Blood on the Dance Floor

When you are walking down a dark, covered, alleyway, what you really want it is to be overtaken by someone wearing a floor-length red cape.

If I wasn't already feeling like I was stepping into some other realm, possibly one with trolls and ogres and villains with fantastic eyeliner, I definitely am now.

At the end of the tunnel, the pathway opens up into a small courtyard, lined with diamond-paned windows.

Above the gothic arches however, is a very modern neon sign, all jumbled letteres spelling out: Toynbee Studios.

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It's taken a while to get here.

They don't have much of a theatre programme.

And even when they do, there's no guartentee that it will go ahead.

I had a show booked in months ago. All the way back in May, I think it was.

But it got cancelled. The artist pulled out. There was some controversy going on. I'm not sure exactly what it was. The cancellation email didn't fully explain it. It was all apologetic, but what it was apologising for remained unsaid. From what I could gather, there was a transphobic incident. But whether it was against staff, or artists, or an audience member, I could not tell.

Whatever, the result was the same: the artist pulled out, and I've had to wait five long months to find another show to book into.

And that was not easy.

Not the actual booking. That was fine. All online. Click, click, click, done.

It was the giving up on another venue that made it tricky.

I wasn't planning on being in E1 tonight. I was supposed to be in Edmonton. And quite another theatre. Another hard to book theatre. Another rarely-programmed theatre. And I had to choose between the two of them, knowing either one would result in my failing the marathon.

In the end, I chose Toynbee. Mainly because the show sounded more interesting.

I hope they appreciate that.

l go inside.

And there's a merch desk. Right there by the box office. It has t-shirts. And a crowd of people looking at them.

I stop to have a look.

I hadn't even heard of this guy, Ron Athey, but clearly he's a thing because most merch desks I see on my marathon travels are deserted. No one wants to be spending money at the theatre. But here they are, the fans, all queueing up and having serious discussions about designs and sizing.

I sneak around the queue and join the considerably shorter one at the box office counter.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say to one of the two box officers crowded behind it.

"Yup! Sure," he says, grabbing a clipboard and looking down the list. "Is that Maxine?"

It is.

The other box officer fetches something and holds it out. Into my palm she pours a single wooden ball.

I stare at it.

It looks like the kind of thing you put in your sock drawer to keep the moths away.

"If you hand that to the steward on your way in," says the first officer, pointing the way into a bar that is so packed all I can see is a shifting wall of people.

I'm not very good with crowds, so I go in the opposite direction, back through the door and out into the quiet courtyard.

I find a wall to lean against and breath in the cold night air.

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Within seconds, I'm trapped by a queue full of people trying to make it into the building. There's no room for them in the box office. So they're pouring at the door. Pinning me to my wall.

Not overly keen on this, but at least it gives me the opportunity to inspect all their outfits from up close. Because these people are serving up looks.

Red cloak lady was only the start.

We've got mohawks and backcombing and leather and eyeliner. So much eyeliner.

The post-punk crowd as come to Toynbee and I am here for it.

Introductions pour out around me as groups of friends collide.

"Do you know...?

"Oh yeah. I think we met a few years back..."

"Have you been to one of his shows before?"

But as the line grows, I begin to feel insecure about my medicore gothiness, so I find somewhere else in the courtyard to stand. Somewhere with an excellent view of the bar. Somewhere we I can get all my fashion inspo while being a creeper in the distance, which, I'm going to be honest, is what I've always wanted.

Except, by the looks of it, the crowd is starting to thin.

They're going in.

I should probably go too.

I squeeze past the line, apologising and hope they don't think I'm just queue barging. I hold my wooden ball like a talisman, ready to show it off to anyone who questions me.

Through the bar, and up towards the door on the opposite side.

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There's a sign listing trigger warnings which I skim over. Beneath them is a notice saying there's a quiet room to escape to, and that the pink lanyarded staff can help if we need anything.

That gives me pause.

I go back to the warnings.

BDSM. Violence. Ritual beheadings. Nudity. Blood.

Live blood.

Live bloodletting.

That's... concerning.

I mean, I don't mind blood. What woman does? But I do have a very particular blood thing that I am super not into, which makes me feel queasy when I see it on TV or whatever. A live demonstration of that very particular thing is going to have me throw up. Or faint. Or quite possibly both.

There's a corridor out here and front of housers are busy handing out branded plastic cups to those bringing in drinks.

"Go ahead if you have your ball," says one of them, spotting my lack of drink.

Something tells me the Toynbee front of housers really enjoy saying that.

Down the hallway and there's another usher by the door to the auditorium. She's carrying a canvas sack.

"Just put your balls in the bag," she says cheerfully.

Yup. The Toynbee staff love their balls.

I drop mine in, and go in.

And stop.

Okay, so like. I saw the courtyard. I saw the paned windows.

And yet somehow, I didn't see this venue coming.

It's big. And red. With a massive stage. And is doling out some serious music hall vibes. Or perhaps art deco cinema. One of those.

They should have dance performances in here. That stage looks made for it. Wide and deep. Lots of room for jetes.

The nearest block of seats is empty and I make my way over to them.

But the front of houser in here is directing people over to the other side.

"Sorry, did you say the centre or the far side?" I ask him.

"Yes," he says, turning to me. "Otherwise the view is a bit restricted from over here."

I look over at the stage.

It's really deep.

That thing goes back for ever.

And right at the back, on the wall, is a projection. With words. Lots of them. A whole block of text. Only half of which is visible from where I am.

Far side it is then.

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All the seats on the aisle are filled up, but I ask some nice girls if I can get past and they stand up to let me through. I leave a seat spare between us. Just to be polite.

But people keep pouring in.

The show is sold out.

A couple are inching their way into our row.

I stand up to let them past.

The guy goes on ahead, but the girl plonks herself into the skipped seat next to me.

"Oh..." I say, confused.

"Nah, it's okay," says the guy.

"Do you want to switch seats," I ask the girl. "So you can sit together?"

"Sure!" says the girl.

I look to the guy, but he isn't moving.

"Which way do you want to go?" I ask, more than happy to move further away from the aisle, well aware that I am the interloper here and I should be giving up my superior seat to true fans.

But the girl isn't having it. "You can have this seat," she says. "They're not assigned."

Well, okay then.

We switch.

I lean back, and look around, trying to get a sense of this place. It's massive. And yet only has one theatre show in an entire year. What on earth do they do with it the rest of the time?

"Have you seen him before?" someone asks their neighbour in the row in front.

"Yahhhh!" comes the enthusiastic reply.

"Oh, you know him?"

He confirms that he is familiar with Ron Athey's work.

"That's okay then." 

Is it? I'm not so sure.

"I hope it's not as dark as last time..."

I eye up the exit. Wherever the quiet room is, it's one hell of a journey from here, involving climbing over four knees and walking right in front of the stage.

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"What are you doing for Halloween this weekend?" someone asks.

"Halloween is next week," comes the reply.

"No?"

"It's Thursday!"

If these people are really Goths, then they are terrible at it.

Not that they aren't rocking it all the same. I am digging this person sitting just over there, with eyeliner right up to their hairline. That is a look and I am into it.

As the lights go down, the audience roars. I think they're excited.

Ron Athey appears. I mean, I presume that's him, given how the audience is jumping around excitedly in their chairs and giggling at everything he does. They laugh as he walks. They laugh as he counts. They laugh as he miscounts. As he sips water. Pauses in his speeches. Everything he does sets them off.

Not quite sure I get it myself. I feel I'm missing something. Like the first part in the series that sets up all these jokes.

Between each scene, the projection at the back changes to show what I can only presume is a type of chapter title.

Everyone on my side of the room leans over, craning their necks to read what it says before whispering it to their neighbours with a seriousness that confirms I am definitely not getting whatever they are telling me.

I'm just not high brow enough for all this. It's all big complicated words and I don't understand a thing he's saying.

As for the films... they're uncomfortable making. I'll give them that.

And then the blood letting starts and yup... not into that. Blood leaks down his chest from the slimmest of cuts. His assistant… co-star… whatever he is, applies bandages, pressing them against the wound.

It's... kinda gross.

But it's over now. Time to go.

As we file out past the stage, a young woman walks over to look at the bloody rags, hanging like flags at a tournament. Or laundry day at Sweeney Todd's.

On a wave of excited chatter, I hurry back out into the courtyard. It's freezing out here. Where's the nearest tube station? Aldgate East. Right. Let's go.

"The best thing about that show was the video of the man walking," says a doubtful sounding woman at the traffic lights.

Yeah, that was... something.

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Sneaking Feels

"Taxi!"

I'm not a taxi, but I look round all the same.

We're at the traffic lights on Waterloo Road and a man is hanging out of the window of his car, waving at the black cab next to him.

"What's that building called?" he hollers at the black cab. With a huge sweeping gesture, he motions over to big building opposite us.

I feel like shouting back that it's The Old Vic, but I think the cab driver has it sorted.

I cross the road and peel away. I'm not going to The Old Vic tonight. I've already been to The Old Vic. So, unless The Old Vic decides it's opening a new studio theatre, which wouldn't surprise me given that all the other theatres seem to be doing it at the moment, I have no business in the place before 2020.

Instead, I slip down Cornwall Road, away from all the cafes and restaurants and general bustle of the area, to a road that looks like it got lost on its way to an industrial estate.

There, little more than a door in the wall, is the Waterloo East Theatre.

And it's packed.

I can barely make it through that door in the wall, the corridor inside is so crowded.

Pushing through into the foyer area doesn't help. If anything, the press of people is even more, well, pressing, in here.

Through the jam of backs and elbows and shoulders, I can just about see a sign indicating the presence of a box office and I make my way towards it. Only through careful examination of who are holding tickets do I manage to work out the existence of a queue. I join it.

A minute later, it's my turn.

I give my surname.

"Ah yes!" says the box officer, turning to reach for the ticket box. "I was marvelling at that earlier. I had a wager with myself about whether you'd be really glum. But you're not!" he adds hurriedly.

"Well, with everyone saying how great my name is the whole time, it's hard to be glum." Which is true.

I spot something on the counter. A sign advertising programmes for two quid. Well, it's advertising ‘programs’ for two quid because apparently we're American here in the Waterloo East Theatre. That or they're actually shifting some really niche computer software. I decide not to point this out. Don't want the nice box officer thinking I'm letting my surname down.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask.

"Yes, but they're over at the bar, actually."

Somehow I manage to make it over to the bar on the opposite side of this miniature-sized foyer.

Past the loos and a ladder leading up to a terrifying-looking balcony.

At least, I think they're the loos.

The gendered signage in the forms of dancing silhouettes is a little confusing.

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As for the ladder.

"That convenient door," says someone. "I'm sure that's the entrance, and not rather up those inconvenient stairs."

"The stairs do look very inconvenient," comes the reply.

"I wouldn't want to try them."

Nor would I. I'm very glad to here that we will be accessing the space through a door. At ground level.

I reach the bar, and pay my two pounds. Getting a handsome programme in return.

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I have a flick through.

More American spelling. Theaters instead of theatres abound. They should rename this place the Waterloo Iowa Theater.

I wouldn't mind so much if they didn't flip-flop between the two throughout. Theatre or theater. Doesn't matter which. They need to pick one and own it.

The cover is very much on-trend, in that you would know you were seeing a gay play without ever having to read the marketing copy. Lots of abs. Lots of soft purple lighting. I'm beginning to think of it as the Above the Stag aesthetic.

Judging by the fire code violation that is this overstuffed foyer, it's clearly doing the job.

The men are out in force for Afterglow. And a couple of women. And by a couple I mean literally two. Me and another girl. She's over by the bar, buying herself a very small glass of wine.

The man behind the bar retreats through the convenient door, reappearing a few minutes later. "Apologies for the delay," he says to us all. "We had a slight technical problem which is now solved, so we'll be opening in a few minutes."

"Thank you!" someone in the crowd replies.

I use the time to look around.

Brick walls alternate with corrugated iron. All coated with a layer of framed playbills, and what looks like drawings of actors. There's Alan Rickman as Snape. And Carrie Fisher with her big bunned Princess Leia. And Charlie Chaplin as... Charlie Chaplin? Literally can't name any of his roles.

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A chalkboard advertises the price list for the Wet Bar, which is a term I know the meaning of, but will never understand.

The front of houser reappears. "We are about to open the house. It's very busy tonight so please sit in your allocated seats," he says, in what must be a first for this marathon. I've encountered a fair few seat-swappers along the way, but never enough to warrant that kind of announcement. Apparently, at the Waterloo East, seat numbers are only a suggestion.

"No phones inside the auditorium," he goes on. "Under any circumstances at all."

Shit. Well, that's okay. I'll just have to be super sneaky about my auditorium photos.

"Anyone spotted with a phone will be removed."

Double shit.

"Switch off social media and enjoy live performance."

Okay, Grandad.

I put my phone away in my bag. I don't want to get kicked out. I'll figure the photo problem out later.

The box officer is on the door now, and I show him my ticket as I pass through.

We file into the auditorium, the ceiling curving over our heads. We're in a railway arch. The natural home of fringe theatre in London.

The stage is tucked in at one end. With a proper, full on set.

Rising away from it is a very narrow block of seating. So that we're not just sitting inside a railway arch, we actually get the experience of sitting within the close confines of a train.

I climb the stairs until I reach my row, but am left blinking at the seats, not knowing where to go.

There are seat numbers. I can see them. But they've been stuck on the backs of the seats. Am I supposed to lean over to find out if I'm in the right chair? That sounds way more acrobatic than I am capable of on a Sunday night.

I look at the row in front. We're starting at 'one' on the aisle. That's simple enough.

I decide to count my way into my seat, and hope for the best.

"There's no seat numbers?" says a bloke staring out my row.

"They're here," says his companion.

They both stare at the numbers, before deciding to sit next to me.

I now understand why there's a pre-show announcement telling us to sit in our allocated seats. It really is more complicated then it sounds.

A second later, they are getting up and leaving the row.

They stand awkwardly in the aisle and a group of young women squeeze in.

"Shall I get out?" I ask, standing up to let them through, and realising there isn't much room for passing.

"No, it's okay," says one of them and they press on, my leaning as far back as I can and them side-stepping their way to their seats.

This must be what they mean by intimate theatre.

And then the play starts, and... I mean. I'd heard that things were rather... But this is very...

They are naked. They are all naked.

And it's fine. Because I am a grown up. At the theatre. And it's actually a rather good play. With excellent actors. Who just happen to be naked.

And... hey. I just got elbowed. The man sitting in front of my just elbowed me! Stuck his pointy arse elbow in between the seats and rammed it back into my knee. And... hey! He just did it again.

What a twat.

No matter. He seems to have got control of himself now. Back to the play.

I love all these characters. Even when they are awful And I swear if this ends badly, I am going to be very upset.

They've really got to stop having shower scenes though. I'm not sure I can handle any more.

Gasps ring out and there's a quiet moan of "noooooo," as one of them does something awful. Bastard.

The girl sitting next to me starts to sniff.

First a delicate one, but then a great big snotty one. She's crying.

Oh gawd.

She's not the only one.

Sniffs and sobs surround me on all sides.

Those bastards drew us in with well-lit abs, and now they making feels explode all over the place.

That's not fair.

Blackout.

We sit in stunned silence.

Then the applause starts.

The girl next to me sniffs and claps, sniffs and claps. The guys on the other side jump to their feet in full ovation mode.

Then it's time to leave.

I get out my phone and sneak a photo.

Well, it's not like they can kick me out now.

Plus, that's the least they can do after pummeling my heart.

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Just rip my fucking throat out already

It's Saturday morning. And I'm still very, very ill.

Okay, it's past noon and I'm mostly just feeling sorry for myself, but the point still stands.

I'm tired. And I have a cough. And the only show I want to be seeing is the immersive drama: The Duvet. Very conceptual. It involves lying under a duvet. And then being left alone for twelve to fourteen hours. Cups of tea are lovingly placed on the bedside table next to you by a silent and unseen presence. Sadly, I couldn't get the funding. So here we are.

At the Bloomsbury Theatre, for another go at the Bloomsbury Fest.

I'm just gonna pause right now and say that I'm actually super grateful for the Bloomsbury Festival because I was having the absolute worst time trying to find a show in the studio space in the Bloomsbury Theatre to book for. Ten months I've been waiting for something to be programmed that not only qualifies for the marathon, but also, you know, is on a day I can actually attend. And yes, the festival has been booking up churchs and common rooms, adding extra venues to my already overlong list, but it's given me the opportunity to check off this one, so... I can forgive it.

This place is surprisingly big. Lots of glass. It could easily be a fancy office block. Home to hundreds of accountants. If it weren't for the oversized scribble of the Bloomsbury Theatre sign I would never have guessed what was lurking inside.

I go in.

The foyer is almost empty except for the excess amount of wood panelling striping the walls. There's a box office off to one side, sealed behind glass walls.

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"I'm collecting for Declan?" I don't know why I felt the need to say the name of the show. Something about this place makes me feel like I need to explain my presence. Perhaps because it's a university theatre. And the knowledge that I wasn't clever enough to go to UCL. And now I'm here. Creeping about their theatres.

"The surname's Smiles," I add hurriedly, just in case she thinks that I'm the Declan I'm collecting for. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

The box officer doesn't seem bothered by my stuttering incompetence. From behind her glass screen she looks at her computer. "Is that Maxine?" she asks.

It is.

A man appears at the counter next to me.

He leans in to talk to the other box officer. "We're performing on Sunday," he tells them. "And I was just wondering whether you could tell us our ticket sales."

I don't get to find our how well my neighbour's show is doing, because my box officer is sliding a ticket under her screen.

"Where is the studio?" I ask at the exact same time as she attempts to give me directions.

"That's just downstairs," she says.

I thank her and go in the direction she's pointing.

Wood panelling competes with dark brick walls as each try to prove that they are the most seventies.

Downstairs, the stripes of pale wood win out, as the dark bricks give way to white walls.

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It's busy down here. Turns out it's not just me prepared to wake up early on a Saturday morning to see a one man show in a Bloomsbury basement.

That's a cheering thought.

My biggest fear throughout this entire marathon has been the possibility of finding myself as the only audience member at a show. It hasn't happened yet, and by the looks of it, it won't be happening today. Not even close.

"Ladies and gentlemen," calls out a front of houser. "If you'd like to fill in from the front without leaving any gaps, that would be very helpful."

There's a gentle stir towards the door.

I follow them, handing my ticket to the ticket checker, who tears off the tab before waving me though into a small lobby.

There's a table and chairs in here. An old show posters on the wall.

Through another door, and we're in the studio.

It's small.

Well, it is a studio.

But even so. It's a small, dark, room. With rows of chairs, and black-out curtains covering the walls. Nothing more.

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Everyone ignores the front of houser's instructions to fill in from the front, and start dotting the rows with their presence.

I slip into the third row, remembering too late that, with my cough, I should be sitting on the aisle. Way too late. More people arrive.

"Are you saving these?" a girl asks.

"No, go for it," I find myself saying before I can stop myself, and a second later, I'm blocked in by a group of young people.

I rummage around in my bag and find a cough sweet. Hopefully, that will tide me over.

It's really warm in here. I'm wearing a sweatshirt. It's a nice sweatshirt. With dinosaurs on it. But it's a sweatshirt none-the-less. And I am rapidly overheating.

Still, it's a one-hander, in a basement studio, in a pre-lunch slot on a Saturday. We're not going to be in here long. I can do this.

Our performer is already on stage. Well, on the bit of the room that isn't taken up by chairs. Well, the bit of room that isn't taken up by his chair. He's sat slumped down. Asleep. Shifting around every few minutes to find a more comfortable spot. Can't say I blame him. These chairs aren't great. I wouldn't want to nap in them either.

People twist round in their seats, watching who comes in.

As they arrive, hands dart up, waving and beckoning the newcomers into the fold.

Eventually, the trickling stops, and the door is shut.

We begin.

Our man in the chair wakes up. I usually wouldn’t name him without a freesheet, but fuck it. I remember it from the website. Our man in the chair, Alistair Hall, wakes up.

He has a story to tell us. It seems to be distressing him. He just got bitten. On the bum. And if a bite on the bum wasn't enough, the biter then drank from him.

As updates to the vampire myth go, this one is truly concerning.

I pull my sleeves down over my wrists. It may be sweltering down here in this basement, but I don't think I've ever felt so aware of the veins under my own skin and I don't want to be giving the potential biters in the audience any ideas.

There is more to the tale then bum biting though. Our new friend has to tell us about a boy. Declan. A friend, yes. But also more than that.

Someone sitting a few rows behind whispers something to their friend.

"EXCUSE ME," cuts back the saviour of the audience.

The whispers stop.

The air is so dry in here. So dry, I can feel my throat rebelling.

I cough, hoping to clear it.

It doesn't work.

I cough again. And again. And again. I can't stop. Every attempt to do so has my entire body shaking with the effort. Now my sleeves are all the way down over my hand as I do my best to stifle the noise in this tiny, overheated room. I coil in on myself in embarrassment, praying to all the theatre gods that this cough will just stop.

I need a saviour. Someone to give me a withering "EXCUSE ME."

Or even a vampire. Fuck it, I'll even take a biter right now if he promises to rip my throat right out.

The girl sitting next to me leans forward and picks something off the floor. "Would you like some water?" she asks, offering me a cup.

"Thank you so much," I whisper back, trying not to choke on my own words.

The water helps. The cough subsides.

Not long after, our tale ends. I was right. It was a short one.

"Thank you so much for the water," I say to me hero as we put on our coats and prepare to leave.

She touches my arm. "No problem," she says with a smile, as if to say: us audience members need to look out for each other. There's probably some truth in that. I've given out my fair share of cough sweets to fellow theatre-goers in need over the years.

I pick up the cup and drain the rest of the water, leaving the empty plastic on the table out in the foyer.

I've got another show to go before my theatre-going is done for the day. Let's just hope my throat can handle it.

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When the moon hits your eye

It's Friday night and I'm off to church, which is not something I ever thought I would say. But hey, that's my life now. The Bloomsbury Festival is in full force and if they say they are having a theatrical event in a church, then dammit, ya gurl is off to church.

I'm actually a little bit excited about this one. Firstly, because it sounds fucking cool. Or at least, there is an element of it that sounds fucking cool. We'll get to that later. But mostly, I'm excited because it's taking place in a church I actually know. And by 'know,' I mean that I've walked past it a lot and vaguely wondered what it looks like on the inside.

So, even though I'm still feeling grotty as fuck, and it's raining down hella hard outside, I have a bit of a bounce in my step as I make my way down Cromer Street towards Holy Cross Church.

There's a security guard on the door, which is not usual practise round here as far as I know. I thought those guys are all busy looking after the synagogues. Guess that's the world we live in now. Everywhere is in need of a bit of muscle.

As I go up, there's someone talking to the security guy.

"But there should be a service now," says the someone.

"It's closed," says the security guard, pointing at a sign. "It's open again tomorrow morning."

"But what about now?" insists this guy, who has clearly got a real need to pray going on.

"There's an event now."

"But I should be able to go to church!"

The security guard shrugs. It's not like he programmed the festival.

With a wave of disgust, the guy goes, and the security officer turns to me.

"Hi. Box office?" I ask.

"You have a ticket?"

I show him the confirmation email on my phone and he nods with relief.

"Just there, they'll take your name."

And that's how you buy your way into church, I guess.

As promised, inside there is a table set up with people ready to take names.

"Hi! The surname's Smiles?" I say to someone wearing the Bloomsbury Festival STAFF badge that I recognise from my Goodenough outing.

"Maxine?" he says.

"Yup." That's me.

"Great. Take a programme," he says, patting a pile of freesheets on the desk in front of him.

I pick one up, keeping my eyes fixed on it while I move away from the table.

It's a dangerous move. Especially for someone who isn't all that steady on her feet even at the best of times.

But I know what I'm going to see when I look up, and I want to make sure I'm in the best possible spot before I do.

There's a good line of people here, all with their phones out, taking pictures. I think this is it.

I look up. And there's the mother fucking moon.

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Inside the church.

Probably shouldn't swear.

But can you see that?

The twatting moon! Inside the church!

It hangs there, slotted in between the stone pillars as if it had always been there, as if it were the church that came later. Built around this floating moon to house and keep it. A temple for those ancient moon-worshipping followers.

Down below, the pews have been set up in an elongated horseshoe, so that we may be the ones to orbit the moon.

I find a spare spot and sit myself doen, gazing up in wonder at this magical orb.

As I watch, staring, I start to see it moving. Gently swaying. Almost as if it were pulsating. Or breathing.

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According to the freesheet, the moon is seven whole metres across. It's made by an artist called Luke Jerram and goes by the name Museum of the Moon.

It then bangs on about all the performers who'll be in here tonight, but I'm going to be real with you right now: I don't care about any of them. I'm here for the moon.

We all sit back in our pews, staring at this mystical object.

I kinda want to touch it. To place my hand against it. To feel if it really is breathing in there. But I'm scared. Partly of the security guard who I know is outside. But also, I'm nervous about finding out what this moon is made of. Of discovering that all those crevices and valleys and pox marks across the surface, are, in fact, only printed on. I can't decide what would be more horrific, a rough and scratchy canvas, or a smooth rubber. The thought of either sends me into a shudder.

A photographer walks around, moving chairs and pews as he goes, clearing himself a gangway so that he can walk around the space uninterrupted.

Our host for the evening comes out. Sam Enthoven.

He asks if any of us don't know what a theremin is. An old lady in the row in front of me pips-out a shrill "No!"

A surprising about of people join in.

I appear to have found myself in a church full of people who don't watch American Horror Story.

But off we go. Enthoven on the theremin as Minnie Wilkinson tells us a story... and, I'm going to admit something now. I don't dig storytelling. Like, I actively dislike storytelling. It's just not one of the performing arts that I'm into. I'd probably rank it just below circus if I were to ever spend a very dull Sunday afternoon rating all of them,

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I don't know what it is. I think it has something to do with the telliness of way storytellers construct their tales. Because I have no issue with, like, audiobooks, so it's not the listening to a single voice that puts me off.

Instead, I focus on the moon, matching my breathing to it, and falling into a strange fantasy where the valuted roof opens up and the pair of us, me and the moon, sail off into the dark night.

A group of latecomers arrive. A front of houser walks them around the back, pointing out empty seats.

I twist my knees around so that one of them can get past and sit next to me.

She looks over at her friend in the next pew and they both giggle and raise their eyebrows.

The first tale comes to an end. We all applaud. Even the latecomers - though they do it with another shared glance and a giggle.

Jordan Campbell is up next, accompanied by the stunning Lou Barnell wearing a Grecian white dress. Now this story I can get into. Mainly because it has a werewolf in it.

But just as I find myself having to realign all my thoughts about storytelling, the photographer comes round and places himself right in my sightline, blocking my view of Campbell.

In an instant, the magic is broken.

Unable to see our performer, I look around at the audience instead.

It's a very white audience. A very very white audience.

A very very white audience, in the church on Cromer Street. Which if you've ever walked down it, you'll know it's not a white street.

That man who was turned away by the security guard? Yeah, he wasn't white.

I don't want to make this a 'thing' but it does make you think, doesn't it, when a venue whose very existence is dependent on locals, gives over its space for an event that is then attended by non-locals.

Now, I mean, it's for art. And art is great. And I'm sure the congregation was encouraged to attend. But still.

At least one man out there isn't happy about missing out on this evening's service.

And instead, all these white people are sitting around, gazing at the moon, and listening to bedtime stories.

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Enthoven reappears. There's going to be a ten-minute interval. "The nearest loos are in the pub across the road," he tells us.

The girl sitting next to me looks over at her friends. "I really need to go, actually," she says.

"Yeah, me too. Actually."

And off they go.

I make a bet with myself that they won't be back.

Underneath the moon, the people gather. To take selfies.

"Shall I face you, or face away?" a young woman says as she races out.

The man she's with tells her it doesn't matter and she raises her arms above her head.

"Nowhere near," he laughs.

"Did I do it?"

"Nah, you're way too short."

After a few experiments in perspective, they get it right, and have a photo of her balancing the moon on her fingertips.

We're recalled to our seats. It's time for the second act.

The seat next to me stays empty. As does the one in the next door pew. I was right. Those latecomers had no intention of coming back.

Enthoven comes back out to introduce to next set of performers. Apparently there had been some complaints about sound levels. But it seems to have been fixed now.

Or perhaps not, because I can't make out a word Laura Sampson is saying. It's lost over the screeching, saw-like noises made by Greta Pistaceci.

High above us, a wooden Jesus gazes down on the luminous moon, flanked by two figures, Mary and... yeah, I'm not Christian, I don't know who the other one is.

I wonder what they make of the whole thing. Their church given over to this event. Their congregation turned away. These new people brought in, but unlikely ever to return for a service.

At the end of their tale, a dozen or so people make a break for the exit.

One left.

Alys Torrance steps out under the moon to gaze at it in wonder. "What's in there?" she muses, before chatting with her musician. "Can you play the moon?" she asks Sylvia Hallett.

Hallett tells her to wait and see.

"It's like that, is it?" laughs Torrance. And then we begin.

Torrance really is an engaging storyteller. Stepping away from the microphone to use the entire space, use her body, and the audience, the air and the moon. I don't think I'll ever truly get into this art form, but for the first time, I think I understood the appeal.

The house lights rise and Enthoven sees us off, with a thanks for "supporting unusual evenings like this one."

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Come to the dark side. We have cushions.

I’m still ill.

But no longer dying. Which is nice.

Which means that I can make the long journey towards Walthamstow without worrying that I might collapse on the way, only to be found six years later, half-eaten by tube mice.

Feeling slightly sniffy and very sorry for myself, I make my way to the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. On Hoe Street.

No need to look at me like that. It’s not my fault that Walthamstow was doing a roaring trade in farm implements back in the day.

Anyway, if we’re talking names, then the alliterative triptych of Mirth, Marvel and Maud is much more worthy of contemplation.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot, usually when I’m walking in circles in an unfamiliar area, trying to find one of these blasted theatres, is what the locals call a place.

Do the residents of Stockwell call the Stockwell Playhouse the Stockwell Playhouse? Or is it just the Playhouse?

Is the Bromley Little Theatre the Bromley Little Theatre to the people of Brommers? Or merely the Little Theatre? Or perhaps the BLT? Or maybe the Sandwich? These are the questions I want answers to, but am too embarrassed to actually ask.

And it’s no different tonight. I don’t believe for a second anyone around here calls the Mirth, Marvel and Maud the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. For one, it’s ridiculous. And for two, it’s way too long. So, what do they call it? Is it the Mirth, as the towering letters on the outside of the building suggest? Or maybe it’s the Triple M. Or…

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“It’s the old cinema,” says a man as he holds the door open for his companion.

Well, okay then.

I follow them in.

The box office is just inside the door, with a fat letter M resting on the counter, glowing in the ambient (dark) lighting scheme they’ve got going on.

“Sorry,” says the box officer. “I also need to stamp her.”

The lady in front of me goes off in search of her friend and brings her back for a good stamping.

That done, it’s my turn.

“Hi,” I tell the box officer. “I have an e-ticket? Do I also need to sign in?”

Ah yes. The e-ticket.

Now, that had been a bit of work to acquire.

The Marvellous Mrs Maud have left their ticket providing services to Dice. Which is not theatre ticketing software. It’s an app. For gigs. An app that I did not have, and did not want, but was forced to download anyway.

Now, you know, I get it. Some theatres run music events. Some theatres are predominantly music venues. So, like, fine. But also, it doesn’t work and I hate it.

Case in bloody point. Door time. We all know what that means in gig-world. But in theatre? Is that when the house opens, or the show starts? Who knows? Dice certainly ain’t telling me.

And this e-ticket? Is someone going to scan it, or do I have to report into the box office, like I am now. There’s no way to know until I ask. And I hate asking.

Then there’s the whole having-reception thing. Dice won’t let you see the QR codes more than two hours before door time. Nor will they let you screenshot the page once you do have the code.

“Yeah,” says the box officer. “What’s the name?”

With a sigh, I realise the whole app thing was pointless. I drop my phone back into my pocket and give my name.

“Just you?” asks the box officer.

“Just me,” I say, now resigned to my fate of always having to admit my lonesome state at box offices across this city of ours.

She stamps me up high on the wrist, which is apparently a thing now. Backs of hands are no longer in vogue when it comes to stamping.

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“Can I get a programme?” I ask, spotting the display on the counter.

“That’s two pounds.”

“In the cup?” I ask. There’s a plastic cup with a scrappy bit of paper stuffed in it. “Programmes,” it says.

I drop my pound coins in it.

One question still remains.

“Where am I going?” I ask her.

She blinks at me. This is clearly not a question she gets often.

“Err, down the stairs?”

Okay then.

It’s ten minutes until door time. Whatever that means. So I go for a look around.

It’s a beautiful building this. Impossibly high ceilings. Panels. Chandeliers. The works.

There seems to be a trend at the moment with theatres. About making the foyer spaces accessible to non-theatre goers. They want people coming in off the street to have a drink and then not see a show.

Mostly I think that’s a nonsense. Not because of the ambition. You do you, theatres. It’s just that there aren’t many theatre bars I’d willingly spend time in without having to be there for theatre purposes. Too big. Too loud. Nowhere to sit. Nowhere to hide.

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But this place? This place is nice. A wooden carnival stall of a cocktail bar in the middle breaks up the space. Huddles of chairs and tables hug the walls. There are sofas.

It’s quiet, but not echoey.

Ornate, but not intimidating.

Large, but not overwhelming.

I could see myself coming here for a drink.

I mean, if it wasn’t in Walthamstow.

Bit of a trek for a G&T.

I lean against the back of the cocktail stall and have a look at my newly-acquired stamp. It says Marvel.

So, we’ve got Mirth. And Marvel. Where on earth is Maud?

This place may be nice to look at, but it seems to have picked looks over books.

There is a horrendous lack of signage.

Apart from the solitary chalkboard proclaiming the existence of toilets, I can’t see a single notice to direct me anywhere. Let alone the theatre. Which, I would have thought, would be an important element of the M&M&M experience.

I put my glasses on, just in case I’m missing on signs in the general blur, but nope. Nothing. Not unless I’m in serious need of a new prescription, my poor eyesight is not the problem here.

But the box office lady said to go downstairs. So I go downstairs. To the bar. And what do you know. There it is, a sign pointing towards the Maud. Between the water station and the loos.

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I follow where it's pointing, into a corrdior that smells like a lavatory, and right opposite the door to the ladies', is a bloke. He's standing next to a posing table covered with plastic cups. I think he must be the ticket checker. Or he would be the ticket checker, if this place had tickets.

"Got a stamp?" he asks as I approach.

I pull at my sleeve to show him the back of my wrist. "Yup," I say, and he nods me through.

Inside it's red.

Very red.

I mean, last night I was in a red theatre, so it shouldn't be that shocking. But if anything, the Hilariously Amazing Maud is even redder than the BLT.

The walls are red. The ceiling is red. The decorative mouldings are red. Even the chairs are of a reddish hue.

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I stand and stare at the chairs.

They are weird. And it's not the reddness that is bothering me. It's that they're evil.

And no, they're not evil because they're red.

I mean, they might be evil because they're red.

I don't know why they are evil. I just know that they are.

Because the powers that be at the Mirthiless Maud have banished them off to the sides of the room.

The rest of the space is given over to long wooden benches.

Clearly, the puritans are in charge in Walthamstow.

So as not to anger them, I take a pew.

Everyone else in here has decided to face the forces of evil arse-on, and sit on the sides.

The same conversation is played out over and over as people file in.

"Where do you want to sit?" a newcomer asks. "Shall we sit in the middle?"

"I might go for a softer seat..." comes the tentative reply.

Eventually, the chairs fill up and people are forced to turn to the benches.

A couple of women join me on mine.

A few minutes later, their friend arrives, and insists that I stand up to let her pass so that she doesn't have to go about the indignaty of walking around and entering via the other side.

Honestly. What is it with people? This is the second night in a row this has happened. Stop making strangers get up when you can ask your friends to get up instead. They presumably want you to sit with them. Me on the other hand, would rather not have to exert myself for that honour.

I'm beginning to think it's the curse of red theatres.

I knew those chairs were evil.

"It's warm in here," says the woman who can't walk round.

There's a pause, and I realise she's talking to me. I quickly hit the power button on my phone, sending the screen black. I hope she hasn't seen me typing all that shit about her.

"It is," I agree. Very warm. They have got the heating on blast.

"Why?" she asks, and I'm left stumped by this question.

"I do approve of heating in October," I say. "But this is a bit much."

She seems satisfied by that statement and she goes back to talking to her friends, and I go back to typing up smack about her in my notes.

Right, now that I have established myself as evil a character as those chairs, I check the time.

It's ten past eight.

Door time or start time, that question remains unanswered. Are we waiting for the clock to run down or has something gone wrong? Who can tell?

Across the way, I can hear the hand dryers rumbling away in the loos.

Sixteen minutes past.

I'm getting kind of bored now.

I twist round in my seat.

Someone is sitting themselves down at the tech desk. That's a good sign.

The stamp checkers closes the door.

The house lights dim.

We're off.

The cast emerge. Eleanor Bryne, Niamh Finlay, and Sara Hosford. They move around a stage cluttered with lamps, shifting things around and doing the sort of busywork that is probably supposed to set the mood but has me wiggling my foot and willing them all to get on with it.

But then we're on the line in a fish factory. Guts are flying everywhere and the talk is pouring out too. Life is hard in 1980's Dublin, even if the music is banging. Tainted Love is on the lips of all three girls, and although I'm a Manson Girl (Marilyn, obviously) I am not unappreciative of the Soft Cell version.

Our cast shimmy and sprint through the lives of an endless procession of characters. Less slipping into them and more running full tilt until they crash right in: bosses and boys and friends, so many friends, and babysitters, and first loves.

And I love them all.

The girls I mean.

The men in their life are terrible. The absolute worst of the worst.

And as we return to the fish factory, and see them on the line, dragging their knives against the firm flesh of those fishy bellies, I can't be the only one thinking those knives might have served a greater purpose.

Applause done. House lights up.

I try to stand but sharp pains run up and down the backs of my thighs.

I winch as I haul myself up to my feet and turn around to glare at the bench responsible.

I knew I should have embraced the dark side and taken one of the cursed chairs.

Being virtuous is a young person's game.

If your name's not on the list

"Madam! Madam! The entrance is this way, the first left. Phoenix Street," comes the familiar call of the Big Issue seller on Charing Cross Road. 

I don't know how long he's been directing audiences to the correct entrance of the Phoenix Theatre, but he's there, keeping the crowds in check, almost every night I've been in the West End on this marathon.

I tweeted sometime back that the Phoenix should put him on the payroll, and I stand by that. He's already doing the work. Might as well make it official.

I am not in need of his assistance tonight though. I know where I'm going. Yes, onto Phoenix Street. But not to the Phoenix Theatre. I've already made my trip to the rock, and there's no time for a return trip before the marathon is over and I draw a thick Sharpie line under my theatre-going for the rest of my life.

I'm actually off to the theatre neighbour. The Pheonix Artist Club, which you might have rightly surmised, is not actually a theatre. But a club. For artists.

But as part of that remit, they have a programme of events. Cabaret. Music. Not marathon-qualifying stuff. Except tonight there's a scratch night. So off I go.

I've never been before. It's been on my list for years, but I never quite got round to it. And by that, I mean, I never managed to work out if I'm allowed in. I've heard from various people that you need to work in the arts to get access. But what that entails seems to differ depending on who you ask for. Some say it's members only. Others that you only need a business card proving you work in the industry to get through the door.

Oh well. No such restrictions exist for attending this show, so it looks like I'm finally getting my chance.

I tuck myself under the canopy and try my best to stay out of the rain as I use my final free minutes to edit a blog post. By the looks of it, this place is underground and I'm not sure what the WiFi situation is going to be down there.

A man comes over and starts singing to the guy next to me. "My old man's a dustman," he belts out, with hand motions to match. "How's your night going?"

The guy mumbles "fine thanks," before moving away.

"Excuse me, ma'am," says the Big Issue seller as he inches his way around me. His leading an entire procession of Come From Awayers. "That's the entrance down there," he tells them, pointing the way.

They thank him and skuttle through the rain towards the long queue where an usher with a strong Scottish voice is keeping everyone in check. "If you're collecting your tickets, it's the last door!"

Blog post vaguely proofread, I figure it's time to go in.

Or at least, try to.

There's someone standing in the doorway. He looks like he can't quite make up his mind about the whole thing.

Perhaps he also got confused about their entry requirements.

"Are you...?" I ask.

"No. Sorry. You go ahead."

So I do.

Inside there's a small podium desk. With a theatre mask stencilled on the front. Gold on blue.

The person ahead of me is trying to pick up their ticket. But by the sounds of it, their name isn't on the list.

Oh dear.

Even though I know I bought myself a ticket, I can feel the anxiety rising. Mainly because I never got a confirmation email. And yes, I checked my spam folder. Nothing. I have nothing to prove that I spent my coin to get in.

I look around in an attempt to distract myself.

There's plenty to look at. The ceiling is painted with a dramatic depiction of a bird. I'm guessing a phoenix, given where we are. Paintings line the stairwell, and there's a general sense of this place having been built into the remains of an antique store, with statues and chandeliers competing for attention.

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The person ahead of me and the box officer appear to have reached an impasse.

"Let me just deal with this person," says the box officer and he leans around to beckon me forward.

"Hi, I'm here for the scratch night...?" I say, feeling more unsure about everything with every passing second.

"Yup!" says the box officer.

Well, that's one hurdle cleared at least. There is a show happening. And it's the one I thought it was.

"The surname's Smiles? S. M. I. L. E. S." I say.

He looks down the list. I shift my weight from foot to foot as he works his way down one page, and then another.

"How is it spelt?" he asks.

I spell it out for him again.

"Ah!" he says, alighting on my name. "Maxine?"

"Yup," I say with relief.

"Got it. Enjoy your evening!"

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And with that, I'm off down the staircase and into the basement.

"Hiiii!" says a young man in a red waistcoat that I can only presume is an usher. Bit smart for this kind of joint, but I'm not complaining.

"Hello!" I say back. "Um, where's the best place to go?" I ask as I look around, trying to make sense of what is happening down here.

It looks like a regular old bar. Tables and chairs clutter the space. I can't even tell where the stage area is.

"Anywhere you can find to sit," he says with a wave of his arm. "Sit down."

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He makes a fair point. There doesn't look like there are many options going spare. Might as well grab any chair going.

I creep around the edge until I find an empty table against the wall.

There are cast sheets on the table.

Hastily edited cast sheets. Someone as gone over one of the titles with a biro. It's ‘NOT Been Fingered, ’ rather than ‘NEVER Been Fingered.’ Better remember that.

Looks like there are seven of them in all (with the Not Been Fingered acting as our finale). I hope they're short. I was rather hoping for an early night.

Now that I'm settled, I can have a look around.

This place is not somewhere that has ever said no to decoration. Rows of headshots top the bar. Chandeliers and disco balls hang next to each other. The walls are covered with signed show posters. A few even making their way onto the ceiling, finding their way into the small scraps of space that aren't crowded with gilded panels that look like they got knicked sometime during the dissolution of the monasteries.

A group of red waistcoated young people rush into the middle of the room, onto a platform which I can't see, but I presume must be a stage.

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They're not ushers at all. They're actors. Playing ushers. Or actors playing ushers while trying to make it as actors. Actors who, incidentally, I won't be naming as they are all acting students this evening. So really, they're... students trying to make it as actors, playing ushers, who are trying to make it as actors. All very meta. Anyway, they are not happy with the audience. Orders to turn off our phones fly in between sneers of disgust at our behaviour and mocking jibes at one another.

A great choice to start the evening. Make sure we're all on our best behaviour.

Between acts, a host comes on to keep the energy up and introduce all the players.

A woman sitting on the table in front turns around. "Can I take?" she asks, indicating one of the spare freesheets on my table.

I slide it over to her.

"Can we…?" This time it's the woman on the table next to me. She wants to bunk up at my table in pursuit of a better view. I slide across the bench, and both she and the guy she's with squidge in next to me. This bench really wasn't meant for three.

After the fifth short of the evening, featuring a woman awaiting her execution, our host returns to the stage. "I think it’s time for a five-minute break," she tells us. "Head to the bar and I'll call you back when we're ready to start."

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There's a scamper towards the bar, and the exit, as those who've already seen their friends perform make a bid for escape.

The table next to me frees up and I no longer have to share my bench as the interlopers make their way over in search of better climes.

"Ladies and gentlemen and everything in between," says our host. "We are good to go. Ting! Ting! Ting!" she says, mimicking a theatre bell. Adding: "Shhhh," when that doesn't work.

As we make our way into the final two pieces a man comes over from the bar and gestures towards the space next to me on the bench.

I gesture back, to indicate that he's welcome to it.

After being squished for so long, I'm beginning to feel a little lonely back here all by myself.

We make it through to the end. Seven plays. And not a single dud. That must be a record. Okay, one dud. But out of seven, that’s still very impressive for a night of new writing.

Though, I am a little concerned as to what was wrong with that banana in the last one. At least it had a clear moral though: don't be eating fingered food.

The host brings back all the actors for one mega bow session, which really has to be the way to do it. None of this stop-starting with curtain calls. Save it all for the end.

"Is that what we just watched?" asks my new neighbour. He points over to my cast sheet.

I slide it over to him and he reads it while I get my applause on.

I can't help but sneak glances over to the other end of my table though.

I really hope he doesn't want to keep that cast sheet. I took pictures of it. I'm not an amateur over here. But still. I kinda want to take it home with me. And by kinda, I mean: I will literally be thinking about that lost cast sheet for the next fifteen years if he doesn't give it back.

He does, but whether that's due to his lack of interest in the more papery things in life, or the feeling of my narrowed eyes watching him carefully, I don't care to ask.

I check the time.

Twenty-past nine.

Right then. That's a challenge right there: bed by ten-thirty. Here we go.

Cast sheet in bag. Jacket on. Umbrella out. I'm off.

Like a slow voice on a wave of phase haze

Goodenough College is a weird arse name.

What are parents supposed to do when they're bragging to their friends about the universities their kids have been accepted into? "No, Oxford didn't work out but she got into Goodenough College? No... no. Stop. Not a Goodenough College. Goodenough College. It's a post-graduate accommodation... yeah, I hadn't heard of it either."

Apparently they've got a dance show on this afternoon though. So here I am. Staring doubtfully at the iron gates sealing off a pretty looking courtyard from the nastiness of the world outside. The world outside being Bloomsbury in this case.

A group of young women are making their way down the pavement. I step back to let them past.

"It's probably easy to be a choreographer there," one says while the others nod enthusiastically. "If you just want to test some ideas, and then show it..."

They disappear through the brick arch, towards the iron gates.

Looks like I am in the right place after all.

"It's Sunday!" says a young woman coming the other way. "When you only have class once a week, it's easy to lose track..."

Yeah. Can't relate to that. I may not be able to remember where I was last night, but I damn sure know what day of the week it is. I have spreadsheets to tell me that.

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I go through the arch. The gates are locked. But there is a door. And a doorbell.

The young women sitting at the reception desk inside buzzes me in.

"I'm looking for the large common room," I tell her.

The confirmation email hadn't been very forthcoming on the location of this performance. "Large Common Room, London House, Goodenough College." With no directions on how to get there, or where I might find it.

"Though the door behind you," says the receptionist. "Across the courtyard and on the far left. You'll find it," she says, demonstrating a belief in me that I'm not entirely sure is warranted.

I step out the door she indicated, make my way down the long ramp, and out into the courtyard.

It’s nice here. The type of manicured niceness that requires Keep Off The Grass signs and that same sculpture you see in every single courtyard ever. You know the one. With lots of concentric circles making up a sphere. Yeah. That one. The artist responsible must be making a mint off that design.

I pick my way around the edge, careful not to accidentally flop onto the grass.

Across the courtyard, and on the far left, some steps lead up to a covered walkway. And there I find a desk. With someone wearing a big Bloomsbury Festival STAFF badge pinned to her clothes.

That nice young lady at reception was right. I did find it!

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There’s a bit of a queue, so I stand around on the steps, waiting my turn and doing my best to keep my skirts clamped down, despite the best efforts of the wind. Eventually, it’s my turn.

“Smiles?” I say. She makes a surprised face and I realise that I I should have probably explained my purpose before dropping in that surname of mine without explanation. Can’t go wandering around telling poor women to smile. That’s highly inappropriate. “I should have already booked?”

Her face clears. She finds my name on the list. “Yes!” she says, her voice laden with relief that I wasn’t one of those people. “Lovely. We’ll give you a shout in a minute to let you in.” She points over to the walkway, where my fellow audience members are standing around, keeping out of the wind, and taking photos of that immaculate courtyard.

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The chat is all dance and dance-adjacent, making me think I have found myself in the midst of dance people.

I try to convince myself that I am also a dance person. I work in dance. That makes me one of them.

Somehow I’m not entirely satisfied with this argument.

I don’t even look like these people.

For one, this body was never meant to dance. But also, and perhaps more importantly, I’m missing the key accessory: red Dr Martens.

I really want a pair.

They look so cool.

Not sure they would look quite that cool on my stubby legs. But still. I want a pair.

A ridiculously pretty young woman in an orange dress that also needs to be filed immediately in the I-could-never-pull-that-off-but-I-wouldn’t-mind-giving-it-a-go pile comes out and greets a few people as she walks around.

With a wave of her arms, she motions towards the door.

“Oh, is the house open?” I ask, quelling the desire to comment on her dress in the most effusive tones possible.

“Yeah! The house is open,” she says.

So off I go, skittering towards the now open door, before my gawping at the dress gets too blatant for everyone’s comfort. Including mine.

There’s a woman on the door. “Hi!” I say.

“Hello! Fill up from the front row, and any bags you’ve got, put under your seat,” she says, before letting me through.

Inside the Large Common Room I find… a large common room.

Thick curtains are doing their best to keep out the Sunday afternoon light.

A parquet floor squeaks under foot as I cross the stage area in search of an empty seat.

I decide to plonk myself in the corner, right next to the camera set up. I want to avoid getting myself on film.

Not sure that's quite working though. A photographer is doing the rounds, and is already pointing his camera at the audience.

Freesheets lie waiting on the seats.

Being the professional blogger I am, I hold mine up to take a photo of it.

“I hope you’re switched off,” says an old man to woman he’s with, with only the slightest of side eyes in my direction.

I ignore him, pointedly taking pictures of the room before turning my attention back to the bit of paper we’ve been given.

The music, if I can call it that, perhaps soundscape would be a better term… comes from the NASA recordings of stars. Light waves converted into sound waves. Or something like that. I presume that’s what they mean by ‘sonified’ anyway.

I have to say, I’m not a big fan of sciencey-dance. I’ve seen a lot of it. Too much of it. It’s quite the thing amongst a certain brand of male choreographer. Wayne McGregor. Russell Maliphant. Alex Whitley…

And it's always accompanied by pounding music and brash projections.

It’s not that I don’t like science. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it (I definitely have) but, you know, I have an MSc. Science and me were well into each other before I jumped ship for his sultry cousin, the arts.

I just… I’m not sure science-inspired works do the business for me.

I’m simply not a Joey Tribbiani. When someone mixes together mincemeat and custard in a bowl and calls it trifle, I won’t be the one asking for seconds.

That and I'm not a fan of projection.

I tend to just end up watching them as dance, and trying very hard to forget the dense explanatory articles lurking deep within the programmes. Which is probably not the right way to approach it.

But this piece, Bodies in Space, was created by a woman. And I don’t want to be all sexist, but I am super interested to see if that makes a difference.

Plus: no projections.

It does rather feel like being back in school here though. With that parquet flooring and the clock on the wall and the large photograph of the Queen gazing down on us. I find myself waiting for the headmaster to come in so assembly can start.

Instead, we get the woman in the orange dress.

Turns out she's Helen Cox. The choreographer. She welcomes us all, and gives us the traditional housekeeping pre-show message. Then a reminder: "We're in the round, so please tuck your bags under your chairs. Like in an aircraft!"

I've already tucked my bag and I'm feeling pretty damn smug about that.

And then it's time for the performance.

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To sound which claims to be the music of the stars, but reminds me more like a vacuum cleaner in need of a cleaned filter, three dancers slowly twist around one another, their movements perfectly attuned as they poise slim wooden sticks between their fingertips, holding themselves to each other by the most fragile of connections. Sticks drop, clattering to the ground, but with the gentlest twisting, a negotiation is undertaken as the dancers sink down to retrieve it. Fingertips stretch out. The balance is recalibrated. They continue.

Behind them, across the square, the sound designer, Dougie Brown, flows between the sound desk and his laptop, doing whatever it is that sound designers do during live performances, twiddling knobs and pressing buttons.

The soundscape shifts. The sticks are taken away, and we move forward.

There's something special about watching performers this close. Close enough that your own presence distorts to way you view it. Seeing them even in their off-stage moments, as they wait to rejoin the fray. Natasha Arcoleo, Jordan Ajadi, and Andrew Oliver each take up separate corners, leaving us in darkness as the sound swirls around us, combining with their breathing as they prepare to make their returns.

We get to the end and it's time for the questions. Cox and Dougie talk a little about their work, while physics professor Fabio Iocco tackles the science. The audience ask a few questions (what did the sticks mean? And was that bit improvised? Cox answers the first: it means whatever you feel it does. The dancers, from their spot sitting cross-legged on the ground, take the second: yes it was, it's all about responding to each other in the moment), and then it's time to go.

Or at least, it's time for me to go.

As so often happens at these things, most of the audience stick around to chat.

I've got other things to be getting on with. Namely buying an apple pie and eating the entire thing in one sitting while pondering the great questions of the universe.

Language Fail

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately. Like, why am I dragging myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning to watch a show? (Answer: marathon reasons). Or, why did I book myself a second show to go to, on this same exact Sunday? (Answer: marathon reasons). And the ever constant: is this place even a theatre, Maxine? (Answer:… still working on this one). 

After making it back to Hammersmith, I spent the afternoon eating too many carbs and clutching the cat for comfort. But now it’s time to go back out. Theatre 239 waits for no blogger. 

Thankfully I don’t have far to go. Just around the corner, actually. I can walk it. Heck, I can probably sit down and sail there on a slide made of my own tears of exhaustion. 

I just really hope it is an actual theatre. 

It’s so hard to tell. 

Everywhere’s a theatre these days. Buses, boats, gardens and squares. And yet, also no where. I struggle to find a single play to book in spaces to claim to have that title. 

Well, there’s only one way to find out sometimes. 

I’m off to the Polish Social and Cultural Association to see what they’ve got for me and my marathon needs. 

I bundle myself inside my jacket and wander off down to King Street. 

The letters P. O. S. K. shine dully against the grey walls that look by rights as if they should belong to the local council. 

I head up the stairs and through the glass doors. 

There’s a reception just opposite, but there’s no one standing behind the desk. 

I look around, wondering what to do. 

Not for long though. Because there’s a queue on the other side of the lobby, and it’s lined up infront of a window marked “Kasa.” Which, if you don’t speak Polish, which I do not, is helpfully translated underneath. “Box Office.” 

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I join the queue. 

It moves fast. Most people seem to be in ticket purchasing mode rather than picking up, transactions happening in rapid Polish as cash is slipped across the counter. 

“Hi!” I say when I reach the front. “The surname’s Smiles?” 

“Smiles?” 

“Smiles.” I think I’ve just outed myself as a non-Pole here. “I booked online?” I say, turning around my phone so that she can see the Eventbrite confirmation on my screen. 

She looks through the ticket box. And then looks through again. Her fingers deftly move between letters as she searches all the possible spelling combinations. 

No luck. 

She beckons with her hand. “Can I see?” she asks, motioning to my phone. 

“Hang on,” I tell her as I hurriedly unlock it for her and hand it over. 

She prods at the screen, zooming in to read the information. 

Once she has confirmed that I did indeed purchase my ticket in advance, she slides my phone back over the counter. 

“How much was the ticket?” she asks. 

“22.15?” I say, reading the numbers on the screen doubtfully. Twenty-two fifteen. Hard to believe there was a time in my life where I would have baulked at paying that. The marathon does weird things to a person. 

“Two tickets?” she asks, holding up two fingers to indicate the number of the tickets. 

“No. One,” I say, holding up a single finger and thus demonstrating the other side-effect of this marathon – being a lonely loser on a Sunday evening. 

She nods, opens a small booklet, and tears out a ticket for me. A proper ticket. With a seat number and everything. 

In 238 theatres I haven’t seen the like. 

Tickets torn from a little booklet. 

Whatever next?

“How much are the programmes?” I ask, spotting a pile of them on the desk. 

The two fingers go up again. “Two pounds,” she says. 

“Great!” I find two pounds coins and give them to her, and she slips a programme under the window in exchange. 

That done, I walk around the lobby, trying to get a sense of where I am. 

It’s a bit fancy in here. Not at all like a council building. 

There’s a water feature in the middle of the foyer, surrounded by chairs. The walls are lined with lists of names, which I admit, I originally thought we’re there for depressing war reasons, but no. They are all names of people who contributed to the funding of this building, and that is the exact opposite of depressing. 

A pillar is being used as a noticeboard, advertising various events coming up, in Polish and English. 

A very small child runs in, banging into a roller banner with a smack of her chubby palms. 

“Posk!” she shouts out, clearly very pleased with her ability to read. 

Her dad runs up after her, removing the chubby palms from the banner before sounding out the letters for her, with the correct Polish pronunciation. 

At the back, there’s a gallery. I walk around the exhibition. The paintings are nice. Bright and brilliant and full of life. There’s even one of ballet students, wearing matching floating skirts. Obviously, I like that one best. 

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Back in the foyer and people are starting the make their way through the doors on the far side. 

There’s no signage, but I trust they know where they’re going, so I follow them. 

Corridors lead off in all directions, but the stairs looks like the popular option. So I take them too. 

A pretty blonde woman says something to me in Polish. I shrug apologetically, and she moves away without another glance. 

Up the stairs and everywhere is heading through a door marked as “Teatr.” I’m fairly confident that’s the theatre. 

People turn around, their faces lighting up as a man in a suit approaches. 

“Hiiiiiii,” they all say in that very particular way people do when they know someone involved in a show. “We’re so excitedddddd.” 

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I manage to make it through the fangirls, and I show my ticket to the woman on the door. 

“Ah,” she says. Followed by a string of Polish. 

“Err, sorry?” I say, embarrassed by my lack of language skills. 

She smiles at that. “You are upstairs in the balcony,” she translates, pointing behind me to the staircase. 

“One level up?” I ask. 

“Yes, up the stairs.” 

So off I go, up the stairs. 

There is no sign Teatr sign up here. But there is a man, who smiles welcomingly as I dither on the landing. 

I show him my ticket and he waves me in. 

And will you look at that. It’s a proper little theatre. The existence of a balcony should have been a clue, but still, it properness of it all takes me by surprise. It has proper raked seating. And a proper red curtain. And proper lighting running on rigs down the wall. 

What it doesn’t have, is very good numbers on the seats. Only a few of the original plaques remain, the rest are a collage of stickers and scrawls. 

“Sorry, I’m looking for thirteen?” I ask a man in the front row. 

He points further in. “That way.” 

“Sorry,” I say again. “I can’t count.” 

I inch my way past him, squinting at the underside of all the flip seats, trying to make out the numbers until a reach a woman sitting further in. 

“Sorry, what number are you?” 

She’s twelve. Finally. Found it, 

Turns out, none of this matters that much because no one else joins us in our row. The two of us sit next to each other, bookended either side by multiple empty seats. 

I can see why. The front row isn’t all that great. 

The barrier in front of us is high. As soon as I attempt to lean back, or even slouch, the entirety of the stage disappears behind it. 

I’m going to have to do something I never allow myself to do in a theatre. 

I’m going to have to lean forward. 

May the theatre gods forgive me, because the people sitting behind me certainly won’t. 

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I try to find the right angle. Not far enough forward that I can see the very small orchestra down in front of the stalls, but just enough so that I can see the stage. 

Perching here, on the edge of my seat, I can just about see the screen off to one side. It says Jawnuta on it. That’s the name of the opera I’m seeing tonight. An opera I know nothing about other than it’s in Polish. I think. 

I hope the presence of the screen means there are going to be surtitles, because, as I’ve just found out, I don’t actually speak Polish. 

Everyone starts clapping. 

The man in the suit comes in. He waves at the audience. Looks like he’s conducting tonight. 

A moment later, the very small orchestra are playing. 

The curtain rises. 

And we’re off. 

We’re in a Gypsy camp. Or a Traveller camp, I should probably say. In Poland. Jawnuta’s daughter is in love with the mayor’s son. There’s lots of songs about not wanting to work, stealing animals from the locals, and being starving but free. 

With plenty of references to ‘Jews,’ which is never worrisome at all. 

The music is nice though. Very jolly. 

In the interval, we’re joined by someone new in the front row. Probably got sick of staring at the backs of our heads and upgraded himself. 

Sucker. 

Some more applause for the conductor later and we’re into act two. The mayor totally does not approve of his darling son going off with a Traveller, but it’s totes cool, bro, because it turns out the girl and her brother were actually taken in by Jawnuta after their bona fide Polish mum was found dead. So, that’s all fine. And the two definitely-Polish-and-not-Traveller-kids can get married now. 

Art before political correctness was wild.  

The cast assemble for the curtain call. There’s millions of them, on that teeny stage. I try to count them, but get muddled somewhere in the forties. 

The orchestra come up to, squishing themselves in, and the singers stomp their feet in approval. 

As the curtain lowers, a whoop emerges from the stage, and more foot stomping. 

Sounds like there is going to be one hell of a cast party tonight. 

As for me, my pyjamas await. It’s been a long day. 

Another one bites the dust

All around me books are being lowered. Commuters lean forwards in their seats.

Somewhere in this carriage buskers are playing Despacito and we all want to see who’s responsible for this crime against Latin pop. I don't think I'm alone in the belief that if you’re going to be playing a song on the tube, you should probably memorise the lyrics first.

The tube driver agrees with me.

An announcement is played.

“There are beggars and buskers operating on this train. Please do not encourage their presence by supporting them.”

Bit harsh.

People immediately start reaching into their wallets to hand over their change.

That’ll teach TFL.

The lethologic musicians hop out at the next stop and rush around to the next carriage.

I can still hear them playing their intermittently acoustic cover version as I change platforms at Cannon Street.

The rest of my journey is quiet.

Not many people making the journey to Deptford tonight.

They haven’t heard the call of the Albany.

It feels weird being back already. After a gap of six years, I’m now on my second visit of the week. This time though, I’m hitting the main house.

As I round the corner into Douglas Way and find myself grinning.

Not because of the theatre. Sorry, Albs. I find it hard to get sentimental about old workplaces. I’m smiling because it’s dark. Properly dark. For months I’ve been taking my exterior theatre photos in blazing sunshine, and now, finally, the nights are closing in and I don’t have to spend my evenings leaping between the shadows and feverously rubbing sunscreen into every exposed inch of my skin.

Seriously, it’s not easy maintain this maggot-pale colouring I’ve got going on.

I burn. I freckle.

I mean, it’s fine. No one said being Goth was easy. But it’s nearly October, and it’s my time. Sweaters and shawls and coats and velvet: here I come.

And bless the Albany. They have the heating on. I can feel it as soon as I walk through the door. The whoosh of heavy dry air that feels so eternally comforting, and proving that I don’t mind heat, as long as it is entirely artificial.

I join the queue at the box office.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the box officer, turning over her list of names to find me on the back. She grabs a ruler, and a highlighter, and runs a very straight line through my entry.

“Let me just stamp you,” she says once her highlighting is complete.

I offer her my hand, and she places the stamp up on the back of my wrist.

Strange location to pick, but I respect her artistic choices in stamp placement.

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My unspecified ringed planet is red this time. To designate the main house, I presume. We wouldn’t want audience members sneaking their way between the studio and stage space without having been properly stamped and accounted for.

“Can I take one of these?” I say, pointing to a pile of freesheets on the desk.

“Oh!” she says, surprised. “Yes, of course.” She grabs one and hands it to me.

The house isn’t open, and I don't really fancy standing out here in the foyer, so I go over to the cafe to see what’s happening in there.

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The answer is: not a lot.

People sit quietly at tables, sipping on drinks and waiting.

I find a table all to myself and join in the quiet time.

“Die! Die! Die! OLD PEOPLE DIE!” someone reads dramatically from their freesheet.

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I can’t blame her. It’s a really great title. Quite possible the best one of the marathon. Even better than Kill Climate Deniers over at the Pleasance.

I take off my jacket and scarf. It's warm in here.

I’m feeling real cosy right now, and am fully prepared to join the climate deniers this winter if it means we get the have the heating on blast until March.

“Ladies and gentleman!” says a front of houser. “The house is now open for Die! Die! Die…!” he falters, and we all laugh. “Old… people… die.”

Great title. Seriously, fucking great.

There’s a scrapping of chairs as we all stagger to our feet and make our way back into the foyer, and through the doors into the main house, holding up our hands, or wrists, to show the usher that we have been marked by the red stamp.

Through the door and we get a nice view of the undercarriage of the seating.

We walk around, through the arched corridor that circles the space, until we find our way to the front.

The central block of seating is filling up fast.

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I pick my way across the stage, leaping over a wire, powering a floor light, with previously unknown grace.

I pick a seat in the third row, as is my preference. But on the aisle, as a concession to this being quite a large space, even if half the stage is taken up by a mountain of seating tonight.

As the audience shifts around, selecting their seats, I get out my phone and try to finish a blog post.

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But a gentle stirring around the room makes me look up.

Over there, behind the stage area, peeking from behind a curtain, are two performers. Jon Haynes and David Woods. They’re stepping out. Or at least, I think they are.

They’re moving so slowly, it’s hard to tell what their motivation is.

A few solo giggles sound off around the audience, unsure how to take this snail-like state. Are we supposed to be laughing? Is this a comedy? It’s hard to tell.

The pair cling onto each other as they lower themselves down the treacherous step from walkway to stage.

Then they begin the long walk to their set: a table, and two chairs.

It takes minutes. Multiple ones.

I’m beginning to get a bit bored.

The pair dribble and fart and talk over one another for the next sixty minutes or so, sometimes managing a smile-worthy line, but mostly shuffling around interminably.

I can’t help but think of that Caryl Churchill play where an entire act was dedicated to the dressing and undressing of an elderly man in a care home.

A work of genius to many. Painfully dull to me.

A few people at that onr took the Here We Go title literally, and walked out when it became clear that this cycle of costume changes was not going to end any time soon.

Over here in the Albany, a couple sitting in the second row are having the same feelings, and slip and out with a clatter of flipping seats.

With a loud bang, the show eventually ends, and we are free to leave.

And pay.

I’d forgotten about that.

Another Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy show.

I pull out my purse and have a look at what’s going on in there. Not a lot. No notes at all. I prod at the coins, trying to count up the non-coppers. It doesn’t take long.

But as we make out way round the walkway and out the auditorium door, I spot an usher holding some fancy looking equipment.

“Have you got the card reader?” I ask him.

He has.

He prods away at a few buttons on his phone. “Sorry,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t like to connect.”

“I can try to find some cash…?” I say, knowing full well I only have three quid on me at best.

“No, I can try and get it working for you,” he says, but he doesn’t sound all that convinced.

“Are you sure?”

“Ummm.”

I dither, not knowing what to do.

But then he smiles. Success. “Yeah! There we go. How much would you like to donate.”

“Ten?” I suggest, finding myself wanting his approval. Ten is the suggested donation. It says so on the signs. I gave ten to the other show. The one in the studio.

He doesn’t say anything though, just gives me the card reader all set up and ready, and let’s me do my thing.

Payment accomplished I make my way back to Deptford station.

“I was kinda expecting the handbag to come out at the end,” says a woman also waiting on the platform. “It was still under the rug and he just stood on it.”

That’s true. I had forgotten all about the handbag.

“It was deliberate, no doubt,” she finishes.

I’m sure it was. Just because it didn’t do the business for me, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one hell of a business plan going on.

And anyway, still a fucking great title.

Paper Free Finchley

I'm in Finchley!

I'm not sure that deserved an exclamation mark.

I can tell by your expression that you don't either.

"Don't you live in Finchley?" I can very almost hear you say. And it's true. I do. "But aren't you staying in Hammersmith at the moment?” Yeah. Yeah, that's also true. "So, doesn't that mean that you trekked all the way across London tonight? I kinda feel that you might have planned this a bit bett-"

Okay, you shut up now. I don't have to listen to that kind of talk. This is my blog, and I won't be insulted by someone who hasn't had to deal with the spreadsheet nightmares that have been my life over the past nine months. So: hush.

I'm in Finchley and I am going to the fucking artsdepot. Again. Because they have two theatres and that's just fucking great.

I may be a little overtired. And damp.

After dropping some stuff off at home, I hurry through the rain, down Ballards Lane and up to Tally Hoe, pass the Lidl, turn onto Nether Street and speed through the automatic glass doors.

The box office is just inside and I wait until someone is free, tucking my soaked umbrella under my arm.

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"Hi," I say, as chirpily as I can. This is my local theatre after all. I don't want to get a reputation. "The surname's Smiles?"

The box officer looks at me blankly.

"For Still I Rise?" I try. Just in case there's more than one show going on tonight.

"Did you get the text message?" he asks.

"Umm..."

I vaguely remember seeing something pop up on my phone from artsdepot, but I figured it was a reminder or something like that.

Oh gawd. Is this another Harrow Arts Centre situation? Have I just had another show cancel on me? In the same damn week? I'm really not sure I can take it.

I get out my phone and look for it.

"Sorry, I never check these things," I tell him.

"Don't worry," he says, sounding pretty chill for a man who is right now ruining my entire marathon. "It should have a link in it."

"Umm..."

"It would have been about four o'clock," he says.

I find it. "Got it," I say, scrolling down and yes, there is a link. I click it. A QR code fills my screen. An e-ticket. Ew.

I turn my screen around to show him.

"There you go! We're trialling something new. Just use that."

Ergh. I thought I was safe. I was only here a few months ago, and we were still well into paper ticket territory. And now this.

It's happening more and more. I visit once and everything is fine. I go to a box office and they give me a real ticket. Happiness reigns. And then when I return, it's all this digital shit.

2019 is turning into the year of the e-ticket.

It's completely disgusting and I don't approve.

And even worse: text messages.

With links.

I didn't sign up for this.

In fact, I did the opposite of signing up for this.

When booking this ticket I specifically selected the "Leave my tickets at the box office (no charge)" option. Because, just in case I wasn't clear on the matter, I like paper tickets. Scrap that: I love paper tickets. Almost as much as I hate e-tickets. If I wanted an e-ticket, I would have chosen the print at home option. But I don't. So I didn't.

So really, what the artsdepot is doing here, is not only ignoring my wishes, but also misselling. They tell me I can pick up from box office, and then, instead, give me this inferior product and smile while doing it.

I'm raging.

I should complain. I should go full-fucking-Karen and demand to speak to a manager. I should...

"Thanks," I say, heading off towards the escalator.

This is my local theatre after all. I might bump into these people in the big Tescos.

And I do like the escalator.

I step on and let its gentle movement soothe me as I sail up to the next floor.

The cafe is up here, with all its multi-coloured chairs and big friendly signage.

I'd kinda had it in mind that I wanted to see what happened in the gallery, but it's still closed, so I find a seat and try to dry off.

The tables fill up around me as people clutch onto cups full of hot drinks.

A few minutes later, there's an announcement over the tannoy. "Could all ticket holders for this evening's performance of Still I Rise head to the Pentland Theatre on level three. The performance will begin in three minutes."

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I check the time.

It's 7.25pm.

I see you Tannoy Lady, rushing us for no reason.

Three minutes, my arse.

But, I go all the same. Following that big friendly signage up a flight of stairs to level three.

There's a great big landing up here, with more seating.

I look at my e-ticket. It says I need the Right Door, which is the one closest to the stairs.

There's two ticket checkers standing there, and one of them beeps me in.

"A1?" I ask the usher inside.

She directs me towards the end of the front row. Which, I mean, I figured. But I thought it polite to ask all the same.

I take a few steps in that directon, and then stop.

I've noticed something.

The theatre isn't full, but every single person in here is clutching a sheet of paper.

Freesheets. They've got freesheets. I want a freesheet.

I'll be damned if I'm not walking out of here with at least one bit of paper.

I double back. "Is there a cast sheet?" I ask the usher.

"Programme?" she asks.

"Yeah?" I mean, I guess.

She goes off to check, returning a half-minute later with one of the ticket checkers from the door. She shakes her head. "No programme."

Oh. Okay.

I'm tired and wet and can't be bothered to press it.

I go off to my seat.

Front row. Right at the end.

And there's someone sitting in it.

"Are you A1?" I ask the young girl sitting in A1, knowing full well that she is not A1, because I am A1, and there can't be two of us.

She looks at me, her eyes full of innocence and embarrasment.

"No," she admits. "I'm in A5. But I can move...? Or you can have A5…?"

I look down the row. A2 and 3 are also occupied by young girls. A4 is an older lady. I see how it is. She wants to sit with her friends. Well, I can't say I've never done that before.

"I'm very happy to sit in A5," I tell her, starting to make my way down the row.

"It's a better seat anyway!" calls her friend after me.

She's not wrong. It's almost in the middle of the row.

Front row centre. It doesn't get much better than that.

I dump my back and try to flip down my new seat, but it catches on something.

"Sorry, I'm spreading out," says the lady in A4, pulling her coat free, putting her bag on her lap and... tucking away her freesheet.

"Sorry," I say quickly before she has the chance to put it away. "Can I be very rude and take a picture of your cast sheet? They've run out..."

"Oh! Oh no. What a shame," she says. And she holds it out for me to take my photo.

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That done, I look around.

It's a nice space in here. A very large stage. Surprisingly large.

It's my first time in this space and I'd always wondered why they did so much dance here. Now I know. It's this big-arse stage.

A woman slips into the row behind me, slightly out of breath.

"Sorry," she says to her friend as she plonks herself down. "I did that classic dance thing, that industry thing, of not looking up what we're seeing."

Me too, love. Me too.

I think I probably read the copy at one point, but honestly, I can't remember a thing.

I consider looking up my photo of the freesheet, but I can hear something moving beside the stage and I think we're about to begin.

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Sure enough, the lights are dimming.

Five dancers. All women.

Crinolined costumes give way to softer fair.

It's strong and vulnerable and aggressive and tender.

They lift each other up, both literally and metaphorically. One holds another, cradling her head, stopping her from sinking to the ground. They won't let each other fail.

One dancer appears silhouetted against a light, wearing only shorts and a cropped top. She moves like a bodybuilder. Like a fighter. Unafraid to show off her strength. Her muscles.

She reminds me of Arya. From Game of Thrones. A water dancer no longer in need of a sword.

"Wow, that was something," says my neighbour as our applause chases the dancers off stage.

"They were warriors!" I say.

"Yes!"

"Amazing to see a company of female dancers be so strong," I add.

"Yes," she agrees. "Very powerful. I'm glad I came."

"Me too. I'm ready to take on the world now."

I grab my bag and make for the exit.

"Is that it?" someone asks, sounding unsure.

"I think so. It was an hour," comes the equally unsure reply.

Not many people are leaving.

Most are still in their seats.

I hesitate. Maybe there really is more.

But the ushers on the door are handing out flyers. That's a send-off, not an interval activity.

I grab one, thinking this is the only bit of paper I'm going to get my hands on this evening.

Back down the stairs, through the cafe and towards the escalator which has now reversed its direction to take us downstairs.

Outside, a small group have gathered to have a smoke.

"Is it half time?" one asks.

"No, it's actually finished," says another. "I heard the ushers..."

I pull my jacket close around me and make a rush towards the tube station, dropping the flyer in the first recycling bin I see.

Gone to the Dogs

There's a paper bag lying, discarded, on the ground in Douglas Way. It must have had something very tasty in it not that long ago because three pigeons are now circling it, pecking at it, like overworked nurses attempting to impose hospital corners on a beanbag.

One of them, the one I've been thinking of as the leader of this trio, manages to get its head inside. A second later, its back out again, bringing a half-eaten cookie with it.

The other pigeons stare at this manna from carb heaven in wonder. No manky crumbs for them this evening. They be feasting like kings.

But the dinner party don't last long, because across the road, three dogs have just finished their run around the park and are barrelling through.

One runs on ahead, scattering pigeons in his wake.

It's owner calls after it. "Don't forget, the only reason I have you is because no one else wanted you."

And with that grade A guide to parenting left hanging in the air, they disappear.

It's probably time for me to go to. I've been hanging around for fifteen minutes now. It's not that I'm avoiding going inside. It's just that I don't want to, and I'm putting it off.

I mean, it's not like I don't already know what the Albany is like. I've been here before. Fucking hell, I worked here. This is where I got my first real job in theatre. Well, the first one that didn't have 'intern' in the title. It's where I met Allison, who is now a marathon-semi-regular, so, you know, that's a lasting friendship if ever there was one. And it's all because of this place. This low, long, building, sat squat on the edge of the square that once a week houses Deptford Market. That was probably a great idea at the time. Placing the arts right in the middle of the community and all that. But the bars now criss-crossing all the ground-floor windows doesn't really scream neighbourhood integration.

I head through the automatic doors and into the foyer, trying to get a sense of what’s changed in all the years that have passed since I was last here.

The truth is, not a lot.

The tables and chairs in the cafe look like they’ve been upgraded, but other than that, everything looks exactly the same as I left it. The box office is still taking up that same corner. The counter top as pink as ever. I would even swear that bunting hasn’t shifted since 2013.

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It’s all rather comforting really.

I join the queue, and when I get to the front, give my name to the box officer.

“Maxine? That’s one,” she says, using a ruler to draw a very straight line through my name. She flips open the lid to a large ink pad, and inks up a small stamp.

“There you go,” she says, applying it to the back of my hand. “It’ll be there in the Studio. Doors will open in about five minutes.”

Plenty of time for me to inspect my new artwork.

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It’s a planet. Or at least I think it’s a planet. One with rings, so that’s Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, or Uranus, if my GCSE Double Science Award serves me well. I can’t narrow it down any further. I flunked out of A-level Physics.

Someone hands me a brochure. It’s for a festival of aging. Not a subject I try to think of all that often. I have a flick through though, checking the venue names to see if there’s anything I missed.

I skip over the page advertising the 48-hour durational work set in an old people’s home. I am absolutely not doing that. No way. Not even for the marathon. I have logged it as an experience, not theatre, and I will not hear another word about it.

A queue starts to build over by the door. Lots of young, cool, looking people with oversized clothing and pastel hair. It’s all very Deptford.

I hang back. I’m not all that fussed about being first through the door. The Studio is a small space. And with a one-man show about dementia, I’m not sure I actually want to be all that close to the front.

Some keen sort rattles the door. It’s locked.

A passing front of houser spins on his heel “Oh! Hang on!” he says, rushing back towards the door. “We’ll open in about five minutes!”

True to his word, about five minutes later, the doors are opened and we begin to file ourselves in.

We all twist our hands round to show him the planets stamped on the back, looking like we’re all throwing the mimsiest gang-sign going.

It gets us in though, and we make our way down the long, dark, corridor which winds its way around the back of the main theatre space, towards the far end of the building.

A sign on the door reminds us that this show is a Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy. “Please donate what you can into the buckets,” it tells us. “We also accept card payments. Suggested amount £10 (or £5 concessions) but feel free to donate less or more!”

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Buckets. That’s interesting. I’ve only seen it done with envelopes before.

I go in.

It’s dark in here. Really dark.

The brick walls are painted black and the windows are hidden behind black-out curtains. The only speck of colour are the iron beams painted red.

Chairs have been set up in right-angled banks, fencing off a corner for the stage.

I slip into the end of the third row. There’s no rake, of course. But I can just about catch a glimpse of our performer, sat behind a drum kit.

There has to be a rule, worked out in secret meetings between artists and programmers, that spaces with bad-sightlines should only be filled with sitting-down performers. You don’t catch actors sitting down on big stages with raked seating. Oh no. But as soon as you’re in a titchy studio space, there they are, getting to grips with their floor-work skills.

At least Antosh Wojcik has the excuse of an instrument that needs playing.

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The doors close.

The lights dim

We begin.

Drumming away, Wojcik tells us a story. He was in a band. A metal band. He was the drummer. Or one of the drummers. There were two drummers. And that’s it. That was the whole band. Two boys on drums.

He imagines the two of them, in a home together, old and grey, remembering nothing but the music. The pounding of the drum solos.

And he thinks of his own grandfather. Lost in a maze of missing connections as dementia takes hold.

As he plays, ratting out that beat, Wojcik’s fluffy hair bounces in time with the music. He pushes back his long fringe in between sections. Which, I don’t mind telling you, is all very pleasing and troubling in equal measure. As he talks about a deep and personal grief, I want nothing more than to plate up some freshly made biscuits, pinch his cheek, and tell him it will all be alright.

You know, some women out there, they go all maternal in the face of troubled young men. Me? I’ve leapt straight into grandmothering.

Just as I’m about to start searching in my bag for a hairbrush to offer him, a man sitting two rows ahead leans across, lifting his arm over the seat next to him, and blocking my view.

Now I can only hear the words as they tumble over the beat, without the distraction of floppy hair and sad eyes.

Honestly, it’s a relief.

We make it through to the end, with no further issues other than a few broken hearts.

Wojcik leaves us behind in the studio, not returning despite our applause going on without him.

Eventually, the lights come back on and we struggle to our feet.

Everyone is very quiet as we make for the door, and back down the corridor.

At the end, a front of houser stands waiting for us, bucket in hand.

I pull out a note, and slip it into the slim gap at the top.

Not too sure about this method, to be honest. I think I prefer envelopes. Although I imagine this public payment does more to extract funds from audiences. No one wants to be seen to only give a few coins or a half-eaten cookie…

 

Hedgehogs are a Thing in London Theatre. Who knew?

Second show of the day and I almost didn't make it. 

I left plenty of time. There was a whole three hours between the end of show one and the start of show two. And I didn't stray far, only popping back to Finchley to pick up some stuff I needed. And, okay, maybe having quick raid of the cupboards for biscuits, in exchange for gossip over a cup of tea. That wasn't the problem. Getting back off the sofa was.  

I'm not very good at this whole more-than-one-show-in-a-day thing. And the knowledge that not only did I actually have to go to a second theatre, but then I'd have to write about it afterwards… Well, my bum was firmly planted and had no intention of getting back up again. 

At a quarter to seven, things were getting worrying. 

Because I couldn’t miss this one. I really couldn’t. I’ve been waiting nine damn months for them to programme a show. For most of that time, their website had been so static with old events, I thought the place had closed permanently. But no, they were undergoing refurbishment. 

And now, they’re back. 

For one night only. 

With no promise of a follow-up show. 

I grabbed my phone, and without letting myself think too much about it, booked myself a ticket. There. No escaping it after that. I had to go. Or else lose out on a whole fifteen quid and change. Not an amount of cash I'm really in a position to throw away.

With a bit of help, I was able to lever myself into an upright position, waddle my way over to the tube station, and journey the three stops towards Highgate, where the next theatre on my marathon list lives: the peculiarly named Red Hedgehog. 

I can’t see much from the outside. Stained glass windows hide whatever activities are lurking within. But the door is open, and it looks like it’s ready for business. 

Through the door and there’s a table set up with money box and programmes. And a box officer. Wearing a sparkly top hat, which is doing it’s mostest to wake me up. 

“Hi, the surname’s Smiles?” I say. 

The box officer dithers and I notice there’s no list of names on this table. 

“I booked on ticketsource?” I say, turning around my phone to show him the booking confirmation. 

“You’ve already booked?” he says, clearly relieved. “That’s fine then.” 

I point to one of the programmes. “Can I get one of these?” 

“That’s the programme,” he says. “That’s one pound. But…!” He does a magician’s assistant-pose, holding up another, identical-looking, booklet. “If you get one of these, this is a booklet of poetry, that’s three pounds, and you get the programme for free.” 

“That’s the bargain then?” 

He nods. Yup. That’s the bargain. 

Well, who am I to turn down such an offer? I hand him the three quid and get both booklets in exchange. 

Right, time to figure out where to sit. 

The place has been set up cabaret style. 

Rows of chairs fight for space between the tables.

It’s all very cheerful looking. Mismatched vases do their best to contain brightly coloured blooms and ginghaam tablecloths clash wildly with each other.

A woman moves between the tables, depositing tealights. 

On the far side, on the other side of a knocked through wall, is the stage. All leather sofas and what looks like a piano lurking over in the corner.

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A lady catches my eye and grins. 

“Where’s the best place to sit?” I ask. 

She thinks about this, then beckons me to follow her, sliding our way in between the tables until we’re in the middle of a row. 

“The cast are going to come through from this side,” she says pointing. “Most of the time they’ll be between those two sofas. Sometimes they’ll sit on them, but mostly they’ll be under that light. You see?” 

I do see. 

I pick a seat over on the far side, second row. You know how I hate sitting at the front. Plus, I fancy getting a proper look at that piano. 

It's a bit squishy in here. The tables are packed tight and the chairs are packed even tighter.

I distract myself with a quick look at the poetry book. I have to admit, poetry isn’t my thing. I wish it was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind poetry. I just don’t understand poetry. I think it’s my lack of musicality that does it. I can’t clap out a recognisable beat, and I can’t hear the rhythm in poetry. I can just about cope with spoken word. But poetry? Nope. Sucks, but there you go. 

I move onto the programme. That’s where my heart lives. Tucked up between the credits and the biogs. I don’t need to tell you how much I love a good programme. 

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From amongst the headshots, I spot one rather familiar looking photo. It’s the lady who advised me on seating choices. Judit Catan. The writer and poet and producer. 

Oh, well that’s not embarrassing at all. But I suppose she knows the sightlines! 

“How did you hear about the show?” she asks, leaning over the back of a chair to talk to me. 

Oh dear. It’s that question again. 

I run through a few possible answers. Telling her that I’ve been stalking the Red Hedgehog’s website for nine months is probably going to provoke more questions, if not a raised eyebrow. I’m a theatre nerd with nothing else to do on a Saturday night is going for the pity angle which I don’t really want to be exploiting right now. I decide to go for the truth. “It’s a weird one,” I tell her. “I’m doing this challenge where I’m trying to visit every theatre in London within a year.” 

She looks taken aback. I’m not surprised. I’m well used to that expression by now. 

“But why this show?” she insists. 

Is there a way to tell her that Boris Johnson could be spending his prorogation sitting on stage, picking his nose for an hour, and I would have to book it if it he was doing it at a theatre I hadn’t been to before, without sounding rude? Probably not. 

I shake my head. “I’ve been waiting for this venue to programme something, and here we are,” I say, throwing up my arms to demonstrate what a delightful coincidence it all is. 

A man sneaks into the row behind me and shifts his chair. 

“Am I in your way?” I ask.  

“Oh, no. Don’t worry,” he says, even though I clearly am.  

Then he asks it. “Do you know someone in the show?” 

Oh dear. You’ve been doing this marathon with me long enough to know what that means.  

“Well,” I start. “It’s a bit of a weird one…” And I tell him about the marathon.  

On the other side of me, the writer is chatting with a newcomer. She points to me. “I was just telling him about your theatre challenge,” she says. 

“You’re visiting every London theatre?” he asks. 

“Yup,” I confirm. And tell him about the marathon. You’d think after giving the same speech three times in one night I’d be a bit better at it. But my shame keeps me from forming coherent sentences. Bless every single person who has had to struggle their way through my jumbled explanations this year. 

The room is filling up. 

“Anyone sitting here?” asks someone struggling into my row. 

“No. You go for it,” I tell him. 

He nods and plonks himself down. “Otherwise I can’t see the piano,” he explains. 

No explanation needed my friend. I had the exact same thinking when I chose this little corner of ours. 

On cue, the box officer comes over and sets himself up at the piano, ready to play.

We start. Insanity and Song in The News Room. 

No dimming of lights. We’re going for the shared light experience here. Lamps on stage. Tealights on tables. The lighting rig above our heads is getting no use tonight. 

Songs and poems alternate, with the framing device of being in a newsroom. Correspondents called out to step forward and give their thoughts, in the form of stanzas. 

The front row is a glitter of screens as people get out their phones to take photos. 

Behind me is the whirr and click of a proper camera. 

“That was great,” says the person sitting behind me as the interval hits. 

“Yes,” I nod. “But freezing.” After spending the entire day sweltering, I now have to pull my jacket over my shoulders and dig out my scarf from my bag. 

“Is the bar open?” my neighbour asks as nobody moves from their seats. 

The writer stands up. “The bar is still available to anyone,” she announces. 

A few people do their best to escape from the tightly packed chairs and make their way over to the bar. 

I slump down in my seat and shiver. It really is cold in here now. 

Act two starts up and a woman in the front row is determined not to miss a bit of it. Holding up her phone, she starts recording the songs. Task complete, she brings up WhatsApp and starts sending her freshly minted audio to someone. A click and a tap later, it starts playing back. 

She jabs at her phone, trying to get it to stop, but it plays on, drowning out the cast as they gamely try not to lose focus. 

The writer leans over. “I’ll send you the show recording,” she says. 

The woman nods. 

But a second later her phone is back up and she’s pinching the screen to get the perfect photo. 

I think we can safely say that this show will not be short of production images. 

At the end there’s applause and the writer nips on stage to give her thanks to everyone. 

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The bar is back open. It’s time to start celebrating. 

I pull my jacket tight close around me and make a sprint for the tube station. 

 

The Art of the Dead Woodlouse

I'm at Kings Place. I'm not sure what Kings Place is. But I'm here all the same.

Apart from having a name whose lack of apostrophe is making me itchy, Kings Place is also a great big, glass-fronted, building just behind King's Cross station. There are banners out front decorated with soundwaves that have apparently been lifted from... The Guilty Feminist podcast. And suchlike. Ceramics fill the windows. They're for sale. If you have a couple of grand to drop on something that looks like a mouldy ship's model. I don't, so I go inside.

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The confirmation email said to pick up my tickets from the box office just inside the door.

That was useful, because without that instruction I would have wandered off into this space in an open-mouthed gaze.

It's fucking massive. With those towering ceilings you find in fancy new office blocks, where you can see into each of the tens of floors overlooking the foyer. Like a slice has been taken out of the most boring layer cake in history.

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I go over to the reception (which, I guess, is also a box office) and give my surname.

“And the postcode please?" asks the box officer as she pulls my ticket from the ticket box.

I give it, and get handed a ticket for my troubles.

Right then. Time to investigate this joint.

On the far side it looks like there is some sort of cafe action going on. Next to it, closed off and guarded by a doorman, is: The Rotunda. I'm guessing that's a schmancy restaurant.

There's a great big long table, long enough to restage the Red Wedding, overlooking two massive escalators, descending into (and rising from) a pit of a basement.

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According to the signage on the wall, that's where the theatre spaces live.

I ride down, adding to my mental list of theatres with escalators in them (Royal Opera House, Gillian Lynne, artsdepot...).

We sail past a gallery level with lots of terrifying paintings, and land next to a sculpture that I'm pretty sure is meant to be a dead woodlouse.

Two young men pause to look inside at the poor curled up skeleton within.

I look around for Hall Two. That's where I'll be spending my matinee today. Turns out it's just behind a small seating area.

The doors aren't open yet, but the sofas are already crammed with people ready to launch themselves at them. Opera crowds are keen. Combine with that unallocated seating and you've got a pile of people willing to turn up an hour early to join the scrum.

They're quiet now. Poised. Waiting. Reading programmes.

Ooo. I want me one of those. I frickin' love a programme.

There's a cloakroom desk over on the other side, close to the doors. And there seems to be some sort of sign on the counter. I can't read it from here, but I'm betting it's advertising the price of programmes.

I go over and yup - £3.50. I can do that.

"Would you like to pay by cash or card?" the front of houser asks.

I choose card. I still haven't bought the ticket for my evening show, and I'm worried I'll need my notes to get it on the door.

He presses a few buttons on his tablet, and the card machine instructs me to do my thing.

“There's two pieces to it," explains the front of houser. "The Chamber Opera and the Text," he says, handing over not one, but two programmes.

I look at them in wonder, my heart pounding with the thrill of being given two whole programmes.

“Love a twofer," I tell him, scuttling away with my prizes.

The doors are opening now. Time to go in.

I show my ticket to one of the ushers. “Please sit on the far side,” she says, letting me pass.

Ah. Okay.

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I can see what she’s after. A slim apron pushes out from the stage, and rows of chairs have been set up on either side.

I pick my way over to the far side.

The front row is filling up, but I dismiss that, sliding down to the end of the second row.

“It’s unallocated,” explains an usher to a confused audience member. “So technically you can sit wherever you want. We’re just trying to fill up the rows.”

He chooses the second row too. Next to me.

“Is the screen changing?” asks a lady indicating the large screen above the stage. “Dear Marie Stopes,” it reads. That’s the name of the opera we’re seeing.

“I’m not sure…” replies the usher.

“I want to make sure that I can see it if it does…”

The usher nods. Yes, she wouldn’t want to miss that.

“Is that seat free there?” she asks, pointing to an empty seat in the front row.

He obligingly goes off to ask the man sitting next to it. Turns out it is free, and she is able to sit in it, content in the knowledge that should the screen change, she’ll be able to see it.

The musicians come out and start setting up as the last of the audience wander about trying to pick the best seats. It’s getting tricky now. Both front rows are full and no one wants to sit further back. Not when there is no rake going on.

I look around.

It’s a nice room.

Very high ceilings.

The walls are painted a calming shade of dark blue grey. There’s wood panelling. But like, the modern sort. That doesn’t look like it was ripped from a murder mystery novel. The seats are fairly comfortable and aren’t too closely packed.

It’s all rather nice.

Over on the opposite side, a woman has perched herself on the side of the stage to read her programmes. I can’t quite tell why she has perched herself on the side of the stage to read her programmes. It doesn’t look like a very comfy place to sit. And she has a chair. I can see it. Just a few feet away from the spot on the stage that she has claimed as her own.

It’s still a few minutes to show time, so I get out my own programmes.

They’re made in exactly the same way. A single piece of paper, arranged in a letter fold, to form six pages. One has the libretto. The other the credits. They’re nicely designed. And printed on good paper. I’m rather happy with them, until I remember that I paid over three quid for these things and then I feel a little ripped off. These are freesheets. Or at least, they should be freesheets. What counts as a programme note in this thing was written by the composer. At most, I would charge a pound for them. In a concession to the pleasing layout and nice paperstock.

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Still feeling a little outraged, the doors close and the lights dim.

The lady on the stage gets up slowly, packing away her programmes and fussing around in her bag before finally going back to her seat and sitting herself down.

We begin.

The role of Marie Stopes seems to be being sung by a counter-tenor, which… fine. But also… why? I mean, Feargal Mostyn-Williams is great. And has a name I most heartfully approve of. But not quite sure why he is here. Is this for musical reasons? I really hope it’s for musical reasons. And not some bizarre idea that an opera entirely sung by women would be a bad thing. And let's not even touch on the single character with education and authority being gender swapped to male…

Anyway, Marie Stropes is being sung by a counter-tenor, and the whole thing is rather depressing. The past was, like, really bad. The present isn’t all that great either. But the past was worse.

Jess Dandy and Alexa Mason hand out pamphlets to the front row.

The person sitting in front of me gives hers a cursory look before dropping it under her seat.

Ungrateful wretch.

Forty-five minutes of death and pain later, we reach the end.

We applaud.

The cast wave up two more people. The creatives I’m guessing. They all link hands down the apron and bow. First to one side of the room. Then the other.

The lights come up.

It’s time to go.

Except no one is leaving.

The woman sitting in front of me gets up and goes over to talk to one of the musicians. There’s lots of cries of “how are youuuuu, it’s been agessss,” around the room.

I reach under the chair and grab the pamphlet, flipping it open to see what was inside.

Nothing.

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I lay it reverently on the chair, hoping the owner comes back to claim it.

As for me, I’ve got another show to get to.

My row is still crowded, so I have to inch my way around the back, avoiding the crowded groups determined to block every possible route of escape.

I make it though.

Past the dead woodlouse, up the escalator, across that cake stand and out into the sunshine.

I breath in the claggy traffic-fumed air. One more show. Then I can go home and sleep.

Let’s do this thing.

Third Door on the Right and Straight on Till Morning

Well, it's happened. The marathon has brought me to Croydon.

Not a place I'd ever thought I would need to go, but life is funny that way.

And you know what? I've been here all of thirty seconds, and it's true what people say.

There are trams.

I can hear them clanging their way up the hill, with people scattering in their wake so as not to get run over. I stick to the prescribed crossings. You know I ain't good with roads. I am so going to get run over one day, and I'll be damned if it's by a trolley.

The pavements are cluttered with ads for Fairfield Halls. I can't move for seeing posters advertising their opening gala, and that Angela's Ashes musical which nobody asked for. There's even artwork painted onto the tarmac itself. They are going hard on the marketing. But that's not my destination tonight.

Nope, I keep on walking, turn into a cobbled street and stumble down a very steep hill. Strings of hanging bulbs criss-cross over the courtyard, and tables with long benches are set up under them.

It's all very cute.

This place is giving me some serious Neal's Yard vibes. The signage makes me feel like the windows should be crammed with classy blue bottles and dried herbs. Even the name is a rip: Matthew's Yard.

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Except I won't be buying overpriced skincare tonight. Oh no. I've heard tell that there is a theatre lurking somewhere within. And I really hope the rumours are true, because I've booked myself in to see a play.

Inside it's all big communal tables and brick walls painted with murals. There's a kitchen advertising itself as a vegan grill, and a counter covered with what I like to call I'm-having-a-bad-day cakes. You know the kind. Ones where a single slice will cover an entire plate. And have so much icing it'll dam your tear ducts for a least a couple of hours.

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What I don't see, is a theatre.

I have a wander around. There's a staircase, but that only leads halfway up a wall and no further. There's a back room with a ping pong table in it, and nothing else. And a gallery. This also leads to nowhere.

I'm stumped.

It's 7.15pm and the show will be starting in fifteen minutes. And I have no idea where the theatre is.

I look around, trying to work out which of these people are here to see a show, and which are only after the vegan burgers. Everyone is eating, or drinking, or looking really intensely at the menu.

No one looks to be ready to be watching a play right now.

My anxiety, already rumbling away in the background after all those trams, flares right the fuck up.

I bring up their website on my phone. It's not a very good website. They don't even list their events on it. Oh no, You have to go to the Facebook page for that. What they do have, however, is details about how to hire their spaces. I look at the theatre page, trying to get clues about it’s location. But there's nothing.

I do find out it's the first crowd-funded theatre in the UK. Which is nice. Not very useful in this moment. But nice all the same.

It's no good. I'm going to have to ask.

I get in the queue at the cake counter.

"Sorry, we are only taking cash tonight," says the young woman serving when I get to the front.

"Oh, no. I was just wondering where the theatre was," I ask, suddenly panicking that I was in the wrong place. There is no theatre. And never was.

"It's through there," she says, pointing to a doorway behind the counter. There's a sign hanging over it. It says: Lounge. "It's third door on the right."

I look through the door. There's a corridor going on down there. A very dark corridor.

"Okay... Do I need to check in with a box office, or..."

She laughs. "No, it's quite informal, I think."

Right... Well, here goes anything. I start walking down the dark hallway. Counting the doors on the right until I reach the third one. It's closed. Very closed. And we all know the rules of theatre doors: don't be opening them if they are shut.

But opposite there is an open door. I have a look inside. It's the promised lounge. Complete with faerie lights, tables, chairs, and even a piano.

It's deserted.

There's no one around.

Slightly scared, I go back to the cafe part and stand around, trying to think what to do.

The clock on my phone ticks on. It's 7.29pm.

My anxiety is burning up all to hell. I can't believe I came all the way to Croydon, risking death by tram, for this.

I might just go home...

A man emerges from the corridor. He's wearing a very smart white shirt. And a tie. He lifts up his arms, high above his head. The chatter in the cafe stills as we all look at him.

When he has our attention, he dramatically points behind him,

I think he wants us to follow him.

A table full of young people clatter out of their seats and go down the corridor. As does a girl who had been sitting by herself.

I follow on behind.

Down the dark corridor, and through the third door on the left. Now open.

Inside is a large room. There's a tech desk at the back. And a low wooden stage at the front. In between are rows of folding chairs, white with vinyl covered cushions the colour of sweeties. Pink and green and orange and blue.

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The group all make a rush for the front row.

As does the lone girl.

I leave them too it. You know how much I hate sitting in the front row.

I slide myself into the second. Right to the end.

The man in the white shirt hops onto the stage and grooves to the music playing. A couple of girls from the group groove back at him, swaying in their seats.

A minute later, he's off again, dancing away to gather up more audience members.

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He returns with two ladies. They sit in the front row too. There's one space left.

It does not get filled.

The man indicates something to the tech person. Close the door. Even I manage to understand that gesture. But the tech person doesn't, and it's left to our performer to dance off to the door, close it, and switch off the house lights.

Right, we're ready to begin.

The man is Tunji Joseph. It's his play. He wrote it. White board: Back pieces: Race in the west.

That's a lot of punctuation for a title.

But the show is slick and moves at a fast clip through stories and anecdotes and questions, and an attempt at some of the answers. What it is to be black in a white world. How it messes with self-perception and even something as fundamental as desire.

Joseph tells a story about being a student at ArtsEd (the group in the front row whoop - so we all know where they studied) and having to go on dates with classmates while in character. About being attracted to one the white girl he was out with. About getting a nod from a fellow black man in the restaurant and not knowing the meaning of the nod.

Joseph brings out a tennis ball and shows it to us.

Going over to the front row, he shows it to the guy sitting on the aisle. "What colour is this?" Joseph asks.

"Light green?" chances the guy on the aisle.

Joseph is horrified. Light green? That is literally the wrongest answer that ever wronged.

He looks around and spots me. Oh dear.

Making his way into the second row he holds out the tennis ball. "What colour is this?"

Well, if light green is super duper wrong. Then I'm going to go for the exact opposite. "Red?"

Nope.

"Does no one know what this is?" cries out Joseph, clearly distressed.

No one does.

And we get to the end of the show without ever finding out.

Joseph announces there will be a short break, and then we'll have having a Q&A to discuss the process and whatnot.

I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the Q&A. The whole "more of a comment than a question” thing doesn't really do it for me. I'm sure, out there, in the world, exists someone who asks interesting questions, but I've never heard one. I suspect the type of person who does have interesting things to ask, isn't the sort to stay behind after a show to ask them.

But I stay. I'm fairly confident that I'm the only person here who doesn't know the playwright, and I think it'll be a teensy bit obvious if I step out now.

A woman in the from row raises her hand. "This isn't a question, it's more of a statement..."

Oh gawd...

After a few more statements, and reminisces about the good old days at ArtsEd, we get to the first real question.

"What audience did you imagine? Who did you write this for?"

I sit forward. Now this I find interesting. Because this audience is hella white, and not at all what I pictured when I booked this show.

This marathon has taken me to all sorts of places and all sorts of shows. I've been in plenty of audiences where my whiteness put me in the minority, and even one where I was the only white person in the building apart from the staff, and I've always tried to take this into consideration. Sitting at the back, not taking space away from the people the show was created for. You know. I'm doing my best over here not to be an arsehole. Me doing this marathon shouldn't be getting in the way of someone seeing their art.

So the whiteness of the room I'm sat in, is surprising.

Joseph is more accepting though. "Theatre audiences are white and middle class," he says with a shrug after admitting we weren't quite the crowd he was going for.

"If you can stay, I'll see you in the bar in a few minutes," says Joseph and we all make our way out.

Well, apart from the few kind souls who offer to stay behind and tidy up the chairs.

ArtsEd should be proud.

Me on the other hand, I'm got a tram I need to not get caught by.

Red Mask, Gold Shoes

Well, this is a first. A theatre without a website. I honestly didn't think that was possible. Not in this year of 2019.

I thought not having online booking was bad enough. I've grumbled and moaned about having to email venues in order to reserve tickets. But this is the first one that I've come across that doesn't even have a landing page floating around on the ethernet with an address or something.

Based on the online-evidence, you'd think this place doesn't exist. Except I, for a fact, know that it does. Firstly, because it has a listing on offwestend.com, which in itself doesn't mean much. There are plenty of places on that site that don't exist, and haven't existed for a good many years. But thankfully I have a secondly. And that secondly is that I've had this place mentioned to me by a friend. Well, I say mentioned, but it was mainly her trying to convince me that I don't need to go. "It's small," she insisted, in a conversation that may or may not have been part of an intervention. "Really small. Max, I honestly don't think it counts."

Well, more fool her because it does count.

How does one buy tickets from a venue that is doing it's best to pretend not to exist though? That truly is a conundrum.

I considered going in person. It's only a short walk from my current base in Hammersmith. But the problem with that, is that it actually involves going somewhere. And despite the whole concept of this blog, I don't actually like going places.

But go places I must. All the way to Barons Court, to the Curtains Up pub, where a theatre is apparently lurking somewhere within.

I stand outside, on the opposite pavement, trying very hard not to question the plurality of the curtains.

Turns out, I don’t have to worry about getting a ticket. After a bit of Googling, I managed to find an Eventbrite listing for tonight’s show, and so git myself booked in. I check the details. It’s a 7.15pm start time.

I have a few minutes. It doesn’t do to be too early at these things.

Especially as I am highly suspect about that timing. Pub theatres don’t start their plays at 7.15pm. They just don’t. The standard London theatre time of 7.30pm? Sure. 7.45pm? Even better. 8pm? Or 9pm even? Sometimes. But 7.15? No. Never.

Either this place has a bedtime curfew, or they are sick of audience members rocking up half-way through the first act.

People sit around outside, having a drink and a cigarette. A grumpy looking pug sniffs around under a table.

I carry on walking.

I’ve told you before about this intuitive sense that I’ve developed on the marathon. I’ve visited so many theatres this year, I can tell just by looking at a place where I need to go and what I need to do.

And my intuition is telling me that I need to keep on walking.

Not too far. Just around the corner. And yes, there it is. A small side door set into the wall. And above it, on a small wooden plaque, a sign: Barons Court Theatre.

So, it really does exist.

I go in.

There’s a staircase leading down.

Another small plaque, this one affixed to a low lintel whose purpose seems to be solely to knock people on the head, says: Theatre Exit.

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A basement pub theatre. That’s unusual. Haven’t come across many of those so far. Like first wives, pub theatres are usually locked away in the attic.

I start to stroll down, but I spot something. Another sign. This one slightly above the first. On paper, sellotaped to the ceiling. “STOP!” I stop. “No entry to the theatre this way.”

Oh.

Okay.

Um.

I go back up to the landing and stand awkwardly, not knowing what to do.

So much for intuition.

The door at the top of the stairs opens, and someone comes out.

Over their shoulder I see the gleaming warmth of the pub beyond.

I suppose I should probably go in there.

It’s a nice pub. Velvety armchairs and spotlights on the walls showing off artwork. Amongst them is a painting of Salvador Dali, gazing out from the black frame, a fried egg sliding off his moustache.

I ignore all that, because there’s a door just opposite, and it’s marked up as being the way to the “Theatre & Toilets.” My intuition is back in business.

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Through the door. Down a corridor. Following an arrow which once again points out the way to: Theatre & Toilets. And down a staircase decorated with a line-up of headshots. I stop again. The arrow here is only pointing the way to the Gents. I don’t want the Gents. I want the theatre.

I try to turn around, but there is a man (perhaps even a Gent) behind me.

“Is this the way to the theatre?” I ask, more to explain my lack of movement on the stairs than to get his input.

“Sorry. It’s my first time here,” he says.

I let him pass, watching him disappear around a corner.

I don’t get that far. I find another door. It says Theatre on it. That’s good.

Except it’s closed. And has a lock on it. Which is less good.

I dither, trying to decide what I should do.

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Exactly on cue, the door opens.

“Are you here for the play?” asks the man as I jump aside to give him room.

“Yeah… umm… where’s the box office?”

“It’s just through here,” he says, pointing behind him. “With the theatre.”

But he doesn’t move aside, and we just end up standing there, staring at each other.

“Shall I go back upstairs then?” I ask, feeling its on me to break the stalemate.

“No, the theatre is here,” he says. “And the box office,” he adds, just in case I didn’t get it.

“Is it open yet?”

“No.”

“Okay…”

“We’ll let you know…”

“Right.”

Again, the awkward silence.

I look around. There isn’t much room down here. And I don’t know about you, but hanging around outside the men’s loos is not my idea of a quality evening.

“I’ll just go back upstairs then,” I tell him.

He accepts that, and we both trudge our way back up the steps, past the headshots, towards the bar.

Back in the pub, I find an empty table and plonk myself down into one of the armchairs. It’s very comfortable. I find myself leaning back, my body sinking into the chair’s sweet embrace. It’s been a long day.

Before I fall asleep, I check the time.

Huh. So much for a 7.15pm start time. I just knew that was all nonsense.

A glamourous-looking young woman, with a tiny jacket and metallic stiletos comes in. She looks around, pauses to read the sign over the door, and then walks through to the corridor. I watch her. She strides past the Ladies, turns on her stilleto, and then slowly makes her way down the stairs.

I wait.

A few minutes later she's back.

Right then. The house isn't quite open yet.

I keep an eye on the flow of people.

Mostly men, jouneying to the Gents.

I try to remember them, to see if they come back. But they're all wearing idential grey suits and I can't tell any of them apart.

Eventually the woman with the golden shoes returns, and tries her luck once more.

This time, she does not come back.

I check the time. It's a few minutes off 7.30. I should probably go see what's happening.

From the top of the steps I can see that the door to the theatre is now propped open.

Inside, rows of seating crowd in close on one side. On the other is a small hutch, where the box officer lives.

I give him my name.

"You paid, right?"

I did indeed.

He notes down my name on his clipboard. "Eventbrite?"

"Yes?"

"Smiles," he says slowly as he writes, adding the bracketed word "(PAID)" after my surname.

He points to the bank of seating behind me.

"This side is probably best," he advises.

Well, I'm always one to follow advice.

There are three rows of seating here. The first one is completly empty. I'm not a fan of the front row at the best of times, and sitting alone in a tiny pub theatre is not about to change things for me. The second row looks fairly crowded. I dismiss that one too. The third and last row has one person in it. The glamorous lady with the golden footwear.

It's fate.

"Is anyone sitting on the end there?" I ask her, indicating the seats on the other side of her.

"Err... no?" she says, sounding confused. Although, maybe she's just clocked that there was someone staring at her shoes upstairs and now she's panicking.

"Do you mind?"

She gets up and let's me pass, and I tuck myself away at the far end of the row, right up against the wall of the tech box. It's the best I can do. But there's still only one seat between us.

Oh well. Guess I'm just a stalker now.

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I distract myself from this startling self-realisation by looking around.

The stage is set amongst wide pillars, holding up a curved ceiling. The seating is on three sides. It's gloomy and creepy and I think I kind of love it. It's the sort of place you'd love to watch an Edgar Allan Poe story being performed. Which is handy. Because I'm here for The Masque of the Red Death.

So, that worked out well.

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A man comes in and pauses at the box office, picking up a piece of paper from the tiny counter.

It's a freesheet.

I'd completly missed them.

"Are these free?" he asks the box officer.

Yup. Turns out that they are completly free.

He grabs a handfull and turns to us. "Programme? Would you like a programme?" he says, handing them out.

My glamorous neighbour takes one but doesn't hand it down.

She's probably still weirded out by me. Which, you know: fair.

"Would you...?" she says, turning to me and holding it out.

Oh. Well, yes, I would. I take it from her and hold it up to do the classic blogger-freesheet photoshoot. And then lay it carefully balanced ontop of the flip-seat between us. Just in case she wants it back. I'm not entirely convinced her generosity wasn't a loan. I wouldn't be handing over no freesheets to random strangers who stare at my shoes. That's for sure.

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It's too dark to read it now anyway.

The house lights have extinguished.

It's 7.33pm.

The box officer switches off the light on his counter.

From the hallway outside I hear a voice. "I'm just going to the toilet, then we'll start."

We sit, waiting in the darkness.

A group comes in. They seem to know the people in the second row. "One more missing," they explain a front of houser reunites the friends.

"One more? Well, we need to start, but I'll be around!"

He goes over to the stage and welcomes us. "There are a few house rules," he explains. "The fire exit is over there," he says, pointing. "Please turn your phones onto silent. This performance contains fog and strobing, so... err... I hope that doesn't bother anyone."

It's time for the play to start.

It's... well, to be honest I don't know what it is. I'm lost. We seem to be at the party of a rather intense dominatrix. No one can leave becayse there is some really disgusting plague going on outside. The Red Death of the title. It all sounds rather icky and seems to involve sweating blood. Although, if it's a choice between that and having to spend the rest of my life cooped up with a woman who rents out her servants to the type of friends who think it's okay to send their playthings off for gender-realignment surgury and full-body tattoos, force others to recite poetry, and wear nude shoes with black tights... well, I think I'd take my chances.

It's super weird. Very Poe. Bit long. Only an hour, but even so... too much standing around in the pretext of creating atmosphere.

Still, I get a nice walk home, and am in bed by ten. So, I'd call that a success of an evening.

The fact that I spend the next three hours searching the web for golden high heels is neither here nor there.

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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