether said arm belongs to Bell or Martin, I can't tell.

And here is the point where I discover why theatre isn't programmed in comedy venues. The stage may be raised, but unraked seating is never going to be able to cope with the demands of an actor wanting to... sit down.

I do my best, darting from left to right, mirror the head waving of the bloke sitting in front of me, but it's no good. When the performers are sitting, they might as well be invisible to those stuck in the back.

So I settle back in my chair, and just listen.

Bell and Martin's characters are getting ready for a night out. They don't know each other, but they have a lot in common. They're virgins. Not that they're frigid, you understand. No, they're just picky. Like Cher from Clueless. But without the natty tartan suits. And like Cher, they want someone who likes them for them. And they're feeling a bit let down. By the boys who want to get in their pants, the terrible sex ed classes at school, and their own bodies.

I find myself staring at the wall of framed posters, where I can just about see what's going on in the reflections in the glass. They're getting dressed up, doing their hair, and all the while talking to us. Their invisible friend. Their diary. Perhaps even their conscious.

But when it comes time to go out, they take us with them.

Phones rise out of the sea of heads to film the girls as they bop around to club bangers. And I suddenly realise how these two young women managed to fill an entire venue, because they are completely charming and absolute darlings, and I want to be their friend too.

And when it comes right down to it, their show isn't about boys or sex and going out on the pull, it's the power of female friendship, and the importance of sticking up for one another.

And if it came right down to it, I would definitely want Bell and Martin fighting my corner.

And not just because they have Bonnie Tyler and Russell T Davies on speed-dial.

As the stage lights go into blackout, a good chunk of the audience bounces out of their seats and applauds. And keep on going, even when Bell and Martin clearly want to say something.

They thank us all for coming. And the person doing tech. A few tears are shed.

"Everyone can leave!" says Bell to finish things off with a big wave of her arms.

But this lot ain't going. A couple of audience members go up with bouquets of flowers.

Never have I felt so much love in a room.

It's intoxicating.

But it's time for me to go, so that the pair celebrate with their people.

Behind me, the great doors have been opened out onto the street and I slip out, letting the party go on without me.

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On Sundays Peckham wears Pink

I know I diss Peckham a lot in this blog. But that's only because it's so damn hard to get too, and yet still apparently contains half the theatres in London. I've been to Peckham more in the past eight months than I have in my entire life. I mean, seriously. What's up, Peckham? Why so greedy on the theatres? Some of us have to go through life living with only one theatre within walking distance, and you have them everywhere. In drama schools. And old munitions factories. And now, apparently, car parks.

Yup, I'm off to a car park. To watch some contemporary dance.

Because: Peckham.

Anyway, this place, Bold Tendencies, is apparently not just a car park. Or it's not a car park anymore. It's like, a bona fide venue. Or possibly an art gallery. I hadn't heard of it before. But I suspect that's just because I ain't cool enough to be hanging around in car park in Peckham on the reg.

They did send a super intense pre-show email, though.

E-tickets need to be scanned on the rooftop. But the performance is not happening on the rooftop. You need to get a wristband, and then that will allow you down onto Floor 8. But wait, when getting your ticket scanned, make sure the barcode is expanded to fill the entire width of the screen and the brightness is turned way up high. And when you have your wristband, make sure that it's visible to security.

I ignore everything else. Door times. And bar locations. And the artworks on display. I've hit information overload.

But it's fine. I can do this. Download ticket. Fill screen. Get scanned. Wristband on. Down to Floor 8. Flash wristband. Into venue.

Easy.

I'll figure the rest out when I get there.

If I ever do.

Now, I don't want to turn this whole thing into a rant about trains. But seriously, Peckham needs to get itself a tube station. I can't deal with this.

And like, I arrive in Peckham. And I didn't die. So whatever. Here I go.

Although, I've not sure where exactly.

The little circle in Google Maps that is supposed to be me is greyed out and ineffectual, and while that is an accurate reflection of my current state, is not exactly helpful.

I have no idea where I'm going.

I open the pre-show email again, do a bit of scrolling, and yup. There are instructions on how to find this place. So, thank you Bold Tendencies. I needed you, and you were right there. Down Rye Lane, over the pedestrian crossing, towards the Multiplex and up the staircase on my left. Exactly as promised.

I trudge my way up the stairs. Spiralling round and round and getting a good glimpse of the type of rubbish businesses leave on their rooftops.

And then I stop. Because this endless round of spiralling bleakness has stopped. And there's a doorway. And light is streaming out. And suddenly, everything is pink!

The man on the door grins and steps aside to let me through into a pink hallway.

The pinkest hallway I've ever been in.

The pinkest anything I've ever been in.

Well, at least, the pinkest anything I've been in since my best friend's fifth birthday party.

The walls are pink. The floor is pink. The ceiling is pink. The lifts have been painted pink. As have the doors. And the steps.

And not mauve or salmon or coral.

But pink pink.

Proper pink.

Flamingo pink. Or possibly bubblegum.

Oh my god. I just realised. This is it. This is the famous millennial pink. I found it. In Peckham.

And it's everywhere.

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I keep on climbing, and turning, and climbing. And it's pink. All pink.

Do I like it? I don't know. My little goth heart is screaming in agony, but that former five-year-old at her best friend's party is squeeing in delight. And just before the two sides get into a fight, it stops. I'm outside. On a rooftop. And all of London is spread out before me, twinkling in the darkness.

There's a large hut over to my right which I'm fairly confident is the place I'm supposed to get beeped in, but it's no good. I have to check out that view first. I can see everything from up here. There's the London Eye. And the Shard. And the... Walkie Talkie? Is that what it's called? I can't remember. Whatever, it's very impressive.

I take a few photos and then just stand there, breathing in the night air down to the bottom of my lungs. But it's no good. It's been raining all afternoon, and the puddles are beginning to leak into my shoes.

I'm going to go and get beeped.

I go over to the information shed, but there's a slight problem. The reception up here is crap.

Or rather, the reception in Peckham is crap.

I walk around in circles as the ticket downloads, trying not to look like I've having an anxiety attack on a rooftop, but being very aware that I'm doing a bad job of it.

Finally, it downloads. I have my ticket.

Screen brightness up. Screen zoomed in so that the barcode takes up the full width. I join the queue.

One of the box officers catches my eye. "Are you with them?" she asks, indicating a group waiting at the counter.

I tell her I'm not. I don't have friends willing to come see a show in a Peckham car park at 9pm on a Sunday night. But I'm flattered that she thinks that I do.

"I can scan you," she says.

I hold out my phone and she beeps it.

"So," she says. "That's one standing."

She rummages around in a box of wristbands. "I don't seem to have any..."

"Oh no..." I say.

And then it happens.

I don't know why. Something came over me. I couldn't stop myself. I made the joke. You know the one. The joke that anyone who has ever done even a day's worth of customer service has heard a thousand times. "You can upgrade me if you like. I don't mind." I cringe as the words come out of my mouth, but it's too late now. I've said it.

She smiles politely and refrains for leaning over the counter to batter me over the head with her scanner. For which I can only silently thank her and offer her my eternal respect.

"I have some," says her fellow box officer, bringing over another tub and rescuing the both of us.

A red wristband is duly fished out and my very sweet box office gets it ready.

I offer up my wrist and as she sticks it in place, she gives me the rundown of the event.

"The show starts at nine. The doors will be opening soon, and it's one hour. It's in two parts. There will be a short break in the middle, about four minutes. Do you know where you're going?"

"Down one level?" I say, feeling proud and a little bit smug that I remembered that detail from the pre-show email.

"Have you been here before?"

I admit that I haven't, but again, I'm secretly rather pleased that she thinks that I hang out in car parks in Peckham.

"It's down the ramp," she says, pointing behind me to the other side of the roof. "You're standing so there will be someone down there who will show you where to go."

She hands me a freesheet, and with that, I'm released.

The doors aren't open yet. But that doesn't matter. I wanted to be here early. Because this place isn't just a car park. Oh no. It's not even a car park with a theatre. It's a car park with a frickin' outdoor gallery.

The rooftop is covered with all sorts of interesting things. And I am off to explore them.

First, there's a twisting set of tunnels. I stomp my way through them, boggling at the sight of leather jackets hung on the wall and dining tables stuck to the ceiling.

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Fellow tunnels gasp and jump when they bump into me. One man even claims I almost gave him a hard attack.

It's all very pleasing.

Next up I go over to a huge painting of a mouth that looks like it was lifted staight off the truck of a travelling circus.

But as I walk over to it I stop.

There's a car up here. An actual car. I stare at it, wondering if this place still has a dayjob as an actual car park, but then a low thrumming, somewhere between a car revving and a swarm of bees, emerges from the vehicle, and I realise that it's another piece of art. I find the panel and read. Something to do with the Polish mob. Very disconcerting.

I walk around a bit more, looking at all the installations. But then I spot people beginning to make their way down the ramp, so I figure it's time to go in.

At the bottom of the ramp, a man with a suit and dark glasses nods as I approach. At first I wonder if he's anything to do with the mob-mobiles, but he smiles and the effect is gone.

"Am I going in the right direction?" I ask, suddenly doubtful. Behind him there's a huge pillar of TV scenes, and I think I might have stumbled upon another piece of art.

"You are in the right place," he says, kidly. "Just speak to my colleague over there and she'll show you to your seat..." He spots my red wristband. "Or standing or whatever."

I head in the direction he indicates, and show my wristband to the woman standing there. "Standing? Yup, if you just go to the back."

I seem to be walking behind the stage. There's loads of speakers and a tech desk here. And then in front of them, a dance floor, surrounded by little lights, and seating on three sides.

At the other end, there's a woman wearing a pink hoody. "Standing?" she asks, clocking the wristband. "Yup, you're just around here at the back," she says, pointing to a raised platform behind the seats.

There aren't many people here yet. So I pick a space near the middle. There's a railing to lean against, and the platform means I should be able to see over the heads of the people sitting in front. These spots were sold for as restricted view, but I think even my short-arse is going to be fine. Pretty darn good for a fiver, I must say.

There's someone on stage, having a photoshoot. At first I think she's a model, because she's giving serious pose. And then I figure she's one of the dancers. But when I put my glasses on, I realise I know who that is. I recognise her. It's Sharon Eyal. The choreographer.

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When they're done taking pictures, Eyal slips on those huge bulky trainers. You know the ones. They're all over Instagram. I want to say they're called Buffalos, but I might be making that up. Either way, she's rocking it and I'm super jealous, because I want some. But I know I would look ridiculous in them. And not the good kind of ridiculous. The kind with geometric hair paired with architectural glasses. Just the what-the-fuck-is-she-doing kind. Which is not a look I fancy rockin' at my age.

But somehow, I don't mind being less cool than Sharon Eyal.

That was never I battle I was going to win.

As for the rest of the audience, I'm not so sure. There's a lot of oversized shirts going on. And baggy trousers. And massive jackets. In fact, everything they're wearing is huge. Like I've stumbled into the student halls on the last day of term, and there are just piles of laundry everywhere.

Even the woman in the pink hoodie looks cool. Now I see her from the back I can see that it says "Ask me about the art," in block capitals, which is a phrase I'm spotted elsewhere around here so it must be a Bold Tendencies thing, but I don't care, because I really, really, want one now. Even in fucking pink. I don't care. Ask me about the art, dammit.

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As more people arrive, the standers all shuffle around to make room for them. But after a while, no amount of shuffling will fit everyone in, and a second row starts to form.

A small group gather behind me. They manage to push the girl in next to me, but the blokes are left behind.

"I want to sit on the floor," one of them announces,

"There's loads of space!"

But they decide to stay put.

The lights dim. People start to come out from a door behind us.

There's Sharon Eyal again, with a cute little boy next to her. They go and take up position in the middle of the central block of seating, standing close to each other.

The music bangs out loud, and the dancers appear, dressed in skin-tight black bodysuits.

It's a strange set up this. Not the stage or seating or anything. That's pretty standard for a pop up. I mean the car parkiness of it all. I'd never really noticed just how low the ceilings in car parks are before. It's not the most logical location for a dance performance. Jumping is out, for sure. They’d hit their head mid jete.

Good thing Eyal isn't really into the jumpy thing. More shuffling steps and twisting trance-like limbs.

People start getting their phones out, taking pictures. That's a thing I've noticed about these unusal spaces. Whatever barriers are broken to get performance of theatres seems to have smashed the normal conventions of watching it.

A bloke sitting in front of me films a short clip, starts editing it on his phone, then posts it to Instagram.

As soon as it's uploaded, he does it again.

Then he navigates to his profile to make sure it's gone up.

It has. So now his 18 followers can enjoy a ten-second amateur film, taken above the heads of the people sitting in front, of a group of dancers dressed in black, performing in low lighting. I'm sure they'll really enjoy it.

He shows it to the woman he's with.

She's impressed at least. She impressed that she takes her own film. Which she then sends in a Whatsapp message. "Lev dance company [heart emoji]" she types.

I can't help but think the heart emoji is a touch insincere, considering she's been playing on her phone for the entire performance.

As the bloke lifts his phone up right in front of me, yet again, to take some more footage, I let me eyes wander over to Eyal and the boy.

They are having great fun. He's drumming along to the music with his arms, she's got her own groove down.

He tugs at her sleeve, and she leans down so that he can whisper something in her ear.

It's super cute.

As the piece finishes, the lights go down and the audience roars their appreciation, masking the music that is still playing.

"What's happening?" asks the bloke standing behind me.

"It's the interval," his friend says. "Shall we go to the bar?"

"Can we?"

"Yeah. We've got like, twenty minutes. It's still open. We should get a drink, otherwise we'll just be standing here for twenty minutes."

I want to tell them it's four minutes, not twenty, but it's too late. They're already off, circling around the stage towards the bar.

Four minutes later, they haven't returned. I hope it's because they just have found some empty seats to sneak into.

I use the time to look at the freesheet. Turns out the tower of screens are actually videos taken in the rehearsal room. So, you know, that's cool.

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The lights go down, and the car park is filled with an inky blackness, made all the ribbon of London lights around us.

Trains rumble past, competing with the loud, ravey music, and I can't help but think about what the neighbours must feel about all this. Loud music pounding out at 10 o'clock on a school night, without even the benefit of walls to keep it contained.

At the end, the audience jumps to their feet - including the pair who spent the entire performance working on their social media. Through the forest of bodies, I can just about make out Eyal and the boy joining to dancers for the bows. The boy demonstrates his flossing technique and a dancer joins in, making us all laugh.

The dancers are handed huge pink blooms, which they immediately run out to the audience with, handing them over to people in the front row.

As soon as the house lights are back on, I'm off, leaping down from the platform and racing through the press of people unsure if they need to get in one more drink before they go home. There's a train back to Victoria in, gawd, six minutes, and I am going to make it, dammit.

Down the pink stairs.

Counted out by security on a little clicker.

Back outside and onto the spiral staircase, weaving through the slow-moving crowds.

I pelt it past the Multiplex, past the back, over the crossing, round the corner, into the station, tap in, up one flight of stairs, then another. I can hear the train pulling in. Oh gawd. But it's okay, I'm here, I'm here. A few more steps. I fling myself through the open doors and collapse into an empty seat just as my lungs are about to explode.

Made it.

But damn, I swear Peckham is trying to kill me.

Going extinct

I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.

This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.

I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.

But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.

I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.

I go in.

It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.

A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.

I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.

Well then.

Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.

"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"

I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"

So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.

I angle it to face me.

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"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"

"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.

She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."

She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.

Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.

A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.

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The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.

There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.

It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.

And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.

We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.

"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.

The door is closed.

Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.

As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.

My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.

This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

I think we can all agree that he is not alright.

But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.

Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.

As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.

The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.

I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.

I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.

I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.

We both jump.

"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.

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The lights flicker again. And go out.

I think I'm going to have a panic attack.

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.

We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.

As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.

They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.

It's the only explanation.

But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.

The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."

"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.

I'm still not convinced.

I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.

I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.

As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.

They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.

Something feels off.

Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.

I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.

Bloody Russian bots.

I think I must be the last real person left in London.

Never More than Six Feet Away from a Theatre

Okay, so this is starting to get embarrassing now. I'm heading to yet another theatre on Gray's Inn Road that I knew nothing about. I swear they are popping up just to shame me with their existence.

It's half-past eight on Sunday night, and unsurprisingly the streets around King's Cross are dead. Everyone is at home, crying into their food prep, or whatever it is that normal people do on a Sunday evening.

I'm leaning against a tree, waiting.

My show doesn't start until nine, and it is way too early to go to the venue. With fringe theatre, timing is everything. Walking in with half an hour to spare just ends up confusing everyone. The box office isn't set up. The house isn't open. And the bar staff don't appreciate you taking up a table when there are real customers looking for somewhere to sit.

So you just end up standing around, pretending not to be a theatre nerd with no friends.

Frankly, I'd rather be batch cooking lunches so that come Friday I'll be eating five-day-old leftovers.

Okay, maybe not.

Food prep be gross, people. Let it rot.

Like your broccoli.

Unfortunatey, there comes a point when even tree-leaning gets a bit weird, and passersby begin to look concerned that there's a person standing on the pavement, by herself, on a Sunday evening, by herself.

At a quarter to, I give up. And walk the last few minutes to the venue.

A pub.

The Water Rats.

A name which takes me right back to my childhood in the countryside. Of lazy days drifting down the river, drives around terrifyingly narrow roads, and having to steal Toad Hall back from the weasels and... wait, that's Wind in the Willows.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Bright and busy.

There's a security person on the door and he stops me as I try to pass.

"Excuse me," he says. "Are you here for the gig?"

"Um, Camden Fringe?" I say. That seems to be the magic password at these places.

It works. "Can I check your bag please?"

He rummages around in there, giving it a more thorough go-over than it gets at most West End theatres.

Glad to know nothing is going to happen to me at this well-lit pub theatre on a Sunday evening...

Inside, one of the bar staffers spots me. I must have a particularly lost looking expression on my face because she comes over to say hello.

"Camden Fringe?" I try.

"Yes, yes, yes," she says, my presence now perfectly explained. "I think they're just having an interval at the moment. It's at the back there."

She points over to a pair of glass doors. There's one of those "On Air" light-up signs over it. The sort you get at radio stations. I mean, I presume you do. I've never been to a radio station.

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I squeeze through the tables and make my way over.

It looks like the previous show is still getting out.

People are running around throwing sparkly costumes into suitcases. There are sequins everywhere.

I tuck myself up against a table and wait. But while the suitcases and their owners have managed to shuffle out of the theatre, they don't appear to want to go anywhere.

They position themselves in the small slither of space between the steps leading up to those big glass doors, and the tables in the bar. Ther exact slither of space that I'm standing in.

They pace back and forth, knocking me with their luggage every time they pass. One of them even doubles down on her bag action, digging it right into me without a backward glance as if trying to knock away this weird immovable object that's standing behind her. But here's the thing, despite all the social anxiety, the introversion, the shyness, I'm a stubborn old bitch and I refuse to get out of the way.

The performer, wearing a spectacular black sequin jacket, buzzes from group to group, taking selfies with everyone. They step back, digging their elbows into my ribs and stepping on my toes as they all try to arrange themselves in the frame.

I don't know what their show was, but I think it's clear that everyone involved has the self-awareness of a narcissistic gnat on Zoloft.

It's then I realise that the guy doing security, he isn't there to protect me from any knife-carrying fascists with a grudge. Oh no. He's there to stop me from launching myself at suitcase-wielding thespians with spangles for brains. Because if this lot bash into me one more time, a bitch is going to get slapped.

I do my best to wriggle out of the way so I'm not a background character in their group-shots, and am immediately distracted by something much more interesting happening behind the bar.

They're blowing bubbles.

Hundreds of them. Floating gently down onto the beer taps.

The wholesomeness of it all calms me right down.

I don't even mind that it's now past nine o'clock and the house hasn't even opened for the next show. They've drawn a black curtain between the doors and the space. So they must be setting up or something behind there.

I stifle a yawn.

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This may not be the latest start time on my marathon, but that doesn't make it any easier. I may have survived a Midnight Matinee and a 10pm strip-show, but after so many hour-long fringe shows, I've got used to being home and in my pyjamas by this time. If they don't open the house soon, I'm going to be curling up under the nearest table for a snooze.

Without the black curtain still very much in situ, by some sixth sense, people have somehow worked out that the house is now open.

They line up, flashing their tickets to the man standing guard by the doors.

He has a table next to him, complete with money box and flyers. No list though.

We're going to have to bring out the email confirmation then, because surnames aren't going to work.

"I booked online?" I tell him, turning around my phone so that he can see the confirmation. "Sorry, there's rather a lot." As my experience at the Moors Bar showed me, apparently it's not normal to have ten shows listed in a single confirmation email. And here I was thinking people went full out at the fringe. Just me it seems.

I zoom in to the right line, somewhere near the bottom.

"Okay. Just the one?"

Yeah, like I could convince someone to see a fringe show with me at 9pm on a Sunday evening. They're all busy filling Tupperware.

He hands me a business card for the company (It's Fespian Init - cute name). Looks like this is how we're doing tickets tonight.

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That done, it's time to go in.

I've seen my fair share of pub theatres this year, and this one definitely has the look.

Dark. Wooden floor. Mismatched seating. Unexplained disco-ball hanging from the ceiling.

But there's also a bar in here. And while there are a few cabaret tables, they've been set at the back, instead of near the stage. So they are positioned with easy access to the bar, which makes much more sense.

Taking up the main space are rows of chairs. The first two of which have long benches set in front of them. Not to be sat on, of course. That's where you put your drinks.

The stage is raised and “The Water Rats” (with an adorable silhouette of one of those water rats) is painted above it.

I'm not drinking tonight, and have no need of a bench to rest my glass on, so I go for my classic seat choice - third row, on the end.

I hope we start soon. And not just because I have a duvet to get home to. The cast are already on stage. In a freeze-frame that does not look very fun having to hold up there.

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It takes a few minutes, but eventually, the seats fill and we're ready to begin.

Six short plays stuffed into one evening, under the banner of Our Walk Through the World.

We start with a woman with dungarees and very long hair, speaking to a camera on a tripod, trying to convince the viewer that she would make an excellent surrogate, despite her life falling apart all around her. Then we have an office that appears to be run on jelly beans.

Do I need to add here that there are no freesheets? I have no idea who any of these actors are. And no clue who wrote the plays. They're fun though. Short. Just the right length for my current attention span, and surreal enough to keep me awake.

Next up, a football manager trying hard not to think about his daughter giving birth in hospital while at a press conference. Then parents who have to choose between their son and their dream home, with an assault rifle blaring out over the sound system, in what has to be the least well thought out sound effect to pump out in a theatre in 2019.

With the sounds of gunfire replaced by Air's Sexy Boy we reach the last play. A man trying very hard to explain that he definitely didn't fuck a panda.

That one was weird.

The panda was sitting on stage eating an apple.

What kind of panda eats an apple?

The applause fades, the lights in the bar go on, and everyone staggers to their feet to get a drink.

As ever with fringe shows, no one wants to feckin' leave.

I have to practically climb over the person sitting at the end of my row to get out.

I get that runs are short, and celebrations need to happen with those people who love you enough to turn up, but come on. A time and a place, people. There's a cat waiting in Hammersmith who's going to get seriously pissy if she doesn't get her dinner before midnight.

The DeLorean in the Basement

I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.

So I didn't.

Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.

And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.

Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.

Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.

I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.

Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.

Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.

Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.

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There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.

I guess that's where I'm heading.

Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.

There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.

I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.

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There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.

It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.

The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.

Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

"Are you here for the show?" he asks.

"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.

"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."

Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.

Except, there wasn't any signage.

Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.

I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.

"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.

"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."

I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.

I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.

The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.

A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.

Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.

Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.

I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.

Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.

... I wear black.

A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.

A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.

"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."

As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.

I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.

When we get to me, I give my name.

"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.

It really is dark down here.

I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.

"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.

"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."

It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.

The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.

There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.

It's a small room. Tiny.

Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.

In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.

Behind are rows of chairs.

And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.

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I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.

I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.

So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.

"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.

There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.

The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."

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We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.

"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."

Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.

I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...

First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."

I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.

Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.

The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.

Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.

Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.

I leave.

As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.

I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.

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Think of Punny Title Later

It's Friday afternoon and I'm on my way to the theatre, because, well, I am on annual leave and that's apparently what I'm doing with my time off.

I'm in Crouch End which is not a part of London I go to all that often, but... oh look! A second-hand clothing shop with a rack of summer dresses on sale... No. Nope. Don't go in. Focus. We're here to go to the theatre. In a bar. Because I'm still working my way through all those Camden Fringe venues.

I think it's this place just up ahead. It looks nice enough. Although they're not making it easy working out how to get in. Two doors. One either side of the windows. Both painted the same colour. Both lacking in the signage department.

I go for the one without the flat buzzers next to it. Which was the right decision, of course. But man, my brain is mush right now. And that took way too much effort to work out.

But there's a box office right inside the door, so I'm hoping this will be an easy one.

"Hi, the surname's Smiles," I say to the young woman behind the counter. This doesn't get quite the reaction I was after. "For... Camden Fringe?"

"I don't actually have a list of the people who booked," she says.

"Oh." Oh. I'm... not sure what I'm meant to do with that information.

"Do you have the email?" she asks hopefully.

"I do!" I pull my phone out of my pocket. "Oh, I actually have it open."

"You're ready to go!"

I laugh. I am. But mainly because my anxiety insists on me checking and rechecking start times and locations at least six or seven times between leaving the house and actually arriving at the venue.

I turn the screen around for her to see and I swear she actually backs away from it.

"Wow," she says. "You've booked a lot."

There are ten shows on that confirmation email. One of two Camden Fringe confirmation emails in my inbox.

"Yeah..." I raise my hand in a stopping motion. "Let's not talk about it."

"Oh, I see..." she says. But let's be real here. No one understands what I'm doing. Not even you.

Not even me, if we're really honest.

As she examines the email, wading through all those shows, I look around.

There are a pile of programmes on the desk.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask.

"Please do..."

She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.

"Is it free?" I ask.

"It's free... or by donation."

Ah. "Okay, I get the hint," I say, pulling out my purse.

I drop a pound coin in the money box and take me and my programme off to explore the venue.

It doesn't take long.

The bar runs all down one side, and the rest is taken up by seating, facing a small wooden stage.

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Beanbags at the front, then a few rows of chairs, then those raised bar chairs running all the way to the back.

I always try to go for the first row on the rake, so I suppose that means I'm going for the first row of bar chairs. Right on the end because I like to be able to lean against the wall. And... hide.

"I'm just going to tuck myself behind you," says a woman, slipping into the row behind. "Don't be alarmed."

I wasn't. Until she gave me that warning.

"It's always a challenge deciding whether you want the height to see, or if you want your feet to actually touch the ground," I say, heaving my short-arse up into the high chair.

"I wish there were more high seats, because you can't see anything from back there," she says, pointing to the rows of stools behind us. "They're all the same height."

"You need to practice ducking and weaving to see around people's heads," I say, with the surety of someone who's been doing a lot of ducking and weaving this year.

Turns out ducking and weaving aren't high on the list of things people want to do this afternoon, and our rows of high chairs soon fill up. No one wants the chairs. Or the beanbags.

That song about lighting a candle from Rent (you know, the one ripped from La Boheme) is playing over the sound system, and the man behind the bar is singing along. He has a great voice. I'm really enjoying the harmonies,

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says when the song finishes. Really, really great voice. Deep. "The show will start in about ten minutes so please turn off your mobile phones. If you need to leave, please use the door you came in. If you need to use the toilet, please go before the show. As you can see, they're onstage, so unless you want to be in the show..." he lets the sentence trail way. "Go now."

I look over at the stage. There is a door going off it. I hadn't noticed that before.

We've got a Jermyn Street Theatre situation going on here.

No one chances the loo. The thought of accidentally walking out into the middle of the first scene is way to much pressure to put on a person when they're peeing.

We also ignore the bit about the mobile phones. Ten minutes is loads of time. I can proofread an entire blog post before then. Which might explain a lot about the state of all of this...

There is one bloke prepared to severe the link to our technolocial crutches though.

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"Can I put my phone behind the bar to charge?" he asks.

Before this marathon, I've never appreciated how willing bar people were to solve all your life problems. Charge phones. Hold bags. Refrigerate your dinner until you get out of the show. That, and, you know, serve the alcohol that will actually get us through the show.

He hands over his charger, and it's fucking massive.

The barman with the voice tests it out in a socket, but it ain't happening. "Let's try it over here..." he says, taking it off to find another plug point, because bar people are literally the best people in the world. Especially theatre bar people. Because theatre-goers are all terrible and even worse when they drink.

The lights start dimming. We all shuffle around getting show-ready.

Light pours in. Someone's come through the door.

They want to know what this place is and what happens here.

I'm on the same mission. It never occurred to me that I could just ask.

The box officer tells him we're here to watch a musical. It starts in five minutes. It's one act long.

Now these are key selling points a person with ten shows on their booking confirmation email. Not sure the shortness of the entertainment experience really does it for someone wandering in off the street.

He asks if it's on again, and then withdraws with the politeness of someone saying they left their wallet at home, but will definitely come back once they've been to the cash machine.

"This afternoon's performance is a relaxed performance, so if you need the toilet or to leave at any time... We also have some sensory toys available if you need them."

Oh! So that explains the bean bags. Kinda regretting not sitting in one now. High seats are not comfortable. I'm short. I like being close to the ground. And sinking into the gentle embrace of a beanbag sounds super comforting right now. Although from that position, right in front of the stage, a beanbagger would be able to see right up the actors' noses. Okay. No. Too disconcerting and weird. Abort mission. I'm not into it. I'm staying right here. On my high chair. At the end of the row. Next to the wall. Where it's safe.

Someone sitting behind me sneezes.

"Bless you," says the barman as he walks past on his way to turn the aircon down.

It's very quiet now.

This is it.

We're starting.

Oh, they're singing a song about singing a song. It's so meta I want to scream, or laugh, or cry. I don't know what I want or who I am, I just can't stop smiling. I'm so happy.

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I mean, I should have guessed. You don't book to see a show called [title of show] without expecting a deep-dive into self-referential humour, but having an actor dressed up as a literal blank page is too much for me.

And I can't even concentrate on any of that because one of the guys, William Tippery, has the most fantastic eyebrows I have ever seen in my life, and the other is one that I totally recognise. I know that face. I've definitely seen it before. But it was different. Those cheekbones had blusher on them last time I saw them. And he was wearing a dress. And yes, I've got it. It's Kieran Parrott. He was Stella in Fanny & Stella. I'd recognise those jazz hands anywhere. I saw them at the Above the Stag in... June, I think. Aw... I really enjoyed that show.

As they set about the challenge of writing a musical in three weeks, the same musical that we're sat here watching right now, they are also busy smashing my heart into smithereens because they are all so adorable. With their eyebrows, and their jazz hands, and Charlotte Denton with her... really incredible height and cute nose and songbird voice. And when Alyssa LeClair's Susan breaks into a song called Die, Vampire, Die - well, that's it. I'm officially smitten. Because that's really what I want right now. Not a song about killing vampires. I mean, yes. It's a song about killing vampires. But not the toothy sort. Leave them be, they're just hanging out in graveyards looking pale and wanting a good stake. No, the vampires that eat away at our confidence and get in the way of us doing the things we want to do. The ones that dig their claws into our shoulders and whisper a constant stream of contempt into our ears until we're made immobile by our insecurities.

So what if they only have three weeks? So what if their set is four chairs and they're accompanied by nothing more thab a man on a keyboard.

They're making it work to the mostest. Those chairs are sliding their way between transition scenes. And the pianist, well, they're letting him talk! They let the pianist talk! And Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, looks so happy as he turns around in his seat so that he can all see that big smile on his face as he says his line.

And that makes me happy.

And I really really needed a happy show today.

And even though it's been hard (like, really, stupidly, hard) I have to be grateful to the theatre marathon. Because without it, I wouldn't be sitting here, watching a fringe musical, in a bar, in Crouch End, by myself, and feeling like I could just burst with the joy of it all.

And oh lord, they're all taking their shirts off, and I don't know where to look. I'm feeling like a right old perv right now.

With Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, sitting at his keyboard, with his back to the audience, I can see his sheet music. And we're at the end. The last song. It's over.

It's time to go.

I wonder if that second-hand shop has vampire-killing outfits...

Lost Souls and Yeast Rolls

I've had a sandwich and a mango smoothie, and I am really to get back on the double-show day train. I'm also really to go back on the trail of the Camden Fringe after taking a little break to check out the off-West End transfer of The Barbershop Chronicles at the Roundhouse this afternoon.

I'm actually not going that far. From Chalk Farm to Camden Square. Meaning I have plenty of time to write in between. Almost a whole blog post, handwritten in my notebook because I'm old, and can't type fast enough on a touchscreen to keep up with my thoughts. Just need to type it up when I get home and finish it off. I'm feeling very virtuous right now. Although that could just be the mango smoothie kicking in.

Whatever it is, I'm feeling pretty good standing here outside my second venue of the day: the London Irish Centre.

Yeah, yeah. I can hear what you're saying. "Maxine! That really isn't a theatre..."

And yes, you're right. It isn't. It's an Irish centre. In London.

But where Camden Fringe goes, I must follow. So here I am.

It looks nice enough. One of those great big stucco-fronted houses. It's opposite a park. It's the kind of place Russian billionaires buy as a fifteenth home.

I walk slowly up the steps towards the entrance. There's a stepladder taking up most of the doorway, with just a pair of legs visible against the gloom of the interior.

As I approach, the legs descend, and I manage to squeeze past.

There's a doormat with the words "Tá fáilte romhat" printed on it in black. Google translate tells me this means "You are welcome."

I do like a friendly doormat.

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Inside it's all leather-upholstered chesterfield sofas and dark wood furniture. There's a piano. And twin Irish flags. One either side of the room.

What there doesn't seem to be though, is any form of box office.

I head towards the bar. Helpfully signposted with THE BAR writ large over the doorway in massive letters. Inside there are a few blokes standing around having a drink, but no box office.

Okay then. I try the other doorway, this one leading to a corridor. There are signs for various events, but not the one I'm going to. I make it all the way down the corridor before realising I'm now just randomly wandering around a cultural institute that I have no business wandering around in.

On my way back, I spot a young man wearing a logoed up polo-shirt.

"Hi," I say, catching his eye. "I'm looking for I Know It Was The Blood?"

He looks alarmed, and I'm not surprised. That's one hell of a title.

"Is that..." he starts.

"Camden Fringe," I say, as if that explains everything.

His face clear, so it presumably does.

"Camden Fringe is just along the corridor there, but I'm not sure it's open. There should be a man doing the box office."

Well, as long as there should be a man...

I thank him and head back to the sofa-filled foyer.

And there is a man. With a clipboard.

"Are you for...?" he starts.

I try out the magic words once more: "Camden Fringe."

They work.

"That's me! What's the name?”

"Smiles."

"Maxine?"

I nod.

"I'll take everyone though at half past," he says, before moving on to the next person.

He asks a few more people if they're there for Camden Fringe. They're not. There's another event tonight and sure enough, a table is set up next to the entrance and we've got a rival box office going.

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As newcomers are sent away from the table, Camden Fringers are left wandering around, not knowing what to do.

A divide forms.

Camden Fringers congregating in the corridor. Rival eventers on the chesterfields.

"Are you here for the event tonight?" says the rival box officer, coming over to the sofas to collect her brood. "Do you want to come over to the desk so I can get you signed in?"

There's something very different about the two groups. I don't want to say that it's race, but... it's race.

And although my Karen-like appearance would make it seem like I should be hanging out with the sofa-society, I'm actually with the corridor-collective this evening.

The man with the clipboard reappears. "You can go in and take your seat now," he tells me before touring the sofas with a call of "Fringe? Camden Fringe?"

Down a side corridor, and the door to our theatre for this evening is being held open by a young woman. "Welcome!" she says to each of us in turn as we go in. "Apologies, we had some technical difficulties," she says. explaining the late start. "Welcome. Thank you for being so patient."

And in we go.

The room kind of reminds me of the one at Cecil Sharp House. White walls. Windows. Very much a room and not a theatre.

Although there is a stage. A little one.

There are free sheets on the seats. I always appreciate a show which puts freesheets out on the seats.

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I take my favourite place, end of the third row. But that's more of an awareness of this show really not being meant for me, and not wanting to take the best seats away from the target audience here.

Turns out however, the third row is much in demand. Over on the right-hand side, the third row fills up almost instantly.

On the left side, where I am, a lady sits down in the second row before bouncing back up from her seat. "Too close," she announces, before moving back a row, a few seats down from me.

The young woman who greeted us takes up a spot in the front row, ready with a camera to film the show.

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Once we're all settled, the room fills with music. Singing.

I turn around in my seat. It's Tara Lake. And she has got a voice on her.

She walks down the aisle, carrying a big tote bag, which she sets down at the front.

She shows us the book she's holding. A bible for the Newfangled Woman. She reads a few verses.

And then she takes on a journey, through her family and personal history. From the members who just refuse to stop living, to her parents who won't stay divorced, and her own stubborn refusal to not take a job that is clearly not suitable for a teenage girl. We hear how she lost her music, and found it again, and all the while are treated to that voice.

Every-so-often she pauses to explain an Americanism that we don't understand.

But there's one that left us puzzled.

"Whether you like it or not, you're all my cousins now," says Lake, giving her closing speech after the applause has died down, thanking us all, Camden Fringe, and most especially the young woman in the front row, Day Alaba.

My neighbour on the third row leans over to me. "Yes, but do we get yeast rolls?"

"Now that's a question!"

Yeast rolls played an important role in Lake's narrative. They were there on the table when her parents had their divorce dinner. They were there when she came out to them.

I don't know what they are, but they sound delicious.

And emotionally troubling.

Lake takes up post by the side of the door to see us off.

A line builds to give her their email addresses ("I promise I won't spam you!").

"So, yeast rolls," says my neighbour. "What are they?"

Lake laughs. "Puffed. Greasy..."

"Fattening!" pipes up Alaba from the front row.

In other words: delicious.

I thank Lake on my way out. "That was wonderful." It really was.

Outside on the steps, a pretty cat sits and watches as we leave.

We each in turn pause to give her a pat on the head.

She doesn't seem to mind.

I rather think that's what she's there for.

On the way home I Google yeast rolls. Looks like they are an enriched loaf. Like brioche. Or challah.

Definitely delicious then.

I really love challah.

Like... really love it...

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

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

I don't like monkies.

I really don't like monkies.

With their creepy monkey hands and their creepy monkey toes.

Nope. Not into it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This must be the place.

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

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

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

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

"Thank you."

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

But...

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

Right?!

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

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

Oh gawd...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more level it is then.

Up I go.

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

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

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

I don't look down.

I don't want to know what it is.

I just keep on moving. Quickly.

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

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

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

People hands and people toes.

Gross.

It takes a while to get through the corridor.

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

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Eventually we make it through.

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

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

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

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

It's really hot in here.

Really hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But as soon as it starts, it peters out.

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

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

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

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

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Music to dance to

I'm not sure whether I should be grateful to the Camden Fringe for getting me into all these tricksy venues that don't really do the whole theatre thing, or whether I should be blaming them for getting me into all these tricksy venues that don't really do the whole theatre thing.

I'm at Cecil Sharp House tonight. The folk music slash dance... place. I'm not really sure what they do. They have quite a busy programming calendar, but it's music for the most part. Or workshops. Events that would not qualify it for the marathon. Except now it has two shows there as part of Camden Fringe, one dance, one theatre, so here I am, with another theatre to get checked off.

It's not what I expected. I've been saying that a lot on this marathon. I'm sorry. But it really isn't. It never is.

It's a red brick building. A large red brick building. With lots of steps leading up to the main door. Enough steps that you could make a fair job of recreating that iconic bit from Rocky on them if you had a mind to.

My knee is still clunky from yesterday, so I decide to forgo the training-montage scene.

I think I might be the only one though.

There's a lot of young people coming in the other direction, trotting down the steps in that way that only the truly young and properly fit ever do. Is this the type of person folk dancing attracts? Again, I'm left surprised. I thought it would be all old blokes with big beards and a standing appointment with their wife's nose clippers.

Inside, it's all very National Trust-property-in-waiting. There's a checkboard floor, and stone panels with a motif of jesters, complete with belled hats and star-pointed collars.

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What I can only presume are lyrics have been written across the glass doors in frosted script: I sowed the seeds of love And I sowed them in the Spring.

Inside there's a great big reception desk.

Two people are waiting, looking over the leaflets on display.

"Do you want to try Morris dancing?" one asks the other with a giggle.

I don't hear her reply.

The receptionist arrives and as the leaflet-readers are still engrossed in their leaflet, she turns to me.

"Box office?" I try.

"Cash?"

I stare at her. "...no."

"Oh," she says, looking worried.

"Um. I've already booked actually. I just don't know where I'm going."

Her face clears. We're on surer ground now. "What's the name?”

"Smiles."

She looks down a handwritten list. "Maxine?"

"Yes." That's me.

She places a pencil-tick next to my name. "Okay," she says, looking up. "First floor and to the end of the corridor."

"First floor. End of corridor," I repeat and she nods. I've got it.

The stairs are lined with wrought iron railings, from which hangs a red sign warning us not to climb them. Pity. With all those circles and neat scrolls, you could get a really good foot-hold in there.

I obey the sign though, and start climbing in the more conventional fashion - using the stone steps - pausing along the way to look at the black and white photographs that run of the walls, and the massive quilt that meets me on the landing.

Okay. Left or right.

I go right. No corridor worth speaking of that way. It must be left then.

Down to the end and I find a bright, but small, room.

There are chairs set up in rows, facing a piano and it’s pianist. And there's someone on the floor. Warming up.

The pianist looks up as I go in.

There's only one other audience member. Sitting on the chairs.

Although, perhaps he isn't an audience member. It's so hard to tell at these things. He could be a techie. Or a piano tuner. Or a cameraman. Or an intern. Or a butterfly collector. It's impossible to say.

"Is it okay to come in?" I ask, worried that I might have just walked into their rehearsal or something.

"Yes, of course," says the pianist.

So I do, taking a seat in the second row.

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It's a nice room in here, but it's very much a room. There's no lighting rigs or tech desks or anything like that. We're lit entirely from the sunlight flooding through the two large windows.

The walls are cream, and undecorated save for four creatures hung up in a row. Something between a hobby-horse and a pop-up tent.

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There's the piano, of course, parts of which are now sitting on the floor behind it, revealing all the inner workings within.

You already know that I have less than no musical talent. No rhythm. It's a problem. My lack of an inner metronome means I can't even clap out the simplest of beats. But that didn't stop me from undergoing years of painful piano lessons as a child. I hated every single second of it. Along with the enforced practise at home. Everyone always tried to convince me that if I just sat and did the work, every day, I would get better. But I knew better. Instead of banging out my scales, I would lift the lid to my piano, reach inside, and place my palm behind the hammers, pressing the keys so that the velvet drumsticks would hit my hand. I was always far more interested in how pianos works than how to play one. So I appreciate this glimpse into the instrument's innards.

More people turn up. They all know each other. And the cast. Which is something I'm really going to have to get used to with all these fringe things I'm going to.

"We're trying to leave this space free for the filming," says the dancer, clearing a path through the chairs.

"Mind the gap please," says the pianist in the same cadence as the Tube-voice.

But I'm not paying attention to what they're saying, because I'm listening to their voices. They both have an accent. A very familiar sounding accent. So familiar, I instantly reminded that I need to call my mum.

Shit.

We've been playing phone-tag for days, and now she's sent the Israelis to remind me that I still need to speak to her.

More people.

Strangers this time.

They come sit in front of me, in what I'm now thinking of as the strangers' corner.

Oh, wait. Maybe I'm wrong.

The pianist comes over to them. "If you want to open the window..." she says. "They move all the time and I didn't want to bang anyone on the head."

One of the newcomers says it's okay. She has a fan, and besides, she probably didn't fancy getting hit over the head anyway.

The pianist and the dancer look at each other. It's a very significant look.

"Shall we wait to see if anyone else comes up? We could start, and if anyone arrives they can just join us."

As one, we all glance down the corridor. It's empty.

Time to start.

The pianist introduces the act. They're D&DF&P. She's Danielle Friedman. He's Doron Perk. Together they create improvised pieces. Her on the piano. Him dancing. Fresh and new, every time.

She spins round on her stool... and begins to play.

At first he doesn't move. He stands there, close by, watching her.

And then his shoulder drops, his head tilting with it, his arm extending down, and he begins to dance.

Their eyes remain fixed on each other, as they follow and lead and follow again.

The movement style is contemporary for sure. I want to say it's a little bit Hofesh Shechter, but I think it's just those accents confusing me. It's definitely not Sharon Eyal. Although there might be a little Jasmin Vardimon. A dash of Itzik Galili. Maybe even some Emanuel Gat in there. Or none of those things. Perhaps I'm just listing a load of Israeli choreographers because I like showing off.

As for the music, I have no references for you. I told you about the lack of musical skill, right? It's pretty though, and I'm enjoying it.

With another significant look between them, they stop. The end of the piece. Perk takes off his glasses and puts them to one side. That's a shame. You never really see dancers wearing glasses during a performance. Unless they wearing them for comedy value. I mean... there's probably a reason for that. Glasses are a right old pain. But still. More glasses on dancers please!

They're ready to start again.

Friedman begins to play, Perk watches and listens until the music takes hold and he dances once more.

Each piece is short. Ten minutes or so. Themes are built up and dismissed. Movements merge and develop.

Perk changes his look for each one. Glasses off. Hair down. Trousers rolled up, then smoothed back down. Ponytail. Man-bun.

The eye-contact between them loosens, the gaps between the glances lengthening before Perk starts turning his back on Friedman, so into the direction of the music that he no longer needs to keep his eyes on her.

After a few pieces, Perk sits on the floor as Friedman plays, allowing him to catch his breath.

I lean back in my chair, lazily letting my gaze drift from those velvet hammers up to the open window where the view is almost entirely taken up by a large tree, the leaves being gently rustled by the breeze.

"It's very hot in here," he says.

"Hotter for you," rejoins a man sitting in the front row.

That certainly looks true. Perk is soaked. He's really working hard up there, and there isn't much of that breeze coming through the window.

Perk checks the time.

"It's three minutes to six, so one short one I think?" he says in answer to another significant look from Friedman. "Then drinks."

So, we have one more short one. And at the end, Friedman and Perk grin at each other. Job well done.

"Stay for drinks, stay for talk," they encourage us. "Or don't."

I'm going to go with the 'don't' option. Nothing against this pair. They are young and talented and adorable. But I think that pile of Budweiser on the table at the back should be for them to enjoy with their friends. Not randoms who turn up just to get a theatre checked off their challenge.

As I traipse my way back down the stairs, my fellow inmates from stangers' corner are a few steps behind.

"I mean, the music was good," says one. "But the other element was dance, and how do you talk about that?"

Oh man. You said it. As someone who has to deal in the business of dance-words to pay the bills... I have never felt so seen. It's hard.

As Perk said himself during the performance - music and language are their own languages. And they don't always translate. The whole point of dance, to me at least, is saying what words cannot. So not being able to find them... shouldn't be considered a failure. And if you could tell my boss that the next time I have to explain why our season brochure hasn't gone to print yet, that would be super.

But even without the words, he seems content enough. "It's an experience, which is why I went for it."

Yeah. That's the philosophy behind the marathon. The experiences that theatres give us.

I'm about to turn around and make a new friend with this guy, but I've just taken my phone off airplane mode and a whatsapp message pops up. It's from my sister-in-law. "Could you please call your mum?"

Yeah, yeah. As if I needed another reminder.

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And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids

I don't know who's idiot idea it was for me to book two shows on opposite ends of London within a single afternoon, but I refuse to believe it was mine.

I'm here. Sort of. Stumbling along. After the knee clunks it took me to get to my first venue of the day, I'm not sure all of me is going to make it. I'm already keelhauling one leg around behind me.

But it's okay. I'm nearly there. Just around the corner and... hang on. I recognise this corner. I mean, it's Grey's Inn Road, and I work just a few minutes’ walk away from here, but when the Chapel Playhouse said they were here, I didn't realise they meant they were here. Here here. As it, right here.

I must have walked past this spot a hundred times. And I never noticed there was a theatre lurking.

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To be fair to myself, it looks like a bar from the outside. Looks like a bar from the inside too. Even I there are neon lights zig zagging across the ceiling, making me feel like I’m somehow dropped into the Saved By The Bell theme song. Are we sure there's a theatre in here? Wait, there are show posters pinned up on the notice board over there. And small flyers advertising the play I'm here to see littering the tables.

This must be the place.

I look around, trying to locate the box office. Always tricky to find in pub theatres because you never know what form they're going to take. A laptop set up on a table at the back? A desk tucked away inside a broom-closet? A full-out boxed-in box office? A hole-in-the-wall upstairs? A corner of the bar? It could be anything.

And yet, I don't see anything that looks likely. No signs. No laptops. No furtive creatures drooling over their clipboards.

I'm going to have to do the worst possible thing in the world. I'm going to have to ask.

Ergh. I hate asking.

I hobble my way over to the bar.

"Where do I go for the box office?" I ask the young woman who seems to be the only employee in this place.

"That's me," she says with a smile. "Have you bought a ticket?"

She reaches for the list, sitting on the counter behind her.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles?"

She looks down the list. "Maxine?"

"Yup."

"That's great," she says, ticking me off.

Right then. I'm checked in, I guess. I should probably find somewhere to sit down before my knees' angry screams start to draw attention from the other people here.

There's a massive pistachio green booth over by the door, and I stagger over to it. It's big enough to seat eight, but I don't care. Me and my knee have needs. And those needs involve hogging an entire booth to ourselves.

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Five minutes later and there's someone sitting at the other end of my booth.

I don't know exactly when it happened. I was sitting quite contentedly, editing a blog post, as I usually am while waiting for a show to start, and then I look up, and there he is. Sitting as far away from me as he possibly can, but there's no denying the fact that he is in the same booth as me, and I do not approve.

I look around. There are a lot more people than when I first got here. All the tables over by the window are taken.

But those tables in the middle? Yeah. They're all empty. He could be sitting there. By himself. No near me. Having a great time, I'm sure. But he's here. In my booth.

I ask you. The sheer nerve of some people.

Coming over here, taking our booths...

I go back to editing my blog post. But I notice something. In the corner of my screen. The time. It's one minute past five. One minute past when this show should have started.

I look around.

The bloke in my booth is still there. He hasn't got a drink or anything, which makes me think he's probably there for the show. And if he hasn't gone in, then it's likely that I haven't inadvertently missed the theatre bell.

But then he's a booth-stealer, so what does he know? If he can miss all the rules of a functioning society that state, quite clearly, that you do not go over and sit in someone else's booth unless they invite you, especially when there are empty chairs at empty tables, then... who knows what else he could be missing.

But there are more people here than just my booth-interloper.

There are whole tables full of them.

I look over them, trying to work out whether they are theatre people, or just early evening drinkers.

They do all have drinks, which would support the later theory. But it would be quite the coincidence if this place filled up a few minutes before a show started with multiple groups of people who just fancy a pint early on a Saturday evening.

Stil, my anxiety is twanging.

It's five minutes past now.

That's really, properly, late.

The door to the theatre is over the other side of the bar. There's a big sign over there. Chapel Playhouse, it says, with an arrow pointing down at the door.

The door is closed. Very closed.

And when the door is closed, it's usually a sign that the house is, well, not open. Unless of course, it was open, and now it is closed again.

Is it possible that every single person in this pub has missed the start of the show, and that the actors are down there, in the theatre space, proclaiming their lines to an empty room, wondering why the show is so quiet tonight?

I mean... this is the fringe. It's more than possible. But somehow it doesn't seem likely.

Chances are, we really are just running five minutes late.

I check my phone. Scrap that. Ten minutes late.

Somehow, this chain of logic isn't doing much to help my ever growing anxiety.

And when the door does open up from the inside, and someone comes out to talk to the woman behind the bar, my nerves are so frazzled I almost jump out of my seat.

I really need to keep my shit together. I'm seeing a play about ghost hunters. I can't afford to get all jumpy before I've even gone in.

I almost drop my phone as the bell rings out.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes the voice from the bar. "The house is now open."

Thank fuck for that. I was almost on the brink of asking again, and I'm really not sure my angst could have taken that.

I make my way around to the other side of the door, and go down the stairs.

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There's no ticket checker, because there are no tickets. No admission pass. Nothing. The bar staff here must have hella good memories to keep track of everyone who got their name ticked off the list.

Through the door is brightly lit stairwell. The sort you stumble upon in office blocks where the fire alarm goes off. Except this one is covered in swirls of paint and multicoloured polka dots. Maybe not an office block then. This is primary school territory.

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Down the stairs and we are led through to a room darkened by blackout curtains.

Chairs surround a floor-level stage on all four sides.

It's really cold down here.

Like, properly cold.

It's bliss.

"It's freezing," hisses one audience member to his friend.

An icy blast catches me as I walk around the seats, trying to pick which one I want.

Must be the ghosts.

Although, this doesn't look the kind of place they'd usually haunt. No crumbling stone walls or haunted mahogany panelling down here. The blackout curtains can't hide the fact that this theatre lives another life as a function room. The walls are white. The ceiling covered in modern piping. There's even a hatch in the wall that must be roped into serving tea and birthday cake during the daytime.

It's not exactly the venue I'd pick to stage a show about ghost hunters investigating an old country house. If anything, I would have thought the Chapel's sister-venue would have been a better bet. The Bread and Roses in Clapham with its sash windows and creaking back stairs might have been more in keeping with the theme of the play. But I suppose programming something in SW4 might have stretched the definition of Camden too far even for the Camden Fringe festival.

Over on one side, the row of three chairs has been given a platform to sit on, so I go for one of those. The fact that the seat I pick is also next to a pillar, thus protecting my right side from any creeping ghosts, has nothing to do with my decision-making processes, and frankly, I find it insulting that you would even suggest it. I have told you countless times of my ambition to meet a theatre ghost, there is no way I would ever put an obstacle between myself and that glorious happenstance.

There are little cards on all the seats. They say "THANK YOU" in all caps, which is nice, if a little bit shouty. They give a hashtag for the show, and a url for the company.

I suppose I could probably look up all the cast names and whatnot there, but we both know I'm not going to do that.

No freesheet. No crediting. That's how it works on the marathon.

At least I'm happy with my seat though. The other audience members appear to be engaged in a game of musical chairs, sitting down, taking in their view, then jumping up to go test out somewhere else. Everyone wants to sit in the front row. But also, no one wants to sit in the front row.

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Because ghosts.

Someone comes to sit on my platform.

I look over.

It's the booth-stealer.

Ergh.

Fucking. Rude.

But also I'm grateful that I'm not sitting up here alone.

The lights going out puts a stop to these shenanigans.

An actor appears, making his way through the seats to reach the stage-area, lighting his way with a small torch and... eating a brownie?

It looks like a good brownie.

I wouldn't mind a brownie right now.

More torches flash around the audience as more cast members appear.

We have found ourselves in the middle of a ghost hunt. Two ghost hunts. One of them involving an actual ghost.

I squint against the beams of torchlight as they pass in front of me. Usually I disapprove lights being shone around the audience. It's my pet theatre-device hate. But I'm appreciating the use of it here.

Adds to the voyeuristic element. Perhaps its because I just came from that immersive show set in a private house, but I have the feeling of a being lurking in the shadows, watching these ghost hunters. And I begin to wonder, perhaps I am the ghost in this hunt.

I'm very into this idea.

I fully intend to be a theatre ghost when the time comes (I'm relying on you to scatter my ashes somewhere which will facilitate this goal, I hope you know that).

But as one of the hunters (who already has a ghost on call, and is actually on the search for a family heirloom) comes creeping around behind the chairs, flashing her UV torch over our shoulders, I begin to grow unsure about the whole thing.

She leans over me, the torch waving around next to my ear, and I can't stop myself from shuddering.

Being a ghost would be cool, I tell myself, waiting for her to retreat. All those shows I could watch for free, dressing rooms I could lurk in, and programmes I could apply my red pen too.

She moves on. I can breath again.

Being a theatre ghost would be... the fucking best.

At the curtain call, the ghost hunter's camera-person takes a bite out of her brownie, bowing as she chews away at it.

Shit.

Are there ghost-brownies?

What if there aren't ghost-brownies?

If there aren't ghost-brownies, I'm not sure I'll be able to cope.

As I start to rethink my plans for the afterlife, the writer comes out on stage. You know the drill, he thanks is for coming and asks us to tell our friends. I mean… I guess you’re my friend… so… job done?

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Tea and Brandy

I think I got a little too excited about living in a sorta-central location. Just because I can walk to places doesn't mean that I should. Buses exist. The tube is really rather good, and is worth tapping in that Oyster card every so often, when the places you need to go are not all that close. Like Little Venice. I mean, yes. It only took a little over an hour to get here. But not walking here on a warm and muggy day would have meant that I didn't turn up all sweaty and gross. Sorry about that.

But I'm here, at least. Outside the Bridge House. Home of the Canal Cafe Theatre. My second pub theatre in as many days.

And I'm back on the Camden Fringe fest trail again. Which I am most grateful for as I was a little bit unsure of this place. Their website claims they're a member-only theatre. I don't know exactly what that means, but there seems to be a charge attached to the first ticket that you buy. That gets you a membership card. Valid for a year. And while one pound fifty isn't all that much, and I do rather like the idea of owning a cute little membership card, I'm not going to be coming back here. Not before next year anyway. So, I am very happy that through the miracle of fringe theatre, I get to bypass all that nonsense and get straight in there.

Although, now that I'm standing here, I realise I should have probably done the whole membership thing. So much for my investigative approach to exploring London theatres.

Eh. Someone else can write a blog post about it.

They probably already have.

Anyway, too late to do anything about it now. I'm going in.

It's a nice looking pub. All white stucco frontage. And right next to the bridge going over the canal. Explaining the names of both the theatre and the pub.

There's a little courtyard garden. Very little. But it's lined with a rainbow of blooming floorboxes and is packed full of people sitting behind the bars of the smart iron railing.

There's a sign on the glass pane over the door. "Entrance to the Canal Cafe Theatre and Bar." So at least I know I'm in the right place.

Passing through the door I go from stucco-fronted sophistication to poster-ridden fringe venue.

The walls are covered in posters and flyers, and chalkboard giving a rundown of everything that's on.

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Also the claim that the theatre is "Home to the world's longest running sketch show." Sounds like great fun, but it's on at 9.30pm, which is well past my bedtime, so I'm never going to see it.

There's a man in the foyer and he smiles as I come in.

"Box office?" I ask.

He steps aside revealing another bloke, this one tucked up inside of the cupboard underneath the stairs, like Little Venice's answer to Harry Potter.

I give him my name and he looks over his list. "One ticket?"

Yup. Just me on my lonesome. As ever.

Theatrical marathons as not a way to make friends. Or even keep friends...

"We'll be opening in about ten minutes," he says, handing me an admission pass from the box. "Take a drink because it gets warm up there."

My eyebrows shoot up. "Greaattt," I say, my keenness levels dropping fast. I've seen what happens when pub theatre's get warm. It's not fun.

Knowing what I know, and seeing what I've seen, you'd think I'd follow his advice and get a drink.

But I'm a stingy fucker, and still smarting from the money I dropped at Opera Holland Park, so I head out to the courtyard instead, and find a posing table to lean against and catch what little breeze I can.

The sun is still up and the bants-game is strong out here.

I let my attention wander while proofreading a blog-post, listening in to all the chatter going on around me.

I love listening to theatre chatter. Especially fringe theatre chatter. It's so marvellously unself aware of all the gossip being laid down in public.

A woman just a few feet away from me is an actor, and she is bringing stories to her table.

Stories that I will not be repeating.

"How long does it take to pick up tickets?" she adds, presumably realising that the show tonight is not about her.

"No time at all," says one of her attentive audience members.

"Like a minute, or...?”

They debate back and forth on the length of time it takes to give your name at box office. Long enough to have actually gone inside, given a name, and got an admission pass. Three times over.

She eventually decides to stop with this procrastination and actually get her ticket. Returning all of thirty seconds later.

"There's no upstairs bar," she announces, scandalised, on her return. "Maybe we should get drinks now?"

Her group agree that drinks now is a good idea.

"I know someone in the play," she says. "So afterwards I'll have to say hello, tell them it was fantastic... So... maybe drink first?"

For once I'm not annoyed to be in an audience of people who know the cast. Fuck. This level of cynicism is feeding my soul with pure hell-grown ambrosia.

The group head back in. Presumably to gain liquid-enthusiasm from the bar.

I join the queue that is heading up the stairs, as apparently, the house has opened without my noticing.

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There's a ticket checker at the top, and I give her my admission pass.

"Would you like a programme?" she says, holding out a folded piece of paper.

You bet I would.

"Sit anywhere you like," she offers, with a wave of her hand.

I go in.

Gosh. Cabaret style. Again. That's two pub theatres in a row with it.

Not quite as pleasing as the set up at RamJam. The tables are plasticky and red instead of the mismatched wood over at Kingston. It's also a bit more on the squishy side here.

And as we know, there's no bar up here. So, we won't be getting table service. Someone that I've never understood when combined with this setup. Like seriously, what's the point of all these tables if you aren't going to bring me a drink?

No matter. I have more pressing things to think on. Like, where am I going to sit?

While the tables are taking up most of the room, there seems to be a raised section at the back with a more traditional format. With chairs set out in rows. I could sit there. I should sit there, really, considering that I'm here alone. Leave the tables to the groups.

But like... I'm here to get the full Canal Cafe experience. And I'm an arse.

So I take one of the tables at the back.

It's a double table. Two of them pushed together. Because that's the type of mood I'm in right now.

But as the theatre begins to fill up, and the tables get claimed, a couple of people join me at mine. And that's fine. I guess.

Across the room, I hear the tiny chink of spoon against saucer. I look over a see a man with a literal teapot and teacup, set down neatly on a tray. He even has an itty bitty milk jug sat on one side.

The Canal Cafe may not have a bar up here, but they sure as hell are living up to their name.

I'm finally seeing the purpose of the cabaret tables.

It's not for the wine glasses (although the table next to me appears to have their bottle cooling in an actual ice bucket right now). Oh no. It's for cream teas and theatre. I mean, granted, there are no scones on his tray. At least none that I can see. But the potential is there. I've always been fairly against the idea of mixing tea with theatre. I think it's weird. But I suspect what really puts me off is the sight of lines of people struggling with the samovar and then not being able to figure out what to do with their cup. This tray thing is a game-changer.

"Sorry," says the ticket checker, grabbing the back of one of the spare chairs at my table. "I've just got two coming up who need to sit here."

And sure enough, two people come into the theatre and take the two spare chairs.

I appear to now be sitting at the table of misfit toys. A raggle-taggle bunch made up of the friendless, and the watchless.

As I wait for the show to kick-off, I have a look at the programme. Well, we know it's a freesheet. But I appreciate the effort. Pity it didn't go as far as running off a test copy, because once again we're seeing the dreaded "forgot to click the flip-on-short-edge checkbox." No matter. I like reading things upside down.

It's an interesting freesheet actually. The biographies of characters are mixed in with the cast, so there's a brief moment when you're left wondering which drama school Mary the Maid went to, or what position the actor Laura Gamble had in the royal household. As for the writer of Brandy, Matthew Davies, he has forgone all attempts at a biography and instead spends a solid paragraph telling us that Queen Anne has been forgotten to British history. Yes, that Queen. The one which Saint Olivia Colman won an Oscar for playing only last year. That Queen Anne. Okay, Matthew Davies. You do you, I suppose. Don't let Hollywood get in the way of a neglected-narrative narrative.

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The ticket checker closes the curtain, blocking the bright light from the stairwell, and then disappears into the tech booth. Gosh. I wonder if she also has to serve the tea.

As the lights dim, a woman sitting a table ahead of me loudly shifts her chair over to the right, blocking the view of someone at my table. I'm outraged on behalf of the misfits, but not for long. Because the play is beginning, and there is some serious big-dress action going on over there on stage.

The 18th-century really knew how to fashion. The silks. The panniers. The wigs!

Bring back petticoats, that's what I say. Even better, crinolines.

Might make getting on the tube a bit awkward, but just think of the personal space we'd gain. Rando strangers wouldn't be able to get within ten feet before bumping their ankles against the metal hoops hidden under our skirts.

Light floods into the theatre as the curtains are pulled back one more. The box officer is there, with two latecomers. He indicates they should go in, and as soon as they step in from the landing, he closes the curtain behind them, sealing them in with us.

They stand there, at the side of the room, blinking in the darkness, looking around as they try to locate spare seats.

Sensing their trauma, the ticket checker, or should I say the tech person, emerges from her box and leads them both to the back.

There's a small cry as one of them fails to find her seat. But they must have settled, because the tech person returns to her box, and I hear no more signs of distress from the back.

Although, I might be feeling a little bit of it myself. Only a few minutes in, and I'm already seeing the problem with this play. The stage may be raised, but not quite enough to lift the bed-bound Queen Anne into visibility about all the crowded heads of those sitting around tables.

I lean back against the wall, finding a slither of sight-line that cuts across the room, and there I stay.

But as Mary the Maid and Queen Anne dismiss each other, I'm startled as the curtains up once more. This time it is not the box officer standing on the other side. The silhouette is altogether more dramatic.

There are panniers. Wide ones.

It's Sarah Churchill. Or rather Zoe Teverson in the role of Churchill. As played by Rachel Weisz in that film we're all supposed to have collectively forgotten.

She stalks through the tables towards to stage, paying the audience as little mind as if we were peasants clinging to the bottom of her shoe.

Her great height has her souring after the heads of the audience. As she bends down to pour herself a glass of brandy, I realise this whole arrangement was a clever directorial decision. By blocking the view, our attention is fully diverted towards Churchill. Just as every head in Queen Anne's court must be have turned towards this self-made woman.

Brilliant.

As the house lights go up, and the tech person emerges from her booth to pull open the curtain, there is a distinct lack of movement towards the exit. This is something I've noticed about fringe theatre. No one likes leaving.

Well, screw this, I'm going home.

I stomp my way down the stairs, followed by precisely no one.

Reaching the foyer once more, I turn around for one last look.

Still not sure about that sketch show, but I think I could be tempted to fork out one pound fifty on a membership card in order to come back. If only to sample the cream teas.

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The pits

Rain! Oh, glorious, beautiful, cooling rain. I am completely soaked after legging it from Edgeware Road station and I don’t even care. I may have flashed several drivers as a very insistent gust of wind worked its way under my skirt, and I’m not even slightly embarrassed. The studs are coming unstuck from my boots after traipsing through a puddle and… okay, that bothers me slightly. But it’s not hot anymore, and this fact alone is enough to send me skipping off to the next theatre on my list: The Cockpit.

When I saw this place was in Marylebone, somehow I didn’t picture what looks like an office-block left over from the seventies as my destination. But here we are, and there the Cockpit is in all its long rectangular windowed glory.

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Still, I’m feeling very positive about tonight. That Salome I saw at the Brunel Museum, the one with Sexy John the Baptist? Yup, that was a Cockpit production. And they sent a really super confirmation email. I don’t talk about confirmation emails nearly enough. Mainly because most of them are super boring and follow similar formats: directions, start times, all that guff. Usually, the only time I even think about confirmation emails is when I am getting annoyed at them for not including the postcode of the bloody fucking venue in them… but it’s fine. All fine.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that theatres rarely use the confirmation email as an opportunity for creativity. Oh yeah, they might make the background yellow, or include an image if they’re feeling frisky, but there’s a traditional format for these things, and they tend not to go off book.

Not so the Cockpit. At first glance it might look exactly the same as every confirmation email that you’ve ever received after booking theatre tickets online, but that only makes the reward of actually reading it all the sweeter. Categories are subdivided into “the ticket collection bit” and “the access bit,” clearly taking their cues from the Friends episode naming conventions. The tone is friendly. The advice clear. And at the bottom, they sign off with a bonus section “Treat-for-reading-to-the-bottom-bit,” which admittedly is only a pile of restaurant suggestions, but is written so charmingly that I almost do want to use the 10% discount for Cockpit patrons that’s on offer.

Anyway, best go inside now.

There’s a small, square, foyer, with the box office on the right, set behind a glass window.

I give my name to the young woman sitting behind it.

“Here you go,” she says, sliding the ticket under the glass without further question.

Well, that was easy.

From here, I guess I suppose I’m supposed to go through the doors.

There’s another foyer through here, although it’s the strangest theatre foyer I’ve even been in. Tucked away on the left is the bar. Straight ahead are the doors leading to the auditorium. And everywhere else…

I begin to think I must have got turn around somewhere and accidentally walked into a dentists’ waiting room. There’s a painting on the wall which seems to be of a hamster helping two showgirls wind up some pink wool. Benches, a table, and a counter running across one wall are made of something that looks a cow gave birth to a block of marble. There are plants. And macramé potholders. There are fish tanks. Two of them. With handwritten instructions not to tap the glass. And most terrifying of all, there’s a mannequin lurking in the corner, wearing a scarf and a beanie and advertising a Jazz in the Round t-shirt, which apparently costs fifteen pounds.

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Whoever writes the confirmation emails is clearly also in charge of the signage, as a laminated sign indicating that drinks can be taken into the auditorium is followed up by a bracketed note that “if you bring them back to the bar at the end of the show, we’ll love you for it.”

The one pinned to what looks like a broken chair, and leant against the barrier closing off the theatre doors, has less in the way of amusing brackets, but does at least promise the ringing of a bell when the doors open.

There are also sofas. Covered with red sheets. I try not to contemplate what the sheets may be covering as I sink into an armchair. And sink. And continue to sink.

I don’t think I have ever been hugged so completely as I have by this chair.

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It’s too much. I can’t cope with this level of intimacy. I get up again and go to stand over by the cow-print counter.

From my new position, I watch as a woman examines the armchair and then, putting down her bag on the ground, goes to sit down. I watch, fascinated, as she sinks further and further into its red embrace. A second later, she’s up again, looking at the chair. I can feel her having the same thought processes as me. The cogs spin, and then clunk into place, decision made, she comes to stand next to me at the dairy counter. The refuge of the chair-hugged.

The sofas however, they seem to be safe. A couple sitting over by the wall are having a great time on theirs. Chatting away, either not noticing or not caring that every minute sees them slipping further into the upholstered innards.

Just as I’m beginning to suspect that this might all be a fever dream caused by the dramatic change in weather, there’s a very loud clang of a theatre bell.

“Ladies and gents, the house is now open.”

The couple pull themselves up from the sofa, and the people sitting over in the bar section make their way over to the theatre doors.

I join the queue.

“Just down the stairs and on the right,” says the ticket checker as he tears my ticket. Before adding a dark warning about not talking photos.

Oh dear.

Through the door, down the stairs, and on the right, and gosh – the Cockpit is a lot bigger than I expected.

Perhaps it was the macramé that threw me off, but I was thinking this place was going to be a pocky studio. But it’s nothing of the sort. There’s fixed seating on three sides, long benches that stack up in raked rows. The stage is floor level. A glass tech box hangs high overhead on one wall.

There are freesheets sat waiting for us on the seats. Always a sign of a quality theatre in my experience. They’ve neglected to place any on the front row, which to me demonstrates a clear understanding of their audiences.

There’s already actors on stage, which may go someone to explain the no photography rule. It certainly can’t be the set, as that seems to be entirely composed of the contents of a rubbish bin, strewn across the floor.

I pick my way around the edge of the stage, to get to the other side. And find a spot in the second row.

The bench cushion slips out of place as I sit down. I shift my weight in an attempt to bring it back into line, but that only sends the other side flying off the edge of the bench.

I resolve to sit very still.

The show’s only an hour. It’s another Camden Fringer. So I won’t have to be here long.

I’m watching Earthbound, which from the show description all sounds a bit surreal with a dash of sci-fi.

The sound design is entirely in support of that, with a series of ethereal beeps making the parts of my brain that definitely believe in aliens stand up and point and say: “I told you so!”

Just as my legs decide that they too want to get in on the action, and start preparing for the journey to Nevada to join in with the mission to storm Area 51 that has taken over Facebook, the play begins.

Four characters all come to an abandoned mine in order to getting some thinking done. As we all do when we have stuff on our minds, I’m sure. All driven by loneliness and the need for answers, they come to perhaps the loneliest place of all. And there they find: Violet. A girl in a silly hat, who only speaks in echoes, leaving confusion and attraction in her wake. They bring her gifts, offer her cake, and flowers, and to take her away from this place. But she is as apprehensive as she is enigmatic.

An hour later, I still don’t understand what’s going on. But I’ve found out the words to Where have all the flowers gone, and got a hankering for some dungarees, so that’s something.

On the way out, I snap a picture of the theatre.

I’m a rebel, you see.

Especially after the front of house staff have gone out.

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I live here on the corner, I am sucking in the fumes

It’s the start of Camden Fringe today! To celebrate, I’m watching a show that is not in Camden. And not the one I’d actually booked to see.

I was supposed to be at 365 tonight, a play I know nothing about other than it was going to be performed in the Phoenix Arts Club, which, let me tell you, is a tricky venue to pin down. But the show was cancelled. Giving me a Monday off. Now I can’t be wasting a Monday night on Netflix, not when I still have over a hundred more theatres to get to, so I checked back in on the fringe, and found Class, a verbatim play, opening at the Tristan Bates. A West End theatre, as I’m sure you know. But only by way of its location. I would class it as a fringe venue really. Not that I’ve ever been.

The Tristan Bates has always confused me. Mostly because, even though I know where it is, right on the corner of Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I’ve never worked out how to get in. There’s the big square sign right there. But with a cafe on one side, and what looks like the entrance to the flats above on the other, I’ve been left with the impression that it must be some Platform 9 3/4 situation.

Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to work it out.

As I stand there, on that corner between Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I take my photos of the building, and realise maybe, that big yellow neon sign saying the actors centre, was where I was meant to be.

I have no idea what the actors centre is (lower case-ness and lack of apostrophe is all on them), but I have some vague recollection of seeing the logo on the Tristan Bates website while booking my ticket. So, that’s probably an indication that I should follow the yellow neon sign.

Inside, there’s a desk. It could be a box office. Hard to tell.

“I’m here to pick up a ticket…?” I say, letting the question mark drop into place at the end of my very hesitant sentence.

“Yes?”

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering how long we can keep this question-rally going before one of us hits a full stop right into the net.

The woman behind the counter looks something up on her computer before reaching into a small box. Admission tokens! Oh good. I made it.

I’m feeling rather over-confident now that I know I’m in the right place, so I attempt to lob over a difficult one.

“Is there a freesheet?” I ask.

The box officer gives me the kind of look that makes me think I just accidentally asked for an autographed photo of Trump, in the act of Tweeting on his golden throne.

I press on. “Like, a cast sheet?” The look of confused horror doesn’t clear. “It doesn’t matter if there isn’t,” I add hurriedly. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“No,” says the other lady behind the counter, hurredly getting up and coming out from behind the desk. “But we do have this.” She grabs one of the flyers from the rack and hands it to me. “It’s just a flyer,” she explains.

“That’s perfect, thank you!” I tell her. And it is perfect. There’s a cast list on the back. And a run down of the creatives. It’s everything I need on one smart piece of card.

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Now that’s sorted, I’m directed over to the bar. Down a small ramp, and around the corner.

It’s a bit nice in here. Cocktails are advertised as £5.50. There’s a box full of KitKats and Bounty Bars on display. And over on the other side, sofas are lined with a yellow brick wall and rows and rows of books.

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The sofas are taken, so I set up shop at the counter overlooking them. Thankfully, there’s a step underneath to help my launch myself up onto the bar stool – always a challenge for me, being on the smaller side and rather inept when it comes to balance.

Through the glass doors on the far wall, people come in and out, greeting those waiting on the sofas with hugs and kisses, and my heart begins to sink. It’s going to be one of those audiences, isn’t it? Where everyone knows everyone, and they are all connected to someone involved in the production. Great fun to be in those ranks. Really unpleasant when you’re the outsider.

An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen the doors are now open to...” I can't make out the rest. If they include instructions as to the location of the theatre, I can’t hear them.

I glance around, but no one else is moving. My neighbours on the counter haven’t even looked up.

Am I meant to go through the glass doors? They don’t look very likely. But then nothing about this place has looked very likely.

The box officer appears. “Are you here for the show?” she asks the group on the sofa. “The doors are now open.” They muddle to their feet, and then the box officer comes over to the counter. “Hello ladies! Did you hear the announcement? The doors are now open.”

Turns out the doors are back the way we came. Round the corner, up the ramp, past the box office and round. There’s a door lurking down here, with a chalkboard giving the show times. 7.45 - Class. The other time slots are all empty.

Through the door, and we’re in.

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It’s a neat little theatre. Brick walls painted black. A floor level stage. Loose chairs, but set on a raked platform.

I decide it’s time to return to my traditional seating choice: the end of the third row.

Bit of squidging past the person already in, but the seats are alright once you’re sat down. Leg room isn’t great, but hey, it’s the fringe! Shows are short, and being ever so slightly uncomfortable is part of the experience.

Lights dim, and the cast come on. Alyce Louise-Potter and Kelsey Short. All dungerees and earnest smiles.

They have earphones in. I can see the white wires dangling. No airpod nonsense here. They begin speaking, echoing the voices playing in their ears. They’re being interviewed. On the subject of class. What it is. What they define themselves as. Working class, it seems. That’s how this pair consider themselves.

With a switch from flat caps to retro fast food paper hats, they become a new pair. These ones aren’t so sure about their class. Working or middle? Hard to tell. One owns her own house, she says proudly. With five bedrooms. You can’t do that if you’re working class.

She’s not wrong.

Perhaps there are only two classes nowdays. The home owners and the home loanees. Everything else is pedantry. Accent. Education. How you hold your knife. All irrelevant in the face of an ability to acquire a mortgage.

On they go, switching it up, becoming different people as they wade through this quagmire of the class system, covering accents and jobs and stereotypes and pride.

It’s so refreshing to hear class being talked about with such openness and honestly, in the words of real people and not playwrights. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of verbatim theatre. Most people are quite dull without the and of a good editor. I mean, they’re probably not. I’m just a useless conversationalist and never know the right questions to ask. So like, I totally admit me finding people boring is entirely my own fault. That doesn’t stop me from having trouble listening to the chatter if strangers though.

But here the interactions are so fast, the bonds between the pairs so palpable, and the actors, so charming, I can’t help but smile as they wade into the family history of unnamed strangers.

Plus, it’s a fringe show. So it’s only a hour. Which is a mega bonus and aligns well with my in-bed-by-ten philosophy.

As we head out, everyone turns left, making their way back to the bar. They’re going to be making a night of it. No doubt they’ll joined by members of the production soon enough.

As for me, all on my lonesome and not friends with anyone in the cast, I go straight forward, pushing the door open and stepping back onto the corner between Earlham Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.

If I race for the tube, I might just make it back to Hammersmith before the clock strikes 9.30.

 

Playing with Dinosaurs

It's been a few days, hasn't it? I took a couple off from the marathon. A combination of the hell inferno, work inferno, and moving-to-Hammersmith inferno (temporarily... cats won't sit themselves, you know). But I'm back.

Turns out however, that even from my new, more reasonably central, location, Greenwich is still really, really far away. And I arrive at the Greenwich Theatre feeling a little battered and dazed.

The doesn't stop the bloke behind the box office giving me the biggest smile when I walk in though.

"Hello!" he calls over, in a manner far too cheerful for me to handle right now.

"Hi," I say, trying to conjure some enthusiasm, but really just wanting to sit down. "The surname's Smiles?"

He looks over the tickets, all laid out in regimented columns next to him.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" he asks, picking one up.

Ergh. I hate this question. Always a challenge at the best of times, but after brain melting-heats and a move which means I'm not even living in that postcode right now, I'm not sure I can answer without making use of a crib-sheet. It's like my Chemistry A-levels all over again.

But just as the silence stretches out for a beat too long, my mouth decides to take over and gives the answer my mind could not provide.

The box officer nods and hands over the ticket.

"Head over to the bar, just through there," he says, pointing off to the right.

It the same route I took to go to the main house all the way back in... gosh, it must have been right at the beginning of the year. February perhaps. One of the first theatres on the marathon. Well, in the first fifty, anyway.

Two front of housers flank the double doors, each with a pile of freesheets that they hand out to everyone walking through. That's what I like. Make sure everyone gets one.

Through the doors and onto the mezzanine that lines the sunken bar. I dump my bag on the counter and have a look at the sheet of paper I've been given. Little intro to the play, cast list, creative credits, bit of info about the company, and all the social handles. And it all fits on a single side of A4. The perfect freesheet.

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Except for the lack of a quotation mark right at the beginning. There's one at the end of the sentence. But not at the beginning. But no matter. I can't judge. If you follow me on Twitter (do you follow me on Twitter, by the way? I can't remember...) you'll know I made a serious fuck-up in a programme I made recently. So fucked-up was it that I had to print programme slips, which not only served to correct the mistake, but also to highlight it to anyone who hadn't already noticed it. So like, seriously, while I may point out a typo in these things, I will never, ever think badly of the person who put them together because of it. I know how hard this shit it to make happen. And typos are just a thing that exists. No matter how many times you proofread something.

I'm very much intrigued by one role. Buried half-way down the list of creatives, as if it wasn't the most fascinating thing in the word, is a Fossil Designer. I don't know what that involves, but Hannah Snaith, I salute you for your work. Whatever that is.

I don't need to tell you that I loved dinosaurs as a kid. Firstly, because every kid in the world loves dinosaurs. It's a phase they all go through. Like the Terrible Twos. The Dreadful Dinos. And secondly, because I did most of my growing up in the nineties. And the nineties were at peak-dinosaur fandom. While Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun meant that the twenties were flooded with ankh-necklaces and thrillers set in the shadows of the pyramids. The nineties had dinomania.

There was Jurrasic Park, of course. But also The Land Before Time. The puppet-led Dinosaurs sit-com. The cartoon Dink, the Little Dinosaur. And not forgetting the greatest of them all: Theodore Rex. The seminal Whoppi Goldberg vehicle which sees her non-nonsense cop paired with a new partner, who just happens to be a Converse wearing dinosaur.

The nineties really were the golden age of creativity, ending in the early 2000s with... Dinotopia. A strange tale of a pair of brothers and their dad, who crash land on an island where they discover dinosaurs and humans coexisting quite happily. Dino-riding and love-triangles insue. It wasn't very good. And the love of dinosaurs soon died out.

But of course, like choker necklaces and bucket hats, they're now back.

All those kids who grew up reading dinosaur magazines, collecting dinosaur figurines, and convincing themselves they were going to uncover a pterosaur every time they went on a school trip to Lyme Regis, are now grown up. And they're writing plays. And I'm watching one of them tonight.

I look around, trying to work out where the play will actually be. The doors to the main theatre are on the left and the right. There are no signs of the studio.

And then, from the other side of the bar area, one of the wall panels opens up, and a head sticks out. It's a door. And that's the studio. I'm baffled. I try to work out the geography of it all. I can't quite remember where everything is from my trip here half a year ago, but I think that the studio might, in fact, be right underneath the main house.

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"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a voice. "The house is now open."

From the bar, there's a great scraping back of chairs as everyone makes the mad dash towards the doors. Seating is unallocated and no one wants to be stuck at the back.

I go down the steps and join the scrum, but soon find myself having to hold back to avoid being trampled by the bar folk.

There's a young man tearing tickets on the door, but he can't keep up with the number of people pressing forward.

A woman joins him, her hands working to tear tickets as fast as possible.

"The show is sold out," she tells us. "So please sit right next to people."

"No gaps?" someone asks.

"That's right. And if they don't move, you can tell them that I told you not to leave any gaps."

Something tells me that Greenwich audiences are... tricky.

Eventually, I make it through the door, and into the theatre.

It's small, but not tiny. Not by studio standards anyway. The stage is floor level. And there's a platform on one end. The platform, however, is the only concession to rake in this space. With half the seating on it. And half at stage level. I decide to go for the front row on the platform, moving down as far as I can in the row, and sitting right next to the person on the end. As instructed.

As soon as I get settled, I realise that the platform is next to useless when there are three rows right in front of it. If any of the actors decide to sit down, they will be swallowed up behind the wall of bobbing heads.

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Oh, wait. Two people are sitting on stage. I can see them now. They're doing air steward movements with their hands, helping direct traffic as people come in.

"Please don't leave any gaps!" a front of houser shouts across the room. "We are completely sold out, so please move right down to the end of the rows."

Alright, love. We'll figure it out. That's the thing about theatre-goers. We like sitting down. And we'll find those empty seats. You don't need to worry about us.

But, she does worry. And the shouting continues until the last person is sat.

It's close in here. And not just because it's completely sold out. The low ceiling and dark walls aren't helping.

I get out my fan. The killer heatwave may be over, but it's still not exactly comfortable.

"That's a good idea," says my neighbour, indicating the fan.

"Yeah, I take it with me everywhere. An umbrella and a fan. Two essentials for British summers."

"I really need to get one," she says and I agree. Fans are great. Everyone should have one.

I shift slightly in my chair and jolt as I realise I'm pinned in place.

"Sorry!" says my neighbour, lifting her leg to free my skirts.

"No, it's my fault," I tell her. "This skirt is really big."

It's not actually that big. I'm not in one of my circle skirts today. But given half a chance, any skirt I'm wearing tends to floof all over the place. It's like they're trying to escape from me. Perhaps I don't treat my clothes well enough. Maybe I'll start using the delicate cycle on the washing machine.

It looks like we're starting. The two people sitting on stage, Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, are getting up. They're starting a lecture. About Mary Anning.

And, no... wait. Someone's interupting. Someone coming from the back of the studio. Someone wearing a long, 19th-century gown.

It's Mary Anning. She's not having all this nonsense being said about her. She's taking over.

And so she does. And she has no intention of indulging us in words. Words lie. Words are used to twist and trick.

I’m in full agreement. Words are bullshit. I may earn my crust by crushing words into a semblance of sense-making, but I still won’t trust them as far as I can typo them.

For Mary though, it's numbers that she cares about. Numbers of bones in her first major find. The number of coins she was paid for them. And the number made in profit as it was sold on.

Pulling in the other two to play all the characters in her story, she takes us from a childhood spent picking up curios to sell to tourists on the beach at Lyme Regis, to her discovery of the ichthyosaur, to teaching herself French so that she might read the work of Cuvier, to being rejected by the establishment for the terrible crime of not being a man.

As someone who is, shall we say, feeling a wee bit raw at the moment about not getting proper recognition for my own work, I am boiling inside at the treatment our Mary got. Taken advantage of because she lacked connections, and money, and breeding, and a penis. Slogging away in the rain and the cold and the winds, so that others found glory from her work.

From her bag, she brings out tiny examples of her curios. "I think we can trust them," she says, as her ensemble try to hold her back. She hands them out to the audience, instructing us to pass them along to the end of the rows. They work themselves along, getting turned over and peered at in the dim light.

Smooth on one side. Rough on the other.

I rub my thumb along the marble-like sheen of the shiny side when its my turn. Are these real? Or are these the work of our Hannah Snaith, the fossil designer? I can't say. They're fun to hold all the same. I don't want to pass mine along, but I also don't want to disappoint Mary Anning. So I hand it along to the next person.

At the end, we're given more numbers.

Number of people in the audience tonight, sixty. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning tomorrow if everyone in the audience tells five people down the pub tonight, 300. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning by Wednesday if all those people tell five people... oh something ridiculous like 90,000.

Well, as someone who was educated in a proto-feminist girls' school in Dorset, there was no way I was getting away without learning about Mary Anning. I can't claim my blog will reach 90,000 people, but you at least now know about her. So, that's one down.

Numbers done, we're invited to stay for a Q&A with Antonia Weir, who brought the spirit of Mary into our midst, and some other people that I'm sure are very interesting, but I'm not sticking around to get even more sticky.

It's a long-arse way home from Greenwich. Even longer than a plesiosaur's neck, I'd venture to say.

I wonder how many vertebraes long the DLR is... I bet Mary Anning would know.

Mount Bussey

Back in Peckham again tonight. I honestly don’t know what I did in life to deserve this.

It’s not Peckham itself, you understand. I don’t have any ill-feelings towards the place. Or any good feelings for that matter. I haven’t been enough to have formed any sort of opinion. I am Peckham agonistic, one might say.

No, what I harbour my annoyance towards, is the transport. My gawd. Waiting on platform two at Canada Water for a train that never comes, sweltering away without even the distraction of wifi… I cannot. I cannot. And I will not, ever again. Not once this marathon is over anyway.

For now, I must suffer through.

At least my next venue is right next to the station. I barely have to trip across the road to get there. 133 Rye Lane. Better known as the CLF Art Cafe. Or the Bussey Building. I think that’s what most people call it.

Half the building is hidden behind hoarding, but there’s a poster stuck outside showing me that I’m in the right place.

I head through the door and find myself in some sort of industrial-looking corridor. With bare pipes running along the wall, and chip-board ramps on the floor.

I worry that I might have accidentally walked into some sort of sweatshop, but no – there’s bunting strung up overhead. And one this this marathon has told me: theatres fucking love bunting. This has to be the place.

“Hello!” says a very friendly voice.

I look up. It’s my co-worker. Blimey. Okay.

“You don’t live round here, do you?” she asks.

“God no,” I reply, a touch too venomously. I try to recover. “I’m here for a show,” I say, pointing down the corridor to what I hope is the location of the theatre. “Such a journey to get here…”

“Is it?” She pauses. “You didn’t come here via Farringdon did you?”

“No. Should I have done?”

“The secret is the Thameslink.”

I groan. I fucking hate the Thameslink. “I fucking hate the Thameslink.”

“It’s better when you learn the train times.”

Yes, I suppose it must be.

We part. Her to go home. Me to plunge further down this corridor.

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I emerge on the other side in a small courtyard. Surrounded on all four sides by high brick walls, painted with not unattractive graffiti. I’ll admit, Peckham is a little bit cool. You don’t get this kind of location-setting in Finchley.

The door directly opposite has a sheet of paper pinned to the frame, with details of the play I’m seeing this evening. So, it looks like I’m in the right place. I go in, and immediately find myself in a stairwell.

With nowhere to go but up, I start climbing.

One floor. Then another. Then another. Turning and turning as I climb higher and higher.

And then I stop.

There’s a chain blocking my path.

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“Box Office opens at 7.15pm,” it says.

It’s ten past now.

A young man in hipster glasses appears from a side door.

“You’re here for…?” he asks, his words trailing off.

“Portents,” I tell him.

“Portents.” He nods. “It’ll open in about five munutes, the bar’s through there if you want to get a drink.”

I don’t particularly want a drink, but I follow his suggestion all the same.

The bar looks like it has a day job as a performance space. There’s a massive stage down the other end. It’s dark. Candles set on top the three tables barely punctuate the gloom. It’s quiet in here. Very quiet. There’s no music playing, and the two staff members behind the bar are whispering too each other as if trying to avoid breaking the very specific atmosphere.

The floor is bare concrete. The ceiling a mass of wiring.

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But there are three industrial size fans and they are blasting out one hell of a breeze.

I stand against the wall, enjoying the fiercely blowing fans and try not to creep out the bar staff with my presence. I can’t help but think I’m the cause of all this quiet.

I check my phone. Five minutes has passed. It must be time to go in.

But when I head back towards the stairwell, the chain is still very much in place.

I don’t want to go back to the bar.

I think I might sit in the courtyard for a while, but there’s someone here. A woman.

“Is there a show on now?” she asks.

I hold up my hands. “Sorry, I don’t work here.”

The young man with the glasses does though, and he’s appeared just in time.

“Was there a show here earlier?” she asks him. “My son said he was here but I can’t find him…”

Leaving this anxious woman in the young man’s no doubt very capable hands, I go down the stairs. But there’s someone coming up the other way. And she doesn’t appear to have lost a child.

She stops. “Are you here for the theatre?” she asks me.

“Yeah,” I tell her, hanging back on the landing.

She sighs deeply. I feel she’s been holding that breath for a long time. “I’ve been everywhere!” she says. “All around.” She circles her arm to indicate the scope of her travels.

“It’s a confusing place,” I say.

“I went in the other building.”

I don’t know what other building she means, but I nod sympathetically all the same.

She passes me, just as hipster glasses pulls aside the chain. The box office, it seems, it now open.

My new friend doubles back. “We can go up!” she tells me.

I follow her, and the pair of us trudge our way up the stairs.

And more stairs.

And more stairs.

She points. “Even more stairs!” she laughs.

There are a lot of stairs.

We turn one final corner, and there it is. The CLF Theatre. I know because there’s a sign, inscribed in white against a very red wall. The same colour as my face right now.

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Positioned outside, there’s a small desk. And the person who must be our box officer for the evening is sat behind it.

My friend goes first, but when she has trouble looking up the confirmation email for her booking, she waves me forward.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say.

“No, I see you!” says the box officer, finding me at the end of a very short list. “Have you got the reference?” she asks.

Gosh. That’s a first.

I pull out my phone and bring up the email. I find the reference. That’s a lot of numbers and letters. “Um, it’s very long,” I say, turning around my phone so she can see the screen.

“That’s perfect,” she tells me. “I just wanted to confirm the booking.”

Okay. Bit intense. I mean, we’re not exactly at Hamilton right now. Usually box offices just ask for a first name. Or the postcode if they’re really swanky. But okay.

My new friend steps forward. She’s found her email. And she gets a bright yellow wristband for her troubles.

Huh. I didn’t get a wristband. I want a wristband!

“Feel free to head in when you’re ready,” says the box officer.

Neither of us move. I don’t know about you, but sitting in an empty venue, by myself, really creeps me out. It’s even worse than being in a bar by yourself. The bar staff can at least whisper to each other. In a theatre, a small theatre especially, it’s just you and the tech person. And neither of you are supposed to talk to the other.

Two more people arrive. One of them is carrying a guitar case.

“Can I have a wristband?” he asks, after purchasing his ticket.

“These are for people booking the double bill,” the box officer explains.

Fine. That explains it. I don’t want a wristband then.

The boy with the guitar is interested though. “How much is the double bill?”

The box officer grabs a flyer to check. “Fifteen pounds,” she tells him.

He thinks about this. “if I were to decide I want to stay after the show, could I just pay the extra five pounds?”

The box officer smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll remember you.”

Not surprising, as the boy with the guitar turns out to be the chattiest person in the world, and I soon find out that he knows someone in the show, is a student, likes the box officer’s earrings, and that the box officer is not actually a box officer. She runs the theatre in Edinburgh that this show is touring to.

Well.

“You can go in by the way,” says the box officer who isn’t actually a box officer.

None of us move.

“No one wants to be the first,” I say.

The boy picks up the guitar. “I’ll go,” he announces and leads his friend through the door.

I shrug. “Alright then, I’m going in,” I say. And the four of us head into the theatre.

It’s dark in here. Darker than the bar even. Mainly because there’s a light rigged over the stage to glare into the eyes of the audience. But as I adjust to the dimness, I begin to make things out. Rows of chairs facing a floor level staff.

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A wooden floor.

Right in the middle, there’s a pillar, with more dotted around, propping up the ceiling.

It’s like having a theatre set up in your neighbour’s attic.

We take our seats, all avoiding the front row. Not that it’ll make much difference. Not when there are only four of us.

My friend leans over the aisle to me. “What time does it start?” she asks. “I thought it was 7.30pm”

“Yeah, I think they’re waiting for people to turn up.”

“Like the performers, or…” she turns around to look at the non-existent audience. “or us?”

Good question. I'd meant the audience, but who knows. Perhaps the cast had done a runner.

The doors close, and the box officer (who isn’t a box officer) slips in, taking a seat at the back.

The young man with the hipster glasses reappears. He’s introducing the show. “Welcome, to all…” his eyes scan the empty seats. “Five of you.”

Oh dear.

But the play starts and the performers go on undaunted, apart from their alarming tendency to catch eyes. Not helped by the whole thing being performed from behind a set of lecturns. I swear I spend a whole five minutes locked in a staring contest with one if them.

And they’re all so young. That combined with the all black costumes. and the music stand style lecturns, and I feel like i’ve stumbled into the rehearsal for a school choir. Except they’re busy talking about secret broadcasts, lizard people, and aliens.

Not sure I have any idea what this play actually is, but it’s interesting enough, even if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Although their leaving out of the Facebook plot to storm Area 51 in their run down of conspiracy theories doesn’t make it all feel a bit… out of touch.

Whatever. I clap enthusiastically enough when they’re done. You’ve got to admire their gumption if nothing else.

I reach down and grab my bag.

“Are you staying for the next show?” my new friend asks from across the aisle.

“No, one play is enough for me in one night...” Turns out even I have my limits.

She nods and turns away. Somehow I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.

 

A bottle full of glitter

Back before I started this marathon, I really liked the Soho Theatre. Well, I had positive feelings towards it anyway. What with its neon lights in the bar, and the bright pink logo. It’s cool. It made me feel cool just being there. Not that I went all that often. But every now and then there’d be a show, say… a new Philip Ridley, or a Jack Thorne, that would draw me in. The tickets are cheap, so there was nothing to stop me going. So i’d buy one, trot off to Dean Street, watch the show, enjoy it, and then leave happy enough. And I’d soon return to my default state of never really thinking about the Soho except when they have an interesting show on.

But this marathon has changed the way I look at things. With my focus now away from the work, I see theatres differently. And I have to be honest, I don’t think I actually like the Soho all that much anymore.

I’d go so far as to say I actively dislike the Soho.

Enough that I don’t really want to go in.

Here I am, standing on the pavement of Dean Street, watching a film crew chivvy people off of the road and away from thick ropes of electrical cables, and I really don’t want to go in.

I message Helen. “I’m here but gonna go for a little walk,” I say, turning around and slipping into a side street.

A few minutes later, a message pops up on my phone. “Ok. Do you want a bubble tea?”

Well, obviously I do.

I lean against a lamppost to message her back in the affirmative. And then wait. Two minutes. Three minutes. How long does it take to order a bubble tea?

After five minutes I figure it’s time to head back.

The film crew are still standing in the middle of the road with their broad shoulders and hi-vis jackets, eyeing up anyone who dares step over their cables.

I hop over them, and make my way into the entrance.

I can barely get through the door. The queue at the box office is so long its mingling with the mass of people trying to press themselves into the bar. I hang back, waiting for it to clear.

“Next?” calls one of the ladies behind the box office.

I look to someone standing nearby. I make a “are you waiting?” style gesture to her. She doesn’t look up.

“Yes? Next!” shouts the box officer, sounding more than a little pissed off.

And so it begins.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say, going up to the counter.

“Show?” she snaps.

“Cocoon,” I say, reflecting her rapped-out style. The show is called Cocoon Central Dance Team: The Garden Party, but there’s no time for multi-syllable phrases at the Soho.

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She pulls a ream of tickets free from the Cocoon box.

“And the postcode?”

I give it, and she rips away the receipt and all the additional ticket elements the printers churn out, before handing me the twin pink slips.

I turn around and almost walk into someone.

It’s Helen.

“Do you like watermelon,” she says, holding out a pink cup so bright it’s almost Soho Theatre branded.

I cringe. “I hate watermelon,” I admit.

With a nod, she swaps the cup on offer. This one is brown.

I fumble around with my phone and tickets.

Helen watches me for a second. “Hang on,” she says. “Let me put the straw in for you.”

Bless Helen. She knows I can’t handle things as complicated as sticking a straw through a foil top.

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“Shall we go outside?” I ask, with my newly-strawed cup in hand. “Oh my god, this is really good.”

It is really good. The boba are super chewy and the brown liquid smooth and sweet. Just want I needed after a hard day working down the print-mines.

“It’s black sugar,” explains Helen as we step onto the pavement.

“Like burnt sugar?”

Helen gives me a look. It’s a very serious look. “No,” she says. “Black sugar is all the rage in Asia. Everything is black sugar flavour. It’s not burnt sugar. It’s black sugar…. White people are so ignorant.”

I mean, I can’t fault her there.

Black or burnt, I suck it down greedily. It really is good.

I leave it to the last possible moment, but at 7.27pm I have to admit it’s time to go back inside.

We’re in the Downstairs theatre tonight. The Soho Theatre’s cabaret space. I even booked us spots at one of the cabaret table, which are a whole two pounds more expensive than the seats at the back.

“Can you finish your drinks please?” says the front of houser guarding the stairs down to the basement.

“Is there a bin anywhere?” asks Helen.

“Round the corner,” says the front of houser pointing back towards the box office.

Helen goes round the corner, finding the bin tucked up under the counter. I follow behind, getting a mouthful of boba in my efforts to finish my drink before chucking it. I bend down and push the cup into the very inconveniently located bin. It’s already full to the brim. I don’t envy the person who has to empty that.

Back to the stairwell, and I show the front of houser our tickets. She waves us downstairs.

A neon sign greets us: Soho Theatre Downstairs it screams in blazing blue, stark against the dark walls.

No white paint and pink accents down here. It all red and black and slightly seedy. Photos of past performers on stage line the way down. I spot Tim Minchin amongst the faces as we race downstairs.

There’s another ticket checker down here.

“Fourth row back, two tables in,” she says, glancing at the tickets.

I look at the space.

Fourth row back, two tables in.

All I see is a clutter of tables and chairs.

I try and count them.

One. Two Three. Four.

And second table in.

There are two seats free here. This must be it.

I squeeze through, dumping my bag on the chair and wriggling myself between the tiny gap beside our table.

It’s very cramped in here. The back of my chair is knocking against the back of a chair belonging to the table next to me.

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The row is indicated via a small sign propped up on the table top. The seat numbers scrawled onto the table’s surface. “5, 6, 7, 8,” out table calls out, clearly getting ready to audition for the next A Chorus Line revival.

I look around. I’ve lost Helen. She’s disappeared.

Oh well. I’m sure she’ll be fine. She knows how to stick a straw into bubble tea. That’s the mark of a grown up if ever there was one.

“I couldn’t find you!” says Helen, plonking herself down in the seat next to me. She gets out her fan and flicks it open. If you’ve ever wondered where I learnt my fan-flicking skills, the answer is that it’s from Helen. She’s not just a master straw-pusher, you know.

“Do you want a drink?” she asks.

I want to tell her not to be silly, that she just bought me boba tea, but I don’t think I’m ever getting out of this seat, and, well… I kinda want a G&T.

“It’s up to you,” she says. “I’m not fussed either way.”

Well, in that case… “I wouldn’t say no to a gin and tonic,” I tell her.

With a snap of her fan, she gets up and goes to the bar.

I look around.

Ahead of us is the stage. Raised.

Behind are the cheap seats. Although they look quite nice. Velvet benches. With slim tables fixed in front of them. They look a good deal more comfortable than the cabaret set-up out front.

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A second later, Helen’s back.

“That was weird,” she says, sitting back down. “When I went up, the woman there,” she says, inclining her head in the direction of the bar, “she kind of blocked my way. I when I asked if I could get a drink, she said the bar is closing…”

“Closing?” I say, picking up on the word. “So… not closed?”

“Well exactly!” says Helen. “That’s what I said. ‘Closing, or closed?’ And then she says ‘closed’ and then turns her back on me.”

“Fucking rude.”

“It was quite.”

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“But also like… notice how the show still hasn’t started yet,” I say, with a wave of my hand to indicate the absence of anyone on stage. “They could have totally made you a drink by now.”

“Exactly!”

“And like… these are cabaret tables…. So, like… shouldn’t there be table service?”

“Yes!”

“Otherwise, what the hell is the point?” I say, getting rather worked up now. “They might as well just have normal seating down here.”

Helen laughs. “You sound like such a little reviewer now.”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of theatres doing stuff well. It really fucking irritates me when they don’t.” I lean back in my chair. “And here they just treat you like livestock, moving the moving crowds from bar to seat, prodding anyone who gets out of line… You wouldn’t get that shitty attitude at Magic Mike.”

That’s sure enough. Say what you want about Magic Mike (and believe me, I’ve said a lot) you wouldn’t get staff like this at the Hippodrome. Not that I’m blaming the staff. It’s the management. But that doesn’t stop them from being rude.

And it’s not like it’s even Soho-cool rudeness, if such a thing even exists anymore.

This is not clever rudeness. Or snarky rudeness. Or amusing rudeness.

This is the rudeness of people who don’t care about the experience they are providing. The rudeness of people who think your ticket only buys you access to a show and nothing more. The rudeness of the overworked. The rudeness of the underpaid.

The rudeness of bad management.

“She could definitely have worded it better,” agrees Helen.

The house lights dim.

We’re beginning.

The cast come out. They’re wearing blue bodystockings. And they’re dancing.

And it’s hilarious.

I look over at Helen.

Earlier today I’d told her they’d referenced Twyla Tharp in their marketing copy. I don’t know what this is, but it is not Twyla Tharp.

But she’s smiling. She’s loving it too.

Thank gawd.

As the first number finishes and we are taken backstage into the dressing room where they begin preparations for the next act, I forget all about the dismal Soho staff and find myself lost in a world of sequins and female friendship. The type of friendship where every self-criticism is met by a chorus of personally offended “Nooooos.” Where compliments are used as punctuation. And grand proclamations of undying affection are given as standard.

It’s hard not to grin while watching these three.

They are clearly having so much fun, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been invited along for the ride.

With champagne flutes at the ready, they pour themselves glasses of glitter from wine glasses filled with the sparkly stuff. And I can’t think of a better metaphor for the Soho.

A dull, heavy, container, only rendered special by the dazzle and spark that lives inside. And without that? Well, it’s fit for nothing by bludgeoning someone over the head with.

“I am so happy right now,” I say to Helen as the house lights go up, following what must have been at least five fake-out curtain calls.

“I didn’t see any Twyla Tharp…” she says, but she’s smiling.

“I think they just picked a contemporary choreographer at random.”

“I think they must have.”

“But it was so joyful!”

“It was very joyful. But also real. I recognised everything that happened on stage.”

I nod in agreement. It did all feel very real. We’ve all had those friendships. Those conversations. Even if we weren’t in an award-winning comedy dance troupe. “The little one was totally Ellen,” I say, referring to our mutual friend.

“She was totally Ellen! Small. Brunette. Cute. And…”

“Pissy,” we both say at the same time.

“I think I’m the tall one,” says Helen. “I’m just vulnerable, you know?”

I look at her seriously. “You are loved and deserve validation,” I tell her. I pause. Something occurs to me. “Does that mean I’m Sunita?”

I don’t think I’m a Sunita. But I’m also not mad about being a Sunita.

“I loved Sunita,” says Helen.

I loved Sunita too. She was fabulous. Always with a make up brush in hand, stroking her cheeks… yeah, I’m a Sunita.

There’s a crash. The stage is already filled by people bringing down the set.

“They could have at least waited for us to leave,” says Helen as we get out from our table. But there’s no stopping them. They’re already pulling down the projection screen, lifting it down from the stage.

“We should go…” I say. And we traipse back up the stairs into the pink-filled foyer.

It’s going to be a long time before I’m back here.

Can’t say that I'm all that upset by that.

Well, not until they programme the next Philip Ridley.