Playing the Fairfield

Four o'clock and I get a notification on my phone.

An email.

"Dear Valued Customer," it starts. My heart sinks. Being valued as a customer is never a good sign. "We regret to inform you that, due to an unexpected emergency, the theatre company have had to cancel the event 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' for this evening."

Blah blah blah. "Apologies." Blah blah blah. "Refund." Blah blah blah. "Don't hesitate to call."

This is so not what I need right now.

It's taken me nine months to find a theatre show in the Elliot Hall of Harrow Arts Centre. Nine months. And they don't have any other ones listed on their website. That's... a big problem. A big big problem.

A problem so big I can't even think about it right now.

I have to deal with the smaller issue right now. Smaller, but more urgent.

Which is, what the hell am I going to do with myself tonight?

I could give myself the evening off. Go back to Hammersmith. Wash my hair. Get myself some quality cat cuddles. But did I just mention that we're nine months into this marathon? Yeah. Now, I don't know what your maths skills are. But I, having a friggin' GCSE in it, so I can tell you that there are only three months left of this challenge. And I still have around 70 theatres to get to. I can't afford to be spending my Wednesday nights on self-care.

With an outpouring of more swearwords than my poor coworkers should ever have to listen to, I bring up my spreadsheet and start rearranging. Moving Saturday's theatre trip to Friday, I free up Saturday for a theatre I wasn't meant to hit until November. Which means, if I've worked this all out right, if I go to Sunday tonight, I can actually give myself a day off. A real one. During the weekend.

Whoa. It's been a while since I had one of those.

Right. Looks like I'm going to Fairfields Halls tonight. I better get that booked in.

I go onto their website, find the show, curse at the popup, scroll around desperatly trying to find the book button, select my ticket (front row for fifteen quid? Yes please) and then go to check out, get rid of another popup (pre-show dining? Fuck offfff).

I'm feeling more than a little pleased with myself, right up until the website decides to give me the spinning circle of death as I attempt to lookup my address.

I leave it a few minutes. Get on with some work. And then go back.

It's still spinning.

Huh.

Okay then. Close the window and start again.

Select ticket (front row, fifteen quid), put it in my basket, type in address... nope. It's not having it.

I scroll down the page and click the Continue button.

Right, now it's looking for an address.

I select it.

And then there's nothing to click.

It's just me, staring at a broken website, asking it to sell me a ticket.

I think I now know why they still have fifteen quid, front row seats, available less than four hours before curtain up.

I can't give up though. There's a free Sunday at stake here.

I try again.

Nope. Not happening.

Fuck's sake.

Two-hundred-and-thirty theatres in and I think I can safely say I've found the absolute worst theatre website.

Okay. Don't panic.

Worst comes to worst, I can call them. Box office people are lovely. That is totally a thing I can do.

If it were not for my crippling social anxiety.

I try again. But this time I'm sneaky. I make an account first, then double back to pick up the contents of my basket. Ha! It works. Success. You won't get one over me, you stupid website. I'm going to see your show and you can't stop me.

Two hours later, and I'm off to Croydon.

At least I know where I'm going now.

And, now that trams aren't a surprise to me anymore, I'm not even a little bit scared of them.

Well, maybe a little bit.

Okay, I pelt it across the road even when there isn't a mechanical monster in sight.

But I'm here now. At Fairfield Halls.

It's a lot bigger than I expected, looming over the road. Towering over building works.

Long windows running along the front give the place the air of a car showroom. We are on Park Lane after all. Just, you know, the other one.

I find myself in a narrow lobby. There's more doors up ahead, through which I can see the main foyer. All high ceilings and bright lights. There's a queue going on through there, for what looks like the press desk.

That's not me.

Over on the other side there's a reception desk. That looks more my speed. I head over.

A man stops me.

"Are you here for the Ashcroft?" he asks, and I wonder if that's the new Bentley model.

"Yes?" I reply, having absoletly no idea what he's talking about but feeling that is probably the right answer all the same.

"You can pick up your tickets just through there," he says, pointing through the next set of doors to the press desk.

I mean... okay.

I thank him and make my way over to the doors.

"Are you here for the play?" asks the woman standing on duty there.

I am.

"Can I see your ticket?" she asks.

"I'm collecting." Or at least, I'm trying to.

"Are you a guest?"

Honestly, people like to talk about gatekeeping in the arts, but I never knew they meant it so literally.

"Ah, well, you'll need to go over there," she says, pointing back the way I had come. To the reception.

"That's the box office?" I ask, just to double-check.

Yup. That's the box office.

Right then. Back I go. To the fucking reception desk.

Honestly, I'm about two seconds away from declaring Croydon part of Yorkshire so I can get the hell out of here.

"You're picking up from over here?" asks the guy from before as he sees me coming back.

"Yeah, I'm not swish enough for the press desk," I tell him.

"Ah! Well, you never know," he says, sounding embarrassed. "You can never be sure."

"Hi," I say to one of the ladies on reception, trying very hard to keep the exasperation out of my voice. "The surname's Smiles?"

She looks at me blankely.

"I'm collecting a ticket?" I press on, really not wanting to be sent somewhere else again.

"Is it a guest ticket?" she asks, sounding confused.

No, it's not a fucking guest ticket. Oh my gawwwd…

"No," I say, doing my best to keep the growing annoyance from my voice. "I bought it. With money."

"Excellent!" she says. "Do you have your confirmation email?”

I almost laugh. I'm literally the only person in this building who is a legitimate paying customer, and yet I still need to dredge out the confirmation email. I bring it up on my phone and hand it to her.

"Can you fetch it?" she asks the other lady on the desk.

I watch as the other box officer goes through the doors... and towards the press desk.

I am not a violent person, but seriously, I am about to slap everyone within a twenty-metre radius soon if... holy shit. I recognise that person. Over there. By the press desk. Picking up their tickets. Someone who used to work at my work. I now works here. At Fairfied.

As soon as I get my ticket, I rush over.

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"I spied you!" I say as our eyes meet.

I shouldn't be so surprised to see her. But somehow it's always weird bumping into old coworkers.

We stand around, getting in everyone's way as I give all the gossip from the office.

"Are you here for your blog?" she asks.

Ummm.

"Yeah," I admit. "I wasn't supposed to be, but the show I was supposed to be seeing was cancelled and..." Yeah, I did it. I vented. All about the gawd-awful website.

"Oh dear," she says sympathetically. "Do you want to get a drink?"

I don't, but I keep her company as she gets one and waits for her friend to arrive and tells me all about the refurbishment.

And then it's time to go in.

Two ushers stand by the doors to the theatre wearing matching green polo necks. They smile at everyone passing through. It's opening night and everyone looks super excited about it.

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I slip through and go up to the programme seller.

"Do you have change for ten pounds?" I ask.

"I'll have to give you coins though," he said, bringing out a plastic bag stuffed full of pound coins.

"That's fine," I say, trying not to show my excitement.

I'm not going to go on again about how much I love pound coins, but, you know I love pound coins.

The programme he hands me is massive. Almost as big as the ones at BIG.

Oversized programmes must be a thing at show-adaptations that no one asked for, because tonight we're seeing Angela's Ashes. The musical. Which, I don't mind admitting to you, I'm a little concerned about.

But I've got my programme, there's no turning back now. Not after everything I've been through to get here. Oh wait, wrong door. I turn back and hurry further down the corridor until I find door two. There we go. I'm in.

Front row here I come.

Except, it's not quite the front row. There are two rows ahead, but there's no one sitting in them, so they don't count.

The auditorium is large. The stage big. But it's not nearly as shiny and grand as the foyer spaces.

There's a sort of dinginess and worn-in feeling which I think is better suited to a theatre than glossy newness.

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There's an announcement welcoming us all to the performance. "Please identify your nearest exit," it advises us, which is not the most comforting thing to be told to do before a show.

The stage lights go up.

The cast starts to sing.

I don't know what the first song is called, but I'm willing to bet that it’s ‘Angela's Ashes.’

I'm wincing so hard I think I might dislocate something.

But it doesn't last long, because after the initial cringe-fest, it's actually rather good.

I'm enjoying myself.

Well, 'enjoying' is probably the wrong word to talk about a misery memoir, but you get what I mean.

In the interval, I head back out. The usher on the door grins. "See you in twenty minutes!" he says.

I find a convenient pillar to lean against and edit my Red Hedgehog blogpost. I am like, stupidly behind at the moment. Four show weekends are not my friend.

"Ice cream, madam?" asks the usher on the door as I go back in.

"No, thanks." It's not really an ice cream kind of show. It wouldn't feel appropriate to be digging into a mint choc chip while there are babies howling for a bottle of milk.

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But it's okay. I know our Frank is going to make it out okay. After all, he wrote the memoir. And the sequel (which is excellent by the way, although I'd bet you already know that because literally everyone in the world has read it).

But then we have to end with that Angela's Ashes song, so, when it time came for the standing ovation, I could not participate.

As I leave, everyone peels off to one side.

Looks like there's some sort of afterparty going on.

I leave them too it and head out into the tram-filled streets, thanking the theatre gods that that's me done with Croydon for the year.

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Third Door on the Right and Straight on Till Morning

Well, it's happened. The marathon has brought me to Croydon.

Not a place I'd ever thought I would need to go, but life is funny that way.

And you know what? I've been here all of thirty seconds, and it's true what people say.

There are trams.

I can hear them clanging their way up the hill, with people scattering in their wake so as not to get run over. I stick to the prescribed crossings. You know I ain't good with roads. I am so going to get run over one day, and I'll be damned if it's by a trolley.

The pavements are cluttered with ads for Fairfield Halls. I can't move for seeing posters advertising their opening gala, and that Angela's Ashes musical which nobody asked for. There's even artwork painted onto the tarmac itself. They are going hard on the marketing. But that's not my destination tonight.

Nope, I keep on walking, turn into a cobbled street and stumble down a very steep hill. Strings of hanging bulbs criss-cross over the courtyard, and tables with long benches are set up under them.

It's all very cute.

This place is giving me some serious Neal's Yard vibes. The signage makes me feel like the windows should be crammed with classy blue bottles and dried herbs. Even the name is a rip: Matthew's Yard.

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Except I won't be buying overpriced skincare tonight. Oh no. I've heard tell that there is a theatre lurking somewhere within. And I really hope the rumours are true, because I've booked myself in to see a play.

Inside it's all big communal tables and brick walls painted with murals. There's a kitchen advertising itself as a vegan grill, and a counter covered with what I like to call I'm-having-a-bad-day cakes. You know the kind. Ones where a single slice will cover an entire plate. And have so much icing it'll dam your tear ducts for a least a couple of hours.

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What I don't see, is a theatre.

I have a wander around. There's a staircase, but that only leads halfway up a wall and no further. There's a back room with a ping pong table in it, and nothing else. And a gallery. This also leads to nowhere.

I'm stumped.

It's 7.15pm and the show will be starting in fifteen minutes. And I have no idea where the theatre is.

I look around, trying to work out which of these people are here to see a show, and which are only after the vegan burgers. Everyone is eating, or drinking, or looking really intensely at the menu.

No one looks to be ready to be watching a play right now.

My anxiety, already rumbling away in the background after all those trams, flares right the fuck up.

I bring up their website on my phone. It's not a very good website. They don't even list their events on it. Oh no, You have to go to the Facebook page for that. What they do have, however, is details about how to hire their spaces. I look at the theatre page, trying to get clues about it’s location. But there's nothing.

I do find out it's the first crowd-funded theatre in the UK. Which is nice. Not very useful in this moment. But nice all the same.

It's no good. I'm going to have to ask.

I get in the queue at the cake counter.

"Sorry, we are only taking cash tonight," says the young woman serving when I get to the front.

"Oh, no. I was just wondering where the theatre was," I ask, suddenly panicking that I was in the wrong place. There is no theatre. And never was.

"It's through there," she says, pointing to a doorway behind the counter. There's a sign hanging over it. It says: Lounge. "It's third door on the right."

I look through the door. There's a corridor going on down there. A very dark corridor.

"Okay... Do I need to check in with a box office, or..."

She laughs. "No, it's quite informal, I think."

Right... Well, here goes anything. I start walking down the dark hallway. Counting the doors on the right until I reach the third one. It's closed. Very closed. And we all know the rules of theatre doors: don't be opening them if they are shut.

But opposite there is an open door. I have a look inside. It's the promised lounge. Complete with faerie lights, tables, chairs, and even a piano.

It's deserted.

There's no one around.

Slightly scared, I go back to the cafe part and stand around, trying to think what to do.

The clock on my phone ticks on. It's 7.29pm.

My anxiety is burning up all to hell. I can't believe I came all the way to Croydon, risking death by tram, for this.

I might just go home...

A man emerges from the corridor. He's wearing a very smart white shirt. And a tie. He lifts up his arms, high above his head. The chatter in the cafe stills as we all look at him.

When he has our attention, he dramatically points behind him,

I think he wants us to follow him.

A table full of young people clatter out of their seats and go down the corridor. As does a girl who had been sitting by herself.

I follow on behind.

Down the dark corridor, and through the third door on the left. Now open.

Inside is a large room. There's a tech desk at the back. And a low wooden stage at the front. In between are rows of folding chairs, white with vinyl covered cushions the colour of sweeties. Pink and green and orange and blue.

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The group all make a rush for the front row.

As does the lone girl.

I leave them too it. You know how much I hate sitting in the front row.

I slide myself into the second. Right to the end.

The man in the white shirt hops onto the stage and grooves to the music playing. A couple of girls from the group groove back at him, swaying in their seats.

A minute later, he's off again, dancing away to gather up more audience members.

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He returns with two ladies. They sit in the front row too. There's one space left.

It does not get filled.

The man indicates something to the tech person. Close the door. Even I manage to understand that gesture. But the tech person doesn't, and it's left to our performer to dance off to the door, close it, and switch off the house lights.

Right, we're ready to begin.

The man is Tunji Joseph. It's his play. He wrote it. White board: Back pieces: Race in the west.

That's a lot of punctuation for a title.

But the show is slick and moves at a fast clip through stories and anecdotes and questions, and an attempt at some of the answers. What it is to be black in a white world. How it messes with self-perception and even something as fundamental as desire.

Joseph tells a story about being a student at ArtsEd (the group in the front row whoop - so we all know where they studied) and having to go on dates with classmates while in character. About being attracted to one the white girl he was out with. About getting a nod from a fellow black man in the restaurant and not knowing the meaning of the nod.

Joseph brings out a tennis ball and shows it to us.

Going over to the front row, he shows it to the guy sitting on the aisle. "What colour is this?" Joseph asks.

"Light green?" chances the guy on the aisle.

Joseph is horrified. Light green? That is literally the wrongest answer that ever wronged.

He looks around and spots me. Oh dear.

Making his way into the second row he holds out the tennis ball. "What colour is this?"

Well, if light green is super duper wrong. Then I'm going to go for the exact opposite. "Red?"

Nope.

"Does no one know what this is?" cries out Joseph, clearly distressed.

No one does.

And we get to the end of the show without ever finding out.

Joseph announces there will be a short break, and then we'll have having a Q&A to discuss the process and whatnot.

I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the Q&A. The whole "more of a comment than a question” thing doesn't really do it for me. I'm sure, out there, in the world, exists someone who asks interesting questions, but I've never heard one. I suspect the type of person who does have interesting things to ask, isn't the sort to stay behind after a show to ask them.

But I stay. I'm fairly confident that I'm the only person here who doesn't know the playwright, and I think it'll be a teensy bit obvious if I step out now.

A woman in the from row raises her hand. "This isn't a question, it's more of a statement..."

Oh gawd...

After a few more statements, and reminisces about the good old days at ArtsEd, we get to the first real question.

"What audience did you imagine? Who did you write this for?"

I sit forward. Now this I find interesting. Because this audience is hella white, and not at all what I pictured when I booked this show.

This marathon has taken me to all sorts of places and all sorts of shows. I've been in plenty of audiences where my whiteness put me in the minority, and even one where I was the only white person in the building apart from the staff, and I've always tried to take this into consideration. Sitting at the back, not taking space away from the people the show was created for. You know. I'm doing my best over here not to be an arsehole. Me doing this marathon shouldn't be getting in the way of someone seeing their art.

So the whiteness of the room I'm sat in, is surprising.

Joseph is more accepting though. "Theatre audiences are white and middle class," he says with a shrug after admitting we weren't quite the crowd he was going for.

"If you can stay, I'll see you in the bar in a few minutes," says Joseph and we all make our way out.

Well, apart from the few kind souls who offer to stay behind and tidy up the chairs.

ArtsEd should be proud.

Me on the other hand, I'm got a tram I need to not get caught by.

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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Playing with Dinosaurs

It's been a few days, hasn't it? I took a couple off from the marathon. A combination of the hell inferno, work inferno, and moving-to-Hammersmith inferno (temporarily... cats won't sit themselves, you know). But I'm back.

Turns out however, that even from my new, more reasonably central, location, Greenwich is still really, really far away. And I arrive at the Greenwich Theatre feeling a little battered and dazed.

The doesn't stop the bloke behind the box office giving me the biggest smile when I walk in though.

"Hello!" he calls over, in a manner far too cheerful for me to handle right now.

"Hi," I say, trying to conjure some enthusiasm, but really just wanting to sit down. "The surname's Smiles?"

He looks over the tickets, all laid out in regimented columns next to him.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" he asks, picking one up.

Ergh. I hate this question. Always a challenge at the best of times, but after brain melting-heats and a move which means I'm not even living in that postcode right now, I'm not sure I can answer without making use of a crib-sheet. It's like my Chemistry A-levels all over again.

But just as the silence stretches out for a beat too long, my mouth decides to take over and gives the answer my mind could not provide.

The box officer nods and hands over the ticket.

"Head over to the bar, just through there," he says, pointing off to the right.

It the same route I took to go to the main house all the way back in... gosh, it must have been right at the beginning of the year. February perhaps. One of the first theatres on the marathon. Well, in the first fifty, anyway.

Two front of housers flank the double doors, each with a pile of freesheets that they hand out to everyone walking through. That's what I like. Make sure everyone gets one.

Through the doors and onto the mezzanine that lines the sunken bar. I dump my bag on the counter and have a look at the sheet of paper I've been given. Little intro to the play, cast list, creative credits, bit of info about the company, and all the social handles. And it all fits on a single side of A4. The perfect freesheet.

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Except for the lack of a quotation mark right at the beginning. There's one at the end of the sentence. But not at the beginning. But no matter. I can't judge. If you follow me on Twitter (do you follow me on Twitter, by the way? I can't remember...) you'll know I made a serious fuck-up in a programme I made recently. So fucked-up was it that I had to print programme slips, which not only served to correct the mistake, but also to highlight it to anyone who hadn't already noticed it. So like, seriously, while I may point out a typo in these things, I will never, ever think badly of the person who put them together because of it. I know how hard this shit it to make happen. And typos are just a thing that exists. No matter how many times you proofread something.

I'm very much intrigued by one role. Buried half-way down the list of creatives, as if it wasn't the most fascinating thing in the word, is a Fossil Designer. I don't know what that involves, but Hannah Snaith, I salute you for your work. Whatever that is.

I don't need to tell you that I loved dinosaurs as a kid. Firstly, because every kid in the world loves dinosaurs. It's a phase they all go through. Like the Terrible Twos. The Dreadful Dinos. And secondly, because I did most of my growing up in the nineties. And the nineties were at peak-dinosaur fandom. While Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun meant that the twenties were flooded with ankh-necklaces and thrillers set in the shadows of the pyramids. The nineties had dinomania.

There was Jurrasic Park, of course. But also The Land Before Time. The puppet-led Dinosaurs sit-com. The cartoon Dink, the Little Dinosaur. And not forgetting the greatest of them all: Theodore Rex. The seminal Whoppi Goldberg vehicle which sees her non-nonsense cop paired with a new partner, who just happens to be a Converse wearing dinosaur.

The nineties really were the golden age of creativity, ending in the early 2000s with... Dinotopia. A strange tale of a pair of brothers and their dad, who crash land on an island where they discover dinosaurs and humans coexisting quite happily. Dino-riding and love-triangles insue. It wasn't very good. And the love of dinosaurs soon died out.

But of course, like choker necklaces and bucket hats, they're now back.

All those kids who grew up reading dinosaur magazines, collecting dinosaur figurines, and convincing themselves they were going to uncover a pterosaur every time they went on a school trip to Lyme Regis, are now grown up. And they're writing plays. And I'm watching one of them tonight.

I look around, trying to work out where the play will actually be. The doors to the main theatre are on the left and the right. There are no signs of the studio.

And then, from the other side of the bar area, one of the wall panels opens up, and a head sticks out. It's a door. And that's the studio. I'm baffled. I try to work out the geography of it all. I can't quite remember where everything is from my trip here half a year ago, but I think that the studio might, in fact, be right underneath the main house.

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"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a voice. "The house is now open."

From the bar, there's a great scraping back of chairs as everyone makes the mad dash towards the doors. Seating is unallocated and no one wants to be stuck at the back.

I go down the steps and join the scrum, but soon find myself having to hold back to avoid being trampled by the bar folk.

There's a young man tearing tickets on the door, but he can't keep up with the number of people pressing forward.

A woman joins him, her hands working to tear tickets as fast as possible.

"The show is sold out," she tells us. "So please sit right next to people."

"No gaps?" someone asks.

"That's right. And if they don't move, you can tell them that I told you not to leave any gaps."

Something tells me that Greenwich audiences are... tricky.

Eventually, I make it through the door, and into the theatre.

It's small, but not tiny. Not by studio standards anyway. The stage is floor level. And there's a platform on one end. The platform, however, is the only concession to rake in this space. With half the seating on it. And half at stage level. I decide to go for the front row on the platform, moving down as far as I can in the row, and sitting right next to the person on the end. As instructed.

As soon as I get settled, I realise that the platform is next to useless when there are three rows right in front of it. If any of the actors decide to sit down, they will be swallowed up behind the wall of bobbing heads.

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Oh, wait. Two people are sitting on stage. I can see them now. They're doing air steward movements with their hands, helping direct traffic as people come in.

"Please don't leave any gaps!" a front of houser shouts across the room. "We are completely sold out, so please move right down to the end of the rows."

Alright, love. We'll figure it out. That's the thing about theatre-goers. We like sitting down. And we'll find those empty seats. You don't need to worry about us.

But, she does worry. And the shouting continues until the last person is sat.

It's close in here. And not just because it's completely sold out. The low ceiling and dark walls aren't helping.

I get out my fan. The killer heatwave may be over, but it's still not exactly comfortable.

"That's a good idea," says my neighbour, indicating the fan.

"Yeah, I take it with me everywhere. An umbrella and a fan. Two essentials for British summers."

"I really need to get one," she says and I agree. Fans are great. Everyone should have one.

I shift slightly in my chair and jolt as I realise I'm pinned in place.

"Sorry!" says my neighbour, lifting her leg to free my skirts.

"No, it's my fault," I tell her. "This skirt is really big."

It's not actually that big. I'm not in one of my circle skirts today. But given half a chance, any skirt I'm wearing tends to floof all over the place. It's like they're trying to escape from me. Perhaps I don't treat my clothes well enough. Maybe I'll start using the delicate cycle on the washing machine.

It looks like we're starting. The two people sitting on stage, Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, are getting up. They're starting a lecture. About Mary Anning.

And, no... wait. Someone's interupting. Someone coming from the back of the studio. Someone wearing a long, 19th-century gown.

It's Mary Anning. She's not having all this nonsense being said about her. She's taking over.

And so she does. And she has no intention of indulging us in words. Words lie. Words are used to twist and trick.

I’m in full agreement. Words are bullshit. I may earn my crust by crushing words into a semblance of sense-making, but I still won’t trust them as far as I can typo them.

For Mary though, it's numbers that she cares about. Numbers of bones in her first major find. The number of coins she was paid for them. And the number made in profit as it was sold on.

Pulling in the other two to play all the characters in her story, she takes us from a childhood spent picking up curios to sell to tourists on the beach at Lyme Regis, to her discovery of the ichthyosaur, to teaching herself French so that she might read the work of Cuvier, to being rejected by the establishment for the terrible crime of not being a man.

As someone who is, shall we say, feeling a wee bit raw at the moment about not getting proper recognition for my own work, I am boiling inside at the treatment our Mary got. Taken advantage of because she lacked connections, and money, and breeding, and a penis. Slogging away in the rain and the cold and the winds, so that others found glory from her work.

From her bag, she brings out tiny examples of her curios. "I think we can trust them," she says, as her ensemble try to hold her back. She hands them out to the audience, instructing us to pass them along to the end of the rows. They work themselves along, getting turned over and peered at in the dim light.

Smooth on one side. Rough on the other.

I rub my thumb along the marble-like sheen of the shiny side when its my turn. Are these real? Or are these the work of our Hannah Snaith, the fossil designer? I can't say. They're fun to hold all the same. I don't want to pass mine along, but I also don't want to disappoint Mary Anning. So I hand it along to the next person.

At the end, we're given more numbers.

Number of people in the audience tonight, sixty. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning tomorrow if everyone in the audience tells five people down the pub tonight, 300. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning by Wednesday if all those people tell five people... oh something ridiculous like 90,000.

Well, as someone who was educated in a proto-feminist girls' school in Dorset, there was no way I was getting away without learning about Mary Anning. I can't claim my blog will reach 90,000 people, but you at least now know about her. So, that's one down.

Numbers done, we're invited to stay for a Q&A with Antonia Weir, who brought the spirit of Mary into our midst, and some other people that I'm sure are very interesting, but I'm not sticking around to get even more sticky.

It's a long-arse way home from Greenwich. Even longer than a plesiosaur's neck, I'd venture to say.

I wonder how many vertebraes long the DLR is... I bet Mary Anning would know.

Mount Bussey

Back in Peckham again tonight. I honestly don’t know what I did in life to deserve this.

It’s not Peckham itself, you understand. I don’t have any ill-feelings towards the place. Or any good feelings for that matter. I haven’t been enough to have formed any sort of opinion. I am Peckham agonistic, one might say.

No, what I harbour my annoyance towards, is the transport. My gawd. Waiting on platform two at Canada Water for a train that never comes, sweltering away without even the distraction of wifi… I cannot. I cannot. And I will not, ever again. Not once this marathon is over anyway.

For now, I must suffer through.

At least my next venue is right next to the station. I barely have to trip across the road to get there. 133 Rye Lane. Better known as the CLF Art Cafe. Or the Bussey Building. I think that’s what most people call it.

Half the building is hidden behind hoarding, but there’s a poster stuck outside showing me that I’m in the right place.

I head through the door and find myself in some sort of industrial-looking corridor. With bare pipes running along the wall, and chip-board ramps on the floor.

I worry that I might have accidentally walked into some sort of sweatshop, but no – there’s bunting strung up overhead. And one this this marathon has told me: theatres fucking love bunting. This has to be the place.

“Hello!” says a very friendly voice.

I look up. It’s my co-worker. Blimey. Okay.

“You don’t live round here, do you?” she asks.

“God no,” I reply, a touch too venomously. I try to recover. “I’m here for a show,” I say, pointing down the corridor to what I hope is the location of the theatre. “Such a journey to get here…”

“Is it?” She pauses. “You didn’t come here via Farringdon did you?”

“No. Should I have done?”

“The secret is the Thameslink.”

I groan. I fucking hate the Thameslink. “I fucking hate the Thameslink.”

“It’s better when you learn the train times.”

Yes, I suppose it must be.

We part. Her to go home. Me to plunge further down this corridor.

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I emerge on the other side in a small courtyard. Surrounded on all four sides by high brick walls, painted with not unattractive graffiti. I’ll admit, Peckham is a little bit cool. You don’t get this kind of location-setting in Finchley.

The door directly opposite has a sheet of paper pinned to the frame, with details of the play I’m seeing this evening. So, it looks like I’m in the right place. I go in, and immediately find myself in a stairwell.

With nowhere to go but up, I start climbing.

One floor. Then another. Then another. Turning and turning as I climb higher and higher.

And then I stop.

There’s a chain blocking my path.

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“Box Office opens at 7.15pm,” it says.

It’s ten past now.

A young man in hipster glasses appears from a side door.

“You’re here for…?” he asks, his words trailing off.

“Portents,” I tell him.

“Portents.” He nods. “It’ll open in about five munutes, the bar’s through there if you want to get a drink.”

I don’t particularly want a drink, but I follow his suggestion all the same.

The bar looks like it has a day job as a performance space. There’s a massive stage down the other end. It’s dark. Candles set on top the three tables barely punctuate the gloom. It’s quiet in here. Very quiet. There’s no music playing, and the two staff members behind the bar are whispering too each other as if trying to avoid breaking the very specific atmosphere.

The floor is bare concrete. The ceiling a mass of wiring.

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But there are three industrial size fans and they are blasting out one hell of a breeze.

I stand against the wall, enjoying the fiercely blowing fans and try not to creep out the bar staff with my presence. I can’t help but think I’m the cause of all this quiet.

I check my phone. Five minutes has passed. It must be time to go in.

But when I head back towards the stairwell, the chain is still very much in place.

I don’t want to go back to the bar.

I think I might sit in the courtyard for a while, but there’s someone here. A woman.

“Is there a show on now?” she asks.

I hold up my hands. “Sorry, I don’t work here.”

The young man with the glasses does though, and he’s appeared just in time.

“Was there a show here earlier?” she asks him. “My son said he was here but I can’t find him…”

Leaving this anxious woman in the young man’s no doubt very capable hands, I go down the stairs. But there’s someone coming up the other way. And she doesn’t appear to have lost a child.

She stops. “Are you here for the theatre?” she asks me.

“Yeah,” I tell her, hanging back on the landing.

She sighs deeply. I feel she’s been holding that breath for a long time. “I’ve been everywhere!” she says. “All around.” She circles her arm to indicate the scope of her travels.

“It’s a confusing place,” I say.

“I went in the other building.”

I don’t know what other building she means, but I nod sympathetically all the same.

She passes me, just as hipster glasses pulls aside the chain. The box office, it seems, it now open.

My new friend doubles back. “We can go up!” she tells me.

I follow her, and the pair of us trudge our way up the stairs.

And more stairs.

And more stairs.

She points. “Even more stairs!” she laughs.

There are a lot of stairs.

We turn one final corner, and there it is. The CLF Theatre. I know because there’s a sign, inscribed in white against a very red wall. The same colour as my face right now.

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Positioned outside, there’s a small desk. And the person who must be our box officer for the evening is sat behind it.

My friend goes first, but when she has trouble looking up the confirmation email for her booking, she waves me forward.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say.

“No, I see you!” says the box officer, finding me at the end of a very short list. “Have you got the reference?” she asks.

Gosh. That’s a first.

I pull out my phone and bring up the email. I find the reference. That’s a lot of numbers and letters. “Um, it’s very long,” I say, turning around my phone so she can see the screen.

“That’s perfect,” she tells me. “I just wanted to confirm the booking.”

Okay. Bit intense. I mean, we’re not exactly at Hamilton right now. Usually box offices just ask for a first name. Or the postcode if they’re really swanky. But okay.

My new friend steps forward. She’s found her email. And she gets a bright yellow wristband for her troubles.

Huh. I didn’t get a wristband. I want a wristband!

“Feel free to head in when you’re ready,” says the box officer.

Neither of us move. I don’t know about you, but sitting in an empty venue, by myself, really creeps me out. It’s even worse than being in a bar by yourself. The bar staff can at least whisper to each other. In a theatre, a small theatre especially, it’s just you and the tech person. And neither of you are supposed to talk to the other.

Two more people arrive. One of them is carrying a guitar case.

“Can I have a wristband?” he asks, after purchasing his ticket.

“These are for people booking the double bill,” the box officer explains.

Fine. That explains it. I don’t want a wristband then.

The boy with the guitar is interested though. “How much is the double bill?”

The box officer grabs a flyer to check. “Fifteen pounds,” she tells him.

He thinks about this. “if I were to decide I want to stay after the show, could I just pay the extra five pounds?”

The box officer smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll remember you.”

Not surprising, as the boy with the guitar turns out to be the chattiest person in the world, and I soon find out that he knows someone in the show, is a student, likes the box officer’s earrings, and that the box officer is not actually a box officer. She runs the theatre in Edinburgh that this show is touring to.

Well.

“You can go in by the way,” says the box officer who isn’t actually a box officer.

None of us move.

“No one wants to be the first,” I say.

The boy picks up the guitar. “I’ll go,” he announces and leads his friend through the door.

I shrug. “Alright then, I’m going in,” I say. And the four of us head into the theatre.

It’s dark in here. Darker than the bar even. Mainly because there’s a light rigged over the stage to glare into the eyes of the audience. But as I adjust to the dimness, I begin to make things out. Rows of chairs facing a floor level staff.

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A wooden floor.

Right in the middle, there’s a pillar, with more dotted around, propping up the ceiling.

It’s like having a theatre set up in your neighbour’s attic.

We take our seats, all avoiding the front row. Not that it’ll make much difference. Not when there are only four of us.

My friend leans over the aisle to me. “What time does it start?” she asks. “I thought it was 7.30pm”

“Yeah, I think they’re waiting for people to turn up.”

“Like the performers, or…” she turns around to look at the non-existent audience. “or us?”

Good question. I'd meant the audience, but who knows. Perhaps the cast had done a runner.

The doors close, and the box officer (who isn’t a box officer) slips in, taking a seat at the back.

The young man with the hipster glasses reappears. He’s introducing the show. “Welcome, to all…” his eyes scan the empty seats. “Five of you.”

Oh dear.

But the play starts and the performers go on undaunted, apart from their alarming tendency to catch eyes. Not helped by the whole thing being performed from behind a set of lecturns. I swear I spend a whole five minutes locked in a staring contest with one if them.

And they’re all so young. That combined with the all black costumes. and the music stand style lecturns, and I feel like i’ve stumbled into the rehearsal for a school choir. Except they’re busy talking about secret broadcasts, lizard people, and aliens.

Not sure I have any idea what this play actually is, but it’s interesting enough, even if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Although their leaving out of the Facebook plot to storm Area 51 in their run down of conspiracy theories doesn’t make it all feel a bit… out of touch.

Whatever. I clap enthusiastically enough when they’re done. You’ve got to admire their gumption if nothing else.

I reach down and grab my bag.

“Are you staying for the next show?” my new friend asks from across the aisle.

“No, one play is enough for me in one night...” Turns out even I have my limits.

She nods and turns away. Somehow I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.

 

Peck 'em

Between you and me, I’m feeling rather pleased with myself right now.

I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be somewhere else entirely. I was supposed to be at a brand new theatre, on opening night. But turns out booking opening nights at brand new theatres are risky things to book for, and now I have the evening free.

Now, usually this would be a cause of panic. I’d be scrolling through TodayTix, my thumb a blur as I try to find a West End theatre that I both haven’t been to, and can afford to buy a last minute ticket to. With just over five months to go before the final countdown, I can’t afford to take Saturday nights off. No way. Ain’t no time left for that nonsense. I’m going to the theatre, dammit.

But I vaguely remembered getting annoyed at the theatre not do long ago. Annoyed because for the third time, they’d put up a marathon-worthy show on their website, with so little notice I’d already booked myself in for that evening.

I checked back.

Yup. There is was. On for one night only. A play. And there were still tickets available.

Hello, Theatre Peckham! Despite all your best efforts, not programming anything of any use, and then dumping things online with next to no advance notice, I’m going to get you checked off my list.

My feelings of smugness last exactly as long as it takes me to stick in their postcode into the TFL Journey Planner.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Peckham might as well be in the Lake District for all the transport links it has. Looks like I’ll be walking half-way across London to get to this one.

But being the brave, intrepid, explorer that I am, I set off. Battling against cancelled Thameslink trains and walking for miles and miles to fall down at their door.

Turns out, the Theatre Peckham’s laissez-faire attitude to getting shows on sale doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to pull in an audience. This place is packed. There’s a small courtyard outside of the main door, and it’s filled with happy-looking people having drinks and enjoying the sun. Inside, it’s even busier. The queue for the bar stretches out from one side of the foyer to the other, echoing the line of bunting strung up overhead.

I inch my way around the walls, trying to find somewhere where I’m not in everyone’s way. It’s tricky. There are people waiting at the box office. People waiting for the loos. People waiting beside the entrance to the theatre. People waiting for friends and drinks and the doors to open.

This place has clearly set itself out to be a community hub and it's doing it well. There’s a piano on one side, a dress up corner on the other, and even a casting opportunity notice board. No wonder they can fill a theatre with only a few days' notice.

I find a small space near a pillar and tuck myself in.

At least I don’t have to get involved with any of that. I have an e-ticket. It says right here in the confirmation email “use your smartphone to display the .pdf ticket on-screen so that the person on the door can examine and check its authenticity.” Not sure how they go about that, but I’m hoping there’s a beeper. I hate e-tickets, but I love a ticket beeper.

It’s warm in here. It’s a bit Hardwicke Hall (“more window than wall”) and the sun is blazing through the glass, heating us up like a bunch of rapidly ripening tomatoes.

Someone standing near me leans back against the pillar and fans herself.

I stare at her. That fan looks surprisingly like an admission pass.

I should have known better. Ticket confirmations are nonsense emails. You should never trust a word they say. There’s not going to be a ticket beeper. And no one is going to check the authenticity. They might have fancy pdfs to send out, but that doesn’t stop them from handing out laminated scraps of logoed up paper like all the rest of the old school venues.

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I join the queue for the box office.

“The surname is Smiles,” I tell the lady behind the counter when I finally get to the front of the queue.

“Sorry?”

“Smiles?” I say, wondering if I had been mistaken after all, and the admission token had been nothing more than a trick of the dazzeling light. But no, there they are. I can see them. Piled up neatly next to her mouse. I press on. “S. M. I. L. E. S. Smiles? That’s the surname?”

She looks it up. “Just one?” she asks.

“… yes.”

She hands me a token. It’s white, laminated, with the Theatre Peckham logo, and is in no way an e-ticket.

Thank goodness.

I return to my little corner near the pillar, and soon find myself part of the queue to get in without the bother of moving.

A young man in a Theatre Peckham branded top makes his way down to queue, talking to everyone in turn.

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“Sorry?” I ask when he gets to me. I shade me eyes against the sun still forcing its way through those massive windows.

“You don’t mind being filmed?” he repeats.

“Oh…” Do I mind being filmed?I mean… the answer is: yes. I do. But I’m not sure I mind enough to cause a fuss. “No,” I tell him.

He moves on, asking his question all the way down to the end of the queue.

I’m not sure how I feel about this direct approach. On the one hand it’s great that he’s making sure everyone going through the door knows that there’s going to be a camera in there, but on the other, it does rather put you on the spot more than a sign ever would.

I make a mental note to pick a seat at the back.

I check my phone.

It’s 7.35pm. The doors still aren’t open.

Oh well. At least it’s a short play.

Or is it? I can’t remember. But it surely must be. In this run up to Edinburgh, everything seems to be coming in at under an hour.

I go to the Theatre Peckham website and look for the show we’re queueing for, Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and scroll down.

2 hours plus interval.

2 hours plus interval. What does that mean? How long is an interval? It doesn’t say. It could be five minutes or thirty or anything in between.

It’s 7.38pm and we still haven’t gone in.

Two hours

Plus an interval of unknown length.

And then the long trek back to Finchley.

I’m not getting home before midnight, am I?

The usher is back. He slips through the queue to reach a lady a few places ahead of me. “Don’t forget to sit at the top, yeah?” he says. “The back of the back of the tip of the top.”

She frowns at him. “Why?”

“Because you don’t want to be filmed, yeah?”

Her face clears and she nods. Back of the back of the tip of the top. She’s got it.

7.43pm. The doors have opened. We’re going in.

Gosh. It’s quite nice in here. A balcony circling three sides. A floor level stage.

There’s multi-coloured upholstery across the seating, which I notice are those flip-down benches which require you to coordinate the sitting down process with your neighbour.

I can see what the usher meant by the back of the back and the tip of the top.

There are a few rows right at the back that are cordoned off by a railing. I suppose they’re supposed to be considered part of the balcony, but really they look like an extension of the stalls with a wall to keep back the riffraff.

I can see the camera. It’s just there, in front of the first row.

Hopefully it won’t see me back here.

Its presence doesn’t seem to have put many people off though. The front row fills up fast. As do the second and third row.

As the seats gradually fill up, spaces gradually disappearing as newcomers are forced to go further back, I can see why. The rake… isn’t great. It’s disappointingly bad. Especially for such a new theatre. I always wonder about this. Do theatres not test the rake before opening to the public? Do they not consider that someone sitting in their seats might actually like to see what is happening on stage? It always makes me think they are just gambling on them never selling enough tickets for it to matter. And in the event of them having a hit show, for the audience to be so desperate to see it, they won’t care if their view is a little obstructed by the person in front.

It’s nearly ten to eight now. And we still haven’t started.

I suppose that says it all. Bollocks to the audience. There’ll be a show. At some point. And they’ll get to see it. Most of it, anyway. Whatever.

Oh well.

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We’re starting now. At last.

Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.

All time travel and the voice of god and returning to the scene of the crime and prophets and machetes and rhyme.

A bit poetic. A bit dance theatre. A bit strange.

A bit… dull.

I mean, it’s fine. Well written. Well performed. All that.

But it isn’t doing the business for me.

Too many characters. Too much stuff going on. Too long. Too drawn out.

I’m sure the twin timelines will come together at some point, but right now… eh.

But you know, this play wasn’t created for the likes of me. And the rest of the audience seem to be loving it. Laughing at what I presume are the right bits.

The air conditioning is good though. A bit too good. It’s freezing. But I’m not complaining. Better too cold than too warm. I’m just waiting to wriggle back into my jacket as soon as the interval hits.

Just as I’m rubbing my arms to get some warmth back into them, the stage light extinguishes, plunging into darkness. The man sitting next to me lifts his hands, ready to clap. But he holds back. Is it the interval?

The darkness extends a fraction too long.

The house lights should be coming up by now.

But they don’t.

Someone at the front risks a clap, and we all follow their lead.

The house lights go up. As one, the audience gets to their feet and disappears to the bar. I reach under my seat and grab my jacket, snuggling down into its woollen warmth.

As everyone begins to filter back, they come laden with drinks and snacks. One person appears to have popped out to the shops, and his hands are full of crisps. Around five packets if I’ve counted correctly. Not quite the Dairylea Dunker of snack masters that I saw at the Stockwell Playhouse, but he’s certainly up there.

He opens up the first pack, and starts munching, tipping out the last of the crumbs just as the house lights descend for the second half.

I pull my jacket tight around me and shiver through the rest of the play, trying to enjoy the frigid chill of the auditorium, and being annoyed with myself for not appreciating the cold as much as I should.

At the end, there's a standing ovation. A little one. And not undeserved. Those actors put in the work. Jumping between characters with little more than the unzipping of a jacket and putting on of a hat.

Oh well. Time to start the long walk to Oval. There's no way I'm risking the Thameslink again.

In the foyer, I turn around to have another look. Taking in the piano, the bunting, the reading nook with it’s chair and accompanying bookshelf.

I doubt I'll be back. Not until Peckham gets a tube station anyway.

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Offenbach Off

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

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

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

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

“Amazing, thank you.”

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

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

Still… two frickin’ pages.

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

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

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

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

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

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

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

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

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

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

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

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

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

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

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

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

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

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

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

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

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

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

Take two then.

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

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

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

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

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

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

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Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a light up board on the stage.

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

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

I have to get out of here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

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

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

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

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

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

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

Screw that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Read More

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

Read More

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.

IMAG3330.jpg

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.