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 done 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. But you don’t get many of them round my way.

Right, 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 edge.

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 end up standing 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 saw handsome because it’s very masculine, not that I want to get all gender-normative on a pub, but that’s the vibe 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 quix up on the wall. A rundown of the events in some local festival painted on the window. A warning about the deck being slippery 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 right, white sheets cut 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. 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 handed 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 and programmes, one pound’s worth or otherwise. Perhaps the 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 didn't wander to far more.”

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 the 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 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 and picked up.

“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. Troupe lieu 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 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 still haven’t figured out the purpose of, but I’m fairly certain 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, which their fresh adorable sweetness, 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 her. Orsino’s shiny satin dressing gown definetly 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.

Miriam Grave Edwards’ Olivia turns her head and gives the owner 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 defiantly 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.

 

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.

 

Hiding in the corners

Blogger or director.three notebooks in residence

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It's just not cricket

It’s the benches that are to blame.

Now, I understand why some theatres have a bad rake. When you’re trying to fit in as many seats as possible into a small space, sometimes you are limited by the frickin-ceiling. But when there are only two rows, the reason for placing the second of these on a platform that barely clears a couple of inches, doesn’t not a logical decision make.

Especially in a studio space, where you just know the cast is going to be sitting on the floor.

I have a theory. If you were to plot the size of a cast against the number of minutes spent at floor level, you’d get a classic exponential curve. Okay, perhaps they’d be a spike for the solo-players - they like to do things standing up, but after that, it would be bums on the ground for the majority of the run time, falling rapidly as the number of credits on the cast list increases, until you reach those massive community project casts, which are all-standing, all the time.

Just as I am having these thoughts, the lights go out. We are left in darkness, listening to Arly Ifenedo and Amina Koroma fret in the dark as they try and figure out where they are and what’s happening to them. The answer appears far too easily for our outside eyes. They’re on a ship. A slave ship. Packed in with hundreds of others just like them. They are strangers, but not for long. They are driven together by proximity, pain, and a shared language amongst so much confusion. Sister forged in blood rather than born in it.

They never leave the ship, but Koroma’s play covers a lot of ground: differing races and religions, obviously, but not just between the slavers and their prisoners, but also between the girls themselves. Female genital mutilation is breathed about in whispers between the two of them, and forms the basis of choice for Ifenedo’s character. Her choice to run from being cut had her fleeing into the path of her captures. And her prayers result in her being faced with another choice: return, and face the blade, or stay, and face the slavers. It’s here that the play lost me, I must admit. Both of these two options too awful to contemplate or to weigh against one another. My mind and my emotions shrank away from it.

On the way out, our front of houser hands us feedback forms. To help the artists with the development of their work. I tuck mine away in my bag.

I never fill these things out.

I’m really

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A cat called Ghost

It’s Tuesday night, and I’m crouching on the ground in the middle of what looks like an industrial wasteland, clucking my tongue. It has just started to rain.

The reason I’m here is that I think there might be a theatre around here somewhere. I’m not exactly sure though. I’m just following my intuition on this one. I find, that when you’re in doubt about the location of a fringe venue, it’s always best to take the route that looks most likely to contain your murderer. That’s where fringe theatres tend to live. In the most scary of all the available options.

As to the ground crouching and tongue clicking, I've just met a cat. Pure white and very pretty. We’re making friends

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Almost like a Thursday

It seems to be my destiny to always book theatre trips during big sporting events.

I just got off the tube at Oval, and apparently there’s a thing going on.

Half the roads are closed, and the other half are crowded by people who don’t seem to be doing very much. But whatever they are doing, they are doing with purpose. There’s a lot of looking around and nodding with emphasis at one another.

Who knew London had so much sport?

I’m early, so I trot past the theatre to the other side of the road, and have a stroll around The Oval. Now, I may not know a lot about sport, but even I know there’s probably some cricket going on in there right now.

It’s a funny old place, isn’t it? The Oval, I mean. You can see all the backs of people’s heads of the crowds sitting in the stands down from the pavement. They look so venerable sitting up there, the backs of their necks reddening in the sun. I hope they brought some sunscreen with them.

There’s a general wail of noise coming from inside. It’s utterly intelligible. A wall of pure noise reacting to whatever is happening down on the field (ha! I knew that one. Not a pitch. A field). Over the tannoy I can make out the voice of a commentator. From what I can tell, he’s saying words, but I don’t understand a single one of them.

Nope. Sport isn’t for me. Words are hard enough as it is without adding this whole new language to the mix.

I’m heading back to where it’s safer.

Safer, anyway.

I loop my way back to the appropriately named Ovalhouse.

It’s very blue. Blue panes in the curved glass wall. Blue frames around the windows and the doors. An enormous blue sign tied to the side of the building, and sagging under the weight of its own massiveness.

Someone has been taking style tips from the Blue Elephant…

Inside, blue floors, and blue armchairs are added to the colour mix. There’s even a blue pillar stuck in the middle of this pleasingly oval-shaped foyer.

I may enjoy a touch of theme dressing, but I must bow before the master here. This is a level of commitment that I could never hope to replicate.

Doors lead off in all directions from this glass-walled oval, giving me intense hall-of-mirrors style dizziness. Thankfully, I don’t lose myself on my way to the box office window.

I complete the surname-in-exchange-for-ticket transaction, and then head over to the other side of the oval towards the cafe.

It’s nice in here. Quiet but not empty. There’s lots of rustic wooden tables giving off basement kitchen in Maida Vale vibes.

There’s a stage over on the far side, where I presume they have live music when it isn’t a quiet Wednesday night with a cricket match going on over the road.

I claim a table all to myself and have a look around.

There’s the door to the upstairs theatre, over by the bar. I won’t be visiting that one tonight, but I make a mental note of its location for my return.

I’m going to be in the downstairs theatre. The main space. At least I hope I am. Because I’m looking around and I can’t see it. Is it back in the mirror-maze like foyer? I don’t remember seeing a sign for it. Just the cafe, the box office, and the loos.

I could go back and check, but I’m comfy now. And besides, no one else looks like they’re in any rush to go anywhere. I might as well settle back and relax.

A few more people come in and take up the surrounding tables. Others head for the bar. But this is a hushed crowd. Or perhaps the better term would be: laid back. After spending last night having my pockets picked at the Aldwych, it feels nice just being sat here, by myself, and not being asked to buy something.

A young woman wearing a headset steps up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman,” she starts, and we all pull ourselves out of our daydreams to listen to her. “The doors are now open, over in the furthest corner of the bar.” She points the way into the next room, just beyond the bar.

Nice. I love it when an announcement comes with directions.

We stumble to our feet, gathering our things with the slow care of a hungover student attempting to clean their flat the morning after their first flat warming.

As one, we make our way into the next door. There’s a counter serving food on one side. And a door over in the far corner. Is that it? We all stop. The people at the head of our caravan turn around, eyes wide with confusion.

“Is that…?” one asks.

I’m thinking the same: is that?

There’s no sign. And no one there to check tickets.

But people are piling up behind us. There’s nowhere to go but forward. Onwards!

There’s a corridor through here. It doesn’t look very theatrey. If anything, it looks like the corridor outside a primary school classroom. I swear I see coats hung up on hooks as we press on.

Through another unlikely looking door, and there, thank goodness, is a ticket checker. He’s got one of those beeping machines to scan tickets so you know he’s legit.

That doesn’t explain the presence of the chalk board behind him.

“BRIAN. FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS,” it says, surrounded by tiny, fluttering hearts. The message, I’m sure, is connected to the show. The writing is too well done, the hearts too perfectly placed, to have been placed by anyone other than a theatrical. But the chalkboard? Does that always live here? I was kinda, but not really, joking about this corridor looking like a school earlier, but now I can’t shake the feeling that by day, this place plays host to a few hundred pre-teens intent on learning their ABCs.

I get my ticket beeped. Funny how I don’t mind the beeper when it’s a paper ticket on the receiving end of the beeping, and not my phone. Perhaps my reputation as a neo-luddite isn’t quite as deserved as everyone seems to think.

Into the auditorium, walking around the dark spaces formed by the bank of seats. The brick walls are painted black, but there are bright rectangles set amongst the gloom. I squint at them, trying to make them out. Lines of white, left by a thick brush, form the canvas to sharpie message of love. “YOUR LIFE MATTERS BRIAN,” one says. “KEEP SAFE BRIAN SEE YOU OX RIP XX,” reads another.

Around towards the stage and up the steps to find a seat. There are more messages to Brian up here. An outpouring of loving words, written on luggage labels and tried to the metal railings.

I want to stop and read them all, but I’m blocking the way. And besides, seats are unallocated and I better hurry up and pick one if I want to score my favoured place: third row, at the end.

The cast are already on stage. Moving in slow motion. Their faces twisted into grimaces of despair.

This is not going to be a happy evening.

I’m here for Custody. A new play about a young black man (I’m guessing the famous Brian here) who dies in police custody.

Well, I say play, but with all this slo-mo going on, I suspect there is going to be more than a little, what they call in the biz, “movement.” I might go as far as to say, “movement” tipping right the way into physical theatre.

Everyone in the audience keeps their heads down, struggling not to make eye contact with the performers and almost visibly flinching whenever they creep a peek and spot one of the cast looking their way.

Instead they focus on their flyers. Everyone has a flyer tonight.

That’s what people do when they’re aren’t any freesheets available. They grab a flyer.

See? It’s not just me that wants a memento. Any bit of print with the title of the show on it will be picked up by an audience member, given half a chance.

A man sitting in the row in front of me flicks at the side of his flyer, expecting it to open up to reveal more information inside.

I can’t blame him. As information goes, the flyer is a little lacking. Marketing blurb and dates of the run are all very nice, but when it comes to matters of who is actually standing on the stage in front of you looking like they’re just stepped on a very sharp thumbtack, they can’t compete with a freesheet.

It’s starting now.

Layered words as the cast form a Greek chorus of grief. Brian is dead. And no one is taking the blame.

Mother, brother, fiancé, sister. They tote around bags, clutched tight to their chests, hugged under arms, and slung over shoulders, a literal baggage that will only be laid to rest at the end.

Except, they don’t leave.

While the performers in You’re Dead, Mate left us stranded and alone, as we clapped in the dark, the cast of Custody stay with us, returning to vacate state. The lights come on. An usher crosses the stage in front of them to open the door. The cast are unseeing, as all they see is pain.

We look around at each other. Are we supposed to leave now?

I tentatively grab my jacket and slip it on.

I spot a few others doing the same.

Small groups get to their feet, unsure of themselves as they make their way to the exit.

No one wants to look at the cast as we file our way past them.

We leave them alone in their anguish.

It’s palpable. Hanging in the air. Heavy. Seeping off of the stage.

No wonder they move so slowly.

I would credit them, but… well, you already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Let’s do a thing. Let’s say it together. I would credit the cast but… 3…2…1… THERE ARE NO FUCKING FREESHEETS.

Ah. That was fun.

But seriously, there were no fucking freesheets.

“Feel free to write a message on your way out, if you'd like,” says the woman with the headset.

She indicates a small table in the foyer. “Please write a message to Brian,” says a small sign. There are luggage labels. And pens.

Someone is already jotting down her thoughts.

“What should I…?” she asks as she finishes.

“Just tie it up here,” comes the reply. There’s a string pinned up behind the table, waiting for the messages.

I move on. Words are hard.

The cricket must have finished now.

The tube is packed.

I head north, finally managing to get a seat around London Bridge.

Two men come and sit either side of me. They lean forward so as to continue their chat. Usually I would offer to switch. But I can’t move. I still feel the heaviness of the play pushing down on me.

“It's very busy,” says one, tacking in the still-busy carriage. “Something must be going on tonight. It’s almost Iike a Thursday.”

Almost.

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Lost in Space

Is Streatham Space Project the newest venue on my marathon thus far? I think Streatham Space Project is the newest venue on my marathon thus far. Not even a year old, it opened in June last year. I doubt they’ve even taken the plastic wrap off yet.

And, yup. It is very shiny. Very shiny. Golden even. The walls are positively gleaming in the evening sun. I don’t want to insult the people of Streatham by saying that it looks like a little gleaming nugget within a pan full of gritty river water, but… I’m just going to leave that sentence hanging there.

There’s a little laminated sign stuck on the sliding glass doors. “We are… OPEN to the public. C’mon in!” it says. I’d love to know what incident prompted the creation of this sign (probably lots of locals sticking their head around the door and asking if the place is open to the public, and can they come in) but as someone with the anxiety, who even five months into her theatre marathon, still gets a little nervous going into new places, I really appreciate it.

For all the millions the Opera House has spent on their Open Up project, a simple sign on the door can do just as well.

I follow the directions and go inside.

It’s nice in here. Less of the shiny and more of the earthy, as branches circle the ceiling lamps, and photographs of trees crowd the walls. Signage is big and clear and in caps. STAGE one way. BAR and TICKETS the other.

Now, that’s a question. Tickets. What am I needing to do on that? I have an e-ticket. But one thing I’ve learnt on this marathon is the stuff you get sent by theatres aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on. E-tickets are confirmation emails, confirmation emails get you admission passes, admission passes are stickers, and stickers are brill. Nothing means anything, and it is always best to ask.

The box office and bar take up the back wall of the cafe space. I head over and join the queue. There doesn’t seem to be any differentiation between the two spaces, as the two blokes behind the bar jump from one side to the other, box office to bar, and back again, as each person in the queue asks for different things. Tickets or drinks, or some tasty combination of the two.

It’s my turn.

“Do I need to pick up a ticket?” I ask. “Or is it just e-tickets?”

“Just e-tickets. We’re completely paperless here,” says one of the blokes behind the bar.

“Great.” I mean, not great. I fucking hate this paperless trend. It’s the red flag of a dying civilization. The end of a golden age of theatre that stretches back centuries. A victory of bean-counters over memory-makers. But, still. Great. At least I know the situation.

Although… completely paperless? Oh dear. That doesn’t bode well for potential freesheet action.

Oh well. I’m not going to think about that.

Instead I step into a side room. It looks to be a gallery and there’s some pretty amazing photos of trees by Mark Welland on the walls. The kind of photos I wouldn’t mind owning, and certanly don’t mind taking a few minutes to look at and ponder over. I do like a tree.

I get distracted by a bing-bong. An actual bing-bong. The sort of bing-bong that would open an episode of Hi-de-Hi! on a Saturday morning.

“Welcome to Streatham Space Project,” the voice on the tannoy says. “Just to let you know that show tonight, Freeman, will start at 8 o’clock, and the doors will open at 7.45. So you have plenty of time to queue at the bar. If you could make your way to the Stage at 7.45 that’ll be great.”

Oh. See, now. I was sure the start time was at 7.45. I was rather banking on it, as, let me remind you, we’re in Streatham. And that’s a long way from Finchley. Which is where I live, and more importantly, sleep. Those fifteen minutes could well be the difference between me just having a cheeky late night, and being so tired that I want to die.

I double check the website. Yup, start time 7.45. No mention of doors. So either the Space Project is still working on out some issues in their communications, or the performance is running behind.

Bing-bong!

“The house will be opening in a few minutes for Freeman. Please have your names or tickets ready to be ticked off the list. Please make your way to the auditorium.”

My quiet corner next to the fire safety equipment is soon overrun with people flapping around A4 pieces of paper that they’ve printed-at-home their print-at-home tickets (paperless my arse).

“Is this the queue?” someone asks. We all shrug in response. It is now, I guess.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” says one of the blokes from the bar. He squeezes through us, holding a laptop in his arms. “Excuse me.”

He makes it through to the other side and with the laptop balanced in the crock of his arm, beams at us all, ready to take names and check the not-so-paperless tickets.

Well, here I am, the paper-whore with only my name poised and ready to give at the door.

“Smiles?”

“Err…”

“It’s S-M-I-L-E-S.”

“S-M-I…” he types up with one finger, the laptop wobbling on his arm with every key-press. “Maxine?”

That’s the one!

I go in.

I’m running out of words to describe black box theatres. They’re black. They’re shaped like a box. There’s a single bank of raked seating. The stage is at floor level. I’ve been to at least a hundred of these this year. Probably. I haven’t actually counted.

The stage is actually surprisingly small given the amount of seat there are in here. It feels a little out of proportion. A little squashed. Like a pug’s snout. Still cute, but makes you wonder about the conduct of the people who created them.

I plonk myself down at the end of the third row. That seems to be my go-to seat in unreserved theatres at the moment. Just far enough away from the stage so that you don’t feel exposed. But closed enough that it still feelings incredibly intimate.

Someone comes to sit next to me, and the intimacy increased by an alarming factor. He manspreads out his knees, bumping and jostling my own knees out of the way. Then, room cleared, he pumps his legs together, as if working away on an invisible Thighmaster.

The lights dim and the leg exercises finish. Thank goodness.

Thirty seconds later, he’s checking his watch. He sighs. Deep and shuddering.

Something tells me this is going to be a long evening for the both of us.

He sighs through the performers creeping around after one another to Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King and shouts of “Tory scum!”

He sighs as the names of black people who have been killed by police officers are projected up the screen. So many names they overlap and merge into one another, forming a solid wall of white.

He sighs through the Equus-style horse made up of dancers and ridden around the stage. The horse ride that would lead to William Freeman be imprisoned, and beaten brutally, for five years.

He sighs through the shadow puppet failed-assassination of Edward Drummond. The failed assassination that would lead to the M’Naughten rules.

He sighs as Sarah Reed undergoes the most harrowing assault scene I’ve ever seen on stage.

He sighs through the lindy hop. Through the gospel singing. Through court testimony and horrific murders.

He sighs. He sighs. He sighs.

He sighs as we laugh. He sighs as we cry.

He sighs through it all.

I’ve never felt so sorry for someone in my entire life.

An hour later, we’re out.

“More info on the show if you’re interested!” says a front of houser, standing by the exit and handing out leaflets.

I am very much interested. I take one.

Outside, I stop to have a look at it. It’s full of information about mental health. Signs, symptoms, courses of action. All good stuff. And nicely printed too. But not a single thing about the show. No cast. No creatives. I write this post ignorant of the names of any of the performers who sang and danced and wretched out hours for a full sixty minutes.

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Because we're Addamses

, if I say the Broadway in Catford, what kind of mental image do you conjure up in that wee head of yours? Some sort of grotty arts centre that hasn't been painted since 1972 perhaps. Or maybe a tower of glass and steel and fingerpaintings. Either way, I'm willing to put money on your not picturing this gothic extravaganza, complete with stone gargoyles and pointy windows, and a grimy slate roof, and a grass-fringed canopy, and, and, and... it's like a theatre built out b-movie off-cuts, and I love it.

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BLT with extra lettuce

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

It’s nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it’s my turn, I give my name.

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

They always do.

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

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

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

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

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

All around people are munching away and laughing.

It’s quite the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look around. We’re all visitors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta love that quality insider info.

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

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

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

She’s not wrong.

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

Similar whispered comments circle around the room.

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

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

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

XXX

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

I wade through it, back towards the landing.

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

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

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

But I can’t. I just can’t.

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

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

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

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Science fiction, double feature

Is there anything more hedonistic than taking a half-day off work to watch ballet?

No, my friend. There isn’t.

And I can’t even blame the marathon for such an extravagant use of my time.

I’d had this outing planned for months. There was no way I was going to miss ballet-god Rupert Pennefather’s glorious return to the London stage.

Sadly, we all know what they say about god and plans.

But I wasn’t going to let the little matter of an injury and the resulting cast changes get in the way of my self-indulgent afternoon. So, after a quick lunch at my desk, I sauntered down to the London Coliseum. Or rather, the Coli. Everyone calls it the Coli. Or at least, I think everyone does. I certainly do. Perhaps just the pretentious twats who frequent it on the regular use that name. Of which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, I am very much one.

Which leads me to this question… how do I write about a venue that I am this bloody familiar with? One that I even have a charming nickname for? I can’t describe walking around in wide-eyed wonder as I’m sure I would have done if I’d been a newbie. The Coli really is the most extraordinary venue. Over-the-top in almost every aspect. It’s not just the gilt, and the velvet, and the massive stage. These are merely the base layer onto which Frank Matcham built his monument to excess. There are domes. Multiple ones. With stained glass. And stone gargoyles guarding the staircase. Marble balustrades. Mosaic covered ceilings (with umbrella’s to match). Carved wooden doors. Roman iconography. Golden horses. And then topping it all, a spinning globe lit up with the name of the theatre.

It has so much bling, even Elizabeth Taylor would think it a bit gaudy.

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No one told me there would be running on this marathon

I swear I’m going to have a heart attack by the end of this year.

Last night was the turn of the Brockley Jack Theatre (or possibly the Jack Studio Theatre, I’m not quite sure. Their website isn’t very clear on the matter of what they are called), which meant I was back off to south London and had to endure all the transport issues that go along with venturing south of the river.

I thought I’d give the ThamesLink a go. Be adventurous. Avoid the trains.

That was a mistake.

I arrived at Blackfriars just in time for the 6.26 to Orpington. Excellent work. Except the train wasn’t.

Ten minutes later I was still waiting. Then twelve. Then fifteen.

I was beginning to panic.

No, scrap that. I had left panic behind back in the office. This was way beyond that.

Now, being a feminist and all, I have a problem using the word hysterical. But… stripping away the history of the term, as words go, it wasn’t far off what I was feeling. Inside. I think I managed to keep it contained for the most part. I mean, yes, a few people on the platform gave me looks as I bounced around on my heels, staring at the departures board with an unblinking stare and muttering under my breath. But they probably just thought I’d been mixing meds.

Finally, just as I was giving up all hope, and with absolutely no consideration of my nerves, the train arrived.

After that, it was easy. Well, almost. I’m fairly certain the American lady from Monday’s theatre excursion might have fainted if she had a sniff around Crofton Park station. Best just to hold one’s nose and make a run for it, I find.

I’m quickly becoming a connoisseur of the ‘how to find us’ pages on theatre websites.

And the Brockley Jack is a very fine vintage… can you tell I don’t know wine?

Regardless, so good where the instructions that the delivered me straight to the door of the theatre. Which turned out to be exactly what I didn't need. The pavement there was far to narrow to get a photo of the building. Where were the warnings about that, Jack Studio… or whatever your name is?

My first attempt to zip over to road was quickly aborted when I realised that I would definitely die. Instead I sprinted, yes - actually ran - down to the nearest crossing, jumped around waiting for the light to change, dashed to the other side, took my photos (all full of cars damn it) then scampered back for the return journey before making it in the door... fifteen minutes early. I'll say this for anxiety... I'm rarely late.

"Surname is Smiles" I said to the person manning the box office desk. I was a little out of breath. "S-M-I-L-E-S," I spelt out. I always need to spell out my name. Otherwise people tend to think they’ve misheard.

"I was just looking at your booking."

"Oh dear". Now, it's not uncommon for me to get that kind of comment when I'm picking up tickets. What with the aforementioned surname. I end up having some form of name-based conversation at least twice a week. Four times a week now that I'm hitting up so many box offices while in marathon-mode. But this man was not interested in my surname.

"It says here that you paid zero pounds for your ticket"

"Oh... ummm" I was fairly certain I had paid slightly more than zero pounds for my ticket. But perhaps I had somehow managed to circumnavigate the whole paying step without noticing. I thought back, trying to remember the transaction. I couldn't. There's been rather a lot of them recently. They all seem to merge together.

I looked where he was pointing. There, listed next to my name on the box office print out, was the figure £0.00.

“But I double checked the machine and you paid ten pounds.”

“That’s good…”

“Sometimes it just happens.”

“I can check on my end if that helps…” I said, reaching for my phone, not knowing quite sure how I would do that but wanting to show willing.

“No, it’s fine. You have definitely paid.”

“Oh… good.”

“Can I interest you in a programme?”

He definitely could. Only a pound. Bloody bargain.

Programme and ticket-token acquired, I was directed to the adjoining pub.

You could tell who all the theatre-goers were there. We all sat on one end, huddled together like awkward penguins, silent, surrounded by a mess of coats and programmes.

At 7.25, the theatre bell rang, and we stirred. Slowly at first. The bell’s clang taking its time to work its way into our trance states. One person managed to stumble to their feet, lumbering their way towards the theatre. Another followed. Until we all managed to stagger our way down the hall, like a plague of zombies, except slightly more worn-looking.

The theatre itself is teeny tiny. Although seating is technically on three sides, two of the sides only manage about fifteen seats between them. End-on, there is a single row at stage level, and then a further three tucked away on a platform behind them. Plonking myself in the second row, I managed to enjoy the twin pleasures of having a view unobstructed by any heads in front of me, and none of the vulnerability associated with sitting out front. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I was there to see Gentlemen Jack, which I chose for two reasons. Firstly, I liked the idea of double-Jack action, what with the play name and the theatre. What can I say? I’m a simple person. The other was that being about Anne Lister, the 19th century diarist, mine-owner, and very-out lesbian, the play had a higher chance than usual of containing bonnets.

After the disappointing lack of frothy-headgear in my last theatrical trip to the 1800s, I was doing my best not to get too excited about the prospect. I do get why directors might not want to insert bonnets into their plays. They obstruct the face and all that. But god-dammit, I love them. And they are period appropriate. And and and… I just want bonnets. Is that too much to ask?

No, as it happens. Because this play delivered.

Yes, my friends. There were bonnets. Multiple ones. 

I was so bloody happy.

What a fucking excellent play. I really enjoyed it.

Not just because of the bonnets you understand.

I mean, it was mainly the bonnets. But there were other things too.

The entirety of Lister’s wardrobe, for one. All black. All fabulous.

That floor-length black velvet coat? Yeah, I wanted to take that home with me.

It made me feel quite gauche sitting there in my dress covered in a loud and obnoxious print of red roses. Yes, it was from Killstar. And yes, the roses had some spiky grey thorns. But my Goth-points were running at an all time low in the face of such Regency-gothic goodness.

And then the lacey dressing gown worn by one of her lovers… damn. I should wear more lace. My life is definitely lacking in the lace department.

I wonder if I can get one on eBay…

At least there was cake...

There aren’t many people out and about this early on a Saturday morning.

Most sensible people are still tucked up in bed, or perhaps if they are real go-getters, they’ve managed to stagger downstairs in search of tea, and perhaps toast.

They’re not sitting on a tube on their way to the opposite end of London.

They’re not like me.

But hey, sensible people don’t go in for theatre marathons. They’re missing out.

I mean, not on sleep. Or hot dinners. Or that James Graham Brexit show that I still haven’t seen. Or spending time with people that love them.

They’re not missing out on any of those things.

But they are missing out on that super-charged feeling that comes from seeing too much theatre crammed into a very short space of time, with all your emotions fizzing away just under your skin so strongly that you almost crackle as you walk.

Believe me, it’s worth it.

And I’m not just saying that to make you feel jealous. I’m saying it in order to convince myself.

It’s not working.

I miss sleep.

At least I had the carriage to myself. And a chance to read. Which is almost as good as sleep.

That was, until two young lads hopped on. I call them lads because that’s what they were. A bit lary. Still obviously drunk from the night before. And very loud.

“Oof, fuck man,” said one as he collapsed into a seat.

“Fuck man,” agreed the other.

“Fucking Stockwell,” continued the first.

“Where the fucking fuck is fucking Stockwell?”

I sympathised. I’ve had similar feelings about West Norwood recently.

“Excuse me, Miss,” said one, leaning so far forward that his shadow fell over my book. He was talking to me.

I looked up.

“Do you know where Stockwell is?”

Now I don’t react well to geography quizzes. We all know that the whole knowing-where-places-are isn’t exactly my forte. Especially early on a Saturday morning. I do however know that Stockwell is on the Northern Line, and we were rapidly approaching it.

“Sorry,” I said, not risking my small amount of Stockwell-knowledge lest it lead to more complex questioning.

“Fuck me,” was the lad’s sad reply. “We’re from Margate,” he added, as if that explained everything. “And we’re trying to get back.”

“I think you need a train station for that,” I offered, as helpfully as I could.

“Yeah, but which one?”

You see? Never offer knowledge. It always leads to more questions.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“We’ve been going around for four hours.”

“That’s not what you want on a Saturday morning,” I said in lieu of anything useful to add.

“Fuck. It’s Saturday? Did you hear that? Fuck.”

“At least it’s not Sunday morning,” said his friend.

“Right. At least it’s not Sunday,” he said, just as the lady on the tannoy announced that Stockwell would be the next station.

They stumbled out onto the platform and disappeared.

I hope they got home okay.

I however, had a long day ahead of me.

First stop: Wimbledon. At the Polka Theatre for the morning show. Hence the early start.

I’m going to take a moment here to thank everyone out there who has been helping me on my mission. From those who have been linking me to theatres that I’ve missed (I swear I’ll do a recount soon, I just… can’t face upping the number of theatres I need to get to quite yet), to warning me about closures.

Today’s shout out goes to the lovely @RhianBWatts, who gave me the heads up that the famous children’s theatre, the Polka, is shutting its doors for refurbishment soon.

With day-time shows, and only a few weekends left before they went dark, I had to get there fast.

Thankfully I have a friend who lives down there who offered to meet me for pre-theatre tea and cake to help prepare me for the horrors that were sure to follow.

Pre-theatre for me, that is. Not my friend.

While Ellen is supportive of my whole marathon thing, she’s not so supportive that she was prepared to go to a kids’ show on a Saturday morning. She is one of those sensible people.

And anyway, Ellen had been to the Polka before. As a child. So was able to give me all those charming details you get from people who have a proper connection to a place. Like the tale of how she got fired from a face-painting job there when she was 12 years old.

Oh, ummm… Okay.

That was slightly less charming that I had expected.

There was also one about the sea-monster coat hooks.

“Terrifying.”

Ah.

It didn’t put her off walking me to the theatre though (told you she was a good friend. I rather like being walked places. Although, perhaps given my recent propensity to get lost, she felt the need to do so as some sort of civic duty. Still, I liked it. Theatres should start offering it as a service.)

While I waited at box office to pick up my ticket, Ellen went off to investigate the state of the sea-monster.

“One ticket?” asked the woman at box office, holding the single ticket with a concerned look on her face.

“Yes, just the one,” I apologised. I know how it looks. Being there. By myself. At a kids' show. On a Saturday morning.

I had thought about borrowing a child to take with me, but 1) I don't know any that are of the right age, and 2) I believe it's frowned upon to borrow children you don’t know.

And anyway, there has to be hundreds of blogs out there from people taking children to the Polka Theatre. I doubt I can offer any interesting insight beyond what is already out there. But a fully grown-adult going to a see a show made for five year olds all by herself? Now that's a blog post worth writing.

So, I’m not even going to apologise for being the creepy lady at the show.

Okay… I’m sorry for being the creepy lady at the show.

“They’ve repainted the sea-monster,” Ellen announced when we re-found each other. “It’s not as scary anymore,” she added, sounding a little annoyed by this. I can understand that. I don’t see why kids today don’t have to suffer through the nightmare fodder that we did back in the day.

After an inspection of the courtyard to see if the giant climbable cat was still there (it wasn’t) Ellen and I parted ways. From here on in, I was on my own. To watch The Wind in the Willows. By myself. In a theatre full of happy toddlers and their associated adults.

So, what is it like watching a show at the Polka, by yourself, as a grown up?

Weird. Like… super weird.

But not unpleasant.

I actually really enjoyed the show. There were puppets and singing and jokes. And the programmes are only three quid, and packed with fun activities (how to make a water bottle flower!) and facts after animals (did you know that moles are actually super arsey twats with poisonous spit? I love them).

But I would say there are two things I don’t like about the Polka. Number one - it was really fucking cold. Like seriously, freezing. And number two - the rake is terrible. I noticed this because of how low I had to slink in my seat in order to hide my shame at being an unaccompanied adult. So low I was almost child size. I don’t think the theatre designers thought this one through…

But perhaps that will be fixed in the refurbishment.

Oh, and I was handed a prop during the show. The battery to Mr Toad’s car. I had to pass it along the line so that poor Mr Toad couldn’t get it. So mean.

That’s three things I don’t like about the Polka.

Following the show, there was a chance to take a tour of the theatre. Which was something I was tempted to do. For ghost-hunting reasons.

12 days into my marathon, and I still hadn’t seen a theatre ghost. Surely, lucky theatre number 13 would be the one!

Now I know what you’re thinking: Maxine, you’re at the Polka. Not the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. You’re going about this all wrong. You’re not going to find a ghost in the playroom.

But it is you who is wrong, my friend.

The Polka does have a ghost. And I have it on no greater authority that the Polka’s twitter feed.

But once again, the ghosts failed to introduce themselves to me. I was left spurned, and alone, once again.

Four things. Four things I dislike about the Polka.

Rude ghosts.

Well, I didn’t want to see them anyway. Besides, I had somewhere else to be. A matinee in east London.

“Another theatre?” I hear you cry. “But this blog post is already far too long!”

I know. I’m sorry. But we can do this. Together. Just stick with me for a few more words. I swear I’ll keep it as short as I can.

Right, so instead of spending my afternoon ghost-hunting, I was on the DLR. Which I think we can all agree is also pretty good. Riding the DLR a rare pleasure for me, even if the rollercoaster movement of the trains make me feel a bit sick. What with the ground sinking down below you as you pass between skyscrapers. Makes my stomach go all funny.

After the trauma of trying to find The Yard yesterday, I made sure to read The Space’s ‘how to get here’ instructions very carefully. And I know I promised, not three paragraphs ago, that I was going to be brief, but let’s just press pause on this post for one second while I rhapsodise about their directions because they are brilliant. Well written. Clear. Concise (unlike me). Just perfect.

They carried me through right from the train (not just the station, the actual effin’ train), along the platform, up the stairs, down the wall, around the corner and right to the door of the theatre (opposite the Rose Food and Wine, donchaknow). To whoever wrote them, I give my heartfelt thanks. There was not a single moment in my journey where I felt lost or anxious or was in any doubt that I was heading in the right direction. Whoever you are, you are perfect and I appreciate you.

Right, where was I? Apart from not getting lost I mean.

The Space. Okay.

The Space is in a converted church, with the tiniest foyer in the world. I had to step in and step out more than once as people tried to get past from inside the theatre in order to head up the stairs. There’s really only space for one person to stand in front of the box office hatch (it really is a hatch, a tiny slither in the wall where you can just about catch a glimpse of the person sitting on the other side) and nothing else.

Once you collect your ticket, you really have to head back outside, or else spend your time sucking in your tummy and hugging the walls as everyone trying to get through instantly forms a long and powerful hatred of you.

There’s a bar round the side of the building, but I was more interested in the loos. There was no way I was using the ones on offer at the Polka, marked “Girls” and “Boys.” Ew.

Okay, there are six things I don’t like about the Polka. But that’s it.

“There’s only one toilet,” said a woman also waiting to use the facilities. “And that’s the men’s,” she added as I pushed tentatively on a door.

“Oh, right.”

It was so dark in that corridor, it was impossible to make out the signs.

We waited a few minutes. And then a few more.

Eventually the ladies freed up and I was the only one left in the queue.

Blimey, The Stage should do an expose on the loos at this place.

As matters became a little more… err… pressing, I debated using the men’s. But just as I was about to go for it I noticed there was a disabled loo just around the corner. It was empty. Thank the theatre gods.

After my trans-London journey and epic loo saga, there was no time to check out the bar. i headed straight into The Space to face my nemesis: unreserved seating.

With few options left to choose from, I was left in the worse possible option: the second row. Or one of the second rows anyway, as there were two. With seating either side of the aisle. Sat directly behind the front row - without a rake - the second row doesn’t allow much in the way of a view. But at least everyone in the audience was a grownup.

Good thing too, as the play I was seeing - Laundry - featured a sex scene and the bloody aftermath of an abortion. In an old church. Not that I’m religious. Or even Christian for that matter. But still. It certainly adds an extra frisson to the experience.

The scene where all the women are washing blood stains out of their clothes, and the lighting turns red, and the music rocks out - you could almost convince yourself that hell had risen up to claim us all.

And, I’m not sure the scene where they’re all cleaning the dead body was meant to trigger my ASMR. But it really did. It was all that hair-stroking. So relaxing.

I probably shouldn’t have admitted that. I mean, there’s wearing all black and listening to Without Temptation’s greatest hits on repeat, and then there’s being the creepy goth gal sitting in a children’s theatre all by herself… oh.

Oh well.

It was a strange day.

But at least it’s not Sunday.

Is this how I insult the entirety of South London?

My life can now be condensed down to a series of Ws: Wake. Write. Work. Walk. (39) Winks... okay, I need to brainstorm that one a bit more. But you get the idea.

Yesterday… was a struggle. I’ve been up at 6am every day in order to get my posts written before going to work in the morning. Which is… fine. I can do mornings. A cup of tea and a big bowl of porridge will see me through. 5.30am though. Now that’s a challenge. A challenge I needed to face, in order to get my words bashed out and then still arrive just early enough at work, that I could leave in time to get to West Norwood for that evening’s show. I had no idea how long that would take. Like with plays, i hoped for 90 minutes straight through. I feared 2.5 hours and an interval.

Where the fuck even is West Norwood? I had to look it up.

South London. Somewhere. Hence the name of the theatre that was next up on my list: the South London Theatre.

Look, I'm sorry. But if it doesn't have a tube station, it basically doesn't exist to me.

The TFL journey planner was no help at all, suggesting a route that involved three buses, a magical unicorn, and a dark portal, which didn’t sound right. I was fairly certain people lived in West Norwood. And they occasionally left and then felt the need to get home. There had to be a better way.

In the end, I decided that better way was sticking on the Northern Line all the way to the bitter end - that is: Balham, and getting the train from there.

An actual train.

In London.

God, the transport system in this city is weird.

An hour later, and feeling rather windblown after my journey, I alighted at West Norwood station.

That had been easy.

Now, where was the theatre?

The Old Fire Station (a much better name for the theatre if you ask me) was just around the corner as it happened.

Oh.

Well, what now? Was I supposed to go in?

The show didn’t start until 8. That was still an hour away. There’s getting to a theatre early in order to take photos and see what it’s all about, and there’s turning up an hour beforehand and getting under everyone’s feet.

Plus, the doors were closed.

And not just: It’s-cold-outside-let’s-leave-the-doors-shut-to-keep-the-heating-in kinda closed. But a we’re-not-ready-for-you-yet type of closed.

As if to prove my point, a young man loped down the road and used the keypad on the wall in order to unlock the door.

This theatre was very much not open to callers yet.

Okay, that’s fine. I’m sure there are many delightful ways to pass the time in West Norwood, I thought to myself, before loping down the road myself to go and discover what they were.

I’m happy to report that West Norwood’s high street is… exactly the same as every other high street in London. Chicken shops. A boarded up pub. Estate agents. A smattering of supermarkets. And too many coffee shops. There surely can’t be enough coffee drinkers in West Norwood to support them all. Do the people of West Norwood have a problem? Does getting on an actual train every morning necessitate huge amounts of caffeine? It’s okay. There’s no shame in it.

But other than that, I might have been anywhere in zone 3 really.

Oh wait. There’s a library. That was nice.

After marching my way all the way down the high street, and all the way back up again, I checked to see what time it was. Blimey. Only 7.30. That hadn’t taken long.

But it was okay. The doors were open! The South London Theatre was ready to receive callers.

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The closed door policy of earlier had done a wonderful job of keeping the heating in, and it was lovely and warm inside.

“Are you here to see the show?” I was asked as soon as I stepped in.

I said I was.

“Have you already bought your ticket?”

I had. I came prepared.

“Head over to the desk to pick up your admission pass.”

I did as I was instructed. And after having my name checked off the list was handed a small, laminated ticket.

Err, what now?

"Would you be interested in a programme?" laughed the programme seller behind me. "Only one pound?"

The man she was talking to declined the offer.

"I would be very interested in a programme," I said. Which is true. I'm always interested in a programme. Have I told you all about how much I love programmes? Because I do. I really love programmes.

“That’s the director,” she explained, indicating the man she’d been trying to hawk a programme to.

“Oh… How much are they again?”

“The suggested donation is a pound,” she said as I opened my purse. “The suggested donation. But you can give more.”

“I’m very poor,” I said apologetically as I handed over my pound coin. This is true. Made all the truer by the recent discovery of how much I have spent on programmes this year. I’ve been keeping track you see. In a spreadsheet. And I had just added in a SUM formula at the bottom of the column that morning. £47. Not including the pound I was handing over at that very moment.

“How about a raffle ticket?” asked a second lady, showing off her wares. She listed a few prizes, starting with the very one most likely to turn me off: wine.

One day I should take a photo of the wine cupboard in my house. It’s filled with all the wine I’ve been gifted over the years and never drunk.

I’ve had a bottle of wine sitting on my desk at work for the past 2 years because I can’t be bothered to take it home. What’s the point? What am I going to do with it? Add it to the cupboard?

I don’t hate wine. I’ll drink it if someone hands me a glass. But I’m never going to go out of my way in order to do so, by… opening a bottle. Or buying a raffle ticket.

So, I declined, and stood there awkwardly, wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

“Where do I go now?” I asked eventually.

I was shown the doors to the theatre. “They’re not open yet,” she said. The South London Theatre sure likes keeping it’s doors closed. “But you can go down the stairs to the bar if you like.”

Programme and pass

The ceiling in the South London Theatre’s basement bar

I did. So I went.

The downstairs bar wasn’t packed, but had that overly crowded feel that comes from underground rooms with low ceilings. But what low ceilings! Every inch was layered with old theatre posters. And their proximity meant that they could be examined with ease.

I had a pleasant few minutes taking photos of the covered ceiling before I remembered that seating was unrestricted, and without an entrance system in place, I better get back upstairs if I didn’t want to risk being stuck in the front row.

I wasn’t. Thank the lord.

The front row didn’t have an easy time of it with this play.

There was hand shaking. Imaginary prop holding. And even a moment of shoe-shining.

Thankfully, from my spot in the third row, I was completely detached from such frightening things.

I don’t have any photos of the space, as the two actors were already in place when we were let in. So, it’s imagination time again. Don’t worry. It won’t be hard. The theatre is a small room, with comfortable bench seating on three sides and an impressive rake.

That’s it. We’re done. I told you it wouldn’t be difficult.

It’s not the sort of theatre that would usually be on my radar outside of this challenge, but as it happened, they were staging a Philip Ridley play that I hadn’t seen before. And I adore Philip Ridley. He’s as dark as Martin McDonagh, but filled with a love and compassion that hits you right underneath the ribs and lodges there for days… sometimes even weeks after seeing one of his plays.

So, even outside of the marathon, I might have gone. Might have. Except for the pesky West Norwood thing.

I don’t know about everyone else in the audience though.

They all seemed to know each other. Or people connected with the play.

It was like walking into a church and realising too late you were at the wrong wedding.

When the play ended, they all hung around. For what I’m not sure. To congratulate the bride and groom perhaps.

All Ridley-ed up, and with a train to catch, I left.

I’m still not exactly sure where West Norwood is though…

Sweet Madeleine, duh duh duh

Departing from the bright lights and over-amped atmosphere of the West End, I travelled over the river to check off my next theatre, by way of seeing the shiny new Martin McDonagh. Or rather, the slightly faded Martin McDonagh, as it closes at the end of the week.

I know, I know. You're not the first one to say that. I've heard it before. Loudly. It tones of consternation. Let me take the time to assure you that I went in fully aware that this was not McDonagh's finest work. And I was okay with that. Because I love McDonagh.

Yes, liking McDonagh is a very very dark matter indeed. And yes, he gives off the air of being... shall we say... a bit of a shit. I get that. He’s a superhuman wordsmith, who uses his powers purely for evil. I've never come across a writer who appears to hate his audience quite so blatantly, and seeks to cause them quite so much pain. With a cruel glint in the eye, he gives the audience a cute puppy to look after, before handing us a knife and telling us to murder it. And we do it. And giggle along the way. Horrified by our own laughter but unable to stop.

I hate him. And I adore him. But most of all I respect him.

If I had his skill, I would probably do the same thing. Or rather, I would watch his plays longingly, wishing I had the guts to do the same thing... so no difference to what's happening now really.

Now, I’ve been to the Bridge before. But ended up leaving during the interval because they had run out of madeleines.

No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I mean the little French cakey things that caused so much consternation in the last series of the Great British Bake Off. No, it wasn’t an overreaction. And frankly, how dare you even suggest that it was.

They'd built those damn cakes up so much, featured them so heavily in their marketing, made it as if pure joy could only be found within their soft golden ingots, that when we saw the last plate being whisked away from us at the bar during the interval, the disappointment was so crushing it was a physical impossibility for us to make it back to our seats to watch the second act. Instead we went to eat dessert at a nearby bar. It's the first and only time I've walked out of a play, and I still don't regret it.

Cake is very important to me.

So you can see, the stakes were high. I had to get those madeleines.

And I have to say, it's surprising how fast you can walk with the drumbeat of "madeleines, madeleines, madeleines," beating in your heart.

I powered down Blackfriars Bridge and across Bankside, driven by the kind of fervour that Trumpites must get when someone wishes them Happy Holidays.

The loud tapping of my foot and the pain on my face as I waited to collect my ticket was so acute, the bloke on box office actually ended up apologising to me. (No, I'm sorry, lovely box office person. All my fault. I was having cake-based-anxiety. I'm quite sure you understand).

Then on to the bar.

It was 6:50. For a 7.45 start. I was early. Really early. And yet there was already a queue.

I could see the chefs further along removing a tray of delicious domed dainties from the oven. The warm scent drifted over to me, taunting me. What if that was the last batch? Was I too late? This play had no interval. There would be no second chances.

The man in front of me was being served. What was he getting? Wine. Fuck's sake. Couldn't that wait? Some of us had important things to order.

The oven opened again and another waft of Yankee-candle-scented air blasted out.

The man's wine was delivered. He turned around.

Comeoncomeoncomeon.

The barman raises his eyebrows, indicating he's ready for me.

I try and step forward, but the wine man is still there, at the bar. Dithering.

He steps to the left, directly into my path, blocking me even further.

It took ever inch of self control I had not to scream at him.

Eventually, he and his wretched wine moved on.

"CanIavesommadeleinesples?" I said, clutching onto the edge of the bar for support, my purse already half open in my hand.

"Of course!" said the barman, as if salvation had not just been delivered to me in cake form.

For the princely sum of a fiver, I was handed one of those little buzzy things and advised it would take about 10 minutes.

I spent those 10 minutes taking photos of the foyer, and checking my little buzzy thing every 30 seconds, just in case my rapidly falling sugar-levels meant that I could no longer sense the buzziness, but I needn't have feared. Exactly 10 minutes later, it vibrated, and lit up with glaring red lights.

My madeleines were ready!

There they were. As beautiful as a newborn baby. As beautiful as six newborn babies. Sextuplets, no less. All arranged around a plate like the petals of the tastiest flower ever cultivated.

IMAG0013.jpg

I nearly cried.

Grabbing my prize, I found a seat, paused just long enough to take some photos (you're welcome) and dove in.

Oh rapture. Oh heavenly transcendence.

Still warm from the oven, each bite melted into memory without the indignity of needing to be chewed, leaving nothing but the taste of angel's tears and sweet butter behind on the tongue.

I had planned to take a few home with me to have as a midnight snack. I had even washed out my Tupperware extra carefully post-lunchtime sandwich (toasted bagel with chicken liver pate, sweet gem lettuce and lashings of sriracha) in order to house them safely for the journey.

That idea didn't last long. The only way they were going home with me was in my belly.

As the final bite dissolved into the distant past, there was nothing for it but to head into the auditorium.

How did I manage to sneak a photo of a empty theatre? Had I jimmied the lock and broken in overnight? Was I given a special tour by the press team ahead of my state visit?

I was surprised too. 7.34 and the auditorium was empty save for a few ushers and two other audience members who had not had not tasted the madelelines (I could tell. Their faces lacked the simple contentment of the saved).

A minute late a dark little ditty, poised somewhere between a child's nursery rhyme and a nightmare, started over the speakers, and people began to pour in, still clutching their wine glasses, seemingly determined to get as much alcohol down their throats as possible before the play begun.

The Bridge audiences sure know how to party. Or perhaps they'd just read the reviews. I almost started to feel kindly towards them. It was as if we'd all, collectively, decided we were going to get through this. Together. I don't think it's an overstatement to say there was a touch of the blitz spirit in the air.

The box hanging above the stage started swinging.

Wine was sipped.

Madeleines digested quietly.

Everyone in the audience set their shoulders to the task of getting through the evening.

The lights dimmed.

It began.

Anyway, I liked the play. I don't know what you all were going on about.