Offenbach Off

Well, this is rather worrying. Google Maps can’t seem to locate my next venue.

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

From Blackheath station I turn right and start marching up the hill. I’ve never been to Blackheath before. It’s kinda cute, in that way that south London villages so often are. As if they’re always on the alert for any roaming film crews scouting for a period location. With ever street filled with shops that seem to exist solely to furnish old ladies’ front rooms with knick-knacks.

There’s a great big red brick building over there on the left which looks likely. And yup, I can see the signage now. Blackheath Halls.

Turns out it does exist. Which is a relief. I was beginning to think I might have made the place up. It does rather sound like the sort of name my brain would come up with. It’s the Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way of theatre names. I bet Charlotte Brontë only used Thornfield Hall because Blackheath was just a little too on the nose to be taken seriously.

Music pours out. Singing. The cast must be warming up. Although there is a touch of the football chant to their repertoire. I’m beginning to wonder what on earth I’ve let myself in for tonight.

I’m seeing La Belle Helene. Which I admit I know exactly nothing about.

Maybe it really does have a scene set at Old Trafford.

Lots of people are perching on the steps outside the bright red doors. Unfortunately, none of them are Mr Rochester. So I go inside.

There’s a nice foyer in here. Big and square, with the box office down on one end.

I join the queue. There are signs all over the place advertising the twin joys of programmes and ice cream. Both of them three quid. But when I get to the front, there are no programmes on sale at the desk.

There is a notice proudly promising that the show is sold out though. I wonder how much walk up business they get all the way down here…

Not sure what to do now. There’s a bar off to one side. It’s pretty big but it is absolutely rammed. I decide not to join the fray. I hang back, examining the boards full of children’s artwork.

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There’s a front of houser in the foyer, carrying a stack of paper in her arms.

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

“Sorry, is that the freesheet?” I ask her.

“It’s a synopsis for you,” she says, handing a copy to me.

“Amazing, thank you.”

I wander off to have a look at my prize. It’s exactly what she said. A synopsis of the opera and nothing more. A two page synopsis of the opera. The font is pretty big, but even so. Two pages. That’s worrying.

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I decide not to read it. I’m a great believer in productions having to stand up by themselves without explanation.

Still… two frickin’ pages.

I’ve exhausted all the possibilities that the foyer has to offer. I should probably go and see what is happening in the bar.

I squeeze myself in, immediately getting bumped. First one way. Then the other. It’s impossible to move in here.

The doors to the auditorium are open and I consider going in, if only for the peace, but it’s far too early for that.

Instead I brace myself against a pillar and send a prayer to the theatre gods for their protection.

From my position, I have a good view of the door. “Great Hall. Door B,” it says. I check my ticket. There’s no mention of doors. I look back at the sign. No seat numbers. Right. It seems we’re just guessing our doors tonight then.

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

It looks nice enough, but there are no programmes on display.

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

Just as I start getting rather stressed about the whole thing, a front of houser appears bearing a huge wodge of them which she passes off to the ticket checker at Door B.

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

I walk over, but someone else gets in there first.

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

“Three pounds,” the ticket checker tells the man. I grab my purse and pull out the correct change while I’m waiting. I knew all those pound coins from the National would come in handy.

“Can I get one too?” I ask when the man ahead of me has gone inside.

“Of course!” she says. “Three pounds please.”

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

“Good evening and welcome to this evening’s performance of La Belle Helene,” comes a voice over the sound system. “The house is now open. Please take your seats as soon as possible.”

I check my phone. It’s 6.40pm. Fucking hell, calm down mate. We’ve got ages.

No one else in the bar seems to have noticed the time though, as soon there is a massive queue outside both doors and I have a nice procession of handbags to knock me as they pass by.

An old man decides to sit things out and pulls a chair away from one of the tables, ramming it into my knees as he sits down. He wriggles around, using his elbows to pummel me back into the pillar. What a twatting fucker.

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

I look up. It’s Ruth! I know Ruth. Do you know Ruth? She made a tiny uncredited cameo in my London Coliseum blog post. And here she is again!

“Have you been to any of the Blackheath Opera productions before?” she asks.

I have to admit that I haven’t. Between you are me, I don’t get on the train for opera. I don’t tell Ruth that. She is definitely the type of person to get on the train for opera.

“The soloists are professionals,” she explains. “The minor roles are Trinity students, and they have a massive community chorus.”

Well, that sounds good. I’ve seen the Trinity Laban students before, at Queen’s House, and that was… everything.

“They’ve just refurbished this place. Usually the productions are in the round, but they want to show off their fancy new raked seating on this one.”

“They even have it printed on the ticket!” I say, showing her mine.

“Raked Seating,” it says, just before the seat number.

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

I try Door B first. “Am I at the right door?” I ask. Turns out I’m not.

Take two then.

The lady at Door A checks my ticket and waves me through into a very dark corridor. Round the corner, down past the fancy new raked seating and there we are: the Grand Hall.

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

“Yup, through here,” she says pointing to the nearest aisle. “And right to the back.”

She’s right. I am right at the back. The row behind is empty, being used by the tech desk. This is as far away as you can get at Blackheath Halls.

“It’s going to get really hot up here,” says someone in my row.

“Didn’t there used to be fans?” comes the reply.

“They were taken out in the restoration. They were supposed to be replaced by what they call, not air conditioning, but an air cooling system.”

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

It really doesn’t. I get out my fan and try to move some of this thick air around, but it isn’t doing much good.

“I can feel a bit of air coming from somewhere!” says the first person.

Yeah. That’s me, love. You’re welcome.

One of the musicians in the orchestra waves at someone in the audience. Hugs and kisses and greetings are exchanged as the seats fill up. It’s going to be one of those nights. Where everyone knows everyone, and the rest are related to people in the cast. No wonder the run is sold out.

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Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

We seem to be doing the story of Helen of Troy. But it’s a comedy. And a rather tedious comedy at that.

All around me the audience is laughing. The kind of performative laughter you get at Shakespeare plays. The “I get this, I’m clever,” type of laughter. Well, I don’t get this. I’m not clever.

Ruth was right. There is a massive community cast. Every time I think the stage is full, more people keep on coming out. There’s a whole classroom’s worth of uniformed kids up on stage now.

And the heat is astonishing. At first it was merely unbearable. It is now a hell inferno. I can feel the weight of it pressing down on my chest. I rub my collarbones, hoping to free them up. My skin is clammy and hot to the touch.

First act one hour thirty. Second act thirty minutes. I can do this. It’s fine. Just listen to the music.

But the music is terrible. The storyline ridiculous. The characters irritating.

I find myself rolling my eyes every time someone makes a joke. And there are a lot of them.

I can’t believe it’s only a few weeks since I saw that glorious, well-thought out programme at Queen’s House. And now I’m here. Watching this right pile of tut.

My eyes are beginning to hurt I’m rolling them so hard. I think I might have dislocated a retina.

There’s a light up board on the stage.

“1 ‘ere, 2 ‘eme, 3 ‘eme, Int,” it says. 1’ere has been lit up for a long time. I keep an eye on it. I was sure if was keeping track of what act we were in, but now I’m not convinced. It’s been stuck at 1 ’ere for ever. It must be broken.

Just as I’m debating whether the heaviness in my breathing is a precursor to me fainting or just throwing up, it switches to “Int.” I watch it hungrily, not even paying attention to what’s happening on stage anymore.

I have to get out of here.

A few minutes later, it switches again. “2 ‘eme.” Act two.

Oh my god. Only act two? Out of three?

No. Nope. Definitely not. I can’t do it. I can’t.

I will die. And throw up. And faint. In that order.

I look up, fixung my eyes on the intricate mouldings in the ceiling, willing myself to get through to the end.

Not long now. I can cool off in the interval. And then just thirty more minutes.

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

I never leave in the interval. I hate leaving in the interval.

I’ve only done it once on this marathon. At an amateur performance when the room was swelteringly hot…

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

I mean, I don’t have to. I’m not on a press ticket. I paid to be here. With my own money. I’m under no obligation to stay.

I’ve given up on the performance entirely now. I don’t care what’s happening on stage. I’m thinking. A half hour interval. That’s time enough to go outside and sit in the shade for a bit, I tell myself. But half an hour though… in that time I could make it back to London Bridge. And be home by 10pm. And have an electric fan pointed directly at my face.

And who even programmes half-hour intervals? Followed by another half-hour act? That’s dragging on the evening a whole extra thirty minutes that we could be putting towards an early night.

Screw that.

I’ll see how I feel when the interval hits, I promise myself. If I want to go. I can go.

I try to focus back on the performance, but they are having some bizarre VR dream sequence now and if this goes on any longer I’m going to scream.

And then finally, finally. We make it. The stage lights darken. The house lights go up. We’re free. I burst out of my seat, grabbing my jacket and my coat and then… I’m stuck. The aisle is packed. There’s no way to get out.

I flick open my fan and try to cool myself, but it’s no good. I am going to faint.

“There’s a breeze coming from somewhere,” says a lady ahead of me.

“Yeah, it’s the woman with the fan,” says the man she’s with.

You’re welcome. Again.

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But seriously, if you lot don’t shift yourselves, the pair of you are going to get yourself a vomit shower.

We creep out way down the rake, step by aching step.

“If the whole place went up in flames, it would take a long time to get out,” someone says wryly.

He means it as a joke, but I would willingly step into the heart of the fire right now if it got me out of this oven. Anything to end this agony.

Some front of housers open the side doors, and people start to pour out that way. The queue quickens.

I race down the corridor, back around the corner, squeezing myself through the bar, and the foyer, and I’m out.

Ruth spots me. Or more accurately, she spots my face.

“It is hot in there,” she says, as she’s confronted by the strawberry coloured woman in front of her.

“I’m making an escape,” I say. “I am going to faint.”

Ruth nods. “Fair enough. You head home.”

I don’t need telling twice. I’m gone. Back down the hill. Back to the station. My fan flapping the whole way.

Absolutely Harrowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I might as well go after them then.

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

Thank goodness for that.

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

I look at the door.

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

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

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

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

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

"The surname's Smiles?"

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

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

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

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

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

"Where am I heading?" I ask.

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

She blinks at me in surprise.

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

I'm sorry, what the what? Outside?

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

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

Bloody hell. I'm glad I asked.

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

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

"Sorry, it's all sold out."

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

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

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

I turn left and am instantly lost.

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

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

I'd found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man in front confirms that it is just one.

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

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

Ridgid rows of chairs are packed in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three minutes.

Two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clapping quietens as we all watch him flip pages.

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

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

Read More

BLT with extra lettuce

It’s taken a tube ride, two Thameslink trains, and a quick march up a steep hill to get here, but I’ve finally made it to the Bromley Little Theatre.

It’s nice.

Tucked off a small side street behind a… gosh. I don’t know what to call it. My brain is serving up the term porte cochere, but I’m fairly confident that really only applies to Downton Abbey and its ilk. What I mean is, that the short path between the road and the courtyard beyond is covered by an extension of the building, arching up over my head as I walk below it. It’s the type of construction that makes me instantly think of it should belong to garage in a provincial town, for reasons that I can’t identity right now and don’t want to question too hard.

There’s a handy sign pointing to the right door, which is much appreciated as there seems to be doors everywhere.

There’s steps in here. I start climbing. They’re very steep steps. Very, very steep steps.

And I’m wearing a very short skirt. A very, very short skirt. Made even shorter by the fact that I’m a little bit chubbier than when I bought it.

I look behind me and yup, there’s somewhere there. A bloke at the bottom of the stairs.

Thank god I put my big girl pants on today. Fucking hell…

There isn’t much of a landing at the top, but what space there is is taken up by a man sitting on a stool.

He’s busy dealing with someone else, so I hang back, surreptitiously trying to pull down the back of my skirt.

When it’s my turn, I give my name.

“Smiles! I remember that name,” he says in response.

They always do.

“Here you go,” he adds, handing me a lanyard. “Would you like a programme? 50p.”

“Bargain,” I tell him, looping the lanyard over my arm and reaching for my bag.

My purse has, of course, worked its way down right to the bottom, so I step aside and let the person behind me get lanyarded up while I dig around in search of it, find it, chip my nail varnish, pull out the purse, locate a pound coin within the detritus of pennies and cough sweets, and then when the name checker is free, hand it over, get 50p in change, and walk away with my programme.

I’m exhausted and I haven’t even got through the door yet.

Thankfully, there isn’t far to go, as the show I’m watching is in the foyer bar. Now, when I saw this, I thought it was just a cheeky name for a space cordoned off from the main bar. Perhaps with the use of curtains, or some kind of sliding wall situation, but no. We are literally in the bar. There, it is, over on the far side of the room, positioned right next to the box office. Chairs are positioned in two sets of rows, one on the bar side of the room, one on the entrance side. Benches are tucked against the walls. And in between, resting on tables that fill what little free space there is, are bowls of crisps.

All around people are munching away and laughing.

It’s quite the crowd.

There may not be a lot of room but almost every seat is taken.

I spy one free spot, in between a row of chatting ladies and a bowl of crisps. A prime spot.

“Is this seat taken?” I ask one of them. It isn’t.

I plonk myself down, careful not to knock over the crisps.

In really is small in here. Or rather, it feels small. Cramped even. The ceiling is low, and made even lower but the presence of heavy wooden beams painted an inky black and playing double duty as a lighting rig.

The tiny bit of free space in the middle of the chairs contains an office desk and, well, even more chairs. That’s our set for the evening.

There’s a TV on the wall. It’s playing one of those dreary financial channels where men in suits talk sternly in acronyms to each other for hours on end. An odd choice of viewing material for a bar, I think. I didn’t have Bromley pinned as an outposts for city workers, but then, I don’t hang out with city workers if I can help it.

Everyone is wearing their lanyards. I’ve just spent a whole day wearing one, and I’m not feeling overly keen about putting on another for the evening, but everyone else has, even the staff, so I duly duck my head down under the red tape and put it on. I’m a guest here, after all. A non-local in what feels like a very local place. It wouldn’t due not to play the game.

I look down at what my lanyard actually says. VISITOR, in fat green letters, cementing my position here.

I look around. We’re all visitors.

Except, no. There are some who have something different on theirs. I watch them, trying to work out what makes them different. Behind ones belonging to the blokes behind the bar are red. They say STAFF.

Except, hang on. I spot something. Across the top, in the black banner, instead of saying Bromley Little Theatre, or the like, it has: British Universal Industries Ltd.

“Don’t forget the five aside this evening,” says a sing-song voice over the speakers. “Team work makes the dream work.”

I almost laugh. I’m such an idiot. The TV. The lanyards. And those creepy inspirational words stencilled onto the walls. They are all there for the play.

Now, I’ll admit it’s been a few years since I saw Mike Bartlett’s Bull last, but this is slow work on the part of my brain.

“It must be starting soon,” says a woman sitting behind me.

“How can you tell?” whispers back her friend.

“The lights in the bar have gone off. The lights in the bar always go off just before they start.”

Gotta love that quality insider info.

She’s right too. A few minutes later, and we’re plunged into a meeting room at British Universal Industries. Three candidates. Two jobs. It’s going to get nasty.

As the audience sip their drinks, they become more and more vocal as the play progresses. Biting words are greeted with winces and hisses through teeth. But it takes one the actors taking his shirt off to turn the chorus to vocals.

“Very nice,” says the lady sitting behind me.

She’s not wrong.

But her appreciative comments don’t last long. He’s a wrong’un and treating poor Thomas abominably, and she’s not having it. “Why doesn’t he hit him?” he hisses furiously at her friend, as Thomas suffers the ire of the shirtless-wonder, XXX, one too many times. “He should leave! I would leave! Why doesn’t he just leave?!”

Similar whispered comments circle around the room.

We’re all rooting for Thomas. To fight back. To have pride.

We’ve all been there. Felt powerless in the face of people cleverer than us, quicker than us, more attractive, more confident, more charismatic. We are all Thomases.

It’s Isabel’s turn, with her pristine pencil skirt and precise pixie-cut.

XXX

I get up to leave. I’m one of the few that does. People lean far back in their seats in order to talk to people down their row, behind them, walking past, everywhere. A frenzy of conversation buzzes around the space.

I wade through it, back towards the landing.

There’s a box out there, ready and waiting to receive the lanyards.

I dither. I don’t need to tell you why, do I? Don’t make me admit it. You know I don’t like talking about my habit of pilfering audience-props.

No one would know if I just slipped it into my pocket and walked away.

But I can’t. I just can’t.

The ticket was only a fiver. And everyone here was so nice, so into it. I just… can’t. It would be wrong.

I dump my lanyard in the box and scuttle down the stairs before I have the chance to change my mind.

Probably for the best. I need to go back to get their main space ticked off the list. It wouldn’t do to get barred.

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Too sick to think of a title...

It isn't often that I genuinely worry that I'll run out of District Line before getting to my destination, but we're really pushing its limits here. I'm so far down the line, there was some genuine debate as to whether this theatre even counted as a London one. There was some serious concern from certain parties that I might actually be heading towards, wait for it, Essex.

But as per the rules of the marathon, if I can get there on my Oyster card, then it qualifies for the marathon. I here I am, stepping onto the platform at Hornchurch station, just a short walk from the next theatre on my list: Queen's Theatre.

One of the unexpected thrills of heading this far out is not quite knowing what you're going to find out here.

I mean, when you're going to the West End, you kinda know what to expect. An old Edwardian building stuck together with gold and velvet. Pub theatres are all black boxes and faerie lights. Fringe theatres are coloured lights and mismatched furniture. But the further I out I go, the less geographical knowledge I have on which to hook my expectations.

Would the Queen's Theatre be a converted church? A reformed synagogue? A born-again basilica? A doctored hospital? A reworked workhouse? A metamorphosed butterfly house? A remodelled model village? It could be anything!

As I walk down North Street, I peer at all the signs trying to work out which building it could be. I spy a church coming up. There's a large sign out front. "Dream big. Pray bigger!" it says in big round letters. Was that it? It isn’t. It can’t be. I’m on the wrong side of the road.

It should be somewhere on the left, according to Google Maps.

A couple strolling ahead of me turn left into a park. I follow them. They look like the sort who might enjoy a good musical.

And there, across the wide expanse of grass is a building that looks like it has been lifted straight from some college campus. The kind where you can imagine cool young people swarming about clutching textbooks larger than themselves. Or perhaps rushing up the stairs, their massive portfolio cases smashing against their knees with every step.

Was this it?

I squint my eyes against the last of the day’s sun, but I’m not wearing my glasses and I can’t make out what the sign says. But that brick monolith jutting out the back looks like it could be a fly tower.

The path gently curves, leading me to the front of the building.

There’s a wide staircase out front made up of floating steps, and a large sign stuck on the side of the building in huge orange letters. I have reached Queen’s Theatre it seems, and even better, returned to the seventies once more - or at least, before apostrophes were invented, as the sign seems to be distinctly lacking in the punctuation department.

I wonder whether this was a mistake of the sign-makers, or part of some grand drive towards inclusivity. I’m not sure which is worse. Of course, it could be something truly dreadful, like me having spent the entirety of this post writing Queen’s when in fact the theatre was named for multiple majesties. This is not something that I am prepared to check, so we must all agree, right here and now, that it is the sign that is at fault. And not me.

There’s another sign next to the first. Smaller and considerably less orange. “Supported by the London Borough of Havering,” it reads. Phew.

Despite the proximity to the punctuation-lacking sign, I decide to put my faith entirely in the second one. We were still in London. And not Essex. The sign says so. Let that be an end to such discussion.

That settled, I go up the stairs, keeping to the edge of the railing just in case any students come flying down the steps, their portfolios flapping in the breeze, and head inside to pick up my ticket.

Oh, oh my… look at this.

It says the name of my blog. On the ticket.

Just above the title of the show: The Hired Man.

Fucking hell.

I can’t stop staring at it.

I’m stumbling around, not knowing where I’m going and I don’t even care.

There are press drinks downstairs, but what care I for wine when my ticket has London Theatre Marathon printed across the top.

This is it. This is the big time.

I’m going to need to frame this sucker when I get home.

I quickly put it in my pocket before I fall down the stairs. I may not be overly fussed by the prospect of press drinks, but I also don’t want to fall flat on my arse in front of the good people of Hornchurch. I spy someone wearing a gold coin down there. One of the big fancy ones that sits on the shoulders. The sort of mayor wears. Does Hornchurch have a mayor? Well, if it does, he’s in the building and guilded up.

I make it down the stairs in one piece and start inching myself through the crowd. I bypass the wine. I shouldn’t be having it anyway. I’m actually stupidly ill and on antibiotics right now. But there is something far more interesting lurking against the wall. A table absolutely heaving with food. There are sausage rolls. And sandwiches. And wraps. And no where on the patient information leaflet for my pills does it say that I can’t mix penicillin with sausage rolls, or sandwiches, or wraps. I mean… I haven’t actually read it. But I fairly certain that it doesn’t all the same.

I grab a few and tuck in, not even caring if the mayor of Hornchurch sees me with pastry crumbs all down my front. I brush the off.

But then, just as I take a bit and shower a fresh set of crumbs all down my top, I spot someone.

Someone I recognise.

Someone very rapidly walking away from me.

I stumble after him, running up the steps, not even caring that I’m covered in the remanence of two sausage rolls.

“Ian!”

It’s Ian. He’s quite a famous blogger, as it happens. But for the sake of anonymity, let’s just call him Ian.

“Did you get your blog name printed on your ticket?” I ask, diving straight into the important question.

He shows me his ticket. It has his blog name printed across the top. I won’t tell you what it says, but I’m sure you’ve already cracked my code of secrecy.

“Have you tried the sausage rolls?” That’s my follow up question. Never let it be said that I’m not a brilliant conversationalist.

“Oh, I don’t go down there,” he says, waving at the press drinks pit dismissively. “With all the young people.”

“It wasn’t like this back with my old blog. No chance of ever getting a press ticket. And never any sausage rolls. How times change.”

Oh yeah, I’m not sure if I ever mentioned I used to be a theatre blogger in my twenties. I mean a real one. Who wrote real reviews. Well, kind of real reviews. Not diary entries of my theatre trips. I was a catty cow though. How times change, eh?

“Where are you sitting?” I ask.

Turns out he’s sitting next to me. I grin as I show him my ticket.

“Oh fuck off,” he says, reeling back.

I think he’s joking.

Oh well. Time to go in.

Even given the campus-like proportions outside, I’m still surprised by how large it is in here. Not so much a case of “bigger on the inside,” but “bigger than I expected, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. Did I mention the fact that I am very, very ill? Because I am very, very ill, and I am blaming that for my lack of ability to estimate space based on relative sizing of available reference points.”

There’s a great big stage, and what looks like, if my poor tired eyes aren’t seeing things, a revolve sat on top of it.

I fucking love a revolve.

I am well excited.

“Did you choose to come to this, or were you just invited?” I ask Ian.

“I chose. It’s one of my favourite musicals.”

Blimey. That’s quite the statement.

I chose to see this one too. I do like a good musical. And with the marketing copy proudly proclaiming The Hired Man as “The best British musical in 40 years,” well, Hornchurch didn’t need to tempt my with the prospect of sausage rolls to get me on the train, that’s all I’m saying.

I take a few photos from my seat.

“No photography inside the auditorium,” says Ian, pointing at an image of a camera with a red line through it.

I take a photo of the sign.

The show starts.

Huh. This is not what I was expecting.

For a start, I thought there might be a story of some sort. But instead all we’re getting is a lot of songs about work. “Bitter work.”

There is even a song called Work.

Perhaps I should have expected this. The title is, after all, The Hired Man. But, as I may have mentioned, I’ve been very, very ill.

In the interval, I tentatively ask Ian if anything will actually happen in this musical.

“Well, there’s the first world war…”

“Yeah, but that’s not exactly a plot point, is it?”

He shrugs good-naturedly. He’s happy. He’s watching one of his favourite musicals after all.

I’m fairly happy too. There are scones on offer in the pit, and I’m busy making a mess of myself scoffing on them while I try to make sense of the first act.

Plus, the sight of XXX dragging his cello around the stage before patting its curves as the instrument plays the role of his pet dog is a charming memory that is lingering pleasantly. Although, I do think there should be a limit imposed on the talents displayed by performers in a single performance. Acting? Fine. Singing? Definitely. Acting, and singing, and also playing a musical instrument? A little much. But if it leads to scenes of cello-patting and clarinets being brandished in the same way as a villager might brandish their rake before storming the castle… well, I can get on board with that. But acting and singing and playing multiple instruments?

Watching them jump off the revolve in order to take a seat behind one of the two pianos, bang out a tune, and then rush back to join in with a new song is breath-taking in itself.

And despite all the enforced northern grimness, it’s very pretty. From XXX long skirts to XXX natty green jacket, and all those tasty XXX on the men. The music too. I guess. Folky and earnest. And yes, pretty. Even so, it’s not going to be knocking Six off my “Musical Bangers to Write Copy To” Spotify playlist anytime soon.

Because that’s it, isn’t it? It’s not a banger. It’s an intimate, sweet show. Too small and gentle for a theatre as large as Queen’s. In row H, I might as well have been sitting in the back row for the remoteness I felt from the characters. This is a musical that belongs above a pub.

But I’ll tell you who disagrees.

The blooming mayor of Hornchurch.

He jumps to his feet, turning round and waving with his hands as he tries to provoke a standing ovation from the rest of us.

I like his style. And not just because of his fabulous jewellery.

“Going back for seconds?” jokes Ian as we make our way out, and he spots me glancing into the pit.

I decline. It’s a long way home, and I still have to haul myself all the way back to the station. And I am very, very ill.

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Death by Starburst

If I were to go missing, the police would have such a nightmare trying to figure out all the data from my Oyster card.

"She goes to work," they'll say. "And she goes home, but what the fuck is she doing in between?" They'll gather around the commuter screen, all scratching their heads as they look at the latest in a long line of weird London locations that I tapped in at. "Gants Hill? What was she doing there? Does she know anyone in Gants Hill? Could she have been meeting someone there? I mean... what the hell is in Gants Hill?"

Well, you policemen of my potential future, let me tell you. There is nothing in Gants Hill. Nothing. Like, literally nothing. The only reason I had to be in Gants Hill, is because Ilford doesn't have a tube station. It has a train station, for sure. But I wasn't prepared to deal with that nonsense. Not today. So I got the circle line to Gants Hill, and decided to walk from there.

Big mistake.

All the sunshine we've been enjoying for the past week decided to come to an end, at just the right time to ensure I left the house wearing a jacket that was really not up to the job of preventing the wind from trying to blow its way right through to my bones as I trudge down the long hill towards Ilford.

All this, of course, leads to the inevitable question: what the hell is in Ilford?

To which I do actually have an answer: the Kenneth More Theatre.

Yup, me neither.

But there it is. Just off the high street where all the market traders are taking down their stalls. Around the corner from the town hall. In a building I would have sworn was the council offices if it didn’t have KENNETH MORE THEATRE spelt out in huge white letters across the front.

I feel bad for saying a theatre is ugly. I mean, I know as well as anyone how foolish it is to judge a theatre by it’s exterior. But man, the KM is ugly. It’s not just the awkward columns out front that look like they were swiped from a multi-storey car park. Or the line of toothy windows set high on the wall that make me feel sure there must be some toilets on the other side of them. There’s an air of grimness that hangs over the squat shape like Paco Rabanne at the school disco. Let’s just say, the seventies called and they want their pebbledash back.

And their wood panelling. Blimey it’s everywhere. The doors, the walls, even the ceiling, are encased by thin strips of wood that, while they might have intended to conjure happy thoughts of chalet living, roaring fires, and fondue, are inducing terrifying memories of avocado bathrooms instead.#

I head over to the (wood panelled) box office and give my name.

“You’re in row H,” says the box officer, pointing to a seat plan stuck to the counter. Gosh. That’s a first. I don’t think I’ve ever been shown the location of my seat at ticket pick-up point before. I rather like it. “So, you’re half way back,” he continues, and I begin to wonder whether this seat plan action is not standard practise, and that perhaps, I’m giving off the kind of vibes that suggest I wouldn’t be able to find various parts of my anatomy with both hands at my disposal.

“You can go either down,” he says, pointing to the staircase on my right. “And up. Or,” now he points across the foyer. “Up, and then down. The choice is yours.”

Oh dear. I’m not very good with choices. I decide not to commit to either course just yet, and instead focus trying to capture this throwback to the Harold Wilson administration.

“Are there programmes,” someone asks the box office as I’m busy looking around for lava lamps and macramé plant pot holders (I’m unfortunately coming up short on both points).

Excellent question, my friend. This is a bloke who knows the important things to ask.

“They're on the kiosk. Free of charge if you just ask.”

It’s then that I notice the kiosk. It’s next to the box office. And further down, there’s another counter. This one piled up with tea cups and advertising ice cream. Three counters, one foyer. That sounds like the title of a video that has serious viral potential.

Four counters, if one counts (…) the good-sized display of books nestled up between the tea and programmes. “Books all 50p” reads the sign. Which is a bit of a bargain. The people of Ilford seem to agree, and the shelves are being browsed intently by some very serious looking theatre-goers.

I decide not to join the. The last thing I need a pile of books to drag all the way back to Finchley. My bag is heavy enough already.

There’s only one thing I’m prepared to risk permanent spinal damage for, and that’s a programme.

“Can I take one of these?” I ask the lady on the counter.

I could.

So I do.

It’s only a freesheet. A folded A4, run off the photocopier. But it’s free, and available, and won’t provoke a trip to the chiropractor, so I’m grateful.

I tuck it away carefully in my bag, so as not to crumple it, then set off to the auditorium.

Down, and then up.

Another big mistake from ya gurl, Maxine.

The down part takes you right past the looks, and the bright-white painted brickwork is doing nothing to offset the strong smell of urine.

I scuttle down the corridor as quick as I can, launching myself at the ticket checker with the desperation of someone with limited lung capacity.*

Ticket checked, I stumble out the other side into a large theatre. There’s no circle, but the seats stretch far back towards a distant horizon. The walls are brick. The seats are red. And the spotlights are throwing shadows that look like a creepy ghost. I am well pleased with all of it.

As the box officer promised, I’m sitting about half-way back. The rows are well marks, as are the seats. So I have no trouble locating my spot. Which is why I’m surprised when I spot a young girl clambering over from row G to sit next to me.

Her dad edges along the row in the more traditional manner - apologising to everyone he forces to stand and remove themselves from his path.

“Hang on, is this row G?” he asks, as he finally reaches the end of the row.

The last one, gripping onto the back of the chair as he waits for this bloke to vacate the row nods to confirm that this is indeed row G.

“Oh, sorry,” he says. He calls to his daughter. “This is row G!”

“Oh,” says the girl, before swinging her leg back over the seat.

“Think those people are in the wrong seats,” says the end capper.

Those people start scrabbling away in their bags for tickets, eyes blazing. But the light soon fades when they check their seats numbers, and they quietly shift over a single space.

Dad crab-walks back the way he had come, leaving apologies in his wake.

The rest of his row bite back their annoyance at being made to stand, but that doesn’t stop the head shakes and tutting that follow him back to his seat.

The end-capper pulls out a large M&S food carrier and starts distributing snacks to his party. Huge bags of crisps are opened and tucked into open rucksacks for easy play-scoffing access.

How long is this play?

The BBC version was three episodes, but a good hour of that screentime was dedicated to lingering shots of the Aiden “Sexy Vampire” Turner, which no one was complaining about. Surely we wouldn’t need a whole three hours to kill off eight people. Unless they’ve gone and cast Mr Poldark, in which case they can take as long as they need…

I check the cast list.

No sign of those wild curls that can’t be tamed.

Oh well.

I’m exhausted now. All this drama and the play hasn’t even begun.

I’m glad that I’m here to watch a nice, relaxing Agatha Christie. It’s And Then There Were None. A cosy serial killer mystery, set on a deserted island. That’s the stuff.

But as the curtain rises and the secretary tended with the job of welcoming everyone to the island ventures over to the wall to read the poem that acts as a framing device for the murders, the real mystery is why she’s bothering with a cheaply printed nursery rhyme when there are what looks like two Vermeers gracing the wall of this drawing room.

Or why the murder needs to both at all, when time alone would have done the work for them with the sound of the seagulls cawing so loudly outside that it would be enough to drive anyone to run headfirst off the cliffs.

Still, death by incessant cawing isn’t much of a plot driver, and soon our first victim is rolling around on the floor, choking.

The row end-capper from before unwraps a sweet and pops it into his mouth.

He flails, grasping at his neighbours sleeve.

He’s chocking too.

As the actor on stage collapses into stillness, so does our friend the end-capper.

I glance over.

He’s sitting very still.

Very. Still.

I give an internal shrug.

Death imitating art, I guess.**

 

* Now, last week I would have held my hands up and freely admitted that fitness and me are two words that do not belong in the same sentence. But I have since found out that I’m been harbouring a nasty lung infection for the past six months, sooo… just gonna blame that, ya?

** He was fine. Many more sweets were consumed in the second half. He didn’t offer me any.

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