It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.
The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.
As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.
"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.
"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.
"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."
I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.
"Just the one ticket was it?"
"Yup. All by myself."
Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.
A queue is forming on the stairs.
Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."
As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.
Space is tight at the Pentameters.
Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.
"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.
"You've been here before?"
I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.
"You're not a student are you?"
"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.
"Are you an actress or...?"
She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.
I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."
"Oh! What do you do?"
"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."
"We do all that ourselves here."
As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.
She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.
Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.
"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.
"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.
Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.
Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.
The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.
Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.
It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.
A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.
He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.
"Can I get a programme," I ask him?
"Yup, they're a pound."
I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.
"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.
But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.
"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.
The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.
Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.
It's not worth a pound.
Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.
But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.
The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.
The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.
"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.
"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."
And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.
Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.
The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.
She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"
We all give it. Enthusiastically.
"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.
I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.
The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.
"Night," I say on my way out.
"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"
I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.