Feeling salty

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre

 

I’m on my way to Sloane Square. I’m walking because I never learn my lesson on this. I’m in that funny hinterland between The Mall and Eaton Square, were all the buildings look like they are being kept as doll’s houses for a series of life-size and creepily realistic, mannequins. They’re all too large and ornate to real.

I cross a road, and behind me I hear a whistle.

As in an actual whistle. The type blown by the games teachers in my nightmares.

It chirrups. Like a bird that only knows two notes. Once. And then again. Followed a few seconds later by a repeat performance.

I turn around just as a police motorcycle squeezes out from between the traffic, twisting around, and stopping right in the middle of the crossing. The officer puts out their hands, stopping the traffic.

We all wait, me and the cars, to see what happens.

A truck emerges, pulling a car behind it.

In the distance, I hear sirens.

Oo. That must have been one hell of an accident.

The truck and its XXX pass through.

A motorbike emerges from the other side of the road.

The police offer blows on their whistle with an angry chirrup, and raises their gloved hand to point accusingly at the motorbike.

The motorbike slows to a stop. I can almost see the rider’s embarrassment as he receives his telling off through the medium of hand gestures.

They’re not letting anyway go. We’re stuck, as surely as if the road had been covered in treacle. Waiting for the chirrupy whistle to release us.

Just as I decide that if I don’t get a move on I’m going to be late for my play, other bike putters into the crossing. Followed by a car. A very fancy car. A car with a flag on the bonnet. A diplomatic flag. Wait, no. Not diplomatic flags. Those are royal flags. I’m not fan enough of the monarchy to be able to tell you which one, but it had a lot of yellow and there was definetly a XXX in that vehicle. It’s followed closely by a rather more pedestrian looking minivan, with a small crest on the door, and a panda car.

I turn around to leave.

On my right, I hear a strange clank. I look over. The bus driver is opening is window.

“That’s the closest we’ll ever get to that,” he calls over to me.

I laugh, and he wrestles the window closed again before moving on.

I head in the other director. Towards the Royal Court.

The show in the main house has already gone in. Box office is empty.

I give my name to one of the ladies sitting behind the counter.

“Is this for Salt?” she asks.

It is.

“We're trialling e-tickets today,” she continues breezily, as if this statement were not an attack on everything I stand for. “So they'll be waiting for you upstairs to be swiped in.”

I stare at her, unable to formulate a response that isn’t laden with either swearwords or desperate, tear-filled pleas.

“Right,” I manage at last.

“It’s on the fourth floor. Up the stairs.”

Four floors. That’s a long time to mull things over. I make my way up them slowly, unsure what to make of this whole thing. The Royal Court, the Royal fucking Court, has fallen victim to the plague of e-tickets. If even the Royal fucking Court cannot withstand this onslaught, what hope is there of getting a proper ticket at a fringe venue? Is this it? Is this the end of the printed ticket?

2019. The year I attempted the London Theatre Marathon. The year of the Ticketpocolapse

By the time I hit the balcony level, I’m feeling a little wobbly. Some might say that this is due to climbing three flights of stairs after a three mile walk across the city, but I know better.

This is the end.

Once printed tickets have gone, it’s only a matter of time before programmes go the same way.

Result: unemployment, hardship, debt, penury, death.

The Royal Court is literally killing me here.

The queue has already curled its way down from the top floor. I only need to go up a few steps from the balcony to reach it.

I lean against the wall, trying to get my breath back.

I am really, very, upset about this.

“Does this work for press tickets?” someone in the queue below me asks a passing usher.

“Just give your name. They have a new system.”

“Yes, but does it work for press tickets?”

“It’s just a list on the door.”

Printed tickets banished in favour of a list on the door. My heart withers inside of me.

A new group joins the queue. A blonde woman who I immediately take to be their spokesperson leans around the balustrade to get a good look up the stairs. “This trial doesn’t seem to be going very well,” she says.

I want to tell her that it is always like this for the upstairs theatre. That the queue grows and grows, making its way down the stairs like a tangled slinky until moments before the start time, when the doors and opened, and we are allowed to trudge our way up the final steps.

The queue starts moving, and we trudge those final steps.

The stairs narrow, and get darker. The only lights the ones illuminating the display or red and yellow Royal Court posters back from before they invented blue.

“It’s a bit dangerous isn’t it?” someone puffs behind me.

There’s a landing at the top of the stairs. A small foyer where we can catch our breath and deal with the ticket checker.

He has a tablet. The screen is Spektrix green. The same set-up used by the Vaults.

Is this it? Is this what I fought and died for? To be sent away from an empty box office, in order to queue in the dark, and get my name ticked up on a slightly clunky booking system beloved by small venues?

Look, I get this is only a trial. And a Monday, when tickets at the Royal Court are sold on the day, is as good a time as any to trial this. But come on. This is a nonsense. Don’t disband a queue from a location set up to deal with it, and put it upstairs in a poky room with no space for this sort of thing, forcing people to wait way longer than they should, on the fringgin’ stairs.

I get my name checked off and pick up a castsheet from the display on the wall. I don’t see any programmes for sale. Which is odd, as there is usually a playtext going.

Oh well.

I go in, keen to see what configuration they’ve got going on up here today.

Turns out, it’s a bog-standard rake. But I’ve not paying attention to that. I’m too busy staring at the goggles. Actual goggles. Of the kind worn by GCSE chemistry teachers across the land.

They’re on the seats. Placed ready and waiting for the occupents. But only on the first two rows.

A few brave theatre goers are already wearing them on their heads, and looking way cooler than I could ever hope to emulate.

I decide to sit further back.

Whatever projectiles are flying tonight, I want no part of it.

“The rule is, when I am wearing my goggles, you wear yours,” says XXX as the show starts.

That’s a good rule.

XXX tells the tale of a journey. A retracing of the steps of the ancestors of the play’s writer Selina Thompson. The slave ships that would have taken them from Ghana to Jamaica. Of the racism that still exists on these routes. That still exists everywhere. The opposing forces of home and history. The blood that has soaked into the stones of Europe.

And I can’t help but think of the traffic being stopped to make way for the unknown royal. And the pristine buildings of Eaton Square, kept up and maintained even though the sit empty with darkened windows. And the bus driver’s comment: “That’s the closest we’ll ever get to that.”

The visible evidence of an intangible wrong. Untouchable because of words like tradition, and history, and culture. Unmoveable because they have existed for centuries, their foundations sinking ever deeper into the earth.

And then the sledgehammer comes out. She slips her goggles on. The people in the first two rows follow her lead.

XX pounds on the salt, her blows attacking the men on the ship, and the forces that govern them. Crushing them each into dust. But also crushing herself. Everyone compressed under this terrible force, but the people at the bottom of her list, they are the ones who receive the most blows.

“XXX”

The queue to leave pushes back right into the theatre. I find myself standing on the stage, looking at the shrine XXX built on the table. Shoes. A wreath. Salt.

I try and step back. It feels wrong somehow, to be standing so close to something that feels so personal.

There’s no where to go. I turn my shoulder, as if to offer the shrine some privacy.

From this new angel, I spot something. From beyond the crowd, there is the red flash of an usher’s polo shirt. And in her hands…

“Can I get a playtext?” I ask, finally managing to inch my way towards her.

“Four pounds, please.”

“I only have a twenty…”

Turns out that’s fine. Because she has exactly sixteen pounds left in her money bag. She counts out the pound coins into my palm, just to double check.

My purchase seems to have started a run on playtexts, because I hear someone else asking about them as I rejoin the queue.

“How much are the programmes?”

“Four pounds, but I’m afraid I don’t have any change.”

Ooops. My bad.

I slink away in shame, my feet shuffling as the queue moves forward.

XXX is sitting out in the small foyer. As promised, she holds a basket.

A young woman is turning over the pebbles of salt, trying to find one she likes. “I feel bad taking a big one,” she says.

“Don't worry we crush it every night,” says XXX.

I smile to myself. She definitely crushed it.

It’s the guy in front’s turn at the basket. And he’s also a cautious fellow, digging through the basket to locate a small one.

“Well I'm gonna take a big bit,” I announce when I get to the basket. If one is going to be greedy, one might as well be blatant about it.

“Go for it,” says XXX, cheerfully.

So I do.

It weighs heavy in the pocket of my 49er, dragging down one side of my jacket as I make my way back down four flights of stairs and out through the side door that will take me to Sloane Square station.

On the train, I take it out and look at it. It’s pink, and covers my fingers with a dusting of powder. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. I have plenty of theatre treasures tucked away in storage boxes. I listed them some of them in a post not so long ago. But this is different. This isn’t a prize. It’s a monument. A testimony. The intangible made tangible. And better than any fucking ticket.

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The Curious Case of Currywurst and Cold Chips

A few days ago I was debating whether I would tell you if I ever got stood up. Turns out I absoluetly would, because it's happened. Your gurl has been stood up. Although I'm not sure it counts as a true standing up if you get advance notice. Okay, I got cancelled on. Surely that is bad enough?

Anyway, cue me contacting every single person I have ever met in my entire life to dangle the offer of a free ticket to a new musical in front of them and it is Allison who takes the bait. We haven't had a theatre outing together since Valentine's day, when she ditched her husband to come to the Donmar with me, and I think we can all agree three months is far too long to wait for a second date. But I can't complain. Not when Allison is stepping in the rescue me from embarrassing solitude once more. That's true friendship, that is.

We meet outside the theatre, pop in to pick up our tickets, and then head out for the really important part of the evening: dinner.

"Where do you wanna go?" asks Allison.

I'd suggested Borough Market and leftover cupcakes from my work's bake sale in my tempting messages that afternoon, but the situation has since developed and I have my eye on the Mercato Metropolitano marketplace on the other side of the road.

"Wow, that looks intense," says Allison as we look through the open doors at the long queue getting searched by multiple security guards.

"Let's try the next door," I suggest. In my earlier recognisance walk-by, I'd spotted that the last door seemed to be the most lax on the whole security-thing.

We try the next door, and get our bags checked.

It’s Friday night and the place is packed.

Every chair, table, and possible flat surface, is occupied. But curiously, each of the stalls is utterly devoid of queues.

The two of us walk around, trying to decide what we want to eat.

“Turkish German?” says Allison. “That’s a weird combination.”

“That is a weird combination… but oh, look! They have currywurst! I love currywurst!”

Allison has never had currywurst before, so it becomes my personal mission to educate her on the joys of sausage in curry sauce, and I order to.

“I’ll buy you a drink,” offers Allison as I shove my card in to pay.

“We have drinks vouchers,” I say, pulling them out of my pocket to show her.

“It’s just like a real date,” she laughs.

“I have cupcakes too, remember. I know how to show a girl a good time.”

We’re handed one of those buzzer things, which I immediately pass off to Allison. I can’t be dealing with those things. They make me anxious.

We find somewhere to sit down. Well, Allison finds somewhere to sit down. I balance precariously on a table. And we wait for the black box to beep.

Ten minutes later we’re still waiting.

“I thought this was place was supposed to be fast food,” says Allison.

“Do you think we should go and ask?”

We do. Or rather, Allison does.

“Two minutes,” says the guy in the stall. Behind him we see the cook running around, busily making our currywurst.

Five minutes later, it arrives. On two plates.

“Err, can we have it to go?” I ask, looking around at the complete lack of free tables to sit two large plates on.

After much huffing and puffing, we get the currywurst in a to-go container.

I immediately open mine and tuck in.

“The chips are cold,” I say.

Oh well. We head back to the Southwark Playhouse and set up camp on one of the small tables outside. Perfectly positioned to be able to see what is going on in the bar, and primed to launch ourselves inside when the doors open.

It’s also the best possible set up to show off to Allison my ability to put away vast quantities of food in a very short space of time.

“Oh my…” says Allison, as I use my last chip to mop up a dollop of mustard.

We both look at her dish. it’s still half full.

“Don’t worry, we still have…” I check my phone. “Five whole minutes. No rush.”

But the doors are open and the crowds in the bar are starting to go in.

Allison admits defeat and we head inside. Slowly. Currywurst doesn’t sit lightly on the stomach.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue. Or rather, everywhere seems to be part of the queue. Within seconds Allison and I are jostled apart. I reach out my hand to here, hoping to pull her through the crowds, but we’re too far away. I let myself be swept forward towards the doors of the theatre.

It’s press night tonight and the smaller of the Southwark’s Playhouse’s two venues, The Little, is packed.

“Where shall we sit?” I ask Allison as we finally manage to find one another.

There aren’t many options left.

“Shall we try the other side?”

Somehow, the good people of the Southwark Playhouse have managed to fit multiple rows of benches on three sides of a tiny stage in here. We pick out way around the tiny stage until we make it to the other side. There’s some free spots round here. In the front row.

Now, we all know how I feel about the front row, but I think we’ll be safe. We’re here for a musical. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, no less. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of show that will have interaction.

But then, one never knows with theatre. I mean… I’ve told you about the immersive Hamlet, right?

I put on my best “don’t talk to me face,” and settle in.

The cast come out. They’re carrying instruments. They strike up a tune. It’s folksy and earnest. Which, if that description sounds familiar to you, is because I used it to describe the music in The Hired Man. But where the storyline of that musical got lost in the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, there’s no chance of that in this tiny, intimate space.

Sitting in the front row, with nothing before me but these musicians bouncing around and strumming their tunes, I feel like I’m in some West Country pub, listening to the local band singing about the town’s resident folk hero - forever drowned in legend - the truth of his tale long forgotten.

And because it is a legend, we don’t have to worry about the silly matter of logic. Or even why the American writer’s tale, originally set in Baltimore (yeah, I did my research - I’ve read the Wikipedia page), has been moved to Cornwall.

A large puppet is carried onto the stage. It’s Benjamin. His father gawps and him, and so do we, as we all puzzle the impossibility of such a birth.

No matter. The story moves on and so do we.

“It’s really good!” says Allison as the house lights go up for the interval. She sounds surprised.

“Shall we get a drink?” I say, showing her the drinks vouchers that come as part of the press night experience.

The queue in the bar is intense, but we stick close to each other and soon make it to the front.

“What can we get for these?” Allison asks the lady behind the bar.

“Anything!” comes the joyful reply. “Beer. Wine. Spirits.”

Well! I plump for a Gin and tonic, cos I’m well sophisticated and shit. Allison goes for a beer with a very romantic sounding name that I immediately forget. “It feels right for the show,” she explains. I hadn’t been the only one picking up the pub-vibes then.

A few minutes later, there’s an announcement that it’s time to go back in.

“Can we take our drinks do you think?” I ask, looking with concern at the large quantity of G&T left in my glass. I may be a trougher when it comes to food, but downing a large alcoholic drink in one has never been part of my skill-set.

“Yeah, they just said,” says Allison. I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.

We go back in and settle in our seats, listening to the conversation flowing around us.

“It’s really gooood.”

“It’s amazzzzzing.”

“Well done, darling.”

I love press nights. So much audience enthusiasm as everyone congratulates their friends and themselves.

“Do you want a tissue?” someone in the row behind us asks her friend. “I saw it last night and the second act is a bit of a weeper.”

Oh dear.

I mean: yay. I have a hankering for a show that makes me cry those big snotty tears. But also, I’m wearing a lot of eyeliner today.

Thank god I’m here with Allison. She won’t judge me if I get my face covered with black tears.

The sniffs start quickly. Everywhere around me people are touching their fingers to the corners of their eyes. Soon there are nose wipes taking over as sniffs are no longer affective against this onslaught of emotions.

There’s something in my eye. I blink. That was a mistake. The tears I’d been so carefully holding back start to spill. I press the back of my hand against my cheek, hoping to get rid of them before my makeup melts.

The cast bows.

We stare at them. Clapping because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Our minds still not fully caught up with what’s just happened.

A few people stagger to their feet.

Gradually, more join them.

Allison gets up.

I follow her.

The cast start up again. A few people try to clap along with the beat, but the rest of us are too spent for such a thing. We fall back into our seats, crying happy tears as the performers play on.

The final note fades away. Grinning, the cast disappear. But we don’t stop clapping. Can’t stop clapping. This is it.

The cast aren’t coming back, but we still aren’t stopping.

Minutes later, they return for one final bow and are hands are allowed to still, the business of showing our appreciation now satisfied.

“I counted five people crying during the infirmary scene,” says the woman sitting behind us. “I love that,” as we all gather our belongings together.

Allison and I quietly make our way out. I can’t talk. Tears are still choking my throat.

It wasn’t the infirmary scene though. I mean, if you’re going to go, doing so in the arms of a handsome young man who adores you doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It was what came after that really got me. The diminishment of the self. The shrinking of Benjamin’s mind alongside his body. The memories fading. It comes to us all. Eventually.

As I trudge my way back home, I remember something. I hadn’t given Allison her cupcake. Shit. I had completely forgotten.

I’m a terrible date.

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A toast to Walnut Whips

Toast tonight! Nope, not my post-theatre dinner plans (although they may end up being that). I’m at The Other Palace for Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Which is great.

Except, I don’t know who the fuck Nigel Slater is. He must be very important, as nowhere on The Other Palace’s website do they actually stoop to telling us who he is or what he does.

Now, I write a lot of show copy. A lot of show copy. I don’t have the exact numbers to hand, but I would say I bash out marketing-words for at least 100 shows a year. And I’m trying very hard to think of someone who is famous enough not to require a little intro. You know the kind of thing: “the visionary contemporary choreographer X,” or “the cult-leader Z,” or perhaps “the Austrian former-artist and political rising star Y.” We actually have a mega-celeb involved in one of our upcoming shows, and even he gets an intro citing the number of Grammys that he’s won. So, I’m trying really hard to think of someone more famous than him. Someone who requires no introduction. Beyoncé perhaps? But even she would probably get the “legend who requires no introduction,” style treatment.

Which brings me back to: who is Nigel Slater? Is he more famous than Beyoncé? Is he the Queen?

I’ll admit to being incredibly ignorant, but I think I would have noticed if the actual Queen was called Nigel Slater.

This is what I get from the website about Nigel Slater: He has an autobiography. He grew up in England in the sixties. He ate food. He likes toast (?).

Well, I like toast too. So I think we’ll get along just fine.

I traipse my way down past the OG palace, making my way through all the fancy wide streets until I reach The Other Palace.

There’s security on the door. Or rather, in the door. Looming in the doorway and asking to check my bag.

He gives the contents of my bag a cursery glance and then I’m left standing in the foyer no sure what I should do.

I don’t need to go to the box office. I have an e-ticket.

If you fall into the overlap of the Venn diagram between People Who Follow This Blog and People Who Visit The Other Palace, this may surprise you. And you’re right. The Other Palace do indeed offer paper tickets. For a price. And it looks like I’ve found mine, because I was not prepared to pay £1.50 in order to get my hands on one. Call me a sell-out if you will, but even I have my limits on how far I’m going to go in pursuit of paper.

And anyway, they sell programmes here. So it’s not like I walking away entirely devoid of papery-goodness.

Or at least, I think they have programmes.

I can’t see any.

There’s no where to sit down, but I find a free spot over to the left of the entrance, and I use my spot to spy on the ticket checker. She has one of those little aprons that front of house staff sport when they have to deal with the business of change. But there are no programmes peeking out of the pocket.

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Being Janet

8pm. A start time that promises so much when you have a companion to spend the evening with, hanging around in cafes and debating whether you can manage another drink before rolling yourselves over to the theatre. Less so when you are off for a date with no one but your stupid cough, and have two solid hours to fill before curtain up.

I decide to take a massive detour around the West End, checking out what was happening at the Dominion (nothing much) before making my way south of the river. But even after all that, I still arrived at Southwark Street, sore of foot and heavy of bag, with half an hour to spare.

I've never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory before. Tickets are outrageously expensive, and despite them pushing an early booking agenda, don't dip much before the mid-thirties. But I'm here now, due to having a ticket passed onto me by a friend who can no longer make use of it.

From the outside, it doesn't look like much. It's in one of those tall, old, stone buildings that could house anything from a bank to a squat.

What it does contain, as I find out on stepping off the street and into a small courtyard, is a restaurant.

Am I in the wrong place? I'd seen signs for the theatre but perhaps I had gone down the wrong way. I did think it strangely close to the other theatre on this street: The Bunker. Maybe I was supposed to go around the other way.

There were people sitting on a bench in the courtyard, all hunched over their phones with that collective boredom you see at bus stops hanging over them. One of them glances up and looks at me curiously.

Oh well, that was it. I had to go in.

There's a small sign on the desk oppostite the doors. Theatre and Bar it says, with an arrow pointing the way.

Thank goodness. I was in the right place.

I follow the arrow, which which we down a narrow path that curls it's way between busy tables, left then right, then right again, until I reach the other end of the room.

There's a door back here, covered in laminated A4 print outs. "Box Office & Theatre Entrance," one says. "Please mind your step," warns another.

I mind the step, and make my way through.

From the restaurant, I now seem to find myself in a pub. Not just a pub, an old man's pub. An old man's pub in some remote village. The ceilings are low and the heavy wooden beams make it feel even lower. There are brick walls and exposed wiring that should give it that Shoreditch edge, but somehow just make it look a little tired.

The bar is opposite. There's a long queue.

I can't see the box office.

I'm in the right place though. There are theatre posters on the walls. I may not frequent old man pubs on the regular, but even I know they don't tend to go for old theatre posters as decor.

I edge my way further in. There's a lot of people in here.

Ah, there it is. The box office. Hidden around the corner.

I join the queue.

There's only one person ahead of me, but he's taking for frickin' ever.

I spend my time darting forwards and back as people try to get past me to the few chairs remaining vacant.

"Yes?"

Oh good. Another person has jumped behind the counter.

I step forward and... shit. What was the name again? Not mine. Don't say that.

I manage to give Janet's surname. It feels weird and a bit wrong. Like I'm a spy in an undercover operation. Mission: Orpheus Descending.

It comes out sounding strained. There's no way he doesn't know that's not my name. I wasn't even slightly convincing. I'd make a terrible spy. And an even worse actor.

He starts looking through the tickets.

I tell myself that I'm Janet today, not Maxine. I need to think Janet thoughts: retro dresses, novelty prints, red hair, and Shakespeare.

Shit. He might ask for my postcode. Janet's postcode. I'd been rehearsing it the whole way over. All the way through the West End and across the river. And I couldn't recall a single digit of it.

"Janet?" he says, plucking out a ticket.

"Err..."

"That's one ticket," he says, handing it over.

Oh, wow. Scrap everything I've ever said. I'm a great actor. And would make a fucking fantastic spy. No wait. Even better. I could act the fuck out of a spy-character. Sign me up for the next series of Killing Eve, because I've got this shit down.

I'm so pleased with myself it takes me a second to realise that the guy on box office is trying to tell me something.

I try to focus. It sounded like he sais the show was two hours and forty minutes, but that can't be right.

"The first act is one hour forty," he says. I must have pulled a face because he grimaces in sympathy. "Then there's a fifteen-minute interval, followed by a forty-minute second act. And there's no readmission."

"Christ..." I say, forgetting that I was supposed to be Janet. "Thanks for the warning."

I probably shouldn't have blasphemed. I don't think Janet does that.

Two hours, forty minutes. And a 8pm start.

Is this a thing now? When did it become a thing? When did long plays stop demanding early starts? Do people not need sleep in this town?

I buy a programme in an attempt to cover up my error. I have four pounds in my purse. Would Janet pay with the exact change or hand over a fiver? I don't know. Shit. This is terrible. I'm floundering. Cancel my Killing Eve audition. I'm not ready for this yet.

I hand over the four pound coins and scuttle away, intending to hide behind my programme.

There are no chairs going spare, but I spot a leaning table without any elbows attached to it.

I rush over, and dump my programme and purse on it, staking my claim before anyone else has the chance.

It lasts for precisely half a minute before a couple plonks down their wine next to me, and jostle me around to the other side.

"The house is now open if you'd like to take your seats," comes a call from the auditorium door. I hadn't noticed it before. There are curtains made of what looks like sailcloth. There are even metal rivets punctuating the edges.

I look around, trying to work out if they tie into a theme somehow. The posters, the beams, the exposed brick, and the whitewashed walls. And now sailcloth.

Whatever's going on, I'm not getting it.

But I do suddenly realise why I was getting such old-man-pub vibes from this venue. It is absolutely packed with old men. They're everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a high proportion of men at the theatre. Not even at that chemsex play at The Courtyard.

Is that the Menier effect? Or is it Tennessee Williams who's to blame?

"The show includes haze," continues to front-of-houser. He has to raise his voice over the din. "Loud gunshots..." No one is listening. His list of warnings trails away into nothing.

A bell rings. It's only a quarter to. I wait, expecting a proclamation to follow, but there's nothing. I'm confused. Was the bell a reminder for us to go in? Or final call at the bar?

The couple next to me are on the move again. I'm finding myself bumping against the next table.

It's time for me to go in.

I look at the ticket for the first time.

Row A.

Of course it is.

Janet is such a front-rower.

I mean, I am such a front-rower. Because I am Janet. Love the front row, me. Can't get enough of it.

There's seating on three sides here, and I'm in the bank on the far side.

I tuck my bag under my chair and have a look at the programme. Is a tri-fold number. Rather fancy. It even has production photos in place of headshots, which is a very nice touch that I've never seen before.

I look closer. Hang on. That's Jemima Rooper! I love Jemima Rooper. Loved ever since she broke my heart in The Railway Children. Fucking hell. And there's Hattie Moran! I love her too! And Seth Numrich! Blimey. This is one hell of a cast.

Janet knows how to book good theatre.

I mean, I know how to book good theatre.

Having two hours and forty minutes to gaze at this cast doesn't sound so bad. Not anymore.

But when Jemima Rooper comes out it is under a mask of makeup. White powder. Red cheeks. Black eyes. She looks terrifying, and I feel attacked. I've suspected that I've been rocking the white powdered, red-cheeked, and black-eyed look about five years longer than is really appropriate. But man, I can't stop. And neither can Jemima Rooper's Carol.

She dances around the shop that we are living in, swamped by her giant leopard print coat, daring people to love her, to hate her. So desperate for them to accept her that she can't help forcing them to reject her.

I'm staring at her so hard I'm almost embarrassed by it.

As the house lights rise for the interval, the front-of-house steps in front of our row, blocking us in.

"If you can walk this way," he says, indicating the front of the stage-area.

I follow his directions and head back out into the pub.

It's already full. There's nowhere to stand without getting bumped and shoved. I press myself against the wall, but it's no good. There's a constant flow of people making their way to the loos and every single one of them knocks me as they pass.

I go back into the theatre.

The set has changed. The tables have been rearranged.

There's no possible way to take the directed route

I walk right across the stage and hope the front-of-houser doesn't spot me. It's what Janet would have done. Probably.

Forty minutes left. It's not going to end well. I'm not sure I'm ready for it. Someone's going to die. I can feel it.

I hope it's not that nice Seth Numrich. He's so handsome.

Or Jemima Rooper. Not sure I could deal with seeing her go down.

Hattie Morahan I can cope with.

Except, nope, I really, really can't.

Oh, god. This is dreadful. Why are people so awful? I can't stand it.

I want to close my eyes, but I'm frightened that something will happen if I do. Not that I'll miss it, you understand. But that the very act of closing my eyes would provoke it. As if my being witness is the only thing holding the bad things at bay.

But I must have blinked.

Because the bad things come.

As inevitable as the sunrise.

It takes a long time to get out of the theatre. Plenty of time to listen in to my fellow play-watcher's conversations.

They're all talking about it as if they just read it in a textbook. As if it wasn't the most emotionally shattering thing to happen to them.

I hate them, and want to get away from the,, but there's only one exit, and I'm at the back of a very long queue.

"It would be terrible if there was ever a fire in here..." someone says.

Terrible, and yet I long to burn everything down.

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She is risen

I ATEN'T DED.

I know, I know. You were worried. I drop a blog post about being very, very ill and then disappear without another word. I meant to put a banner on the site to let you know that I'm, well, n't ded, like an internet-soaring Granny Weatherwax, but then I realised that if I did actually die, there would be no-one to take the message down, and while I would appreciate the humour of my determined declaration of non-death surviving me until the payment on my domain is due, I figured that the other ghosts might laugh at me, and even worse, attempt to stage an intervention.

So, anyway. I'm not, in fact, dead. I am quite the opposite. I am risen. Like the phoenix, Or the daffodils. Or any other spring-appropriate return-to-life metaphors that you can to think of. And while we all debate whether I am the messiah or a very naughty boy, can I take a moment to say how much I've enjoyed all the responses I've had to my... sickness. Over the past week I've been compared to Mimi from La Boheme, Violetta from Traviata, Marguerite from Marguerite and Armand, and... errr... Satine from Moulin Rouge. And while I revelled in being cast among the canon of sex-workers-dying-from-consumption (who knew it was such a trope?), I'm not sure I belong among those aria-singing delicate creatures. Personally, I see myself more as a Billie Piper in Penny Dreadful, spluttering all over that nice Mr Dorian. Like... it was intense. Blood everywhere. Seriously, I had to have a shower and put on a load of laundry before going to the hospital.

Right, now I've finished my course of antibiotics and thoroughly grossed you all out, it's time to take you with me to the next theatre on the marathon list.: Hampstead Theatre. I do like the Hampstead. Firstly because it requires little more than falling out of Swiss Cottage tube station in order to get to, and secondly because it makes me feel like I'm making a real contribution when I'm there. I swear, I bring down the mean age of the audience by a good decade the second I stumble through the door. It's not often that I get to feel so young and cool, and believe me, I relish every moment of it.

But as I arrive in the foyer, I find it devoid of octogenarians to compare myself to. Devoid of anyone of any age.

The place looks deserted.

One of the lady’s on box office beckons me forwards.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles,” I saw. Her hand is already on the box of tickets and she is flipping through them before I’ve even got the first syllable out.

“What was the name again?” she asks, still riffling through the box.

“This is the final call for Jude,” comes a booming voice over the tannoy.

Ah, that explains the frenzy.

“It’s for The Firm,” I tell her. I thought the information might calm her. The Firm, the play in their smaller, downstairs, theatre, doesn’t start for another 15 minutes. But she barely pauses, thanking me and reaching over for the other ticket box to flick her way through the tickets there.

“Here you go,” she says, unfolding them to check the tickets before handing them over. “You’re downstairs.”

I go down the stairs, passing the great bulbous curves of the main space, which bulge out like the bow of a ship, giving me flashbacks to when I watched Pirates under the hull of the Cutty Sark a few months back.

There’s a large foyer down here, filled with the kind of tables and chairs that make me think I should be in the subsidised cafe of some trendy modern university.

Not one is using them now.

Seating is unreserved and the queue is already stretching from bow to stern.

I push my way through and join the end of it. No wonder the box office lady was so stressed. This queue is massive.

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I managed to make it to one of the Downstairs shows at the Hampstead. Been a while since I was Upstairs, come to think of it. Gosh, when was I last here? Suddenly it comes to me. Gloria. How could I forget that? Best interval cliff-hanger since… well, ever…? I spent the entire interval stumbling around, staring into the distance, and whimpering. That Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one hell of a playwright. I really think he has the potential to go all the way, you know. I pause, trying to conjure the name last Downstairs play I saw, but I’m failing. Perhaps because it didn’t have an interval. Downstairs shows rarely do.

Queue up, sit down, watch a play, then get the hell out. That seems to be the motto of the downstairs space.

Well, I’m sure it was just great, whatever the hell the play was.

The queue is moving.

There’s a sign by the door.

The play is only an hour and a half. No interval.

Ah. Was that good? I can’t tell. Usually that would be good. But now I’ve remembered Gloria and my interval stumbling and I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.

We file through the door, down a very dark corridor, and emerge in what looks like a fancy cocktail bar.

My position at the back of the queue doesn’t seem to have affected my seat selection. There are two banks of benches, arranged at an obtuse angel to each other, and I manage to nab a spot close to the central aisle, in the third row back.

Nice.

I’m well pleased with that.

I’m even more pleased to find a programme on my seat.

I’m said before that a freesheet placed lovingly on the seats for the audience is the sign of a swanky theatre, but the Hampstead being, well, the Hampstead, just have to go one step further and offer up a fully-colour printed, 16 page, full-on programme. The sort I would charge a whole two quid for. And here they are, just lying around, to be picked up. For free.

I go to flick through it, but I don’t get much further than the third page.

“Hampstead Theatre would like to thank RADA for the loan of beer pumps.”

I can’t help it. I laugh.

Bless them. Isn’t that just the must perfect sentence ever committed to paper? How gloriously middle-class. Congratulations to everyone involved. Especially to RADA, for their stock of beer pump props.

Eventually, I manage to move on. But not by much as I find another gem on the centre-fold.

Well done programme-maker of the Hampstead Theatre, whoever you are. And to the playwright, Roy Williams, I suppose. I’m certainly feeling all kinds of damn aches at the moment. In places that I didn’t even know I could ache. And, I know I’m on a marathon and everything, and marathons are notoriously bad on your joints, but I didn’t think that applied to the theatrical variety.

But then, I didn’t think people seriously coughed up blood in this post-industrial revolution, post-slum era of socialised medicine that we live in, and yet here we are, so….

Anyway, you don’t care about that. Just pour me a shot of indulgence for this pity party of mine and let’s move on.

Back to the theatre. And the play. Which is starting now.

Looks like they are getting ready for a party, and not of the pity variety. It’s a welcome home jobby. They even have a banner.

The Firm, in true John Grisham style, is a gang of, Ooo, what shall we call them? Thugs sounds too violent, although there’s plenty of then. But I think the word thug suggests a certain mindlessness to their brutality and there’s nothing mindless about this lot. Everything is thought of, worked over, considered. Words are tested and tasted and thrown around.

Ne'er-do-well, perhaps? Nah, too cutsie. And these blokes aren’t cutsie.

Mobster? Too Godfather. We’re in London not New York.

Gangster then? Very East End circa the 1960s. Very Jez Butterworth’s Mojo.

And it is all very Mojo. With the bar and the gang of… whatever they are. Just… without the mojo.

Shame.

Okay, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s lacking in the grimy glamour of the sixties which is a huge portion of Mojo’s mojo. And the Soho seediness that can never be replicated south of the river, no matter how hard the people of Streatham try.

But it does has that hot guy from Fleabag in it. No, not that one. The other one. The lawyer, not the priest.

So, it does have a little mojo. Just not Mojo levels of mojo.

Not gangster then. Besides, a gang of gangsters is some weak-arse writing. Even for me.

Let’s just move on, shall we?

The man sitting next to me certainly is. He’s not paying attention at all. He’s got his coat over his knees and I can see it moving as he scratches himself underneath.

At least, I hope he’s scratching.

I slide over a little on the bench.

It’s alright. There’s plenty of room.

This is the Hampstead after all. No Finborough-style packing them in over here.

I bump into something.

It’s a handbag, belonging to my other neighbour. She’d placed it rather pointedly between us on the bench when I came to sit next to her. A makeshift wall to divide us. A fencing off of her personal space. I wanted to tell her the show was sold out, and that if it wasn’t me, she’d have someone else sitting here. Put I didn’t. Mainly because I was worried that she would reply that her problem wasn’t with anyone else, but with me, specifically.

Looks like I’m stuck between a bag and a hard… ummm.

Let’s leave that there.

The play’s over anyway.

It takes a while to get out. The seats might be generous, but the audiences of Hampstead Theatre like to take their time, and the gangways are all full as they chatter about the play.

“It was good, but I didn’t understand a word of it,” observes one lady. She must have been a fan of those beer pumps.

Finally, I manage to escape and I make a break for the stairs.

But half-way up I realise something. I stop, blocking the man behind me.

“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m wrestling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to bring up the camera.

There, staggered up the steps, is The Firm’s artwork.

That is such a nice touch. Swish as fuck.

Perhaps that’s way I love the Hampstead.

They do good marketing.

I respect that.

Not sure about their press though. Those bastards wouldn’t give me a ticket. Not for this play. Not that I tried for this play. The ticket was only a fiver, and I feel a bit mean about putting in a request for a ticket that well-priced (plus… free programme. Fucking bargain). I mean for the main house. Rejected. Bastards. And at a whopping cost of thirty-eight quid, I’m going to have to do some serious saving up to get the upstairs space ticked off my list.

Pity about the penicillin. With my bloody cough I could have made a fortune wafting around with a stained hankie…

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One Ring Circus

I’m outside Stratford Circus trying to take a photo of an angel in an upstairs window. I saw angel, but what I mean is a display of angelic looking white wings. And I saw trying, because there is a street cleaner with a trolley coming my way.

I pause, lowering my phone, waiting until he passes.

Except, he's not passing. He's aiming right for me.

I jump backwards, having visions of being run over but a cleaning trolley and having to spend the rest of time haunting the nearest bin. Max the Ground of Theatre Square. Doomed to spend eternity watching people rush excitedly into the neighbouring theatres of Stratford East and Stratford Circus, and never get to see a show. Feeding off the crumbs of gossip and old tickets that they leave behind.

But I didn't get hit. Instead, the trolley stopped. Directly in front of me. Blocking my shot.

Stratford clearly ain’t got time for any of this hipster Instagram nonsense.

Nor had I.

My show this evening has a 7pm start time, and I haven't even picked up my ticket yet.

I extricate myself from behind the trolley and dash across the road towards Stratford Circus. I'm so dazzled by the fluorescent orange banners flapping in the breeze I entirely miss the entrance and have to double back.

It's orange. The same hue as the banners. But with two strip lights set behind a wall of translucent orange plastic, angled to form an arrow that points directly towards the door. Blimey, I must be tired, walking right past this. There's even an A-frame set outside. "Stratford Circus Arts Centre," it reads, for those who need the extra help.

This does not bode well.

Oh well. There's nothing for it. I go inside, go to the box office (orangey-red), and pick up my ticket (not orange), and buy a programme (also not orange. Kinda blue-ish purple actually. And pink).

It's been a while since I last visited Stratford Circus. Years and years now that I come to think about it. So long, that I can't actually remember where the main theatre space is.

I look around.

The main foyer is packed. Mostly full of people queuing up at the bar. There's a staircase right next to the box office, leading up to what seems like an Escher-like series of galleries and mezzanines stretching up to the heavens.

I look up, shading my eyes against the thousands of tiny faerielights set into the ceiling of each level.

There's a big number 3 on the glass high above, with a smaller "Circus" above it. Circus 3. There's a Circus 3? Circus 2 I knew about. That's the studio space. And Circus 1 was where I was heading for. But what's Circus 3? And more importantly, how many circuses are there in this place?

I get out my phone. I have to know.

Theatre websites are surprisingly coy about their spaces. Rarely can you search a list of events by venue, and very often they won't even tell you the space it's in before you get to the booking page. Often I left clicking around, putting random tickets in my basket just to find out which shows are where, and giving box officers across London major headaches as tickets appear and disappear from their system as I do so.

You'd be surprised to know how many secondary studios I've only found out about because I saw a sign for them when I was in the building. Just like I was now.

But there's one place where you kind find this info. And that's the hires page.

I find it.

"Stratford Circus Arts Centre has a range of spaces that are perfect for meetings, live performances, celebration and training events," says the website. Great.

"C1 - Auditorium," reads the first one. That must be Circus 1. I've already got that covered. I move on. "C2 - Studio Theatre," is next. I don't got that covered, but it's on my list, so I'll get to it eventually. Onwards. "C3 - Dance Studio." There it is. Circus 3. It looks nice. "A large and airy rehearsal space with sprung dance floor, mirrors and adjustable blinds; adaptable for a variety of events including classes, rehearsals, workshops and performance." Performance, It's suitable for performance. Shit. Does it need to go on the list? It probably needs to go on the list. Do they programme things there? How do I even check? I mean, apart from the adding random tickets from every single show into my basket...

I quickly close the tab. I'm not going to add it to the list. What I'm going to do it pretend that this never happened, and you are too. And if you even mention the fact that there is a C4 (Multi-purpose space) on the website, I'm going to have to take a course of action that you won't like, and I won't be held responsible for.

Enough of that. I put my phone away and turn around. There appears to be a queue. A very long queue. But this one doesn't lead to the bar. People are looking at their tickets and stuffing the remains of half-eaten sandwiches into their mouths. It looks like we're going in. I find the end of the line and add myself to it. At least the question of where is Circus 1 is not something I have to worry about anymore.

Circus 1, it turns out, is on the ground floor. As is the stage, which is on floor level, leaving a large back of bench seats to rise up from it. There's also a couple of narrow circles above us, but those seem to be closed off.

"This is so cool," someone whispers loudly as we all try to figure out where we want to sit.

They're not wrong. It is pretty cool.

There's a boxing ring set up on the stage, and its surrounded but young people dancing like butterflies and stinging like bees. I find a seat in the middle of the fourth row and try to look like the sort of person who understands boxing.

It doesn't work.

So instead I pull my fan out of my bag and try to cool off. If I'm not going to be someone who looks like they understand or partakes in sport, I might as well embrace it and run full tilt in the other direction. Well, I say run, but perhaps stumble slowly is more my style. Or "adagio walking," as a dance critic once described my prefered level of exertions.

I do kind of like the idea of seeing two people deck each other though. I mean... that's kinda why I wanted to see this. Libby Liburd's Fighter is billed as a play about female boxers fighting for the right to... well, fight. Which I am well into. Just because of my own physical cowardice, doesn't mean that I don't have a hefty appreciation of those that are willing to take a punch in the name of feminism in other people.

And oof, Libby Liburd's Lee is willing to take a punch, both literal and metaphorical. There's no keeping her down.

The clock roles back twenty-one years, and she bounces into Tommy's Gym, shiny new gym back and smart mouth at the ready. Neither of which get her very far in the world of ninety's boxing gyms. Woman have only been allowed to fight (allowed!) for two years and the message hasn't quite filtered down to the local gym level quite yet.

But she's got the babysitter in and she's not to be turned away. Or at least, not for long. As she's back the next day, and the next, and the next. It's 1998 and the Spice Girls have been preaching the gospel of Girl Power for four years now. There's nothing Lee can't do, and she's got the brand new Lonsdale top to prove it.

Nothing can stop her.

Almost nothing.

Except for the Achilles' heel of the single-mother.

That's where Lee's real fight begins.

And I'm feeling it. The empowerment. The Girl Power. Lee can do anything, and by extension, I can do everything.

I feel myself puffing up with second-hand pride.

The big fight scene's coming. Eye of the Tiger is pounding through the sound system. Lee is coming down the steps of the stalls, the spotlight bouncing off her pink satin robe and...

Lights dim. The scene changes. We're flung forward in time. Back to 2019.

The boxing ring is full of cute kids practising their swings.

Oh. No fight? I deflate back to normal size. I mean... fine. I get it. But I was all psyched up to see two ladies punching each other and now... okay.

Just have to settle for feeling all empowered and shit. Which is alright. I suppose.

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The Real Triple Threat

Would you be shocked if I told you that I'd never been to Battersea Arts Centre before? Because it's not true, you know. I have been there. Just... not to see a show.

It's just one of those venues that feels impossible to get to. First the tube journey. Which isn't exactly a short one to begin with. Then the train. And then that calf-shaking walk up Lavender Hill. It took important work meetings to get me there in the first place, and a marathon to bring me back.

But I wasn't just going to the BAC to see a show. Oh no. I was going full ham on this expedition, hitting up three of their spaces in one night.

And you know what three venues result in? One hell of a long blog post. Get yourself comfy, my friend. Maybe even make a cup of tea. This might take a while.

"Which show are you here to see?" asked one of the young ladies behind the box office desk.

Always a challenging question at the best of times, but even harder when your answer needs to be given in three parts. I know my limits, so I don't even attempt to recite them from memory. I get out my phone and bring up the relevant email.

"High Rise eState of Mind," I started. "Then Frankenstein, and then Beyond Borders."

She didn't blink an eye.

There was a festival going on. Plenty of people would be doing a performance-crawl that evening.

"Here's High Ris," she says, handing me one ticket and then looking for the next box.

"This must be a nightmare for you," I say sympathetically as she tries to locate the right one of what looks like a dozen scattered across the counter. "So many shows."

"It is a bit," she laughs, finally finding the right one and flicking through the tickets until she finds the one that belongs to me. "And that's Frankenstein."

Beyond Borders was a little easier. From a plastic wallet she pulls out a sheet of green wristbands and begins tearing one off.

I roll up the sleeve of my jacket.

"Do you want me to put that on you?" she asks.

"Please. I'm useless at these things."

"No problem at all," she says, wrapping the paper strip around my wrist before giving me my instructions for the evening. "You're first show is o the first floor," she says. "There'll be a bell in the foyer when it's time to go up. Then you're in the Grand Hall. That's down towards the back of the building. And then you're on the first floor again." She must have seen the panic in my eyes at this point. That was a lot to remember. She smiles kindly. "Just ask someone and they'll point you in the right direction," she says, with all the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teenager who truly believes you got this.

Did I got this? I wasn't so sure. I'd not attempted three venues in a single evening before. Three in a day, yes. But that was a Saturday, started in the afternoon, required multiple hot chocolates to get me through, and resulted in me sleeping for eleven hours straight when I did eventually get home.

But, you know, sometimes all we need in life is for someone to believe in us. And I had box office lady.

The foyer was quite, but it was the kind of quite that throbbed with the echoes of activity happening elsewhere in the building. The bar was full. The exhibition next door had a healthy number of visitors staring at the walls. People rusher past, looking like they knew exactly where they were heading, only pausing to say hello and hug a fellow rusher.

I stayed in the foyer, not wanting to miss that bell, and had a great time taking photos of the bee-mosaics on the floor and sneakily listening into everyone's conversations. The BAC really is the most extraordinary building. With its bee-mosaics and its massive marble staircase that looks fit for yet another Beauty and the Beast remake. The whole place is sending up those chateaux-vibes. Post-revolution, though. When the townspeople have moved in and start replacing the Rembrandts with their kids' drawings, and painting slogans over the priceless panneling.

The bell sounds.

A foyer that had previously just contained me and a couple of front-of-housers was now teaming with people aiming for the stairs, with seemingly no time in between. They weren't there, and then they were. Rung into existence by the bell itself.

They weren't wasting any time. They bounded up the steps.

I follow their lead, attempting a bound for myself. But my legs aren't built for bounding, so filled with regret and a new twinge in my knee, I make my way up the last set of steps with something more akin to a hobble.

At the top of the stairs, we turn left, aiming for a door that, without signage or ceremony, I would have walked right past if it wasn't for the ushers standing outside waiting for us.

The signage it seemed had been reserved for the secondary door. The one after the ticket check.

"Recreation Room," it read far too smugly for someone that came in so late to the conversation.

The Recreation Room is dark. Too dark to get a proper photo. Blackout curtains cover the windows. And any hint of what recreations this room would usually contain has been removed.

Chairs have been arranged in rows in church hall format, but to preserve against the kind of mishaps we discovered at the Horse Stables, there's a small rake at the back. The BAC aren't newbies at this game. They know what they're about.

For a crowd that was willing to throw themselves up a flight of stairs in order to get themselves in this room, there's a lot of standing about as the relative merits of different rows are discussed.

"Is it sold out?" asks someone. "Shall we just sit here on the end and then move down if more people come?"

No one wants to commit to sitting next to a stranger if they don't have to.

Musical chairs ain't my game, so I pick the middle of the third row and hope the person next to me wasn't banking in having an empty seat for a neighbour.

Turns out more people where coming. And everyone has to move down.

A large group arrive. There are five of them. They scan the rows, looking for the mythical unicorn of five seats together in an unreserved theatre minutes before the show is about to begin.

"Do you mind?" asks one. Two people dutifully move down and the group manage to split themselves across two rows.

The Recreation Room door closes. The lights dim. Out comes the performers. And we are treated to an hour of tales from the housing crisis and class inequality in the form of storytelling and hip hop. As someone who has committed themselves to working in the arts, for reasons that made sense at the time, I felt every damn word. But hey, that's the trade off isn't it? No hope of ever having a home, and the constant fear of ending up on the street and dying in poverty in exchange for... ummm, what was it again? Helping make art happen or something. We don't do it for the money, so my must do it for the love, I guess.

We're asked to raise our hands if we have a dream house. Somewhere we long to live that isn't where we're at now. Only about half of us have their hands raised. I look around the room at those with their hands in their laps and see a bunch of liars.

"Where would you like to live?" Conrad Murray asks a front row hand raiser.

"America."

"And where do you live now?"

"Croydon."

We all nod sympathetically. That's rough.

Turns out she lives alone. And owns her place. Sympathy levels drop. Well, she doesn't work in the arts, clearly. And she probably will end up working in America. She even gets a song improvised just for her.

Right. Show over. Next stop: The Grand Hall for Frankenstein. I wasn't the only one.

"Anyone seeing Frankenstein?" asks Conrad Murray.

Someone in the front row whoops.

"Well, I'll see you there! And if anyone would like a programme, with lyrics printed in them, we'll be selling them for three pounds."

Oh. Oh!

Do I want a programme? Stupid question. I always want a programme. The real question is, do I have three quid on me. I'm fairly certain I gave my last note to the programme seller at the Trafalgar Studios, and I hadn't made it to a cash point yet.

In the queue to leave, I pull out my purse and try to cobble together the funds, trying to ignore the small voice at the back of my head that tells me that I should be saving the coins for a deposit, not blowing them on programmes. "Or at the very least, spend it on clothes!" says the voice. "You can sell clothes. No ones wants your second-hand programmes."

Yeah, well, I want my second-hand programmes. And you can claw them from my cold, dead, impoverished, and paper-cut hands after I'm gone.

I manage to make up three quid in change and hand it over to the Lakeisha Lynch Stevens, who has swapped her role of spoken word artist to programme seller to see us out.

"That was so good," I tell her, truthfully. It really was.

Back down the stairs. Now where? People seem to be drifting towards the left. I follow them and see a sign of the Grand Hall. Super. We were all going the same way.

Down a corridor and a flight of stairs and... if I thought the main foyer was fancy, it was nothing to the space I was in now. Stone arches balanced on marble pillars. Grecian alcoves cradling statues of naked lady nymphs and boys with wings. There was even a dome. Made of glass.

"Are you picking up a ticket?" asks a girl as I stop to take a photo.

"Oh, no, sorry," I say, stepping out of the queue that I had managed to barge into without noticing. I'd been too busy gazing up in awe at that glass dome.

I manage to stop staring long enough to realise that the direction of the crowd was shifting down a corrdior. I fell into step with them, but the convoy came to a halt as we all stopped to take photos. After the marble and glass of the foyer, the corridor is rocking a touch of monastery chic. The austere walls no doubt a remnant of the fire that engulfed this part of the building just over four years ago. I manage to almost convince myself that I can smell the smoke. Probably my overactive imagination, but there really does seem to some sort of strange scent - a touch of eau de polyester-top-that-has-been-left-too-long-in-the-dryer.

Finally, we all managed to put our phones away long enough to get to the end of the hallway and... oh baby. There it is. That's what I was after. The Grand friggin' Hall in all its glory.

I was there for Frankenstein, which I am always down for watching a new interpretation of (I stan Mary Shelley so hard, she's the ultimate goth mother). There seems to be a lot of them at the moment. It's the story de jour, and I ain't complaining, Still, I'd like to know BAC's reasons for putting on the show. I mean, the story of a battered and broken corpse, resurrected, rebuilt, and reanimated... seems like an odd choice of programming for the venue. But then, what do I know.

The tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling so that they flicker just above the stage like a colony of glowworms. Their orange lights don't have much reach, despite the coils burning brightly inside their glass homes.

I find my seat, with a tasty freesheet waiting for me on it. No stressing trying to find an usher to beg one off. A freesheet on your seat is the theatrical equivalent of a chocolate on your hotel pillow. It's a classy touch.

I crane my head back, trying to get photos of the ceiling. Intricate patterns spread out over us. It looks like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral rendered in mdf. Or an intricate paper cut out. Or perhaps a brand new colouring book waiting to be filled in.

Lights dim. Show two.

Except no. Conrad Murray is back. Just as he promised. He introduces the cast, all from the BAC's Beatbox Academy and then... oh no.

He's trying to recruit us. Worse. He's trying to teach us.

"Boom! Tee! Cha!" he shouts, getting us to repeat him.

I'm not ready for this. I definitely can't do this. And I don't mean in a cutsie "I'm too shy and quiet to let my voice shine," kinda way. I mean in a: "I cried every day for a year to be allowed to give up piano lessons," kind way. I'm not musical. I am the opposite of musical. If it's possible to have negative musical talent, that's me.

We've discussed how I can't clap out a rhythm multiple times on this blog.

My lack of musicality is my great tragedy.

Being asked to join in with this stuff just sends me into a shame spiral.

Everywhere around me people are Booming, Teeing and Claing.

And I'm... not. Very much not. I sit very quietly and wait for this all to be over.

"When I say Battersea Arts, you say Centre," starts the call and response. "Battersea Arts"

"Centre."

"Battersea Arts!"

"CENTRE!"

I swear it's Thriller Live all over again.

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My Pally Ally

I made it a whole 85 days without seeing any Shakespeare. Quite the achievement when I’ve seen 86 shows in that time, all in what has to be the most Shakespeare-centric city in the world. I used to joke that watching Shakespeare in London was unavoidable. Even if you don’t go to theatre. It’s everywhere. If you wanted, I’m fairly certain you could watch a live Shakespeare performance play every single day of the year (except, possibly, Christmas Day) and never have to cross the M25.

Actually, if anyone wants to give it a go, that sounds like a great blog, and I will fully support your endeavour…

Anyway, yes. Shakespeare. 85 days free. That’s one hell of a run in this environment.

I once managed a year of not seeing any Shakespeare (I’m not a newcomer to the year-long theatre-challenge), but when you are intent on visiting every theatre in London, and at least one of those theatres is dedicated to the work of that most over-produced of playwrights, well… I was going to have to go to one eventually.

Step forward the Alexandra Palace, which, for a very short time, contained the newest theatre in London. They are currently playing host to Headlong’s Richard III, which everyone and their dog has been raving about.

Once that decision was made, it was only a matter of selecting the right person to go with.

“I’ve already thought of a blog title,” I told Allison as we waited to get our bags checked and enter the theatre-foyer. We’d already had a good wander around the main foyer of the East Court. A vast space with curved glass ceilings and massive stone pillars that makes you truly understand why this palace is called a palace.

“Oh yeah?” she replies, demonstrating the kind of polite interest that only a true friend can pull out in the face of being told about a blog post title.

“Pal Al at the Al Pal,” I say, feeling very pleased with myself. “Or perhaps My Pal Al…?”

“My Pally Ally!” she crows back.

“Shit, that’s better than mine.” I mean, it is, isn’t it? And she got there in five seconds flat. I’d been crafting mine the whole way over. And while I’m not saying that I invited her just because her name is Allison, the fact that her name is Allison and she lives within stumbling distance of the Ally Pally was a thought that had crossed my mind.

At this point she pulls a tissue from her pocket and blows her nose delicately.

Ah yes. I’d forgotten to mention that. Allison is sick. With a proper nasty bug. And I’d dragged her out of her bed, on a freezing, dark night, to watch Shakespeare with me, because her name has great punning potential.

Never let it be said that I’m not a truly terrifying friend.

“Order you drinks for the interval at the bar, ladies,” advises someone as we step through the doors. “They’ll be a massive queue, I guarantee it.”

“Do we want drinks?” I ask Allison. But she’s ill and I’m not fussed so we head inside.

“It’s nice that they have a proper foyer. Theatres in London never have proper foyers,” says Allison. “There’s no where for everyone to go in an interval.”

This is so true. Outside of places like the Barbican, there really aren’t many foyers in London theatres. No ones that can fit more than four people and their respective umbrellas at the same time.

Through the next set of doors and we are plunged into proper theatre lighting. That is to say: it’s dark.

“You’re over there on the left,” says the ticket checker, and we head off to the left.

A few more steps and the modern sleekness, the shiny newness of it all, suddenly stops.

Here the walls are bare not because they have never been painted, but because they have been painted so long ago the colour has long since sloughed off.

“Please keep this area clear,” reads a sign. We do as it says and move on down the corridor. But we don’t get very far.

If Wilton’s is the mother of decayed theatrical elegance, then the theatre at Alexandra Palace is the grande dame. Wooden slats peak through the holes in the ornate ceiling, while bare brick walls compete for attention with the carved mouldings.

Strategically placed lights highlight what remains of the plasterwork and send the gargoyle features of the twin cat faces gazing out from either side of the old doors.

“Hmm,” says the ticket checker. Our third ticket checker of the evening. “Well, you’re in row N, which is right here,” he says, indicating the row. “But you’re way down the other side.”

We all look at the row N. It’s a very long row. And there’s some sort of sound desk in the middle.

 “Shall we go back round?” I suggest?

 “Yeah… that’s probably easiest.”

We go back out into the foyer and start again, this time going in the right direction, which is the right direction to take.

“For such a big venue, there’s not a lot of signage,” I tentatively suggest. Where other theatres might post a sign with some sort of indication of the seat numbers that can be accessed through each door, the Ally Pally posts people.

“Row N, just over here,” says our fourth ticket checker as we make our second attempt at entering the auditorium.

The seats are wide and covered with a peach coloured velvet which feels like moleskin. We all know my feelings about velvet. With seating this new, I almost manage to convince myself that giving them a quick pet isn't all that creepy and disgusting. There probably isn't even chewing gum stuck to the bottom yet.

"Are those mirrors," I ask, eventually managing to stop stroking the chair I was sitting in and start paying attention to the set.

"I think so," Allison croaks. She really doesn't sound good.

This play better be good or she's never going to forgive me.

Turns out they were mirrors. Six of them. Pointed into gothic arches and used as doors and windows through the performance. There's an article in the programme about Shakespeare and his use of mirrors in the programme (£4) which is well worth a read.

There's also lots of stuff about the history of the Ally Pally and its restoration, which is all rather fascinating, but doesn't answer the one question that I had about this place.

"What sort of work did they have here?" I asked during the interval, twisting around in my seat as I attempted to take a photo that would capture the sheer enormousness of the space. "Like music hall? Or plays? Surely not plays. It's way too big. Maybe opera?"

"Operetta probably," says Allison, demonstrating once again that even in the grips of the most nasty of colds she can still outthink me. Operetta does seem the most logical thing for the Ally Pally of old. Those fun-loving Victorians must have gone mad for a bit of Gilby and Sully in this room.

Thankfully with the benefits of modern technology, we could enjoy a proper play without the actors having to scream their lines at inappropriate moments.

"You know, I've never been much of a fan of Richard III, but I really fucking loved that," I said as the applause faded. We sat back in our seats as the audience began to file out. "I don't think I've ever seen it played that that. Actors usually amp up the evil, but he was pure cheeky chappy. I liked it."

I did like it. The Richard III ravers have all been going on about the physicality of Tom Mothersdale's performance, and yes... that's great. He moves those long legs of his like a dancer, propping his elbow against his knee and pushing down his full bodyweight as he leans in to whisper his plans to us. But its the whispering, not the leaning that does it for me. With a side-eye lifted straight from Fleabag we are let into the secrets of a very naughty schoolboy. This is Just William grown up and gone to the bad.

"If I go to Ally Pally station, can I get a train to Highbury and Islington?" I ask as we eventually heave our way out of the plush seats and head for the exit. I'd walked from Highgate to get there. It was a nice walk. Google Maps had sent me through some woodland which I always enjoy. I grew up with a wood on my doorstep, and I've always felt at home in them. The woods is a great place to go when you feel down. No one can hear you cry in the woods. But as the sky got darker, and the shadowers denser, I did question Google's thought-process in sending a woman walking through the woods... After all, no one can hear you cry in the woods.

Allison stuffs her tissue away. "I'll take you to the bus," she says, walking me out to the correct stop and rattling out instructions on how I need to get home.

Honestly, I really don't deserve my pally ally.

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A Conspiracy of Signs

God I love the Southwark Playhouse. No, I really love the Southwark Playhouse. I can't think about it without getting a dopey grin on my face. I have such happy memories connected to that place. From waiting for a friend who was working front of house there during a run of Philip Ridley's Feathers in the Snow, when the theatre was still under the arches at London Bridge, and getting handed one of the flaming red feathers when she eventually appeared (I still have it, Emma!). To going to the new (well, current) venue with the Chief Exec of the theatre I was then working for, and bonding in the interval over a shared love of musicals. To drinks with friends in the bar. To watching crazy musicals by myself (Xanadu…).

I fucking love the Southwark Playhouse.

It's one of those places, like Wilton's, that draws fierce affection from its fans. The vibe is cool, the atmosphere chill, but the work is smoking hot. Even when it's bad, it's brilliant (Xanadu again…).

I’d been trying to ‘save’ my visits to the Southwark Playhouse for when I was feeling a bit down, a bit in a need of a pick-me-up. But with my first season brochure of the year off to print, I thought I deserved a treat, dammit.

And besides, with the Playhouse announcing that they were opening two new venues this year, I needed to get a move on.

Plus, the glorious Ruby Bentall was doing a show in the larger of their two current theatres, so, I mean, I couldn’t really be expected to miss that now, could I?

Almost did though. It closes at the end of the week. For all my spreadsheets, I’ve still managed to cut this one fine.

No matter. I was off, marching across Blackfriars Bridge, through Newington, and there, gleaming out through the darkness was the jaunty sign over the door, its angle, tilted like the hat of Second World War’s rakish villain, telling you everything you need to know about this place.

“You know you still have some Pay-As-You-Go tickets on your account?” says one of the ladies on box office as she looks up my account.

“Do I?” I’m genuinely surprised. I thought I had blasted my way through those ages ago.

She confirms that yes, I do intend have some left.

I couldn’t keep the grin from my face. Well that was a turn up for the books! Only been in the building five minutes and already I’ve got some great news.

For those who aren’t in the know about these things, the Southwark Playhouse runs a scheme where you can pre-pay for five tickets vouchers at a discounted bulk-buy rate, and then use them towards your future visits. It’s basically like getting a free ticket, paid for by past you. Which I guess is like every ticket… but someone it doesn’t feel that way.

Anyway, it’s a great deal. And an even better investment as there’s no expiry date (I don’t think…), and so, like postage stamps, hold their value.

That sorted, we rapidly check off all my key points of a great theatre: real tickets (the tearable kind), proper programmes (two quid), excellent signage (both charming and clear, the winning formula), somewhere to sit down…

As I wander round trying to find the best place to park myself, I stubble on the smallest room I’ve ever seen. At first I think it’s a cleaning cupboard (yeah, seriously, that’s how small we’re talking here), but being the nosey parker that I am, I mean the intrepid blogger that I am, I have a look inside. Chairs. There are chairs. And a bookshelf. And a safe. Which has to win the prize for quirkiest place to set down your drink.

Now, I may be a long-term Southwark Playhouse fan, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for the cupboard seats just yet.

Instead, I found the perfect little corner table, just the right size for one lonesome theatre-goer, with a clock to keep me company as I proofread my Rosemary Branch blog post.

My proofreading didn’t last long. The pair at the table next to me were having a good theatre-chat. And theatre-chats are always worth listening into. Yeah, I’m admitting to it. No shame here. Theatre-chats are public property, I feel. Are at least, in the public interest, and therefore worthy of publication.

“You know why they cast a woman, or a cat, in the lead role?” says the man, leaning back as he prepares to lay down some quality intel. “It’s to get the young people in.”

Was he…? That was a joke… right? He wasn’t really comparing female lead actors to cats? Was he?

The rest of his conversation (which I won’t type out, to protect the guilty) suggests that no he wasn’t joking. And that that yes, he really was that insensitive to, well, everything from the importance of diversity on our stages to the benefits of creative interpretations of classic texts.

My blog post remained unproofread, serving as just something to rest my eyes on while I listened to this man talk at his female companion about everything that was wrong with modern theatre.

Right then.

Time to watch some theatre then.

Back into the bar, down the chandelier lit corridor, past The Little theatre, and into the very largely signposted Large theatre.

There’s always a moment, when you step out of the blazingly lit corridor and throw the door of The Large, when you are plunged into darkness. Blinking against all that blackness, you creep slowly around the corner, through a second door, and then suddenly the space widens up in front of you and you find yourself standing in this vast room with massively high ceilings and an usher rushing towards you, ready to walk you over to your seat. No confusing instructions and vague points to show you the way here. With the seating currently set up in traverse for the run of The Rubenstein Kiss, you are guided over to the right bank of seats and practically waved away with a sandwich in your bag and a clean handkerchief tucked away in your pocket as you go.

That famous aria from Madama Butterfly filled the space, and I breathed it in as I took off my coat and settled into my seat, feeling more than a bit smug about recognising it.

My smugness was soon cancelled due to bad weather and I began to wish that my metaphorical sandwich and clean handkerchief had been supplemented with a reminder to wear a warm vest. It was freezing in there.

It was hard to even watch the cast, especially poor Ruby Bentall and Eva-Jane Willis, fussing about the stage in vintage summer dresses. Their arms bare against the chill. Although, I suppose (allegedly) selling state secrets to the Soviet Union helps keep you warm.

You know, it occurred to my last night that almost all of my knowledge of US history comes from theatre. I can’t be the only Brit to be able to trace every fact they have on the founding fathers comes back to Hamilton. Despite studying the Cold War at school, I had gleaned almost all my knowledge of nuclear espionage from the ghostly apparition of Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America. So, thanks to Tony Kushner and Lin Manuel Miranda. Without you I would be even more ignorant than I am now.

And I guess to James Philips too. His play may only be inspired by rather than based on, but it helps fill some of the larger gaps in my brain with some form of narrative that no doubt will aid me in some other play down the line.

In the interval, I made sure to exit the stage via one of the doorways on the set - a tall column reaching up to that high, high ceiling, printed with the snaking staircase of a New York fire escape - giving a nice thrill as I was able to turn back and see the opposite side of the tower - from which Ruby Bentall had pulled all manner of props from during the first half.

For the interval, I found a quiet corner to finish off my blog post, and closed my ears to distraction. Somehow listening to theatre-chat didn’t feel quite so harmless anymore. But the Playhouse wasn’t having it. The music was turned up and I was soon bopping about to the sounds of Madonna and her critic of global consumerism while I dragged and dropped the images into place.

For the second act, I wasn’t taking any chances. I put on my coat.

But the team at the Playhouse had been busy, and hot air was being pushed into the space by a very loud blower. Which explains why they couldn’t have it on during the performance. When it cut off, I realised that Madama Butterfly had been playing all along, imperceptible under the roar of the blower. Which is hella poignant, and I’m choosing to believe, utterly intentional.

In fact, everything about the night is beginning to feel intentional.

From the private conversation that I really shouldn’t have listened into.

To the jokey First Rule about the Pay-As-You-Go subscriptions (You DO NOT talk about the Pay-As-You-Go subscription) on the Southwark Playhouse’s website.

To the gentle reminder from box office that I should really keep an eye on my account.

To Madonna’s tale of caution of choosing love over tangible benefits.

The threads all came together, jumbling themselves into a knot of red string that I couldn’t untangle.

Has the Southwark Playhouse been running the most subtle immersive experience in London? Or could it be that in fact, darker forces are at work. I could not help but ask myself: how deep does this conspiracy go?

This intrepid blogger… will not be pursuing this case any further. I’m sure it’s mere coincidence and nothing more.

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Confused Hearts and Coronets

I'll say this for the marathon. It's transformed my friendships. Gone are the days when the people I love treated me like a fellow human being, one who can get up, get dressed, and arrive on time at a shared destination. Over the past few months they've all come to realise that this year, I'm basically a spreadsheet in a dress. What to spend time with me? Put your name down in the appropriate column.

They've also all changed the way they talk to me. They don't ask how I am anymore, they ask what I've seen. The answer is pretty much the same anyway.

And as each theatre trips begins to merge into the one before, they've all stepped up to fill in the gaps in my rapidly diminishing brain-power.

"I'm in Pret by exit 2, which is the right exit for the Coronet," messages Helen.

That's the kind of meet-up message I like right now. Clear. Concise. And requiring no thought processes at all from my end. At Notting Hill Gate, I followed the signs, left by exit two, practically fell into Pret, and found Helen.

"I was there, but I had to leave," she explains as I offer her a Nutella taiyaki. "There was a table, which I presumed was the box office. But when I said my friend had booked the tickets, they said I could wait. But there weren't any chairs? So... I left."

Replenished by our pastry fishes, we make our way to The Print Room at The Coronet, just a few doors down.

"Has it had something done recently?" asks Helen.

I have to admit ignorance. It did look very shiny and fancy though. Bigger than I had imagined. With bright paintwork and gleaming windows, and those narrow wooden doors that you find on old West End theatres.

"It does look very fresh," agrees Helen.

It smells fresh too. Or floral at least. Was it the small bunch of flowers on the tasteful side table? That didn't seem likely. Real flowers haven't smelt of anything since 1974.

"Did they... spray perfume around?" I ask the world in general.

The world doesn't have an answer for me.

"Look at this," says Helen, pointing out a hanging display in the middle of the foyer and proving her worth once again as an excellent marathon companion. Always pointing things out for me to photograph, and then getting out of the way of the shot with seamless grace. Still not entirely sure what the display was, but I liked it.

I liked everything about The Print Room's foyer. And there was lots to enjoy. From the black and white tiled floor, to the cushions neatly tucked up against the marble stairs, to the...

"What is that? Is that a ruff?"

"It is some kind of ruff," agrees Helen, going over to inspect the mannequin wearing a lacy collar. Now I love a ruff. I even own a ruff. But no one in the entire world appreciates a ruff like Helen appreciates a ruff. If there was a magazine called Ruff It, Helen would be the editor.

The presence of a mannequin wearing a lacy collar in the foyer of The Print Room was not explained. But remains only one of a thousand mysterious objects we discovered on the way to our seats.

Up the stairs was a wood-panelled corridor, curving around the auditorium.

Freesheets were balanced on tiny side tables, weighed down by books and other assorted items. There were decanters, and tea lights, and even a globe.

"Says a lot about Notting Hill that they can leave all these knick-knacks lying around," she says, as she acts the photographer's assistant, repositioning a flyer into a more eye-pleasing position.

"Wow... that's... wow." I might not have said it out loud, but I was definitely thinking that as we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the auditorium. It was like Stratford East and Wilton's Music Hall had somewhere found their way to each other across Tower Hamlets, and made a baby together.

Still gaping in awe, I show our tickets to the usher.

"Right, so if you go up the stairs until row f..." she says before giving instructions so detailed I was beginning to think Helen might have called ahead to warn them about me.

"She knows we're not Notting Hill natives," I whisper to Helen as we make our way up the stairs. "Probably thinks we'll eat our tickets when she's not looking."

We squeeze our way into row f.

"Christ, there's like... zero leg room," I say, as my knees bash against the seat in front.

"Wow, there really isn't," said Helen, managing to somehow tuck herself neatly into the seat next to me, despite having a full two inches on me height-wise.

Not having legroom is not something I encounter all that often, considering I'm all of five-foot-three (and a half, but I don't want to be one of those twats who adds fractions to their height, or their age).

I wriggle around, trying to get my legs to fit, but it isn't happening. I was going to have to make peace with one knee or the other getting smooshed that evening. I decided to sacrifice my right knee, and twisted slightly to the left.

In an attempt to distract myself from the protests of my already suffering right knee, I take a photo of the stage. "It's just all black," I say as I inspect the image.

"Even with you new camera?"

Helen has had to sit through a lot of explanations about my I love my Pixel 2. "Even with my new camera," I sigh.

"Do you think that's a backdrop, or a curtain?" asks Helen, referring to the black cloth that's messing with my photos.

"You think there's a whole stage behind there? That would make this place enormous."

"It is a big stage," says Helen, looking around. "For not that many seats."

"Good for dance, I suppose."

"Yeah... do they do a lot of dance?"

I couldn't answer. I have no idea. We were there for a dance performance. The Idiot by Saburo Teshigawara & Rihoko Sato. But apart from that, I had no idea the level of their dance programming.

"What was this place?" she asks. "Was it like a cinema or...?"

Again, I don't know.

"You mean you don't research every theatre carefully, giving all the stats in a neat sidebar?"

"No. That's Wikipedia."

Having now read the freesheet, I can tell you that The Print Room started in a former, well, print room and since moved into The Coronet. Hence The Print Room at The Coronet. But still squished in my seat, I didn't know that. I don't think it's just the late nights and constant bombardment of theatre that's making me dim. I think maybe, just maybe, I was always a little bit ignorant.

The lights dim, and stay dim, long after the start of the show. Dancers scurry through the darkness, leaving only a hint of shadow and footsteps to show where they'd been.

"When the lights didn't come up, I did wonder if it'd stay like that for the whole performance," said Helen as we made our way out.

"God yes. I felt like one of those annoying old people at the Opera House who complain that modern ballets are too dark."

"Yes!"

"I was trying to convince myself that if I can't see anything, it was because the choreographer didn't want us to see anything, but then also... I did kinda wonder if something was broken."

"And there was someone frantically flicking switches backstage. Yes, I thought that too."

"What is that?" I ask as we pass a knick-knacked alcove in the foyer. "Is it a bar or..."

"I don't think it's a bar," says Helen.

"Well then, what is it?" We duck in to examine the paintings and a little figurine of a beetle lurking within. "I mean I like it..."

"I like it to."

"But what is it?"

"No idea," says Helen. "And these cushions... they're everywhere," she says, pointing to a black and white cushion portraying a close of a vintage looking face. They were everyone. On chairs and sofas, yes. But also on the staircase and the floor.

"They look like those expensive candles you can buy in Liberty."

"Yes. And plates and things too. Fornasetti," she says.

"Pornasetti more like," I say, feeling more than a little smug about my pun. "They always look a little bit dirty." Not the ones in The Print Room, mind you. Very PG in their cushion choices, I must say.

I frown. "Was that piece based on the Dostoevsky, do you think?"

"I have no idea."

"I haven't read it."

"Nor have I, but I always think with these things, when art is transferred between medias, you shouldn't have to read the source text, It should stand up on its own."

"I don't even know who the characters were. I'm pretty sure he was in love with the woman in the satin skirt."

"Did you? I thought she was a figment of his imagination."

That hadn't even occurred to me. "Okay. But who was the other one? His mother? His sister? His wife?"

"They didn't really interact enough to demonstrate a relationship."

"I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it. But like... as an abstract dance work in drama costumes."

"I don't have an opinion. And you know me, I always have an opinion..."

It's true. She does.

Not for the first time, I'm grateful for my marathon being about describing the experience I have at the theatre, rather than reliant on reviewing what I see. I don't have to have an opinion. Opinions are not obligatory. So, I'm not gonna have one.

Goodnight.

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Marley's host

Get talking shop with anyone who works in theatre and eventually (with the aid of a few G&Ts) you'll discover that they all have something in common. A dream venue. No, not to visit. I mean to work for. A career goal, if you will.

If you’re really paying attention (and haven’t been hammering down the gins yourself) you’ll notice that the one that they go all gooey for is rarely the one that they actually work for.

I don't mean to suggest that we're all in the wrong jobs. It’s not as if we’re a pile of chess pieces scattered over the board by someone too young to learn where the horsey one is supposed to go. Just that... it's hard to fantasise about a place once you know what the office kitchen looks like.

Anyway, the venue that makes me go all cow-eyed is the Bush Theatre.

And I have my reasons. A few, actually. Firstly, I love their programming. All that tasty new writing. Yum. Secondly, they have cats. And thirdly… I can’t remember thirdly. Let’s just go back to the cats, shall we?

Pirate and Marley. Both originally from rescues from Battersea, they are now twin-holders of the Resident Cat title at the Bush. Which just goes to show the commitment to promoting talent that the Bush goes in for.

Both Pirate and Marley have twitter account, but are a bit lacks about keeping them up to date (can’t blame them, it can’t be easy typing without thumbs). They also have their biographies on the website’s staff list.

Oh yes - that was thirdly! Their style. And by that I mean their house style. Tone of voice. Use of language (both clean and charming - the winning formula). Branding. The whole lot. Bush marketing team - I think you’re just swell. People don’t say that enough. Creatives get complimented all the damn time. Box office gets a fair smattering too. But marketing? Never.

I see you though. Doing to work. Fighting the good fight.

Even if you don’t tweet enough about the cats.

Without a steady feed of Pirate and Marley news on my social medias, I was excited to go right to the source!

One problem. Pirate and Marley are not theatre cats. Not in the traditional sense. They don’t hang out in the bar, snooze on the box office desk, or get under the feet of the ushers. As far as I can tell from studying what photos are posted of them, they seem live up in the office. So, if anything, they are theatre-office cats.

Which is great. I’m fully in support of this. Not everyone is cut out to work front of house. But it does mean that the only way to see them is… well… to work there.

That is why I am so keen to work here…

Hang on. Sorry. This isn’t a job interview.

Where were we?

Right. The Bush. Not in the office. But at the box office.

"Which show are you here to see?"

Oh no, that ol' question again.

I don't think anyone can truly expect me to remember the names of the shows I'm going to see this deep into the marathon. Not just like that. While I’m standing there. At the box office. I need spreadsheets, and calendars, and diary reminders.

I frowned as I thought hard.

I could remember the poster.

A woman. Smiling. And ice cream. Melting.

I was fairly confident that there had been sprinkles.

That didn’t help.

Or did it? Could I just say the ice-cream show?

The poor box officer was beginning to look concerned.

Nope. I couldn’t say the ice-cream show. If I did, concern would transform into downright alarm.

Right. Name of the show. Focus. It had two words. One of them a grammatical article. Other than that...

"The one in the studio?" I chanced, ninety percent sure that was the case.

As she reached for the box it came to me.

“The Trick!” I said triumphantly at the same time as she said: “The Trick?”

Clearly I’m not ready for the Bush. Clean and charming my words are not. Moth-balled and half-forgotten more like.

In search of better words, I headed towards the library. Oh yes, the Bush has one of those. Because they are perfect. I bet they even have a nice kitchen.

The show in the main house had already gone in, so I was able to nab a table to myself to sit and gaze happily at the bookshelves before the studio opened.

There are books everywhere at the Bush. Not just on the shelves, but above the bar, on the walls, and filling up every windowsill. Forget working here, I am fully prepared to move in.

Too soon came the tannoy announcement that it was time to head in.

“If you would fill up the middle block and not cross the stage,” said the lady on ticket duty. “Fill up the middle block and don’t cross the stage. Did you catch that? Middle block. Don’t cross the stage.”

My turn.

“Can I get a playtext?” I asked before she could tell me about the middle block. No programmes for this show. But proper playtexts at programme prices.

She switched gears instantly, organising change while checking tickets over her shoulder “Middle block, please!”

“Thanks,” she said, as we exchanged paper money for paper playtext. “And-“

“- middle block, don’t cross the stage?”

“Right.”

As I headed into (to the middle block, careful not to cross the stage) I heard her giving the same instructions to the people coming in.

It did the job.

The middle bloke was nearly full, and the stage untrodden by our mucky boots.

It was my first time in the studio. I don’t know why, but I suppose that’s the whole point of this marathon. Forcing me to go where I haven’t been before. Even if that is literally just down the corridor from one of my favourite venues in London.

It’s small, as you would expect a studio to be. Seating on three sides - four rows in the middle block, and two either end - leaving an intimately sized stage space in-between. Intimate enough to open a show with slight-of-hand tricks. Intimate enough to feel the pressing power of the words. Intimate enough to nod along at the truth of them. Intimate enough to laugh. And cry. And not be embarrassed about either.

The vibe was relaxed. Comfortable even.

So comfortable that when the dreaded call came - for a volunteer from the audience - the show managed to avoid that ripple of tension that so often follows these requests.

A hand went up from the stage-left block. A volunteer! Our knight in shining armour was a young man in a dark tracksuit. And he performed admirably.

Show over, you only have to stumble out of the building and you are already at the traffic lights that will take you right over the road to the Shepherd’s Bush Market tube station. And then home.

Perfect.

Although now I have the rather awful task of trying to decide what my second, and final, trip to the Bush will be in 2019. Perhaps Pirate and Marley would offer my a private consult to help me choose? I’m sure they have excellent incite on the matter…

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Jammy gits

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

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

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

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

All that concrete.

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

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

Queues by the looks of it.

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

I joined the end.

A moment later, an older couple did the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ergh! People!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must have been the wrong thing to say.

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I got away with it.

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

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

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

It's a little creepy.

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

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

Well no. I didn't.

But I have a good reason for that.

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

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

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

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

Pity though, as I really like the setup.

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

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

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

Nicely done.

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

It's been a really hard week.

The theatre gods are hard masters to serve.

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Pixel this

Praise the theatre gods, I got a new phone!

No more will you have to suffer through my dimly lit snapshots.

I’m sad to see my HTC go, but it was time. He was suffering. He couldn’t stay awake while not supping on a charger, and his camera whirred and clicked every-time he tried to use it. It was a cruelty to keep toting him around with me to the theatre every night. RID, my friend. Rest in a drawer.

And, not to sound cruel, but once I’d made the decision to let him go, I didn’t hang around for long before getting a new one. I was off to Argos before work and treated myself to a Pixel. Gen 2. I’m not made of money. But still, they’re known for the quality of their pics taken in low-lighting, which is just what I need for this marathon. Theatres tend to be dark places.

And, oh baby. What a difference it makes. I spent the entirety of my walk to Wilton’s Music Hall taking pictures of, well everything - street signs, architectural details, graffiti…

What? Okay, okay, okay. I hear you. No, seriously, I do. “What are you blathering on about, Maxine?” you say. “is this a sponsored post? Are they paying you, Max? Have you sold out? Stop with the corporate shilling and start writing about Wilton's Music Hall. I love Wilton's Music Hall!"

Yeah, well. I already knew that. 

And you know how I know? 

Because everyone loves Wilton's Music Hall. It's the default emotional setting when you think about that place. Not loving Wilton's Music Hall is like not liking puppies. Or chocolate. "Do you like Wilton's Music Hall?" is probably one of the six questions on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (the other five are just: Are you sure you don't like it? No, but really? Have you even been there? Final answer? Okay, but what are your thoughts on puppies?

You know what people said when I told them I was heading off to Wilton's for the evening? "I loooovve Wilton's."

Every. Single. Time.

And every single time it was said exactly like that. With the elongated looooovvvve.

After a while, I began to feel like I was stuck in an episode of Russian Doll, but with less dying and smaller hair.

So what I’m saying is - don't be thinking you're original.

Ya Basic.

We all love Wilton's Music Hall. It’s the pumpkin spice latte of theatres. Mostly because it turns us into a gaggle of overexcited Valley Girls when we talk about it.

And don’t worry. I’m not exempt from the love fest. I’m right there with you. Metaphorical iPhone in hand (I told you about the Pixel, right?), and not quite so metaphorical Ugg boots on my feet.

When I finally traipsed all the way over the Whitechapel I spent countless minutes taking photos of the exterior, with its heavy red-painted shutters, huge double doors and flipping massive carriage lamp.

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Everything about Wilton’s seems oversized. Even the alley it lives in is as wide as a boulevard. Standing outside it you feel like you’ve been transported to a model village, where the scaling is just ever-so slightly off. The details made too big to accommodate their maker’s clumsy human hands.

Feeling like the Major of Toy Town, I pushed the door open.

Inside, low ceilings combined with bare stone walls and a creaking staircase to give the air of a provincial castle. Iron bars block off wall apertures that could surely have imprisoned a witch in another age. Shadows dart around corners, giving the constant nagging thought that there’s a sword-fight happening just out of sight.

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Perhaps they were, as I was there to see Pirates of Penzance, there might well have been some last minute rehearsals going on backstage.

Although it’s hard to imagine anyone smashing a sword on a person's head in this place. Everyone is so damn happy.

Whether I was blocking their access to cupboards, or sneaking into the balcony so that I could take some photos from up there, everyone went out of their way to be kind and gentle and apologetic.

Apologising to m. As if I wasn't the irritating twerp with a new phone, getting in their way. 

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I was beginning to think the powers that be at Wilton's, Mister Wilton if you will, must be putting something in the water.

I was there on a press ticket, and with it I’d been given a drinks voucher.

Did I dare use it? Would I come out of there humming Gilbert and Sullivan and wishing my gallant crew a good morning?

I really should, I thought, trying to convince myself. It’s all part of the experience, ain’t it? If I can review interval pie, then I should damn well review pre-show wine.

But I like pie. And I don’t like wine.

I stared at the voucher a good long time before deciding I wasn’t going to risk it. I was heading straight to my seat.

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“Row G,” said the lady on the door as she checked my ticket. “You’re just there on the left.”

She beamed, her smile as wide as a Pret barista. “Just past that twirly pillar over there.” I looked over and found the pillar. It was twirly. I must not have looked confident about the existence of the twirly pillar, because she carried on. “Do you see that girl with the white shirt? You’ll be near her.”

“Got it,” I said hurriedly, before she started offering to take my hand and personally escort me to my seat.

By the time the interval rolled around, I understood.

It was the show.

Happy shows make for happy audiences. And happy audiences lead to happy ushers.

It’s just maths.

And Pirates of Penzance is a very happy show.

The type of happiness that can only be felt when everyone involved is faking it.

Fake moustaches. Fake eyebrows. Fake ladies…

Ah yes. The fake ladies. 

Is there any greater sight than an entire ensemble of dashing young men swishing onto the stage wearing crinolines? If there is, let me die in ignorance of the existence of such a spectacle, because it would surely kill me anyway.

Still not trusting the wine, I spent the interval roaming around and pointing my Pixel at everything in sight. But what I should have done was switch my microphone on. Everywhere I went, men were humming refrains in their wives’ faces. “Are you converted yet?” asked one with a laugh. It turned out she was, as she hummed the next line right back at him.

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The humming continued right into the theatre. As I stood on the edge, trying to capture the sloped floor (if you ever want to know what it’s like to perform on a raked stage, may I suggest getting a seat at the back of the Wilton’s auditorium? You’ll soon learn the footwork required as you shuffle between the rows) different tunes clashed in a battle of hummers as the Gilbert and Sullivan acolytes filed back to their seats.

The emergence of the cast for act two did nothing to detract them, and the quieter moments were often punctuated by the echo of the fading notes as the hummers joined in.

And strangely, I found myself rather enjoying their contributions. With the pros on stage doing their stuff without the aid of mics, and the single pianist providing the accompaniment, it had the casual air of a boozy pub sing along. A very sophisticated sing along, for sure, but it felt... real.

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What an alarming thought.

Thankfully it didn't last long. Built to Victorian fire safety standards, it takes a while to get out of Wilton's. And as I waited to exit I had the opportunity to examine the beautifully desicated walls from close range. 

The distressed paintwork was not peeling, but Pollocked.  

It was all a charade. An illusion. A theatrical set.

It was... fake! 

And that’s something really worth praising the theatre gods for.

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The lady and the unicorn

The Museum of Comedy has a unicorn in it.

And no, I’m not being metaphorical here. The Museum of Comedy is not some magical venue amongst a city of more pedestrianly equine London theatres.

I mean an actual unicorn.

Well, not an actual unicorn. There isn’t an overgrown horned creature tucked between the exhibits. Not to my knowledge anyway. For all I know there might well be a unicorn hiding out between the bar, sampling the spirits.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the Museum of Comedy is a funny old place.

For two reasons. Firstly because it’s a museum of comedy. Not explanation needed here, I feel. And secondly because it’s underneath a church. Literally underneath a church. As in, down a flight of stone steps and down a creepy tunnel lined with wooden pews and a stained glass window, underneath a church.

And then there’s the unicorn.

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A statue. Sealed behind glass, he looks over his shoulder, an expression of horror carved into his features as if he’s just had a surprise visit from Marie Kondo and he’s suddenly realised that the pile of tasteful boxes he’s been locked in with don’t really do much in the way of sparking joy in his marble heart and he wishes he’d picked the glittery tiara instead.

Things don’t get any less strange when you round the corner and turn into the museum proper. More pews surround square tables in a manner that makes you question whether they are meant to be looked at, or sat on, or, quite possibly… laughed at. It is the Museum of Comedy after all. An art form (is it an art form?) than I know next to nothing about.

Like yesterday’s post about the Zion Baptist Church, I had found myself at a venue that I would never usually visit, a venue that I would never have heard of, if it wasn’t for the London Theatre Marathon. But they had a play on, and so, there I was, standing amongst the strange exhibits and probably looking a bit strange myself.

A strangeness not helped by the fact that I had no idea where the theatre was.

I looked around for signage, but while there were plenty of things stuck to the wall (so much that the fire escape route signs were relegated to the display cases) there was no THE THEATRE IS THIS WAY to be found.

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There was a bar though. So I hung around, figuring that when the time came, in the event of an announcement, it would happen there.

It was nearly 8.30pm. A start time that would have had me dismissing this show as way past my bed-time in my pre-marathon life, but now, after experiencing some of the ludicrously late starts at the Vaults Festival, almost sounds reasonable.

Still, it was a Saturday. And a 75 minute run time.

I couldn’t be dealing with that nonsense on a school-night. And an interval would have been out of the question.

Just as I was smothering a yawn with my hand, the large red curtains at the back of the bar, that I had utterly failed to register, drew back.

“The house is now open,” came the cry.

Chairs scrapped back and coats put back on as everyone in the bar got to their feet and headed towards the newly revealed door.

I soon discovered the reason for the rush.

The theatre is tiny. A fifty-seater at most. And the chairs are just… well, chairs. No rake. In fact, nothing to vary the height between rows.

The only concession to it being a being a performance space rather than a… I don’t know, a school’s detention room, was the stage, lifted off the ground by just a few inches.

If ever there was a theatre that would reward sitting in the front row, it was this one.

However, the front row remained empty. Suspiciously so.

Perhaps because this theatre tends to host comedy nights rather than plays, the front row has more of a reputation as a danger zone than the non-unicorn-adjacent venues of this city.

I looked around, trying to work out who these people, my fellow audience members, were. Were they comedy people or theatre people? Did they come because there was a play at their favourite comedy venue, or was it the play itself that drew them here? Or maybe, I suddenly thought, they were all doing their own marathons. Racing across London collecting shows in museums, or staring Game of Thrones actors, or unicorns…

Whatever the reason, I took their lead, and avoided the front row, balancing the pressing need to see with the even more pressing need for safety, by sitting in the second row.

The stage, a tiny black island, was entirely taken up by the set - a table, two chairs, and a collapsed pile of newspapers, that as the lights dimmed, rose up like a circus top to become a small house at the edge of the world. Which is neat. As that’s the title of the play I was there to see: A Small House At The Edge Of The World. Starring the Game of Thones actor Laura Pradelska, and Alan Turkington, and no one else. Good thing too, as there wasn’t an inch of stage space left to fit anyone else.

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And let me tell you, I have never been so glad to be sitting in the second row. Not because there was interaction, because there wasn’t.

It was their eyes.

Both of them.

Both of the actors I mean.

And both of each actors’ eyes too.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such astonishing eyes in real life. Huge. Piercing. Luminous under the stage lights. And here was two of them, two sets of them, even, being flashed and squinted and glared until I was pinned back in my seat by the full force of them.

Sometimes, in the more intense moments, when one or other of them looked out into the audience, I had to look down, focusing on my knees to save myself from total spontaneous combustion.

And wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I'd followed my fellow audience members leads and wore my coat. It was freezing. And that combined with those eyes meant that I couldn't stop shivering.

When the play ended I gratefully shrugged it back on. I had to get out of there. Back outside where it couldn't possibly be as cold as this.

But on my way out, I paused to say goodbye to the unicorn.

He wasn't impressed. The unicorn carried on staring off into the museum, his face screwed up as it struggled to contain thoughts full of untold terrors.

Something tells me it wasn’t Marie Kondo that had caused the unicorn to look that way.

I followed his gaze and saw the source of his terror.

I was right. 

There's been something else. 

Something I'd missed. 

He was staring at the bear..

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Six impossible things before breakfast

“Ooo,” cooed an old woman as she walked past me. “It’s a real boys’ club in there tonight.”

I followed her gaze through the bank of glass doors and into the theatre foyer, slightly surprised. Not just because theatre audiences are notoriously dominated by women, but because I was there for a play about the women chain makers of Cradley Heath, with a cast composed of two-thirds women, and called Rouse, Ye Women!. Somehow, I didn’t expect a massive male turn-out.

But there they were.

Two men.

Waiting at the box office to collect their tickets.

Blimey. I wonder what it’s like at the Greenwich Theatre on a less testosterone-fuelled evening.

Still, she didn’t seem unhappy about the development.

“Squeaky door,” she giggled as she pushed her way in. The door squeaked obligingly.

I followed behind, getting my own set of squeaks as I squeezed myself through the heavy door.

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I was a little bit early. After my run across the city (well, at least the well-posh portion of it) on Monday, I was determined to take it easy. Public transport all the way - starting with the tube and ending with the DLR. Not quite a door-to-door service, but I think calling an Uber for the last quarter-of-a-mile might have been a little extreme, so we can forgive the short walk I put myself through at the end.

The men were gone by the time I got to the box office, so without the ability to properly inspect such a transcendental phenomonen, I was left looking at my ticket. Brown and purple. Not a colour combination that you get to see that often.

There was a lot of it at the Greenwich Theatre though.

The squeaky doors were purple. The floors were brown. Everything else was varying shades of beige.

It was not what I expected.

If I’d been the betting type I would have put money on something a bit more, well, nautical in flavour. It’s not every theatre that has the literal damn Cutty Sark sharing a postcode with them.

But perhaps that was a bit obvious. A touch gauche even.

As I contemplated my unsophisticated imagination the church bells tolled outside.

I checked the time.

7.11pm.

I was getting that sense of cognitive dissonance again. The world had gone all weird and lumpy. Brown and purple. Time had either stood still, or sped up. I couldn’t tell.

The door squeaked.

A cool looking woman wearing a scarf as a headband was stuck in the door, her shopping bag trapped outside. Someone rushed forward to help her. A few frantic squeaks later, she tumbled into the foyer like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

I checked the time again.

It was still 7.11pm.

Time to buy a programme.

“That’s one pound,” said the programme seller.

“Bargain,” I said, reaching for my wallet and dropping my ticket at the same time.

Too many things.

I hefted my bag further up my shoulder, stuffed my phone and charger into my pocket, retrieved the ticket, found a pound coin, handed it over, and took the programme.

Now what to do with that?

It was large. A4. Or rather than A3, folded in half (for my publications peeps, we’re talking a 4pp A4 with a half-fold, printed in full colour on satin finish 80gsm paper, if I’m any judge). What was I supposed to do with it?

I didn’t have any hands free. I’d be flapping around this programme all night if I didn’t find somewhere to put it.

“You can go through if you like,” said the programme seller.

I went through the doors, and made for the nearest flat surface. I needed to fix this mess.

I carefully slid the delicate programme in after it, careful not to get it caught on any stray keys or umbrella spokes.

Zipping back up my bag, I looked up and almost started laughing.

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There is was! Hidden away in the merchandise corner.

Greenwich was officially here. Lurking behind the ice-creams.

The bell rang. The house was open.

I gave my best Cheshire grin.

That was no normal theatre bell.

It was a ship’s bell.

Sharp and clear enough to bring this fuzzy world back into focus.

Up the stairs and into the theatre, I headed right to the front of the huge bank of seats. No brown or purple nonsense here. The upholstery was blue. And in between each seat: a flag. Red. The better for waving in front of charging bullies.

This isn’t the first time this year I found a flag on my seat. I’d been provided with a Union Jack at The Yard.

I eyed it suspiciously as I pulled off my coat and gloves.

For someone who loves theatre ephemera as much as I do, I should have been more excited. But I am an experienced theatre goer. I know what props left on seats mean.

Interaction. Immersion. All the terrible I words.

I sat down. Nudging the flag away from me with my elbow, as if denying its presence would prevent the inevitable.

Here’s the thing about the inevitable though. It always arrives eventually.

Half way through a rousing union song, our Mary Macarthur opened her arms invitingly. She wanted us to participate.

I thought perhaps this was done for effect. A welcoming to the invisible women she was speaking with to join her in song. You know, acting.

I was wrong.

All around me, voices lifted and harmonies layered in rich sound.

“We are the union, the workers bound as one…”

Wait, what? I looked around me, amazed.

“We have the strength of unity, and victories can be won…”

Mary Macarthur stepped off the stage, picking up her skirts as she made her way into the audience to rouse us all.

“Together we are stronger, our voices have more power...”

How did these people know the words? Was this some famous union song? Was I on the brink of being kicked out for not being socialist enough to participate?

“And joined in a trade union, we’re sure to win the hour."

Is this something people do? Jump into a song half way through, knowing the chorus well enough to sing along? Is that just a regular thing that regular people can do? Or is Greenwich stuffed full of lyrical savants?

I mean… it’s well established that I have all the musical skills of a badger, but I’m still shocked by this.

“But Maxine,” you say with a heavy sigh. “Of course this is normal. Just look at all those Americans learning their own history through the medium of Lin-Manuel Miranda. People remember things if you put a beat to it. Even you did. Look. You literally just wrote the lyrics down.”

To which I say: yes. I did. But I copied them out of the programme. A programme which no one was reading during the sing-a-long.

And as for Hamilton. I have probably bopped around to that cast recording, Oooo… three hundred times, maybe. And I’ve seen it live. Twice. If it came down to it, life-or-death situation styley - I could probably rap along to a fair chunk of it.

But not during a first listen.

Not half-way through the damn song.

The music ended. The sole male-actor came forward. “We’ll now take an interval of fifteen minutes. Just wait for the house lights. There they are. See you in fifteen minutes.”

That should have been my cue to make a run for it. To escape. We'd only made it through act one and we were already singing. Act two could only get worse. And we still hadn’t even touched the flags.

I stayed in my seat, unable to move. I was, as the Tumblr kids say, shook.

I was right. There was more singing. And clapping along. And a fair bit of flag waving.

Mary Macarthur even whipped her programme around in lieu of a manifesto. The edges were torn and rumpled.

I nodded to myself. I was right to put my programme away so carefully. This is what happens when you just shove it in your bag with no concern for the delicate nature of the paper stock.

As the show closed, the man stepped forward again.

There was going to be a Q&A.

Before I could even reach under my seat to make a grab for my coat, the guest speaker was already on the stage. I couldn’t leave. I was in the front row. There was no getting out.

She was going to give a short talk first. There was a sheaf of paper in her hands.

Too much paper. Too many pages.

And then… okay, that was an interesting bit about Mary Macarthur. And that was good too. And wow… shit. She was one cool lady.

“I have a comment, then a question.”

Here we go.

The man stood up. “I just wanted to show you all my t-shirt. I didn’t know I was coming to see this show until 6pm, but perhaps, somehow, I did…” He was wearing a union t-shirt. With an image Rosie the Riveter. We all clapped in appreciation.

“Sorry,” said another man. “Can I just say  that if you’ve enjoyed this play, you might enjoy another play taking place just down the road…”

The ballsiness of this move was lost on me in the moment. I was too busy letting out scream of internal swear words. Shitshitbloodybastardbloodyshit. The play wasn’t in a theatre. Not a proper, dedicated-use theatre. It was a pop-up.

And it wasn't on my list. 

I quickly made a note of it on my phone.

“It runs until the 30th,” he finished before sitting down.

Eleven days to get there. Short notice. But doable. If you ignore the fact it’s February. I put away my phone.

Another man raised his hand.

And another.

And another.

The old woman had been right. It really was a boys’ club in there that night.

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A catalogue of all my failings

When I was a little girl, my mum used to tell me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. As long as what I wanted to be was a doctor.

Which just goes to show that a mother's love is blinkered if not totally blind.

I would have made a terrible doctor. I panic in a crisis. Freeze in an emergency. And I failed physics A-level.

Yeah, I know. I was pretty shocked by that too. Mostly because I have admitted to an academic failure before even telling you that I have an MSc (have I told you that I have an MSc? Because I totally have an MSc…), but also because, if anything, I thought it would have been my chemistry grade that I ended up rejecting. I managed to turn up to one exam without a calculator, for god's sake. A blunder I topped a few days later when I turned over my second paper while being ever so slightly drunk.

So you see, no amount of positive thinking was going to get me a medical degree. Which is a relief to everyone. By shifting my attention to the arts, I have probably saved countless lives. Including my own. I would have definitely ended up stabbing myself if I ever got my hands on a scalpel.

I’m much better off wielding a red pen. No one ever died from a typo-riddled cast sheet.

Still, while I may have stumbled into a safe career, as my failed A-level would suggest, I am no good at learning lessons.

At 6pm last night, as I switched off my computer and called the lift, I decided I was going to walk to that evening’s theatre.

Fine. No problem with that. I do that pretty much every night after work.

Except the theatre I was going to was the Royal Court. And getting there on foot would involve going through Victoria. And we all know how badly that went last time around.

It started out so well.

I’d been stuck at my desk since 8.30am that morning. So being up and about, striding through the chilly evening air, was blissful.

But at 7pm I was still walking, powering down The Mall, the chilly air now freezing against my flushed cheeks.

At 7.10pm I was fighting with Google Maps.

At 7.11pm I was trying to work out if I was even going the right way

At 7.12pm Google Maps tried to convince me I was walking away from Buckingham Palace.

At 7.14pm I realised Google Maps is a fucking liar and turned around.

At 7.15pm I had barely made it to Eaton Square and I was convinced I was going to be late.

At 7.17pm I started running.

At 7.20pm I was fairly certain I was going to die of heart failure before I even got to the damn theatre.

At 7.24pm I rounded the corner into Sloane Square, fell up the stairs and through the glass doors of the Royal Court. A sweaty mess.

No time for photos. I picked up my ticket and headed straight down to the stalls.

Or at least, I tried to.

The queue was backing up the stairs. There was nowhere to go. A scrum of people poured out of the bar, clogging up the stalls foyer in their efforts to get to their seats.

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I was stuck.

I slumped against the handrail, catching my breath while I watched the chaos rage below. After a minute or so, I got out my phone and used the opportunity to take a few photos.

Eventually the way cleared and I was able to get down the stairs, across the foyer, and into the theatre. And then, bliss - sitting down in those squashy leather seats that always manage to make me feel like I am back at my grandparents’ cottage in Devon, curled up in one of their oversized armchairs with a dog and my battered copy of A Little Princess.

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There was no canine companion on hand at the Royal Court that evening, but I did have a copy of the playtext to serve as a stand-in for my childhood favourite book.

Pre-bought along with my ticket and picked up at the box office on arrival. All of £4 and you get to take home all of David Ireland’s words with you at the end of the night. Or almost all of them. I had a skim through on the way home and it looks like the whole Tom Cruise speech happened after the playtexts went to print, but… ah. Still a bloody bargain. Even without Tom Cruise.

In fact, it was bargains all round as I was there on a Monday. Ten pound Mondays at the Royal Court are the greatest gift the theatre gods have ever bestowed on us poverty-stricken theatre fans. Even if they’re not ten pounds anymore. Log in to their website on 9am on a Monday morning, and a ticket for the mighty sum of twelve pounds can be yours. If you’re quick, you can even get a prime spot in the stalls.

Sat in the centre of the second row, I was feeling pretty damn smug.

I may have been a runny mess, but I was there, at Cyprus Avenue. I’d made it.

Which is more than I can say for its 2016 run. I hadn’t managed to get myself Monday tickets back then because of… well, laziness. And forgetfulness. Week after week I told myself I was going to go, and then Monday after Monday I utterly failed to do so. Probably didn’t help that it was around the same time the Royal Court declined to hire me for a job and I was still feeling a bit raw and bitter about the whole thing… but you know, I’m totally over than now.

God, I really am telling you every little embarrassing thing about me today, aren’t I?

It’s probably just an attempt to distract myself from the lingering horror of the play.

After it was over, I hung around to get my photos, before heading out to try and get the exterior shots.

Half way through my photoshoot, a bus decided that it would be an excellent time to park outside, forcing me to hang around as he switched his signs over for the return route.

Devoid of distraction, I was suddenly forced to think of events of the past hundred minutes. Of how the jokes kept on going even after we had long since stopped laughing. Of the stains left on the carpet. And the sounds of death still echoing in my ears.

I shuddered, and pulled my coat close around me.

I felt sick.

I wanted to go home, stick on my electric blanket, have a cup of tea, snuggle under my duvet, and have a bit of a cry.

I didn’t hang around for the bus to move.

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I Done Fucked Up

It's the seventh week of 2019. Which is also, coincidentally, the seventh week of the theatre marathon. And right now, I have more theatres than days checked off on the calendar. I should by rights be feeling pretty proud of myself. I'm doing well. Really well.

I'm about a fifth of the way through my list, and we haven't even got to the end of month two. I'm ahead of schedule.

But I don't.

If anything, I'm dogged by the constant thought that I need to up my game. Fit in more theatres.

Which is ridiculous, I know.

But here's the thing: the marathon keeps on getting longer.

Only last week @weez sent me a tweet with the name of a theatre I had never even heard of before. Which I am incredibly grateful for, don't get me wrong. I'd rather find out now than on 31st December.

But every time I get a new theatre to add to the list, I end up feeling like I am yet another step behind. Or another theatre behind, rather.

I didn't help that the show I had been planning to see on Friday night had gone and cancelled. A one-night performance at a venue that, shall we say, doesn't have the fullest of programmes.

It was a serious blow. 

It was all starting to feel like it was getting away from me.

I had to do something. Knock a whole pile of venues down in one go. Help regain some control of this damn mess.

So, on Saturday, I was going to go full festival mode and head back to the Vaults to hit up four shows in one day.

Because that is how sensible people react when they are only a sixth of the way through a year-long challenge. Especially when they are feeling rougher than an emery board. They panic, choke down enough cough syrup to treat a tuberculosis ward, and prepare to have their emotions pulverised by seven hours of theatre, finishing with a riot.

Yup, I was going to that Belarus Free Theatre immersive thing. Well, it's not actually Belarus Free Theatre. But it has people from Belarus Free Theatre connected to it. And I wouldn't be partaking in the immersive elements. But still. It was my last show of the day. At 9pm. And I'm old. And sick. I should definitely be in bed at 9pm on a Saturday night. Not watching other people mess around pretending to be revolutionaries.

Still, I figured I would worry about that once I got to it.

It was going to be a long day. No point working myself up about these things too early.

When I got to the Vaults, I headed through the main door. I was pretty excited by that. I hadn't as yet managed to see a show at any of the theaters that lay beyond. Unit 9 was all the way down the other end of the tunnel, the Studio was accessed through a small door just to the right of the main one, while Seance was housed in a van parked up on Lower Marsh Steet.

My hopes were soon dashed when an usher, no doubt sensing my pre-paid anxiety plan, asked what show I was going to see.

"Ah," he said, grabbing a small map from the box office counter. "You need to go back outside, all the way to the end of the tunnel, turn left and then left again. You'll be there in thirty seconds. And there's a Greggs right on the corner."

I'm not entirely sure whether he mentioned that last bit as a landmark, or if he thought I was in need of a good vegan sausage roll. Both, quite possibly.

I did what he said. Walked through the tunnel to the end of Leake Street, turned left, and turned left again, and ended up in Granby Place. No sign of a theatre, and more importantly, no sign of a Greggs either. That wasn't right. I turned around and headed back. Leake Street. Turn left. Ignore Granby Place. Walk on, keeping an eye on any openings on the left and... yup, there it was. Greggs on the corner of Launcelot Street. My knight in pasty armour.

And further down there was a metal gate, small queue, and the now familiar sight of the pink-jacketed usher.

I'd made it.

I joined the queue.

"Can you open your bag," the pink-jacket on queue duty asked the man at the head of it.  Hey duly unzipped it and pink-jacket rummaged around inside. "You can't take that in," she said, pulling out a bottle of water. "You can tip it out and fill it again inside."

Goddammit.

I watched in horror as the man poured out his water onto the pavement. Oh no. I definitely didn't want to empty out my own water bottle. Not with my nice cold water from the fridge at home. Who knew what the water at the Vaults was like. Or if it was even properly cold.

I unzipped my bag and checked to see that my own bottle was well hidden.

I had done good work that morning. My bottle was utterly invisible, under cover of my umbrella, book, makeup bag, purse, and all the rest of it.

As I reached the front of the line, I presented my own bag for inspection.

Pink-jacket, reached into my bag and pulled aside the book. I held my breath.

"That's fine," she said, waving me through.

I breathed again, and with the smug smugness of a smug person who has never yet had a bottle confiscated at the theatre, I headed in.

"Name?" asked the woman on box office.

I gave it.

She checked it against the list, and nodded to herself. "You've got a restricted view ticket, but I'm just going to upgrade you so that you're an Observer now."

I stared at her.

That wasn't right. What did she mean Observer ticket? There were only Observer tickets for the riot show. Not this one. Unless this was the riot show. Wait. No. That was this show? The one I was at now? I thought I'd be doing that in the middle in the night.

"I need to stamp your hand," she said slowly, holding the stamp out ready.

Shit. I wasn't prepared.

"Oh, right," I managed at last, presenting her with my hand.

Too late I realised that I should probably have thanked her for the upgrade.

Shit. It was too late. I'd already found myself into another queue. My third one of the afternoon.

An usher stepped out and raised his voice over the din of people chatting and drinking. "If you are an Observer with a green stamp, you can go straight in and take your drink, bag, and coats. If you are a Protester or a Front Line Protester with a blue or purple stamp you cannot take anything in."

I clutched my bag, with its secret water bottle.

I had made the right decision.

The Forge, like all the other Vault venues, is housed within a railway tunnel. For Counting Sheep two banks of seating had been set up at both end. And in the middle - a long table with bench seats either side. If you squinted, you could almost make pretend that it was the Grand Hall at Hogwarts.

I ignored the benches. They were for the Protesters (Front Line and... Rear Protesters, I guess). As an Observer, I had access to the real seating at the ends, protected from the action going on in the middle by a metal barrier.

The show began with a short speech, and a bowl of borsht.

Enamel crockery was piled up at one end of the table alongside a matching jug of spoons, with instructions to take one of each and pass them down.

Next came steaming pots of the red soup and tiny cups of a white topping.

"This is sour cream," explained one of the cast members as he started handing out the cups.

Wooden trays of bread followed, then bottles of vodka.

The smell of the borst made its way to the Observer's carrel.

My stomach gurgled in anticipation of a meal not meant for me.

Only Protesters get to eat.

But then, someone came over with a tray. And then another.

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Bread with some sort of eggy topping. And pickles.

Perhaps because it was a matinee and not sold out, and they had leftover food, the trays kept on coming.

I greedily took everything on offer.

It was delicious.

But as the food supply died down, my cough decided to make an appearance.

All that bread had dried out my throat.

I needed a drink.

I reached under my seat and pulled out my bag, using the loud music as cover for unzipping it. I reached in, digging past the umbrella, the book, my makeup bag, purse and all the rest of it. Huh. I turned my bag around so that I could try from another direction. Still nothing.

Oh no.

I tried again, more frantic this time. But it was no good. I already knew the truth.

I had forgotten my water bottle. It was still at home. In the fridge.

Shit.

It was too late anyway, the cough had started. I swapped my bag for my scarf and did my best to smother it, but the pumping music did more to cover the noise than my scarf ever could.

One of the cast came over and started clapping his hands to the beat. Once, twice, then three times on the knees. He leaned in, encouraging us to follow him.

One, two, then three on the knees. One, two, then three on the knees.

There was no escape.

We had taken the bread, and now we had to clap for our supper.

I tried. I really did. But I'm never going to be a rhythmic clapper. As soon as the cast member disappeared back into the scrum of Protesters, I lost the beat.

After that, every time a cast member reappeared, I got out my phone and started taking photos. With photography of the show sanctioned, nay encouraged, it was the perfect cover.

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Eventually, the riot died. The noise quietened. The emotions intensified. And then the show ended.

As the Protesters went to pick up their coats, we were directed towards the exit, found in the opposite end of the tunnel to the one we had gone in by.

I wound my way around the seating, round the corner, through a door, and found myself in the Vaults' bar.

That was... odd. Why had they sent us out to roam the streets of Vauxhall if the space could be accessed through the bar? Yet more proof that us mere mortals are not meant to understand the workings of Vault Festival management.

But I had no time to ponder such matters as there were only ten minutes until my next show.

I fought my way out of the bar and into the main corridor of the Vaults. It was the first time I'd made it that far without being directed back outside. I could finally see what the Vaults actually looked like. And the answer is: really fucking dark. Black walls are topped by a black ceiling, and punctuated by black doors. Painted with white circles. Just so you can make them out in all the blackness.

The doors each led to a different theatre space: Brick Hall, Cavern, Pit, and so on. You can tell which is which from the glittering signs above their doors, and the lightboxes posted on the wall next to them. Lightboxes that I would later find out turned red when there was a show going on inside.

On the floor (black), were painted white lines - guiding our feet as to where to stand as we queued to get into our shows.

After fighting my way through the thoroughfare, I found my way to the door marked Pit and joined the line.

"Name?" asked the usher on the door.

I gave it.

She scrolled through the list of bookings on her tablet.

"Did you just book your ticket?" she asked.

"No?"

She continued scrolling, down to the bottom of the page and then back up again. It didn't take long. These venues are pretty small.

"Hang on," I said. "Let me bring up my e-ticket."

She glanced at it on my phone. "Can you open it?" she asked. I had only opened the email, with its preview of the attachments.

I tried. But there was no signal.

Okay, no need to panic, I told myself. But I wasn't listening. I was too busy panicking.

She radioed through to box office.

As she did that, I noticed something. The name of the show, written on the board. It was not the show I was expecting to see.

Had I got them in completely the wrong order? Was I living my day backwards? Starting with the last show and ending with the first?

I showed her the ticket again, pointing out the discrepancy.

"You came a month early," she said.

Oh.

"Oh."

She was right. The ticket was for March. Not February.

"Dammit. Thank you. Shit. Thanks."

A minute later I found myself disgorged back onto Leake Street.

If I had any sense I would have turned around and quickly bought a ticket for the show just about to start in the Pit. But I hadn't researched the show. I didn't know what it was about. I didn't know if it was... and I shudder to say the word... immersive. I was already at peak levels of anxiety. There was no way I could put myself through that. It was too big a risk.

Instead, I was going to do something utterly safe. Something I had done before. Something I knew to be good, and true, and pure. I was going to go to Caffe Nero and get myself a hot chocolate and toasted teacake. With marshmallows.

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A little more than an hour later, I was back. In the black of the tunnel. But standing outside a different theatre. This time was the turn of Brick Hall.

"Are you here for Birthright?" asked the usher on the door.

"Yes," I said hopefully. I had checked the e-ticket on my phone every ten minutes since last leaving the Vaults. I really hoped I was there to see Birthright.

She brought out the dreaded tablet and checked the list.

Thank the theatre gods. This time my name was on it.

Finally, I could relax. I was at the right venue. At the correct time. In the proper month, even. I was back on track. Almost. I mean, sure, I had messed up my four-show day. But a three-show day was still pretty impressive. And I could pick up that fourth show easily enough. I already had the ticket. Everything was fine.

I leant against the wall and lazily watched the people drift back and forth from the bar.

But then I noticed something. Something terrifying.

One word. Written in lights above the door of the venue opposite.

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Glasshouse.

Did I have that venue on my list? I couldn't remember.

I got out my phone and checked my spreadsheets.

Nope. No entry for Glasshouse.

Shit.

I looked at the board, where all the upcoming shows that day would be written down, hoping to only find a list of music or comedy shows. Shows that would discount it from the marathon.

The board was empty.

Was that good or bad? I couldn't tell.

Good if it never had another show for the rest of the year.

Bad if I had already missed the only shows it planned on holding within its walls.

Shit.

This would never have happened if the Vault Festival had set over a list of all their shows categorised by venue as I'd very politely asked them if they could. I mean... not to be all "the theatre festival ate my homework," but doing data entry for hundreds and hundreds of shows by hand is bound to lead to errors. Which is what I'd had to do when working out my marathon plan for the Vaults, as the festival webpage doesn't allow searching by venue. I had literally clicked on every theatre and performance show, one by one, in order to build my spreadsheets. And now I find I'd left out a whole goddamn theatre.

"Is this your first show?" asked a front of houser, interrupting my panic attack.

I didn't know how to answer that. "It's my second," I said. "Of the day." I couldn't admit that it should have been my third.

The door to the theatre opened. "The house is now open, if you'd like to step inside."

Thank the gods.

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Despite the name, the Pit is set out as a more conventional fringe-theatre space. With the trains rumbling overhead I could have been at the Union Theatre. Raised banks of seating overlooked the flat floor of the stage. It looked almost exactly like the Studio, except for the black curtain hiding what looked like an impressive section of tunnel behind it. And the two actors from Birthright. They emerged all youthful and full of energy, and I was able to giggle along with their antics for an hour before I was released back into the black once more.

What now? It was ten past seven. My final show of the day wasn't until nine.

And Caffe Nero shut at eight.

I considered the bar. I'd been asked by someone who is aware of my marathon, but didn't read the blog, whether I had drinks at the theatres I visited. "You're reviewing the experience, aren't you?"

Well, yes, I am. But firstly, I'm not much of a drinker. So, my theatre experience doesn't tend to include alcohol unless my theatre companion is after one (or rather, needs one, after spending the evening with me...). And secondly, can we take a moment to consider the cost? I mean... blimey. If you think programmes are expensive, have you seen the cost of a G&T in a theatre bar? Lastly, and most importantly - I'm going to the theatre seven or eight times a week at the moment. That's a lot of alcohol to be consuming. I'm already worried about my mental health in relation to this challenge. Let's not add concern for my liver to my list of woes.

So, not the bar then.

There was only one thing for it.

I was going to Pret.

By the looks of it, most people were going for the other option.

When I arrived back for my final show, ushers were blocking the corridor, trying to shut people up with the use of laminated signs are hard glares.

But it was no use.

The screen advertising "menus inspired by the EU," was causing much hilarity in the people walking past, clutching Vault Festival branded cups.

I found my final theatre of the evening and hugged the wall.

The corridor was packed. Drinkers and theatre-goers pushing past each other in both directions.

The Cavern turned out to be appropriately named. The largest Vaults venue I had seen thus far, I seemed to be walking through the long tunnel for an age before reaching the seats.

Even these were different. Spindly wooden benches, they looked like the corrupt offspring of a church pew and the stile in a fence.

"Two?" asked the usher.

"One," I said putting up a single finger.

He directed me towards the front row.

The benches were even more ungodly then they looked. The seat portion too narrow to rest on comfortably.  The show hadn't even started before I was wriggling around, trying to find a better position. But there was no better position. Leaning forward or back, sacrificing either your bottom or your thighs in order to save the other from torment.

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I tried to turn my attention on other things: the winklepickers being worn by the beautiful goth couple sitting next to me, the pretty birdcages hung on the wall, the black arch sunk into the back wall that looked like it was a portal to the underworld.

Then I tried to focus on Molly Beth Morossa's beautiful words, but it's hard to concentrate on a gothic tale of murder and intrigue when every vile deed she describes with macabre detail is matched by a equally macabre pain attacking your bum.

When my inevitable coughing fit arrived, I lost my balance, almost throwing myself off the poor excuse for a seat, as I fought to hold both them, and myself, back.

Shame. 

Loved the Carnival of Crows. The thematic carnival seating, however, can go burn in hell.

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The center of attention back for the winter

Standing outside the now familiar double doors of the Arocola, I took a deep breath and steeled myself. I was back. My first return visit since starting this challenge. Last month I wrote up the theatre's Studio 1. This time I was there to tackle Studio 2.

If they let me in, that is.

Not that I had said anything bad about the place. I had actually really enjoyed the whole experience. 

Still, it managed to feel like I was somehow returning to the scene of a crime.

But it's hard to feel nervous there, standing in the pink haze of the light filtering through the glass panel that was fitted above their door.

Chances are they didn't even remember what I wrote - good or bad.

But I did. It suddenly hit me, right in the belly. Oof.

I had compared them to scrofula. In a tweet. Or rather, I had compared myself to scrofula. Whatever, scrofula had definitely been mentioned. In the same context as the Arcola. I don’t know about you, but if someone mentioned me in the same sentence as a medieval disease, I would remember. It’s not a mental image that’s easy to forget, what with all the neck pustules and all.

It was no good.

I had to go in.

Studio 2 could not be missed. The marathon demanded it.

I figured I might as well just get it over with.

I pushed through the door and headed over to the box office, with its happy yellow Tickets sign, and gave my name.

For the first time in my life, I wished my surname was slightly less memorable.

“Smile?” asked the young woman on box office duty, her voice filled with doubt.

“Smiles. With an s...” I said. “Two Esses,” I corrected myself. (This is when @weez would have inserted the longest-name-in-the-world joke if she’d been around. But as she wasn’t, I’ll allow you to work out the punchline for that one yourself).

She pulled the ticket from the box. Then paused, looking at it.

Oh dear. She recognised the name. She was going to throw me out.

She frowned.

There it was. She was thinking of neck pustules. No one wants to think of neck pustules. Not on a nice, quiet, Monday evening. Not on any kind of evening. But especially not one at the start of the week. You need a good five days to work up to pustules.

“Was that a comp?” she asked, looking up.

“Oh, yes,” I admitted. Thanks to a bit of Twitter magic, I had indeed got my hands on a comp for that evening’s performance of Stop and Search.

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She smiled. “Here you go.”

Oh.

That was the smile of someone who was definitely not thinking about neck pustules.

Which meant that she hadn’t read the tweet.

That was good.

I guess.

I felt a little deflated.

Offended almost. 

You know, I may not tweet as much as I used to, but there was a time when I was considered quite funny. A wit, if you will.

I considered telling her this.

It wasn’t all neck pustules, you know. I did puns too.

She was still holding out the ticket.

“Oh,” I said, taking it from her. A little embarrassed.

“There’s no latecomers and no re-admittance,” she pressed on, ignoring the fact that she was talking to someone who wasn’t capable of taking a piece of paper that was being offered to them. Or perhaps not, as she then went on to detail exactly where Studio 2 was, how to get there, and when I should go, in the simplest, neatest, most user-friendly language I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve said it before, but the Arcola really do walk-the-walk (and talk-the-talk) when it comes to making theatre open and accessible to all.

As the main house (Studio 1) show had closed that weekend, the building was lovely and quiet.

I found myself an empty table, settled in and tried very hard not to think about glandular swellings.

I had almost, but not entirely forgotten about the incident (let’s be real here, I’ll be mumbling about the scrofula-tweet to my nurses as I lay on my deathbed) when it was announced that the doors were open. It was time to head downstairs.

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With the stone walls and tunnel-like corridors, I could almost think myself back in Unit 9 at The Vaults, but as we turned into the theatre it was not a shed that appeared out of the gloom, but a cosy space with proper seating on three sides and the heating thwacked on high. And seat numbers. No unreserved seating nonsense going on here.

If I have one criticism of the Studio 2 it is this: legroom. Or rather, the lack of it. Or even more rather, trying-to-squeeze-between-the-rows-to-get-to-your-seat room. Three seats in an I ended up with two banged knees and a rather satisfying bruise this morning.

Now, I admit, I’m a klutz. There’s no use being coy about it when I spend my days in the near vicinity of some of the most graceful people on the planet. But still, I’m beginning to think that the Arcola is out to get me.

My neighbour for the evening, having examined the narrowness of the rows, was having none of it.

Setting down bag and coat and umbrella, she proceeded to climb her way in.

We all watched with admiration and a touch of envy as she skipped happily over row A, before retrieving her bag and coat and umbrella, and plonking herself down next to me.

I almost applauded.

“Rather you than me,” came a voice from down the row.

Absolutely. Fairly certain I would have died if I attempted to do the same thing. And you know what, the Arcola really don’t deserve that.

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Not after all the quality theatre they’ve been throwing at me this marathon.

That’s a lot of words to be chucking around in such a confined space. A lot of words. Good words, for sure. But so friggin’ many of them.

I came out feeling spent. Every word in the world had been utterly used up.

I had to stand in the pink light of the foyer for a moment, quietly recharging, until the memory of neck pustules chased me home.

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