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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

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

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

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

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

I look around, trying to work this place out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find a spot in the second row.

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

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

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

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

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

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

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect example of a cult member.

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

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

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

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

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Jammy gits

All my many sacrifices to the theater gods have really been paying off recently.

After weeks and weeks (and weeks) of trying to get tickets through the National's Friday Rush, I finally managed to score a spot at not one, but two shows! They not only got me into Home, I'm Darling on Thursday, but also got me a prime central stalls seat for the Saturday matinee of Tartuffe. Now, some might claim it was because everyone in the queue was distracted by a desperate urge to see Follies, but I like to think it was the theatre gods doing me a solid after so two months of solid dedication to their cause.

So when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I was in a pretty good mood, ready to dedicate myself to the gods once more as I made my way for the first of three trips to the Vatican of British theatre this year.

I have to admit, I don't actually like the National. Or at least, not the building that it lives in.

All that concrete.

I'm sure it's an architectural wonder, and I'm just too bourgeoisie in my tastes to truly appreciate its genius, but to me, it just looks heavy and grey. A factory crossed with a graveyard. Both of which feel like the antithesis of what a home to art should look like.

Still, no one ever said serving the theatre gods would be fun. It was time to stop hanging around, gazing at the foundry and go instead and see what they've been manufacturing lately.

Queues by the looks of it.

The ground floor box office, the one that serves the Lyttleton theatre, the first of the National's three venues that I would be checking off on my marathon, had a line stretching all the way across the foyer.

I joined the end.

A moment later, an older couple did the same.

That is, they joined at exactly the same point in the queue as I had. Right next to me.

I glanced at the pair of them, and then at the space behind us. There was plenty of room, but for some reason, they thought the queue needed a right angle, and they were prepared to start that change in direction.

With four desks open at the box office, the queue was moving forward.

The people in front of me step forward. I follow their lead, closing the gap.

The old couple does too, knocking my bag as they keep right beside me instead of dropping in behind.

"Sorry," I said, turning to them. "I think we're getting a little muddled together here." I smile as nicely as I can while still being really rather pissed off.

The woman's eyes widen in innocence. "You're in the queue, and we are behind you," she sounding like a five-year-old who's just been told she can't take her teddy to school.

It takes me every little bit of emotional resource I have left over on a Saturday afternoon not to roll my eyes at this display. Rudeness I can take. The mock-offended tones of someone you can't admit their wrongdoing when called up out on it is too much to bear.

"Fine," I say, ignoring her as continues to pull the big-eyes. But when the queue shifts again I step forward they get in line behind me.

Ergh! People!

Theatres would be so much more pleasing to visit if they didn't exist.

I soothed myself by buying a programme. Surely the best programmes in London (except for mine... obvs) and only £4.50. Though I must admit to a little surprise when the usher gave the price. I remember when they were only £3, Travelex tickets were only £12 and the police force was made up of grownups...

Those were the days... when I was still young enough to sit in the front row. My back couldn't tolerate it now. Those tickets might be cheap, but so are the seats. For reasons that I could never work, except for a sneaking suspicion that whoever designed them thought that poor people should not be indulged which such frivolities as comfort, the backs of the sets in the first four rows are incredibly low. Meaning that you having to sit ramrod straight in them. I was willing to put up with it in my youth. But the combined effects of age and falling down an icy flight of stone steps way-back-when means that I take my cheap-arse up to the back of the circle nowadays.

But those brave souls chancing it on Saturday afternoon were justly rewarded when Denis O'Hare came out and started making his way down, offering them each, in turn, a daffodil.

As with the front row at the Tara Theatre, the first few refused, but they soon got into it, taking the man's flowers. I hope, unlike the invisible cucumber sandwiches, they were properly appreciated and didn't need to be swept away at the end of the show.

Come the interval, I was left in a bit of a quandary.

Sitting right in the middle of the row in the Lyttelton means that leaving the auditorium can be quite the undertaking. Those rows are hella long. And there is no central aisle.

But I had a blog post to finish, and for some reason, I can never get signal within the National's theatres. Not a sniff of a single bar. Now, I'm not saying that the National using mobile phone jammers, because that would be illegal of them, but I'm also not saying that it isn't ever so slightly suspicious that in one of the flagship venues for an industry that dislikes all forms of sensory output caused by phones, they don't feel the need to ever put up warnings or make announcements telling their audiences to switch them off. It's almost like they know that phones won't be going off during their shows...

So back into the foyer I went, where I could use the National's dodgy, but thankfully free, wifi to finish my post before beginning the long traipse back to my seat.

"Sorry," said my seat-neighbour as we did the awkward dance past each other. "I was looking at your t-shirt! It is Firefly! With... the guy!"

She meant Nathan Fillion, who was gazing out from around the edge of my cardigan.

I tried to explain it was technically not a Firefly t-shirt, but Spectrum - a made-up show devised by Alan Tudyk (who's face was lurking underneath the cover of my cardigan) in his semi-autobiographical web-comedy series, Con Man.

That must have been the wrong thing to say.

My seat-neighbour looked at me, nodded, and promptly didn't speak to me again.

Oh well.

It looked like I wouldn't be making any new friends at the National that day.

With a couple of hours before my evening show, I found a spot on one of the large doughnut-shaped stools in the foyer and set up camp, putting pictures into my post and doing a cursory proofread before posting.

"The time is approaching six pm," came an announcement of the tannoy. "Therefore we ask those using the catering facilities who are not seeing a show to kindly vacate their seats. Thank you for your cooperation,"

No, thank you for reminder, NT. It was time for me to leave.

I set off, doing the reverse of a journey that I took most evenings. Through the West End and up to Islington.

I'd been trying to put off visiting Islington venues during my marathon. I work in Islington, so I'd been trying to save these theatres for later on. When I'm worn out my months' worth of intense theatre-going, I thought it might be nice to have a few places left on the list where I need to nothing more than stumble down the road.

But that night I was heading to the Little Angel. The Studios rather than the Theatre. Not that it makes much difference, as they both show puppet productions. Puppet productions aimed at children.

Now, I have nothing against kids' shows. But I don't want to see them. Not by myself. I've already done that this marathon, and it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. So when I saw that the Little Angel had a show coming up, Carbon Copy Kid, aimed at grown-ups... well, I almost broke a key on my laptop in my efforts to book that ticket in fast.

So, there I was. Back in Islington. On a Saturday. I ended up walking past my theatre. To compensate how wrong and unnatural it felt being there on the weekend I popped in and said hello to the ushers on duty... and yeah, no, sorry. That didn't happen. I ducked my head down low and sped past, hoping no one would recognise me.

I think I got away with it.

Fifteen minutes later I was wandering the back streets of Islington, thinking there couldn't possibly be a theatre amongst all these apartment blocks, when I saw a large sign: Little Angel Studios. I had found it.

"Surname's Smiles?" I said to the girl on the desk that was serving as box office. For some reason, I always pitch this as a question, as if I'm not sure about what my name is. For the record, I'm fairly confident my name is actually Smiles. Improbable as that seems.

"Is that M Smiles?" She laughed,. "I mean, is that Maxine?"

It was.

No tickets to be had at the Little Angel, but they do have tasteful blue admission vouchers. Cornflower for adults and baby for, well, babies.

"The house is open, you can head up the stairs," she said.

There wasn't anything for sticking around for downstairs, so up I went.

I have to admit I am a little baffled by this building. On route to the stairs, I passed a large room which appeared completely empty except for a massive trough-like sink. The walls of the hallway are all stark white, with no indication that this place has anything to do with a puppet theatre, until you find the stairwell and suddenly there are old show posters on display.

It's a little creepy.

I didn't end up taking any photos apart from this one in the stairwell, partly because of the creepiness, but also because I worried that in taking a photo of a white corridor, I wouldn't be able to capture that creepiness and then all I get is you saying, "Maxine, it's just a corridor, what's so creepy about that," and I wouldn't be able to explain why it was creepy, and then you'd think I was weird, and we'd both have to live with that. Forever.

"But at least you got a photo of the actual theatre-space, Max?" you say. "Right? Right?"

Well no. I didn't.

But I have a good reason for that.

When I made it up the stairs and into the studio, the... actor? Puppeteer? Dude doing the show, was already on stage. He was all set up behind a sloped desk, holding up pieces of paper to communicate with the audience who'd already made it to their seats.

As I sat down, he held up one with a sketch of a mobile phone. There was a massive X over it.

Ah. No mobile signal jammers here there. I put mine on airplane mode and tucked it away.

I don't think he would have appreciated me taking a snapshot.

Pity though, as I really like the setup.

Around the desk, and framing our illustrator, was a proscenium arch, complete with curtains, made up paper - the swags and folds detailed in marker pen. I tried Googling the show to see if there were any pictures on the interwebs that I could show you, but found nothing. So it's up to your imagination to fill in the gaps on this one. Sorry about that.

The drawing of a phone was followed up by an old-school landline handset (no calls please), a snoring man (no falling asleep), a bomb (no terrorist action during the show please), and a sweet... wait, what? No sweets? I quickly popped a cough sweet into my mouth while he was greeting the next set of arrivals. I mean, come on - they're medicinal!

Through the medium of paper messages, he told us the duration (One hour, twenty minutes), gently berated latecomers (congratulations, you're the last people to arrive...), advised us when we were to begin (2 or 3 more minutes), and prompted us to applaud the man on the laptop who was also in charge of the sound effects via the medium of a loop station and microphone.

Nicely done.

After that, I went straight home, and fell into bed. Only to wake up eleven hours later still wearing my clothes and with a new coating of eyeliner smeared over my pillowcases.

It's been a really hard week.

The theatre gods are hard masters to serve.

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Cold beans and etiquettes

Can I start out by being a bit sentimental here? Just briefly. It won’t take long, I promise.

I just wanted to say thank you to, well… you. And to all the others who have been reading along as I crash around London watching far too much theatre. Knowing that there are hundreds (and hundreds!) of people out there, rolling their eyes at my exploits, makes seeing eight shows a week that bit easier.

Yes, eight shows.

With a double-show day on Friday, I could by rights have taken Sunday off. Taken it easy. Caught up on some much needed sleep. But no.

A few days back I recalculated the number of theatres I need to get to before the clock chimes midnight on New Year’s Eve. And unfortunately it went up, rather than down. I added all the venues in the Vaults Festival, the studio of the Little Angel (missed that one, oops), a few newly announced site-specific spots, and ended up with a figure of 251.

Still doable. Just about.

Don’t worry, I’m not giving up yet. But it will be a while before I allow myself the luxury of a weekend.

Not that I’m trying to guilt you into coming back, but… don’t leave me alone here. I need you to hold my hand, and like… maybe, if it’s not too much to ask, perhaps also stroke my hair and tell me I’m pretty. This is hard work. I’m just after a bit of validation.

With all that in mind, I put on my most vibrant red lipstick and headed over to The Pleasance for the 5.30pm performance of In Lipstick.

This wasn’t part of some suggested dress code, in case you were wondering, but I figured I might as well get into the spirit of the thing.

It has just occurred to me that The Pleasance is my first proper north London theatre. Which, as a north Londoner myself, is pretty exciting. That, combined with a 5.30pm start and a 90-minute, no interval, show, meant that I would be back home in time to make a proper dinner. Now that was really was exciting. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a proper, hot dinner.

These are probably the wrong type of thoughts to have when going to watch a play.

Especially a play which features a picnic. Doubly especially when the picnic is packed full of M&S goodies.

Conventional wisdom goes that one should never go food shopping on an empty stomach.

The same can be said about going to the theatre.

There’s nothing worse than watching an actor joyfully chow down on a mini pork pie when you’re hungry.

I could easily have clambered over the three rows in front of me and hoovered up the entire spread laid out on stage.

When I’m in charge of theatre, I’ll introduce and then enforce a rule that states that theatres need to start offering packed lunches with a sample of the foodstuffs that the actors are consuming. Nice food, obviously. In reasonable proportions. We don’t want a Cool Hand Luke situation going on in the stalls.

I anticipate some push back. Yeah, there’ll be some fuss about the noise. And possibly the smell. And I’m sure the cleaners won’t appreciate my new initiative, but I think if we pitch it as part of an immersive experience, it’ll get through even the most hardened members of the Theatre Etiquette Crew.

No? Not into it?

Okay, the lack of dinners may be focusing my thoughts in the wrong direction.

A cup of tea wouldn’t have gone amiss though. It was freezing in there. I had to use my scarf as a shawl and I was still shivering. Even then, I wrapped my arms so tight around me that when I got up to leave, my muscles had frozen into place and I feared I might be stuck like that forever - like a human pretzel.

Thankfully, the lack of heating was the only unpleasant thing about The Pleasance.

This is a theatre that knows how to appeal to me. It has great signage, a proper box office, a bar full of packed bookcases, and the signs for the loos actually say 'loos' rather than 'toilets,' which I think we can all agree is the nicer word.

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Even better than loos, they have playtexts to purchase in place of programmes.

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Now, I love me a programme. You already knew that. I’ve made no secret of it. But a playtext-programme? That’s next level excellence. Because 1) if the play is good, you get to relive the best bits on your tube journey home, or conversely 2) if the play is bad, you can check to see how far you are from the end and prepare yourself accordingly.

It also meant that I had something tangible to take away with me in lieu of a proper, papery, ticket.

I don’t know what I did wrong, but I managed to turn up with an e-ticket. Which meant that when I got to the box office, there wasn’t a real one waiting for me to pick up.

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“You can just use your phone.”

What? But I don’t want to use my phone! My phone sucks. It keeps on switching off and losing battery and is basically the scourge of my life right now. What am I even supposed to do with an e-ticket? I can’t store it in my ticket box, and I can't get warm fuzzies from looking at them. And I like warm fuzzies. The world needs more in the way of warm fuzzies.

I considered asking for a printed ticket anyway, but working box office is hard enough without the added problem of dealing with me and my obsessions. So, I let it go.

I didn’t take me long to regret that decision.

While everyone else heading into the auditorium was getting their lovely tickets torn, I was sent away, dismissed, and directed to another usher, to get my phone scanned and beeped. Ergh. As theatre experiences go, getting pulled out of a queue and being beeped lacks a certain romance.

I didn’t put on lipstick special just to be beeped, like a tin can of beans.

A cold tin of beans at that.

God, I need to stop thinking about food.

And seeing shows with so much of it, kept tantalizingly out of reach.

Sausage rolls. Macdonald’s chicken nuggets. Scotch eggs…

Hang on. I’m just going to stick a slice of bread in the toaster. Be back in a minute…

Right. That’s better. I’m properly carbed up now. And I’m also running late. Great. Let’s wrap up then. Both figuratively and literally, as it is friggin’ cold out there today.

I’ll be heading back to The Pleasance a couple of times to check out their other spaces, and I’m not even slightly upset about this. But… perhaps I’ll leave it for when it’s a bit warmer. And I’ll be sure to select 'care of box office' when booking my ticket.

Beep!