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.

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.

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 Voice of God is lost in Hell

After whinging and complaining about the ticket prices at the Hampstead Theatre when I was here last time, I’m back, in the main house, and the somewhat proud owner of a fully bought and paid for ticket. And only twenty-five quid, which, while not exactly a bargain, is definitely on the right side of almost reasonable.

Anyway, it’s the first production in the new AD’s first season. And Roxana Silbert has programmed a play with a title so striking, I just had to book myself in: The King of Hell’s Palace. I mean, come on. That sounds really me, doesn’t it?

As I step through the glass doors, I instantly feel ten years younger. I have a spring in my step and am filled with the joyous optimism of youth. It’s very disconcerting.

I try to enjoy it. It’s not often that I, being in my… don’t make me say it… mid-thirties now, get to be the youngest person in the room. But bar a few shiny-looking ushers, I am a mere child in comparison to the rest of tonight’s crowd.

I bounce my way over to the box office counter, side-stepping to avoid a very elderly man who is shuffling past at such a lilt I’m fearful he won’t make it to the other side.

Thankfully, we both make it to our destinations, and I give the nearest box officer my name, and he pulls the Ss free from the ticket box.

“Can you just confirm your postcode?” he asks.

I can. And do.

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He unfolds the ream and inspects it. “You’ve got a programme voucher,” he says, tearing it free. This is news to me, I must have felt ballin’ when I bought this ticket. Still, it saves me fifty pee, and three quid isn’t bad at all for the hefty programme he hands me with a cheerful “here you go!”

“You’re entering through door number one,” he goes on, pointing to the doorway at the end of the gangway just next to us. It is indeed marked with a huge number one. Two number ones, actually. One handing down from the ceiling, and another affixed to the wall. This doorway isn’t shy about showing it’s dominance.

I get out my phone to take a photo and one of those shiny young ushers freezes just as she was about to step into my shot.

“It’s okay,” I tell her.

She dithers, not wanting to ruin my photo.

“Really, it’s fine,” I assure her, waving her across. And with that, she belts her way across the walkway, diving through the premiere door in order to keep the inconvenience of her presence to a minimum.

Bless.

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I have a flick through of the programme. They’ve changed since I was here last. Paper is thicker, and uncoated. The binding is perfect rather than saddle stitched. This place has upped its game. The programmes look well fancy now.

One of the box officers calls over a front of house. She has a radio. I’m thinking we’ve got a duty manager in the vicinity.

“Can you tell the voice of god to announce the house is open?” asks the box officer.

The suspected duty manager duly makes the request and a few seconds later…

“The house is now open,” comes god’s voice over the sound system. “May I remind you…” but the rest of her message to us mortals is lost in the hubbub of the foyer. I just hope I remember whatever we needed to be reminded of.

I decide to go in before I forget anything else.

Down the gangway that takes me right over the foyer of the downstairs theatre, past the side of the curved hull of the theatre, and through door one.

There’s a ticket checker in here.

“First row of this section, just up the stairs,” he says, indicating the way.

I follow his directions, going up the short series of steps that take me towards the back of the stalls.

It's like a mini balcony back here. Slightly raised from the rest of the stalls, and yes, I'm in the front row of it - contained behind a dividing wall.

"'Scuse me. Sorry. Do you mind?" I say as I inch my way through to my seat.

An older man, looks up at me as I approach. "Are you...?" He points to the empty space next to him.

"No," I tell him. "I'm a bit further on. Sorry," I had as he disgruntedly gets to his feet.

In my seat I get down to the business of getting play-ready. Jacket off. Glasses on. Check my phone...

"There must be a way to knock them out," says the old man's wife, giving me some serious side-eye. "Theatres should do something. Stop the signal."

"Phones are always going off," agrees the old man.

I roll my eyes. My phone is on silent. It's been on silent since 2007. No one under the age of fifty has a ringtone nowadays.

But nice to know that I'm sitting next to people that would rather theatres indulge in illegal phone jamming then put up with the odd noise from someone who never managed to convince their grandkids how to change the settings on their phone.

I put my phone on airplane mode and shove it away in my bag.

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I have a bloody good view of the stage. Almost in the middle and with no heads blocking the way. I can see the whole stage. Even the thrusty bit sticking out into the stalls. There's a travellator there. No, wait. There are two travellators there, running all the way to a pair of doors at the back of the set. I'm not sure about this. I've seen my fair share of travellators on stage before. It's almost never good news. Still, I've got some excellent legroom here. Lots of it. Time to get comfy.

I lean back and wriggle my shoulders. Hmm. No, that's no right. I pull my jacket free from behind me, shove it under my seat, and try again.

Yeah. No. There's still something there.

I shift forward and look behind me.

Sticking out of the back of the seat is what I can only describe as a bolster cushion. It juts out, like the arch support of an orthopaedic shoe. I can only imagine its existence is designed to sit within the small of the back, but my spine does not want to conform. I try again, first sitting up really tall, and then slouching back down, trying to work out whether I am too short or too tall for the anatomy of these seats. Neither seems to work. There is clearly something very wrong with my backbone.

Too late to worry about it now. The play is starting. We're flung back in time. To the 90s. In China. After making it through the Great Famine, everyone is determined to make it rich. The peasants are selling their plasma, and the city-folk are more than happy to buy it. Even if they don't have enough centrifuges in the clinics to keep all the blood separate before pumping it back into bodies.

In a fit of dancing exuberance, a red baseball cap goes flying into the audience. During the interval, a front-rower retrieves it, laying it carefully on the thrust part of the stage so that it can be retrieved by a stage manager.

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My neighbour returns and immediately gets her phone out. I consider making a comment about how theatres really should do something about blocking signals within the auditorium, but I'm tired, and I finally managed to find a position in this seat where the back cushion isn't trying to paralyse me.

She puts it away, and the second act starts.

A fever is spreading. But it can't be AIDS. AIDS doesn't exist in China, And it's illegal to say otherwise.

But the peasants are growing peonies. My absolute favourite flower. And there are thousands of them. In all the colours. Covering the stage with their blooms until it starts to look like a Pina Bausch performance.

I think I'm in heaven.

Or hell. I can't tell.

When Yin Yin's husband unpacks her suitcase, and finds five whole bottles of sriracha, well, I have never felt so seen. I wouldn't be fleeing the country without an adequate supply of the hot stuff either.

We make it through to the end, and not a single phone rings. Not even mine.

Turns out you can trust the masses to think for themselves. Sometimes.

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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Never More than Six Feet Away from a Theatre

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

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

I'm leaning against a tree, waiting.

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

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

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

Okay, maybe not.

Food prep be gross, people. Let it rot.

Like your broccoli.

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

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

A pub.

The Water Rats.

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

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Bright and busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Camden Fringe?" I try.

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

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

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I squeeze through the tables and make my way over.

It looks like the previous show is still getting out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They're blowing bubbles.

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

The wholesomeness of it all calms me right down.

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

I stifle a yawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Okay. Just the one?"

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

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

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That done, it's time to go in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That one was weird.

The panda was sitting on stage eating an apple.

What kind of panda eats an apple?

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

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

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

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

The DeLorean in the Basement

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

So I didn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that's where I'm heading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

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

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

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

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

Except, there wasn't any signage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... I wear black.

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

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

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

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

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

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

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

When we get to me, I give my name.

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

It really is dark down here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a small room. Tiny.

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

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

Behind are rows of chairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

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

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

I leave.

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

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

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Think of Punny Title Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You're ready to go!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even me, if we're really honest.

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

There are a pile of programmes on the desk.

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

"Please do..."

She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.

"Is it free?" I ask.

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

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

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

It doesn't take long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone sitting behind me sneezes.

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

It's very quiet now.

This is it.

We're starting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes me happy.

And I really really needed a happy show today.

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

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

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

It's time to go.

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

Lost Souls and Yeast Rolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do like a friendly doormat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is that..." he starts.

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

His face clear, so it presumably does.

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

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

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

And there is a man. With a clipboard.

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

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

They work.

"That's me! What's the name?”

"Smiles."

"Maxine?"

I nod.

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

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

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

A divide forms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in we go.

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

Although there is a stage. A little one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's one that left us puzzled.

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

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

"Now that's a question!"

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

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

And emotionally troubling.

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

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

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

Lake laughs. "Puffed. Greasy..."

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

In other words: delicious.

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

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

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

She doesn't seem to mind.

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

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

Definitely delicious then.

I really love challah.

Like... really love it...

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Roundabout Here

For all the times that the theatre gods have had my back on this marathon, they really fucked up big time over the last week. After complaining endlessly about how hard to was to get to theatres all the way from Finchley, I promptly find that as soon as I shift myself down to Hammersmith, the Camden Fringe kicks off, and everything of any use to me is now on the Northern Line.

And what's doubly annoying, is that I can't even blame the fringe for this afternoon's trip. I'm off to a weekday matinee at the Roundhouse. Which I could have done at literally any time when I was just a tube ride away. But now, I have to wait until I go all the way down to the end of the Piccadilly line to book this one.

I really need to get better at planning things.

My spreadsheets just aren't cutting it at the moment.

So, anyway. Whatever. It's my fault. And not the theatre gods. Need to make that clear. I don't want them to smite me now.

Especially when I'm running super late.

On the tube for over an hour, and I'm belting it down the road from Chalk Farm station. The pavements are clogged with tourists getting their Camden on. I dodge between them, trying to ignore the clunk in my knee that still hasn't healed.

Where was I? Right. The Roundhouse. Been here before. Never for theatre though. Always for dance. Bit of Akram Khan and... no. I think that's it actually.

Getting my theatre in now though. I'm here for The Barber Shop Chronicles which I managed to totally miss when it was at the National.

Thank gawd for transfers, eh? Bit of an unusual one though, coming to the Roundhouse I mean. Not a classic National Theatre transfer location. Their things usually end up going to the West End before they bust them out on the regional touring circuit. I'm not complaining though. Everyone was raving about this show, and now I actually get to see it, and bonus points - it counts towards the marathon. Theatring doesn't get much better than that.

I'm think I'm here now. I can see the familiar round walls of the place coming up. I trot down the steps and make my way to the main door. And with a few minutes to spare.

Thank the theatre gods.

"Have you got your tickets?" asks the security dude minding the door.

I stop.

"Picking up?" I say.

He points to another door just behind me. "Just that door there, madam."

Madam?

I mean... I don't want to be one of those old women who complain about being called Madam. But seriously. Madam?

Never mind. It doesn't matter. I've not got time for this.

"That door?" I ask, just to double-check.

"That's it," he says. Very patiently.

Well, okay then. That door it is.

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I rush back across the flagstones and push my way in through this other door.

The box office is right in front of me.

Two queues. A sign pinned to the barrier rope tell me that I need to go left.

I go left.

Down the line of box officers, that one right at the end sticks up her hand and waves it, indicating she's free. I make my way down.

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She has pink hair and a very familiar-looking face.

Very familiar.

"Hello?" I say.

She looks up.

"Oh my god..."

It's Emma!

Now, Emma hasn't been on the blog before, but her presence has been felt. She was the one who gave me the tip-off that the Embassy theatre lurks within the walls of Central School of Speech and Drama. And I think I might have mentioned the feather she got me at Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, way back when in the old Southwark Playhouse.

And now she's here. I had no idea she worked here.

"You're here!" I say, still not entirely convinced of the fact, even though she's standing all of two feet in front of me.

"I'm here!" she says helpfully. "I've been seeing everyone come to this one. It's so good."

"Is it?" I haven't heard a single bad thing about the show, but still... after traipsing halfway across London to see it, I need the reassurance.

"It really is."

That's a relief.

"And you're here..." I seriously cannot get over this.

She grins. "I'm back in box office. Mostly music, but today it's theatre."

"And so I'm here," I say, throwing up my arms. Where theatre goes... I follow.

"You're here!"

"Err, so... the surname's Smiles," I say, just in case she's forgotten. It's been a while...

She goes off to the desk at the back to look through the ticket box.

"You know, I saw that surname but didn't connect," she says, coming back with the ticket in hand.

"There aren't many of us..." There really aren't. I pause. Should I say something about the blog? I know she knows about the blog. Because of the whole telling me about the Embassy thing. Fuck it.. "You know you're going to be in my blog now..." I say darkly.

She flicks her hair. "I hope you make me sound good."

I laugh. I don't think she needs any help from me there. Emma is the box office queen, handing out feathers and keeping everyone in line. In the nicest way possible.

"I wish we could catch up," she says, very sweetly.

"Is there an interval?"

"No, it's one hour forty-five, straight through."

Dammit. Usually, that would be the perfect answer to this question, but today... today I want to gossip with an old friend.

"They're just trying to keep us apart," I say with a sigh, before biding my goodbyes.

"You'll love it," says Emma. "Seriously.”

Well okay then. That is one hell of a recommendation.

I make my way over to the stairs.

I love the stairs at the Roundhouse.

They go round the house.

And that makes me happy.

Plus, being like, super-wide, and with that curve, they totally play into any Scarlett O'Hara fantasies knocking about in my head at any given moment. Hang on... that's super racist of me. Okay, scrap that. Any Rose from Titantic fantasies I got knocking about in my head. Just like... let's change the ending. Two people can fit on that door. Yadda yadda. You get it.

The stairs are great and deserve to be swept down while wearing a big-arse dress. I am not wearing a big-arse dress. But this is fantasy. And no one is sinking the Roundhouse any time soon.

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Right. We're am I going now?

"Rear stalls" is what it says on my ticket. "Area 6."

Theatres in the round always have such confusing zoning, with all those entrances all over the place. It's more than my marathon-fogged brain can deal with.

The ticket checker beeps my ticket (fucking love a ticket beeper/paper ticket combo - Roundhouse is doing it) and I ask where I'm going.

"Go through to the right, and up the stairs," he says.

Seems simple enough.

I go right, and there are the stairs for area 6, clearly marked.

Where now?

There's another front of houser at the top of the stairs. I show him my ticket.

"You're in the back row," he says, pointing to the aisle just next to us. "Enjoy the show!"

I find my seat as I as take off my jacket and settle down, I try to work out what's wrong. It's all been far too easy.

It's a Thursday matinee. The house isn't exactly full. But still, a tall man manages to take the seat directly in front of me.

I turn my attention upwards. To the iron pavilion keeping up the domed roof. And the magnificent lighting rig punctuated with illustrated adverts for barbershops around the world. I try to read all of them, but I soon get distracted. The cast is already out on stage. As are half the audience, by the looks of it.

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Front rowers are being invited out to sit in the barber chairs.

As Lil Nas X takes us down the Old Town Road, the actors fuss around them, pretending to run clippers over their heads before holding up mirrors so that their clients can check out their reflections. They all grin happily at the sight of their utterly unchanged style.

Black-clad stage managers appear to help take photos of audience members in the chairs.

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And then the dancing starts.

The front rowers jump up to join in, spinning around to show off their new do to the sounds of The Sugarhill Gang's Apache.

And then they're sent back to their seats, because it's time to begin.

I slip into the seat next to me. Out from behind the tall man. Giving myself a clear view of the stage.

After all the dancing and the tunes, we're in a closed barbershop. It's early in the morning. So early the owner is still asleep on a mattress on the ground. A banging on the door. Someone needs an urgent haircut. They have a job interview at 9am, and it's three hours away from here.

And so we're taken on a tour of shops, all around Africa, touching base with one in London. Thousands of miles apart, they are united by conversations of race, language, the need for role-models, and a deep, ever-present joy.

Some much joy.

Too much to contain on stage.

It out over the audience until you can't help but grin along with these men who are determined to get the most out of life, and look good while doing it.

And through it all, we follow the course of a single joke, told from barber to client, client to barber, shop to shop, changing with the storyteller to suit to location, eventually landing in the lap of a young actor in London.

I don't think I've ever seen an ensemble cast so tight, so connected, so bursting with energy.

I love every single one of them.

I wonder who they are...

I've been doing the fringe-route for so long I'd forgotten there were things you could buy to help with that. Papery things. Look like books but thinner. Programmes! That's it.

As the cast disappear I look around the audience, but there's not a programme to be seen. The ushers don't seem to have any either.

But the cast is back out for one more dance number, and I forget all about it again.

Time to go.

Except, I have an evening show later. I should probably pop to the loo before I leave.

Yup.

It's happening.

What you've always wanted.

I'm going to review the theatre toilets.

And for a start, the queue is astonishing. Stretching right out the door and into the corridor before I get anywhere close.

We stand, shifting from one side to the other as men come and go through their own door with barely a pause.

A camaraderie forms in the line, as some of the older ladies joke about taking over the men's as well, and we lean against the door to keep it from slamming in any of our faces.

Inside it's clean enough. I have a bit of trouble figuring at the flushing button, but I get there in the end... no wonder the queue is so slow.

One of the soap dispensers is out of order. And there's only one hand dryer. For three sinks.

As I head out, the line is still stretching out into the corridor.

That’s done. I hope you're happy now. Loo reviewed.

Let's hope I don't ever have to do that again.

Back down the stairs, feeling rather less like Rose. I bet there weren't queues for the loos on the Titanic. Although, she probably only ever used the facilities in her stateroom...

Enough of that. I just spotted someone with pink hair. I've got a box officer I need to catch up with!

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

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

I don't like monkies.

I really don't like monkies.

With their creepy monkey hands and their creepy monkey toes.

Nope. Not into it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This must be the place.

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

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

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

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

"Thank you."

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

But...

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

Right?!

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

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

Oh gawd...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more level it is then.

Up I go.

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

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

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

I don't look down.

I don't want to know what it is.

I just keep on moving. Quickly.

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

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

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

People hands and people toes.

Gross.

It takes a while to get through the corridor.

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

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Eventually we make it through.

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

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

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

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

It's really hot in here.

Really hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But as soon as it starts, it peters out.

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

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

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

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

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Music to dance to

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

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

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

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

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

I think I might be the only one though.

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

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

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

Inside there's a great big reception desk.

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

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

I don't hear her reply.

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

"Box office?" I try.

"Cash?"

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

"Oh," she says, looking worried.

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

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

"Smiles."

She looks down a handwritten list. "Maxine?"

"Yes." That's me.

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

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

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

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

Okay. Left or right.

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

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

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

The pianist looks up as I go in.

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

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

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

"Yes, of course," says the pianist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

More people.

Strangers this time.

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

Oh, wait. Maybe I'm wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Time to start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They're ready to start again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perk checks the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah. As if I needed another reminder.

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The Old Curiosity Theatre

It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.

The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.

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As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.

"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.

"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.

"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."

I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.

"Just the one ticket was it?"

"Yup. All by myself."

Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.

A queue is forming on the stairs.

Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."

As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.

Space is tight at the Pentameters.

Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.

"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.

"You've been here before?"

I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.

"You're not a student are you?"

"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.

"Are you an actress or...?"

She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.

I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."

"Oh! What do you do?"

"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."

"We do all that ourselves here."

As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.

She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.

Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.

"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.

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"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.

Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.

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Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.

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The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.

Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.

It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.

A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.

He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.

"Can I get a programme," I ask him?

"Yup, they're a pound."

I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.

"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.

But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.

"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.

The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.

Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.

It's not worth a pound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.

But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.

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The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.

The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.

"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.

"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."

And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.

Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.

The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.

She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"

We all give it. Enthusiastically.

"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.

I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.

The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.

"Night," I say on my way out.

"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"

I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.

A Lion's Instinct

I need to learn to trust my my own instincts. I’m so convinced of my inability to read people, that when my spidey senses do end up tingling, I brush it off as my imagination.

There I was, walking though Highgate on my way to the theatre, and I could just feel someone following me. The fact that most of the time he was walking ahead of me on the pavement does not seem to have affected the queasiness in my belly.

After changing sides of the road three or four times, he stopped, stood at the side of the pavement, not looking at me until the very last moment before he turned around. And said something.

“You have beautiful eyes.”

The street was deserted. There was no one else there.

Of all the things to say to someone, it was not the most worry-inducing, but still. I was alone. Even worse: we were alone. I don’t want people creeping around me for minutes on end to make comments about my eyes. It’s not even true. I don’t have beautiful eyes. I mean, they’re alright. But it’s my eyeliner that’s doing the heavy lifting there.

I kept on walking, pretending not to have heard him, and don’t stop until I get to Jackson’s Lane.

That’s my theatre for tonight.

A first for me. I’ve never been here before. Although I’ve walked past a good deal. It's right opposite Highgate tube, and it’s pretty hard to miss. A massive red brick church, it does rather dominate the cross-roads if not exactly the horizon.

A couple are lounging on the steps outside what must have been the main door back when it was still a sanctified space. They are looking very young and glamorous together there. As if they’re posing for an Abercrombie and Fitch advert, or whatever brands young people are wearing these days. Something to do with Hype clothing or something, isn’t it? Christ I’m old…

Shit, probably shouldn’t blaspheme around a church. Even if it’s not a church anymore.

It’s nice in here. All fairylights and bunting and streamers and rainbows. I fully expect to turn a corner and get myself punctured on the horn of a passing unicorn. It’s like stepping into the ultimate children’s party. One thrown by some very dotting, and very rich parents. Thinking about it, this is what all the kids party around here must be like. Although, knowing Highgate mums, they probably hire Jackon’s Lane itself for their little darlings.

The young woman behind the box office looks up and grins as I come in. I go over.

I give my surname, and she pulls open a box marked “Pay What You Want tickets” on the top. I’m seeing a show as part of their Postcards Festival. When booking online there's a choice. Either get your ticket for free, with the caveat that you’ll pay some figure based on how much you think the show is worth, on the night. Or you type in your credit card details and get all that shit sorted in advance. For fifteen quid.

I went for the free option. No because I’m cheap. I am cheap, but that’s not the reason. I was intrigued to see how it would all work. I haven’t done this type of arrangement yet on the blog.

I’m not entirely sure how it all works.

“When you go in,” she says, handing me the ticket. “You'll find an envelope on your chair, at the end of the show just pop some cash in there.”

“I was just going to ask!” I say.

She grins. “I could sense it was coming. The door will open in about ten minutes,” she goes on, pointing towards the doors at the far end of the foyer. “The show is about fifty minutes.”

Fifty minutes? Holy sh..ugar. We’ll be done by 8.20pm. And I’m only a couple of stops from home. In bed by ten, here I come!

Ticket now acquired and rules of the game established, I have a walk around the space. It’s really nice in here. Usually this excess of decorations would have my anxiety flairing up, but it’s really laid back. Comfortable. People sit around tables chatting quietly. The queue at the bar is short and well managed. There’s a cafe space tucked away behind a low wall, which is dark and homely looking.

I go up there, and pull up a pew.

A literal pew in case you think I am indulging in cliché.

Looks like they got more than the building when the Christians moved out.

With the pew-based booths and miles of bunting, the whole place is very Pastel Goth. Not my personal style, but one I’ve always appreciated in others.

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“Excuse me, can I sit here?” asks a bloke, pointing to the other side of my pew.

“Go for it!”

He’s brought food with him from the cafe. Something very savoury looking. Steam is rising off of it and the smell is making my stomach rumble.

I really miss hot dinners.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice from the foyer behind us. “The performance will start in two minutes.”

Blimey. Time to go in then.

I join the queue at the door.

The young woman from the box office is now serving as ticket checker. She smiles at every one in turn, thanking them as they hand over their tickets to be torn free of their stubs.

“Carrot, would you like a carrot?”

I can’t see what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure I just heard a voice asking someone if they wanted a carrot.

I turn the corner. There’s a popcorn seller. Or someone who looks like a popcorn seller. With that boxy tray hanging from a strap against her neck. The type worn by Cigarette Girls in cinemas back when smoking and pillbox hats were still things that happened.

“Popcorn? Loose popcorn? How about a carrot?” she asks.

The man she’s talking to consents to the carrot.

“Yes? You want a carrot? The carrots are very popular.” The next person also demonstrates interest in the carrots. “The carrots are all gone, I’m sorry. But I have loose popcorn? No? Take a party popper.”

She hands the party poppers out. I take one.

“Don’t pop it! Not yet!” she warns. “Sit at the front please!” she calls after a group kitted out with party poppesr.

I begin to make my way to the front, but something stops me. I remember the man from earlier. And I resolve to pay attention to my tingling senses.

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I stop a third of the way down, and slip into a row, putting a good distance between myself and the stage.

From the entrance, there’s a bang.

“Did you pop the party popper?” shouts the popcorn seller in mock outrage. A second later, she recovers herself. “Thank you,” she says, friendly once more. Someone asks her something. “Yes, you can eat the popcorn.”

A group of young men with man-buns and ripped t-shirts sit in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. They are very tall, and the rake isn’t all that good. I move down a few seats.

Just in time. One of the young men leans back, his arms stretched taut over his head as he bends himself over the back of his seat, his hands reaching down into my row.

Something tells me these are all circus boys.

The queue has cleared.

She makes her way down the aisle, honking a horn and making sure everyone has party poppers. “Not yet!” she warns before disappearing into the wings, to be replaced by a woman in a sparkly red leotard and a black tail coat. Our ringmaster for the self-billed Greatest Show on Earth.

The show is… having some problems.

The cast of a thousand acrobats are trapped in Calais. Or is it Dover?

But the show, as they say, must go on. Our sparkly host will be persevering. With the help of popcorn seller Poppy, and… the audience.

Oh dear.

She needs a horse.

Oh shit.

I mean… oh sugar.

No, fuck that.

Oh shit!

“Bring the house lights up so I can look at all your horsey faces,” she says, peering into the audience. I sink down into my seat, but her attentions are focused on the font few rows. “I need someone with luscious hair and a strong back.”

She extends her arm, her pointed finger wavering.

“You!” she announces as she selects her equine assistant.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to do it.

She copies him. Shaking his head. “You’ve got the moves already,” she says, encouragingly.

But he’s not having it. He really doesn’t want to do it.

No matter. She didn’t want him anyway. It was a test. And he passed. “Well done.”

The pointing finger finds another mark, and this audience member is more willing to play the pony.

“What’s your name?” asks the ringmaster.

“James!”

After a short lesson in hoof display, trotting and dressage, James is really to ready for his rider. And as he bounces around with Poppy the popcorn seller balanced on his back, he’s offered a carrot to munch.

As James the horse is allowed to return to his stall, and the sparkly ringmaster performs a very unconventional aerial display, I think the worst is over. But nope. They need lions now.

And they’re holding auditions.

“Show us your lion claws!” orders the ringmaster. “Claw at your neighbour, the person in front of you. I want to see blood!”

The young men in front paw at each other, attacking shoulders and backs with curved hands.

A small child in the front row lets out a ferocious roar and we all laugh. Even the sparkly ringmaster.

The next stage of the audition is teeth.

The young men chew on each other’s arms and shoulders.

I’m sitting alone, so I’m spared the gummy mastication. I’m relieved. I’ve already been bitten once in a theatre. It’s not something I feel the need to go through again.

Last up, the thing that all trainee lions need to master: the roar.

We all wait for the small child in the front row. This is their moment. We are not disappointed. Over the feeble roars of the adults, the small child let’s all the hugest, fiercest, most terrifying roar ever hear by man or beast.

We all tremble in its echo.

But the sparkly ringmaster, for the sake of her own safety, decides to pick a grown-up for the role, and coming into the audience, declares she is going to insert her head between his jaws. We all cheer as Antoine, which has to be the best name for a lion ever, opens his mouth very, very wide, and she sticks her head in there. Sort of.

Sparkly ringmaster returns to the stage, and we are allowed to relax a little with some tent dancing.

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But not for long. The house lights are going up again. We’re getting a lesson in trapeze catching.

Never drop the flyer. That’s the first rule. Eye contact. That’s important. Shout “up” when you release. And “mine” when you catch.

They go to fetch their flyer. With the acrobats all caught in Calais (or was it Dover?), the role of flyer would be played by… a cuddly toy owl.

Poppy and the Ringmaster practice a little with the front row.

“Up!” shouts the Ringmaster as she throws her little friend.

“Mine!” shouts the audience member as they catch.

And then it begins.

First the cuddly owl goes out. It bounces a little around the audience.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Then more come out. Snakes. Lots of snakes. A massive fish. A curly wig.

The young men in front of me grab anything that comes within ten feet, using their long arm spans to reach across seats and rows, scooping up the fallen friends.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Behind me, someone runs up and down the back row, collecting any flyers that fly too far, and lobbing them back into the fray.

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“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

A snake skims over the young men's fingertips and I find myself catching it.

“Up,” I shout, throwing it forward.

“Mine!” shouts back someone in the second row.

At the signal, the cuddly toy fights ends, and we pop our party poppers.

The room smells of gunpowder and traumatised toys.

And then we’re done.

Show over.

I grab my purse and examine the envelope. Pay what you want, it says. “Based in how awesome you think the experience was.”

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Awesome. Hmm. I mean, it was fun. And sweet. And stressful. Really stressful. Can awesome things be stressful? I suppose truly awesome things are very anxiety inducing. Like… space. And… lions.

I slip a note into my envelope.

Front of housers are out in the foyer, buckets in hand, ready to take them.

“I liked your roar,” says someone to the tiny child as we file out.

The small child doesn’t say a word. They’ve gone shy.

Or maybe not. Maybe they's sensed something. Something not right. And their lion's instinct has told them not to roar.

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Farcing about

Next time I say that walking from Tufnell Park up towards Highgate might be a nice thing to do of an evening, please remind me that I'm not a fit person to make such statements. I'm not a fit person at all. Because that hill is not fun. It is the opposite of fun. If there was any fun to be had, it got left behind in Archway.

Shakey of limb and red of face, I make it to the Gatehouse pub and stand back to admire it in all its mock-Tudor glory, and catch my breath.

It's a fancy pub. I can tell that by the menu being posted outside in a shiny glass and metal box. The steps leading up to the door and a checkboard of ivory and terracotta. A glass lantern hangs overhead. And a cherub watches me balefully from his panel tucked under the door's canopy roof.

Something about the cherub is bothering me. His smug fatty cheeks, and wings coming out of his head, just seem to say: you can't come in here. Well, I won't be talked to like that by any plaster pipsqueak, so I walk all the way around the building looking for another entrance.

Over on the opposite side, there's another door. No cherub. But it does have a sign. "Pub & Theatre Entrance," it says in golden serifs.

It's almost like I knew. I've never been here before, but this marathon is starting to give me a sixth-sense about how these places work. Well, that's what I think. And it's either that or the cherub really was a smug little bastard who didn't want me walking in under him.

I go in. It's very dark here. All wood panelling and low lighting. The kind of pub you could imagine falling asleep with a hot toddy waking up a century later to find everything looking exactly the same. Oh well, barring any accidental encounters with a spindle, hundred year sleeps are not on the agenda for me right now. There's a door marked THEATRE EXTRANCE right here, so I think that's where I'm supposed to be heading. The wood-panelled aesthetic continues into the small foyer, offset by a pile of Edinburgh Fringe brochures and a chalkboard advertising interval drinks. Through another door (this one marked "Box Office Upstairs" with a handy arrow to point the way) and... I seem to have walked into a juniper berry.

Everything is purple. Or lilac, rather. The walls. The window frames. The ceiling. It's like the theatre had a mid-life crisis while reading taht Jenny Joseph poem.

When I am old, I shall paint myself purple. With a notice board which has too many posters, and looks a bit messy. And I shall spend my ticket income on sets and new writing.

And... well, you get it. I'm not a poet. My lack of rhythm extends beyond my inability to clap in time with music.

Up the stairs, round the corner, up more stairs and here we are, I guess. They really weren't kidding when they called this place Upstairs at the Gatehouse, were they?

Blimey, they're not short of room up here. I wide foyer, with the box office in its own separate room up ahead, and what looks like another bar off to the left and the theatre entrance off to the right.

I go to the box office. No balancing lurking in a corner, or balancing on a ledge here. This box office is a proper counter, larger than most off west end houses. It's also purple.

And there are headshots everywhere. I'm beginning to think I might be in the lair of a serial killer. One who is obsessed with fringe theatre.

I give my name to the box office lady, get my name checked off on a piece of paper, then she does something on the computer and a few seconds later, a paper ticket is printing. That's a sure sign of a box office system that is made of processes cobbled together, patched up, and in need of a good overhaul, but I don't even care because I got myself a paper ticket out of it, and it's frickin' purple.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask, spotting a display of them on the counter. They're three quid, which is a bit of a bargain as they look like there's quite a few pages going on there.

Programme and ticket acquired I make my way back to the foyer. It looks like the house is open, so I figure I should go in.

There's a pair of furry creatures balanced on a low table by the door. They're wearing dresses. I want to take a photo but the ticket checker is looking at me so I scoot over to her and show her my ticket.

Seats are unallocated, so she just waves me inside, and I walk straight into a living room.

Green walls. A sofa with cushions. Coffee table. The type of bookshelves that someone who doesn't read would own.

And about 100 chairs facing it.

The stage at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is massive. Yes, in pub theatre terms, but even more than that. It just goes on and on. Fitting what looks like an entire flat on it. A flat larger than most people in London would ever even get the sniff of the chance of living in.

I pick a seat someone in the middle row, forgoing my usual end of third row choice, as the end of the row is all the way in the distance and I'm not sure my legs can take the extra mileage after all those stairs after my mighty trek up the highest hill in the world, or at least London, or at least north London, or at least... I'm not Googling this. Just take my word for it. The hill is very high.

It's still early, and there aren't many people in yet, giving my a good chance to turn around in my seat and inspect what's happening behind me.

The seats all have those little plaques attached to them, where theatre fans have given money in exchange for the honour of having someone sit on their name until the upholstery gives out.

The back row is different though. Blue seats where the rest of us have red. Wider, and comfier looking too. And every single one of them has a reserved sign attached to it. Like, literally attached. As in the word 'reserved' is printed on a satin banner which flips over to indicate the reserved status of the seat.

Gradually people come in, and sure enough, most of the reserved seats are claimed.

The rest of us space ourselves out more. Most going for the front row, but a dedicated contingent choosing the separate bank over at the far end.

And almost all of them... gosh, how do I say this politely. Hmmm. Let's go with: almost all of them look like they live in Highgate. Yeah, that'll do. You know what I mean.

A man in a waistcoat leans against an empty seat to chat to some second rowers.

There's a lot of then going on. Chatter between the different rows.

Local theatre for local people.

It's a thing, I'm telling you.

The man with the waistcoat disappears, and comes back with a small stack of programmes.

"Does anyone need a progamme?" he asks, making his way down the row of seats, the programmes displayed in an attractive fan.

They are nice programmes, with a wrap-around image of a block of flats on the cover, which I'm enjoying. There's a short note from the playwright. And wee little pictures of mice scurrying around in between the biographies. Most interesting of all though, is the programme designer, Corinna Bordoli, is credited amongst the creatives for the production. And why not? Programme designers are integral to the theatre-going experience. At least, they're integral to my theatre-going experience. I like it.

Waistcoat-man is back again, hands-free of programmes now.

"I don't know if you're here for the post-show talk," he says, taking up position at the front of the stage area. "If not, I've got a nice surprise for you! The cast and the writer will come out and we'll have a nice chat about the play. It'll be in here. Not the pub. There's too many of us, though we'd all like to go to the pub." He throws out his arms as an apology for the lack of pub-location. "We'll give you a few minutes at the end, just in case you don't want to stay, but please do." Another apologetic gesture with his arms. "Anyway, we've got a play to get on with.." he says, leaving the stage.

His voice is replaced by one of the sound systems.

"Please take your glasses down to the bar during the interval, or at the end of the show," the disembodied voice says. "Switch off your mobile phones, or anything that beeps or vibrates."

"That would be interesting," a lady sitting in the third row whispers loudly as the lights dim.

Jennifer Matter rushes on stage. A minute later, she sits down, crossing her legs. Her red dress rucks up, revealing lacey stocking tops and suspenders.

There's a shocked gasp for a woman in the front row.

More gasps, and indeed, titters, follow as Matter takes off the red dress, to reveal the exact top of lingerie that you are probably imagining.

Ah, I can see what sort of play this is going to be. And yup, sure enough, despite the multiple references to millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the rest of it, we are firmly in the realm of seventies farce. With all the door slamming, mistaken identities, outfit knicking, and gender confusion of it all.

It's enjoyable though, and the interval rolls around soon enough. I go off to explore what exacting is the Green Room and what happens in there.

Eating ice cream, apparently. Because that's what everyone is doing. With the pub below, the drinkers have all gone downstairs to fill their glasses. Everyone else is in here, buying two quid ice creams out of the massive freezer.

It feels like Flat Out’s writer, Jennifer Selway, not only wants to have her cake and eat it too, but also wants a slice of everyone else’s. She’ll put in all those grandious lines of there being nothing wrong with a gentlemen enjoying a good pencil skirt, but she has no qualms with using said gentleman for laughs when he puts on a dress. She wants us to nod knowingly along when a character declares she couldn’t sleep with someone who voted to leave, but then uses a character’s Ukraian accent as the basis for a crude joke.

It’s all a little tiresome.

And confusing.

Who is this play meant for?

The guffawing old men of Highgate? Or those young millennials, who Jake Mitchell’s property developing scoundrel so rightfully points out, aren’t prepared to feel sorry for someone with a second home in South Ken any time soon. Even if it does have rats.

As with all farces, the final scene takes a long time to wrap up., but we get there eventually.

I don't stay for the talk.

Read More

Kill Bloggers

Right then. Here we are, back at The Pleasance. It’s my last trip of the marathon. Two spaces down, one to go. And I’m feeling determined. Not about the show. The show’s fine. That will happen... probably. I just need to make sure I get there on time.

No, what I’m psyching myself up for is the ticket.

Or rather the paper ticket.

Two times I’ve asked for one, and two times I’ve been fobbed off with inferior, and frankly unacceptable, e-tickets, while all around other theatre-goers fan themselves with their fancy yellow paper tickets, flaunting their superior negotiating skills.

This time however, I’m not giving up. It’s my last chance. If I don’t get a paper ticket tonight, then I never will.

I am fully prepared to do what it takes. Beg. Cry. Stomp my foot. Prostrate myself on the floor. Throw a full scale toddler-style temper tantrum. Hunger strike. Whatever. I am placing no limits on my behaviour in pursuit of this paper ticket.

As I walk over the grey cobbles that separate Caledonian Park and Shearling Way, I accidentally find myself as an extra in a music video, as some young person raps away while balancing on the low brick wall while getting filmed by his mate with an iPhone.

It’s not raining, but huge droplets land at random, and the threat of an oncoming downpour sends the rapper and his mate off in search of shelter before their song is done. At least, I hope that’s the reason, and not the woman wearing an oversized check jacket wandering around in the back of their shot.

I round the corner, and walk the last few minutes alone. The streets are really quiet round here. Those large wet droplets have scared away even the most ardent outdoor lovers. All the tables laid out below the Pleasance are empty save for a slick of dampness on their surfaces.

I go up the stairs, glancing over the railing to have a look at the big pulleys that hang over the courtyard below. They are fantastically heavy duty, and make a great picture with the cheerful bunty hanging there below and the bright signage of the Pleasance Downstairs theatre in the background.

There’s where I’m going to be tonight. The downstairs theatre. Last one on my list for the Pleasance.

Let’s do this thing.

I go inside and aim straight for the ticket machine. The bright yellow monster that sits next to box office. You may well ask yourself how I’d managed to miss it so completely on my previous visits. I sure ask myself that question every damn day.

The screens, which had previously shown adverts for upcoming shows, are dark.

I stand there, staring at it.

It can’t be broken. It just can’t. I refuse to accept it.

There’s a sign stuck to the front. It’s not an out of order sign though. If anything, it’s the complete opposite - giving instructions for use.

I decide to give it a go, as if pure force of will would spur circuits into action. I get out my card, and swipe it, as instructed. Upside down. Magnetic stripe facing me.

Nothing.

The screens remain resolutely dark.

“Is the ticket machine not working?” I ask the lady sitting behind box office. I try and say it as casually as possible, not letting the trauma raging beneath squeak out in my voice.

“No,” she says. “Sorry about that. Are you collecting?”

“Yes,” I say, swallowing my heavy sigh and sliding over to the desk. I really don’t fancy going all toddler tantrum right here but I’m steeling myself to the fact that I might just have to.

“What show is it?”

Errr. Fuck. Why can I never remember? My eyes land on a pile of freesheets resting on the counter. “Kill Climate Deniers,” I read.

“And the surname?”

“Smiles.”

“And the postcode?”

Err. My eyes cast around. Sadly there are no freesheets with my address lying on them. Somewhere deep inside, a neuron sparks, and I manage to say it before it splutters out once more.

She nods, and a second later a ream of yellow tickets are puttering out of the machine under the counter.

She tears them off, folds them up neatly, and hands them over.

“I…. thank you!” I say, taking them from her. I think my hand is shaking.

Is that it? Did I do it? Did I manage to get a printed ticket out of the Pleasance? And from their box office, no less!

I actually did it!

Or rather, the lovely box office lady did it.

No, we did it. Together. The pair of us. A team.

“There’s also a freesheet,” she says, indicating the pile.

I want to cry.

I take one. Then another. Just in case.

“The show’s in the downstairs theatre,” she says, pretending, very sweetly, not to notice the emotional crisis I’m going through in front of her.

“Oh, yes,” I say, managing to pull myself together for a few more seconds. “Do I have to go out and down?” I ask, pointing in the general direction of the pulleys.

“No. You'll go through here,” she says, pointing in the opposite direction, towards a black fire door off in the corner. ”Someone will call you when it's time to go down.”

I retreat with my prizes to the tables off to the side, where I stare at them for far too long.

I am really, really pleased with myself.

I take a photo of it and text it to a couple of friends.

They are perplexed, but do a good job of being supportively excited about my victory.

I lay the ticket reverently on the table and look at the cast sheet. It’s a decent cast sheet. There’s some stuff about blocking out the sun for the purposes of temperature control on the back, which is a little worrying, despite the cheerful looking drawing to illustrate the process (it’s done with balloons, apparently). I hastily turn it back over. Not sure I want to be looking at that. All sounds a bit super-villain if I’m honest. Something on the front catches my eye. A trigger warning. Or is it called a content warning now? Whichever. One of those.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised that the following production may contain images of people who have died.”

I read it. Then I read it again, just to make sure I understand.

Is it… I can’t tell… are they trying to be funny here?

I break it down into parts, reading each one multiple times.

The first part, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised,” is very specific. But okay.

“That the following production may contain images.” May contain images? May? Do they not know?

Now, I’ve gone to print on programmes before a show is fully finalised. I know the panic that ensues when something comes up the day a new production opens and you suddenly have to coordinate the printing and distribution of several hundred programme slips. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this on a freesheet. A freesheet which has obviously, and I don’t mean to be rude here because I do it myself, been run off a photocopier, and therefore doesn't require much time to print.

Moving on. “Of people who have died.” People. Just people. A phrase as broad as the first one was narrow.

Why are only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members being advised of this? Are there Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dead people? Is that why? If it isn’t, why aren’t we all being advised? And how do they not know? Is the showing of dead people somehow randomised between shows? French and Germans one performance, Americans and Marshall Islanders the next.

I am very confused.

A front of houser walks past. “Five minutes. Fuck, what’s going on!” he says to himself, as he makes his way to the box office. A minute later, he’s coming back. “Are you here for Climate Deniers?” he asks the few people hanging around. We nod. We are.

Five minutes soon becomes three, then two, then…

“The house is now open for Kill Climate Deniers,” says the front of houser, taking up position in the pivot point between the bar and the foyer. “The show is one hour thirty minutes with no interval. There's no remittance so if you have to go wee-wee do it now. Err,” he pauses. “There's an adult way to say that…” He regroups. “You can take drinks in plastic cups and... Follow me!”

He marches over to the fire door, and opens it for us, nodding as we flash our tickets at him.

Down a staircase lined with posters made of posters - all collaged together with a sign on top pointing the way to the loos and the bar in one direction, and the downstairs theatre in the other.

There’s someone to meet us at the bottom, ready and waiting with a ticket beeper in hand. I do like a ticket beeper. When it’s not my phone that needs beeping.

“Sorry,” she says as a packet of cigarettes drops to the ground and she crouches down to retrieve them.

No need to apologise. I’m just here to get my ticket beeped!

She obliges and I go past, up some metal steps and onto the next person.

I show her my ticket.

She waves me past. “It’s free seating,” she says with a hand movement that indicates she has no interest in my paper ticket and it might as well be yesterday's Evening Standard for all she cares.

I put the ticket away safely in my pocket and go in.

It takes a few seconds for my brain to catch up with what I’m seeing. Somehow, this is not what I expected. The stage is sunken, surrounded on all four sides by purple seat. Double seats, I notice. Since telling my seat-neighbour at Soho Theatre that double-seats were a thing that didn’t exist I've been seeing them absolutely everywhere.

Turns out people have had to coordinate their sitting down together in theatres all over London, and I didn’t even notice.

That is not my fate tonight though. I have a double-wide all to myself.

In fact, everyone in the audience could have claimed a wide seat of their very own if they had a mind to. There aren’t many of us here. Not that it’s empty. Just… not full. Really not full. We are in serious Tuesday-night levels of not-fullness right now.

But the banging eighties tunes blaring over the sound system are doing their very best to fill the space and the energy is happy, if not exactly bouncing.

A door opens.

Not a door.

The door. The door we had come through earlier as audience members.

But this is definitely an actor. He’s holds up a copy of the playtext. The same playtext that had been available for sale from the box office for the mighty sum of five pounds.

Kill Climate Deniers.

It’s his play.

I mean, it’s not his play. The play was written by David Finnigan, and this dude is Nathan Coenen playing the role of David Finnigan (or Finig, according to the cast sheet). But for the purposes of us sitting, hearing this tale, it’s his play.

He taps the front of the book, in what must be the most meta use of a prop in theatre history.

He tells us about the title, and all the spiralling problems that resulted from it.

Which, I mean, okay, it's a little bit inflammatory. But with all the Tumblr kids threatening to eat the rich at the moment, merely killing a climate denier sounds a little... twee. It's hard to imagine anyone getting worked up about it.

But all these explanations are only a framing device for the actual play. The one that is apparently riling everyone up. A play about terrorists, the Australian environment minister, her press rep, and some quality eighties bangers.

The cast rush in and out of the doors. That first door, and another one the leads from the outside world straight onto the stage, so we get glimpses of daylight every time they come on.

Good thing the rain has cleared up.

"Bloggers mean nothing,” says Kelly Paterniti in her role as press rep when Felicity Ward's environment minister is confronted by an online journalist. She scans the audience, daring the bloggers to reveal themselves. “If you are a blogger, you mean nothing.” I purse my lips and try not to giggle. You tell ‘em love, bloggers are scum.

But she’s not done with her blogger-baiting. “If there is a blogger within earshot I hope they get sick and die.”

I press my lips together even harder, and stifle the cough that is suddenly attacking the back of my throat.

It's hard to stay mad at her, she's wearing a great dress and I kinda want it. Dammit. Costume envy strikes again, and isn't going anywhere fast as Bec Hill appears wearing an amazing cut off leather jacket with the most extraordinary black eyeshadow action going on, that I am definitely going to attempt, but fail to recreate, at some point very soon. And clearly pink Lennon glasses are now a trend in London theatre, because look, Hannah Ellis Ryan is wearing them too. God, this cast looks cool.

That is, until they start to dance.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that they can't dance. But when you are attempting to recreate a rave atmosphere in a theatre, it helps to have more than ten people in it. And having the story stopped in order for the playwright, who isn't actually the playwright, to tell us more about the history of the play, means we're stuck in a Sisyphean loop of building up energy only to have it put on hold and let to drain away before starting it up again.

A few people in the front row bop around to show willing, but I'm not a bopper even at the best of time so I leave them too it.

The cast point guns at people, take swigs from an audience member's drink, and accuse an innocent man in the front row of writing for the Daily Mail. All with the playwright-who-isn't-a-playwright there to step in and apologise on his play's behalf, rendering it all rather... sweet really. Made toothless by cavities.

After the bows Felicity Ward leans forward towards the front row. "Thank you for being a nice Tuesday audience."

Yeah.

I wonder what the playwright, who is actually the playwright, thinks about paper tickets.

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Absolutely Harrowing

I've lived in London for over ten years now. Closing in on a dozen, now that I think about it. And I've been a theatre-fan for a good number of those. So, it's amazing to me how many theatres I haven't been to yet, and plain haven't even heard of, or likely would have heard of, without the push of the marathon.

When I get to one of these new-to-me venues, I have a lot of questions that need answering. What type of work do they programme? What are the audiences like? Do they provide freesheets? You know, that sort of stuff.

It's not often my first question is: how do I get in.

I'm standing outside the Harrow Arts Centre. It's a nice building. Very nice. Red brick. Old. Surrounded by gardens. Very pretty.

There's a little enclave outside the door, with wooden benches set into the brick walls. Very cosy. The sort of place you could imagine sheltering from the rain at a church fete and falling for a naice young man sporting a woolly jumper and a stutter.

The door, however, is dark. There's no sign of life inside. There's no sign of a sign.

I'm beginning to worry that I might have got the wrong building, and that I've been traipsing all over the gardens of some company away day centre, and any encounter with a young man in a woolly jumper would be closely followed by a radio call to security and possibly some dogs being released in my direction.

But no, there's the banner up by the road advertising a solitary matinee performance of Coppelia. This is def the right place. Just possibly, the wrong door.

I decide to have a walk around the building. See if anyone else is having this problem.

Somewhere a car door slams, and then a second later, a couple emerge from behind a hedge, hurry across a flagstoned courtyard and disappear through an automatic door.

Well, I might as well go after them then.

Engraved in the stone after the door, it says The B.G. Elliott Hall. I don't know who B.G. Elliott is, or why The was carved with a different font to the rest of the message, and I really hope I'm not going to find out. I walk over slowly, fully expecting a B.G. Elliot to come marching out and order me off his property. Possibly while wearing a woolly jumper. But no one does. Instead, I find myself in some sort of antechamber. There's another door in here. And another sign above it. This one says: Harrow Arts Centre.

Thank goodness for that.

Inside it finally, finally, begins to look like an arts centre. There are flyers everwhere. And posters. And roller banners. There's even a sign for the Box Office, with an arrow pointing to... a closed door.

I look at the door.

It does look very definitely closed. The type of closed that does not appreciate being opened.

Okay then. Perhaps I don't need the box office. The pre-show email hadn't mentioned e-tickets or anything of the sort, but then it also hadn't given any advice on transportation other than for car drivers, and also misspelt the word queues ("ques"), so perhaps that email isn't the best crutch to lean on right now.

I press on, further into the building, turn left, and see a queue (or possibly 'que') of people coming out of a door, a door that, if my mental geography hasn't let me down, should be to the box office.

There's a sign on the door. "Public Notice," it says. "The Box Office opening hours are Monday - Friday 10am - 5pm." It's well past 5pm now, but there is a show on tonight, so I imagine they are making an exception.

A few minutes later, I'm at the front of the queue.

"The surname's Smiles?"

"Can I have your order number?" says the lady behind the desk.

"Umm... yes?" I say, pulling out my phone. I don't think I've ever been asked that question before at box office. Not unless there was a problem, or I was asking for something unreasonable, like a ticket exchange.

I find my confirmation email and recite the order number, and she types it in. Soon the ticket machine is puttering out my ticket. She gives it a good wiggle and a tug. It did not want to come out. Probably because the ticket stick was put in the wrong way round. Or at least, I presume the logo isn't supposed to be upside down. Not that it matters much. With the logo positioned on the ticket's stub, it'll be torn off soon enough, leaving nothing but a plain white, unbranded piece of card. The shame of its upsidedowness lost to the recycling bin.

"Just the one?" asks the box office lady, giving the ticket a once over before handing it to me.

"Yes... just the one." I didn't even try to convince my friends to come to this one. Bless them, they do try. But Harrow is an Overground journey too far for even the strongest of friendships.

"Where am I heading?" I ask.

I don't know what prompted me to ask that. I don't usually. Perhaps I've encountered too many closed doors on this trip to have faith I'll find the right one. Or maybe I just want to make it really clear that I'm the loner who doesn't belong here to the box office lady.

She blinks at me in surprise.

"Err," she says, as if she's never been asked this question before, because, presumably, simply everyone knows where the Studio theatre at Harrow Arts Centre is, and what is this person that she is now having to deal with? A person who comes to the theatre, by herself, and doesn't even know where it is? She's definitely not paid enough for this, and she'll be making a note so that she can bring it up in her next one-to-one. "Head out of this building," she starts, pointing back out the door.

I'm sorry, what the what? Outside?

She sees the alarm on my face and presses on. "Go left from the car park and you'll see a sign for the studio theatre. The medical centre will be the opposite."

"Right," I say weakly. "Thank you."

Bloody hell. I'm glad I asked.

I stop outside in the corridor to quickly make a note of what she said. More for my own use than the blog. "Left. Car park. Sign. Medical centre," I mutter to myself as I battle against the auto correct to type it out.

From inside the box office I can hear a very loud customer talking very quickly. "Can't find my email, but can I buy a ticket?"

"Sorry, it's all sold out."

Blimey, I would never even have thought of that. Buying a new ticket because I can't find the confirmation email from my last one. No wonder the show is sold out if that's how the people of Harrow sort things out. Rebuying tickets because they can't figure out the search functionality on their emails. Oh well, at least it's generating some income for the arts, I suppose.

I go outside. I'm not entirely sure where the car park is, but I follow the building around, back to where I had heard the car door slam earlier, and yes. Here it is. And as promised, there's a sign. I walk down the road to get a better look at it. I'm not wearing my glasses and can't quite read it.

It lists all the delights of the Harrow Arts Centre: Elliot Hall, Studio Theatre, Medical Centre, Swimming Pool, Cafe and Bar. With arrows all pointing in the same direction. That's convenient.

I turn left and am instantly lost.

There's hundreds of buildings here. Fancy brick ones. Whitewashed ones. Ones that look like are falling apart. Ones that look like they housed pigs in another life. And others that probably have a sweat-shop in them right now.

But down a path lined with some of the more dispiriting examples, I spy a crisp white sign, gleaming out from all that peeling paint-work. "HAC Studio Theatre."

I'd found it.

And so has everyone else. There's a line coming right out the door.

It rather looks like I've stumbled on the hit show of Harrow.

I hear the ticket checker before seeing him. He's bantering away with everyone coming through the door.

"You'll be having the stay out here with me," he laughs to a group of women, before letting loose a beaming smile on the next person in the queue.

We shuffle our way forwards into the foyer. There's a little desk in here. But it's not being used. And doesn't appear to have been used since 2004. There's a TV resting on top. It has a built in VHS player.

The ticket checker chats away to everyone in turn, seeming unperturbed by this historical artefact resting on the desk not three feet away from him.

"That's two," he asks the man in front of me in the queue. He looks closer at the print out. "Just one?" he says, looking up at me.

The man in front confirms that it is just one.

The ticket checker takes my ticket. "Thank you, madam," he says, handing it back. No banter. Barely even a glance.

Right then. I go into the studio. It's dark, long and low, and makes me think of an industrial chicken coop.

Ridgid rows of chairs are packed in.

This should be my cue to head to the front, to claim my spot at the end of the third row, as is my preference in unallocated seats. But instead, I turn the other way, heading for the first raised row, just behind the door. When the choice is between proximity and a rake, always choose the rake. That is my free and personal advice to you.

It's a bit tight in here. I had to clamber in around the chair in front so as so to disturb the nice ladies at the end of the row. There's a free seat between us, but that is doing nothing to save my legs.

I may only be a shade over 5'3" but that's not short enough for the squishy legroom here in the studio. I really hope no one sits in front of me, as they are going to end up with a knee in their back.

As soon as I have this thought, someone plonks themselves down in the seat in front, only to discover my knee in their back.

He jerks his seat back, but when he finds no relief, he looks behind him to discover the cause of this obstruction, only to discover my apologetic face.

I try to rearrange myself, but a big group has just come in and the ticket checker is trying to find seats for them all. The nice ladies at the end of my row move down with a smile. "Someone can sit on the end there," one says.

The doors are closing. There's still five minutes today but we are locked in together in the darkness.

We all sit and awkwardly look our host for the evening, Pariah Khan, sat on a table, his legs swinging, his head bowed as he reads a book.

A young woman a few rows ahead of me looks back and holds my gaze for a second too long before turning back around. It was a look of curiosity and recognition. We're the only two white girls in the audience. The only two white people.

The ticket checker comes back in to let people through and give a countdown to the tech person. Four minutes to go.

Three minutes.

Two.

Khan begins. He's come to Britain to explore what this country has to offer. To travel about. fall in love, and watch football at a reasonable hour.

"This is really good," says the man sitting in front of me, leaning towards his companion.

I'm glad he's got something decent to distract him from the knee in his back.

A minute later, a phone rings. First quietly, but louder as its owner rummages through her bag in search of the disastrous noise machine.

Khan stops, his face a still mask as we all collectively hold our breaths, waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

"Did you remember to turn your phone off?" he asks, with a sly side-long glance as the ringing eventually comes to a stop.

Unfortunately, no number of side-long glances will stop the sounds of the radio bagging through from the foyer, as messages are relayed through the hundreds of buildings that make up the Harrow Arts Centre.

But Khan presses on, taking us on a tour of this strange country of ours. Even when a woman in the front row decides to stand up, put her coat on, make her way to the door, and let it slam on her way out.

At the end, applause still going, Khan uses the flipchart that has been his companion and time marker throughout the performance to display the credits.

The clapping quietens as we all watch him flip pages.

"You can carry on applauding!" he says, showing us the director's name (Eduardo Gama).

We dutifully do so, but it's not the same. Just think how much better it would have been if they'd been a freesheet.

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Pinch Me, We're In Finchley

It’s just past 6 o’clock. The evening one. The sun is blazing. And I’m in Finchley.

This is weird. I haven’t been in Finchley at 6 o’clock in a good long time.

I’m not sure I even remember what this place looks like in daylight anymore.

Did I get the time wrong? Have I, perhaps, left work two hours too early today? I check my phone.

Nope. But I do have a message from Helen.

“I’m just walking from the station!”

“Me too.” I reply. “I’m next to the Barclays.” I pause. Barclays maybe isn’t quite the landmark I think it is for people who don’t actually live in Finchley. “Opposite Tesco,” I add.

There’s no missing the Tesco. It is honestly the single best thing about living in Finchley, that Tesco. It’s a nice one. Big enough that it has everything you could possibly need (from my favourite Sriracha, to a decent Kosher section for all my Bamba and halva needs) and yet not so big that you walk out of there staggering under fifty kilo bags of jasmine rice and an equestrian fly rug.

But I haven’t dragged Helen all the way to the end of the Northern Line to shop in the big Tesco. Oh, no. We have something far more exciting planned.

We’re going to the theatre.

My local one.

For once I’m going to be the one to stroll home post-theatre in time for an early night, curled up under my duvet and happy in the knowledge that Helen is still on a train somewhere.

I’m really quite excited.

“Oh okay I see a Tesco”

And I see Helen. Waving at me and standing out from the Finchley locals like a Bengal tiger in a pet shop. With her huge, circular, mirrored sunglasses, she looks like some sort of exotic bug. I doubt Finchley has seen the likes of Helen before. And I’m not sure they’re quite ready for her yet.

“I brought cupcakes!” I say, holding up the pink and maroon Hummingbird bakery bag. Its Helen’s birthday tomorrow, and we’re celebrating in style. Theatre and cake. A classic combo.

“This way,” I say, taking the lead.

It’s not often that I get the opportunity to walk someone around my home-town. It’s rather fun.

We’re not going to the theatre quite yet. We have to stop to make first.

Just to make sure that Helen gets the full Finchley experience, we’re going to meet a neighbour of mine. Someone who has made an uncredited appearance on the blog before, but now it’s time that you meet properly: it’s David. Arts writer extraordinaire, master of prose, tamer of choreographers, and most importantly, a Finchley native.

“Oh. My. God,” I say as Helen and I make our way into David’s kitchen and see the table laden down with plate after plate of food. There’s an asparagus and pastry thingy. A bean salad thingy. A beetroot and cucumbery doodad. And olives and almonds and bread and… I am suddenly the hungriest person in the world, because let me tell you, David can fucking cook, and this all looks proper amazing. He’s even used herbs from his own garden, which is just plain showing off if you ask me.

I would take a photo. I really want to take a photo. It’s all so damn pretty. But it feels like it’s probably wrong to take a snapshot of someone else’s cooking. So I don’t. Sorry. You’ll just have to take my word for the deliciousness of the spread.

The sun is still shining, so we take it all outside.

“I haven’t read Orlando,” says Helen, casually, as the subject of the show we’re seeing comes up.

“I’m sorry, what the hell?” How on earth has Helen managed to get through life without reading Orlando?

“Have you?”

“Of course!” Twice actually. But I don’t like to brag.

“How do you have time to write your blog, work full-time, go to the theatre every night, and still read all the books you do?”

Oh, Helen. Such a flatterer. But it’s true. I am a miracle.

Not that Helen’s a slacker. She’s currently finishing off a masters as is about to embark on a PhD.

“I’m not sure if you have this problem,” she says, as the subject of writing her dissertation comes up. “But I have trouble finding a way in. I know what I want to write.” She pauses. “Sort of. But it’s finding the…” she finishes with a jabbing hand gesture.

“You just need to start anywhere,” I say, as if I have any business giving writing advice. “Lay some words down and worry about the opening later. You find out what you want to write by writing.”

Thankfully David, an actual real and proper writer, is able to give some proper guidance on the matter. Plagiarism. Apparently.

“Now, Robert Icke,” says David, knowing exactly the kind of reaction he’ll get from the pair of us at the name of the young director.

Helen eagerly leans forward, keen to hear more. She loves Robert Icke. I, on the other hand, slump back in my seat with a groan.

It’s a good thing it’s time for cupcakes. Eaten in a hurry because we still have to get to the theatre. Honestly, I’m not mad at it. While a Hummingbird cupcake should probably be savoured, there’s something luxuriously hedonistic about chomping the whole thing down in two bites, and then running out without helping to tidy up...

But there was no getting away from Icke. I’m in the presence of two superfans. It was always going to come up.

“Look,” I say. “I just… don’t like the way he makes his characters speak. They sound. Asif. They. Were. Dropped. Onthehead. As. Babies. I mean, why do they have to talk so slowly? I can’t stand slow talkers. Not in real life. Not on the stage. I feel I’m a very tolerant person-“ Helen laughs…. rude. “-but I can’t deal with slow talking.” I pause. “Or cyclists.”

That matter now cleared up, and with the sun in our eyes, we race up to Tally Ho corner (“Finchley sounds bucolic,” was Helen’s reaction to that place name) around the bus depot, past the Lidl, and there we are: the artsdepot.

I scurry across the square to grab a photo. David and Helen aren’t waiting. There’s no time. They’ve gone in.

“You don’t even have to pick up your ticket any more,” David says wryly as I finally make it inside. “You have people to do that for you.”

Helen is at the box office counter. Presumably pretending to be me.

She must be doing a good job of it, because she’s been given the tickets and we’re off again, crossing the large foyer that seems to take up the entirely of the ground floor.

“Take a photo of those,” orders Helen, pointing to the pretty origami lamps above our heads.

“On it,” I say, pointing my phone in the lamps’ direction

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The Secret Language of Flowers


With cautious glances at one another, we take up places around the edge. Balancing on knees, or curling around our legs.

A few people decide that sitting on the floor is more than they signed up for, and head for the benches by the wall instead.

Angelique keeps on talking. The party isn’t going so well. She’s spotted her boyfriend with another girl, and his dealer, the one she really doesn’t like, is there.

And… oh god. Her voice sinks as she tells us what happens next. I clutch tight at my knees, twisting around to follow her as she moves around us, wanting to look away but at the same time not being able to take my eyes off her.

There’s a crash.

As one, our heads snap towards the window behind Dennis-Edwards.

Another crash.

A young girl peeks through the blackout curtains. It’s the boys with their football.

The girl’s mother gives her a look and the curtain is dropped back into place.

But the lure of the teenage boys and their football is too much for her, and soon she is peeling open the edge of the curtain once more to look outside.

Angelique moves around the space. She wants to show us the vase of blue flowers she has put in her new home.

They're basic but bright, she says. But perhaps more than that, they embody new beginnings, and hope. Of sun-filled days. Of her own shop. Her own life. Away from those who see her as a resource and not a person.

Outside, it’s still swelteringly hot. The party next door is still going. The music still blasting.

But the streets are empty. Deserted. I walk towards the tube station, swinging my jacket from my arm.

Everything smells of heat and tarmac and fast food.

Despite the pain, I miss Angelique’s world. Her lack of nonsense. Her drive. And the lush freshness of her flowers.

I should really go buy some.

Maybe for my birthday. That’s coming up in three weeks. Three weeks and one day. Not that I’m dreading it or anything.

Still, flowers would help. Peonies, I think. They’re my favourite. I wonder what they mean. Angelique would know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

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

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

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

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

I look around, trying to work this place out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find a spot in the second row.

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

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

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

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

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

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

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect example of a cult member.

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

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

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

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

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