Go directly to hell; do not pass go

“I like this,” I say, peering at a large metal contraption outside the Brunel Museum. “It looks like a borer, or something…”

Helen comes over to stand next to me. “It’s a pump,” she says very confidently.

“Well, someone read the label.” I pause. “Or have you just not told me that you’re secretly an engineer?” One never knows with Helen. She’s an expert on things that I haven’t even heard of.

“So, what is this place?” she asks. She’s clearly not an expert on the Brunel Museum. Nor am I, to be honest. I kinda knew it was a place that existed in the world, but have never been here before or even know what sort of thing goes on inside.

“Where do you think we need to go?” I ask. There are some double doors open just ahead of us, with seats laid out in rows inside. Was that the theatre? No, the seats were all facing the wrong way, facing the doors. Somehow that didn’t seem likely for a dance performance.

“I’ve seen people going in there,” says Helen, indicating another building slightly further down. We follow the path around as is slopes down and around a squat tower.

It’s dark in here. Very dark. But I can just make out the silhouette of a table against the gloom.

“That looks like a press table?” says Helen, doubtfully.

It does look like a press table. The type set up on press nights to greet their invited guests away from the faff and queues of the box office. But I’ve been to enough makeshift theatres this year to know that this homespun look often extends beyond the PR-game.

I go over and give my surname. He looks at me. I look at him. “S-M-I-L-E-S?” I try. My name is hard. I get that.

“Smile?” says the man behind the desk.

“Yes.” Close enough.

He applies a monocle to his eye and starts flipping through the tickets.

“Maxine?” he says, still sounding doubtful. But he hands over the tickets anyway.

But my attention is elsewhere. I’ve spotted something very exciting on the table.

“Yay! Freesheets!” I say, grabbing a couple and handing one to Helen.

“Yay,” says the monocle-guy, managing to sound both deadpan and sarcastic at the same time.

There’re not letting people into the space, so Helen and I both traipse back outside. It’s raining.

“He was…” I start.

“Yes,” agrees Helen.

“Frankly, I expected better from a man with a monocle.” A thought occurs: “He was not a fop.”

“Not. He was definitely not a fop.”

We decide to go for a walk.

The original plan had been to find food, but there’s nothing here. Rotherhithe is desolate. Streets and streets full of flats, but not a single cafe open.

“Shall we try the bar?” suggests Helen.

There’s an arrow pointing upwards. We follow it.

“Those stairs are really narrow,” she says, getting out of the way so that I can take a photo.

I’m about to tell her that while I enjoy a stair-photo as much as anyone, I’m not sure I’m going to need an image of some rando-outdoor staircase in my blog, but then I see it. It’s really fucking narrow. Like the stairs to get onto a little boat.

“Are people supposed to go up and down these things when they’re drunk?” I ask the world in general.

The world declines to reply.

“Oh! It’s nice up here,” I say when we reach the top.

We’re standing right on top of the squat tower now. There isn’t much of a view, but it doesn’t matter. It’s really pretty here. Roses climb a blue picket fence and torches blaze amongst the greenery.

We stroll over to the bar to see what’s on offer.

“Just look down there,” says the barman, pointing towards the lower of two chalkboards.

We lower our gaze.

Wine. Beer. Vodka.

“To be honest, I’m not overly enthused by the sound of any of those,” I say.

“I could have a vodka, but…” Helen lets the rest of the sentence hang in the air.

We turn to leave. “You know on Fridays they have fires up there,” I say. “To melt marshmallows over,” I add quickly before she thinks the people of Rotherhithe are very into arson of a weekend. “That’s what the other chalkboard, the one with the cocktails was from.”

“So why are we here on a Wednesday?”

“Yeah, well. You know. It’s not my fault. If they have all those people coming for a show on a Wednesday, maybe they should have a mid-week marshmallow meeting too.” I’m feeling a little defensive, because I knew about this, and yet still failed to book for a Friday. But to be fair to me, I’ve already got a theatre planned for Friday, and it’s a big one. “Shall we go look at the river?” I say, changing the subject.

We go to have a look at the river. It’s all beginning to feel a bit Ancient Mariner. Water, water everywhere, but nor any tea going begging. There’s even an Albatross Way around the corner. I try and make a pun, but I my brain is sodden with drizzle.

Someone is down by the water, working their way through the grimy pebbles.

“I’d like to try that,” says Helen.

“I would too.” I consider this. “But only for like, five minutes. And then I’d like to have a bath, please.”

“A little mudlarking, then lots of hot water to wash my hands.”

“Yes please.”

“And not having to get on the tube while dirty.”

“Oh, definitely not. Mudlarking with a flat overlooking the water. That’s the way it should be done.”

We carry on walking. Towards the Mayflower Pub.

“Do you wanna go in?”

“Nah, we’re just killing time.”

We hang around on the pavement outside the pub.

I glance up. Something in an upstairs window has caught my eye. “Oh my god, look at that!”

Three costumes. Lined up on mannequins.

“Look at that cloak!” says Helen.

“Look at that dress!” I say.

“Ruffles!”

“I would have loved that dress when I was-“

“Now,” says Helen. “You would wear that now.”

It’s true. I would wear that now. If it came in black.

“What is this place?”

Turns out, it’s the Rotherhithe Picture Library. We peer in through the windows. Tables are laden with books about embroidery. There’s a quilt covered with a patchwork of signatures.

I want to go there.

“Look at the hand-painted signs!” exclaims Helen. “I love hand-painted signs.”

I can tell.

“We should probably head back now…”

There’s a queue snaking its way down the path from the entrance to the museum. Quite a long queue.

While Helen pops to the loo, I join the end of the queue.

“Do you have your tickets?” someone asks me.

“I do,” I say, showing them to her.

“So, is this the queue to get in or…?”

“I have no idea…”

 “The loos were super weird. I got caught up in a history talk while I was waiting,” says Helen when she reappears.

“This place is strange. I feel very under-prepared. People have flowers. Should we have brought flowers?”

People do have flowers. White roses from the gentlemen in front of me, and some dazzling red ones further up.

“What even is this show?”

We look at the freesheet. Helen points at one of the character names. “Jokanaan.”

“Right,” I say, weakly.

The queue is moving. We’re heading inside.

“Should I read the synopsis?” asks Helen. “I usually don’t believe in reading the synopsis, but maybe for this one…”

“Don’t you know the story of Salome?” I ask, surprised. I thought Helen knew everything.

“Well… sort of.”

“I think you’ll be fine.”

I say this with hope. As I also sort of know the story, and have no intention of reading the synopsis.

We’re inside now. There’s a staircase. The red balustrade glowing through the gloom. We wind our way down to the bottom of the tower.

It’s freezing down here. And dark. With the daylight from the doorway growing fainter and fainter as we make our descent, I begin to feel a kindredship with those witches thrown into dark hole-like prisons. It’s enough to give anyone the shivers. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the…

“Blankets!”

Each chair set in a series of concentric circles around the walls has a bright red blanket folded up and placed on it.

“These are nice. Better than the ones at the Rose,” says Helen, immediately pulling hers up to her chin.

“Yeah, those were blue and a bit… old lady on her way to the hospice. These are way fancier.”

Fancier, but not quite as warm. I tuck mine in around my knees and decide to keep my jacket on.

A woman comes over to tell us to turn our phones off. I’m surprised there’s even any reception down here. It feels like we’re sitting in the bottom of a well. A very large well.

“What is this place?” asks Helen.

“Like a pump room or something?” I suggest.

“Those diagonal lines in the bricks… are they the original staircase?”

I’m beginning to realise that I should probably have done some research before coming here.

“I thought this was a museum,” contines Helen.

“I thought so too. I thought there’d be…”

“Like display cases and things.”

“Yes, things.” There is a distinct lack of things down here. Except for what looks to be a department store’s worth of broken up mannequins cast around the floor. Arms and legs and torsos, piled up and upside down. It all looks very undignified.

A dancer appears. He leans back and rolls his stomach, making full use of his shirtless state. Is that Jokanaan? I can’t tell. I should probably have read the synopsis.

There’s someone else. Another bloke. This one dressed in black and wearing dangly earrings. He looks like he should be some sort of drug lord.

And then… ahhh. That’s Salomé. I see.

It’s all happening now. Musicians step out from behind their music stands and join the dancers for festival of hedonism within the circle. Masks are handed to audience members. Broken bodies are kicked aside. Sex, death, and power circle each other, never letting their gazes waver for a moment.

“That was…” Helen pauses. “Really fucking good.”

“Oh my fucking god, yes. That sexy John the Baptist dude…” I can’t bring myself to call him, Jokanaan.

“Oh yeah! I mean… I would.”

“Like when Salomé and sexy John the Baptist were dancing, and he was totally not into it… I totally was.”

 “Yeah, but totally.”

The man sitting in front of us turns around in his seat to look at us.

We both burst into laughter.

“I think having him murdered just to get a snog was a bit much, but like, I get it… you know?” I say, ignoring the man and his judgemental gaze.

Helen nods in agreement.

Which just goes to show, that while Helen may be about to embark on a fancy-as-fuck PhD, knows everything about everything, and could quite possibly be a secret engineer, she’s still just as low brow as the rest of us.

Well, for a while.

“I like how she was both the predator and the victim,” she says, reclaiming the intellectual high ground as we make our way back to the surface.

I flounder, trying to keep up. “It’s a very basic plot,” I say. “I mean… you can tell the whole story in three sentences. But here they’ve made it entirely about the characters. Predator. Victim. Everyone is a bit of both.”

“And the way they used the space! That moment when Salome is up on the staircase, looking down…”

“And the massive shadows cast against the walls!”

“I thought it would be like that place under the pub. You know, Ellen’s worst nightmare,” she says, referring to a mutual friend who has an absolute horror of intimate theatre.

“Vaulty Towers,” I say, knowing exactly what she means.

“Why can’t dance in small spaces be like that? I know a small space doesn’t always mean that it’s crap, but…”

Yeah. But.

“That’s the one amazing thing about this marathon. It makes me find all these gems in places I would never usually go.”

“No, I would never have come here if it wasn’t for you suggesting it.”

“No Sexy John the Baptist…” I really need to stop calling him that. “Who is he?”

Helen gets out her freesheet. “Carmine De Amicis,” she reads.

“He’s really good in that role.”

“He’s really good in that role.”

“Something… not quite human. Something, separate. Like he’s from a higher state of existence.”

“A purity.”

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “Sometimes not having the money forces artists to really work, to think about how to tell a story. They can’t waste a penny on props or sets. If that was a big name schmany ballet choreographer, you just know there would have been a half-hour feasting scene, with coordinated dancing harem girls and all that shit.”

“Yes! It all has to come from the body. Here, they didn’t have anything. Nothing. Every little bit of characterisation came directly from the body.”

We lapse into silence, thinking about their bodies.

“It was good.”

“It was so good.”

So, there you have it. Salomé is fucking great. Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn, and Fabio Dolce are fucking talented dancers. And fucking talented choreographers too, because those fuckers not only performed this fucking piece but also created it. The Brunel Museum is weird as shit. And Helen and I are going straight to hell.

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Miss Smiles in the library with the chaise longue

It isn’t often that you find yourself in a queue of people waiting to be let inside a library. Well, not outside finals week anyway. And that tends to involve a bit more crying and ProPlus jitters than this group displaying.

“This square’s a bit posh, isn’t it?” said Helen, dropping her voice by at least an octave as we entered the library.

That’s quite the statement from someone I literally met at the Royal Opera House.

I knew what she meant though. Walking over from work, and turning from the West End into Piccadilly is quite the shock. Streets widen, ceilings heighten, and walls whiten. It’s like stepping into a period drama. You can practically hear the rattle of carriage wheels making their way around St James’ Square.

“I wish I could have seen in back in Jane Austen’s day,” she continued in a whisper.

It’s amazing how even out-of-hours the papery-silence of a library’s atmosphere gets to you.

As if on cue, the line shifted forward, bringing into view the most extraordinary day-bed. Built on a scale suitable for giants, and upholstered in a whisky coloured leather, this seemed better suited to Byron’s hangover than Mrs Bennett’s vapour attacks, but I’m never one to pass up the opportunity presented by a fainting couch.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you on it?” asked Helen.

I pretended to consider this for a full half-second before dropping my bag and sinking myself into the squashy leather surface.

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Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. I need to get me one of these.

I wonder if the library would consider loaning it out to me. I’ll bring it back, I swear!

Photoshoot complete, we headed to the makeshift box office. Now, in theory I had an e-ticket, but if this marathon has taught me anything, it’s that one must always check in at the box office. You never know what you’re going to get. Like a miniature postcard with optical-illusion artwork printed on the front, and your seat numbers scrawled on the back, for instance.

“Oh my god, look at this!” I showed Helen, much to the amusement of the box office lady. “So cute!”

“You and your tickets,” laughed Helen.

Yeah, well, look. Everyone has their vices. Mine just happens to be paper-based-theatre-keepsakes. And I don’t think anyone going to see a play in a library is in any position to pass judgement on that. And the illustrated artwork is really cute. There’s no denying it. What with the little bats fluttering around, and the silhouette of Dracula himself cupping the chins of the two figures behind him.

I shouldn’t complain. Helen has gone with me to some weird spaces for the sake of my marathon: Libraries, barges, the New Wimbledon.

She also bought me a drink.

And a programme.

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The woman is such a fucking angel. Seriously.

Drinks, programmes, and pretty tickets acquired, we followed the signs up the stairs to the room that would be serving as our theatre for the evening.

“Is this the main reading room?” she asked as we dumped our coats and bags.  “Look, you’re not allowed to bring laptops in here.”

“It’s very old fashioned,” I explained, staring at my assigned seat and wondering how I was going to clamber up onto it. It was a tall chair. I am not tall. Nor am I adept at climbing. I can’t see one of these things without wholeheartedly believing that I will fall off and die if I attempt to sit on it.

What can I say? I have issues.

It’s okay though. We’re working through this. You and me. Together.

Yeah, sorry to dump that on you. But I’m giving you some quality content over here, the least you can do is provide me with some unpaid therapy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say anything. You just sit there and look pretty while I prattle on over here.

I flicked open the programme. God-lord, look at that formatting! Two-spaces after the full-stops! I thought that convention went out with the typewriter. This place really is old fashioned.

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Which is exactly what I want from a library. And even more what I want for a production of Dracula.

The set, such as it is, was simple. A chaise longue (much more reasonably proportioned than the leather monstrosity lurking downstairs), a ladder, a couple of projection screens and, of course… the library itself. With its staircase and walkway and window.

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“That bit in the window!” I gasped when the interval rolled around.

“The window, was amazing,” agreed Helen.

I don’t think I’ll get the image of the screen being rolled up to reveal the shadowy form of Van Helsing standing there, in the dark, peering in at us through the panes of the French window, for a long time.

“And the projections are great,” continued Helen.

“The projections are great.”

“The way they are integrated into the work.”

“Absolutely.” I paused. “Doesn’t he look like Matthew Ball?” I said, referring to The Royal Ballet principal.

“Oh my god, he does look like Matthew Ball.”

“It’s the eyes.”

“And the hair.”

“I like him.”

“Me too.”

“And not just because he looks like Matthew Ball.”

Helen looked at me skeptically.

“I like her too,” I said hurriedly. “She has the most gorgeously vintage face.”

“She does have a very vintage face.”

“They’re both great.”

“They are.”

I reached down for my bag in an attempt to hide my flusters.

“I’m just going to get a photo of that calendar,” I said, slipping off the chair and scuttling over to the wooden pillar which housed a set of date cards.

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This place is so, so old-fashioned.

I love it so hard.

Unfortunately, my little crush on both of the cast members only increased during the second act on the reappearance of the window.

The screen was whipped away. The window opened.

They began to climb out onto the roof.

I gasped. They couldn’t do that! It was raining! They weren’t even wearing coats!

When they reappeared I had to sit on my hands in an effort to stop myself from running after the pair of them with a warm scarf.

The sight of her skirt covered in rain droplets made my heart ache.

I wanted to bake biscuits for the pair of them.

You know I’ve got it bad when I want to bake for people. It’s the Jewish grandmother in me.

They were really cute though.

I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate to get a case of the warm fuzzies from a production of Dracula, but what can I say… it’s the Goth in me.

It was still raining when we left the library.

Somehow it’s less romantic when it’s you being rained on.

And don’t have anyone to bake biscuits for you.

On the Origin of Theatre

Nearly a week into the marathon, and I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground. I’ve visited a smattering of West End venues, watched a play in a fringe venue under a railway arch, and done… whatever the Bridge Theatre is (off-West End commercial? Retirement home for ex-NT artistic directors? Two-fingers up at anyone who ever doubted they could do it?). I felt it was time for something completely different. And as different options go, watching a play in the gargantuan monument to all things animal, vegetable, or mineral that is the Natural History Museum, is an appealing one.

I love the Natural History Museum. Mostly because, well… dinosaurs. But also the building itself is just such a joy to look at. There isn’t a square inch that doesn’t hold some architectural surprise for anyone willing to drag their eyes away from the exhibits for a moment.

I mean, look at this nonsense.

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And as I was there for a morning show, I had the opportunity to wander around before all the hoards of tourists had made there way out of their Airbnbs and into my way.

The theatre itself is located right inside the museum. When I asked for directions I was instructed to head to “the third arch, and it’s on the right.” I found it just after the Dino Store and before the Darwin Centre.

Once you’re in the correct arch, it’s hard to miss, as the doors have been laminated with enough blue and orange branding to scorch your eyeballs, after all the soft greys and softer browns of the stonework and skeletons located in the main hall.

At the box office they expressed surprise that I was only picking up just the one, solitary ticket. As if a woman old enough to have a theatre-going sproglet of her own, going to see a kids’ show at 11am on a Sunday morning, was at all an odd thing to do. I’m beginning to think that I should get some business cards printed up so that I can hand them over in by way of explanation of my strangeness in these situations. I mean… business cards that say londontheatremarathon.com on them. Not one declaring "following affidavits from the midwife and a doctor, I confirm that the bearer is, in all probability, human."

I put on my best intelligent face, hoping they’d think I was a post-grad student researching Darwin or something. I could be. I totally read his lesser known work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, while at uni. The fact that I seem to be reading mainly YA fantasy at the moment is besides the point.

Anyway, that expression of surprise wasn’t the last one I was going to get. It followed me to the programme seller. “You want a programme?!” he asked, as well he might as they were 7 quid and I didn’t see anyone else with one once I got inside the theatre.

But before I could make it in, it was my turn to get a shock.

The person on the door, after checking my ticket, asked me to present my hand and then with a gentle, and yet reassuringly firm, touch, pressed something onto my skin.

I’d been branded. With a stamp!

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Now, there’s nothing wrong with the stamp. Stamps are cool. And it’s a… turtle? I think? And, you know, I like turtles. Turtles are great.

But are they necessary?

Stamps I mean. Not turtles. I’m sure turtles are very necessary. As a metaphor for perverse in the face of overwhelming odds if nothing else. Oh wait, it was a tortoise in that race. Nevermind. Turtles are useless.

Unlike the neat little plastic disk system at The Union Theatre, these stamps don’t seem to serve much of a purpose, because the Jerwood Gallery at the National Bloody History Museum has tickets.

How the turtle stamp manages to prove the existence of a ticket better than the ticket itself, I’m not sure. Is a stamp better? I mean, other than being dinky. And cute. With it’s chubby swimming legs, and lovely rotund shell and…

Okay, I get it. Love the stamp. I am in total favour of the stamp.

And while we’re here, can we all take a moment to appreciate that I'm in the Natural History Museum wearing a sweatshirt covered in dinosaurs? This is some quality content that I'm offering you here. I just don't want it going unnoticed.

Wait, is this what I'm doing now? Dressing to theme? Am I going to wear a Viking helmet to the Royal Opera House? Winged sandals to the Apollo? Dress as a Christmas tree topper to Little Angel Theatre? As an old witch to the Aldwych? (Sorry). A ruff to Shakespeare's Globe? (I could actually do this... I totally own a ruff. Because of course I do). Okay, I'll stop now. I'm not going to do that. Still, it would have made going to the Red Hedgehog Theatre extra fun...

Where was I… right, in the Jerwood Gallery. Or the Jerwood Gallery Theatre. Not quite sure what this place is: a pop-up venue in a museum, or a more permanent fixture with more shows to follow. It looks like a pop-up venue. It feels like a pop-up venue. The seating is more suited to a secondary school assembly than a theatre. The stage is a literal black box that looks like it has been pushed into the vaulted gallery, like a kid pushing a chunky wooden cube into a play-set to help them learn shapes, or spatial awareness, or… I don’t actually know what they’re for. None of it gives the impression that it was built for the space in any meaningful way. Which makes me think that it will all be packed up, and the gallery restored to its former use, at some point in the very near future.

I don’t suppose there are that enough natural history-related plays floating about to fill a theatre into perpetuity. But then, perhaps it is a case of “build it and they will come.” I’d love to see a play about Mary Anning here (the dinosaur lady of Dorset). That would be frickin’ amazing.

Darwin’s great and all, but I doubt he could pull off a bonnet like Ms Anning.

In fact, The Wider Earth had a distinct lack of bonnets. Despite being set in the 1820s. It did have a hell of a lot of puppets though. Which seems to be the theme of my first week of this challenge. 3 of the 7 shows that I’ve been to this week have featured puppets. And not just puppets. Animal puppets. We had ensanguined sheep at Don Q, a spider on strings at A very very very dark matter, and an adorable iguana here at The Wider Earth. If only War Horse were still running, I could have gone for a fourfer.