Friendly Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I better get out of here. 

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

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

A front of houser rushes the other way. 

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

Well, alright then. 

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

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

It’s a dog. 

A very beautiful dog. 

An Alsatian. 

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

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

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

I look back down at the dog. 

They are wearing a service dog harness. 

That settles it. 

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

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

Third row. At the end. 

No, wait. That’s too far away. 

Third row. In the middle. 

Perfect. 

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

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

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

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

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

They are very actively not watching the play. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And way too gone for anyone else not to notice. 

Even the actors. 

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

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

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

There’s a cheer from the other side. 

The lads lapse into silence. 

For a few seconds. 

My neighbour leans over to his mate to say something. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least they turned up. 

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

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My mad existence

I'm on my way to the next venue and I just saw a duck! Two of them! Waddling around next to the water, being all duck-like.

I didn't have any bread to give them, but they let me take a photo of them all the same and didn't seem to mind that I used went all baby-talk on them.

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So, I'm happy now. For some reason, knowing intellectually that my theatre for the evening was in the middle of Regent's Park, didn't connect with the part of my brain that knows that ducks live in parks, and the whole duck thing totally surprised me.

In a good way.

I'm very happy.

I also just spotted a sign, stuck in a hedge, pointing the way to the Open Air Theatre, so on top of being duck-happy, I'm also not lost.

This trip literally cannot get any better.

I follow the signs, leading down paths and past flowerbeds and across roads, until I spot it. The theatre. Or at least, the entrance to the theatre. Kinda getting fairground vibes looking at it, if I'm being honest.

The box office is in a sort of wooden cabin-like structure on one side, with the entrance on the other, with the name lined up along the roof.

The grass is full of smug-looking people having smug-looking picnics and drinking smug-looking glasses of wine. Near me a woman throws her head back to laugh. Smugly.

Just need to take my photo of the outside then it's off to try and blag a paper ticket off the box office. There wasn't an option to get one from the website. I think I left it too late or something. I have a crumby e-ticket sitting in my inbox and I am not happy about it.

"Lot of people here?" says a bloke standing near me.

I glance up.

"Yeah? I guess. It's very popular."

I go back to my phone, bringing up the camera app.

"Are you Mediterranean?" he asks.

I'm so confused by this question, I look up again. "... no?"

"You look a bit Italian. Are you Italian?"

Now, I'm sure you will agree with me that I do not look Italian. I very much do not look Italian. Literally no one in the world has ever, up until this point, thought that I looked anything approaching Italian.

I've gone through my whole life being British-passing, and I'm not about to take this nonsense. "Not even slightly," I say, in my coldest, bitchiest, tones, that I only bring out on very special occasions.

Turns out, however, that this bloke is immune to my lack of charm. "No?"

"No. I'm Scottish."

I mean... I'm not Scottish. Okay, I'm slightly Scottish. My surname is Scottish. But there's a good hundred years between the last Scottish Smiles in my ancestry coming down to live in Liverpool or somewhere, and me being born. Usually, when people ask I'll say German, or Austrian, or something, but those answers are all way too Holocausty for a summer evening. And I don't like pulling out the Israeli-angle with weirdo-strangers who are way too intent on making conversation.

"The Scottish are very friendly people. Very friendly," he continues.

"Errr..."

Now, Scotland is fucking great. And Scottish people are even greaterer. I would totes vote for Nicola Sturgeon to be prime minister if that was ever an option. All hail the Scots. But like, I lived there for three years, and "friendly" would not be my go-to descriptor. Like... there were pubs I was actively told not to go to because my English-accent would be considered a "provocation."

"Very friendly."

"... sometimes?"

"Very friendly people."

Okay. Enough of this. Apologies to the Scottish people but I need to disabuse this man of your friendliness before he starts telling me his whole backsto-

"I'm from Iran."

Shit. Too late.

"Sorry," I say, putting away my phone. "I have to go in now."

And without another word, I scuttle over to the entrance and join the queue.

"Can I check your bag?" asks the bag checker.

Of course she can. I grab it and open it for her. Or at least, I try to open it for her. The damn zip is stick.

Shit. "Shit." Double shit. "Sorry."

She laughs. "Don't worry. As long as we can look inside."

I've made a tiny gap. I can see the soft black material of my scarf pocking through, caught in the metal. "It's my stupid scarf," I tell her, still trying to unjam the zip.

"Don't worry," she says again. "It happens all the time."

She peers through the inch-wide gap I've created and then feels her way down the outside, giving my bag a good massage.

With a wave of her hand, I'm sent over to the ticket checker.

With all the excitement, I'd forgotten to go to box office.

I look over my shoulder. I can't go back now. Not after making the bag checker go through all that. She'll think I'm a right old idiot.

I get my phone out, and allow my e-ticket to be beeped.

Dammit.

Still feeling mad at myself, I pass through the entrance, and stop.

Well. This sure is something, A bar sits beneath by an ivy covered canopy on one side. Lawns are littered with picnicing couples on the other.

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And in the middle, a merch stand.

I join the queue.

It isn't much of a queue. There's only one lady in front of me. But she is making the most of it, asking questions about every single aspect of the theatre and the performance. Start times and entrances and intervals and... Ooof. I can't listen anymore.

I turn my attention to the stand.

I love theatre merch. But so much of it is crap.

I'll throw down a tenner on a programme if I have to, but see-through t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with some tedious quote from the show ain't getting my coin any time soon.

This stuff, well... someone at this theatre sat down and thought: What does a person watching a play out in the open air need? And then set about selling it to us.

Alongside the programmes, there are branded baseball caps and water bottles, and plastic ponchos. Standard. But then there's also recycled wool blankets for cold knees, and straw panamas to cover bald heads and cuddly hedgehogs to...

Wait, what?

"The Regent's Park Hedgehog," reads a sign, posted on the side of the cart as if to answer my exact question. Turns out the park has hedgehogs in it. Real ones. 40 of them. Which doesn't sound a lot.

I love hedgehogs. Everyone loves hedgehogs.

I really want a cuddly one.

Can I justify it?

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"Can I get a programme please?" I ask the merch desker as the old lady finishes her ream of questions and moves on.

My eyes slide over to the hedgehogs.

They are so frickin' cute.

"Of course!" says the merch desker. "Five pounds please."

I pull my bag forward and suddenly remember the zip. Shit. "Sorry," I apologise as I struggle with it.

"Don't worry," she says.

I give the zip a good tug. It slides a half-inch. Ha. We're getting somewhere.

"Stupid scarf," I mutter as I fight the zip.

"No rush," she says sweetly. "It happens all the time. Especially after the bag checks. Is that cash or card?"

"Err, cash?" I say.

"Okay."

"Or card? If that's easier?"

"No, don't worry. I just thought I could set up the card machine."

With one more violent yank, I hear the sound of my scarf ripping, and the zip gives way.

I pull out my purse and hand her a fiver. "There," I say, triumphantly. "Exact change. My punishment for being annoying."

She laughs politely. "Thanks. I can always do with more fivers."

With one final glance towards the hedgehogs, I scuttle off with my programme to see how bad a hit my scarf took tonight.

There's a huge banked flowerbed running along the path, with a low bench around it.

I find an empty spot and examine the damage.

The scarf is still caught in the zipper. I try to wriggle it out, but it's no good. It's stuck right in there.

Gritting my teeth, I wrap the fabric around my hand and yank it free, wincing as it tears away.

Gawd dammit. This is why I cannot have nice things. It was a present too. Fuck's sake.

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I stuff it down to the bottom of my bag, where it can't get into any mischief, and look around in the hopes of distracting myself from what I've done.

This place looks like a faerie bower after an all night rave.

Long streamers hang limply off tree branches, looking more than a little like this place was bog-roll-bombed by trick-or-treaters.

Dirty confetti is trodden into the ground.

I don't envy the cleanup crew at the end of the summer.

The group sitting next to me on the bench suddenly leap to their feet and rush over to the now-open doors.

I watch them go, wondering vaguely if I should be rushing too.

I decide to take a more leisurely approach, double-checking my e-ticket to make sure I'm using the right entrance.

“Enter by: Gangway 1,” it says. There's a huge number 1 stuck on the wall next to the doors right on the end. That must be it.

I go in.

Down on one side is a small patch of grass, and the runners are all crowding together trying to find the best spots. As close to the stage as possible.

I turn the other way, heading for the huge bank of seating. I start climbing, and climbing, and climbing. Right to the top. Because I'm cheap.

Not that it's a bad view from up here. The stage is massive. With a fuck-off huge letters at the back spelling out: EVITA. Behind them, I can just about make out the band.

Two ladies sitting in the row in front are taking a selfie. Or at least, they're trying to take a selfie.

"I can't get the sign in," says one.

As if driven to prove that I am, on occasion, a nice person, I offer to help.

They hand me the phone and I try to line up the shot, with the sign behind them, politely neglecting to mention that I am a terrible photographer.

"How shall we do this?" asks one.

"Shall we go down this way?" I say, moving down the row to a more central location. "If you could stand here..." I point to where I want them, and yes. That works. Two landscape. Two portrait. Boom. Done.

"Ooo, a professional..." says one as she takes the phone back.

She's clearly never seen my blog.

That done, she gets on with the really important matter at hand. Coating herself with bug spray.

Not something the merch desk has thought to sell. They should really consider it.

"Apologies," she says, turning around to explain herself to our row. "I just sprayed bug repellent."

Her friend laughs at her and she gets flustered.

"In case I smell!" she says, making her friend laugh even more. "I swell! I have to be hospitalised."

"Don't worry," I assure her. "We're all on your side."

A bell rings outside. Well, I say outside. It's all outside here.

Let's try that again.

Beyond the walls, a bell tolls, calling in the followers of musical theatre.

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They pour in, heavy from their picnics, heaving themselves up the steps to their seats.

High above us, black coated figures snuggle down in covered crow's nests with their spotlights.

I shudder as a drop of rain lands on my cheek. I look up. The sky looks dangerously cloudy. I send up a quick prayer to the theatre gods that we won't have a downpour. They seem to listen. The rain stops.

The show starts, and you know, it's Evita. So it's all big and dramatic and...

There are smoke guns going off and I have to hold my breathe as the white curls pour over me, and then there's confetti blasting all over the place. And holy shit this is epic. You know a show's going to be good when they start it with the confetti shower. That's a hell of a promise to live up to and: Bang! Fuck yeah. There are streamers. I repeat: there are streamers. Flying through the air like gentle doves bringing messages of destruction.

And miracle of miracles, one is floating towards me, sailing on a breeze, sent by the theatre gods.

It drifts down, drapping itself over my shoulder and then my lap, like I've just been awarded the sash for Miss Open Air Theatre 2019.

Then it moves.

Sliding across my body.

I look up.

A woman in the row in front has the end in her hand and she's winding it around her arm, pulling it off me.

I consider grabbing the other end and tugging it away from her (it's my streamer, dammit!), but I'm too shocked to move. I watch as she crunches the paper streamer into a ball, and hands it to the man she's with, who crushes it in his big, fat, hands.

And then it's the interval.

He turns around in his seat, reaching over to grab his bag, he stuffs the crumbled streamer inside.

I hope it gets stuck in the zip.

Bastards.

The audience stumbles off to finish their bottles of wine, but my row doesn't seem up for moving. So we stay in our seats.

Down at the bottom I spot an usher picking up streamers off the path, and I look at them longingly.

I don't know why I love this crap as much as I do. It just makes my little hoarder heart so happy.

Or it would have done, anyway.

As the bell rings once more, people come back clutching rolled up blankets and hot drinks.

It's chilly now. I roll down the sleeves of my jacket and retrieve my scarf from the bottom of my bag.

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My neighbour is trying to explain the history of Evita to his friend.

"Didn't she get murdered?" asks the friend.

"No..." He tells her what really happened.

"Oh," she says, sounding disappointed. "That's anticlimactic."

But as the second act canters on, I hear a sniff coming from my right. It's the friend. She is full out crying. Big, choking sobs.

The wind picks up, and spent confetti swirls around above our heads.

The crying girl makes a grab for a piece, but it is whisked away from her hand.

The cast get a standing ovation at the end. I don't join in. They were excellent, but you know how mean I am with my ovations. Five a year. That's the limit.

It takes a long time to get out. I cross my arms and shiver in my jacket as the lower rows file out, painfully slow.

The park is black when we do manage to escape. Signs are set out giving instructions on how to get out of here. I just follow everyone else. A long march on the way to Baker Street.

Ahead of me, I spot the streamer-stealer.

She laughs at something her partner says.

I have never hated anyone so much in my entire life.

I can only hope that she at least gives the streamer a good home.

I trudge on, feeling a weight of sadness pressing down on my shoulders.

I knew I should have bought a hedgehog.

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In Cadogan Hall, programmes buy you

Did you know that Cadogan Hall was right around the corner from The Royal Court? I didn't know that Cadogan Hall was right around the corner from The Royal Court.

But there it is. Right around the corner from The Royal Court. All gleaming and shiny. It's tall white walls glowing in the evening sun.

It looks quite impressive. Like a medieval French monastery or something. It even has a tower on one end.

Not sure your average medieval monastery has queues to get in though.

Looks like I've booked myself in for quite the event.

I'm here to see a concert performance of Doctor Zhivago. Which is apparently a musical now.

It has Ramin Karimloo in it, who I hear is quite the thing, and has a wee bit of a following.

Which may go some way to explaining all the women queueing to get in.

I side-step them, and head towards the door with a Box Office sign over it.

I'm technically not meant to be here. I got an email from the TodayTix people saying I could go straight in. All I had to do was show the confirmation email with my seat number and that will get me through the door.

But you know me. I never turn down the opportunity to get hold of a paper ticket.

"Collect?" asks the security guy on the door.

"Err, yes...?"

He opens the door for me.

As I go through I can here him talking to the next person: "Collect?"

Inside there's some steps leading down, and there, at the bottom, is the box office.

"Hi!" calls one of the box officers from behind the counter. "Are you collecting."

I am.

"The surname's Smiles," I say at the same time as he asks: "What's the surname?"

I spell it for him. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

He flicks through the ticket box put doesn't find anything.

I'm about to explain the whole TodayTix situation, but before I get the chance, he says: "Miles, was it?"

"No. Smiles. With an S."

He laughs. "Sorry. I thought you said Miles, and S was your initial."

Gawd forbid.

He goes back to the ticket box, and this times goes for the Ses.

"Maxine?"

"Yes! Thank you!" I say, acting way too happy for someone picking up a ticket.

Oh well, he probably thinks I'm a Ramin fan-girl. Better than being found out as a paper-ticket fan-girl.

The queue for the box office is now stretching back up the stairs towards the door. A front of houser comes out. "Can just one member of each party collect tickets, please!" he shouts above the hubbub. The hubbub ignores him. The queue continues.

I fight my way back out to the street, finding sanctuary against those white walls.

"We need step-free access!" says a woman to the security guy.

She paces back and forth with her cane, jabbing at the ground and muttering venomous words. "Nope. It isn't happening," she says, clacking her way back to the security guy,

"He's coming!" he insists. "He's just opening the door for you."

And sure enough, the door opens. And the woman with the cane is all smiles and simpering.

Time for me to go in too.

I head over to the main entrance. There's a queue. Not a large one. But it's very slow. Each bag check taking an absolute age.

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When it's my turn I show the bag checker my ticket and he waves me in. I thought I had escaped, but no. He spots the backpack slung over my shoulder and he stops me. Turns out though, it was the Cadogan audiences that are to blame. And not our bag checker. Because he processes me within a few seconds, and I'm inside.

The monstary-vibes continue into the foyer, with stained glass windows overlapping in Celtic motifs.

Opposite the door, there's a rather less decorative desk with a sign on it.

"Programmes £15."

Fifteen British pounds.

Fifteen.

A standard five pound programme. Then another ten on top.

I pause. Staring at the sign.

I've paid a lot for programmes on this marathon of mine. I've even spent fifteen pounds. But what I haven't done, is pay more for the programme than my actual ticket. This is a frontier I'm not all that sure I want to cross.

I dither, trying to convince myself that I need to buy the programme so that I can review whether it is actually worth fifteen (fif-fucking-teen!) pounds, while the voice at the back of my head is screaming not to be such a fucking idiot.

I decide to compromise, and have a flick through of a copy. If it's a good programme, I'll buy one.

But there are none on display.

There's only a pile of what looks like flyers.

The programmes, it seems, are being kept under the counter. Like the dirty dirty magazines they are.

I pass and decide it's probably time to go find out where I'm sitting.

I follow the signs to the gallery, and show my ticket to the lady on the door. "Gallery," she says, looking at it. "Right to the top, madam."

I let the madam thing slide. I'm too busy looking at the stairs. They don't look all that scary. Until you see the sign informing you about the number of steps to each floor, as if TFL have stormed the building and taken over.

62 steps up to the Gallery. Is that a lot? I feel like that's a lot.

I know it's 75 steps up to the Pentonville Road exit in King's Cross when the escalator is broken, and that sure gets the heart pumping.

Oh well. Here we go.

I start climbing.

It's not so bad.

There's a lot of people making the ascent, so it's slow going. And there are pretty stained glass windows that make me pause on each level to take a photo of.

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A few minutes later, I'm at the summit, showing my ticket to the usher, and only slightly out of breath.

"You're in Block N," she says, as if that's supposed to mean something to me. I stare at her blankly. She blinks back. May the theatre gods preserve us from nonsensical seating systems. "Round towards the double doors," she says, pointing towards the far end of the horseshoe-shaped gallery.

Right then. There we go. No need for all that block-bullshit.

I make my way around the back of the gallery.

I'll give Cadogan Hall this, it looks well impressive from up here.

Those tall white walls are doing the mostest. With thick padded curtains covering unseen windows.

One thing that had always confused me about this place is that, while it's mainly concerts and music things happening here, they do, on occasion, also programme dance. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how dance would fit on a stage built for music, but there it is. Not particularly wide, but with enough depth to allow the odd jete.

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Overhanging the stage is a small balcony, that you just know even the most concert-like of concert performances, is going to want to use to dramatic effect at some point.

In the corner, there's another usher, and I show her my ticket.

"You're round by the double doors," she says, getting straight to the point. She pauses and makes an umming sound, looking over at the doors as if calculating the best route.

"So, round the back?" I ask,

"Yes," she says slowly. "Yes. Round the back."

"Lovely."

So round the back of all the benches I go. Right down to the final block, by the double doors. Block N as it turns out.

Each row as a sign stuck to it, with the block letter, row letter, and the range of seats. Making a pretty simple layout of rows vastly overcomplicated. This ain't the Royal Albert Hall here. We don't be needing blocks to find out which end of the horseshoe we're sitting in.

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But anyway, the benches are like church pews. Long and wooden. Hardbacked. With a cushion that slips and slides as you try to sit down.

I'm a few rows back and it's a pretty restricted view from up here, but eh... the tickets were cheap and it's a concert. I'm not fussed about seeing anything.

The audience applauds as the orchestra come out and start tuning up. The percussionist takes a selfie of himself sitting at his drumkit and everyone looks super happy, grinning at each other.

The house lights dim. There's more applause as the cast come out.

There's an announcement. "Welcome to the UK concert premiere performance of Doctor Zhivago. Make sure to purchase your commemorative programme in the interval."

A commemorative programme? Wow. I've never had one of those before. I'm deffo going back to get me one of those in the interval. Price be damned.

I'm so weak.

They start. And it turns out that the programme hawker is actually the narrator for the evening, reading out the stage directions so the cast doesn't have to act them out.

I can't see Karimloo from where I'm seated, he's too close to the my side of the stage, but I can tell when he's about to sing because a woman in the front row grins every time he approaches his music stand, her entire face lighting up with joy until he finishes his song and returns to his seat.

It's beautiful.

My neighbour is sitting on the edge of her seat. Literally perching on the brink, so she can lean forward and get a good look at what's going on down there.

I don't bother. I figure whoever is sitting behind me has better reasons for being here that checking off a venue, so they deserve to see more than the back of my head.

No shame to my neighbour though.

A fan-girl's gotta do what a fan-girl's gotta do.

I can't tell you anything about the rest of the cast, but I am very much enjoying how much the guy playing Pasha looks like a certain famous Ukrainian (or is it Russian now?) ballet dancer.

As soon as the applause has died out and the house lights are up for the interval I am out of my seat, rushing around the back of the gallery, and diving down the stairs.

The queue for the loo slows things down, but I manage to squeeze my way through and back down into the bar.

There's a huge gathering around the programme table, everyone standing around, very much not buying programme s.

I creep my way in.

Someone picks up the final flyer and takes it away with them, leaving nothing but a plastic film behind.

"There are no programmes at all now," says the guy standing behind the desk.

"None?" someone asks, incredulous. "Are there any more...?" she points towards the plastic film.

"You'll have to find the information online," says the guy behind the desk. And that's it.

I want to tell him that most venues, when faced with a castshhet crisis, will go and photocopy some more, but something about his stance tells me the matter is closed and he has no interest in talking about it any further.

Which makes me wonder why on earth he is even bothering to stand behind the programme desk. Take the sign and go! Be free! Live your life, far away from the tyranny of paper-products!

He doesn't though. He stands stoic, amongst a flurry of disappointed programme buyers.

Well, there's nothing left for me down here.

Back up those 62 steps again fighting against the flow of people still coming the other way.

I make my way back to my seat and find my neighbour deep in conversation with the guy sitting next to her.

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Turns out she flew in all the way from the states to see this. Or rather, to see Karimloo.

She saw him perform in New York, and he made quite the impression on her.

The guy asks if she's enjoying the performance, and she hesitates. "I wasn't expecting it to be quite so... experimental," she says.

Yeah, the reading of the stage directions doesn't really allow for losing yourself in the story.

But, you know, it's okay. I'm enjoying it. If one can actually enjoy Doctor Zhivago. I mean... it's fucking depressing. And everyone in it is dreadful. The only character I have any respect for is Pasha. At least he was loyal to his two great loves: Lara and communism.

As Karimloo appears on the balcony for the final tableau, there's a standing ovation. A full house standing ovation.

Well, almost full house.

I refuse to stand just because everyone else is. I try to limit my ovations to around five a year. And with four months to go... well, I don't want to be running through my stock too soon.

Karimloo gives a quick speech.

The audience gasps in amazement as he tells us the orchestra was only given the score yesterday.

The composer and lyricist and invited on stage and they speak too. There are hugs. Lots of them.

It's all very charming and appreciative.

It takes an absolute age to get out of here. The stairs so clogged it takes me a full three minutes just to leave the auditorium.

By the time I make it to Sloane Square tube, I'm exhausted. But the couple on the platform opposite are still living it. They play the cast recording on their phone, cuddling up on the cold bench.

Theatre Surveillance

I feel a little awkward writing about this venue. You see, I’m currently waiting to hear back from a job here. I usually wouldn’t mention this kind of thing to you, but we’ve built up a fair amount of trust with each other over the past eight months, and I know you won’t tell anyone.

The hiring manager must be in deep deliberations about the whole thing. Usually I hear back within a week or so. But it’s been quite a bit longer than that now. Nearly eight years. So, you know they are really being thorough over there. And I appreciate that. I tried calling a few times. And emailing. And was told the decision-making process was still ongoing. So, I decided to let them get on with it. Hopefully they’ll get back to me soon.

It’s hard though. Because I really want that internship.

Anyway, it’s nice to know that even when they are in the depths of renovation (and hiring) work, The Old Vic still gets the neons out, and has the title of the show blazing across The Cut.

A Very Expensive Poison.

I’m looking forward to this one. I’m hoping to pick up some tips.

There’s scaffolding everywhere, with staff members scurrying around in hi-ves orange waistcoats and radios, but by the looks of it, there’s some sort of box office happening inside the main foyer. I make for the doors, and stop.

Time for a bag check.

The bag checker has a good old rummage around inside before letting me through.

Up the short steps, and in I go.

It looks different in here. Plastic sheeting is draped over the entrance to the stalls, leaving only the “Dare always dare” sign to peek over the top, giving me the feeling that I’ve stepped into the midst of a police investigation into a strip club murder.

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In front of the plastic sheeting, that is very definitely not hiding from view the remains of a battered and bloody body, is the box office. Moved over from its old home on the side, leaving in it’s wake yet more plastic sheeting. Over on the other side, over by the stairs, is the bar. Or at least, what’s counting as the bar in these turbulent times. A small desk. With a stack of paper cups. And presumably, some wine or something squirrelled away somewhere.

“Is anyone waiting?” asks one of the box officers.

I scamper through the crowd towards him. “Yeah. The surname’s Smiles?”

He digs the Ss out of the ticket box and flicks through them. “Yup. Maxine. You’re in the stalls, so head outside and to the right.” He points the way in case I don’t know which way right is. Which for the record, I don’t. It’s much appreciated.

I go back outside and turn right. Or at least, in the direction the nice box officer pointed.

The twin screens up on the wall outside have given up their marketing duties in favour of helping direct people around.

Stall 01-13 & Loos says the one closest to me, with an arrow to point the way. The background is a screaming pink. Or perhaps a shocking pink. A Schiaparelli shocking pink. But when I try to photograph it, it all goes distorted, as if the signal has been intersected. Something to do with my shutter speed. That or some high-level conspiracy from the big wigs at The Old Vic. It’s so hard to tell nowadays.

I go round the side of the building, onto Webber Street.

There’s lots of hoarding round here. A black corridor tacked onto the side of the building. This is where they’re keeping the loos (incidentally, I’m enjoying that The Old Vic calls them loos, instead of toilets. So rare in the world of theatre. The Pleasance does it. And perhaps a couple of other places. But otherwise, it’s toilets all over the place).

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But before all that, hidden under the scaffolding, is a side door.

I think that’s where I’m going.

There are two people standing on the door.

“Can I check your bag?” asks one, dressed in all black.

What? Again?

“I’ll check your ticket,” says the other, sporting an orange waistcoat.

I hold out my bag to the black-jacket with one hand, and my ticket to the orange-waistcoat with the other.

Both are approved and I’m allowed in.

“There’s a bar just on the right,” says orange-waistcoat as I step through the doors.

Up a few steps and yup, there’s a bar on the right. Well, a long table covered with a black cloth and wine bottles.

And a stack of programmes.

I definitely want to get me one of them.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask one of the two women behind the desk.

“Of course!” she says cheerfully. “Cash or card. Whatever’s easier.”

“Brilliant. Card please.” Always best to save cash for those tricky fringe venues.

“I love you purse,” she says as I go about the business of keying in my pin number (don’t. Just don’t. I have a tappy card. Or at least, it’s supposed to be a tappy card. But the tappiness hasn’t worked since the first week I got it. I broke whatever makes a tappy card tap. So I’m stuck with button-pressing until 2020).

“Thank you,” I say, as the payment goes through and I’m four pounds poorer. I give my elephant-purse a friendly pat. “He’s so old, but I refuse to give up on him.” He really is old. Over a decade. Which is alarming for so many reasons.

She laughs. “I have stuff like that. So old it's falling apart. Would you like a receipt?”

I tell her no. I have no use for receipts in my life. Try as I might, I cannot convince my work to let me claim programmes on expenses.

She hands me a programme “Oh wow, love the pink,” I say.

Turns out the Schiaparelli pink of the screens outside weren’t a coincidence. In lieu of artwork, shows get their own colour.

And A Very Expensive Poison has pink.

Personally, I would have gone with green. There’s actually a Pantone colour called Poison Green (16-6444 TPX if you happen to be a Pantone nerd), but it’s a bit too soft to suggest serious deadliness in my opinion. A touch too much blue. I think would have gone for something more like a Pantone 2423C if I was in charge.

“Yeah, the colours are great,” says the programme seller, not unenthusiastically, but still, I suspect she’s not up for a full-on Pantone discussion right now. And anyway, I forgot to bring my swatch book with me today.

I go into the auditorium.

There’s a programme seller in here. But not much else. The stalls are almost empty.

I make use of the lack of people by getting out my phone and snapping a few quick pics.

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“Sorry,” says the programme seller stepping up to me. “There’s no photography.”

“Oh, sorry,” I say, surprised. That’s the first time I’ve been stopped in a theatre while the curtains are still down. There’s not a scrap of copyrightable set on display.

“It’s alright,” she says kindly, before retreating back to her place on the wall.

Well, okay. Not sure what to do now.

I sit down and get out my programme. It’s a nice one. Well designed. There’s even a fold out of rehearsal photos. I don’t care much about rehearsal photography (it’s literally always actors sitting on the floor and laughing) but I do love a fold out.

I really want to take a photo of it.

Can I take a photo of it?

I look over at the programme seller. An old woman goes up to her. “Sorry dear,” says the old woman. “Can you tell me the number?”

The programme seller leans in to look at the ticket. It really is quite dark in here.

I risk it. And snap a photo.

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I look around furtively to make sure no one saw.

No, the usher is directing a young couple to the bars. “They’ve got wine, beer, and champagne at that one,” she says, pointing to table out in the stairwell. “And then there’s the big one upstairs.”

I slink down in my seat. I think I'm safe.

It's a shame though. I do like The Old Vic auditorium. With it tasselled balconies and moulded pillars and shaded lights and massive fuck-off chandelier. I wish I could show it to you. Oh well.

Two ushers appear at the front of the stalls, each holding up one of those don't-even-think-about-taking-a-photo signs. Which, even exclusing the, well, exclusive, vibes, doesn't strike me as a good use of someone's time. There's no one in here directing traffic. We have the programme sellers. And the sign holders. And... what looks like two security people hanging out by the wall. And that's it.

And why are there security people in the auditorium? I watch them, trying to figure out what they're doing there, near one of the doors. They stand, talking quietly to each other.

They're making me nervous.

Like they're going to pounce on me and drag me outside if I try to take another photo.

People are pouring in now. The rows fill up. I spot someone in the middle aim their camera phone at the ceiling and snap a picture of the chandelier.

I hate him.

The lights dim. The red curtains rise.

And the play begins.

We're in a cafe. A lawyer is meeting his client. It's bad news. They've cut her legal funding. But he's going to keep representing her. The fight is too important. Her husband has been murdered and everyone knows who to blame, except no one wants to admit it. Not publically, anyway.

We're back in the early 2000s, back to a case I only vaguely remember: the poisoning of Litvinenko.

And hey - look! Tom Brooke is playing Litvinenko! Do you remember when everyone was obsessed with Tom Brooke? Or rather, Tom Brooke's face. It's a great face.

I actually have a story about Tom Brooke. Or rather, Tom Brooke's dad. It takes place in The Old Vic too, so totes relevant. Not sure I should really tell it though... the walls have ears. Let's just say, it involved Tom Brooke's dad. A woman who would not turn off her phone. And a rolled up programme.

I’ll say no more. I'm very discreet.

MyAnna Burning, in the role of his widow, steps forward to speak to us, the audience. To explain. It's very important that we understand what happened.

The poisoning, I mean. Just to be clear. Not the thing with Tom Brooke's dad.

It's not easy for her though.

A red carpet is rolled out. There is a new president in Russia. And he wants to tell us a story.

Reece Sheersmith comes to the front of the stage, where he gives us a short history lesson. The Moscow Theatre Siege. We all shift uncomfortably in our seats. I look over at the security officers, still standing by the doors.

Sheersmith sneers, finishing his speech with a snide attempt at a happy ending.

"Ah, the doors are opening," he says, pointing to the auditorium doors behind us. "Enjoy your drinks. There's no need to return."

I go outside.

"Make sure you have your ticket with you so you can come back in," says an orange-waistcoater on my way out. I reach into my bag to double-check. Yup. Got it.

I go out and hang out underneath the scaffolding, lost in a forest of metal polls and orange hi-vis. They're everywhere. The orange-waistcoaters. I'm still not sure who they actually are. Ushers? Duty managers? Spies for the government who know that putting on a hi-vis jacket will get you in most anywhere without question? Quite possibly, all of the above.

"Sorry ma'am," says a orange waistercoater, coming over to talk to a woman near mewho's standing around, minding her own business, enjoying a plastic cup of wine. "You can't take drinks outside."

"Oh. Right," says the lady with the wine, her eyes widening in bafflement.

But she goes back inside all the same. No questions. Such is the power of the orange hi-vis.

Her place is soon taken though, as the queue for the loo stretches out of it's black corridor and stretches down Webber Street, curling around the front of the building.

I take a few steps away to avoid those trying to squeeze in, but still find myself getting jostled by all these women impatient to have a pee.

"Have you seen the queue?" a woman half-shouts, outraged. Her partner says something, but she's not having it. "It's not good enough!"

And with that she goes off to compain. A few seconds later, she's back, bringing an orange-waistcoater along with her.

The orange waistercoater points at the queue, and tells her yes: this is indeed the queue for the loos. And yes, she'll need to get in line with everyone else.

Others decide to fulfill their interval needs elsewhere.

I spot a couple tripping back happily from the Sainsbury's, Magnums in hand. No tiny theatre ice-cream tubs for these two. They look very smug as they skip past all us losers, standing around in queues without even a drink to call our own. Serious relationship goals right there.

"It's a coupe!" cries a man walking past me.

I though he meant the play, but no - he's looking at his phone, lit up with an article about the prorogation.

I go back in. I need some of that sweet sweet Old Vic air-conditioning. Which has really outdone itself tonight. Freezing cold, and I'm loving it.

I dig out my ticket to flash to the hi-vis on the door, but she stops me, actually taking the ticket from my hand to give it a proper look before letting me back in.

I'm rather pleased with this. Glad to know that I'm not looking overly trustworthy and can still push out those creeper-vibes.

Still… rude.

The side of the stalls is cluttered by people not wanting to commit to going back to sitting down.

I even have to shoo someone out from the end of my row in order to get to my seat.

But eventually, they cannot put it off any longer, and they slide into their seat with heavy wine-scented groans.

Sheersmith isn't impressed by our return. It demonstrates a lack of trust between us. He appears in the boxes, hanging over the sides to pour his own poison into the stalls below. At least, I think he does. I can hear his voice. And see a spotlight pointed at the box. But from where I'm sitting, I can't actually see him.

My neighbour drains his wine and checks the time on his phone.

This is a long play.

Not unentertaining though. And the message of fighting your own government in order to serve your country has never felt keener.

Burning comes out into the audience, handing out pieces of paper to those sitting on the ends of the rows in the stalls.

She returns with a microphone, pointing it in their faces as she asks they to read the results of the inquiry into Litvinenko's death.

They acquit themselves well, and she thanks them each in turn.

I hope they were given warning that was happening. It's a lot to ask.

As we meekly file out past the security guards, and the orange waistcoats, I can help but think of the demonstrations that are happening just the other side of the river.

I should really go join them.

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Being Good Isn't Always Easy

Only a month since it's opened and the Troubadour White City Theatre has already lost its crown as the newest theatre in London. The Troubadour is old news. There's a newer theatre in town.

I can't tell you much about this newer one. The website for the Turbine Theatre is still in its infancy by the looks of it. I know the theatre's in Battersea. I know they are currently showing Torch Song. But other than that... nothing. They don't even have an email address or box office phone number on there. When I tried to get some contact deets out of them on Twitter, no one replied.

Which is like, super helpful and really promising. Nothing says 'you're going to have a great time here' like a theatre ignoring you. And everyone else it seems. Questions about e-tickets, pleas for help with online booking, requests to know if they sell food, all left floating around unanswered, lost to the wilderness.

So, with my mental state ready tuned to the Fuck You Turbine Theatre channel, I make my way across Chelsea Bridge to see what's up with this uncommunicative newcomer to the London theatre scene.

I find them under one of the railway arches.

It looks nice enough.

Tables and chairs have been set around aside and people are enjoying their pre-show drinks in the evening sun. Through the large window I can see the long counter taking up the length of the foyer. One side marked up as the box office, the other as the bar.

But just in case there's any confusion, they have a man posted on the door to welcome us all in. He's wearing a taupe-coloured apron that wouldn't look out of place in one of those hipster coffee shops decorated solely with exposed pipe-work and man-buns.

"Have you got your tickets yet?" he asks.

I tell him I need to pick them up and he directs me over to the box office, just a few short steps inside the door,

I barely have to make those steps before another man in a taupe apron is ready and primed with the ticket box in hand, asking for my name.

I give it.

"Maxine?" he asks, pulling out the ream of tickets.

Yup. That's me.

Tickets in hand (there's a lot of ticket stock going on here) I take a quick circuit of the foyer to see what's going on. The bar is busy. It's a warm night and everyone needs a drink. There's a screen on the far wall advertising what they have. Wine. Spirits. Good selection of both. I'm not really interested in any of that. My focus goes straight to the last portion. The snacks.

Cookies. Flapjacks. Macaroons. Crisps.

A macaroon does sound good. I don't think I've seen them offered in a theatre bar yet. Could the Turbine Macaroon be the next Bridge Madeleine? I try to sneak close to get a look, but the cookies and whatnot seem to be pre-wrapped in paper bags and stacked up in a way that means they're not visible for drive-by drooling. I pass.

I turn my attention to the decor. It's very train-tunnel-chic, with a modern chandelier of bulbs sticking out from an upturned crinoline hanging from the curved brick ceiling. The designers, who have clearly noted the trend for bookcase-wallpaper in fringe theatres, has gone one step further and made a book-bar.

It's pretty nice looking. I like it.

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Still not sure what the connection between theatres and bookshelves are, but I'm happy to accept it as a thing, and welcome it into my life.

And no, I'm going to stop you there. They aren't playtexts. Or books about theatre.

Unless A book of Archeology is the name of the a Tom Stoppard play that I managed to miss.

Whatever. It's cool. Theatre people tend to also be booky people. It's all good.

But by the looks of it, theatre people aren't, or at least Turbine Theatre people aren't, programme people.

I can't see programmes anywhere. The front of housers don't seem to have any. And none of the audience members do either. I consider asking if there are freesheets, but it's much too warm in here and I really want to go stand outside for a bit.

So I do that instead, trying to breathe in what little breeze there is, before I start seeing movement through the window, as everyone gets up and begins the gentle march towards the auditorium.

I join them. Walking down the corridor behind the box office. The walls are lined with mismatched mirrors on both sides. I stop to take a photo, before realising that I'm wearing the exact same outfit I wore the last time I paused to take a theatre-mirror-selfie. I quickly put my phone back down and carry on.

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The wall-of-mirrors breaks up as the hallway leads off into mini side passages, where such mysterious locations as staircases, the accessible loos, and countless other wonders live.

We keep on walking. The corridor stretching out longer than I thought train tracks were capable of being wide. So long that I begin to wonder whether all these mirrors are playing tricks on me, and I'm being lead deep into the Turbine's lair where I'll be forced to spend the rest of my days chained to a smartphone, replying to all the tweets they get with the faux-jovial tones of the professional content person. "We're open from 10 today for all your pre-matinee brunching needs. Try the macaroons!!! [insert heart eyed emoji x 3]"

But no, there's the end of the corridor, and an aproned-up usher is tearing tickets.

Through the door and everything goes dark. Black curtains line one side of the corridor, and moody lighting highlights the brickwork on the other.

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Over the sound system, a woman begs a man to stay close at hand, and if he doesn't stay forever, she'll understand.

"It's Dusty!" says the man in front in tones of wonder.

The curtain ends and we stumble into the theatre. Another aproned usher checks my ticket and directs me to the front row, but I take a moment to hang back, and look at the space.

The roof of the tunnel curves above us. On one side is the stage, small. On the other is a bank of raked seating.

In the middle, are four rows of chairs. The first two set at an angle, mirroring the pointing stage. The next two straight across.

Four rows. That's a lot to not have a rake between them.

I thank whichever theatre god it was who pushed me to by a front row seat. That's never my first choice. But somehow, for this theatre, I knew.

Because here's the thing. This theatre has flat pricing. Every seat in the house is £33. (Well, 32, with a one quid booking fee, but same-diff). And flat-price seating is great. Allocated seating is also great. But having a combination of the two is tricky unless you are really sure you haven't got any duds in the house. I don't want to be turning up to find I have the back of someone's head in my sightline, if I know for a fact that they paid the same as me to sit there, blocking me. If you're going to flat-price, you better be damn sure that every seat has a similar experience (like, say, the Jermyn Street Theatre), or seating should be unallocated in order to reward those who turn up early and are prepared to queue for the best spots (like upstairs at The Royal Court).

And I mean, it would be fine if the tickets were cheap. I guess. But like, properly cheap. Not fantasy-cheap. Not the cheap we are told to consisder cheap. But real cheap. As in, I don't have to think twice about spending this money type of cheap.

£33 is not a cheap theatre ticket. I know people who run theatres like to think that £33 is a cheap ticket. But they're wrong. They are wrong by about twenty-pounds worth of ticket. If I've going to be sitting in a restricted view space, and I'm not in the West End, I better not be paying more than 15 quid.

But today, that's not my problem.

I find my chair in the front row, and deal with the business of removing my jacket and trying to cool down.

It's really warm in here.

I get out my fan and give myself a good blast.

"Oh! That fan's great," says my neighbour as he catches the tail-wind of my efforts.

"Shall I keep going?" I ask, just to check. I'm not very good at telling when people are taking the piss.

"Yeah, don't stop!"

Well, alrighty then. I do my best to keep a steady stream of cool air going over the both of us, until the theatre has filled, the lights have dimmed, and a slim figure wearing a pale pink sheer robe emerges in our midst.

He strikes a match, lights a cigarette, and saunters on stage, ready to tell his tale.

He's a drag queen. Prone to falling in love. Seemingly always attracting those men that can't quite give him the commitment he craves.

As he disappears off stage, we get a glimpse into his effect on men as our next character stands alone on stage, enchanted, and part of a one-sided conversation. The words of our drag queen lost to the ages.

When he finally reappears, the makeup is gone. As is his admirer. Lost to societies expectations of straightness.

Through the open wall behind him, I see actors running around in their underwear, preparing for the next scene. The neon signs above the stage switch over. We're in the second part of the play, the stage pulls out into a massive bed, and we have a new lover for our favourite drag queen.

Blackout.

Someone in the row behind shouts "bravo, bravo," through the applause.

We appear to be in an opera house.

A sign lights up on the wall.

"Intermission."

... an American opera house.

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But there's no time to worry about that. I need some fresh air.

I escape back out the hall of mirrors and head back outside.

And there I stop. Staring at something.

A programme.

Someone is holding a programme.

Where the hell did they get that?

I go back in, looking around, and there I see it. A programme. All blue and yellow and Great Gatsbyish in its artwork. Propped up on top of the box office.

Shit. Okay. There's no one at the box office. Not now. But I guess I can queue at the bar.

It's already curling it's way all across the foyer.

I join the end.

It's moving very slowly. This might take a while.

I start looking around. My eye catches something. A Great Gatsbesque something.

One of the front of housers is holding a stack of programmes.

Wishing the queue a mental so-long-suckers, I tap out and go over to the usher. He's chatting to two blokes, but as I approach he looks over.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask.

"That's two pounds fifty."

I dig out a note from my purse, and I notice one of the blokes riffling through his wallet.

"Oh, sorry," I say. "Did I just queue barge?"

"Ah, it's alright," says the usher with a dismissive shrug.

Oh dear. I scuttle away shamefaced. At least I have a programme now. Which means I can tell you that the drag queen is played by Matthew Needham, and the pair of actors in their pants were Daisy Boulton and Dino Fetscher, and the new love interest was Rish Shah.

That was certainly worth the wait.

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Back in the theatre and a stage manager is stirring a pot on a stove that has suddenly appeared during the interval.

The air is filled with the smell of cooking.

It's a very familiar scent. Almost sweet.

With a tap of her spoon, she disappears. And a new stage manager replaces her, peering into the pot and giving it a good stir before he too disappears.

I don't know what it is, but I really want my dinner now.

"Smells like onions," says someone coming through the door.

Yes! That's it. Onions.

My stomach rumbles.

As the play restarts, Fetscher takes over cooking duties. Cracking eggs and adding them to the concoction, before adding a very healthy dose of salt. My kind of cook. As he replaces the salt on the shelf, he does a little spin, a neat pirouette.

"Bravo," calls the man sitting behind me.

But the bravo-man's approval is fickle. As Fetscher scoops up the shells and tips them into the pedal bin, the bravo-man tuts. "Health and safety," his whispers.

Quite.

After that, there's just enough time for my heart to be broken a couple more times (damn you Jay Lycurgo), and experience some mild flashbacks of dealing with my own Jewish mother (thanks Bernice Stegers) and then we're done. We're out. And I'm walking over the river feeling a little bit shakey and disorientated. But whether that's due to the play, or all those mirrors, I cannot tell you.

Wash Out

Eight months into the marathon, and I think you know me well enough to sense that I'm a bit of a daredevil. A thrill-seeker. A speed junky. Always chasing that next high.

So on a Friday night, as the clouds darken and the rain begins to pour, there's only one place I could be heading.

Yup. I'm off to catch for some free outdoor theatre.

Yeah, it's risky. I know. But don't worry. I've checked their Twitter feed and there's no mention of it being called off. And with a six o'clock start, there's still time to run over to a different theatre and catch another show if it does get rained out.

There is the tricky matter of what to wear, but as I'm currently living out of a suitcase, and don't own any waterproofs anyway, I just make sure I've got my scarf in my bag and head off to London Bridge.

On the short walk from the station, umbrellas pop open all around me, but I refuse to give in. I march on, striding between the raindrops and resolutely deciding not to put up my own umbrella.

It's just rain. It's fine. The only thing I have to lose is my eyeliner.

Still, it's not without trepidation that I approach The Scoop.

And not just because everyone seems to be scurrying away in the other direction.

A low stone wall is quarantined behind crowd-control railings. Their only purpose seemingly to stop people from peering down into the stage from above. All I can see is a lighting rig, peeking up from inside the well like a submarine's periscope.

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As I walk around, following the path that leads to the bulbous glass shape of City Hall, I finally manage to catch a glimpse of what's happening.

Which is to say: nothing.

Rows and rows of empty seats. Wet and empty seats.

Wide stone steps, circling the floor-level stage, are filled with nothing but the slick sheen of rain.

I press on, walking round towards the entrance.

Two security guards stand around wearing hi-vis jackets. They don't pay me any mind as I walk past.

A woman in a waterproof does. She smiles as I approach, looking damp but resolute.

"Is the performance still going ahead?" I ask, a touch sceptically.

It's a couple of minutes to six. If it's happening, it's has to be soon.

"It is," she says, sounding very stoic about the whole thing.

I am filled with admiration. You have to applaud theatre people. They are the ancestors of those epic posties of old. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these stage managers from putting on a fucking play.

"Oh, you brave souls," I say, really meaning it.

"There's a marquee that you can sit under if you do decide to see it. It's not strictly for the audience, but there are only five people here so..." She lets the sentence trail away.

"I'm going to go for the marquee then," I say, and I do.

I walk around the back of the seating, past a small wooden shed, and find the promised marquee. Underneath there's a tech desk, being kept nice and dry, a small group of people huddling around it, and a dog.

I duck my head under the marquee and find an empty spot.

A gust of wind sneaks in, picking up my skirt just as I'm trying to sit down, and wafting it over the sleeping dog. They lift their head and look at me through half-closed eyes.

"Sorry," I apologise to the dog's owner. "I'll try and keep a hold of my skirt away from him... her? Him? ... her?"

The owner looks at me from under her umbrella. "It doesn't matter," she says before turning away.

Well, alright then.

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The dog isn't bothered by either my skirt or my misgendering and they promptly go back to sleep.

A second later, someone arrives with a rolled-up blanket, and the owner carefully tucks the dog in.

The dog sighs contentedly.

They look super comfy.

The rest of us shiver as we wait for the show to start.

A young woman races down the steps towards the stage. We're off! The Sea Queen, a very appropriate title for the weather, as the pirates slop their way across the wet stage.

It's pretty cute. There are songs. And swords. And a girl pirate who don't take no nonsense from any boys.

They're all miced up, but even so, it's hard to hear over the patter of the rain on the roof of the marquee. I strain to make out the lyrics and then, as a cast member darts off to the left, I realise I don't have to. Because there's a captioning screen right there. It's got all the words, and I hadn't even noticed it. So, I can read along the bits I miss.

I'm very happy right now. Even if it's freezing.

As the pirates' shirts grow sodden I scramble about in my bag for a scarf.

More people arrive. A cool looking girl stands on the steps to watch from beneath the shadow of a huge umbrella. People walking past stop to look over the wall. A family appear and the two small girls squirrel themselves under the marquee, sitting close to the dog - but not too close.

But the rain doesn't stop. Puddles begin to form on the stage.

As the actors race about, swashbuckling about with swords, the stage manager comes out. She raises her hand and the battle stops, mid-swash.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she calls out. "Apologies to those that have just arrived, and those in the audience sheltering," she says, indicating our group under the marquee. "We’re just going to pause-"

"-the pivotal moment!" says the girl pirate, earning herself a giggle.

"Pause for health and safety reasons," continues the stage manager. "We're just going to check in with one another."

"We won't tell who wins!" says pirate girl.

"Shame!" calls back one of the marqueers.

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The cast all creep their way damply off stage and go to hide behind the set.

The rain continues to pour down onto the marquee, weighing down the roof until a huge flood splashes off and makes us all jump.

Underneath, a gentle camaraderie forms between the marqueers.

A couple gets chatting with the lady at the tech desk. She's the captioner. She was supposed to be doing the show on Wednesday, but it got rescheduled. Because of the rain.

They ask if she's a student and are surprised to learn that no, it's her actual job. Then they ask about the actors, and are again shocked to find out that they've all graduated and are now bona fide working actors.

We wait. This rain really isn't letting up.

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I blearily stare at all the office blocks rising above the edge of The Scoop. Odd view. Considering we have the river right behind us. You'd think they'd want Tower Bridge as a backdrop.

Perhaps I should go. Not because I'm damp and cold. I am damp and cold, but the actors must be damper and colder, and I do wonder whether they would feel more comfortable leaving if, well, we weren't here.

"Looks like they're stopping," says someone nodding towards the stage. A couple of actors scuttle out from behind it. They're in costume. But not the pirate costumes from before. They're in doublets. Fancy doublets. With frogging. Not really suitable wear for the high seas. These look altogether more Shakespearian fare.

The family decide to call it quits.

"Thank you for coming," says the captioner. "Sorry we couldn't do anything about the weather."

"Oh, are you in control?" asks the dad.

"Yeah," says the captioner with a sigh. "Sorry."

They say goodbye to everyone and make their way out into the rain.

The rest of us cross our arms and wait for news.

The stage manager reappears.

It isn't looking good.

"Ladies and gents," she starts. "Thank you so much for your patience. That took a little longer than expected. We're going to have to cancel this show, just because the floor is a bit slippy. But the forecast is looking good for later and we're still going ahead with Twelfth Night and we'd love for you to stay and see our beautiful production on the same set. It starts at eight, so don't go too far, go get a drink something warm to eat, and well see you later."

And she's off. Presumably to find a drink and something warm to eat for herself.

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More cast members appear. One of them is wearing a massive dress. So massive she needs help keeping the skirts up away from the ground. It's pale cream. Can't be having that dragging only on the damp concrete.

They wave at us as they make their way around the seats, stopping to clap in our direction as they draw near.

We applaud right back.

Not all heroes wear capes. But they frequently wear big arse-dresses and ruffs.

Time to go.

I pull my jacket tight around me and emerge from the marquee.

It's not so bad now that I'm not sitting on a cold stone step.

As I clamber back up the steps, the rain stops. The sky clears.

People start to emerge from the cafes and pubs they'd been hiding in.

I decide to walk to Embankment. Take in the river.

I won't be coming back for the second show. I've already seen two Twelfth Nights this year. I'm sure the cast with cope with my absence. They're made of strong stuff.

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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Soft Hearts, Wet Sponges

I'm at the Iris Theatre tonight for a bit of outdoor promenading. This is a first for me. Not the outdoor promenading (though it may be... I can't think of one I might have done before) but the going to the Iris.

I have however been to St Paul's. No, not that St Paul's. The one in Convent Garden. The one that's called the Actors' Church to avoid exactly this confusion.

Back in my interning days in the West End, I would come here during my lunch break, to sit in the gardens, eat my sandwich, and try to convince myself that giving up my sweet corporate job to start again at the bottom, and in the arts of all things, was absolutely a good life decision.

That came to an end when I accidentally gatecrashed a funeral.

Yeah.

I mean, in my defence, they usually would close the gates when there was a service. But for some reason they just let me saunter on in without comment that day.

Probably because my look is very... black. It's black. I wear a lot of black.

I decided to have my lunches elsewhere after that, and my next job was in Deptford, which was a bit far to think of coming back for a sandwich.

Anyway, I am back. Without a Tesco meal deal in hand.

After walking around the block, trying to work out what entrance I needed to use, I join the queue going through the tunnel from King Street.

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The queue is moving slowly. Mainly because the one box officer on duty has to tell everyone the photography policy.

"Absolutely no photography after this point," he says. "No photos can be taken after go through. If we see you taking a photo, we will ask you to delete it."

Wow. That's one hard line.

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Still, at least it gives me plenty of opportunity to contemplate the signage telling us that it'll cost us fifty pee to spend a penny at the nearest public loos. And I thank the theatre gods that I have resisted every attempt to make me review theatre loos. Seriously, I'm not doing it. You can't make me. I don't want to.

A group a few places ahead asks where they should sit.

"For now sit anywhere you like," says the box officer. "It's a promenade performance so you'll move around." They don't look overly satisfied with this answer. "I don't want to spoil the surprise!"

That does the trick. They move on.

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Eventually, I shuffle my way up to the front and give my name.

There's a basket of programmes on the desk, and as he checks my name off the list, I pull three pounds out of my purse in readiness.

"Here's your ticket," he says, handing me a small scrap of paper with the Iris Theatre logo. He spots the coins in my hand. "Are you after a programme?"

"Yes please!"

He's so distracted about the business of programme-selling that he neglects to give me the photography spiel which I take to mean that I now have plausible deniability on the rules.

The little terrace area just in front of the church looks like it's been boarded off. Huge brown-painted screens are keeping us in one corner. There are benches. And a bar.

The programmes are very handsome, with the church bells, and the title treatment proclaiming "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" over the backdrop of old Paris.

I risk a photo of it.

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No one arrests me. Or asks me to delete it.

I contemplate the hoarding, wondering if I can get a shot of that.

There's a sign.

"Please no photography beyond this point."

I stare at it. Do they mean the area beyond the boards, or are they including our little holding area here?

I aim my camera upwards and take a photo of the bunting. Surely there cannot be any harm in bunting-photos. It's pretty bunting. Red, white, blue. Very cheerful. Very liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Not super 1482, but then, nor are the candle-flame bulb lights woven in with it. I don't think they pinned candles to bunting even in the 15th century. Candles were expensive. They wouldn't waste them on all this peasanty frippery. Plus, fire. But then again... medieval times.

Still, it's all very jolly.

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The benches are all taken now, but I find a convient low wall to perch on.

Without anywhere to sit, people are starting to gather near the blocked off bit.

"I feel we're just moving about," somewhere says as they push their way as close to the hoarding as they can get.

I feel you are too.

A secondary queue forms near the other possible entrance. This one a wooden doorway, topped with a gothic arch and closed off with a green velvet curtain, complete with tassels.

"Ooo," says someone. "Maybe it starts here."

High above us, the church bell dongs seven times in what has the be the most dramatic use of the theatre bell I've heard in this marathon.

A man looks up towards the bell tower. "I wonder if they're setting it here because the venue has been burnt down..."

He pauses.

"Yes... it's a tragedy."

A lady sitting behind me is laying down some theatre truths. "Of course, I like going to West End shows," she says to the person she's with. "But I like to go to the fringe theatres because they put on the more interesting things. They can afford to take more risks which the big theatres can't with their overhead."

I want to raise my hand and offer her a "Preach, theatre-sister!" but I don't want to draw attention to myself. I'm still trying to get a decent photo of this place.

But it's too late now. I hear music.

The cast is coming out.

They emerge from the side of the church, instruments in hand.

"I'm going to have to ask you to move," says the leader to the man standing next to me. "This is my stage." She indicates the low wall I'm perching on. I shift to the other side, just avoiding a young man strumming at a guitar.

The leader of the troupe, Darrie Gardner, introduces them. They are the Left Bank players. Not to be confused with the Right Bank Players, lead by her ex-husband (they all spit to the ground at the mention of his name) and they are all one big happy family.

With a wave of their arms, they beg us to follow them.

The hoarding as been pulled back.

We're going on.

"Watch out," says a front of houser, wearing a pale blue cloak over her street-clothes.

She points down to the wooden support sticking out from the board.

"Ah," I say, raising a finger. "Thank you!" I'd almost tripped over it.

The pretty facade of St Paul's (not that one) is on our left, but we're turning right, going down the path and across the lawn over on one side.

The players chatter along with the audience as we go. "Have you been to the Festival of Fools before?" they ask.

"I like your dress," says Robert Rhodes, our Quasimodo, to a woman walking near me. "It matches the streamers."

I'm not sure that's a compliment. There are a lot of streamers here. Thousands of fabric strands hanging on strings that run between the trees. Benches have been placed around, forming an oval-shaped stage in their midst.

We all shuffle in, taking our seats where we can find them.

I would show you a photo, but I’m too scared. So here’s one I took of the St Paul's (not that one) churchyard in 2012.

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I don't think I need to get into the business of the story, we've all seen the Disney version. But the leader of the Left Bank Players takes the role of narrator, introducing Quasimodo, who hangs half-way up a tree, and Esmerelda, who swirls and dances before us, and all the rest. Katie Tranter's Pierre tries to play us a ballad on her mandolele and we're all encouraged to boo her.

I'm not really into that. Not even in make-believe.

Rhodes comes down from his tree and asks a tiny girl in the front row if she'd dance with him.

She shakes her head.

Undeterred, Rhodes moves over to her sister, an equally tiny girl. This one is more than happy to join in, and the pair of them dance around together.

Izzy Jones' Esmerelda bends down next to the first tiny girl. "Are you sure you don't want to dance?" she asks, but OG tiny girl isn't having it. She shakes her head again.

As the festivities go on, the sounds of the piazza drift over from the other side of the church. The calls of the real street performers drifting on the breeze into our little Parisian enclave as Jones starts to sing.

A love song.

She opens her hand to all the pretty ladies in the front row, singing of their beauty. One of them winks back. I think she's made a conquest.

When a fight breaks out, Tranter slips into the audience, rubbing at her arm and hiding behind the small girls who do their best to shield her.

It's time to move on.

We're divided up. Half to go out one exit, half the other. And we're taken across the path to the other lawn.

More low wooden benches. This time set up either side of an aisle. We're in the gipsy encampment. Esmerelda's home.

Max Alexander-Taylor takes a seat amongst us.

An audience member dithers nearby.

"You can sit anywhere you like," he tells her. "But not this seat. It's mine."

It's starting to get cold. I pull on my jacket.

A man has been given a beanie hat to wear. Not quite a concession to the chilly evening. It has goat ears. He'll be playing the role of Esmerelda's pet. He doesn't seem upset about this. When Tranter's Pierre goes over to pet him, giving his beanie a good stroke, he preens under her attentions.

But, oh dear. Quasimodo is being led off.

Are we're being asked to follow.

Ed Bruggemeyer shows us what to do. "Shame. Shame. Shame," he chants, pointing a jabbing finger towards Rhodes.

I'm really really not into that. I follow on behind. Not chanting. Or jabbing. I'll leave the Game of Thrones recreations to the kids.

They seem to be enjoying it.

As Rhodes is stuck in the pillory, they're all brought foward and given sponges to throw.

"Wet sponges!? You said they'd be dry," shouts Rhodes at the troupe leader.

But Gardner can only shrug an apology. They must follow their art, after all.

The children all throw their sponges.

And then a cry of mercy rings out. One the audience is encouraged to join in with.

This I can get on board with.

No actor should have to suffer the indgnity of wet sponges.

But it's not all wet sponges.

The goat is brought back out to do a trick, which he performs masterfully.

And not to be outdone, Pierre reappears in a jester's outfit. "Nothing like this has been done anywhere near here," says Tranter, before showing off her juggling balls. That gets a giggle as we all wonder how many balls are being juggled on the steps out on the other side of the church.

But the giggles don't last for long, and soon there's a body on the floor.

"Nothing to see here," say the soldiers as they spread out their cloaks, hiding it from view. "Move along now."

We’re hurried out back through the hoarding, the boards closing shut behind us, sealing in the crime scene.

"Is this an interval?" someone asks the world in general.

It is.

Somehow I end up back in my old spot, on the low wall.

I should probably move.

I tuck myself up against the wall of the church, where the bunting brushes against the top of my head every time the breeze blows.

There's a queue at the bar.

A girl buys a cup full of tri-colour sweets, but a second later they're scattering over the flagstones.

"Ten-second rule," someone calls as her family scrambles to pick them all up.

I spot the goat-man. He still has his hat on. He seems rather happy with it.

"Les enfants!" The cast are back. And they've found the tiny girls again. "Would you like to join the circus?”

"Yesss!" The girls bounce around. They are well up for joining the circus.

As Esmerelda teaches them how to play a drum, the others ask their parents if they're cool with their children joining the troupe.

Turns out they are. "Of course!" I mean, who doesn't want their kid pursuing a career in the arts...

After a brief catch-up on some backstory, the boards are drawn back once more and we are off again.

This time, we're going to court.

"I need someone with a big clear voice!" calls out Tranter, while wearing a white judges' wig.

A dad points to the boy sitting in his lap.

Tranter looks unsure. "There are a lot of big words..."

But the little boy's great big eyes get the better of her and she hands them the lines. "Perhaps if you read it together..."

They do, and do it marvellously.

Goat-man says his piece too, bleating whenever his name is called.

And then it's time for the execution.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop," calls out Bruggemeyer as he instructes us in the proper way to follow a condemned person. But by the time I get out the garden they're already well ahead. We all hurry to keep up.

"Step. Stop. Step. Stop."

"If we keep on step stopping we'll never get there," says a man hurrying next to me.

We keep on stepping, and do our best to avoid the stops. Eventually making it to the gallows.

A drop of rain lands on my cheek.

Oh dear.

I look up, and see others around me doing the same.

Another drip. Tiny. Barely noticeable.

I sit very still, waiting for the next one. But it doesn't come.

The theatre gods are having fun with us tonight.

The rain seems to have stopped though. Just in time for the battle of the church steps.

Bruggemeyer pulls out the kids from the audience to serve as Esmerelda's army, and the adults take the side of the king. But there aren't enough children on the side of right, so the rest of us are pulled over.

Buckets of sponges are handed around. They're wet.

I give it a test squidge. It leaves a dirty mark on my palm.

I try not to contemplate what they've been soaked in.

When the battle cry goes out, I lob it over to the other side, and tens of wet sponges come hurling over the other way.

I don't have the nerves for war, and soon it is a fight between the children and the actors. Both scrabbling on the floor to renew their ammo. Gardner takes shelter behind her bucket, but the children are relentless, throwing sponge after sponge in her direction.

Child armies can't last though.

And the King declares victory.

The soldiers are storming the church.

We go in, taking our pews. Red light and thick haze fills the church, giving an alarmingly fiery aura to this stand-in Notre Dame.

I needn't have worried. It gets worse.

Sword fights.

Sword fights in the church.

The echo of the blades clashing reverberating off of the walls.

I twist around in my seat, not wanting to miss a moment.

I fucking love a sword fight.

And then after a little epilogue, we're done.

The audience rises to their feet. An ovation.

We follow the cast out. The sky is dark. The air still.

Good and righteousness have been restored.

And I really need to wash my hand.

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The Umbrellas of Troubadour

“Come on mum, let's go see the shooowwww.”

The plaintive cry wafts over the lawn as I walk towards my next theatre.

The grass is covered by young people scampering about. Their parents looking on in indulgent horror as knees and new dresses get smeared and stained.

I pick my way through their games and cross over the courtyard towards the front door.

I’m feeling a bit like an intrepid explorer right now.

It’s my first time here. It’s most people’s first time here. The place only opened a week ago, making it, quite possibly, London’s newest theatre. I’m not committing myself to that though. With the current rate of theatre openings in this city, four more might have popped up since I started this paragraph.

Still, I’m feeling a little late to the party. I was supposed to be here on opening night. Getting right in there before they had even peeled the plastic off. Except opening night never happened. The performance was cancelled. And this is the closest one I could get. On a Sunday. A day I try to keep free to give myself at least the pretence of having a weekend.

Can’t say it looks much like a theatre, at least not from the outside.

One end of the Troubadour White City Theatre is a blocky, glass-fronted cube. The other is curved like an arctic roll, making me think of those places your parents would drive you to as a kid, and there would be things like laser tag and soft play lurking inside (dependent on what age you are in this memory).

The foyer is packed, the music loud, and the air heavy, despite the huge glass doors being flung open to let in what little breeze there is.

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Tungsten lightbulbs hang from the ceiling, and BOX OFFICE is picked out in lights behind the counter, thereby hitting every cliché of theatre design going from the past five years.

A man with a big tote bag over his shoulder walks up and down the queue, handing out paper flags to all the children clinging onto their parents’ legs as they wait. I consider asking him for one, but he moves quickly, and a second later, he’s gone.

I’m left to wait in the queue, alone and flagless.

But eventually I make it to the front, and after giving my name, I’m handed a ticket.

Right then. Time to explore.

The nearest door is marked in huge lettering with T1 DOOR 2. It takes me a good few seconds to work out that T1 is not the end point of a rocket launch countdown, but instead stands for Theatre 1.

According to my ticket, I’m after Door 1. So I go in search of that. I don’t see any signs anywhere. Not for the doors anyway. For Theatre 2 (T2?)? Yes, it’s just over there, further into the space. But door 1? No idea.

As I wonder around, I find the bar. Laden with a backdrop of booze, it doesn’t seem to be quite hitting the family-friendly mark. But perhaps towards the end of the summer holidays, the spirits will be looking a lot more friendly to the grown-up members of the party.

At the end of the bar, there’s a small add on, with programmes and tote bags on display.

A small girl wanders over and picks up a programme.

She holds it up to the merch desk lady and then proceeds to walk off with it.

The merch lady smiles at her, and very kindly explains that she needs to find a parent to pay for it. A parent is duly found, and the programme is bought.

Not having the foresight to have brought a parent along with me, I need to pay for my own programme. It’s four quid. Which is alright.

I go find a pillar to lean against so that I can have a good peruse and see what my four quid has bought me.

“Would you like a Peter Pan badge?” asks a young lady. She’s holding out a plastic cup, filled with tiny badges.

“I would love a Peter Pan badge,” I tell her, never meaning anything so much in my entire life.

“I just knew,” she laughs, and holds out the cup for me.

I pick out a badge at random.

“What one did you get?” she asks.

“Lost boy,” I tell her, reading it.

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Apparently, that’s a good choice as she grins and moves on. I’m pleased with it. I love a badge. And while I can’t make any claims to being a boy, I’m more than a little lost in life right now.

“Welcome to the Troubadour White City Theatre,” booms a voice over the tannoy. “The doors to Theatre One are now open. Please enter using both doors one and two and ensure all mobile phones are switched off.”

It sounds like it’s time to go in.

And by the looks of this massive queue, Door 1 is just over there.

I join the end.

Ahead in the queue, someone is asking for a booster seat, and a front of houser goes off in search of them. As he opens the staff door to the cloakroom, my eye catches something. Several somethings. Several bright yellow somethings. A line of bright yellow umbrellas. The old-fashioned kind, with the crooked handle. All handing on a row along a coat rack.

They do look rather handsome. But I cannot fathom why a theatre would have so many matching umbrellas in their cloakroom. Unless the cast of Singin’ in the Rain have popped in to take in a matinee.

No time to think of that, I’ve reached the front of the queue.

“Perfect,” says the ticket checker as she checks my ticket. “Through here and up the stairs,” she says.

I follow her directions, passing through a black-cloth draped corridor towards the staircase.

I emerge half way up a massive bank of seats, stretching down from the stage all the way down at one end, to the very back row all the way at the top. There’s no circle here. Just endless rows of purple seating.

“Row ZA?” I ask the front of houser standing near the stairs. She points me in the right direction. The aisle on the left, and backwards.

I find my seat right at the end of the row, and settle myself down. Jacket off. Badge tucked away in my glasses case for safety. Programme thoroughly flicked though.

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“Look, there’s no bad seats in here,” says a bloke as he sits in the row behind me.

“It’s because there’s no pillars,” replies the guy he’s with.

“It’s like a big curved tent.”

“It smells like a new car, doesn’t it?”

It does have that new car smell. As everything just came from the factory. And not just because of the smell. There’s a general feeling of off-the-lineness. The sort of feeling you’d get from somewhere like The Belly, or some other temporary theatre that’s thrown up for a season before being unscrewed, folded up, and packaged away until next year. The walls are lined with black fabric. The seating is clamped down on those moveable platforms that shake if you walk with too heavy a step. The stage feels better suited to a gig than a play.

People come in with multiple packets of crisps clamped between their lips, their hands filled with children and flags.

The guy and the bloke sitting behind me are talking about papering. They must be industry folk.

“Why would press be interested?” says the bloke. “They already reviewed it at the National. They'll just go on about the theatre.”

They better fucking not, that's my job. Critics need to stay in their lane and watch what’s happening on stage. What it feels like to be in the audience? That’s my game.

Some people come on stage wearing pyjamas and carrying instruments. There’s applause, but this space is so cavernous in gets lost in the curved roof high above us.

“Nope,” says one of the musicians, and they all traipse off again.

A second later, they’re back. The clapping is a bit louder this time. There are even a few whoops as the audience do their best to fight against the applause-vacuum.

“So you understand?” says a musicians. “We need to be on the same page, people.”

Yeah, yeah. We get it. And we’re trying! But it’s not all that easy to create atmosphere in a barn you know.

“Welcome to the brand-new Troubadour City….” He says. Then stops. “No. The Troubadour White City Theatre.” That venue name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “We are the Fairy Stringers,” he continues. And then they start to play.

People keep coming in, but I notice no one is sitting on my row.

Now, I didn’t book this seat. I was moved when my performance was cancelled. I don’t know who put me here. The people at the Troubadour White City Theatre, or those at TodayTix, but someone, somewhere, decided that the best place to put a single booker was right on the end of an empty row. I would love to know the logic behind that. It might help me feel a bit less lonely right now.

At least I have plenty of space to sprawl and read my programme.

There’s an intro from the founders of the Troubadour theatres (all two of them).

“Troubadour Theatres are fully accessible and offer an enhanced audience experience with comfortable seating, extended leg room, laid-back bars that are destinations in their own right, and most importantly an abundance of loos!”

Hmm. Not sure about that. The bit about the leg room. I mean, yes, my legs fit, which is not as common an experience as you might think for someone who is five foot three. But I would hardly call the spacing luxurious.

The seats themselves have cup-holders attached to the back, giving a distinct cinema feel which doesn’t quite extend to the comfort of the seats themselves. Again, they’re fine. But that’s all they are. Fine. I’m sat in comfier, plusher, softer, theatre seats.

I wonder what the loo situation is. I’ll have to check them out during the interval.

Our band leader introduces one of the musicians.

“I'm gonna get a bit soppy,” she says. “It's my anniversary on Wednesday and my husband is in the audience so I'm going to sing this to you babe.”

Well all ‘Aww’ dutifully as she launches into a gorgeous rendition of Fly me to the moon, ending with the lines “In other words, Simon, I love you.”

Bless.

I do love love.

Romance complete, it’s on with the show.

And it’s alright. The kids are loving it. There’s some excellent flying action which extends right out into the cheap seats, which is nice.

All the little ones wave as Pan flies over their heads, and he waves right back. It’s all ridiculously charming, even if it does feel a bit long. Even for me.

I do like Hook’s outfit though. She’s a girl, and dresses exactly how I would if I were a pirate. This Hook might be my new style icon. I’m so putting a tricorn hat on my Christmas list.

Leaving us on a cliff-hanger we are plunged into the abyss of the inerval. I go back out into the foyer, to see this laid-back bar in action.

Again I’m left confused by the enthused introduction in the programme. Yes, the bar is fine. Nice even. But there isn’t anywhere near enough seating for me to class it in the laid-back category, and hidden behind a wall, I can’t imagine anyone wandering in from White City to have a casual drink.

But I do spot something interesting. On the merch side of the bar.

Flags.

A pile of them.

I creep up, all coy.

The girl behind the desk smiles at me encouarginly.

“Can I get a flag?” I ask, my voice full of hope.

She grins. “Of course!” she says, handing one over.

Eeek!

Giving her my own beam of joy, I scuttle away.

A flag and a badge. The leg room may not be all that extended, the bar not all that laid-back, but the staff are lovely and the swag is top-notch.

As I bounce my way along the foyer, I almost bump into something.

A queue. Another one.

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I edge myself around it, looking to see what’s the cause of this line. Are their balloons? The only thing that can beat a badge and flag combo is a free balloon.

Nope.

Stretching out from the door, past the box office, and right the way to the other side of the foyer, is the queue for the loos.

I think someone needs to tell the founders to have another pass at writing their welcome note.

Not feeling up to joining in with the loo-queue, I find a handy pillar to lean against and look around.

Something bright and yellow catches my eye. There, tucked just behind the box office, are more yellow umbrellas. Two of them.

I stare at them.

Two bright yellow umbrellas. Siblings of the ones hung up in the cloakroom.

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The cast of Singin’ In The Rain really must be more careful with their props…

“This performance of Peter Pan will begin in ten minutes and just to remind you that filming and photography is strictly prohibited inside the auditorium.”

Yeah, yeah. Alright. Good thing I already have my photos of the auditorium.

I go back in, settle myself into my empty row, and enjoy the second half of the show.

It’s pretty fucking charming, I must admit.

Especially the “clap if you believe in faeries,” bit that no Peter Pan would be complete without.

Flags wave.

Children howl.

A tiny girl sitting in front of me dumps her stuffed monkey in the seat next to her, scooting herself as far forward as possible, in order to clap as loud and as vigorously as possible, working against the cavernous applause-sucking space as she fights to save Tinkerbell.

Her efforts are rewarded.

The faerie awakes.

And we all go home, content with a job well done.

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Playing with Dinosaurs

It's been a few days, hasn't it? I took a couple off from the marathon. A combination of the hell inferno, work inferno, and moving-to-Hammersmith inferno (temporarily... cats won't sit themselves, you know). But I'm back.

Turns out however, that even from my new, more reasonably central, location, Greenwich is still really, really far away. And I arrive at the Greenwich Theatre feeling a little battered and dazed.

The doesn't stop the bloke behind the box office giving me the biggest smile when I walk in though.

"Hello!" he calls over, in a manner far too cheerful for me to handle right now.

"Hi," I say, trying to conjure some enthusiasm, but really just wanting to sit down. "The surname's Smiles?"

He looks over the tickets, all laid out in regimented columns next to him.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" he asks, picking one up.

Ergh. I hate this question. Always a challenge at the best of times, but after brain melting-heats and a move which means I'm not even living in that postcode right now, I'm not sure I can answer without making use of a crib-sheet. It's like my Chemistry A-levels all over again.

But just as the silence stretches out for a beat too long, my mouth decides to take over and gives the answer my mind could not provide.

The box officer nods and hands over the ticket.

"Head over to the bar, just through there," he says, pointing off to the right.

It the same route I took to go to the main house all the way back in... gosh, it must have been right at the beginning of the year. February perhaps. One of the first theatres on the marathon. Well, in the first fifty, anyway.

Two front of housers flank the double doors, each with a pile of freesheets that they hand out to everyone walking through. That's what I like. Make sure everyone gets one.

Through the doors and onto the mezzanine that lines the sunken bar. I dump my bag on the counter and have a look at the sheet of paper I've been given. Little intro to the play, cast list, creative credits, bit of info about the company, and all the social handles. And it all fits on a single side of A4. The perfect freesheet.

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Except for the lack of a quotation mark right at the beginning. There's one at the end of the sentence. But not at the beginning. But no matter. I can't judge. If you follow me on Twitter (do you follow me on Twitter, by the way? I can't remember...) you'll know I made a serious fuck-up in a programme I made recently. So fucked-up was it that I had to print programme slips, which not only served to correct the mistake, but also to highlight it to anyone who hadn't already noticed it. So like, seriously, while I may point out a typo in these things, I will never, ever think badly of the person who put them together because of it. I know how hard this shit it to make happen. And typos are just a thing that exists. No matter how many times you proofread something.

I'm very much intrigued by one role. Buried half-way down the list of creatives, as if it wasn't the most fascinating thing in the word, is a Fossil Designer. I don't know what that involves, but Hannah Snaith, I salute you for your work. Whatever that is.

I don't need to tell you that I loved dinosaurs as a kid. Firstly, because every kid in the world loves dinosaurs. It's a phase they all go through. Like the Terrible Twos. The Dreadful Dinos. And secondly, because I did most of my growing up in the nineties. And the nineties were at peak-dinosaur fandom. While Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun meant that the twenties were flooded with ankh-necklaces and thrillers set in the shadows of the pyramids. The nineties had dinomania.

There was Jurrasic Park, of course. But also The Land Before Time. The puppet-led Dinosaurs sit-com. The cartoon Dink, the Little Dinosaur. And not forgetting the greatest of them all: Theodore Rex. The seminal Whoppi Goldberg vehicle which sees her non-nonsense cop paired with a new partner, who just happens to be a Converse wearing dinosaur.

The nineties really were the golden age of creativity, ending in the early 2000s with... Dinotopia. A strange tale of a pair of brothers and their dad, who crash land on an island where they discover dinosaurs and humans coexisting quite happily. Dino-riding and love-triangles insue. It wasn't very good. And the love of dinosaurs soon died out.

But of course, like choker necklaces and bucket hats, they're now back.

All those kids who grew up reading dinosaur magazines, collecting dinosaur figurines, and convincing themselves they were going to uncover a pterosaur every time they went on a school trip to Lyme Regis, are now grown up. And they're writing plays. And I'm watching one of them tonight.

I look around, trying to work out where the play will actually be. The doors to the main theatre are on the left and the right. There are no signs of the studio.

And then, from the other side of the bar area, one of the wall panels opens up, and a head sticks out. It's a door. And that's the studio. I'm baffled. I try to work out the geography of it all. I can't quite remember where everything is from my trip here half a year ago, but I think that the studio might, in fact, be right underneath the main house.

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"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a voice. "The house is now open."

From the bar, there's a great scraping back of chairs as everyone makes the mad dash towards the doors. Seating is unallocated and no one wants to be stuck at the back.

I go down the steps and join the scrum, but soon find myself having to hold back to avoid being trampled by the bar folk.

There's a young man tearing tickets on the door, but he can't keep up with the number of people pressing forward.

A woman joins him, her hands working to tear tickets as fast as possible.

"The show is sold out," she tells us. "So please sit right next to people."

"No gaps?" someone asks.

"That's right. And if they don't move, you can tell them that I told you not to leave any gaps."

Something tells me that Greenwich audiences are... tricky.

Eventually, I make it through the door, and into the theatre.

It's small, but not tiny. Not by studio standards anyway. The stage is floor level. And there's a platform on one end. The platform, however, is the only concession to rake in this space. With half the seating on it. And half at stage level. I decide to go for the front row on the platform, moving down as far as I can in the row, and sitting right next to the person on the end. As instructed.

As soon as I get settled, I realise that the platform is next to useless when there are three rows right in front of it. If any of the actors decide to sit down, they will be swallowed up behind the wall of bobbing heads.

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Oh, wait. Two people are sitting on stage. I can see them now. They're doing air steward movements with their hands, helping direct traffic as people come in.

"Please don't leave any gaps!" a front of houser shouts across the room. "We are completely sold out, so please move right down to the end of the rows."

Alright, love. We'll figure it out. That's the thing about theatre-goers. We like sitting down. And we'll find those empty seats. You don't need to worry about us.

But, she does worry. And the shouting continues until the last person is sat.

It's close in here. And not just because it's completely sold out. The low ceiling and dark walls aren't helping.

I get out my fan. The killer heatwave may be over, but it's still not exactly comfortable.

"That's a good idea," says my neighbour, indicating the fan.

"Yeah, I take it with me everywhere. An umbrella and a fan. Two essentials for British summers."

"I really need to get one," she says and I agree. Fans are great. Everyone should have one.

I shift slightly in my chair and jolt as I realise I'm pinned in place.

"Sorry!" says my neighbour, lifting her leg to free my skirts.

"No, it's my fault," I tell her. "This skirt is really big."

It's not actually that big. I'm not in one of my circle skirts today. But given half a chance, any skirt I'm wearing tends to floof all over the place. It's like they're trying to escape from me. Perhaps I don't treat my clothes well enough. Maybe I'll start using the delicate cycle on the washing machine.

It looks like we're starting. The two people sitting on stage, Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, are getting up. They're starting a lecture. About Mary Anning.

And, no... wait. Someone's interupting. Someone coming from the back of the studio. Someone wearing a long, 19th-century gown.

It's Mary Anning. She's not having all this nonsense being said about her. She's taking over.

And so she does. And she has no intention of indulging us in words. Words lie. Words are used to twist and trick.

I’m in full agreement. Words are bullshit. I may earn my crust by crushing words into a semblance of sense-making, but I still won’t trust them as far as I can typo them.

For Mary though, it's numbers that she cares about. Numbers of bones in her first major find. The number of coins she was paid for them. And the number made in profit as it was sold on.

Pulling in the other two to play all the characters in her story, she takes us from a childhood spent picking up curios to sell to tourists on the beach at Lyme Regis, to her discovery of the ichthyosaur, to teaching herself French so that she might read the work of Cuvier, to being rejected by the establishment for the terrible crime of not being a man.

As someone who is, shall we say, feeling a wee bit raw at the moment about not getting proper recognition for my own work, I am boiling inside at the treatment our Mary got. Taken advantage of because she lacked connections, and money, and breeding, and a penis. Slogging away in the rain and the cold and the winds, so that others found glory from her work.

From her bag, she brings out tiny examples of her curios. "I think we can trust them," she says, as her ensemble try to hold her back. She hands them out to the audience, instructing us to pass them along to the end of the rows. They work themselves along, getting turned over and peered at in the dim light.

Smooth on one side. Rough on the other.

I rub my thumb along the marble-like sheen of the shiny side when its my turn. Are these real? Or are these the work of our Hannah Snaith, the fossil designer? I can't say. They're fun to hold all the same. I don't want to pass mine along, but I also don't want to disappoint Mary Anning. So I hand it along to the next person.

At the end, we're given more numbers.

Number of people in the audience tonight, sixty. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning tomorrow if everyone in the audience tells five people down the pub tonight, 300. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning by Wednesday if all those people tell five people... oh something ridiculous like 90,000.

Well, as someone who was educated in a proto-feminist girls' school in Dorset, there was no way I was getting away without learning about Mary Anning. I can't claim my blog will reach 90,000 people, but you at least now know about her. So, that's one down.

Numbers done, we're invited to stay for a Q&A with Antonia Weir, who brought the spirit of Mary into our midst, and some other people that I'm sure are very interesting, but I'm not sticking around to get even more sticky.

It's a long-arse way home from Greenwich. Even longer than a plesiosaur's neck, I'd venture to say.

I wonder how many vertebraes long the DLR is... I bet Mary Anning would know.

Not my Sherlock

After months and months (and months) of monitoring the Rudolf Steiner House website, they’ve only gone and programmed a play. I thought I could get away with not visiting the theatre that lives in this building. I thought it was wall to wall lectures about strange esoteric and spiritual things that I don’t understand. But no. They’ve gone all commercial. They’ve got Sherlock Holmes in for the summer.

I’m a little bit annoyed, to be honest.

But it’s fine. I’m sure the Rudolf Steiner House is very calming.

All pale walls and the smiles of the spiriually enlightened. That’s how I’m picturing it.

Full disclosure, I have no idea who Rudolf Steiner was (or quite possibly, is…) but given the titles of the things that they usually programme “Exploring Your Intuitive Self,” “Inner Light and Strength - Nurturing Seeds of Spiritual Renewal,” “How to Protect Yourself from the Demonic attacks of Electromagnetic radiation and Vaccines”) I’m thinking he must have been some proto-Scientology dude.

Hope it doesn’t turn out like when I was offered a personality test in Totteham Court Road…

The House is just off Baker Street. Close to Regent’s Park. It looks quite nice from the outside. There’s a window filled with books down one end, and an a-frame advertising the play down the other.

Inside it is all pale walls and spiritually enlightened smiling people. There’s a counter at one end. That must be the box office. And a sort of foyer space lined with blue upholstered chairs down the other. All very hospital waiting room, except for the massive roller banner with the show artwork next to the doors to the auditorium, which I think is supposed to serve as a backdrop to any Instagrammers that float through, and dozens of show posters stuck to every available surface.

“Are you picking up tickets?” asks the man behind the counter.

“Yup!”

“What's the name?

I give my surname, spelling it out letter by letter.

He looks down for a second. “Maxine?”

That’s me!

“Great,” he says, handing me a receipt-paper ticket. The same style of ticket they have at Above the Stag. “You're in I12.”

Well, okay then. I look around, decideding what my next course of action should be. The doors are open but it’s far too early to be going in.

I decide to risk it, and sit on one of the blue chairs.

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There aren’t many people here. They’re all outside, hanging out on the pavement.

I get out my phone and start editing my Jackson’s Lane post.

I hope no one tries to indoctrinate me. There’s a bit I wanted to rewrite and that’s always tricky on my phone’s touchscreen.

The man sitting closest to me says something.

I ignore him, turning to Google to double-check something.

He says something again.

I look over.

He’s staring at his phone.

He’s still talking. Or rather muttering. To himself.

He swears. He’s annoyed.

He must be editing a blog post too. I get that way sometimes.

“That’s four tickets,” says the man behind the box office, as a family waits at the counter.

Oh yeah. I’d forgotten kids loved Sherlock Holmes. I certainly did. I had all the books on tape. I used to listen to them on my way to school. Clive Merrison and Michael Williams pretty much narrated my childhood.

“Now,” says the mum, pausing dramatically. “Do you have such a thing as ice cream?”

They don’t.

Crisps? Yes. KitKat Chunkies? Yes. But not ice cream.

Oh dear. Not sure how they are going to make it through a month-long summer run of a kid-bait play without the cold stuff.

That gets me thinking about the other important theatre purchase… programmes.

There don’t seem to be any on sale. There aren’t any on display on the counter, and the ticket checker on the door doesn’t have any either.

Either there’s a programme seller inside the theatre, or programmes are against some Rudolf Steiner principal. I hope not. While I admit to being the least spiritual person in the world, composed of one part anxiety and two parts cynicism, I don’t like to think that my programme addiction is putting me in harms way of demonic attack.

Perhaps that’s why the theatre ghosts avoid me. Somehow they’ve found out about the six 35 litre boxes I’ve got filled with the things at home.

And before you say it, no, my desire to meet a theatre ghost is not a symptom of some latent spirituality. I don’t actually believe in ghosts. I grew up next to a 12th-century graveyard and never heard the slightest whisper of a WooOooOo in the night. I just want to chat to one at some point. Without the burden of belief.

I should probably go in.

I show the ticket checker my receipt.

She leans in, peering at the teeny text.

“Err…”

“It is very small,” I say.

She laughs. “Is that an I or an L?”

“It’s an I.”

She points at the door on the right. “You’re on the right,” she says.

So I turn right.

And this is it. The Rudolf Steiner Theatre in Rudolf Steiner House.

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It’s a proper little theatre. There’s a stage, with a full-on proscenium arch. And raked seating set in three blocks, divided by two aisles.

I find row I and stare at the seats, trying to work out which is mine.

All the other rows seem to have their seat numbers marked by little badges applied to the bottom of the flip seat. But not row I. They must have fallen off or something.

“Do you know what number you are?” I ask a lady in my row.

She grabs the seat next to her and points to a previously unnoticed number.

“I’m 11,” she says.

I lean in, squinting at the number. “12,” it says, very faintly.

“I would never have spotted that,” I laugh. “It looks like I’m next to you then!”

From the foyer I hear the tiniest little tinkling of a faerie bell.

“Have you read any reviews of this?” asks my neighbour.

“I don’t think they’ve had press night yet,” I tell her. I know that they haven’t had press night yet. They haven’t been shy about telling us when press night is. It’s 25 July. It’s on the Rudolf Steiner website. It’s on the play’s dedicated mini-site. It’s probably on the flyers. I don’t know, I haven’t checked. But press night is 25 July.

“Yes, it’s the second performance,” says my neighbour.

“We’re going in blind.”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “That’s the risk you take, I suppose.”

Yeah, I mean. Sure. Can’t say I read reviews before a show all that much. Even in my pre-marathon days. I was usually booked in long before the critics submitted their verdicts.

Looks like I'm in the minority though, as the audience tonight is a bit thin. Small groups are scattered about the middle bank of seats. The rows all half empty due to a price banding which discourages sitting forward. Now, I'm not a fan of flat-pricing unless that flat price is somewhere in the region of fifteen quid, but I think the Sherlock-gang were a bit ambitious with their premium seats here. But hey, maybe the reviews will have this place sold out come 26 July.

Although, I'm really not sure what the press are going to make of it. It’s a strange play. We've got a Holmes and Watson, but that’s about as close to Conan Doyle as we’re getting.

There’s ghostly goings-on as a man is murdered by… an invisible thing. The only witness, a bluestocking with a penchant for whiskey, and getting one over on Holmes.

Leaves shake, pictures lose their grip on the wall, and telescopes spin on their tripods.

I keep on waiting for the Hound of the Baskervilles-twist, but no, it looks like we're really going down the whole invisible route.

It's like Mousetrap and The Woman in Black snuck into the writers' room and locked everyone else out. Add to that a sprinkle of biodegradable woke-glitter, and you have Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing.

The family next to me are having a hard time coming to terms with the invisibleness of the thing too.

The keep on leaning into their mum to ask what's going on with childish whispers, and then returning to their sweets when the answer they get placates, if not entirely satisfies, them.

In the interval, I go back out into the foyer.

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The pair behind the counter warn any drink-buyers that they can't take their new purchases into the auditorium.

An old lady comes in, asking about the show. "It started at 7.30pm," they tell her. "But it's on for the next month."

And there it is again. The tinkling tiny bell.

I look over. The ticket checker is ringing a brass bell. Going over to the main doors to call back into everyone hanging out on the pavement. They're not paying attention. It's not what I would call a classic theatre bell. The bells at the Royal Opera House would laugh if they saw it, before chomping it down in a single bite. It really is small. The kind of bell an infirm Victorian lady would have used to summon her dependent niece to bring thin broth and a bottle of gin in the morning.

She changes her grip, whipping the bell up and down. "I think if I do it like a town crier..." she says, showing the guy behind the box office.

"I don't think it's working," he says kindly, as exactly no one comes through the door.

She sighs. "I don't think it's working either."

"I think we need to figure out another way to do it."

Yup. I agree. You can't be using piddly little bells on theatre audiences. The thing about theatre-goers, you see, is that we all hate sitting in theatres. We will postpone the torture for as long as physically possible. Until every usher is on the brink of getting a heart attack. Think of it like letting children out of class for their morning break. They're all hopped up on custard creams and Ribena now. There's no getting them to settle down for double chemistry. Not even if you promise to show them some cool colour-change reactions. It's too late. This is why all plays should be done in 90 minutes. No interval. No bells. No-fuss. Just good clean theatre fun. And we won't even complain too much if nothing blows up.

But we do all make it back in.

I grab my jacket from where I left it on the seat and shift down to the other end of the row. It was a bit awkward sitting right there next to that family, when there is so much space going spare.

Turns out, now that i’m sitting behind someone, the Rudolf Steiner Theatre really isn't meant to be a theatre. The rake is awful.

Maybe I really should have gone for those premium seats.

I try hard to focus. There's a lot of talking going on as Sherlock explains the mystery of the invisible thing. I was so sure they were going to do a Sussex Vampire, I'm left baffled by the revelation. I mean... okay then. I guess... Fine. Whatever. It's been a long week. And like, I get that Conan Doyle wasn't available to make notes on the script. He might have told them that The Adventure of the Creeping Man wasn't his best story. But at least the narrative decisions he made in that tied into the popular perceptions of science at the time.

It was fun though.

And no one tried to recruit me into a meditation circle.

Plus I get to use Baker Street tube to get home. And that's cool.

James McArdle though…

Three hours twenty minutes. THREE hours twenty minutes. Three HOURS and TWENTY minutes.

That’s way too long for a play.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done the whole endurance theatre thing. I’ve seen Angels in America (8 hours 45 minutes). I did most the Almeida’s Iliad (15 hours, but I gave up around 11pm because I didn’t want to nightbus it home). The Cursed Child (5 hours 15 minutes). Twice. And Gatz (8 hours). Twice.

So, you know - I can take a long running time.

But three hours and twenty minutes? That’s too fucking much. Way too long to be convinced that the playwright has a tight while on the narrative. And yet, not long enough to feel like you’re going on an epic journey with the peformers. Plus, a 7pm start time means I’m rushing from work, so I’m already exhausted before I’ve even stepped into the building.

Which is the National in this case, because, well, you’ve already guessed it, haven’t you? I’m seeing Peter Gynt.

Almost exclusively for James McArdle reasons.

I love James McArdle. And his Scottish accent.

I saw him, sans-Scottish accent, in Angels, and Platonov, and he was… just heavenly.

If anything can keep me awake until twenty past ten tonight, it’s James McArdle.

I decide to avoid the main entrance and slip in via the external walkways. Anything to avoid all those staircases going up to the Olivier.

The main terrace jutting out of the side of the National is filled up with people communing with the flowerbeds. High above, I can see people leaning over the concrete sides of the balconies, dark shadows against the pale concrete, like birds hanging out on power lines.

I don’t hang out with them. I’ve got a ticket to collect.

I aim myself at the glass doors that will take me into the Olivier foyer. I pass two girls rehearsing a  dance routine, using the dark windows as a mirror.

There’s a bit of a queue at the Olivier box office. There always is. No matter how early you turn up.

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But it moves quickly, and soon its my turn.

I give my surname.

The box officer types it into her computer as I spell it out. Her eyes narrow. She’s not finding anything.

“I bought it through TodayTix if that makes a difference,” I say, suddenly realising that I might not even be in the system.

“Ah! Yes it does,” she says, moving away from the computer and grabbing a pile of tickets from the counter. “Maxine?”

“Yes.”

“One ticket?”

“… yes.”

She tears my ticket away from its TodayTix friends. “You’re in the circle,” she says as she hands it to me. “One level up.”

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So up I go. It’s actually two levels to the circle. Or at least, two sets of staircases.

I’m really not fit enough for this nonsense.

I huff and puff my way up to the Olivier circle foyer, pausing at the top of the stairs as I get my breath back.

“Hello!” calls out the programme seller from behind her little trolley.

The programme trollies at the National always confuse me. They’re grey and industrial looking, and their ubiquitous presence in every foyer make me sad to look at them. But they’re full of ice cream, so… they’ve git that going for them.

The programme seller is slipping her stack of programmes. Inserting a small piece of paper into each one. There must be a cast change tonight.

“Can I get a programme?” I ask.

“That’s four pounds fifty.”

Blimey. Do you remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid? I remember when National Theatre programmes were only three quid. I know some people mark their aging souls by the increasing youthfulness of policemen, but for me, it’s the price of programmes. They go up every damn year.

Still smarting from the cost, I get out my purse. Ah. Bit short on the whole change thing right now.

“Do you have change for a twenty?” I ask apologetically.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, checking her drawer. “But you’ll need to take a lot of pound coins. I hope that’s okay.”

Of course it’s okay. Pound coins are brilliant. They feel like proper money. Not like those measly five pence pieces which I lose as soon as I look at them. Pound coins are the best coins. Better than two pound coins even. I can never get enough of them.

“That’s fifteen pounds fifty in change,” she says, giving my two whole fivers and five pound coins alongside the fifty pee. This is literally the best change day I’ve ever had in my life. Fivers! Two of them! “You might want to count that,” she advises. But I trust her.

“And here’s your programme,” she says as I put my purse away. She touches the small white tongue of paper sticking out of the top of my programme. “There’s an indisposition tonight.”

Indisposition. What a quaint word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in this context. It’s usually ‘an injury’ in the dance world. And ‘cast illness’ in theatre. Indisposition makes it sound like some louche actor has been partaking of a touch too much opium and cannot remove himself from the chaise longue in time to get to the theatre.

With my programme in hand, I decide I need to head out onto the terrace to nurse my own tired head.

It’s nice out here. Not as nice as the grand terrace below. No flowerbeds to get friendly with, and no chairs either, unless you like perching on the low windowsills. But we’re high enough to get a breeze coming off the river and that’s pretty much all I want right now.

I’m enjoying it so much out here that I don’t even notice the bell that must have gone off inside, because the next time I turn around to look through the windows, the bar has cleared out and everyone has gone in.

I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder, hurrying inside.

The note on my ticket says I need to go to aisle four, which is on the left.

I show my ticket to the ticket checker on the door, but she’s not interested in that. Her eyes are pinned to my rucksack.

Shit. I’d forgotten about that. The National are super strict about the sizes of bags that go into the auditorium.

I’ve been carrying this bag for years, and it seems to be the exact right size to confuse the ticket checkers. Most of the time I get it in, but I have had more than one hurried sprint to the cloakroom when my pleading failed to melt the ticker checker’s heart.

She reaches out and grabs it, giving it a good feel. “Hmm, it’s quite empty, isn’t it? Furtherest aisle!” And with that, she lets me through.

I walk into the shadow-filled corridor, turning left and heading to the furthest door, as directed, patting my bag back into shape and trying not to feel violated.

I pull the heavy doors open and go in, taking a moment to stand up there, right at the back of the circle, to appreciate this aeroplane hangar of a space.

The Olivier is huge. Vast. If the National ever needed to raise funds, they could rent this space to Amazon to use as a central London warehouse.

I trot down the steps towards row D, peering as the seat numbers as I try to find the one that belongs to be.

A woman grabs her bag and jacket, removing it from the seat next to her and stuffing them behind her knees.

“Don’t worry, I’m here,” I say, pointing to the next seat along.

“No worries!” she says.

Even being so high off, and frankly, a little too far off to the side, the view is great. I can see all of that massive round stage, apart from a tiny clip in the corner. Plus, from here I can spy on what the band are up to.

Oh yes, there’s a band. A live band. For a play.

No expense spared here.

There’s a school group sitting behind me. or at least, I think they’re a school group. There’s defiantly a teacher amongst them “Now, the curtain is about to go up, so turn off your phones. Not on vibrate. Off. All the way off. And snacks away. I don’t want to hear your rustling.”

“The curtains are already up though,” comes the plaintive reply.

“There aren’t even curtains.”

That’s true. There aren’t even curtains.

“How do you know it’s about to start?” says one student

“It’s past 7pm. It was supposed to start at 7pm,” counters another.

The lights dim.

The band starts.

“Off,” orders the teacher over the sound of the music. “Now. Off, I said.”

May the theatre gods protect us from overzealous educators.

Just as the lovely James McArdle appears, someone starts making his way down our row.

“Sorry, excuse me,” he says he squeezes past someone.

He plonks himself in the seat next to me, and then leans in to whisper: “sorry, what seat number are you?”

“Err, sixty…?” Honestly I can’t remember. It’s a high number.

“Sixty?”

“Hang on,” I reach down to my bag to check, but it’s no good. I’d never be able to read my ticket in this low lighting. “I don’t think it matters,” I tell him. “No one’s going to move you.”

That seems to make sense to him. “I think I’ll just stay here.”

So he does. And thus settled we watch all one hour twenty minutes of the first act.

Peter Gynt is a weird play, isn’t it?

I didn’t really know the story. But I do know the Grieg music. Back when I was all of ten years old, I badgered my mum for weeks to by me a cassette tape of Peer Gynt. Which, now I say it, is probably the most revealing thing I’ve ever told you. Yes, I am that old. I yes, I was that much of a pretentious wank when I was ten years old. You thought that was a recent acquisition? Oh honey… no. If anything, I’ve mellowed.

Anyway, because of that, I knew there would be a hall. And a mountain king. But this is pure loopy-loo.

Logic was not issued with a staff pass when this production went into rehearsal.

As the house lights go up for the interval, my new neighbour leans over again. “Sorry to disturb you,” he apologises.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him.

“I think I’m actually meant to be in the seat on the other side of you.”

The seat on the other side of me is indeed empty, now that bag and jacket has been removed from it.

“There’s so many empty seats, I think you can sit anywhere.”

We look around the auditorium. There are a lot of empty seats. A lot of empty seats.

With one last glimpse, I go back out to the terrace for the interval. I need to stretch my legs. There’s a long way to go.

“It didn’t feel like one hour and twenty minutes,” says one of the students behind me when I return.

“It’s so good!”

“Everything is happening!”

“Yeah! It’s so good.”

So good.”

Bless. I love young people. So enthusiastic.

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I’m not sure the rest of the audience agrees. An already thin house is noticeably thinner. We’ve lost the entire row B down at this end. And there are patches all over the circle.

My neighbour with the coat and jacket hasn’t come back.

Things don’t get better after the second interval. My friend who couldn’t find his seat? Yeah, either he’s upgraded himself to the stalls, or he’s gone to catch a train home.

There’s only a few people left in my row, and we are all spread out like buttons on a shirt.

So we all take the only reasonable course of action. We lean back and lounge around, lolling over the arm rests in a way that we don’t have the opportunity to do all that often in the theatre, and we are making full use of the opportunity.

“That was brilliant!” says one of the students as the cast disappear after the applause. Presumably for a good lie down.

“Literally the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

“So good.”

So good.”

Not sure I can quite agree. Don’t think it’s even the best thing I’ve seen this week. Which is saying a lot as it’s only Monday.

Still, James McArdle though…

Shawly not

I’m on my way to the Shaw Theatre right now. And for once, I actually know where this theatre is. When the Northern Line crapped out last week, I had to get out at Euston and walk the rest of the way to work. A walk that took me down Euston Road as I headed into Islington. And as the red behemoth of the British Library loomed across my vision, I spotted something dangling in the way. It was a sign. For the Shaw Theatre.

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Do you know about the Shaw Theatre? I didn’t know about the Shaw Theatre. It seems to be one of those theatres that is connected to a hotel. Like the Savoy but less… just less. Less glamourous. Less well known. And less programming. It’s taken me over six months to find a marathon-qualifying show for me to go to.

The Shaw seems to be the type of place that those regional music acts tour to. You know the kind of thing. Tribute acts and theme acts and cabaret acts and showcase acts. The type of acts that only seem to exist in these type of theatres.

They also have that Tape Face bloke, but I wasn’t altogether convinced that his stuff counted as theatre. So I took a pass.

But not tonight. Oh no. Tonight, I’m going to be seeing Rent.

Which I am rather excited about because I’ve never seen Rent before. I’m actually not all that familiar with it. I know that one song. You know, the one with all the numbers that every musical theatre fan seems to be able to reel off with only the slightest provocation.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Modern. Glass. There’s some sort of massive sculpture action going on outside. A wire cage hanging above the carpark. Not sure what that’s meant to be but if it were being used as a prison to contain some supervillain or other, I would not be surprised.

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I pick my way through the cars and head towards the main entrance.

As I approach, the door opens, held by a young woman in Shaw Theatre livery.

Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had the door held open for me at the theatre before. Not by a dedicated door person anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this place really is as swanky as the Savoy.

“Hello!” says the young woman, all bright smile and welcoming.

I thank her, still slightly surprised by all these gentility.

She makes use of my disorientation to hold out a pile of stickers.

They have rainbows on them. And the name of the theatre.

That’s how to do Pride. With multi-coloured stickers. I approve.

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I thank her again, already feeling very positive about this trip. Getting the door held open for me and a free sticker? The Shaw is gunning for a top ten position in my end of year rankings, I can tell you that right now.

From there, I join the queue for the box office. It’s a rather long queue. And is moving very slowly.

Another young woman, this one wearing a smart blue jacket, makes her way down the line asking if we booked ourselves e-tickets.

The bloke behind me shows her a print out.

“Yup, that’s fine,” she confirms.

“So I don’t have to queue?” he asks, amazed at this revelation.

“No, you can use that.”

He trots off with his print out, very pleased.

“Ooo! Stickers!” comes a cry from behind me.

Heads turn, and soon the young woman on the door is besieged by people who missed out on the sticker action on their way in.

“Can I have a sticker please?”

“Can you get me one too, mum?”

Such is the power of a rainbow sticker.

From my position in the queue, I have a great view of the bar. It’s exactly the sort of bar you would imagine there to be in a hotel’s theatre. All dramatic hanging lights and stacks of mini-bar sized snacks hanging out alongside the bottles of more serious stuff.

A girl goes up to the bar and holds up a paper bag full of some sort of takeaway.

She asks the barman something, and after a moment’s thought, he takes it from her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she calls after him as he disappears through the back door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she repeats when he remerges a few seconds later.

I think he was putting it in the fridge for her, which I have to say, is not something I’ve ever considered asking bar staff to help with, at the theatre or anywhere else, but my god, what a good idea. Especially in this weather.

“Have you got an e-ticket?” asks the woman in the blue jacket, doing another trawl of the queue.

“I think I’m picking up,” I tell her.

“What’s the surname?”

I tell her, and she goes off to the front to double check.

I do the same, but on my phone, and bringing up the confirmation email remember that I paid an extra two quid for this privilege. Fucking hell. No wonder she’s asking about e-tickets so much. What kind of idiot would pay two quid for the pleasure of a paper ticket? Apart from me, but we all know I have issues.

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

“Is that Maxine?” asks the lady on box office when she checks her computer for my booking.

I tell her that it is and a second later the printer behind the desk buzzes into action. She checks the ticket, folds up the ream, and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to explore.

Apart from the bar and the box office, there’s a seating area over by the entrance to the theatre. All red walls and old theatre posters and low settees. There’s also the most extraordinary carpeting going on. I mean, if I didn’t know this place had a hotel connection before, this carpet would tell me everything I need to know. It’s all floral and swirly, with another pattern going on underneath that I can’t quite make out. It’s like one of those Magic Eye posters from the nineties. I couldn’t make them out either.

The entrance to the theatre itself is closed off by a red velvet curtain. That combined with the old posters gives this place a very strange vibe. The modern hotel combined with the old school theatre. I’m not sure even the Shaw knows what this place is.

“Good evening,” comes a voice over the sound system. “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre. The house is now open. The house is now open.”

Now, you may say that I’ve been marathoning far too long (and I won’t disagree with you on that), but that message surprises me. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard a house open announcement that doesn’t mention the name of the show. You know: “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre for tonight’s performance of Rent…”

I wonder if the message has been pre-recorded. It would certainly make it easier for everyone with all those one-night shows that they have going on.

No one else appears bothered by this. They all crowd themselves towards the doors, heaving in close to each other until them become unmanageable mass of people.

I hang back and let them get on with it.

Seating is allocated. There’s no rush.

Eventually the queue clears, and I make my way in.

The first ticket checker barely looks as me as I pass through the curtain. She has no interest whatsoever in whether I have a ticket, or what it says on it if I do.

So I continue on, making my way through a dark corridor, with George Bernard Shaw quotes hung up on the walls, in what must be an attempt to justify the name of the theatre.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself,” one states. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says another. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that old Shawie-boy was a bit repetitive in his choice of sentence structure.

That makes me suspicious. I can’t for the life of me think what play either of these are from. Neither strike me as something the writer of Man and Superman would come out with. But then, I’m not a massive GBS fan, so, who knows?

I get out my phone and Google the first one and immediately find a page asking “Wait, did George Bernard Shaw really say this?”

The answers seem to suggest that no, he didn’t. But I don’t have time to research any further, because I’ve reached the other end of the corridor and there’s a ticket checker waiting for me on the other side.

“D23?” I ask, showing her the ticket.

“D23. You will be…” her finger traces the horizon of seats, wavering between the middle and final block of seats. “Hang on, let me show you.”

And with that she leads me down to the second aisle.

“Twenty-three did you say?”

“Err, yes,” I say, double checking my ticket.

She hops up a few steps to the fourth row. “You’re just in here,” she says.

“Lovely! Thank you!”

Whatever their questionable use of George Bernard Shaw quotes, you can’t fault the service.

Nor the seating. It’s very plush. Wide, squashy seats, covered in fuzzy velvet. Pretty lush.

Someone in the row in front turns around. “Do you know how long this is?” he asks.

My neighbour shakes her head. “Sorry, I just know its two acts.”

Yeah, no freesheets tonight. And no programmes.

Still, we got rainbow stickers.

I settle back in my seat and get comfortable.

The people sitting behind me are having some great theatre chat. By the sounds of it they are both musical theatre professionals and the gossip is flying. Lots of talk of “Cameron,” the joys of auditioning on a proper West End stage, and the perils of being second cover.

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As the lights dim, there’s a scurrying of movement as people move down to better seats.

A couple slowly make their way down from the back, clinging onto the rail as they go down the stairs, move across the front of the stage, and then sink into a pair of seats in the front row.

Thus settled, they start to enjoy the show. Really enjoy the show. The woman sways from side to side, waving her arms as she feels the music.

It’s rather beautiful.

As for me, I’ve just realised what Rent is. It’s La Boehme, isn’t it? That whole candle scene. I recognise that! That’s good. I feel on firmer ground now. Except I’m now worrying about what a potential wank I am that I’m more familiar with La Boehme then Rent.

As our Mimi (again, no freesheet, I have no idea who she is) gets down on her knees and Arghhh Oooos into the night, it’s simply too move for the lady in the front row. She just has to dance. She gets up from her seat and boogies her way into the corner, where she bows her head, puts up her arms, and moves to the beat, truly embodying the ‘dance like no-one’s watching’ mandate more fully than I’ve ever seen anyone do it before.

The man she’s with watches her for a moment, checks behind him to see how we’re talking it, beckons her back to her seat and then goes to speak to the usher.

They whisper to each other feverously, the usher and the man, with lots of pointing around the auditorium.

He doesn’t want his lady to stop dancing. Oh no. He wants to find her a place where she can get her groove on without disturbing anyone else.

The usher nods. She understands. And he returns to his seat.

A few songs later she sneaks into the front row, crouching down next to the pair.

She’s sorted something. She’s taking them somewhere.

So they go. Leaving their prime spots, our lady dances her way out of the theatre.

It feels strangely quiet now that we’ve lost our alternate cast member. But the performers up on stage don’t let us relax for long.

“Moo!” orders our Maureen. “Everyone this side: Moo!”

Everyone duly moos as ordered. Well, almost everyone.

I do not partake. I have audience participation intolerance.

But as our Mark jumps up onto a table, and the table tips, throwing him forward, oh, I gasp. I gasp along with everyone else. He recovers his balance just in time, throwing out his hand to show us he’s okay. And we applaud. How could we not after such a feat of daring do?

“Did you moo?” someone asks in the row in front once the interval hits.

“No!” comes the reply.

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one then.

The person from the row in front is outraged. “No? But you have to!”

“Can you believe they only had a week to do all that?” counters the non-mooer, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Aren’t they amazing!”

They are. But I still don’t know who they are.

Interval over and there’s a strangled squeal from the audience as the cast comes out. They know what’s coming. And I can guess. Yes, it’s the number song! 525,600 apparently. That’s a big number. How do people remember that? I never even managed pi to five decimals.

But it’s proper good.

And it’s sad.

And I might be sniffing a bit. A hint of watery eye. No, it’s okay. I’m not going to cry.

Oh poor Angel.

And poor Mimi.

Shit, I’ve gone. The first tear has fallen and there’s no stopping me now.

As the final notes ring out, we all burst from our seats into a standing ovation. I can’t believe it was only on Friday I was saying I rarely ovate. Only when a performance hits me in the gut, was my justification. Well, gut fucking hit. Full on bullseye right in the intestines.

I turn around, taking in the audience.

There, at the back, in the far corner, is our dancing lady. She’s still moving to the sound of the band as they play us out. Hands above her head, hips swinging. And the man she’s with watching her.

And I start crying again, because that’s love, isn’t it? Finding someone the space to be themselves and letting them go for it, to the fullest.

Fuck yeah.

 

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Credit where it's due

It feels kinda weird getting off the tube at Angel on a Saturday. This is the station I use for work. And now I'm here. During the weekend. This is all levels of wrong and I don't like it. I'm turning right out of the station though. Going up Upper Street. Because tonight, I'm at the Almeida.

I do like the Almeida. I haven't been in a while though. For Robert Icke reasons. I just... can't with his stuff. We've talked about this before. I know you think he's a genius. Everyone thinks he's a genius. Perhaps he is. I just don't get it. And I've given up trying. So, yeah. I haven't been to the Almeida in a hot minute, as the YouTubers used to say.

But tonight, I make my return. And as far as I'm aware, this play has nothing to do with Robert Icke. Which is one hell of a selling point for me.

Better still, it has Tobias Menzies in it. And I adore Tobias Menzies.

I even have a Tobias Menzies story. And that story is that I once ordered him a taxi. And he was very nice.

Hey, I never said it was a good story.

But still, isn't it lovely to find out that talented people are also nice?

I was an intern at the Donmar when he was in The Recruiting Officer, and I was trying to arrange all the cast to get to some patrons' shindig, which I'm sure none of them wanted to go to. So like, he did not even have to be slightly polite to me. And yet he was. So, he made a life-long fan in me.

Anyhoo, enough of that. We're here. As ever, when the weather is good, half the audience seems to be hanging out on the pavement. The Almeida is on a little side street. Almeida Street. Hence the name. So there isn't much in the way of traffic. There's pretty much only the theatre on one side, and a restaurant on the other.

Still, they have some security person standing guard in the middle of the road.

He watches me as I stroll across to get my photo of the exterior. There are too many cars parked on either side, so I'm forced to stand in the middle of the road to take it. The security person does not look impressed with my blatant disregard of all the traffic that is very much not driving down the road, and he keeps an eye until I make my way back to safety.

I go over to the box office that's right inside the door. There's usually a queue for tickets, but I'm early, and as I said, everyone is outside soaking up those rays.

I give my name to one of the box officers sitting behind the counter and she pulls out the chunk of tickets living behind the 's' tab in the ticket box, and finds mine.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" she asks.

I want to tell her that gurl, I am six months and 169 theatres into a marathon right now, and there is no way I can remember my postcode, but some synapse or other snaps into action just in time and I manage to get it out.

"Perfect. That's one ticket in the stalls," she says, and hands it over.

Right then. What now? Programme purchasing time, I think.

There are two programme sellers positioned near the front door, all primed and holding playtexts and programme in their arms like a bouquet of papery flowers, but they are busy talking to someone, so I bypass them and head right to the back, where there's a merch desk.

You might be asking yourself why a producing house theatre in Islington has a merch desk, and that would be a good question. The Royal Court doesn't have a merch desk. The Young Vic doesn't have one either. But the Almeida go hard on stuff. Posters and playtext and programmes and everything to make my little publications officer heart sing.

"Would you like a deal?" asks the lady behind the counter when I ask for a programme.

"What's the deal?" I say, getting excited

"It's a script, programme, and tote bag," she says, pointing to each item in turn. "For fifteen pounds,"

Fifteen pounds? I mean, I love merch, but... fifteen pounds! "Ah, no," I tell her feeling a bit guilty after all my previous enthusiasm. "That's too much. I can't cope with all of that."

So I just get the programme. Which is four pounds. Much more my level.

Although... I wonder if I can come back for the deal after seeing the play. Might be more willing to invest on the playtext side of things once I know if it's actually any good.

Right. Let's find somewhere to sit down and read this thing.

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Everyone's outside, so I get a prime spot on the end of the long benches that line the pit-like foyer.

The Almeida foyer is a strange place. With its white walls and glass ceiling, and wipe-clean upholstery, it's kinda like sitting in a fancy sanatorium. An expensive one in the mountains, where handsome young porters wheel you around in bathchairs as you take in the clean air.

Except there's a bar all down one end and everyone here has wine-breath. Which somehow I don't think is part of the hospital's regime.

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Then there's the show artwork taking up the big wall overlooking the foyer. Which is usually cool. A photo opportunity. Instagram bait.

For this show, it’s a massive blown-up picture of Tobias Menzies' face, which is lending the space a slight Orwellian-vibe,

There's a great big close up of Tobias Menzies on the front cover of the programme too, which now that I have my back to the ten-foot version of the picture, is very pleasing. But even though I love me some Tobias Menzies, he's not the thing I'm most excited for tonight.

I am actually here for the movement. I page through the programme until I get to the biographies and yup, there he is. Botis Seva. Movement Director. I'm actually currently producing the programme for his show at my work... which I notice his biography doesn't mention. Hmm. There's his Olivier Award win. That's nice. And a few other projects. But not the one that's opening next week at my theatre. Huh. That's rude. I mean, fucking hell - the Almeida is just down the road from us. A fifteen-minute walk, if that. Where's the Islington loyalty? I ask you...

It is mentioned in the Movement Assistant's biog though. Which is something. I suppose.

Enough about that. What else have they got? Three articles. Which is generous. Although with really inconsistent formatting, that makes me think they just dropped in the copy direct from the writers without any attempt to enforce a house style on them. Now, usually, I wouldn't even mention this. But like, this is the Almeida... not some struggling fringe venue, or a money grabbing West End venue who just want to flog programmes without going to the bother of making them. Do they not have a style guide? Someone over there really needs to get a grip on what their quotation marks are even for.

From the corner of my eye, I spot something. Something pink. And wriggling.

I look over.

My bench neighbour has taken off her shoes. Her toenails are painted the colour of a strawberry milkshake and she's swinging her legs like a child in a high chair.

I lift up my programme, using it as a shield between the sight of her naked feet and my eyes.

This is not acceptable behaviour. I think theatres need to start adding that to their pre-show announcements. Switch off your phones. No re-entry after the show has started. And keep your bloody shoes on you nasty people.

Gawd, I fucking hate summer.

Speaking of pre-show announcements, there's one now...

"The house is now open," says a voice over the sound system. I get out my phone to note down what she says, but the rest is lost over the noise of audience chatter. I can't make out a single word other than something about plastic cups.

Oh well.

I should probably go in.

There's a massive queue of people coming in from outside, all trying to get up the very narrow steps to the theatre, so I nip along the long ramp to avoid all that nonsense.

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"Show your tickets to my colleague," says the bloke on the door. "Enjoy the show!"

I show my tickets to the next person. And she points me in the direction of my seat. Right at the back. Behind a pillar. Or, two pillars, as I find out when I sit down.

Now, you probably already know this, but the pillars in the Almeida are so not a big deal, and their presence is actually amazing, because the seats that are supposedly restricted by their presence are super cheap. I paid a tenner for where I'm sitting now. Which is a hella bargain. I would always, always, take a pillar seat in the stalls over an unrestricted one in the circle. I've been in the Almeida circle. It's rubbish up there.

I mean, yes - from back here I'm missing the top of the set. What looks like a greenhouse or something. And I don't get the full effect of that amazing brick back wall that makes you feel like you're watching theatre in a monastery, but...

"It's nice having a signature back wall," says my neighbour. I look over at him, slightly worried that he's been reading my thoughts. "It's a good thing to have," he continues. "Other theatres don't have it."

That's not quite true. The Donmar has a great wall. So does the Royal Court, although we don't get to see it all that often. The Globe's is pretty spectacular. And the Rose's is spectacular in it’s absence. I don't tell him this. He's not talking to me and I'm sure he doesn't care about my list of pleasing theatre walls.

A woman comes on stage. She's making an announcement. Is a cast member sick? Has the stage broken?

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Nope, the house lights are going down. It's part of the play. Okay then.

And there's Tobias Menzies with his lovely deep voice. And the movement, we’ll it's very Botis Seva.

And... what is this play? I mean, I'd kinda heard people talking about it. But are we really doing this? In the year of someone or other's lord 2019? Is this what we want from our theatre in a post-#metoo world?

Ew.

And I know, I just know, if we were to ask, we'd get some statement prepared by the press team to the effect of "oh, it's starting important conversations," but like, we all know that's code for "our Artistic Director wanted to do the play and we had to come up with a reason to justify it." And it's so frickin' tedious. Art is not viewed in a vacuum. You cannot hide behind the security blanket of provocation. Not unless you are going to put in the work and guide those conversations yourself. Don't just place a bomb on the table and then run away, leaving the rest of us to work out how to diffuse the damn thing all by ourselves.

Just as I'm getting all riled up, a dog comes out! And all my brain can thing of is doggie-cuddles. Oh, gosh, he's cute. Look at his curly tail! And his snubbed little snout! He's so fluffy. He must have had one hell of a brush down before coming on stage. Aww. What a good boy he is.

There's a crash from the upper circle as someone drops something, and the dog's head snaps up. But he manages to recover his character and is soon back lolling around on the stage, yawning and being adorable.

What was I talking about? I can't remember. It's the interval now anyway.

I get stuck in the queue to leave the auditorium. There's only one door, and it ain't very wide.

"It's every man's worst nightmare," says an old guy in the line in front of me.

Oh, fuck you, old dude.

Seriously.

If that's the conversation this play is provoking, we should burn the whole thing down right now.

I go outside. I need to get away from all this... stuff.

There's a group out here talking about Tobias Menzies.

"I recognise him," says one woman.

"Oh yeah, he's definitely been in stuff," says a bloke.

"Like on TV?" says another woman.

The bloke gets out his phone. "Ah, here we are. Err. Casino Royale? He was definitely in Game of Thrones. He was, err, he was a lord. One of the lords. But, yeah. He was definitely in Game of Thrones."

Now, this is a perfect example of why up-to-date biographies are important.

As we go back in, something occurs to me and I pull the programme out of my bag.

I scan the cast list. Then the production team. Then the creative team.

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Huh. That's weird.

I go to the biographies and check there, just in case.

Nope.

The dog isn't credited. His handler is. But there's no mention of who is playing Max.

What kind of bullfuckery is this? What kind of person doesn't credit a dog given half a chance?

We've got Dying and Breakdown, Chaperones, Masks, Tech week buyer (I have no idea what this is...), Masks, a Safeguarding Consultant (I really don't envy the person doing this role), and, yes, Dog Handler. But no dog.

He's out there. Every night. Doing some spectacular work. And we don't even know his name?

I am outraged and offended and...

The plays starting again.

I sit and seethe until Max reappears. Aww. He really is lovely. I adore big dogs. Especially ones as handsome as this.

Stuart Campbell's character gives him a treat and kisses him on the snout.

What a darling.

The dog I mean.

I swear if anything happens to him...

Oh, you absolute fucking fuckers.

Who let the dogs out?

I’m back at the Young Vic tonight.

And no, we’re not talking about all that stuff going on. I’m not getting involved. I don’t know what’s going on and I refuse to have an opinion on the matter.

Not that I haven’t been thinking about it. A lot. And talking about it. A lot. It doesn’t help that one of the upcoming shows at my work features a dancer in… that show. I mean, how do you credit that in a biography without sounding like you are taking sides?

No. We’re not talking about it. Not here.

The controversy doesn’t seem to have damaged attendance figures though. The Cut is absolutely thronging with people having a last drink and a cigarette before going in. That Death of a Salesman is a juggernaut, and nothing can get in its way.

I’m not here to see that though.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say to the lady behind the box office. “It’s for Ivan and the Dogs,” I add hurriedly as her hands reach for the larger of the two ticket boxes on the counter. I allow myself a smug smile. It isn’t often I manage to remember the name of a play in these situations.

She nods and digs out my ticket. “Maxine? You’re in the far corner,” she says, pointing off to the other side of the bar.

Ticket in hand, I launch myself into the crowded bar and head in the direction she was pointing. And find myself back in the exact same place I queued for Bronx Gothic on my last visit. The signage, stencilled onto the brickwork, is on the same patch of wall. And the arrow is pointing towards the same door.

I begin to panic.

Don’t tell me that I booked into the same venue twice. Please don’t tell me that.

I check my ticket.

Nope. It’s the Clare. Not the Maria.

Okay then. We’re alright.

There’s an usher on the door. Sorry, scrap that. There’s a member of the Welcome Team on the door. But no one else. It’s too early for the queue to start forming. And I’m not about to start it.

I turn around and go outside, finding a spare patch of wall to prop myself against and check my emails.

I seem to be leaning against some posters. I look over my shoulder to see what they are advertising.

Oh.

It’s Tree.

Because of course it is.

“Are you watching the show tonight?”

I look up. It’s a Welcome Teamer.

“Yes?”

“Death of a Salesman?”

Ah. I see. “No. No. No,” I assure here. “I’m here for the other one.” Which I’ve already forgotten the name of.

“That’s alright then,” says the Welcome Teamer, and she’s soon off rounding up any other wall-hangers.  “Are you watching Death of a Salesman? Are you watching Death of a Salesman?”

I wait a few more minutes, until the start time of the main house show has safely passed, then I go back in.

The bar is empty.

Well, relatively. Can the bar at the Young Vic ever be said to be truly empty?

At the far end, there’s a queue under the Ivan and the Dogs sign.

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Not a big one. But then, it’s not a big venue. I hurry over and join the end of it.

A Welcome Teamer makes his way down the line. “I’m going to tear the tickets now,” he explains. “Make it nice and easy when you go in. The show is an hour and five minutes, and no interval.”

I give him my ticket, and he rips off the stub. And a large chunk of the actual ticket. But no matter. I may be precious about getting paper tickets, but what happens to them afterwards doesn’t bother me. I probably don’t need to tell you that I am the sort of person who cracks the spines of her paperbacks and folds down pages to mark my space. Adds character, you know.

The line is growing, almost reaching the box office now.

We wriggle and flow, breaking apart and shivering back into place, as people squeeze past us.

“Beep, beep!” says a staff members pushing a flat trolley. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The queue goes into Red Sea mode, parting for him and then splashing back into place as soon as the Deliverer of Trollies has passed through.

I jump aside for people going to the loo. For a waitress returning plates to the kitchen. For Welcome Teamers. More piss-takers. And more bar staff.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says a waitress as she moves nimbly through the queue up towards the bar.

Honestly, the Young Vic really need to get this queue situation sorted. It’s impossible. I hope it’s next on the list after… well… you know.

I use the time to massage my hands. Work is really doing a number on me at the moment. I thought it would be the marathon that would kill me, but now I think my job might get in there first. Eleven pages of programme amends typed up before 10am this morning, and my hands are cramped the fuck up.

“Hi guys!” says the Welcome Teamer on ticket duty. “If we could make a little room for my colleague here,” he says, leading the way for the trolley pusher, now with his vehicle laden with two huge bins full to the brim with empty wine bottles.

We all shuffle out of their way, reforming the queue in their wake.

“Have I ripped you?” asks the Welcome Teamer as the trolley pusher disappears through the doors. We all nod. All ripped round here.

As one, the two Welcome Teamers open up the double doors with such ceremony I almost expect there to be a trumpet player on the other side ready to launch into a fanfare.

Instead the cry of “Has everyone been ripped?” reigns out as we walk through.

“Just remember to turn off your phone,” comes the voice of a Welcome Teamer as we make our way down the hall. “Straight down and to the right.”

I try to work out were we are in relation to the Maria, but it’s dark and this place is a labyrinth. I just focus on following everyone else and not getting lost.

Straight down. Turn right.

And there we are. The Clare. Bright and shining after so long in the dark.

A Welcome Teamer in a red polo shirt is handing out freesheets. “Wherever you like,” he says, indicating the multitude of options there are with seating.

The stage is a small square, set in the middle of the room at an angle. Around in, on four sides, are four matching banks of seats. Two rows. Seats set into wooden fortresses. The same colour as the walls, which look like someone has been having a lot of fun with panels of plywood and a nail gun.

I pick a seat in the second row, on the end, so that I’m forming a point of the diamond.

The seats begin to fill up.

“If you’re holding drinks,” announces the Welcome Teamer, “keep hold of them and don’t put them on the floor.”

“What did he say?” asks my neighbour.

“Don’t put your drinks on the floor,” her friend replies, with an audible roll of the eyes.

I say fair enough though. There isn’t much legroom and cups are liable to get kicked down there. And with all this pale wood… well, I wouldn’t envy the poor sod attempting to scrub red wine out of it.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts inspecting it. “This doesn’t tell you what it’s about,” she says. “It’s just who’s in it.”

I open up my own to have a look for myself. She’s not wrong. There’s a cast list. And two biogs. One for the writer. One for the director. Nothing about the actor… which seems like a strange decision to make when there’s only one of them.

No dogs I notice. I do enjoy a dog on stage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the top things I enjoy seeing. I’ve even been known to book a show on the strength of its canine casting. I would say the same about cats, but I think I’ve only seen a cat once on stage. In an opera. She was called Girlie and she was very talented. Really captured the essence of ‘cat’ by sleeping and then running off stage.

“They’ve added in these seats,” my neighbour continues. “I wonder if they had complaints.”

Yes, I was wondering about that. Not the late addition of them, I’ve never been in this space before. But their arrangement. Actual chairs, sunk into wooden structures. Their legs hidden in the box below. “Before you just sat on it,” she explains.

That doesn’t sound all that comfy. This arrangement is much better. Even if it is a little bit odd-looking.

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The actor, Alex Austin comes out and perches on the edge of the stage. He looks sad. I’m not surprised. Probably got a look at those freesheets.

The Welcome Teamer is hanging out the door, peering down the dark corridor, on the lookout for latecomers.

Someone does come in.

She takes one of the reserved seats, just across from me. She gets out a notebook and positions it on her lap.

Time for another round of Blogger or Director? Nah. I recognise her. No missing that fabulous hair. So shiny. Straight out of a Pantene ad. She used to work at my work. And now look at her! A fancy director.

The lights dim.

Austin gets up. He’s ready to tell us a story. A story of fists and fear and running away. A story of hunger and hiding. A story of dogs.

He pauses, grinning as he looks around the audience, after telling us about how the white dog ate his potato.

We all aww in response. A couple sitting across from me look at each other and smile.

We are all utterly charmed.

The lights flash back on. I’m left squinting against the brightness. Austin turns around, holding our stares, not allowing us to blink.

I curl round my shoulders and try to hold his gaze against the onslaught of the light, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

Just as my poor eyes grow used to this blazing light, the theatre dims once more.

Austin finishes his story. A few snuffles make their way around the audience.

He’s moved on. Started a new life.

And at the end, it is the empty stage that gets the spotlight.

Our applause brings him back though. He bows in one direction, and then the other, before bouncing off the stage and out the door in a gigantic leap that he must have learnt from the dogs.

Know your Onions

It’s the Park Theatre today!

I am very excited. Can you tell?

Not that I give a crap about the Park Theatre you understand. I mean, I’m sure it’s just swell. I’ve never been, so I can’t comment.

No, what I’m excited about is the theatre’s Getting Here page on their website.

A strangely specific thing to get worked up about, you may think. And I’ll grant you there is some truth in that. It is both strange, and specific. But I have my reasons. And those reasons are dog related.

After providing (very good and detailed) instructions on how to get to the theatre from the tube station, they go on to provide a video of the route. Featuring a dog. Called Hazel. It is super cute, and Hazel is adorable. And whoever came up with this idea is an excellent person and I approve of the entire endeavour.

My only criticism, and I’m not sure they are even taking notes at this stage, is that they say the walk takes four minutes, and yet the video is all of thirty seconds. If I had a touch more time on my hands, I’d be campaigning for real-time Hazel walkies. But as it is, I’m a bit busy. So off to the Park I go. Taking the suggested route, from the tube station. It takes about four minutes.

When I get there, the big glass windows at the front of the building are all open, and people are making full use of the the evening sun, sitting outside and doing the mostest to bring some European cafe culture to Finsbury Park.

There’s no sign of Hazel, but I’m sure she’s inside lolling around on a cool floor somewhere.

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I go in, have a quick look around for any potential dog action, and with no wagging tails in sight, head over to the box office.

I give my surname, and the box officer pulls the ticket out of the box and hands it to me.

I look at it and start laughing.

“Mr Today Tix?” I ask. “I like that.”

You see, when you buy tickets through the TodayTix app, as I did for this trip, theatres usually process the company as the buyer, and then handwrite the audience member’s name on each one in time for collection. I think almost all theatres that use the app do this. With the Southbank Centre as the notable exception. They actually went and keyed in my information so that the ticket printed with my actual name on it. But the Southbank Centre are some swish bastards. They’ve got the resources for that kind of service.

Saying that, I don’t think I’ve come across a theatre to offer the app a title so far.

It's nice.

There’s a small display of programmes on the counter. Three quid. Not bad.

“Can I get a programme?”

I can, and we go about the business of my handing over cash and him sorting out my change.

Now what?

There doesn’t seem to be much seating here. And it’s too early to go in.

I wander outside and find a bollard to lean against, and start sorting out all my stuff.

I make to slip the ticket in my pocket, but give it one final look.

Mr Today Tix.

How silly.

Out of interest, I get out my phone, go to the Park’s website, and try to set up an account. They’re running the standard Spektrix system to handle their bookings, and the Title field is freetext. Not a dropdown. Meaning that whoever set up TodayTix as Mr Today Tix has some thoughts on the matter of titling inanimate software.

I’m not sure how appropriate it is to be gendering apps, but still… I got a giggle out of it.

Right, ticket analysed, it’s time to turn my attention to the…

Shit.

I trot back to box office.

“Sorry! I didn’t actually take a programme,” I say, feeling like a right idiot. I’m really getting old. I can’t deal with late nights and alcohol. Despite all the shenanigans last night, I woke up feeling quite fresh this morning. Tired, yes. But not furry of tongue and sticky of eye. I was fine. It was only when the headache hit after lunch that I realised that the reason I didn’t wake up with a hangover, is because I woke up still drunk.

Honestly, once this marathon is over, I’m fully committing to a 10pm bedtime.

“Oh, did you not?” says the box officer, having the grace to sound surprised.

I take one and go back outside.

It’s a nice little programme. There are interviews and things. I’d pay three quid for it. I mean, I did actually pay three quid for it. But even outside the confines of the marathon, and research, and whatever else I’m using to justify my programme buying habit, I would pay three quid for it. It’s worth the coin.

From inside there’s an announcement. The house for Napoli, Brooklyn is now open.

I suddenly realise that I've come across has a comma in the title.

That's unusual. We had Life, Apparently at Hoxton Hall. And I'd made a big fuss about the comma then.

I hope this isn't becoming a trend. Punctuation confuses me.

People start to make their way back inside. But slowly. No one wants to give up the sun quite yet.

I wait a few minutes. I’ve still got time.

But then I remember I hate being in the sun, so I follow everyone back in.

Back across the foyer, past the box office and bar, down a short flight of steps and then…

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Getting out my ticket again because there are two different doors and I need to check my seat number to find out which one I need.

Funny. There’s no one out here. Both doors are free of ticket checkers.

I’m on my own.

Which is fine.

I know what I’m doing. I know my seat number and can work out which door I need like the big girl I am, but still. There’s usually someone directing traffic at these junctions.

For a brief moment I wonder if time has slipped away from me, that I stepped into a faerie ring on my way in, and without knowing, took hours to get to the other side. Perhaps the show has already started, and that’s why there’s no one out here.

I go through the nearest door, into a small antechamber, and emerge on the other side at the back of the stalls.

And there’s a ticket checker waiting.

Oh. Right.

That’s okay then.

“C43?” I ask as she comes over to me. The door I took had said seat numbers up to 43, so that must mean… “Am I on the end here?” I say, pointing towards the furthest seat on the back row, right down by the back corner of the thrust stage.

“Err. Yes,” she agrees and off I go.

The view… isn’t great.

Okay, it’s not bad. I’m sure I won’t miss anything of importance. But there seems to be a kitchen in my sightline.

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Well, I suppose that’s what you get if you shudder at the thought of paying more than fifteen pounds for anything.

Looks like quite a few people were shuddering. The theatre has been filling up, but the side rows are still on the sparse side and it looks like the balcony has been closed off.

As for my ticket, what fifteen pounds gets you is a spot on a bench right next to the wall. Wait, is it a wall. It seems to be moving… Just as I begin to wonder whether I’m hallucinating, or possibly still drunk from last night, the wall that isn’t a wall moves again. Like a curtain with the window open behind it. And then I hear voices. People are talking on the other side.

A second later, the house lights are down and an actor is emerging from behind the wall and placing a halved onion under each of her eyes in turn, trying to make herself cry.

My row is still half empty. While Madeleine Worrall’s matriarch Luda tries to get her cry on, I slide down the bench to get a better view.

The onions can’t get the job done. She must be all cried out. I would be too, if I had a daughter sent to a convent, with a broken nose after facing the wrath of my husband. Or a second daughter who refuses to eat. Or a third who had to be pulled out of school in order to help bring money in, and has cuts all over her hands as the result of hard labour.

That’s a well that even an onion can’t fill.

But oh, they try.

While one onion can barely make a space, a wagon-full may bring up the water level.

By the end of the first act, the stage is covered in the things. Hundreds of them. A few have bounced off the edge, despite the presence of the guard rail, presumably put there to keep the pesky things in.

Audience members in the front row pick them up as they retrieve their bags from under their seats. A few of them send their bulbs ricocheting across the stage like air hockey pucks, and they bounce into the set with a small thud.

But it was all in vain, as stage managers come out to reset for the second act, and they bring the big brooms with them, sliding the onions off into the various corners. Out of the way, but still very much present.

One of them starts to read off a check list of items why another confirms their presence.

“Six forks on the left.”

“Yup.”

“Six knives in the middle.”

“Yup.”

“Six plates with napkins on top.”

“Err. Three, fourfive. Yup.”

“Tea towels?”

“Yes.”

And on they go, detailing out this well stocked dinner service.

As the family settle down to eat, I wonder why I’m not feeling hungry, as I usually do when actors are munching away on stage. They keep on talking about what a great cook Luda is (and she herself agrees with that assessment), but all we’ve seen her do is pick at a few green beans. There’s no onstage cookery going on here. No working hob. No warm and hearty smells swirling around the auditorium.

I could do with something warm and hearty right now.

It’s not warm at all in here.

I put on my jacket and cross my arms, shivering in my seat.

Across the way I see a woman bring out her scarf and wrap it around her shoulders.

It’s freezing in here.

I can’t stop shaking.

Even when I emerge into what’s left of the sunshine, I have to keep on rubbing at my arms until the warmth manages to eke its way under my skin.

As I retrace my steps back to the station, I make a mental note to save my trip to their studio space for when it’s really hot. That air con is top notch after all.

When August hits, I might ask to move in.

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I Got Played

I’ve broken the pattern. I’m not on the Southbank. I’m north of the river, which is rather exciting. It's been a while. I'm in Hammersmith! Usually this would mean a quick stop off at the Crosstown concession in the tube station, but it’s a 7pm start so I better get myself shifted. Thankfully the theatre is just down the road. You can see it from the station, the massive logo peeking around the side of the pub like a friend winking at you in a crowded party.

And it is a friend now, because I’ve already done the main house. But I’m back to tackle the studio. Something that’s been a bit tricky getting myself into as the good people at the Lyric seem to mainly programme kids’ shows in that space. Thankfully I was saved from that fate by the Lyric Ensemble. Some sort of youth group. With new writing. I don’t know. I'm sure I’ll find out soon enough.

There are three box officers behind the counter tonight. They all grin wildly as I step in the door.

“Hello!” calls over the middle one in what must be the friendliest welcome I’ve had in a theatre so far.

The main house is dark at the moment. Noises Off doesn’t open until tomorrow. For now, the studio is ruling the joint. So it’s nice and quiet. And the box office team seem to be enjoying it.

I do the whole business of giving my name and middle bloke digs out my ticket from the box.

“That’s the second floor,” he says. “In the studio.”

I go upstairs, but I have no intention of going to the studio quite yet. The sun is shining, and there’s a terrace I need to become reacquainted with. I mean, you know how much I love a terrace. And the Lyric has gone a pretty mega one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one to have had this idea. There are a lot of people out here. A lot of young people.

A bench near the entrance is covered from one end to the other with stacks of pizza boxes and the general vibe seems to be sitting around cross-legged, holding slices of pizza, and laughing.

Not wanting to be the spectre at the feast, I head over to the wall overlooking Lyric Square and make friends with the pigeons instead.

Some people might consider this a bit of a low point in my life. Communing with pigeons while surrounded by teenagers having a pizza party, but to them I say… you’re probably right, let’s move on.

I do, heading back inside and making my way to the studio, which is conveniently all of ten steps away. I flash my ticket at the door and the ticket checker waves me through.

The studio is bright, with white walls and a wooden floor. No black box nonsense here.

“Just to let you know, there’s no readmission,” says a front of houser.

“Right thanks.”

Another front of houser comes over. “Would you like a free programme?”

I absolutely would. She pulls a freesheet out of the pile in her arms and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to choose where to sit.

It looks like the seating that is usually in here has been folded up and pushed back against the wall. Instead, chairs have been brought in, placed on three sides around a stage that looks like a box of earth. Each side has two rows.

I decide I’m not really feeling the front row today, so I put myself in the second. That seems to be the popular choice. Only one person has dared the front row so far.

“No readmission?” says a newcomer on hearing the party line. “So once we’re out, we’re out?” He laughs as the front of houser confirms that, yes, that is the way things are going tonight.

Slowly, the rest of the audiences filters in. The front of housers chat quietly as we all wait for the rows to fill up. One of them fetches a pile of reserved signs and starts laying them done. On the chairs near the entrance, as standard, but also half way down a row on the left, and the furthest seat in that row. All very strange.

I begin to get worried. Reserved seats in the middle of rows. That sounds like the cast might… sit amongst us. And I’m not liking the look of these pieces of paper slipped beneath the chairs. I’m tempted to get mine out and have a look at it, but I’m not sure I want to know.

“There’s no readmission, so if you need the toilet, you need to go now,” says one of the front of housers to a new group just coming in.

We’re nearly full now.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts reading. “It doesn’t say much about the show,” she says.

I’d just been thinking the same thing. It’s a nice freesheet, don’t get me wrong. Has the title treatment of the show at the top, a blood splattered Mob Reformer, which looks very exciting. There’s a cast list. Creative credits. A note from the director. A nice group photo of the ensemble, and a bit about what that is exactly. And the thanks. Obvs. I spot Conrad Murray’s name in there. That’s cool. I wonder if we’re going to get any beatboxing out of this evening.

A woman in a fabulous satin skirt comes in and takes the reserved seat at the end of the row. She’s holding a notebook and wearing a lanyard, marking for what is quite possibly the shortest round of my Blogger or Director game to date. Director. For sure.

The satin skirt gave it away.

Bloggers can't dress for shit.

The front of housers start directing the stragglers to the few empty seats left going.

“Sorry,” says one usher to the front row. “Can you all move up one, so we have one on the end.” One by one they all shift up to close the gap. “Sorry, do you mind?” she asks the last person to move. They don’t mind, and the end chair on the row is freed up.

But it’s not enough, and soon a front of houser is bringing in a spare seat for the last person standing.

Right. I think we’re done.

The cast certainly think so. Someone comes out, in full medieval garb, and an Amazon box in their arms. “I’m Niamh,” Niamh introduces herself all bright and full of cheer. Her smile only wavers when a newcomer arrives, in jeans. This is Ele. She’s late. Oops.

No matter. There’s a show to be getting on with. Niamh gets out a helmet from her box. It’s made of paper, and very impressive. There’s a grill that covers the lower half of the face, space for the eyes, coverage for the whole, you know, head area. It really is excellent.

And she wants us to make one.

“You’ll find pieces of A3 paper under your chairs,” she says. And with no further guidance, we are left to it.

I get out my piece of paper, and stare at it. It’s exactly what she says it was, a blank piece of A3, and nothing more.

“Remember the eye-holes,” she says encouragingly before handing out some masking tape.

Ah, well. Now we’re talking. There’s a lot that I can do with tape.

I wait for the tape to come around, but the front row are having way too much fun with it, wrapping it around their heads and under their chins as they create elaborate constructions.

“Three minutes!” shouts Ele.

Three minutes. Shit. Okay.

I fold the paper in half. Unfold, and then refold. But the other way. I then tear it in two.

“Two minutes!”

With my thumb, I pock through two eye holes.

“One minute!”

I look up, trying to see if any tape as made it to the second row. Nope. I’m on my own here.

Right then. I lay one side of paper over the other, and concertina the short edges together so that they just about hold together. That’ll do. Not exactly a helmet. It’s lacking the head covering element that the word helmet suggests. It’s more of a mask really. But without tape…

I look around to see what others have done.

Someone has created a sort of 18th century bonnet construction that looks rather dapper. While her friend has curved the paper right over her head, leaving a hole for her bun. That one is rather good too. Both of them used tape though.

Niamh and Ele come around to inspect our work.

“That’s really rather impressive,” says Ele to the bonnet girl. “Have you done this before?”

Bonnet girl nods. She has.

“I can tell… Would you mind coming on stage?”

Turns out bonnet girl would love to go on stage. Which is a good thing, as Ele and Niamh have more in mind for her than a mere fashion parade. They’re going to teach her how to do a battle cry.

Niamh sucks in all the air in the room and lets out a roar.

Eel prepares herself. She cracks her neck and loosens up her shoulders.

We wait.

She cracks her neck and loosens her shoulders again.

And again.

Then she stops.

She’s done.

Okay, it’s bonnet girl’s turn.

Bonnet girl pauses, considering her options. She’s just witnessed two masters at work. She’s got to make it good.

With a flutter of her fingers, she lets out a tiny sigh.

There.

Battle cry done, it’s time to ride off.

“We’ve got a recorder over here,” says Niamh.

Someone in the audience shoots up there hand. “I can play!” she announces.

“Can you? Can you really?” asks Niamh.

The hand shooter confirms that yes, she can. But only the one tune.

“You do you,” says Niamh, handing over the instrument.

And to the sounds of Three Blind Mice, the three of them trot around the stage, depositing bonnet girl back in her seat.

Introduction now over. It’s time for the actual play.

It’s about the peasant revolt of 1381.

Everyone’s angry about taxes. Wat Tyler is going to lead the rebels to London.

And… something’s going on. The front of housers are whispering in the corner.

The director gets up from her seat and rushes over.

There’s a police officer. Standing by the entrance. Talking to the ushers.

The cast press on. I try my best to concentrate, but I can’t help but look over. The police officer looks intense. She’s not letting up.

The director turns to us. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. The cast stumble into silence. “We’re just going to stop the show for a few minutes. If you could all stay in your seats. Actors, you stay on stage please.”

Oh. Oh dear. This does not sound good. Has something happened? In the theatre? Has there been a bomb threat. I bet there’s been a bomb threat. Or perhaps there’s a fire outside. No, they’d be evacuating us if that were the case. Or would they? I mean… fuck. I don’t know.

We all sit quietly, and I can’t help but think of that experiment where psychologists pumped a white gas into a room of people and waited to see what happened. Nothing, it turns out. The people in the room just sat there. All of them waiting for someone else to raise the alarm.

The director looks over to the cast and lowers her voice. “Romario?” She beckons to the actor playing Wat.

He looks back at her, his face reflecting the bafflement in all of ours.

She beckons again.

He steps forward cautiously, off the stage, his arms lifted either side of him, the very picture of confusion. He goes with the police officer.

The director’s lanyard bounces as she rushes to the other side of the room and whispers to someone sitting in the corner.

A second later, she’s by the stage, calling the actors in a huddle.

They nod.

A decision has been made.

“This is Adebayo,” she announces, indicating a young man in a red tracksuit. The person she’d been whispering to in the corner. “He’s our assistant director. He will be stepping in. This is a huge challenge for him, and the rest of the cast, so I hope you will be very supportive.”

We all applaud. But I can’t help but think of Romario.

I hope he’s okay.

I hope his family is okay.

A police officer knocking on the door is never good news. But stopping a play? Fucking hell.

My mind can’t help but go to the car crash my mum was in when I was a kid. And the police having to find my dad to tell him that his wife was in hospital. Fuck. I really hope Romario’s mum is okay. And all the rest of his family members for that matter.

Adebayo steps onto the stage, clutching a script. The cast sing around him, and he keeps his head lowered, his eyes on wodge of papers in his hands, his lips moving as he feverishly reads it.

But all those hours in the rehearsal room must be paying off, because soon he is merely glancing at the lines, and then he’s leaving the script on a stool while he joins in with the action. When it comes time to leave the stage, he takes the stool, and leaves the script.

He’s really going for it. Leading his rebels in a choreographed march around the stage, joining in with the perfectly timed chants, and then delivering a perfect rap performance…

Hang on.

What the fuck? Did I hear that right? Did he really just say “Red Power Ranger”? Like the red tracksuit he’s wearing…

Those fuckers. It’s staged. They staged it.

Did they?

No.

They couldn’t have.

Could they?

Oh fuck. I can’t tell.

Adebayo is back, clutching his abdomen. His hoodie’s unzipped. There’s blood on his t-shirt. Blood on his white t-shirt. Blood that would not have shown up on Romario’s dark robes.

A film appears, projected on the white sail hanging over the stage.

It’s the ensemble. Lolling around on the floor, tapping away on their laptops. It’s a documentary. The making of the very play we’re seeing. And there’s Romario, grinning away with the group.

They’re going on the hunt for the Lord Mayor of London. The present one. Not the 1381 one. That one's dead.

They go on a field trip. Into the City. City with a capital C.

Romario tries to get past a security guard. He’s quickly rebuffed.

He tries again.

This time he gets pushed.

After some more failed attempts by the ensemble, the film ends.

There’s a closing note. They never did get a reply from the Lord Mayor.

And something else: “Romario was issued a police caution.”

Bonnet girl gasps. “It was a set up!”

When the cast return for the curtain call, Romario is amongst them.

The police officer, however, is not.

We file out slowly. All of us turning around, looking back, as if expecting someone to come out and announce it was all a charade.

“I don’t think it was pretend,” says a bloke walking behind me. “I think he really did have to get taken out.”

I don’t know, man.

And I don't like not knowing. It makes me feel itchy and uncomfortable.

Either way, I hope his mum is okay.

Read More

Sing a Song of Level Five

“I love that t-shirt.”

That’s my co-worker. We’re waiting for the lift, trying to get out of the office at the end of the day.

“I love this t-shirt too!”

I’m wearing my Greggs t-shirt. The one that is made up to look like those Gucci t-shirts that were super popular a couple of years ago, except instead of Gucci, it says, well, Greggs. It’s very cool. It always gets a lot of attention. Especially from men in white vans. And contemporary dance proponents, apparently. Must be the vegan sausage rolls.

It’s so cool, in fact, that I literally cannot go outside without getting at least three comments about it… hang on. That sounds like a challenge.

Okay. I’m heading to the Southbank again today. That’s a couple of miles away. About an hour’s walk if I don’t go above a gentle stroll. Which I have no intention of doing. I swear, I’m still recovering from that Midnight Matinee at the Globe (you’re killing me, Shakespeare). Let’s see what kind of attention we can get!

Jacket very firmly looped over arm (I don’t want anything to get in the way on my compliment hunting trip), I set off.

“Love your t-shirt,” a woman calls after me in Holborn.

“Thank you!” I call back.

The bloke she’s with turns to look. “What did it say?”

I straighten out the fabric so he can see. “Greggs!”

“It says Greggs!” says the woman.

“Greggs? Ha. I’ll have a sandwich.”

One down. And I’m not even out of the West End yet.

I nip through Embankment station and go over the bridge.

A woman, a different one, obviously, shakes her head as she passes me. “Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs,” she mutters. She doesn’t sound entirely approving but I’m counting it all that same. Perhaps she just had a dodgy steak bake or something. You can’t blame that on the t-shirt.

I’m on the Southbank now. Right in front of the Royal Festival Hall.

I pause to take a photo.

A few people glance over, but no one stops to comment on the t-shirtage.

I consider taking a turn around the building, give the t-shirt some more exposure amongst all the milling crowds. But it’s starting to rain. And I’ve walked a long way. I kind of want to sit down.

I’m on the ground floor. Next to Foyles. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this way. Probably because it’s dark. And empty. And I’ve always been distracted by the books. But I follow the signs up the stairs, and immediately find the box office, all gleaming wood, made even gleamier by the bright yellow light pouring down on it from above.

I give my name and the box officer dives into that huge wooden chest of tickets that I’d admired at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These are clearly a thing at the Southbank Centre and I very much approve.

“What’s the first name please?” he asks, as if there could possibly be anyone else with my surname here tonight.

“Maxine.”

“Lovely,” he says, flipping over the ticket to see where I’ll be sitting. “You will be on the blue side,” he says, pointing behind him. “That’s the other side of the building. And level five.”

I have to quell the urge to sing “level five” back to him. For reasons. I’ll explain later. Or even right now, because I am heading straight for the Singing Lift.

Do I have to explain the Singing Lift? You know about that, right? I thought everyone knew about the Singing Lift at the Southbank Centre. It even has its own Twitter account.

No? Okay, well, it’s a lift. That sings.

Don’t worry, I’m on my way there now and I can tell you all about it once I get inside.

It’s just round here, on the left, past the sunken ballroom with the neon sign hanging over it. Conveniently on the blue side of the bu8lding. It’s almost like it’s mean to…

Oh. There seems to be a lot of people round here. All wearing Southbank Centre logoed tops. One of them is talking into a radio, and another is sticking something to the glass door of the lift.

I hang back to watch until they’re gone and then go over to have a look what the sign says.

“LIFT OUT OF SERVICE.”

Oh.

Oh.

Oh no.

Damn.

I was really looking forward to that. To hearing the dulcet tones of the lift grow progressively higher until I reach my floor. “Level Fivvveeeeeee.”

I’m really sad now.

Oh well.

No use crying over a broken lift.

There’s an empty table right by the massive windows overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Hall, so I go plonk my stuff on it and sit down. It’s a nice view. I can see the fountain from here. And the car park. It’s very soothing.

“Sorry, can we?” asks a young woman, touching the back of one of the free chairs on the other side of my table.

“Please do!” I say, waving my hand magnanimously at the seats.

She sits down, and is soon joined by the person she’s with. They turn their chairs to face each other and we all promptly stark looking at our phones. They to plan their diaries, me to edit my Turbine Hall blog post. I delete a good deal of it. Not sure I should really say that. Or that. Hmmm.

When I look up, they’re gone.

“Scuse me, is anyone joining you?”

Another person wanting my seats. That’s the price you pay for not having any friends, I suppose.

“No, please go for it!” I assure them.

Anyway, it’s probably time I got moving. I had no intentions of taking an inferior lift up to the fifth floor, so up the stairs it is. I need to give myself plenty of time to acclimatise to the low oxygen levels up there. Otherwise known as wheezing gently as I get puffed out after three flights or so.

There’s a programme seller at the top of the first flight. I stop. As much for a rest as the programme buying potential.

“Can I get one?” I ask.

“That’s five pounds please.”

I get out my purse. Or try to get out my purse. “Sorry,” I say, as I rummage around in my rucksack. “Perils of a large bag.”

“That’s alright,” he says, waiting patiently.

After a painfully long moment, I pull out my purse and see what cash I have on me. “Do you have change for a tenner?” I ask, pulling out a note, and sending my debit card flying to the ground. “Ah! Sorry. I’ll get that.”

But it’s too late. He’s already crouching down to retrieve my wayward plastic.

“Oh, I do have five pounds,” I mumble embarrassed, suddenly spotting the familiar green note poking out from behind a pile of receipts.

I manage to hand over the cash, retrieve my card, and claim a programme, apologise sixteen more times, and all without shaming myself any further. Result. I guess.

Right, there’s no putting it off any longer. Time to tackle those stairs.

I huff and puff my way up the stairs, and let myself be suffused by the smug feeling of satisfaction as I see the sign for level five looming.

“Where are you sitting?”

“Oh, umm. Door D?” I say, showing her my ticket.

“Just up those stairs there and on the left,” she says.

“Stairs?” I manage.

“Just the little ones over there.”

I look over. There’s only four or five of them. I can do this. It’s fine.

There’s a bar up here. I stagger the full length, my knees protesting with every step, until I reach the water jugs at the end. They are frosted with condensation. The water inside blissfully cold. I pour a cup and chug it down in one. Then pour myself another.

Oof. I feel better now.

I can actually look around and see where I am.

There are a few table and chairs dotted around, but the real action seems to be going on outside. On the terrace. I fucking love a terrace.

I go out, and allow the fifth-floor breeze to buffet me.

It's pretty nice out here. You can see Big Ben, resplendent in all its cladding. And... what's that? Written on the side of the bridge?

"DON'T VOTE TORY EVER."

Huh. Good advice, bridge. Well done.

Now that's sorted, I better go back inside.

I find door D, and show my ticket to one of the ticket checks on the door.

"Just on the left there," she says.

I head off to the left.

"Hi! Hello!"

I turn around. It's the other ticket checker. She's chased after me. My hand reflectively lowers to my bag. I really hope she doesn't tell me to take it to the cloakroom. Usually, if I wear my rucksack on my shoulder, it hands low enough to evade the ticket checkers and their whiling ways, but it looks like today I'm not so lucky.

"I love your t-shirt!" she says. "Where's it from?"

Well now! Third compliment. There we go. Yeah, it came a little late. I'm not technically outside anymore. But we are definitely counting this.

I thank her, and tell her where I got it. "Bristol Street Wear? It's this guy who mixes up logos with stuff. Like, he has one which is the Aldi logo, but underneath it says Acid."

"Where's it from again?"

"Bristol Street Wear?" She frowns. "Shall I write it down?"

"Yes please!"

I reach for my bag again. I know there's a pen in there somewhere. The problem will be finding it without lobbing my debit cards all over the place. "Do you have a pen?"

She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a pen. "I have a pen!"

"And paper?"

She pats her pockets. No paper. "Hang on," she says, disappearing back into the bar. A second later, she's back, holding a book. Inside there's a folded piece of paper that looks like it's probably important.

"Shall I write on this?" I ask, doubtfully.

"Yeah, yeah."

I scrawl BRISTOL STREET WEAR across the top in my best capital letters.

"Yeah, he's quite pissy about some of the designers. Doesn't want you to buy them if you live in London. He doesn't want to see hipsters wearing them."

She pulls a face, but gratefully takes the book and paperback and thanks me again.

That done, I skip off to find my seat.

You might have guessed by now, what with the level five action, I'm in the cheap seats tonight. Right at the back. Definitely in a different post code to the stage.

As the seats fill up around me, I realise two things. One - the slips and boxes on the sides are completely empty. And two, this place was really not designed with any appreciation of sightlines. Where previously I'd had a nice, if distant view of a statue's bottom, and half-formed falls of an Italian villa, or something like that, now I was looking straight at the back of someone's head.

I have to sit really straight in my seat in order to look over her. This is going to be a fun night.

I have to admit, I don't know anything about The Light in the Piazza. Other than it's a musical. I think. Possibly an opera. They definitely cast opera royalty in it. So maybe it is an opera.

And nope. It's started now and it's a musical. For sure.

A really quite silly musical.

What the fuck is this?

A girl and her mother go to Italy. The girl falls in love. Sweet, I guess. But the mother keeps on telling us that there's something wrong. But won't reveal what it is until is. To the point that by the time it is revealed, I've stopped caring.

I've even stopped trying to sit straight. I've settled back, slumped, allowing my eyes to rest on whichever performer happens drift into the small slither of stage that I can see.

My stupor is interrupted by the interval.

I decide to use the time to have a look at the programme.

Oh, hey. Turns out the girl is famous. 25 million followers on Instagram. That's quite something.

There's a theory than in order to live off your art, you need 1,000 true fans. Turns out you only need three to sell a t-shirt. I wonder how many you need to sell out the Royal Festival Hall. I look at all the empty seats. A lot more than 25 million, it seems.

"Oh, sorry," I say, as a woman stands next to me.

"Don't worry, I'm here, next to you. I'm just trying to balance these drinks."

She does seem to be rather laden down with them. I can't blame her.

"I'm trying to work out how to make myself taller," she says, as she eventually manages to sort out the drink situation and sit down.

"The rake here is terrible," I agree.

"And the sears are directly in front of each other," she says, fixing a straight line between her seat and the one in front.

"It's so stupid."

"It's not very well designed."

"It's clearly made just for concerts."

She nods. "Yes, it's a concert hall! You're not meant to see anything usually."

On cue, a tall man settles down in the seat directly in front of me, his head completely blocking the stage.

He bobs and weaves, reacting to the person in front of him. Who in turn is moving in tandem with the person in front of her. And, so it goes, all the way down to the front row.

There was a time, when for the nominal fee, you could buy listening seats at the Royal Opera House. So-called because their positioning meant you won't be able to see anything on stage. All you could do was sit back and listen.

I would say that the Royal Festival Hall should institute this policy for the back rows. Classify them all as listening seats. But really, if this is what they have to listen to, better to put a couple of quid towards your next t-shirt purchase. I know a great designer, if you're interested.

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Into the Witching Hour

It's 10pm and I'm at home! This is very exciting. Being at home at 10pm is the holy frickin' grail for me right now. Being at home at 10pm means being in my pyjamas, it means cup of tea in bed, with... and I don't want to go crazy here, but what the hell, it's 10pm and I'm at home... biscuits.

At least, that's what it would usually mean.

Tonight however, things aren't going that way.

It's 10pm and I'm at home, and I'm staring at my clothes wondering whether it's socially acceptable to leave the house in pyjamas when you're not a student anymore. Because I've got a show to see this evening. Night, even.

What does one even wear to a midnight matinee? I need to be comfy. That is high on my list of priorities. And warm. Or possibly cool. I don't understand what's happening with the weather at the moment.

So I pick the only outfit that makes any sense to me: a sheer black, ankle length skirt, and a t-shirt that thinks the Hanson brothers were in Nirvana. In my bag I stuff a cardigan (in case it gets cold), a waterproof jacket (in case it rains), and my sunglasses (in case I need to have a nap).

That works.

Right, let's Robert Frost this bitch. I may not have promises to keep, but I sure as fuck have miles to go before I sleep.

I get to London Bridge just after 11. It's Friday night and the streets are thrumming with people not entirely able to walk in straight lines. I'm having a bit of trouble with that myself, the sheer force of my yawns is sending me off course. I am so bloody tired.

Eventually I fall into step behind a couple heading for the Globe. I know they are heading for the Globe because of their shoes. They are both wearing very sensible, and very comfortable-looking shoes. Now usually I'd say they were tourists, and the shoe-choice was a result of all the pavement-trekking they were intent on doing, but they don't stop to gaze in wonder at the ship, apparently docked in the middle of a backstreet, nor do they pause to take a photo of the glittering silhouettes reflected in the Thames. They've seen it all before. The only explanation for these damn ugly shoes, is that they are intent on standing on a hard concrete floor for the next three hours or so. They are Groundlings. I can feel it.

And sure enough, they turn onto New Globe Walk and step below the huge red O hanging overhead.

Stopped at the door to get my bag checked, I lose sight of them as they got lost in the bustle of excited looking people.

No matter. I'm done stalking them.

"Nope!" says the bag checker, spotting someone trying to sneak in a bike. "You're not bringing that in!"

"It folds up!" protests the bike owner, but he's not having it.

"Well, take it back outside and fold it up then. You're not bringing it in like that."

I leave them too it. I need to go pick up my ticket.

There's a bit of a queue, with three people darting about behind the long counter, rushing from the ticket box to the computer to get through everyone as quickly as possible.

Soon enough I've got my ticket and I'm left to find out what is happening with the programme situation.

You see, I don't know what play is being performed tonight.

And for once it's not my dodgy memory to blame.

I don't know what play it'll be, because no one else does either. And no one will, until it comes time to actually start the damn thing.

So, that's the question isn't it: how do you sell a programme for a show that hasn't been decided on yet?

I get in line at the concession desk to find out.

Looks like I'm not the only one intrigued by this puzzle.

The bloke in front of me has got hold of a copy and is paging through the programme with great interest.

I wait.

The programme seller waits.

But the bloke in front is still reading, apparently unaware that a queue has formed behind him.

The programme seller catches my eye and I side-step this avid reader, hand over a fiver, and walk away with my prize.

No time to celebrate quite yet though. I've got another queue that needs joining.

I go upstairs and make my way over to the doors that lead outside, and show my ticket. "Stand wherever you like," says the ticket checker, nodding me through.

It's busy out here. People buying wine and renting cushions from the concession stalls around the outer wall of the theatre. I don't have any time for that nonsense though.

I make my way around the curved wall and towards the door marked Yard & Lower Gallery.

Yup, I'm a Groundling too tonight. I mean, you've got to, haven't you? If you're doing to Globe, might as well do it proper like.

The queue starts here, hugs close around the white walls, back towards the brick building behind. Stops. And then restarts.

I look at the two woman standing several feet from the end of the queue.

"Is this a gap in the queue?" I ask, wagging my hand between the two points.

"Yes, they asked us to leave a break," says one, pointing towards the glass doors that lead to the loos.

"That makes sense," I say, falling into line behind them.

There's not much to do now but wait. I get out the programme to see what I've bought myself.

Turns out, it's programme covering all three play options for tonight. Ah, ha. I see. The show, whatever it is, is being performed by the Globe's touring company. So all that had to do was put the touring programme on sale. Makes sense.

The queue grows and grows, snaking back on itself.

And then the doors open.

I mean...

As first impressions go, Shakespeare's Globe has got it down.

That painted canopy of stars, glowing against the inky black of the midnight sky.

It's a little bit magical.

The first people in line race to take up the prime spots, right in front of the stage. That's what they waited for. And that's their reward.

The front edge of the thrust is all taken up by the time I get in. A second row is already beginning to form.

I have a choice: good view, or leaning space.

It's nearly midnight and if I'm to have any chance of getting through this, I need something to lean on.

I walk to the far end of the stage. There's no one down here. Except one of the red tabarded stewards.

"Is it okay to stand around here?" I ask her.

"Go for it!" she says.

"I just never like being the first..."

"It's always good to be first."

Well, she's not wrong. Being first means that I can tuck myself in next to the stairs that branch off the side of the stage. Not a great view. There's a bloody huge pillar taking up a huge amount of the sight-line, but it does mean that I can wedge myself in between the stage and the steps.

The yard fills up. The seats in the surrounding balconies too, but not nearly as much. You have to be a hardcore fan to want to do Shakespeare in the middle of the night. Those people like to be close to the action. Even if it means they get owie feet in exchange.

A group of girls arrive and take up position next to me. They've wearing glitter on their faces.

"What happens if someone does a speech right there?" asks one of them, pointing at the pillar.

"So what? Get over it," her friend replies.

Music starts. Coming through the Groundlings as the performers make their way to the stage.

They're all wearing variations on the same outfit. Blue and greys, with what looks like a cross between Tudor hose and a pinafore dress, making the lot of them look as if they just escaped from the prep school assembly.

Everyone giggles as Mark Desebrock twangs a strange vibrating instrument, and cheers as Andrius Gaucas does the splits.

Their tune ends, and it's time to pick a play.

How are they going to do it? Well, they're not. We are. The audience.

Oh god. There's going to be shouting, isn't there?

We have a test run.

"I'm going to say a play, and you pretend you really want to see it..." says one of the performers who has introduced himself as Eric.

Everyone cheers and claps.

"Come on," says Beau Holland. "Let's wake up the neighbours: Cinderella!"

More cheering and clapping. A few people pound on the stage to really show their enthusiasm.

But who will be analysing the data? Well, the team have a solution for that.

A beach ball appears.

"The first person to catch it will throw it to the second person. The second person will throw it to the third. The third person will be our independent adjudicator."

Sounds simple enough.

The beach ball is lobbed into the yard. Someone grabs it and bats it onwards. Again it's caught and passed on. And then promptly disappears. Sinking below the line of the crowd.

We all groan.

But no, someone's got it.

"What's your name?" asks Eric (or Eric Sirakian to give him his full name).

"Tash!"

"A round of applause for Tash!"

And then it began. The choosing of the play.

"Who wants to see Comedy of Errors?"

The girls next to me scream. They really want to fucking see Comedy of Errors.

I stay silent. I really fucking don't. Fucking hate that play.

Next up...

"Twelfth Night!"

Palms pound on the stage and the night air is filled with hollering.

I join in with the clapping. I do like Twelfth Night. I mean, I've already seen it once this week. But it's a good play. And frankly, anything is better than Comedy of Errors.

"And Pericles!"

You can almost hear the tumbleweed blow through over the sound of polite clapping.

"Come on guys!" says a bloke near me. "Pericles is really good."

Yeah, whatever mate.

A few more people join in. Getting louder and louder as they realise it's all up to them whether they win this thing. The Pericles contingent may be small, but they have some lungs on them.

It's over to Tash now.

"Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles! Per-i-cles!"

"I think some people want to see Pericles?" she says, doubtfully.

A round of boos is turned on Tash.

Eric and Beau are pressing her for an answer.

"Twelfth Night?"

The girls next to me groan.

"Cinderella!" shouts the Pericles guy.

Someone rushes on stage with an orange robe and holds it out for Evelyn Miller. She's to be our Orsino.

"If music be the food of love, play on..."

And so we're off. My second Twelfth Night of the week.

Actors start to reappear on the stage, now wearing costumes over their pinafores. Andrius' Olivia in a jewelled veil. Mark Desebrock’s Malvolio in a smartly tailored coat. Beau's Sir Andrew in a plush green doublet that I just want to rub my cheek against, it looks so soft.

The characters begin the business of getting themselves all in a tangle.

I'm really glad I've seen this play before. I'm even more glad that I saw it four days ago... or is it five? I can't work it out. Either way, I'm glad. Because my brain is starting to slow down as the cool night air drifts down through the open roof.

I am so fucking tired. I cross my arms on top of the stage and rest my chin on them, allowing the actors' voices to lull me to... nope. Got to stay awake. I haven't fallen asleep in a theatre yet and I'm not about to start now.

I push myself away from the stage, swaying slightly on my feet before I fall against the sturdy side of the steps, and there I stay, sometimes leaning my back against, it, sometimes just my hip. But always in constant contact. May the theatre gods bless and preserve those steps from woodworm for ever more.

"To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early," says Colin Campbell as Sir Toby Belch, staggering up those same steps before throwing a beer over my head and into the yard. Natasha Magigi's Feste follows on behind, belting out a note that blasts my ears.

In the interval, people sink to the ground, putting their knees at risk for the sake of their feet.

I'm about to join them but someone has plonked themselves down on my steps, and if anyone should be sitting on those steps its me.

I go sit next to her.

A steward comes over.

"Sorry ladies, you're not allowed on the stage."

I heave myself back up and find a spare patch of ground to sit on.

I'm worried about what the rough floor will do to my sheer skirt, so I lay down my jacket first, feeling very Walter Raleigh as I do so, and sit on that.

"You need to keep an eye on those stairs," one steward whispers to another, as if we're a litter of naughty puppies who have to be kept away from the Sunday roast.

The young girls next to me seem to have got over their Comedy of Errors loss and are now eating sandwiches.

A steward comes. "Hi ladies," she says to the young girls. "Are you enjoying the show? It's time to get up now."

Shakespeare, it seems, cannot be taken sitting down.

We all struggle to our feet. And it is a struggle. 

It's cold now. Properly cold. I put on my jacket.

My feet aren't too happy about being called on again so soon. I am not wearing ugly-comfy-sensible shoes tonight. They'd be alright, my feet, in my stompy boots, I think. But after 150 theatres they finally gave out on me. A huge crack has split the left soul. So I'm wearing inferior boots. And they're fine. But they are letting me know there's a good possibility that they won't be find in the near to immediate future.

As Cesario gets caught in a scrape after the reappearance of Sebastian, I shift my weight foot to foot, and cross my arms to keep my jacket close.

On stage the characters all work it out. True love reigns. And the company do their closing gig.

But we're not done yet. Mogali Masuku steps forward.

"Thank you, you wonderfully insane people," she says. This gets a cheer. Everyone likes being thought of as slightly insane, don't they? Or at least vaguely eccentric. That is surely most of the appeal of midnight matinee - the ability to shock your friends when you tell them about it afterwards.

"Thank you for playing with us this evening." She pauses. "This morning...?  I don't want to keep you much longer, but this year is the centenary, one hundred years since the birth of Sam Wanamaker." She pauses again for the audience to react. "By the sound of that cheer you haven't heard of him, but he created this beautiful place." She sweeps her arm around to encompass the circular beauty of the Globe. "Without government funding. And it's still like that now. No funding from the government, and we're trying to raise a hundred thousand pounds. The stewards, who are all volunteers by the way, will be standing with buckets. We hope you might throw in a few pennies... or a few pounds, of if you're really tired, perhaps some paper notes too.

"Thanks so much for playing with us tonight and good MORNING!"

And with one final cheer from the audience to chase the actors backstage, they're gone.

And it's time for us to leave too. 

Struggling to stay awake on the night-tube, I finally emerge back in Finchley just as the sky is beginning to lighten. I walk the rest of the way home to the sounds of the dawn chorus, and crash into my pillow face first.

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I blame Natalia

Way back in the midsts of time, when Cadbury sold out to Kraft, the coalition government was first coalilating, and everyone was freaking out about a dust cloud, little Maxine, fresh-faced and filled with hope, went to the ballet. She had been to the ballet before, but had never really got what the fuss was about. All a bit pink and silly, she thought. She was working a corporate job in the city. Dedicating her life to making even more money for people who were already far richer than she would ever be. She didn't exactly enjoy it, but she had graduated straight into the recession and was told by pretty much everyone she should be grateful for what she could get. In the mornings, she used to take the tube to Leicester Square and walk to her office from there, right through the West End. After a while, all the bright posters with their promises of excellent night outs got to her, and she started to see a few shows. They were okay. Then the Bolshoi came to town. She'd heard of the Bolshoi. They were that famous Russian ballet group, weren't they? She decided that as a sophisticated young lady, she should probably take in some proper culture and go see them. If only to say that she had, in fact, seen them. So she did. She booked a performance pretty much at random, and off she went. And there she saw Natalia Osipova.

And that, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the beginning and end of everything

She saw a lot of ballet after that. A lot of ballet.

She also started talking about herself in third person.

Eighteen months later, she quit her corporate job that she was really and truly, very grateful for, and got an unpaid internship in the arts, leading her on the path that would one day result in her declaring that she was going to see a show in every theatre in London within a single year.

Frankly, I blame Natalia.

As the dancer who really did start it all for me, the catalyst to the person you know and... know, today, I couldn't not include Osipova's show in the marathon.

So I'm going to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see it, and get the first of the Southbank Centre venues checked off the list.

The Southbank Centre always manages to confuse me. It's so big and sprawling. With entrances and staircases and terraces all over the place. I can't remember exactly where the QEH is. I've been there before. But only once. And that was a fair number of years ago. But thankfully, someone on team Southbank Centre has realised the problematic scale of their, well, scale, and the entrance I need it marked out in huge letters. QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL. With a handy reminder of one of the other venues that I need to go to listed underneath: PURCELL ROOM.

No good getting ahead of myself there. I try and find a spot on on this terrace to take a photo of the building. It's tricky, as there's a bloody great fountain in the middle of it. And while the weather is pretty good, I'm not overly keen on getting soaked right at this minute. Not that other people have any qualms about that. There's someone standing stock still in the middle of all the spurting water. He's wearing a suit. With a buttonhole. And looks quite content in there

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