54 Block Pickup

I swear, sometimes the theatre gods want nothing more than to mess with me. They like to have their fun, this we know. But even so, I cannot work out how it is remotely amusing for them to block off half the roads around Kings Cross, sending me on wild and twisting diversions all around Coal Drop Yard, when it is 32 frickin degrees outside, just so that they can have me arrive at my theatre for the evening out of breath, red, flustered around the edges, with only three minutes to go before the show is supposed to start…

Ah.

Okay, I see it now.

But even so, it's not very nice of them. Especailly after everything they've put me through this year already.

I thought we'd come to an understanding of sorts. I would visit all the damn theatres, paying my due respect as I go, and they would help me. Or at the very least, not get in my way. I don't know where it went wrong, unless for some reason they don't approve of my methods.

Perhaps they don't like the way I write. All my short sentences and four-letter words.

Oh gawd, it's the swearing, isn't it?

Shit.

Oh well.

No time to think on that. Literally no time.

I burst into the Lord Stanley pub in a heaving ball of sweaty mess.

I look around. It's Sunday night and it looks like the pub is doing a fair amount of business. But this lot are all drinkers. Where are all my theatre people?

Oxygen deprived, I begin to panic, suddenly convinced that I had come to the wrong pub. One final trick of the theatre gods before they seal my marathon in a coffin and send it floating down the Thames, with ninety or so theatres still unvisited.

It's the final day of Camden Fringe. And the Lord Stanley isn't a classic theatre pub. Some improv group or other runs the theatre space upstairs. Chances of me getting in here again before the year is out are slim.

But no, it's okay. People seem to be drift over to the back of the room, driven by an unseen herder.

And there, I see it, the box office. Or, at least, what counts as a box office in places like this. A laptop, propped up on a small ledge.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to start!" calls out the young man behind the machine.

He's standing beside a doorway, and nailed to the inside is a chalkboard. "Camden Fringe. A Tingle in the Plumbing," it reads.

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Looks like I've found The Free Association's Comedy Room.

Finding what little air is left in my lungs, I manage to give my name to the box officer.

"Oh," says a passing woman, stopping in her tracks as she heads towards the door. "Do I need to...?"

"I just need to get you checked off," says the box officer.

"We have old fashioned paper tickets," she says, which sounds deeply unlikely to me. This is Camden Frnge after all.

The box officer looks at me. "You're fine," he says and I leave him to deal with the paper ticket lady.

Through the door I go, and up the creeky, narrow, stairs, twisting my way up and up. There doesn't seem to be any signage, and I am left to follow the echoes of laughter to find my way.

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Through another door, and yes, this is it. A small room painted black, but with heavy red curtains blocking out the windows. A large medallion is stuck to one wall, and there seems to be bricks on the other.

Wait, not bricks. They're tiles. The type of tiles that are made to look like mismatched slithers of stone. Those tiles that you find gracing the bathroom walls in the facier end of hotels. I’m not sure what to make of that.

There's a small stage. Two small stages, actually. One on each side. But they have been drafted in for seating purposes. Down each side of the room are two rows of chairs, running up onto the stages on both ends. The chairs are old fashioned. Really old fashioned. The have studs all over them, pinning in the upholstery. They look so old that I'm a little bit nervous about sitting down on one, just in case it crumbles under my weight.

I pick one in the second row. It appears stable enough.

I sit down carefully.

I think we're safe.

I get out my fan and do my best to get some air circulation going in here. It's very hot. Stifling. And my already overheated body is suffering greatly.

There are freesheets on alternate chairs. I pick one up from the seat next to me.

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It's nice. Good paper. An A3 folded in half. Artwork on the front. Inside there's a credit list, biographies, and a note from the playwright, which begins by offering a mea culpa that we're only getting three stories tonight, and not the four advertised on the poster. And the front of the freesheet for that matter.

I respect that.

Nothing bugs me more than when an artist wants to change a title in order to fit an updated running order. The title is the title. It's printed on the tickets. It exists. It's in the system.

Own your titles.

I try to read the rest, but it's really hard to balance a freesheet in one hand while flapping a fan in the other.

I need to pick one.

I go with the fan.

A few minutes of dedicated fan-flapping later, I'm feeling a little better.

It's only then that I'm able to take in what's happening in the centre of the room.

Two people crouch on the floor. It's Rebecca Banatvala and David Reed. Playing Jenga.

Playing with one of those oversized sets that I think are sold for garden use, but tend to get most of their air-time at drunken parties.

A woman sitting near me giggles as she watches them.

I'm not sure Jenga is much of a spectator sport, and doesn't particularly lend itself to comedy.

Perhaps she's drunk too.

The room gradually begins to fill up, everyone clutching at their drinks. No one looking bothered or concerned that the show was supposed to be starting shortly.

As the row in front of me is claimed, the Jenga players are hidden from view.

I knew it was coming. I've sat in enough unraked second rows to know that floor-work can't survive it. It does always baffle me though, why directors are so intent on getting their performers down on the ground, when they presumably know the room set up. It's almost like they don't want half the audience to see their work. Perhaps they're embarrassed or something.

Anyway, the music stops. The Jenga pile is smashed.

Reed heads up onto one of the stages were he has a laptop set up.

Banatvala begins the first tale, The Astronaut, in which she's... well, an astronaut. And we, the audience, are all students in a lecture she's giving. She tells us of space, of the adventure, of seeing the earth from the outside, of knowing fully and completely who you want to be and what you want to do in life, and then she tells us about coming back, of motherhood, losing a part of yourself, a part which is never wholly replaced.

Reed steps down off the stage and it's back to the Jenga pile. For some reason. I can't tell what they're doing down there. I focus on keeping my fan going until eventually whatever task they are doing is complete and we can get on with the second tale. The Shopper. This one sees Banatvala as a woman always seeking more. Her parents worked hard, and each birthday saw her gifts growing as did the family's place in the world. And she sees no reason that this should ever stop. She marries well. Their wealth accumulates. She develops her tastes, and her accent. And when children come, she wants more for them too. Unfortunately, one thing you cannot purchase is buy-in from your progeny.

Last up, The Accountant. Reed straps bells to his feet for this, and seats himself on a box, because Banatvala is getting her rap on and she needs a beat. Redundancy has taken this character hard. Or rather, made him hard. Both of the soul and, ummm... delicacy prevents me from completing that thought. I hope my flapping fan and flushed cheeks are not misinterpreted here, because he's out for what he can get, and is determined to get everything. Everything being women.

A man in the front row is drafted in to play Seamus, the hapless partner to one of the accountant's conquests, and made to hear the entire tale in all its sordid detail.

Blackout.

Tale complete.

We applaud the pair of them, our clapping calling them back to the stage for one more set of bows.

Someone comes over to speak to my neighbour.

"It's really hot in here," he breathes.

"It wasn't too bad on this side," she replies.

I put my fan away. Job done I think.

On my way out I pause, seeing the arrangement of Jenga blocks on the floor for the first time. They're laid out carefully. Like a snake. Perhaps hinting at the accountants snake-like traits? I cannot tell you. This tower of direction falls down when the players can't see what's happening at the lower levels.

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Not my President

So, apparently, The Tabard is not the pub where all the Globe volunteers go to get drunk after having a hard night corraling Shakespeare fangirls.

I am slightly disappointed about this, but mostly relieved. I really didn't want to have to deal with one of those ushers crying into my shoulder as they swear they are going to hang up their red tabard for good if they have to listen to one more dick joke.

It is a pub though. And a pub theatre at that. And with the paned windows, and facade hanging out over the pavement, it does have that look of Tudor England about it. I might be walking past The Swan, if I weren't in Turnham Green. So, who knows. Maybe I'l get lucky.

The effect doesn't last long though, as I walk past the beer garden and spot the entrance to the theatre.

An external staircase, rising out from between the tables in a tunnel that makes me think immediately of those jetways you use to get into planes.

I stop to take a photo, standing far back on the pavement to get it all in: the tunnel, the beer garden, and a little bit of the pub in the background.

But something's wrong with the picture.

I look up.

Someone's waving at me.

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I lower my phone, and he grins.

Do I know him? I don't think I know him.

"It's alright, go on!" he says.

"Sorry!" I apologise, but he just waves his hand in a gesture that suggests I should get on with taking my photo. So I do.

And then I go hide, because I'm now really embarrassed.

But I can't hide forever, and witness protection isn't a thing for theatre marathoners, so off I go, through the beer garden, past the waver, and into the tunnel.

Posters advertising tonight's play, Harbor, line the wall, interspersed with headshots of the cast, and creative credits. So, there's really no excuse not knowing people's names. I dutifully take photos just in case there's no freesheet to be found upstairs.

There's a landing up here, with a low bench under the window. Someone has set themselves up in the corner with the papers and they look very comfortable, I must say. Like having your own personal conservatory, with a pub attached.

I've never been one for hanging out in conservatories though, so I go through the door and find myself in the box office. It's a big one. Big enough for the walls to be lined with counter space, so I'm thinking this is where people hang out during the interval.

I join the queue, give my name to one of the box officers, and get my ticket.

"And there's a complimentary programme for you," she says, handing it over.

Sweet.

I decamp to the corner to have a look at it.

It's not a programme, let's be real. Despite it saying “Programme” on the cover. It's a freesheet. But it's a super-swish freesheet. Professionally printed. Super thick cardstock. Little bit too thick, because that combined with the black background means we've got some cracking on the spine, but that's pretty common with that combo. Which is why you should always spring for lamination when you're a fan of black ink and heavy card.

Yeah, okay. I'm sorry. I'm a print professional. Don't get me started on paper coatings or we'll be here all day.

Inside, there's a nice little biog about the writer. Chad Beguelin is a six-time Tony nominee, apparently. Making him the playwright equivalent of Amy Adams. Always the bridesmaid... Aww. Well, I'm sure his little play is just super.

It's still early, so I hang around in box office, earwigging on all the audience members as they come in to pick up their tickets.

This one sounds a bit upset. She hasn't received any emails from The Tabard in a while, and she's feeling a mite neglected.

"When did this happen? Was it recently?" asks the box officer, all concern. "Because you know, with the introduction of GDPR, the law has changed. We had to start the mailing list from scratch. You should have received an email..."

Never underestimate the public's inability to read an email until they stop getting them.

I should probably go in.

The route takes me past one of those magnificent paned windows overlooking the street, and then into the darkness of the auditorium.

So dark I have to squint to make out the seat numbers.

The bloke in front gets out his phone to use the screen light to guide him to his seat, but I can just about cope without.

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The Tabard is on the larger side of titchy. With proper flip-down, raked seats, and a central aisle. The stage is floor level, and the packed set, a fully-furnished living room by the looks of it, is making everyone who comes in super cautious as they try not to trip over a throw pillow between the entrance and their seats.

With no ushers in the auditorium, the guy sitting across the aisle from me has taken on the role for himself.

"This is D," he says to someone eyeing up the seats in confusion. "The numbers go that way."

And therein lies the problem with having allocated seats in small theatres.

"This is D," he says, raising his voice above the Bruce Springsteen that's being pumped in. "I am six, and the numbers are going up."

A bell must have gone somewhere, because there's suddenly an influx of people and I have my own baffled person standing at the end of my row.

"D?" I ask, figuring if the bloke across the aisle can act the usher, then I should probably give it a go too.

"I need two..." she says.

"It's down that way," I say, pointing at D2 and feeling very pleased with myself about the whole thing. I would make a fucking great usher. I can count! I can point! I can be polite. Sort of. The front of house manager at my work doesn't know what she's missing out on.

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But half-way through drafting my letter to her requesting some shifts, the house lights go down and we're in a vehicle with Jessica Napier's Donna and Constance Des Marais' Lottie, mother and daughter respectively. And you can tell they spend a lot of the time on the road because Lottie is reading and she isn't even the tiniest bit car sick. Plus, the book she's reading is House of Mirth, so, you know she's smart. I mean, yes. I was a pretentious brat as a teenager whose bookshelf was chocked full of classics, and like, I'm a fucking idiot now. But I never read those books in the car. Reading in the car was reserved for trashy novels and maths homework. Unimportant things that I didn't mind throwing up over.

This travelling pair are off on their way to visit Donna's brother. But the fact that she hasn't seen Kevin in over a decade and he's unaware of his rapidly approaching sibling is something Donna doesn’t think worthy of worrying about.

But, you know, Douglas Coglan's Kevin takes it well. Controls his rage, anyway. As does his husband, Ted. And they become one big happy family. Drinking martinis. Looking through scrapbooks. Getting stoned...

Now, The Tabard is a small theatre, and the curls of smoke soon fill the auditorium.

The woman sitting next to me pulls her sleeve over her hands and covers her nose. I'm just glad that I thought to pop in a cough sweet before the show started.

I'll give Beguelin his due. It's a funny play. Even the silent bits are funny. As a character pauses, I find myself grinning just anticipating their next line. I honestly think he'll go far. So, like, don't give up, Beguelin! Seventh time lucky and all that.

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In the interval, the audience buzzes as everyone heads out. No one hangs around in the box office. It's off to the bar with the lot of them.

"It's so good. I didn't know what to expect," says one as she walks past me. And I agree. I didn't know what to expect either. But here we are, and I'm really enjoying it. Even if I am severely troubled by the year this thing is set in. They talk about iPods and Richard Simmons, and don't have mobile phones, which makes me think the early 2000s, but when they go to McDonald's they're drinking from paper straws which doesn't seem right. We were in pure kill-the-turtles mode back then. Very odd.

I use my time to Google the play, and turns out Harbor premiered in 2012 which throws all my theories up in the air and I don't know what's going on or what to think anymore.

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When I go back in, I start examining the set for evidence.

Nicholas Gauci's Ted is wandering around the set wearing a party hat and blowing up balloons, but I ignore him. I have more important things to concentrate on. There's a bookshelf and a few volumes are thick enough that I can read their titles. There's a biography of Bill Clinton, which, okay, whatever, that doesn't help. Likewise the Abraham Lincoln. But next to those, is SPQR. The Mary Beard history of Ancient Rome. Now, that I can use. Because I remember all the fuss when that book came out and it wasn't that long ago. I turn to Google. Published in 2015. Hah. Wait. What?

Okay, so, it's fine. Kevin and Ted are super into British historians and got a copy of the first printing. 2015. That's cool. They just don't like mobile phones. Some people are like that. The rays giving them cancer, or whatever. As for the iPod... Lottie is a weird kid. She likes Edith Wharton after all. Perhaps she's into retro music-devices. Like hipsters with vinyl. She doesn't want an iPhone because... who's she going to call anyway? The dad she doesn't even have a phone number for? Ha. As for all the other apps and things that would be super useful so that she doesn't have to borrow her uncle's laptop the whole time... I don't know. Reasons.

Things become even more confusing when Napier sites George Bush as being in charge, but then the fog clears, and I realise what's happening.

The year doesn't matter, because this isn't our world. Smartphones haven't been invented. Trump isn't president. Instead, there's George Bush. No, not that one. George P. Bush. The son. Or grandson, depending on who your 'George' is. Everyone is super green, with even the multinational fast food companies offering up paper straws as standard.

It's a kinder world. A gentler world.

A world where Mary Beard has her rightful place on every bookshelf.

Which makes it all the harder to cope with all those lovable characters not being able to get their shit together long enough to make each other happy.

As it's time to say goodbye, Donna asks her daughter about House of Mirth. How did things end up for the main character, Lily? Because that's what you do when in the midst of a life-changing event. You ask about a book you had a short conversation about three months back. Lottie is happy to oblige, letting her mom know that everything went wonderfully for the main character.

And so everything's great and everyone is happy, and they are all going to live long and fulfilling lives and... hang on. That's not how House of Mirth ends is it? Fuck.

Bloody Beguelin.

Going extinct

I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.

This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.

I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.

But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.

I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.

I go in.

It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.

A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.

I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.

Well then.

Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.

"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"

I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"

So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.

I angle it to face me.

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"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"

"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.

She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."

She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.

Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.

A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.

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The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.

There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.

It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.

And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.

We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.

"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.

The door is closed.

Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.

As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.

My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.

This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

I think we can all agree that he is not alright.

But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.

Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.

As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.

The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.

I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.

I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.

I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.

We both jump.

"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.

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The lights flicker again. And go out.

I think I'm going to have a panic attack.

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.

We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.

As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.

They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.

It's the only explanation.

But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.

The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."

"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.

I'm still not convinced.

I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.

I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.

As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.

They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.

Something feels off.

Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.

I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.

Bloody Russian bots.

I think I must be the last real person left in London.

Never More than Six Feet Away from a Theatre

Okay, so this is starting to get embarrassing now. I'm heading to yet another theatre on Gray's Inn Road that I knew nothing about. I swear they are popping up just to shame me with their existence.

It's half-past eight on Sunday night, and unsurprisingly the streets around King's Cross are dead. Everyone is at home, crying into their food prep, or whatever it is that normal people do on a Sunday evening.

I'm leaning against a tree, waiting.

My show doesn't start until nine, and it is way too early to go to the venue. With fringe theatre, timing is everything. Walking in with half an hour to spare just ends up confusing everyone. The box office isn't set up. The house isn't open. And the bar staff don't appreciate you taking up a table when there are real customers looking for somewhere to sit.

So you just end up standing around, pretending not to be a theatre nerd with no friends.

Frankly, I'd rather be batch cooking lunches so that come Friday I'll be eating five-day-old leftovers.

Okay, maybe not.

Food prep be gross, people. Let it rot.

Like your broccoli.

Unfortunatey, there comes a point when even tree-leaning gets a bit weird, and passersby begin to look concerned that there's a person standing on the pavement, by herself, on a Sunday evening, by herself.

At a quarter to, I give up. And walk the last few minutes to the venue.

A pub.

The Water Rats.

A name which takes me right back to my childhood in the countryside. Of lazy days drifting down the river, drives around terrifyingly narrow roads, and having to steal Toad Hall back from the weasels and... wait, that's Wind in the Willows.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Bright and busy.

There's a security person on the door and he stops me as I try to pass.

"Excuse me," he says. "Are you here for the gig?"

"Um, Camden Fringe?" I say. That seems to be the magic password at these places.

It works. "Can I check your bag please?"

He rummages around in there, giving it a more thorough go-over than it gets at most West End theatres.

Glad to know nothing is going to happen to me at this well-lit pub theatre on a Sunday evening...

Inside, one of the bar staffers spots me. I must have a particularly lost looking expression on my face because she comes over to say hello.

"Camden Fringe?" I try.

"Yes, yes, yes," she says, my presence now perfectly explained. "I think they're just having an interval at the moment. It's at the back there."

She points over to a pair of glass doors. There's one of those "On Air" light-up signs over it. The sort you get at radio stations. I mean, I presume you do. I've never been to a radio station.

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I squeeze through the tables and make my way over.

It looks like the previous show is still getting out.

People are running around throwing sparkly costumes into suitcases. There are sequins everywhere.

I tuck myself up against a table and wait. But while the suitcases and their owners have managed to shuffle out of the theatre, they don't appear to want to go anywhere.

They position themselves in the small slither of space between the steps leading up to those big glass doors, and the tables in the bar. Ther exact slither of space that I'm standing in.

They pace back and forth, knocking me with their luggage every time they pass. One of them even doubles down on her bag action, digging it right into me without a backward glance as if trying to knock away this weird immovable object that's standing behind her. But here's the thing, despite all the social anxiety, the introversion, the shyness, I'm a stubborn old bitch and I refuse to get out of the way.

The performer, wearing a spectacular black sequin jacket, buzzes from group to group, taking selfies with everyone. They step back, digging their elbows into my ribs and stepping on my toes as they all try to arrange themselves in the frame.

I don't know what their show was, but I think it's clear that everyone involved has the self-awareness of a narcissistic gnat on Zoloft.

It's then I realise that the guy doing security, he isn't there to protect me from any knife-carrying fascists with a grudge. Oh no. He's there to stop me from launching myself at suitcase-wielding thespians with spangles for brains. Because if this lot bash into me one more time, a bitch is going to get slapped.

I do my best to wriggle out of the way so I'm not a background character in their group-shots, and am immediately distracted by something much more interesting happening behind the bar.

They're blowing bubbles.

Hundreds of them. Floating gently down onto the beer taps.

The wholesomeness of it all calms me right down.

I don't even mind that it's now past nine o'clock and the house hasn't even opened for the next show. They've drawn a black curtain between the doors and the space. So they must be setting up or something behind there.

I stifle a yawn.

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This may not be the latest start time on my marathon, but that doesn't make it any easier. I may have survived a Midnight Matinee and a 10pm strip-show, but after so many hour-long fringe shows, I've got used to being home and in my pyjamas by this time. If they don't open the house soon, I'm going to be curling up under the nearest table for a snooze.

Without the black curtain still very much in situ, by some sixth sense, people have somehow worked out that the house is now open.

They line up, flashing their tickets to the man standing guard by the doors.

He has a table next to him, complete with money box and flyers. No list though.

We're going to have to bring out the email confirmation then, because surnames aren't going to work.

"I booked online?" I tell him, turning around my phone so that he can see the confirmation. "Sorry, there's rather a lot." As my experience at the Moors Bar showed me, apparently it's not normal to have ten shows listed in a single confirmation email. And here I was thinking people went full out at the fringe. Just me it seems.

I zoom in to the right line, somewhere near the bottom.

"Okay. Just the one?"

Yeah, like I could convince someone to see a fringe show with me at 9pm on a Sunday evening. They're all busy filling Tupperware.

He hands me a business card for the company (It's Fespian Init - cute name). Looks like this is how we're doing tickets tonight.

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That done, it's time to go in.

I've seen my fair share of pub theatres this year, and this one definitely has the look.

Dark. Wooden floor. Mismatched seating. Unexplained disco-ball hanging from the ceiling.

But there's also a bar in here. And while there are a few cabaret tables, they've been set at the back, instead of near the stage. So they are positioned with easy access to the bar, which makes much more sense.

Taking up the main space are rows of chairs. The first two of which have long benches set in front of them. Not to be sat on, of course. That's where you put your drinks.

The stage is raised and “The Water Rats” (with an adorable silhouette of one of those water rats) is painted above it.

I'm not drinking tonight, and have no need of a bench to rest my glass on, so I go for my classic seat choice - third row, on the end.

I hope we start soon. And not just because I have a duvet to get home to. The cast are already on stage. In a freeze-frame that does not look very fun having to hold up there.

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It takes a few minutes, but eventually, the seats fill and we're ready to begin.

Six short plays stuffed into one evening, under the banner of Our Walk Through the World.

We start with a woman with dungarees and very long hair, speaking to a camera on a tripod, trying to convince the viewer that she would make an excellent surrogate, despite her life falling apart all around her. Then we have an office that appears to be run on jelly beans.

Do I need to add here that there are no freesheets? I have no idea who any of these actors are. And no clue who wrote the plays. They're fun though. Short. Just the right length for my current attention span, and surreal enough to keep me awake.

Next up, a football manager trying hard not to think about his daughter giving birth in hospital while at a press conference. Then parents who have to choose between their son and their dream home, with an assault rifle blaring out over the sound system, in what has to be the least well thought out sound effect to pump out in a theatre in 2019.

With the sounds of gunfire replaced by Air's Sexy Boy we reach the last play. A man trying very hard to explain that he definitely didn't fuck a panda.

That one was weird.

The panda was sitting on stage eating an apple.

What kind of panda eats an apple?

The applause fades, the lights in the bar go on, and everyone staggers to their feet to get a drink.

As ever with fringe shows, no one wants to feckin' leave.

I have to practically climb over the person sitting at the end of my row to get out.

I get that runs are short, and celebrations need to happen with those people who love you enough to turn up, but come on. A time and a place, people. There's a cat waiting in Hammersmith who's going to get seriously pissy if she doesn't get her dinner before midnight.

The DeLorean in the Basement

I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.

So I didn't.

Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.

And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.

Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.

Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.

I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.

Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.

Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.

Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.

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There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.

I guess that's where I'm heading.

Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.

There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.

I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.

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There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.

It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.

The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.

Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

"Are you here for the show?" he asks.

"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.

"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."

Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.

Except, there wasn't any signage.

Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.

I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.

"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.

"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."

I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.

I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.

The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.

A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.

Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.

Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.

I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.

Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.

... I wear black.

A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.

A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.

"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."

As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.

I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.

When we get to me, I give my name.

"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.

It really is dark down here.

I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.

"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.

"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."

It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.

The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.

There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.

It's a small room. Tiny.

Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.

In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.

Behind are rows of chairs.

And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.

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I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.

I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.

So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.

"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.

There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.

The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."

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We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.

"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."

Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.

I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...

First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."

I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.

Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.

The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.

Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.

Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.

I leave.

As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.

I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.

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And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids

I don't know who's idiot idea it was for me to book two shows on opposite ends of London within a single afternoon, but I refuse to believe it was mine.

I'm here. Sort of. Stumbling along. After the knee clunks it took me to get to my first venue of the day, I'm not sure all of me is going to make it. I'm already keelhauling one leg around behind me.

But it's okay. I'm nearly there. Just around the corner and... hang on. I recognise this corner. I mean, it's Grey's Inn Road, and I work just a few minutes’ walk away from here, but when the Chapel Playhouse said they were here, I didn't realise they meant they were here. Here here. As it, right here.

I must have walked past this spot a hundred times. And I never noticed there was a theatre lurking.

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To be fair to myself, it looks like a bar from the outside. Looks like a bar from the inside too. Even I there are neon lights zig zagging across the ceiling, making me feel like I’m somehow dropped into the Saved By The Bell theme song. Are we sure there's a theatre in here? Wait, there are show posters pinned up on the notice board over there. And small flyers advertising the play I'm here to see littering the tables.

This must be the place.

I look around, trying to locate the box office. Always tricky to find in pub theatres because you never know what form they're going to take. A laptop set up on a table at the back? A desk tucked away inside a broom-closet? A full-out boxed-in box office? A hole-in-the-wall upstairs? A corner of the bar? It could be anything.

And yet, I don't see anything that looks likely. No signs. No laptops. No furtive creatures drooling over their clipboards.

I'm going to have to do the worst possible thing in the world. I'm going to have to ask.

Ergh. I hate asking.

I hobble my way over to the bar.

"Where do I go for the box office?" I ask the young woman who seems to be the only employee in this place.

"That's me," she says with a smile. "Have you bought a ticket?"

She reaches for the list, sitting on the counter behind her.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles?"

She looks down the list. "Maxine?"

"Yup."

"That's great," she says, ticking me off.

Right then. I'm checked in, I guess. I should probably find somewhere to sit down before my knees' angry screams start to draw attention from the other people here.

There's a massive pistachio green booth over by the door, and I stagger over to it. It's big enough to seat eight, but I don't care. Me and my knee have needs. And those needs involve hogging an entire booth to ourselves.

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Five minutes later and there's someone sitting at the other end of my booth.

I don't know exactly when it happened. I was sitting quite contentedly, editing a blog post, as I usually am while waiting for a show to start, and then I look up, and there he is. Sitting as far away from me as he possibly can, but there's no denying the fact that he is in the same booth as me, and I do not approve.

I look around. There are a lot more people than when I first got here. All the tables over by the window are taken.

But those tables in the middle? Yeah. They're all empty. He could be sitting there. By himself. No near me. Having a great time, I'm sure. But he's here. In my booth.

I ask you. The sheer nerve of some people.

Coming over here, taking our booths...

I go back to editing my blog post. But I notice something. In the corner of my screen. The time. It's one minute past five. One minute past when this show should have started.

I look around.

The bloke in my booth is still there. He hasn't got a drink or anything, which makes me think he's probably there for the show. And if he hasn't gone in, then it's likely that I haven't inadvertently missed the theatre bell.

But then he's a booth-stealer, so what does he know? If he can miss all the rules of a functioning society that state, quite clearly, that you do not go over and sit in someone else's booth unless they invite you, especially when there are empty chairs at empty tables, then... who knows what else he could be missing.

But there are more people here than just my booth-interloper.

There are whole tables full of them.

I look over them, trying to work out whether they are theatre people, or just early evening drinkers.

They do all have drinks, which would support the later theory. But it would be quite the coincidence if this place filled up a few minutes before a show started with multiple groups of people who just fancy a pint early on a Saturday evening.

Stil, my anxiety is twanging.

It's five minutes past now.

That's really, properly, late.

The door to the theatre is over the other side of the bar. There's a big sign over there. Chapel Playhouse, it says, with an arrow pointing down at the door.

The door is closed. Very closed.

And when the door is closed, it's usually a sign that the house is, well, not open. Unless of course, it was open, and now it is closed again.

Is it possible that every single person in this pub has missed the start of the show, and that the actors are down there, in the theatre space, proclaiming their lines to an empty room, wondering why the show is so quiet tonight?

I mean... this is the fringe. It's more than possible. But somehow it doesn't seem likely.

Chances are, we really are just running five minutes late.

I check my phone. Scrap that. Ten minutes late.

Somehow, this chain of logic isn't doing much to help my ever growing anxiety.

And when the door does open up from the inside, and someone comes out to talk to the woman behind the bar, my nerves are so frazzled I almost jump out of my seat.

I really need to keep my shit together. I'm seeing a play about ghost hunters. I can't afford to get all jumpy before I've even gone in.

I almost drop my phone as the bell rings out.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes the voice from the bar. "The house is now open."

Thank fuck for that. I was almost on the brink of asking again, and I'm really not sure my angst could have taken that.

I make my way around to the other side of the door, and go down the stairs.

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There's no ticket checker, because there are no tickets. No admission pass. Nothing. The bar staff here must have hella good memories to keep track of everyone who got their name ticked off the list.

Through the door is brightly lit stairwell. The sort you stumble upon in office blocks where the fire alarm goes off. Except this one is covered in swirls of paint and multicoloured polka dots. Maybe not an office block then. This is primary school territory.

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Down the stairs and we are led through to a room darkened by blackout curtains.

Chairs surround a floor-level stage on all four sides.

It's really cold down here.

Like, properly cold.

It's bliss.

"It's freezing," hisses one audience member to his friend.

An icy blast catches me as I walk around the seats, trying to pick which one I want.

Must be the ghosts.

Although, this doesn't look the kind of place they'd usually haunt. No crumbling stone walls or haunted mahogany panelling down here. The blackout curtains can't hide the fact that this theatre lives another life as a function room. The walls are white. The ceiling covered in modern piping. There's even a hatch in the wall that must be roped into serving tea and birthday cake during the daytime.

It's not exactly the venue I'd pick to stage a show about ghost hunters investigating an old country house. If anything, I would have thought the Chapel's sister-venue would have been a better bet. The Bread and Roses in Clapham with its sash windows and creaking back stairs might have been more in keeping with the theme of the play. But I suppose programming something in SW4 might have stretched the definition of Camden too far even for the Camden Fringe festival.

Over on one side, the row of three chairs has been given a platform to sit on, so I go for one of those. The fact that the seat I pick is also next to a pillar, thus protecting my right side from any creeping ghosts, has nothing to do with my decision-making processes, and frankly, I find it insulting that you would even suggest it. I have told you countless times of my ambition to meet a theatre ghost, there is no way I would ever put an obstacle between myself and that glorious happenstance.

There are little cards on all the seats. They say "THANK YOU" in all caps, which is nice, if a little bit shouty. They give a hashtag for the show, and a url for the company.

I suppose I could probably look up all the cast names and whatnot there, but we both know I'm not going to do that.

No freesheet. No crediting. That's how it works on the marathon.

At least I'm happy with my seat though. The other audience members appear to be engaged in a game of musical chairs, sitting down, taking in their view, then jumping up to go test out somewhere else. Everyone wants to sit in the front row. But also, no one wants to sit in the front row.

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Because ghosts.

Someone comes to sit on my platform.

I look over.

It's the booth-stealer.

Ergh.

Fucking. Rude.

But also I'm grateful that I'm not sitting up here alone.

The lights going out puts a stop to these shenanigans.

An actor appears, making his way through the seats to reach the stage-area, lighting his way with a small torch and... eating a brownie?

It looks like a good brownie.

I wouldn't mind a brownie right now.

More torches flash around the audience as more cast members appear.

We have found ourselves in the middle of a ghost hunt. Two ghost hunts. One of them involving an actual ghost.

I squint against the beams of torchlight as they pass in front of me. Usually I disapprove lights being shone around the audience. It's my pet theatre-device hate. But I'm appreciating the use of it here.

Adds to the voyeuristic element. Perhaps its because I just came from that immersive show set in a private house, but I have the feeling of a being lurking in the shadows, watching these ghost hunters. And I begin to wonder, perhaps I am the ghost in this hunt.

I'm very into this idea.

I fully intend to be a theatre ghost when the time comes (I'm relying on you to scatter my ashes somewhere which will facilitate this goal, I hope you know that).

But as one of the hunters (who already has a ghost on call, and is actually on the search for a family heirloom) comes creeping around behind the chairs, flashing her UV torch over our shoulders, I begin to grow unsure about the whole thing.

She leans over me, the torch waving around next to my ear, and I can't stop myself from shuddering.

Being a ghost would be cool, I tell myself, waiting for her to retreat. All those shows I could watch for free, dressing rooms I could lurk in, and programmes I could apply my red pen too.

She moves on. I can breath again.

Being a theatre ghost would be... the fucking best.

At the curtain call, the ghost hunter's camera-person takes a bite out of her brownie, bowing as she chews away at it.

Shit.

Are there ghost-brownies?

What if there aren't ghost-brownies?

If there aren't ghost-brownies, I'm not sure I'll be able to cope.

As I start to rethink my plans for the afterlife, the writer comes out on stage. You know the drill, he thanks is for coming and asks us to tell our friends. I mean… I guess you’re my friend… so… job done?

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Tea and Brandy

I think I got a little too excited about living in a sorta-central location. Just because I can walk to places doesn't mean that I should. Buses exist. The tube is really rather good, and is worth tapping in that Oyster card every so often, when the places you need to go are not all that close. Like Little Venice. I mean, yes. It only took a little over an hour to get here. But not walking here on a warm and muggy day would have meant that I didn't turn up all sweaty and gross. Sorry about that.

But I'm here, at least. Outside the Bridge House. Home of the Canal Cafe Theatre. My second pub theatre in as many days.

And I'm back on the Camden Fringe fest trail again. Which I am most grateful for as I was a little bit unsure of this place. Their website claims they're a member-only theatre. I don't know exactly what that means, but there seems to be a charge attached to the first ticket that you buy. That gets you a membership card. Valid for a year. And while one pound fifty isn't all that much, and I do rather like the idea of owning a cute little membership card, I'm not going to be coming back here. Not before next year anyway. So, I am very happy that through the miracle of fringe theatre, I get to bypass all that nonsense and get straight in there.

Although, now that I'm standing here, I realise I should have probably done the whole membership thing. So much for my investigative approach to exploring London theatres.

Eh. Someone else can write a blog post about it.

They probably already have.

Anyway, too late to do anything about it now. I'm going in.

It's a nice looking pub. All white stucco frontage. And right next to the bridge going over the canal. Explaining the names of both the theatre and the pub.

There's a little courtyard garden. Very little. But it's lined with a rainbow of blooming floorboxes and is packed full of people sitting behind the bars of the smart iron railing.

There's a sign on the glass pane over the door. "Entrance to the Canal Cafe Theatre and Bar." So at least I know I'm in the right place.

Passing through the door I go from stucco-fronted sophistication to poster-ridden fringe venue.

The walls are covered in posters and flyers, and chalkboard giving a rundown of everything that's on.

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Also the claim that the theatre is "Home to the world's longest running sketch show." Sounds like great fun, but it's on at 9.30pm, which is well past my bedtime, so I'm never going to see it.

There's a man in the foyer and he smiles as I come in.

"Box office?" I ask.

He steps aside revealing another bloke, this one tucked up inside of the cupboard underneath the stairs, like Little Venice's answer to Harry Potter.

I give him my name and he looks over his list. "One ticket?"

Yup. Just me on my lonesome. As ever.

Theatrical marathons as not a way to make friends. Or even keep friends...

"We'll be opening in about ten minutes," he says, handing me an admission pass from the box. "Take a drink because it gets warm up there."

My eyebrows shoot up. "Greaattt," I say, my keenness levels dropping fast. I've seen what happens when pub theatre's get warm. It's not fun.

Knowing what I know, and seeing what I've seen, you'd think I'd follow his advice and get a drink.

But I'm a stingy fucker, and still smarting from the money I dropped at Opera Holland Park, so I head out to the courtyard instead, and find a posing table to lean against and catch what little breeze I can.

The sun is still up and the bants-game is strong out here.

I let my attention wander while proofreading a blog-post, listening in to all the chatter going on around me.

I love listening to theatre chatter. Especially fringe theatre chatter. It's so marvellously unself aware of all the gossip being laid down in public.

A woman just a few feet away from me is an actor, and she is bringing stories to her table.

Stories that I will not be repeating.

"How long does it take to pick up tickets?" she adds, presumably realising that the show tonight is not about her.

"No time at all," says one of her attentive audience members.

"Like a minute, or...?”

They debate back and forth on the length of time it takes to give your name at box office. Long enough to have actually gone inside, given a name, and got an admission pass. Three times over.

She eventually decides to stop with this procrastination and actually get her ticket. Returning all of thirty seconds later.

"There's no upstairs bar," she announces, scandalised, on her return. "Maybe we should get drinks now?"

Her group agree that drinks now is a good idea.

"I know someone in the play," she says. "So afterwards I'll have to say hello, tell them it was fantastic... So... maybe drink first?"

For once I'm not annoyed to be in an audience of people who know the cast. Fuck. This level of cynicism is feeding my soul with pure hell-grown ambrosia.

The group head back in. Presumably to gain liquid-enthusiasm from the bar.

I join the queue that is heading up the stairs, as apparently, the house has opened without my noticing.

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There's a ticket checker at the top, and I give her my admission pass.

"Would you like a programme?" she says, holding out a folded piece of paper.

You bet I would.

"Sit anywhere you like," she offers, with a wave of her hand.

I go in.

Gosh. Cabaret style. Again. That's two pub theatres in a row with it.

Not quite as pleasing as the set up at RamJam. The tables are plasticky and red instead of the mismatched wood over at Kingston. It's also a bit more on the squishy side here.

And as we know, there's no bar up here. So, we won't be getting table service. Someone that I've never understood when combined with this setup. Like seriously, what's the point of all these tables if you aren't going to bring me a drink?

No matter. I have more pressing things to think on. Like, where am I going to sit?

While the tables are taking up most of the room, there seems to be a raised section at the back with a more traditional format. With chairs set out in rows. I could sit there. I should sit there, really, considering that I'm here alone. Leave the tables to the groups.

But like... I'm here to get the full Canal Cafe experience. And I'm an arse.

So I take one of the tables at the back.

It's a double table. Two of them pushed together. Because that's the type of mood I'm in right now.

But as the theatre begins to fill up, and the tables get claimed, a couple of people join me at mine. And that's fine. I guess.

Across the room, I hear the tiny chink of spoon against saucer. I look over a see a man with a literal teapot and teacup, set down neatly on a tray. He even has an itty bitty milk jug sat on one side.

The Canal Cafe may not have a bar up here, but they sure as hell are living up to their name.

I'm finally seeing the purpose of the cabaret tables.

It's not for the wine glasses (although the table next to me appears to have their bottle cooling in an actual ice bucket right now). Oh no. It's for cream teas and theatre. I mean, granted, there are no scones on his tray. At least none that I can see. But the potential is there. I've always been fairly against the idea of mixing tea with theatre. I think it's weird. But I suspect what really puts me off is the sight of lines of people struggling with the samovar and then not being able to figure out what to do with their cup. This tray thing is a game-changer.

"Sorry," says the ticket checker, grabbing the back of one of the spare chairs at my table. "I've just got two coming up who need to sit here."

And sure enough, two people come into the theatre and take the two spare chairs.

I appear to now be sitting at the table of misfit toys. A raggle-taggle bunch made up of the friendless, and the watchless.

As I wait for the show to kick-off, I have a look at the programme. Well, we know it's a freesheet. But I appreciate the effort. Pity it didn't go as far as running off a test copy, because once again we're seeing the dreaded "forgot to click the flip-on-short-edge checkbox." No matter. I like reading things upside down.

It's an interesting freesheet actually. The biographies of characters are mixed in with the cast, so there's a brief moment when you're left wondering which drama school Mary the Maid went to, or what position the actor Laura Gamble had in the royal household. As for the writer of Brandy, Matthew Davies, he has forgone all attempts at a biography and instead spends a solid paragraph telling us that Queen Anne has been forgotten to British history. Yes, that Queen. The one which Saint Olivia Colman won an Oscar for playing only last year. That Queen Anne. Okay, Matthew Davies. You do you, I suppose. Don't let Hollywood get in the way of a neglected-narrative narrative.

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The ticket checker closes the curtain, blocking the bright light from the stairwell, and then disappears into the tech booth. Gosh. I wonder if she also has to serve the tea.

As the lights dim, a woman sitting a table ahead of me loudly shifts her chair over to the right, blocking the view of someone at my table. I'm outraged on behalf of the misfits, but not for long. Because the play is beginning, and there is some serious big-dress action going on over there on stage.

The 18th-century really knew how to fashion. The silks. The panniers. The wigs!

Bring back petticoats, that's what I say. Even better, crinolines.

Might make getting on the tube a bit awkward, but just think of the personal space we'd gain. Rando strangers wouldn't be able to get within ten feet before bumping their ankles against the metal hoops hidden under our skirts.

Light floods into the theatre as the curtains are pulled back one more. The box officer is there, with two latecomers. He indicates they should go in, and as soon as they step in from the landing, he closes the curtain behind them, sealing them in with us.

They stand there, at the side of the room, blinking in the darkness, looking around as they try to locate spare seats.

Sensing their trauma, the ticket checker, or should I say the tech person, emerges from her box and leads them both to the back.

There's a small cry as one of them fails to find her seat. But they must have settled, because the tech person returns to her box, and I hear no more signs of distress from the back.

Although, I might be feeling a little bit of it myself. Only a few minutes in, and I'm already seeing the problem with this play. The stage may be raised, but not quite enough to lift the bed-bound Queen Anne into visibility about all the crowded heads of those sitting around tables.

I lean back against the wall, finding a slither of sight-line that cuts across the room, and there I stay.

But as Mary the Maid and Queen Anne dismiss each other, I'm startled as the curtains up once more. This time it is not the box officer standing on the other side. The silhouette is altogether more dramatic.

There are panniers. Wide ones.

It's Sarah Churchill. Or rather Zoe Teverson in the role of Churchill. As played by Rachel Weisz in that film we're all supposed to have collectively forgotten.

She stalks through the tables towards to stage, paying the audience as little mind as if we were peasants clinging to the bottom of her shoe.

Her great height has her souring after the heads of the audience. As she bends down to pour herself a glass of brandy, I realise this whole arrangement was a clever directorial decision. By blocking the view, our attention is fully diverted towards Churchill. Just as every head in Queen Anne's court must be have turned towards this self-made woman.

Brilliant.

As the house lights go up, and the tech person emerges from her booth to pull open the curtain, there is a distinct lack of movement towards the exit. This is something I've noticed about fringe theatre. No one likes leaving.

Well, screw this, I'm going home.

I stomp my way down the stairs, followed by precisely no one.

Reaching the foyer once more, I turn around for one last look.

Still not sure about that sketch show, but I think I could be tempted to fork out one pound fifty on a membership card in order to come back. If only to sample the cream teas.

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Back Room Brahms

I'm in Kingston!

I've only been to Kingston once before. Ooo, must be six or seven years ago now. For a job interview. At the Rose Theatre. Didn't get it. Probably for the best. It's is a trek and a half to get down here.

Anyway, I am back. And not going to the Rose. Not tonight. I am going somewhere my pre-marathon self hadn't even heard of.

RamJam Records. Which sounds well dodge to me, but there's no avoiding it. They have a play on tonight, so here I am. Standing outside The Grey Horse pub, which is a short walk from the station, and is apparently the home of this mysterious theatre.

It looks promising. There's a poster for the play I'm seeing in the window: Clara. And a sign over the gated side-entrance which say The Ram Jam Club. Looks like I'm in the right place.

I duck in between the tables out on the pavement and through the gated entrance, leading into a sort of covered outdoor corridor, filled with comfortable looking booths, each with a pair of newspapers laid out and waiting on them. The Metro. With a single HB pencil sat on top. To do the crosswords, I presume.

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Down the other side, is a counter, and at the end, a woman perches, legs crossed as she sits on the bar stool, the paper open on her knees, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette ends by her elbow. She looks very content.

Me on the other hand, I'm confused. This place isn't looking much like a theatre. And while this marathon has taught me that theatres can look like pretty much anything they damn well want, they tend to draw the line at living in corridors. I mean, they could. I guess. But the sightlines would be terrible.

I keep on going, and when I reach the end, turn left, through the doors, and into the building.

This looks much more promising. There's a foyer. It's dark. Theatre loves dark foyers.

There's a door. It's painted black. Theatre loves doors. And black.

And best of all, the Ram Jam logo is painted on this black door.

There's also a massive mirror leaning against the wall. And a motorbike. I'm not sure on theatre's stance on motorbikes, but they sure love mirrors.

I think I might have found it...

Except the door is closed, and there's no one's here.

No box office.

Not even a person with a laptop.

Hmmm.

Not sure what I'm meant to do now.

I keep on going. I seem to be at the back of the pub. There's some sort of restaurant action happening, with wait-staff running around prepping for evening service.

Okay. No. Not there.

I go back to the corridor, loop around, and slip through a side door into the pub-proper.

And then I go to the bar.

I didn't want it to come to this. But needs must. I'm going to have to ask.

"Hi," I say, when it's my turn at the bar. "Where do I go for the theatre?"

The girl behind the bar points the way. "Go straight through there," she says. "Through the restaurant and you'll see a big mirror."

"Okay..."

"I think..." she checks the clock. "Yes, they should be open now."

I go through the restaurant, and find myself back in the dark foyer. With the mirror. And the motorbike. And the black door with the Ram Jam logo.

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The door opens.

A young woman comes out. She rushes off. The door closing behind her.

Huh.

I guess I'll just wait here then...

Turns out I'm not the only one who's been waiting for this door to open.

Someone emerges from the corridor, and makes a dive for the door.

The young front of houser scoots back, darting after the trespasser. "We'll open any second," she tells them, as she leads them back into the dark foyer.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to storm in!" apologies the trespasser.

She and I smile at each other, and stand around, waiting for the door to open. Officially, this time.

Soon enough it does.

"You can come. The house is now open," says the front of houser, propping open the door.

So I go in.

Or at least, I try to. I only make it three steps inside the door before I'm forced to stop.

"Oh wow," I say. "It's nice in here."

And it is nice in here.

It's like a pub within a pub.

There's a neat bar set into the painted brick wall over on the left. It's laden with glass jars full of snacky things.

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The walls are covered with records and album art.

Faerie lights hang from the ceiling.

Small tables are dotted around everywhere. Looks like we're doing cabaret-style tonight.

"It's cute, isn't it?" says the front of houser, grinning over her shoulder as she heads behind the bar.

I manage to stop staring, and meet her over there.

"I have to say, this is not what I expected," I say. It really isn't.

"I like it when it's like this, with the tables on the stage," she agrees. "Have you booked?"

I tell her I have, and give my name.

She ticks me off the list.

"And can I get you anything?" she asks.

I'm so taken in with the atmosphere, I find myself ordering a gin and tonic.

"House gin, or something fancy?" she asks.

"House is fine. I'm not fancy." Well... not when it comes to alcohol anyway.

But she hands me the glass with those fancy cuts crisscrossing themselves all over it, and a bottle of tonic, which I promptly set about spilling all over the bar. I grab some napkins to clean it up.

Hey, I told you. I ain't fancy.

Realising I'm making more of a mess then I'm managing to clean up, I decide to make my escape, and I take myself and my drink off to find a seat.

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The front of houser was right, it is nice with the tables on the stage. Even though the stage is so small there's only space for two of them.

Instead, our focus for the evening looks to be the piano. Two long mirrors have been slung up over it, to reflect the pianist's face. But the pianist hasn't taken her seat. She stands, dressed in a long Victorian gown, sighing deeply as she pours a drink from her crystal decanter.

"Don't be shy," she says to a newcomer, as they dither about which seat to pick.

"Is it better to sit close?" asks the newcomer.

"Come close to me," says the pianist, beckoning them forward. "Welcome." And then she sighs again. A sigh laden with despair and agony.

I decide to follow her advice and pick a table near to the front. But also close to the wall. Because while this marathon may have knocked a good deal of my fear of immersive theatre out of me, I'm still not on board with the whole interaction thing.

"Don't be shy, come closer," says the pianist to the next group making their way over from the bar.

Freesheets have been left sitting out on the tables. I pick one up and give it a read. Mainly so I can stop calling the pianist, the pianist. She's Elena Mazzon. And we're here to see her play Clara.

After a list of all the music being performed, we also get a rundown of all the characters. Little two-line biographies of 19th-century musicians and composers, which is a very nice touch. I like that.

The space begins to fill up. With even the two tables on the stage now taken.

The front of houser makes her way between them, taking names from those who haven’t gone up to the bar.

"Is it okay to get two tickets?" one person asks.

"Oh sorry!" says the front of houser. "I missed you. Of course." And they go about settling the business of tickets right there.

Now that is some impressive table service going on here.

It's past the start time now. The front of houser comes up to the table next to me. The one with the woman who asked if it's better to sit close. "Did you say you were holding for two?" asks the front of houser.

The woman says yes. She's still waiting for two friends.

"Hmm," says the front of houser. "Tell you what, I'll hold for a few minutes, and if they turn up after that, they can join you."

But there's no need to hold anything, because here they are, rushing in with a flurry of apologies as they make their way through the tables to the front.

They settle down, and we're ready. Lights dim. Mazzon steps forward. She begins her story. Or rather, the story of Clara Shumann. Famed pianist. And wife of the composer.

She's been asked out on a date. In a letter. Which is a very pleasingly formal way to go about things.

There's some problems though. He's a wee bit younger (eh...) and with a whiff of scandal about him, after living in the same house as our Clara and her not-dead-yet husband.

She asks a guy sitting on stage what he does on dates.

“Kiss?” he suggests.

How very forward, observes our Clara

“What about you?” she asks the last sitting on the next table to me.

“Get a drink first?”

Mazzon nods. Yes, a drink is a good start.

She asks lady sitting at the front to keep hold of the letter.

"Don't read it," she begs. Some things are private. Even when your laying bare your heart.

And then she sits at the piano, and plays.

Now, I'll always be a Baroque girl when it comes to classical music. I prefer the precision of the 18th century, to the Romantic flurries of the 19th. But man, those cascades of melting notes are doing something to me.

Perhaps it's the fact we're sitting so close, or that we've been invited into the musician's life and heart. Or maybe it's just the gin and tonic having its way with my insides. But I am seriously into this right now. To feel the rhythms at odds with the life of their creator, the endless births and demands of being a woman acting to mute the music. To hear how a marriage between equals is impossible when society places you on two different levels. And that education and talent mean nothing to the baby crying out for his mother.

No wonder she had been sighing into her glass.

I'd be sighing too.

Perhaps the best we can hope for, after a lifetime of work, is a nice young man, with long blond hair, sending us a letter, asking us out on a date. Bonus points if its Brahms.

As the play comes to a close, we applaud.

“Okay, I'll say something” says Mazzon as the clapping refuses to end.

She thanks us. And the director, who is sitting there on one if the stage tables.

And then it's time to go.

Except no one wants to leave.

Some people go over to talk to her. One woman carries over a chair to the door to hold it open. “Let’s get some air in here,” she says.

I wouldn’t mind staying. I do like it here. But it's a long way back to Hammersmith. Time to go.

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Dante's Theatre

Boris Johnston is prime minister, and temperatures are topping thirty degrees, but at least I don’t have to go south of the river tonight.

Such are my priorities right now.

Still, a nice journey on the Victoria line is not to be sniffed at. Especially when it’s almost completely empty and I get to sprawl about on the seats, lazily flapping my fan, feeling like I just stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play.

The fan stays very much out for the short walk to my destination for the evening: Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub. I really hope this place has air con. I’m not doing all that well right now.

It’s taken a while to get to this one. For a pub that makes claim to be of the pub-theatre variety, they don’t have all that much in the way of theatre. Music? Yes. There’s plenty of that going on. But no matter how many times I clicked on their website, theatre was never in the listings.

I even started following them on Twitter. Just in case they were the sort of venue that was a bit lazy about uploading their calendar. I thought they’d at the least retweet a visiting company. But all I got were weekly tweets about their Sunday roasts. Which only served to make me hungry. Not hungry enough to travel all the way to Walthamstow, you understand. But a gentle gnawing that acted as a weekly reminder that I was not having a roast for Sunday lunch, and that my stomach was not particularly pleased with my life choices.

But with summer, comes the Edinburgh previews. And the Ye Olde got in on the action with a one act musical. On for only two nights, I had to do some rearranging. But I’m here now, booked in, and ready get this pub marathoned.

Oh, and yes – they did tweet about the show. This morning. Super helpful, and more seriously, also a slightly worrisome indicator of ticket sales.

Anyway, I can see it now. Just over the road. Reached by a rainbow coloured crossing, which is rather nice. Let’s just not talk about the address. Hoe Street. They do love their farming equipment in Walthamstow…

It’s quiet inside. Going to the pub clearly isn’t high on the list of things to do on a boiling hot Wednesday evening hereabouts. I was about to ask at the bar where I need to go, but I’ve just spotted it. Over there. A table in the corner, with a BOX OFFICE sign propped up on the window behind and a laptop set up on top. There are two people sat there. Both with pints. Which surely is the best way to handle that job.

“Hi!” I say. “The surname’s Smiles?”

“Maxine?” says the female half of the pair, looking up from the screen.

That’s me.

“That’s perfect. We’ll be opening the doors at around twenty past,” she says. “Because of the weather.”

“Although you can sweat up there if you want!” says the bloke.

Well, I suppose that answers the air con question.

“You can get a drink from the bar,” says the woman, pointing to the bar behind me. “And it’s fine to bring glasses up to the theatre.”

“Where is the entrance?” I ask.

She points to the door right next to her. There’s a sign. “The show starts here.” Ah. I should have guessed that. I blame the heat. My brain is little more than pink goo right now. If it gets any hotter it'll start dripping out my ears.

Not sure alcohol is that good an idea for me right now, so I take a seat over by the window and try to cool myself down. It’s not going very well.

The minutes tick by.

People come in.

Someone buys a ticket.

Another is checking in.

Most are just here for a drink though. Perhaps they just found out who the prime minister is.

It’s past twenty past now.

I look over at the door. It is still very much closed.

It must be really hot up there.

I grab my fan and flap it about, more in nervousness at the impending heat than the current climate. Whoever’s idea it was to programme a heat wave right now clearly lacks an ability to read the room.

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“If you’re here for the show, The Room,” comes the voice of the woman at box office, cutting across the pub. “The doors are now open.”

Right then. We’re doing this thing.

I make my way over to the door, which is not actually open in the strict sense of not being closed. It requires a good push. But soon I’m through and into a small foyer, with nothing in it about from some massive windows.

There is another door though. This one is actually open. It has a sign. “Only drinks bought here allowed upstairs.” Which I suppose means that I’m going up the steps. So I do.

There’s someone at the top.

“Right down to the end,” he says, pointing down the corridor.

I follow his directions, going right down to the end of the corridor, where there’s another man waiting.

“Here’s a programme,” he says, handing me one from the stack. “You can sit wherever you like,” he says, indicating the door on the right.

Just as I’m beginning to feel like a parced-parcel, I'm in the theatre.

It's big. Well, big for a pub theatre. And it's almost all stage.

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There's a small platform at one end, with a couple of rows of seats on it. The rest of the room is given over to the set. Two chairs. A small table. And a few props. In the background, I spy a keyboard.

It feels all wrong and topsy turvy, as if the stage should have been on the platform, and the seating on the floor. But we're here for a musical, and I suppose this gives our cast lots of room to bounce around.

Our cast of one that is.

I don't think I've ever seen a musical one hander.

As our performer and accompanist come out, I fold up my fan, but all my good intentions about keeping said fan closed and out of action for the duration of the performance disappear half-way through the first number.

It's really hot in here. And not just hot, but close. The air is heavy and thick. The windows hidden behind huge wooden shutters, painted black.

A woman in the front row has the same idea, wafting herself with a neat wooden fan while I flap around with my great big fabric one.

The less well-prepared members of the audience do the best they can with their free programmes.

Our poor performer, standing not five feet away from us, has to watch as we play the roles of delicate southern belles while she struggles through this liquid heat, unable to stop for even a moment as the entire show is her. Just her. Carrying this emotionally heavy story all by herself, dragging her character's turmoil with her and all the while pretending they were weren't all trapped within an oven preheating for tonight's dinner.

I'm not a sweaty person, but my skin is as clammy as meat left on the kitchen counter overnight. My fringe is plastered to my forehead. I run my fingers through it and cringe in disgust at the feel of my damp hair.

But my shudders of horror are stilled when I feel something crawling down my neck. Visions of creeping spiders flood my mind, but when I go to brush it away I realise it's a droplet of perspiration.

Under the spotlights, the stage looks a good deal smaller than it did at the beginning. The black walls press in closer. Everything is more concentrated, pushed together, the music filling what little breathing room we have left.

And then, half-way through the third song, shit... should I even tell you this? Oh gawd. I hate this. It's an Edinburgh preview. I'm not here on a press ticket. On the one hand that means I'm under no obligation to the production or anyone involved in it. But on the other... they didn't ask for a blogger to be here, with her thoughts, and her words.

Fuck. Let's just give the facts... and not mention names. I don't want this turning up in search listings.

Half way through the third songs, as she whistfully reads a letter from her daddy, our performer falters. And stops.

Behind her, the music keeps on going.

She apologies. But can't start up again.

The man on the piano sings a line but it’s no good. She hasn’t forgotten the words.

It's too much.

She turns, running to a door at the back of the stage area, and collapsing through it. She cries out, unable to move any further.

The piano stops. The man behind iy gets up and goes backstage. The door closes behind them.

Silence fills the room.

There's a scrape as someone sitting behind me pushes back her chair. It's the woman from the box office. She disappears through the side-door to see what's happening.

We wait, fanning ourselves. We all know what happened.

I'm finding it hard enough to breath just sitting her. I can't imagine forcing my lungs to push air out into this heaving fug. Adding the extra challenge of making it sound good is an impossible demand to place on someone.

A few minutes later, the box office lady is back. "Just give us five minutes," she says. "It's very hot today."

We settle back. A few people start chatting.

The woman with the wooden fan shows it to a lady sitting in the row behind. "I got it from Spain," she explains.

Our performer reemerges. She walks back on stage and retakes her place. A second later, we're back in the room, with the letter from daddy, back into the emotionally twisted inner life of this character.

There's no stopping this time. We're drawn in deeper and deeper until there's no escape. The layers peeled back, one by one, each revealing a secret darker than the one before.

And then we're done.

We applaud. Of course. Just getting through that performance would have been hard enough, coming back on after a collapse... well, that's the act of bravery and endurance that I would never be capable of.

She disappears backstage. Our continued clapping does not call her back. Hopefully she’s chugging back a pint glass if ice cold water.

Afterwards, people hang back.

Someone opens the door, but there's no rush to the exit. They start turning around in their chairs to talk to one another.

Not me though. I can't take this anymore. My dress is sticking to me in all sorts of inconvenient places. I have to get out of here.

I stumble back down the corridor, retracing my steps down the stairs and back into the pub. The doors are open and I aim myself at them, filling my lungs with the roadside air, gulping it down as I make my way back to the tube station, feeling as if I have just walked through all nine circles of hell.

And it's not even over yet.

Thirty-nine degrees tomorrow.

May the theatre gods protect us all. Especially those that have to go on stage.

The Old Curiosity Theatre

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.

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Who watches the watchmen?

Another 7pm start again. But this time, I’m feeling rather more positive about it. Mainly because my theatre for tonight is only down the road, which means that I get to stay at work for an extra half-hour. Oh. okay. Maybe I’m not on team 7 o’clock-start quite yet. Mad rush across London or staying late in the office isn’t that great a choice.

But I can’t blame the King’s Head for that. If anything I should be grateful that I only have to stroll down Upper Street to get to them. Won’t be able to do that much longer. They’re moving next year. That’s a lie. Not the bit about them moving, they’re doing that. The bit about me not being able to stroll there after work. They’re only going down the road. God, I rambling, aren’t I? Sorry. I’m so fucking tired right now. This weather… I’m really not doing well at the moment. Can’t sleep. Can’t think. Can’t breathe. And my poor hair… let’s not talk about my hair. It’s too distressing.

And the whole this is made worse by everyone else loving it so much. Soaking up the sun like lizards on rocks.

Look at them, sitting out there outside the pub, with their faces tipped up to the sun, and their drinks, and their smiles, and their happiness. Ergh. I hate them.

I better go inside. Where it’s dark and cool.

It’s been a while since my last visit here, so I’m very pleased to see the massive KING’S HEAD THEATRE sign up on the back wall, leading the way to the box office.

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It’s a funny old set up they have here. Not for them the laptop propped on the end of the bar, oh no.

Instead they build a kind of barricade between the theatre and the pub, and on top of this, they set up shop with money box and printed lists. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a pub theatre, but it doesn’t seem to exist beyond these walls.

I give my name to one of the box officers on the barricade and get my name checked off the list.

He grabs a tiny scrap of paper and scrawls my seat number on it with biro.

“Let’s do you a nice bespoke, DIY ticket,” he says before handing it over.

“Well, that’s completely unforgable,” says some wag in the queue next to me.

Ah, bants. You gotta love it.

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I’m shocked. Not about the hand-made nature of the ticket. That’s very King’s Head, after all. No, it’s more the fact that I have a seat number at all that is surprising me. Now that I think about it, I vaguely remember selecting a seat while booking, but still… I think that’s a first on this marathon. A pub theatre that actually assigns seats.

“The doors will open soon,” he says, then looks behind him as the doors to the theatre start shifting from the inside. “Oh, they’re opening now!”

I’m not sure I want to be first through the door. That’s a level of keenness that I don’t want to be showing off. Not at the King’s Head.

I step back and tuck myself against a shelf and watch as other theatre-goers pick up their tickets.

“There we go,” says the box officer to the next person in line. “A nice bespoke, DIY ticket for you.”

Ah. If a line’s that good, it deserves repeating.

Time to go in.

The usher on the door takes the scrap of paper from me. “C11? That’s third row, either this side or the other, you’ll need to check. They keep on switching them over.”

I don’t get the scrap of paper back.

I’m on my own.

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C11. C11. C11. C11. C11.

I repeat it again and again so I don’t forget. In my head, of course. Just to be clear. I’m not that weird.

I head for the furthest aisle and start checking the seat numbers. They’re written on tiny little plaques screwed to the backrest of the benches. And I saw written, because that’s what they are. Not printed. They look like they’ve been scratched out and rewritten a hundred times over.

You got to love it, don’t you?

I hope they bring these battered badges with them to the new venue. I can’t wait to hear what the swanks in Islington Square head office have to say when they hear about it.

C11, as it turns out, is in the last block of seats. In the third row.

That was pretty easy to find. After all, I can count all the way to a hundred. And I know my alphabet. Sort of. (I get a big confused around the Qs and Ss, but I can run through it pretty snappy if I remember what the tune is).

I don’t mean to sound smug. But the other audience members seem to be having a bit of a problem.

“Do you know what row you’re in?” a lady asks me.

“Yes, row C. It’s written here,” I say tapping the badge on the back of my seat.

“Oh.” She doesn’t sound convinced. She looks about her, turns, and then leaves.

Perhaps I should have offered to sing her the Alphabet song.

The ticket checker rushes over to the front row. “Sorry Sir,” she says, waving at a man squeezing himself into the front row. “You’re over here.” She points to a spot over in my block. In the second row.

“Ah! I thought you meant over here,” he says, the invisible light bulb above his head lighting up, and he makes his way over to the correct seat.

The lady who asked me about my row is back, still looking lost.

The usher tries to help. Pointing her to the seats just behind me.

“Is that row C?” she asks.

“D,” says the usher. “You’re just in here.”

“Where?”

The usher points again. “Just here. The three seats right at the end.”

“But we’re not all together.”

“No, one of you is in row C.”

“C?”

“Yes, this row,” she says, pointing at the row I’m sitting in.

“That’s D?”

“No. C.”

“C?”

“Yes.”

“And one of us separate?”

“Yes, in row C.”

“D?”

“Three of you are in row D.”

And on and on it goes. I’m beginning to think I really will have to sing the Alphabet Song to her if this continues.

“This,” says the lady, pointing up at the ceiling. “Is intolerable.”

She’s quite right. It really is.

“Sorry,” says the usher. “They’re turning it down.”

Oh. She meant the music. Huh. I was rather enjoying it.

My neighbour twists around on our bench to look at me.

“How long is this?” he asks.

People faffing around finding their seats? A fucking eternity. Oh, he means the play.

“70 minutes,” I tell him.

“70 minutes?” he nods and turns back to face the stage, apparently satisfied with that answer.

Eventually, with a lot more usher assistance, everyone manages to find their seats. You have to admire the King’s Head for their dedication to the cause of allocated seating. Lesser venues would have through it over in favour of the free-for-all years ago.

As we all settle down, the guy from the box office comes in, brandishing a bucket and with a tote bag slung over his shoulder. I think we all know what that means. It’s the upsell.

“Welcome to the King’s Head Theatre,” he starts before introducing himself. Should I mention a front of houser’s name? Is that appropriate? I don’t usually. But I guess, he gave his name willingly, so… it’s Alex.

He has a prepared speech. The King’s Head isn’t subsidised. They need to raise a hundred grand a year. The pub and the theatre are separate. The theatre gets none of that revenue. “If you ordered a double at the bar tonight, you’re not helping us,” he says, as if that was ever the point of ordering a double.

But never fear, theatre audiences, Alex has a plan.

“When people ask where you were on Thursday night, you can tell them you were at the King’s Head Theatre,” he says, straightening out the tote bag so that we can all see the design. “It’s fairtrade. It’s organic. It’s only five pounds.

“But what do you put inside the tote bag? Well, how about a Brexit playtext?” he says, pulling a handsomely covered book from the bucket. “Only five pounds and available from the box office after the show. Or,” he says, pulling something else out of the tin bucket. “A DVD documentary about the King’s Head Theatre.” That’s only three pounds he tells us, which sounds like a right old bargain to me until I remember I haven’t owned any kind of tech capable of playing a DVD in around seven years. “Or,” he goes on. “I have this bucket. It’s a tradition at the King’s Head. If you have any spare change, unfold it and drop it in.”

That gets a laugh. Hopefully it also gets them some fivers.

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That done. It’s on with the play.

Brexit.

I can well and truly say that I’ve had my fill of the subject. But, well, I thought it would be appropriate. Pin this marathon into the calendar like a still wriggling butterfly into a frame.

And it’s funny. It really is. With lots of backroom dealings and double-crossings and clever wordplay and references to ‘Matron’ the former prime minister.

Set in the near future, where everything is exactly the same but even more so. Endless rounds of talk, with no one capable of making a decision. The withholding of closure on an entire continent.

As the applause fades, I reach under my seat to grab my bag.

“You seemed rather detached from that?” says my neighbour as I re-emerge.

Did I? “I’m just very tired,” I say, which seems to be my answer for every bit of criticism I’m receiving at the moment. No matter what it is. Missed a deadline? Tired. Finished of the last of the biscuits? Tired. Forgot to pay the gas bill? Again? So. Fucking. Tired. I mean, it's not like we even need gas. Not in this weather.

“I did enjoy it though,” I clarify, just in case he thinks I’m dissing the play. I’m not. I really did enjoy it.

He sits back surprised. “You’re American?”

“Err… no?” I say, equally surprised. I’m really not American, and couldn’t even do the accent if I tried.

He doesn't say anything to that. I'm not sure whether he's pleased with my lack of Americanness or not.

I get up to leave, but his comment is still playing on my mind, even when I'm halfway down Upper Street.

Detached? How would he even know? Perhaps I wasn't laughing enough. That could be it. But I'd say the general reaction to Brexit (the play) is more of a giggle than a guffaw. So that can't be it. Surely. I must have been acting very strangely for him to feel the need to point it out. Have I started talking to myself? Oh god, I've started talking to myself, haven't I? I'm doing it right now, aren't I? Shit. Don't answer that. Talking to yourself is one thing. Getting an answer is quite another.

Whatever I was doing, I can't help but think that this is punishment for my blog. After passing judgement on the audiences of over 160 theatres, they've now finally turned on me.

You know what…? I think I just got reviewed.

And I did not get five stars.

Farcing about

Next time I say that walking from Tufnell Park up towards Highgate might be a nice thing to do of an evening, please remind me that I'm not a fit person to make such statements. I'm not a fit person at all. Because that hill is not fun. It is the opposite of fun. If there was any fun to be had, it got left behind in Archway.

Shakey of limb and red of face, I make it to the Gatehouse pub and stand back to admire it in all its mock-Tudor glory, and catch my breath.

It's a fancy pub. I can tell that by the menu being posted outside in a shiny glass and metal box. The steps leading up to the door and a checkboard of ivory and terracotta. A glass lantern hangs overhead. And a cherub watches me balefully from his panel tucked under the door's canopy roof.

Something about the cherub is bothering me. His smug fatty cheeks, and wings coming out of his head, just seem to say: you can't come in here. Well, I won't be talked to like that by any plaster pipsqueak, so I walk all the way around the building looking for another entrance.

Over on the opposite side, there's another door. No cherub. But it does have a sign. "Pub & Theatre Entrance," it says in golden serifs.

It's almost like I knew. I've never been here before, but this marathon is starting to give me a sixth-sense about how these places work. Well, that's what I think. And it's either that or the cherub really was a smug little bastard who didn't want me walking in under him.

I go in. It's very dark here. All wood panelling and low lighting. The kind of pub you could imagine falling asleep with a hot toddy waking up a century later to find everything looking exactly the same. Oh well, barring any accidental encounters with a spindle, hundred year sleeps are not on the agenda for me right now. There's a door marked THEATRE EXTRANCE right here, so I think that's where I'm supposed to be heading. The wood-panelled aesthetic continues into the small foyer, offset by a pile of Edinburgh Fringe brochures and a chalkboard advertising interval drinks. Through another door (this one marked "Box Office Upstairs" with a handy arrow to point the way) and... I seem to have walked into a juniper berry.

Everything is purple. Or lilac, rather. The walls. The window frames. The ceiling. It's like the theatre had a mid-life crisis while reading taht Jenny Joseph poem.

When I am old, I shall paint myself purple. With a notice board which has too many posters, and looks a bit messy. And I shall spend my ticket income on sets and new writing.

And... well, you get it. I'm not a poet. My lack of rhythm extends beyond my inability to clap in time with music.

Up the stairs, round the corner, up more stairs and here we are, I guess. They really weren't kidding when they called this place Upstairs at the Gatehouse, were they?

Blimey, they're not short of room up here. I wide foyer, with the box office in its own separate room up ahead, and what looks like another bar off to the left and the theatre entrance off to the right.

I go to the box office. No balancing lurking in a corner, or balancing on a ledge here. This box office is a proper counter, larger than most off west end houses. It's also purple.

And there are headshots everywhere. I'm beginning to think I might be in the lair of a serial killer. One who is obsessed with fringe theatre.

I give my name to the box office lady, get my name checked off on a piece of paper, then she does something on the computer and a few seconds later, a paper ticket is printing. That's a sure sign of a box office system that is made of processes cobbled together, patched up, and in need of a good overhaul, but I don't even care because I got myself a paper ticket out of it, and it's frickin' purple.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask, spotting a display of them on the counter. They're three quid, which is a bit of a bargain as they look like there's quite a few pages going on there.

Programme and ticket acquired I make my way back to the foyer. It looks like the house is open, so I figure I should go in.

There's a pair of furry creatures balanced on a low table by the door. They're wearing dresses. I want to take a photo but the ticket checker is looking at me so I scoot over to her and show her my ticket.

Seats are unallocated, so she just waves me inside, and I walk straight into a living room.

Green walls. A sofa with cushions. Coffee table. The type of bookshelves that someone who doesn't read would own.

And about 100 chairs facing it.

The stage at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is massive. Yes, in pub theatre terms, but even more than that. It just goes on and on. Fitting what looks like an entire flat on it. A flat larger than most people in London would ever even get the sniff of the chance of living in.

I pick a seat someone in the middle row, forgoing my usual end of third row choice, as the end of the row is all the way in the distance and I'm not sure my legs can take the extra mileage after all those stairs after my mighty trek up the highest hill in the world, or at least London, or at least north London, or at least... I'm not Googling this. Just take my word for it. The hill is very high.

It's still early, and there aren't many people in yet, giving my a good chance to turn around in my seat and inspect what's happening behind me.

The seats all have those little plaques attached to them, where theatre fans have given money in exchange for the honour of having someone sit on their name until the upholstery gives out.

The back row is different though. Blue seats where the rest of us have red. Wider, and comfier looking too. And every single one of them has a reserved sign attached to it. Like, literally attached. As in the word 'reserved' is printed on a satin banner which flips over to indicate the reserved status of the seat.

Gradually people come in, and sure enough, most of the reserved seats are claimed.

The rest of us space ourselves out more. Most going for the front row, but a dedicated contingent choosing the separate bank over at the far end.

And almost all of them... gosh, how do I say this politely. Hmmm. Let's go with: almost all of them look like they live in Highgate. Yeah, that'll do. You know what I mean.

A man in a waistcoat leans against an empty seat to chat to some second rowers.

There's a lot of then going on. Chatter between the different rows.

Local theatre for local people.

It's a thing, I'm telling you.

The man with the waistcoat disappears, and comes back with a small stack of programmes.

"Does anyone need a progamme?" he asks, making his way down the row of seats, the programmes displayed in an attractive fan.

They are nice programmes, with a wrap-around image of a block of flats on the cover, which I'm enjoying. There's a short note from the playwright. And wee little pictures of mice scurrying around in between the biographies. Most interesting of all though, is the programme designer, Corinna Bordoli, is credited amongst the creatives for the production. And why not? Programme designers are integral to the theatre-going experience. At least, they're integral to my theatre-going experience. I like it.

Waistcoat-man is back again, hands-free of programmes now.

"I don't know if you're here for the post-show talk," he says, taking up position at the front of the stage area. "If not, I've got a nice surprise for you! The cast and the writer will come out and we'll have a nice chat about the play. It'll be in here. Not the pub. There's too many of us, though we'd all like to go to the pub." He throws out his arms as an apology for the lack of pub-location. "We'll give you a few minutes at the end, just in case you don't want to stay, but please do." Another apologetic gesture with his arms. "Anyway, we've got a play to get on with.." he says, leaving the stage.

His voice is replaced by one of the sound systems.

"Please take your glasses down to the bar during the interval, or at the end of the show," the disembodied voice says. "Switch off your mobile phones, or anything that beeps or vibrates."

"That would be interesting," a lady sitting in the third row whispers loudly as the lights dim.

Jennifer Matter rushes on stage. A minute later, she sits down, crossing her legs. Her red dress rucks up, revealing lacey stocking tops and suspenders.

There's a shocked gasp for a woman in the front row.

More gasps, and indeed, titters, follow as Matter takes off the red dress, to reveal the exact top of lingerie that you are probably imagining.

Ah, I can see what sort of play this is going to be. And yup, sure enough, despite the multiple references to millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the rest of it, we are firmly in the realm of seventies farce. With all the door slamming, mistaken identities, outfit knicking, and gender confusion of it all.

It's enjoyable though, and the interval rolls around soon enough. I go off to explore what exacting is the Green Room and what happens in there.

Eating ice cream, apparently. Because that's what everyone is doing. With the pub below, the drinkers have all gone downstairs to fill their glasses. Everyone else is in here, buying two quid ice creams out of the massive freezer.

It feels like Flat Out’s writer, Jennifer Selway, not only wants to have her cake and eat it too, but also wants a slice of everyone else’s. She’ll put in all those grandious lines of there being nothing wrong with a gentlemen enjoying a good pencil skirt, but she has no qualms with using said gentleman for laughs when he puts on a dress. She wants us to nod knowingly along when a character declares she couldn’t sleep with someone who voted to leave, but then uses a character’s Ukraian accent as the basis for a crude joke.

It’s all a little tiresome.

And confusing.

Who is this play meant for?

The guffawing old men of Highgate? Or those young millennials, who Jake Mitchell’s property developing scoundrel so rightfully points out, aren’t prepared to feel sorry for someone with a second home in South Ken any time soon. Even if it does have rats.

As with all farces, the final scene takes a long time to wrap up., but we get there eventually.

I don't stay for the talk.

Read More

Stone Penge

Penge!

I don’t know what this place is, or even exactly where it is, but I’m enjoying saying the hell out of it, and have been doing so ever since I found out how it’s pronounced. About five minutes ago.

“This train is calling out New Cross Gate, Brockley, Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge West…”

Penge, Penge, Penge, Penge, Penge.

It’s a great name. I’m very much in favour of places with great names. Even if it does feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere when you get out the station. There’s a lot of green stuff out here. Trees, I think they’re called. You don’t get many of them round my way.

According to Google Maps I need to turn right to get to my next theatre, and… oh, is that it? I can literally see it from here. Well, that was easy.

I stroll down the road towards the pub on the corner.

It’s very quiet. The only cars on the road are the ones parked along the curb.

I look both ways to cross. I need to get some distance for my exterior shots. But I end up standing in the middle of the road to take the photos. No car comes. I'm there for quite a while, feeling the power of standing still in the middle of the road thrum through me, until someone walks by on the pavement and gives me a funny look, and I feel embarrassed so slink back over in shame.

Still, Bridge House is a handsome building. And I say handsome because it’s very masculine, not that I want to get all gender-normative on a pub, but that’s the energy I’m getting. A sophisticated man, to be sure. Black pepper aftershave and a saddle tan leather weekend bag lifted straight out of the Vogue Christmas buying guide ‘for him’. Anyway, in building terms its red brick and black-painted stucco. And boxy. Like a child’s drawing of a building. Almost completely cuboid.

And lots of writing too. Not that I think writing is inherently masculine, you understand. I mean, obviously. I’m just mentioning it. As a totally separate point.

There’s information about the next pub quixz up on the wall. A rundown of the events in some local festival painted on the window. A warning about the deck being slippery placed under the window. And a rather pissy note about not putting cigarette butts in the plant pots over by the door.

Inside it’s all dark walls and rugged wooden tables. There are antlers on the walls and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It’s also very quiet.

This is my kind of pub.

On the left, white sheets screen off a room. The sign stuck to the fabric warns of a life drawing class happening on the other side. Clipboards and art supplies wait on the table outside.

Sadly, I’m not here to get my charcoal on, so I head in the other direction.

Up the stairs, towards the bar. Except, not quite yet. I’m going to pause here a moment. These stairs need to be appreciated. Wide and deep with a little hint of sweepingness to them. These are the type of stairs that Scarlett O’Hara would make full use of if she was here.

I’m so glad I wore a long skirt today. Long enough that I have to pick it up at the front to go up stairs, so I don’t trip over it.

Look, I’m not saying I want to live in the Victorian age. That would be terrible. But I do harbour the conviction that I would be pretty darn good at it if somehow u did get flung back in time. As long as I was rich. And able bodied. And educated. Had control over my personal fortune. Was unmarried. And… hmmm. Okay. Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy having a good sweep up some nice stairs when I have half a chance.

Up here is the bar. But I don’t need to go there.

There’s a table set up right at the top of the stairs and it looks hella box officey. There’s even a sign advertising £1 programmes, which is a bit of a clue.

I give my surname and get checked off the handwritten list and given a lilac admission token.

Just as I’m reaching for my purse so I can grab one of those one pound programmes, the box office man hands me a sheet of paper.

“And here's a free cast sheet,” he says.

“Oh, lovely,” I say surprised. You don’t usually get cast sheets, free or otherwise, when there’s a programme that needs selling. But, now that I look at the desk, I can’t actually see any programmes, one pound’s worth or otherwise. Perhaps they keep them under the counter. Perhaps the content is a little to risqué for public viewing. There might be children about after all.

I consider asking, but I’m happy with my cast sheet, and anyway, the conversation has moved on and I am rapidly getting left behind.

“We’ll be opening around twenty past,” says the box officer. “You know, first night, technical things.”

No need to explain, good man! Twenty past seven is a perfectly reasonable time to be opening up a theatre above a pub. Especially one with unallocated seating.

“You can go to the bar, take drinks up. We’ll make an announcement, but don't wander too far.”

Right, noted.

Time to explore then. But not too far. Obviously.

There’s a beer garden, but I’m not overly committed to this weather, so I find a table and plonk my bag down.

The tables around me begin to fill up. Everyone is clasping little lilac admission tokens.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre,” comes a loud voice over the tannoy. “Tonight’s performance of Twelfth Night will start at 7.30.  If you have tickets for tonight’s performance make yourself known at box office, or if you'd like to buy tickets, also make yourself known at box office.”

If the bouquets of lilac admission tokens are anything to go by, the entirety of this pub has already made themselves known at box office.

“Good evening,” comes the tannoy again. Then silence. Then a splutter as it kicks into life again. “Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre. Tonight’s performance of Twelfth Night night will start at 7.30.” There’s a pause. Except, not quite a pause. I can still hear him talking. Just very quietly, somewhere far away. “If you bought tickets on line please go to the box office situated on...” Here the microphone gives up again, and so does the speaker.

The pub lapses back into quiet chatter.

Some ladies at the table next to me start turning around in their chairs, looking back at the bar. “Have they gone in?” one asks. “It looks they’ve they’ve gone in.”

I turn around too. It does look they’ve gone in. The bar looks curiously empty.

“I’m just going to…” says one lady getting out of her chair. She pauses, and grabs her drink, and her admission token. “I just don’t want to be sitting here and…”

She goes off, in search of answers.

Seconds pass. Then minutes.

She hasn’t come back.

Chairs scrape as the other ladies get to their feet and they also grab their drinks and their tokens and follow on behind.

I look after them. Should I go too? It’s not 7.30 yet, but we’re close. Really close.

The ladies return, silently placing their drinks down on the table and taking their seats.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre… The house is now open.”

The ladies almost groan as chairs scrape and drinks are picked up again.

“Please have your tickets ready at the top of the stairs. Mind the step as you come in.”

By the time I make it back towards the bar, there’s already a queue coming out the door to the theatre.

Whatever they are putting in the drinks at Bridge House, they should weaponise it. These people are speedy.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says the box office person, holding the door that leads back to the theatre and checking the lilac passes as they come through.

Inside, the walls are painted. Trompe l'oeil (I took first year Art History at uni, okay?) woodgrain on the doors, Christmas cartoons running up the stairs, and a clock waiting for us up at the top to show us the finish time. Very nice.

Plus, I still have my admission pass! Double nice.

“Ticket?”

Oh. Turns out I do have to give it back. Oh well. At least I have my cast sheet.

“Mind the step,” says the person on duty at the door to the theatre space.

I immediately stumble over the step.

In my defence, I was staring at the theatre.

It’s a black box. So, don’t get too excited. I mean, it’s a nice black box. The walls don’t have that strange crumbly consistency that you so often find in these places. Someone knows a good plasterer, is what I’m saying.

But more importantly, instead of having a boring bank of seats facing a stage, chairs have been placed all along the walls and in the middle… is that a beach?

It looks like sand. In a neat rectangle taking up most of the floor space. And there are those wooden posts tied with rope that you always see by the sea, that I'm not sure of the purpose of, but possibly it’s to do with keeping the beach pinned to the ground so that it doesn’t roll into the waves or something. There’s also some twig-based matting going on.

There isn’t much room between the sand and the seats, what with people’s bags and all, so I pick my way along the matting to get to a spare chair.

A front of houser comes around holding a switch-ya-phone-off sign. He walks slowly, holding the sign at eye height, making sure each one of us has seen it before moving on.

Right then. No excuses.

I better check my phone.

Airplane mode initialised. We are ready!

I’m quite excited now. I’ll admit, I was a little wary about Shakespeare in a pub theatre. I’m not, well, ‘into’ Shakespeare. Shakespeare and me don’t get on. Frankly, I think most of his plays are crap. Too long. Too many sub plots. Way too much showing instead of telling. And don’t even talk to me about a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was basically trolling the audience in that one. In the modern sense of the word. But Twelfth Night… ahh, I do like Twelfth Night. Just the right amount of improbability, balanced out by a good dose of self-awareness.

And look how young and sweet this cast is, with their fresh adorable faces and boundless energy as they rush on and off the stage, slipping between roles with off-stage commentary to cover the costume changes.

And what costumes. I’m having a serious case of costume envy here. Orsino’s shiny satin dressing gown definitely belongs in my wardrobe, as does Olivia’s black wrap coat. As for the Feste’s pink Lennon glasses, I’m eBaying that shit as soon as the interval hits.

A phone goes off.

Vibrating loudly inside its owners bag.

She jumps and reaches down for it in alarm.

Sat on a wooden post, while receiving Orsino's words of love via a messenger boy, Miriam Grace Edwards’ Olivia turns her head and gives the owner of the phone an imperious stare. At least I presume it’s an imperious stare, I can’t actually see. She’s facing the other way. But the back of Edwards’ head sure looks imperious.

“Where lies your text?” she asks Eve Niker’s Viola.

Where indeed.

In the interval, we’re all ordered out.

“See you in a bit, mind the step,” says the man on the door.

I promptly stumble over it. Again.

My table is still empty. I dump my bag and myself in its comfortable embrace. It’s beginning to feel like home.

“Welcome to the Bridge House and Bridge House Theatre,” comes the voice over the tannoy. “This is your three minute call for the second half. Three minutes. Please start to make your what back the the theatre.”

“Welcome back!” says the man on the door.

My foot catches the step as I pass.

The mobile phone sign is making another round, bouncing up and down so that we definitely don’t miss it this time. It pauses in front of the phone lady. Her neighbour points at her, dobbing her in. And the sign pumps in and out. We all laugh. Oh dear. Poor lady. She’s taking it well. Laughing and nodding along. She definitely won’t be making that mistake again any time soon.

We’re ready to begin again.

And oh gosh, I’d forgotten just how long this play was. All that bit with the letter and Malvolio in prison. And Sir Toby Belch. Just, all of him. I wish there was a retelling radicle enough to cut him out. But we’re zipping along all the same, only pausing long enough for a song before we’re off again.

Opposite me, two people take up a corner with notebooks resting on their laps, and for once I get to pick the first option in my game of Director or Blogger. It is the first night, and well, technical things.

Although which of them can claim the role I cannot quite decide. I wanna say the bloke but that's just the old gender normative social conditioning again. And I just spotted a third notebook on my left, and a laptop to my right, which is throwing everything up in the air.

The lady in the corner is laughing a lot though. And she did jump when Niker started waving around that blade while hiding in that corner. Perhaps she is a blogger after all.

The cast gather for the final song, and stretch out their arms to clap in the universal gesture indicating that we should join in. I try, but, you know me and rhythm. I ain't git none. Still, bless them. I can't even be mad.  They're all so... heartbreakingly wholesome. I'm utterly charmed with the lot of them. Even Fayez Bakhsh's Sir Toby Belch.

Last time crossing the threshold, and I don’t trip over the step. I’m feeling pretty damn smug right now, I can tell you.

A front of houser is positioned at the top of the stairs, wishing everyone a good night.

“If you know anyone who might like it, please tell them!” he says.

Hmm. I mean, I did like it. So consider yourself told.

Right, I've got a staircase that needs sweeping down.

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Behind Closed Doors

It’s bank holiday Monday and having a roast in a fancy pub sounds pretty swell right about now. But unfortunately I’m not here for food. I’ve got to go watch some theatre.

There’s another chalk sign above I door that's just beyond the bar. THEATRE it says, in all caps with an arrow pointing up.

The door itself has its own sign. In gold. THROUGH TO THE GENTS. Gotta love a venue that sorts the latrines with the mise en scène.

Anyway, I go through. Not to the gents, but up the stairs. There are lots of frames gracing the stairs on the way up, which in any lesser pub-theatre would be show posters from all their previous productions. But the Drayton Arms doesn’t stoop to such vulgar exploits, and instead have old maps, and a portrait of Ellen Terry advertising Allen & Ginter’s cigarettes, and what looks like a Toulouse Lautrec print

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Etcetera, etcetera and so forth

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undetermined. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.

I’m there on the right night.

Believe me.

I’ve checked. Multiple times.

The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.

“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.

I don’t smoke.

“So, what’s your name then?”

Christ. Do we really have to do this?

I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.

So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.

I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.

I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.

"That bad?" I'd laughed.

"No. Just... um..."

I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...

There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.

I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.

The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.

Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.

I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.

Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.

Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to go. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.

And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.

Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etetcerta theatre signed off tonight.

If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.

It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.

That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.

Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.

But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.

"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.

Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.

It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).

It's nice out here. Quite despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.

"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etercera Theare, subject to availability."

That's clever. I like that.

The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.

I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.

Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.

The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.

The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.

The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.

There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club.

Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.

I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.

"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.

She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."

It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to move down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.

Silence.

Is it starting?

A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.

She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.

Everyone seems a little nervous.

I think it's the set.

Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.

It's a school room.

I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.

Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I was well up for that.

Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...

Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.

But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they tried to get as far way from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.

What it is is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.

Like the protagonist of Killymuck at the bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.

I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.

When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.

What a difference an hour makes.

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Don't cry over spilt water

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms in Camden looking at my phone. I’ve just spent the last five minutes taking photos of the exterior and I’m now checking them to make sure they didn’t come out too fuzzy or too dark. I’m not much of a photographer, but I try.

There’s a theatre in this pub. Not that you get much of a sense of that from the outside. Not proud proclamations of being a theatre pub up from the sign. No posters in the window. Not hanging banners. All we get is an A-frame sign in the doorway with the Etcetera Theatre street-sign inspired logo, and the listings of the upcoming shows stuck beneath.

I zoom into the image, checking that the logo was legible.

It was. I know I bang on about it, but I really love the Pixel 2.

But something catches my eye. Something small. I spread my fingers, enlarging the image even more.

There, on the image announcing the show I’m there to see, is a line of text. The date. Tomorrow’s date.

I spin around. Looking at the poster in real life doesn’t help. It still says Wednesday 17th April.

Today is Tuesday.

I had turned up on the wrong day.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shitshitshit.

Okay. Don’t panic. It’s fine. The show had an early start. It wasn’t even 7pm yet. I had time to get to wherever I was supposed to be.

Probably.

I bring up my spreadsheet on my phone. Tuesday / 16.04.19 / Evening / Etcetera Theatre.

Gawdammit.

It was the spreadsheet that was wrong. The one thing that stood between me and total marathon-chaos had failed.

Breathe, Maxine.

Think.

I could move Wednesday’s outing. It was a non-marathon thing anyway.

Fine.

But what about tonight?

I suddenly had a free evening. I could go home. Eat a proper dinner. May even, and this was really out there, do some laundry.

I start walking towards the tube station. If I’m quick, I could be home before 7.45pm. I could get at least two loads done before bed time. That’s woollens and whites. I’m almost bouncing with brimming potential.

And then I remember.

Eight theatres. I’d just found eight London-based, marathon-qualified, theatres that needed to be added to the list. A list that had already grown by twelve theatres over the weekend. 275 theatres. Plus eight that still need to be added to the website. 283 theatres.

Tonight was supposed to be theatre number 105.

That leaves… I’m too stressed to maths. It’s… a lot of theatres still to go by the end of the year.

I couldn’t let this evening go to waste on dinner and laundry. Not without a fight.

I retrieve my phone from my pocket, and recheck the spreadsheet. Could I move something up? Tricky.

I swipe the spreadsheet away and open up TodayTix instead. Perhaps there’s a bargain going in the West End. I can still make it if I get on the tube, like, right now.

Nothing. Booking has closed for the night.

Shit.

What else?

I’m scrolling back and forth through my apps, as if one called Free Ticket Anyone Facing A Spreadsheet Fail might leap out from between the icons.

I pause.

There is something.

My Maps.

If you’ve ever visited the home page of my website, you might have noticed the map there. It has all (well, nearly all, I don’t update it nearly enough) of the marathon venues there. Red for the ones I’ve been to. Yellow for the ones I still need to visit.

I open it.

There are three theatres within a mile of the Etcertera. The Roundhouse. Teatro Technis. And The Lion and the Unicorn.

I start Googling.

Nothing at the Roundhouse. It’s dark tonight.

Teatro Technis’ show doesn’t open until Friday.

With shaking fingers I click my way to The Lion and Unicorn’s website.

Thank god. They have a show.

What time is it? Past seven. They might have already printed out the lists for tonight. I would have to turn up and hope I could buy a ticket on the door.

Was I really doing this?

Breathe.

Think.

Fuck it. No time for that.

Run!

I pelt it down Camden High Street, barely waiting for the lights to change as I turn right, then right again onto Kentish Town Road.

What street is in on again? Gainsford Road? Over there. Another right.

I slow down, catching my breath.

After the clutter and filth of Kentish Town Road, I seem to have stumbled into some middle class oasis. Tall stuccoed town houses line the streets. There are trees. I can even hear birdsong.

And there it is. Coming up on the left.

The Lion & Unicorn Pub.

I have never been so grateful to see a pub in my life.

There’s a chalkboard in the window, proudly proclaiming what’s on this month in the theatre.

I go instead.

“Theatre This Way” says a helpful little sign over a small door.

I go through, and find a makeshift box office balanced on a ledge beside the stairs.

“Err. Can I buy a ticket?” I ask, realised that I have no idea what show is actually on. That didn’t seem a particularly important factor up until now.

Turns out I could.

It’s been a long time since I bought a ticket in person. Turns out it’s a bit of a faff.

“Can I take your email?” asks the guy on ledge-duty, to whom I can only apologise to for making him type in my entire fucking email address on a tablet. That is not a fate that I would wish on anyone.

“First name Max I take it?”

He can.

“And surname Smiles?”

Yup.

“That's a nice surname.”

It is.

“Do you want to join the mailing list? Don't feel you have to say yes. I never do.”

Well, I would, but I won't be able to return until next year so… Probably best not to explain all that. I just cringe and decline.

Should I ask what the show is? Bit late, now that I’ve already bought my ticket. Might come off as a little… weird. I’m already coming off as weird. I should just keep quiet.

It’ll be a nice surprise, whatever it is.

I hate surprises.

That was the whole point of the spreadsheet.

“House should open in five or six minutes. Bar just through there, loos downstairs.”

I have a walk around the pub.

It’s nice in here. Very nice. A bit fancy even.

The walls are papered in a caviar print.

There’s black and white tiles near the bar.

And large wooden tables.

And… a dog bowl? Two dog bowls?

That’s either a sign that they are supremely dog friendly or… oh my god. There’s a dog. There’s a dog in the pub. He’s walking around, getting pets from the patron. Oh, my lord he’s cute. And blonde. With curly fur.

My second pub theatre dog this week, and it’s only Tuesday.

He walks past me and I give him a little pat.

He’s not impressed by my pats. He’s probably had hundreds of them already today.

He moves on.

The bell rings. The house is open.

“You just bought a ticket,”ledge-guy confirms, pointing at me as I go through the door. “We try and be paper free.”

Up the stairs, past a row of tasteful looking show posters (this place really is fancy…), following someone who looks like she knows where she’s going.

She opens a door. It does not lead to a theatre. Ummm.

We get pointed in the right direction. Which is, in fact, left.

Ah. Here we are. The theatre.

Larger than I expected. Much larger than any pub theatre I’ve ever been in.

So fucking fancy.

There is a freesheet placed on every single sheet. The sure sigh of a classy establishment.

I chose the first row with a proper rake. It’s the fifth row. After so many teeny-tiny pub theatres, this ends up feeling very far away. Fifth row and I'm complaining. Fifth row with suburb leg room. God this place is so fucking classy.

At 7.33 the bell rings again, and the last stragglers are chivvied upstairs.

It’s not often you get double-bell action outside of places like the Opera House.

So. Fucking. Fancy.

I pick up my freesheet and have a look.

Turns out I was there for Hatch Scratch. A night of new writing.

Cool.

A woman comes to the front of the stage. The plays have all been written around the theme of “taboo.”

Double cool.

The first play of the night if about social anxiety, which I take as a personal attack. Bloody playwrights, bringing real things to life on the stage.

On the list of taboos we also have child abandonment, ISIS brides and a mother struggling to cope with her child who has disabilities (“I’m a cunt,” she announces, which surely has to be the best opening line to a play, ever).

Ledge-guy reappears. “If you can all vacate the space, I’ll bring you back up after the interval.”

We all march downstairs. The actors are already there, at their own table, eating chips.

Good as his word, the ledge-guy rings the bell again. “The house is now open for act two of Hatch.”

We all heave ourselves up and head back towards the stairs.

“Please be careful on the stairs, there's a little spillage,” says the ledge-guy. There is indeed a small dribble of water on the steps. At least, I hope its water. I side-step it.

The second half is packed with more taboos. Suicide and masturbation (in the same play, which is quite the twofer), polyamory, and abortion. Plus, and I shudder to write this one down, chia-eaters.

I’ve seen a lot of scratch nights in my time. A lot of terrible scratch nights.

I don’t know how to take this one. The writing is good. The acting excellent.

Where are the crumpled scripts hanging out of back pockets? Where is the badly edited music padding out half-written scenes? Where are the rushed endings, and poor characterisation, and jokes that don’t land? What? Am I supposed to laugh at this funny lines that are being delivered perfectly?

Fucking amateurs.

As the actors all file back in to take their bows I can see that the stage is exactly fourteen actors wide, which is a hella impressive width for a pub theatre stage. Fancy fuckers.

Ledge-guy appears to thank the company. I’m feeling a bit bad about thinking of him as the ledge-guy now.

“I'll be standing just outside with a Magic bucket. So if you have any share change, notes, coins, anything...”

Okay, ledge-guy. I just spent twelve quid on a ticket that I was forced to buy because I’m an idiot. I realise that’s not your fault, but I’m fresh out of funds for the week.

“Please take your glasses with you. It makes our lives that bit easier.”

He disappears through the door to rattle his magic bucket.

There’s a regular ping as coins bounce off the bottom. So I don’t feel too bad about not contributing my own ping.

Next time. I promise.

Seriously though. The Lion & Unicorn is fancy as fuck.

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No Sense

“Wait for the bell. Go upstairs. Sit where you like. You can take in a drink.”

I’m in the Old Red Lion pub. The granddaddy of them all when it comes to pub theatres. And these are the instructions I’m given as the box office lady picks up one of the laminated admission tokens from a pile on the counter and hands it to me.

I’m grateful for them. The instructions I mean. This evening sounds like it’s going to be a bit challenging on the old brain-front, and I think I’m going to need all the guidance I can get.

I’m here for Theatre Without Sight or Sound, which I’m going to admit right out, is a bit naughty of me. I mentioned a few posts back that I have rules, and I have rules: the official ones, and the not-so-official-but-equally-valid ones. One of those unofficial rules is that I try to avoid seeing hires. Then XXX days later, what am I doing? I’m booking for a show listed in the visiting companies section of the theatre’s website, that’s what.

In my defence - I thought it would make a good blog post. Yup. That’s it. I wanted to write about it. That’s my reason.

Anyway, they’re my not-technically-the-rules, and I’ll break them if I damn well please.

I grab a sofa. One of those leather chesterfields that make you feel like you’re waiting to tell than nice Dr Watson and his creepy acquaintance all about your missing Aunt Gertrude. It’s curiously unoccupied, until I realise that it’s positioned to face the loos.

After the second time I get my foot trodden on by someone with a bladder even weaker than their eyesight, I realise that I should probably move. After the third time my stubbiness kicks in and I sink defiantly into the cushions. On the fourth time my toes get squashed, I’m ready to do some squashing of my own…

The bell rings.

There’s now a queue to get into the theatre, and from my position on the sofa, I seem to now be right at the front of it.

I consider feeling guilty about this but, hey, I’ve had my foot trodden on four times and I didn’t even hit anyone. I deserve this.

We traipse upstairs. Old show posters are wallpapered up the steps. They date back to the nineties, when tickets were a fiver, and London still had a 0171 area code.

The corridor upstairs is red. Very red. Pub theatre red, as I’m now starting to think of it.

“Put this on,” says a woman by the door to the theatre, handing me a blindfold fresh out of the packet.

I decide that this instruction is one that needs a little delay before following through on. There’s still the matter of finding my seat to get through first.

The seating at the ORL is built up on two sides. They’re made up of wooden benches, akin to church pews but significantly less wholesome looking. Something about the addition of the buttoned red fabric makes it look distinctly debauched. These benches must have seen a lot over the years.

I go for the second row, opposite the door. I like to be able to keep an eye on the exit. Especially for the type of show where you get handed a blindfold. There’s no telling what might happen at the type of show where you get handed a blindfold.

Thankfully, we have someone to explain.

The first three plays of the evening are to be performed without sight (that’s where the blindfolds come in). After an interval, they’ll be another set of three - these ones without sound.

“Try to keep the blind folds on to preserve the theatre magic. But if you need to rub your eye, that's fine,” we’re told. "Place your wine in your hand, not under the seat. Once you put your blindfold on, I promise you won't be able to find it."

Right then. Blindfold on. It’s time for the first play.

Oh god, this is going to smudge my eyeliner, isn’t it? I try to put in on carefully, but it’s no good. I might have well sat myself down in the splash zone at Titus Andronicus for the mess it's going to make.

Well, there's nothing for it. I say goodbye to my wings and put on the blindfold.

Things go a bit scifi in the first play, In the Shadow. A bit Black Mirror. A soul is trapped in the dark. And we're trapped with it. I imagine the benches as shelves in a lab. And all the blindfolded audience members as brains in jars, lined up and watching as our fellow consciousness struggles with his new reality.

As the play ends, loud clapping bring us back into the theatre.

Are we allowed to take our blindfolds off? I pull mine up tentatively. Others are doing to same. We blink into the light.

I wipe under my eyes, but there's no time to get out a mirror. The next play is being introduced: Two to the Chest.

I pull the blindfold back down and surrender to the darkness, but it's no good. I keep on getting pulled back. Someone is rustling a plastic bag behind me and I can't concentrate. The words seem to float around without meaning. I can't follow what's happening. Something about wrestling? I have no idea.

Voices move around the space. Coming close to me and then move away. I shrink back into the seat, suddenly very aware that the actors can see us, but we can't see them. The power balance feels all wrong. Distorted. As if we're in a dock, being judged, and unable to face our accusers.

The back of the bench is hard against my spine. I can't move. Every time I shift my weight it sounds like a symphony of creaking wood.

I try to concentrate on the play, but it's impossible. I can't focus.

When the applause breaks through, I don't hesitate to push my blindfold up onto my forehead. I crave the light. To know what is happening around me.

There's a few people in the audience who don't bother. The sit stoic, their black masks undisturbed.

Last play. The Monkey’s Paw. A story I despise. I have no patience for repetitive storylines. Three wishes from the genie's lamp. Three ghosts of Christmas past. Three tasks in the Triwizard Tournament. Three big yawns from ya gal, Maxine.

It's a radio play, with some very dodgy sounding advertisers.

There's some proper foley action going on. I itch to take off my blindfold, but not because it's uncomfortable, but because I'm desperate to see what is going on. Bollocks to the theatre magic. For the first time, I get the sense that something is happening beyond the words. That the blindfold is actually preventing me from witnessing something interesting. The loss of a sense is a proper loss.

I sit on my hands, veering between delight and desperation as the play crackles on. This is it. This is the stuff. Here's were the writing (Jack Williams and Sara Butler) and direction (Matthew Jameson) have run with the idea of the lack of sight and made it into something beyond the mere absence of visuals.

"You can now take the blindfolds off," says our host.

The actors line up for their applause and we get to see them for the first time. Who was who? I can't tell. I check the freesheet. "The Monkey's Paw. Performed by Sophie Kisilevsky & Liam Harkins." Only two actors? I was convinced it was three. Blimey.

I reach into my bag and grab my compact. I'm a mess, with lines all over my face. I've aged forty years in forty minutes.

"Would you like me to take that back for you?" asks my neighbour, indicating the discarded blindfold sitting on the bench next to me.

Clearly she senses my pilfering fingers. I do love to steal an audience prop given half the chance.

I let her take it away.

Feeling woozy, I stumble back down the stairs to the pub. I'm not sure what to do with myself. Everything is too bright, but at the same time, not bright enough. My eyes dart around, unable to latch onto anything, until...

I don't mean to alarm anyone, but there's a dog on the sofa.

A massive dog.

A frickin' adorable dog.

He's asleep. No doubt exhausted from a hard day of pub theatre management.

I bite the inside of my mouth, trying very hard not to squee. Important dogs don't like being squeed at. Especially when they're sleeping.

I really want to pet him.

I back away slowly.

Back up the stairs and I notice something. There's a door set high into the wall. And it's open. Cool night air pours in.

Outside I catch a glimpse of a terrace.

Not letting myself think too hard about whether I was allowed out there, I climbed through.

There's not much of a view, but it's glorious all the same. I hadn't realised how stuffy it was inside until that moment.

I walk around a little, letting my limbs click back into place and my senses realign. This is just what I needed.

I'm ready to go back in.

"Here you go. Earplugs," says the woman on the door to the theatre handing me a small packet.

I really hope that they don't want us to give these back.

Our host reappears and we're given a short lesson on how to use them. Squish them down and stick 'em in, basically. Then wait for them to expand.

I don't know whether you've ever worn earplugs before, but let me tell you, they are next to useless. They're little better than sticking a finger over your ear when you're trying to have an important phone call in the office. They take off the edge, but in no way do they cut out sound.

Our host speaks to us through the medium of cue cards. A game of charades. People call out their guesses. We can hear the guesses. And yet, we all pretend that we're deaf to the world around is. That's the real charade.

The plays without sound start. First off, A Silent Farce. Set in a world where no one speaks. Actors hold phones to their ears and yet never say a word.

We don't hear anything, not because of the earplugs, but because there is nothing to hear.

The same in the next play, Tick-Tock. No one speaks. Communication is via touch and significant glances.

I'm beginning to wonder what the brief was for these plays. Did the writers know how the audience would be watching their work?

The host reappears in between each play, with his cards. Except this time he's brought the wrong ones. "say it's carol singers," the first one reads. We're being Love Actuallied.

Eventually, the mistake is realised, and the cards swapped out with the tech desk, for one with the name of the next play: Quest Invisible.

Reece Connolly comes out. He sticks a sign to his chest. "Stork," it says.

He pulls a rolled up blanket from a basket and sticks a sign onto that to. "Baby."

Something tells me things are going to get weird.

Five minutes later I find myself being handed a piece of paper with a large sperm drawn onto it. Connolly mimes that we should crumple up the paper and lob it at an egg he's placed onto a chair.

This we do. Wadded up paper balls fly across the stage, landing everywhere but on the chair. Connolly sighs. We failed to fertilise the egg.

Another sign is brought out. A gold one this time. "Super Sperm."

An audience member is dragged onto the stage. He's ordered to kneel down while the golden sign is folded into a paper aeroplane. He can get up now. To throw the dart. It misses. It wasn't a very good dart. So much for super sperm.

Jessica Wren, our mother-to-be, rushes back and forth across the stage, carrying fruit to indicate how big her baby is now.

A silent game of heads or tails is played with another audience member, to decide the personality of the baby, like we're building a new character in the Sims. Heads for yes. Tails for no. Sporty? Heads. Kind? Heads. Intelligent? Tails.

When the laughter gets too much, Connelly presses his fingers to his lips. Shh. We'll wake the baby! he mimes. It's so hard though! Rebekah King's didn't just create a world without sound, she made one where sound exists, but we're not allowed to use it.

As if to prove my point, Connelly goes up to his chosen one, the Super Sperm, after the curtain call. "Sorry," he apologies. "But it had to be you."

He can talk after all. When the baby's not around.

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The Multiverse is Female

You know that scene in Pride, when the young woman stands up in the working man's club, and sings out in her lilting Welsh accent about bread and roses, making everyone in the room a bit weepy eyed? Yeah, I totally wasn't thinking about that when I booked to see a show at the Bread & Roses pub.

If anything, it was a spur of the moment decision to go. Perhaps driven by my recent bread-and-theatre ponderings at the Hen & Chickens, or maybe by the rose-print dress that I put on in the morning. Or, more likely, because the marketing copy promised the presence of a female serial killer and I am all about that. I'm all about equal opportunities, and I don't see what the criminal classes should get off easily with fighting the patriarchy.

Still, it didn't stop me getting a little bit itchy around the eyes when I stepped through the door and saw the line "our lives shall not be sweetened from birth until life closes. Hearts starve as wells as bodies: Give us Bread but give us Roses" written in a scrolling script over the bar. It's right next to the sign for the theatre, making it quite clear what the roses are in this analogy.

The roses however, are not on view quite yet. A red rope cordoned off the entrance to the theatre.

I find a good leaning spot and wait it out. Unfortunately my spot is right next to the stage. The other stage. For the band that will be playing later on. They're warming up. Loudly. Very loudly. Like, ear-splittingly loud. They're not supposed to start until 9pm, and it's not even, so I can only hope that they're getting their levels set before the performance upstairs starts. Somehow I don't think this place has invested in top-notch soundproofing.

At least I know it will be a short show though. Gotta be done in time for the gig.

I'm not the only one keeping an eye on the theatre entrance. A couple wander over to have a look. Ten minutes to go and it's still roped off.

A moment later, someone disappears under the rope. That looks promising. I hope they are going upstairs to check if they're ready for us up there. And... yup. Sure enough, he's back. He unlocks the rope and reaches over to the bar to grab the bell. "Anyone for the theatre?" he calls out.

There's a general unfolding in the pub's clientele as people get to their feet and try to locate their bags.

I go over to the door.

"One ticket?" he says as he places a mark next to my name on the clipboard. "On the first floor."

There's a small landing half-way up the steps, with a window that's been frosted to reveal the pub's URL, the calling card of a 21st century Jack Frost. I stop to take a photo, but there's someone behind me.

"Sorry," I apologise. I hate getting caught with my camera out.

"That's okay," comes the sweet reply. "Take your time," he says.

But I'm embarrassed and I hurry up the remaining steps to the first floor.

The door to the theatre-space is just around the corner.

Inside, there’s a stage taking up most of the room, with chairs arranged on three sides. That makes it sound like a thrust stage, and I don’t mean that at all. The chairs are in a single row. If anything, I felt like I was picking where to sit at a dinner party. Our host for the evening has neglected to make place cards.

I head for a corner seat. For bag dumping reasons.

I immediately regret this decision.

Two actors are already on stage, and one of them is painting, daubing at a small canvas with a very long brush. I can’t see what she’s working on and I’m immediately desperate to find out.

“The best seating in terms of the view iss this side or that side,” comes a voice as more people traipse in. She points to the two long rows of seats. A woman on the end, discovering that she is in inferior seats, bursts out if her chair and hurries over to the row opposite my own.

I decide to stay where I am.

This must be the first raised platform I've seen used in the round. Certainly in a venue this small. I like it. Does away with those pesky questions of whether you're allowed to walk across the stage. You'd have to be very committed to stage-walking to get up there.

But that does lead to a lot of shuffling as people try to make their way between the chairs and the stage.

A few knocked-knees later, the seats are beginning to fill up. The advice regarding the view stops, and the sad little end row is eventually occupied.

We’re ready to begin.

Just to Sit at Her Table, Silver Hammer & Mirabilis is billed as a trilogy of woman plays, but instead of running one after the other, they decide to play them all at once, cutting between the three monologues, jumping from character to character in a fast-paced exploration of three different women’s lives.

All very different. And yet, curiously, similar.

Apart from the being women thing. That’s a given.

Joined by themes of psychology, religion and art, they each tell their stories, demonstrating duel natures to their personalities. The sex worker using wordplay and double entendres as she talks to her clients, the serial killer’s abstract paintings are influenced by the bodies of her victims, and the dancer reaches a heightened plain of spirituality as she purges herself of sustenance.

They even look similar. Tayla Kenyon, Ellen Patterson, and Sirelyn Raak are all white, blonde, young, and pretty.

They pad around the stage in bare feet, weaving past one-another, talking to the audience, but unseeing of one another.

I can almost imagine them as echoes of each other. The lives unlived. The paths not taken.

“Do you want us to help with the get out?” a woman asks her neighbour as the applause cases the three actors off the stage. I can only presume her neighbour is connected to the show, or that would be a very strange offer. (For those not hot on the theatre lingo, a get out is when… well, it’s literally when everyone gets out - breaking down the set, packing the props, crowbarring the actors away from the bar and leaving the theatre ready for the next set of props and players for their… get in).

He politely declines and they decide to meet up in the pub instead.

I have my own getting out to worry about. I seem to be stuck in my corner.

“Sorry sweetheart,” says the get out lady as she realises I’m blocked in.

Oh, theatre people. They truly are the best creatures in the world.

As I make my way to the door, I remember something and double back. I skirt round the stage until I’m there, standing in front of the easel.

I can definitely sense the dead bodies that went into making this.

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Bells and Whistles

There are some theatres that it is just plain shameful to admit not having visited. You can be a dedicated theatre-goer and not have gone to say… the Lyric (it could almost be argued that a true fan of theatre would not, in fact, have ventured anywhere near the Lyric), but can you imagine saying the same thing about the Royal Court? Or the Young Vic? I would class the Finborough Theatre in that category. Being a regular theatre-goer in London, going to the Finborough is pretty much essential. Not going is like… I don’t know, never having seen Hamlet. it’s such an essential component that it is almost qualifying feature. Can you honestly say you’re into theatre if you haven’t? I mean, really, it’s practically shameful.

Which is why I will never admit to not having been there. Because I absolutely have been there. Now.

I’m downstairs in the pub, waiting in the queue for the box office, which is a small desk towards the back of the bar. I can’t help but admire the t-shirts being worn by the two young people sitting behind it. They are grey marl, with the theatre’s red and black logo printed across the front, and so ugly that they must be deeply cool.

As one rifles through the tickets in search of mine, the other gives me the speech.

“The house is now open,” in the unhurried but practised tones of someone who has said this at least a thousand times before. “If you take up a drink it needs to be in a plastic cup. The loos are downstairs, the theatre is upstairs. And programmes are three pounds.”

Well, that’s everything of importance covered in four sentences.

I decide to avoid the business of the bar and head upstairs. While my ticket may have my name scrawled across the top, the seats are unallocated and I want to bag a good one.

There’s a door just opposite the box office desk. “Toilets & Theatre this way” reads the sign painted over it. I can’t help but smile at the priority given to those to things.

Despite the old school pub vibes of the building itself, the pub downstairs had that clean modern look that I imagine pubs in Scandinavia might have. All white walls, wooden floors, and exposed brickwork. The staircase that would lead me up to the theatre comes as a bit surprise. Red walls. Red balustrades. Photos and flyers are cramped into every available space. This is what the inside the head of a theatrically inclined serial killer must look like.

At the top of the stairs, there’s another cool young person waiting, in one of those grey marl t-shirts. She takes my ticket a rips a tiny tear into the top.

“There's no remittance,” she says, handing my ticket back. “But there is a fifteen-minute interval. Also, there's five people to a bench.”

I look at the benches. Blimey. Five people. That seems a little ambitious. Looks like I’m set for a very cosy evening.

I slide myself to the end of the second row. I don’t want to have to be squeezed up by any latecomers. Plus, there’s a nice gap between me and the wall. Perfect bag-dumping ground.

“Mind if I just put my bag down there?” asks a man in the front row, already heaving his bag over the back of his seat.

I shift mine out of the way.

“I'll put my coat there too,” he says, squashing down his massive puffer into a neat parcel which expands to fill the entire space as soon as he lets it go.

Two people join my row. That’s four of us now.

My new neighbour gets out a notebook and pen. You know what that means, right? Yup. It’s time to play another round of Blogger or Director! My favourite game.

She writes the title of the show: Maggie May. Then underlines it.

Blogger.

That was a short round.

More people are pouring in. Everyone begins shuffling about.

Two men appear. They want to sit together, but there isn’t enough space. They split up. One taking a spare slot on the second row, and then other climbing up to join us in the second.

My neighbour the blogger tries to get me to move along, but there isn’t anywhere left for me to go. “I’m already right at the end,” I say apologetically, but I wriggle over a fraction, just to show willing.

It wasn’t enough.

As the performance started, my new blogger friend did her very best to introduce her elbow to my ribs, constantly jabbing and poking and moving until I almost considered taking a seat on the floor alongside the collection of coats and bags.

You’d think someone who writes about theatre would have learnt how to roll her shoulders in. I just hope her review is worth the irritation.

Bloggers, ey? Who’d have ‘em.

The audience aren’t the only ones having to watch where they put their elbows.

I made a comment in by post about The Bunker, that they could have pushed in fifteen performers onto that stage if they’d had a mind to. But the Finborough went and did it. On a stage the size of my front room, they managed to fit dock workers, policemen, sex workers, a staircase, and a piano.

At one point I counted thirteen actors on stage, all singing and dancing. And that’s not even counting the pianist who was providing all the live music for the evening.

So rambunctious was one dance, Natalie Williams’ Maureen O’Neill’s earring went flying, skittering off out of sight underneath the staircase, and had to be retrieved by one of the blokes, who slipped it into his pocket. The next time Williams appeared on stage, she had both earrings once more and a cracking good line. “That’s disgusting,” she says in her thick Liverpudlian accent as Maggie May admits her love for the firebrand Patrick Casey.

I can’t help but agree.

I don’t know why this musical is called Maggie May, because although it follows her around, it isn’t her story. I anything, it’s about her love interest, Casey. A man she’s been obsessed with her entire adult life, even going so far as to call all her clients: Casey. Without him, she doesn’t seem to have any direction or purpose. She drifts from man to man, waiting for Casey to return, waiting for Casey to take her out, waiting for Casey to fall in love with her, waiting for Casey to finish campaign against the men in suits. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Forever waiting.

In the interval, half the audience tramp down to the bar and those that remain are left with the sound of gulls to keep us company. I get out the programme and have a good read, noticing with delight that the company had rehearsed in the Lantern Arts Centre, which was where I was last night.

 A loud bell stops my reading. At first I thought it the theatre bell, calling the audience back up from the pub, but as it goes on and on, I begin to wonder…

“Is that the fire alarm?” someone in the opposite bank of seats asks.

No-one replies but we’re all looking around now.

The air above the stage-space looks curiously smokey.

“Are you sure it’s not the fire alarm?” comes another voice, sounding more concerned now.

The bell is still ringing.

I look at the door, fully expecting an usher to burst in and tell us to get our arses out of there. But the doorway remains usher-free.

Is this it? Am I going to die in here? I’m feeling very calm for someone who is about to expire from smoke inhalation. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m going to be a theatre ghost, and I’m not made about my soul being trapped in the Finborough. I think I could do good work here. Not sure about my outfit though. I do like this skirt, but I’m not convinced it’s something I want to be stuck in for all eternity. Oh well, too late now to change, I’ll just have to…

The bell stops ringing.

Oh.

Maggie May should have been left in the sixties, where it belonged, but the Finborough… well, it’s gear.

Fenian king  

The cast beat most of the audience

From flat caps to white t-shirts and levis

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Le pain, c'est la vie

“Martha, have you been to the Hen and Chickens before?”

I thought if anyone would have been to the Hen and Chickens, it would be Martha. It’s a theatre pub. And Martha loves a theatre pub.

“No!” she cries, sounding distraught and a little bit ashamed about her lack of Hen and Chickens experience. “I really should. I love theatre pubs.” (Told you). “And it’s in Islington, isn’t it?” (It is).

To be fair, there are a lot of pub theatres in Islington. They’re like curry houses on Brick Lane. Bookshops on Charing Cross Road. Or estate agents in Finchley. Bloody everywhere. You have to be real dedicated to the pub theatre cause to go to all of them.

Thankfully, I am. Well, not specifically to pub theatres. But they are definitely part of my remit for the year. Along with barge theatres, museum theatres, outdoor theatres and all the rest of them. So off I go, negotiating all the roadworks that is happening around Highbury and Islington station, as I try to make my way around the roundabout to there (with a short pause to stick my hands through the barriers so that I could get a photo of the exterior without the decorative addition of plastic railings - I told you: real dedicated).

Back over the road and I’m taking some close up shots of the chalkboards outside. They’re advertising the show. “Tonight!” one proclaims. “Killing Nana 7.30pm £15,” topped by a banner stating “The pub/stage/is you” (that one took me a while to work out).

Two young women walk past, look down at their phones then back up again.

They stop. They’re looking at the two chalkboards. Then back up at the door. I know what they’re thinking. I had the same thought as I was taking my photos. There’s no handle. How on earth does it open.

“Is there another entrance?” one asks. They strike off, heading down the road. But the pub isn’t that big, and a minute later they’re back. This time they try the other direction, eventually finding a smaller, less impressive looking doorway. But while it may lack chalkboards to flank it on either side, it benefits from the presence of a handle.

They go in.

I follow them. Not in a creepy way, you understand. Just in a… I’m-done-procrastinating-with-my-photos-and-now-that-someone-else-has-confirmed-where-the-entrance-is-I-might-as-well-go-in way.

It’s packed inside. I have to squeeze myself through at least two groups just to get far enough inside to see what is going on.

To the left of the bar, and a little behind, is the box office. A little podium tucked away in the shadow of the staircase.

We go about the business of getting my name checked off the list.

“You're going to go upstairs when the bell rings,” says the box office man with a directness that I can only appreciate in a new-to-me venue.

He hands me an admission pass and a freesheet. There’s an unspoken agreement that he doesn’t need to ask if I want one, and I don’t need to trouble him with the request to take one.

I make to put the admission pass in my pocket, but something catches my eye. I turn it over. There, scrawled on the back, are the details of the performance. It’s not an admission pass. It’s a ticket. And a weighty ticket at that. it’s the size of a business card, but if you were to get these printed by Moo, you’d be paying extra for that heavy cardstock (I mentioned this to Martha this morning. “Islington,” was her one word reply. Fair enough).

When the bell rings, there’s a rush to the stairs.

The walls are a rather tasty shade of teal. I want to take a photo but there’s already of queue of people behind me. I just manage to catch a snap of the quaint order not to smoke in the theatre. A sign from a bygone era.

As we step into theatre, the teal is replaced by the more traditional theatre blacks.

It’s warm up here. Really warm. First thing I do is pull off my scarf, jacket and even my cardie. I’m still too warm. I need to sit down.

Clunk.

Oh dear.

The seat shifts under me. As someone who once broke a bed while merely sitting on it, this is rather alarming. I hold myself very still. There is no further movement from the seat. I think I’m safe.

Time to inspect the freesheet. And, oh look. It was written by someone in Hollyoaks.

Aww. That takes me back. I used to love Hollyoaks back when I was of a Hollyoaks watching age. I’d only given a brief glance of the marketing copy before going in, but it did all sound very Hollyoaks. Tortured family dynamics. Shut-ins. Overcrowding. This is going to be brilliant.

 

 

I think this must be the first time that I’ve seen vaping on stage. Cigarettes are still very much de rigour. But really, it’s as quaint as the sign on the stairs. With one action, they’ve instantly made every smoking scene in London look passé.

I wonder what the Hen & Chickens stance on vaping is. I didn’t see any signs disallowing it.

 

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