A leopard always contours

Well, this is strange. It's not often that I feel underdressed at the theatre. Speaking as someone who once wore a dinosaur print sweatshirt to a black tie gala at the Royal Opera House, I'm usually quite content, bar the odd attempt at theme dressing, to rock up in whatever I'm wearing that day.

But here I am, with 116 theatre trips under my patent-leather belt this year alone, and I am feeling distinctly awkward about my appearance.

I'm standing in the long box office queue underneath the weighty canopy of the Savoy hotel, and it's there. That skittish, itchy feeling that comes when you realise just how out of place you are.

And I am severely underdressed. I see that now. Everywhere around me, ladies are in full glam: false lashes, their cheekbones contoured into diamond-cut angles, and displaying a safari park's worth of leopard print. My go-to look of the moment: grungy t-shirt and vintage men's 49er jacket, just isn't cutting it amongst this flock of exotic-looking creatures.

We shuffle our way forwards, as massive cars slide their way off the Strand, slipping their way under the canopy to deposit their passengers at the front door of the hotel. Men in top hats and tails run forward to open doors for them.

A lady in ATG livery shouts at us. The queue is just for ticket pick up. If we have a ticket, we're to go straight in. There's a catch in her throat, as if she's minutes away from losing her voice.

Eventually, I make it inside the great golden doors of the theatre. The box office has little ornate hatches set into the wall, like an old fashioned movie theatre. Not surprising at this place is a palace of art deco. Sham art-deco, as the place was (re)built in the nineties, but still. There's some serious thirties-glam going on all the same. The foyer is painted silver. The box office counters are gold. And the queuing is lifted straight from the great depression.

These tiny box office windows always make me think of the Bocca della Verità in Italy. The Mouth of Truth. A huge stone mask with a gaping hole for a mouth. As Gregory Peck explains to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, "the legend is, if you are given to lying, and put your hand in there, it will be bitten off."

Thankfully, I don't have to give a false name today, and my hand returns unscathed and holding a ticket.

I turn around to head inside, but their's a rope blocking my path. I have to go back outside in order to get inside the theatre.

If anything, the queue as got even larger. All the doors are blocked by people pressing forward. Everyone managing to block everyone else. A perfect storm of leopard print.

One of the Savoy top hats comes over to talk to the ATG lady.

"You need to move them," he says. "The cars can't get through."

ATG lady raises her voice, ordering us to move off the road. But there's nowhere for us to go to. The queue is three doors wide and ten people deep, and growing all the time.

"Let's just go in here," says a group of four women in leopard print as they come out the box office. They aim for the tiny sliver of space in front of me and elbow their way in.

"The car can't move," persists the top hot.

ATG lady doesn't look at him. She knows about the damn car. But she also knows that fifty people are considerably harder to move than a single car.

Gradually, I'm jostled towards the door, and I stumble through, coming to a halt just in front of the bag-checker.

He looks inside, and then takes hold of the bottom, giving it a good feel.

A really good feel. He's not letting go. I can see his hands curling around something through the fabric.

Something long and cylindrical.

"It's my umbrella," I explain.

He let's go and I'm waved in towards the next person in this entrance procedure.

"Three floors down," says the ticket checker, glancing at my ticket.

I'm in the stalls tonight. A fancy seat for a fancy theatre.

The stairs are painted yellow. With big green circles clustered in corners as if the walls have developed some sort of fungal growth.

Okay. Not that fancy then.

It takes me the full three-floor descent to realise the green circles are meant to be grapes.

It's a relief to step into the auditorium and be back into the world of towering silver walls and upholstered art deco. The seat numbers are stitched into diamonds shapes on the seats and even the fire exit sign has its own extravengent frame to sit within. But this is all background detail to what is going on up on the stage.

A fuck-off massive 9 to 5 sign, complete with LED screen, light up lettering, and enough glitter to take a Liberace tribute act on world tour.

Two young women come and sit next to me. They're not wearing leopard print, but they make up for it by each having two drinks. A glass of wine. And a cocktail. They have to take it in turns to get into their chairs as the drinks mean they don't have any hands free to go about the business of taking off their jackets and flipping down the seats.

"Are we allowed to take photos?" one asks.

"No!" cries the other, scandalised.

"Oh, I just wanted a selfie with the 9 to 5..."

"Oh, that's fine. I thought you meant during the show."

"Nah. Just a selfie with the 9 to 5."

"Not during the show?"

"No, now."

"They don't let you take photos during the show."

"But it's fine now?"

"Yeah, it's fine now."

That settled, they take selfies together. They're having a great time.

I should have brought a cocktail. And a friend. This is totally the wrong show to be going to solo. And sober.

The face of the alarm clock in the 9 to 5 transforms into Dolly Parton's face, and we are treated to an intro from the country queen.

The audience cheers. And drinks.

As the show progresses, the drinkers become drunker, and the non-drinkers grow ever restless.

A woman in the row in front turns around to glare at my neighbours. They've been chattering a good deal.

They don't notice the glare. And continue their conversation.

By the second act, most of the audience is properly drunk.

The glaring lady has resorted to adding a new manoeuvre to her repertoire of admonishments - a finger raised to pursed lips.

The young women giggle in reply.

"Shh!" one hushes sarcastically in reply.

I now know why the front of house areas are painted with grapes.

"Someone's in our seats," says one of the leopard-print ladies, holding a fish-bowl full of some pink-coloured concoction. She pouts. Actually pouts. Her lower lip jutting out to show her distress as she waves towards the filled-seats.

"Mum, you're in the wrong row..."

The glarers have multiplied, and are on full tutting duty for the second act.

But even an army of glarers isn't enough to interrupt that good time being had by a leopard-lady in the front row.

She sways in her seat, almost in time with the music, claps along to the beat in her heart, and cheers every time one of the trio of 9-to-5ers on stage gets one over the MAN.

But when she turns around in her seat to talk excitedly to the person behind her, it gets too much for the glarers.

Across the stalls I spot an usher rushing down the opposite aisle. She pauses by the doorway and stands on tip-toe to get a good look at our leopard-lady.

Someone must have tattled.

A few minutes later, a different usher comes rushing down the nearest aisle, wearing the expression of someone who has just drawn the short straw.

She crouches down next to leopard-lady and whispers something.

Leopard-lady nods. She gets it. She'll be quiet.

The usher smiles gratefully and retreats.

Job done.

Well, almost.

Leopard-lady gets up from her seat, swinging her handbag over her shoulder, she heads for the exit.

The whispering usher chases after her.

There's nothing through that door but the way out.

A minute later and leopard-lady is back, in her seat, and clapping away.

No one tries to stop her fun this time.

As the cast finish their curtain calls, she waves each of the trio off stage. And they wave back.

Aww.

Someone really needs to set her up with the mayor of Hornchurch. Something tells me they'd get on just fabulously.

In the meantime, perhaps she can teach me how to contour...

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The woman in black is dancing with me, cheek to cheek

“Look!” I say, pushing my chair back from my desk so that my colleague Martha can see my outfit. “I’m the woman in black!”

She’s impressed.

At least, I think she’s impressed.

She doesn’t look impressed.

Perhaps I should have gone harder with my theme dressing. Worn a bonnet. Contracted some terrible wasting disease.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t look any different to any other day. I took the black many years ago. I don’t need to dress up. I’m already the woman in black.

By the end of the day, I’m feeling less enthused about my sartorial choices. The long black wafty skirts of my dress have already become the victim to a splash of sriracha from my lunch and a white stain further down towards the hem that I can’t identify the source of.

Oh well. I suppose I can just blame it on the wasting disease.

And anyway, I have other things to think about. Like what to have for dinner.

We decided on the Delaunay Counter, as it’s just around the corner from the Fortune Theatre and I wanted schnitzel. But which one? Pork or chicken? With a silent apology to my ancestors, I go for pork. With a salted caramel hot chocolate on the side. A concoction that turns out to be a glass mug filled with a chocolate sauce that requires a spoon in order to consume it, topped with whipped cream so thick it just got a job writing for the Daily Mail. Thus I have put together what may well be a contender for the least kosher meal ever devised.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Martha admits, not for the first time, as we walk over to the theatre.

Martha is one of those innocent souls that doesn’t mind admitting when she’s a bit scared.

“It’ll be fine,” I say with the faux-confidence of someone who really doesn’t want to see a scary play by herself.

You see, I’ve seen The Woman in Black before. Took my whole family for my brother’s birthday years’ and years’ ago. Ghost Stories was in the West End at the time and he fancied a bit of theatrical horror in his life. I don’t remember why we chose The Woman in Black over Ghost Stories. Perhaps the fact that one of them feels like it’s been running forever, while the other was only going for a few months had something to do with it. I did end up going to see Ghost Stories a few weeks’ later. By myself. Still get the shudders every time I sense a whiff of bleach in the air.

But The Woman in Black should be fine. Martha would be okay. Unless…

“I wonder if we’ll be sitting on the aisle,” I ponder aloud.

“I hope not,” says Martha. She hasn’t seen the play before. But she’s an experienced theatre-goer and knows full well that bad things can happen to people sitting on the aisle. “Gosh, it’s tiny!”

It is tiny. The foyer of the Fortune is so small the box office is practically out the street.

After picking up my tickets, we have to back out slowly the way we had come in order to squeeze ourselves back in through the door that will take us down to the stalls.

Or take Martha down to the stalls, at least.

So storms on ahead while I try to juggle bag, tickets, and purse in pursuit of programme ownership.

“Sorry,” I say to the world in general as I side-step the programme seller in order to fit myself into the tiny bit of foyer space going spare in order to negotiate this important transaction.

Tickets stuffed in pocket, purse returned to bag, and programme stowed safely under my arm, I make my way down the stairs and try and find Martha.

There’s a sign at the bottom. Stalls on the right, bar on the left.

Well, she can’t have turned right. I still have the tickets. She must have gone left.

I go into the bar. No sign of her.

Oh god.

The ghost has got her. The Woman in Black.

Not me. The other one.

Shit.

I get out my phone and send her a message. “I’m in the bar.”

A woman in ATG livery rushes past. “The show’s about the start if you care to go through,” she says cheerfully.

I want to tell her that her theatre ghost has kidnapped my friend, but she’s already gone, telling the next person that they are free to bring their drinks in with them.

I check my phone. No reply. Martha never doesn’t reply.

She’s definitely dead.

Shit. I mean… who’s going to proofread my programmes now…

Oh, and other reasons for being sad.

I’m frantic now. The usher tasked with ushering us all into the theatre is looking at me. She wants me to go in.

I turn around, ready to search the bar for any tell-tale trails of ectoplasm on the carpet.

Martha beams at me, phone in hand.

“The loos are so strange!” she says, as if I haven’t been having a panic attack imagining her being trapped underground by a spectre with an impeccable taste in dresses. “There’s so little room they’re like, fitted in a triangle.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I say weakly. “Shall we go in?!”

We go in.

No one checks our tickets, and there’s no one to direct us to our seats.

I glance at the nearest seat. It’s marked with a 1.

“We must be around the other side,” I say, leading the way across the back of the stalls to the other aisle.

I pull the tickets out of my pocket and check them again.

“Here we are, row G,” I say. “And we’re on the aisle! Do you want to-“

“No,” says Martha, before I can even finish the question.

Right then.

I step back and let her into the safety of the second seat.

Looks like I’m going to have to be the brave one tonight.

There’s a group of young boys sitting behind us. Very young. Very loud too. Filled with bravado and pre-teen hormones.

This is going to be fun.

Heavy curtains are drawn over the doors and the lights dim. This is it. It’s happening. There’s no escape now.

The play starts gently. A man. On stage. Reading what sounds like a diary entry. He’s really not very good. I sympathise. I’m not good at public speaking either.

There’s another bloke to. An actor. He’s trying to give the reader advice. Less description. More emotion.

I frown at him. Fucking rude. The reader is doing his best! And some of us are just naturally wordy…

Now he’s explaining that recorded sound can replace the reader’s florid paragraphs. Which is all very well for a reading, but what am I supposed to do?

Oh dear. I’m beginning to empathise too much with this reader-chappy. Not good. Not good at all. I mean, usually it would be. I’d almost go so far as to consider it excellent. A positive boon, even. But feeling as if you are sliding your feet into the shoes of a character in a horror story is never going to end well.

He’s getting the hang of it now, this reading-aloud stuff. Even trying his hand at a bit of acting, dropping accents and charactisation all over the place as the pair of them tell this tale from his youth, back when he was sent to the funeral of an old lady, to pay his respects on behalf of the firm he works for.

The lights dim further.

There’s a blast of that recorded sound, loud enough the shake the floorboards. Lights flash across the backdrop.

A train, blaring through a station.

I jump. Martha does to. She twists around like a panicked cat and grabs onto my arm.

Boyish screams from the row behind is quickly replaced by embarrassed laughter delivered at a level at least three octaves lower.

Martha detaches herself and whispers an apology as I pat her hand.

I shrug my reply, hoping to convey that I’m totally cool with it all and that I’m a big brave girl, who ain’t afraid of no ghost, and that if my arm can in any way offer comfort over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, then it is at her disposal.

I think she got it.

Someone’s walking down the aisle.

I turn my head slowly, holding on tight to my seat.

It’s a woman. Dressed head to toe in black.

I brace myself, determined not to show fear. I have to be brave. For Martha.

The woman passes, wafting cool air over my cheek.

A second later, she’s gone.

I breathe again. I laugh, feeling silly.

Plus, as an aspiring theatre ghost, I have a reputation to protect. I can’t have the other ghosts laughing at me.

The house lights switch on.

Martha and I look at each other in confusion.

“There’s an interval?” she asks.

I’m surprised too. The whole performance is only two hours.

The boys sitting behind and around us start making their presence known, turning Martha and I into a pair of whack-a-moles as we stand up and sit down and stand up again to let them past.

They’re laughing and pointing at the stage, turning into a bunch of mini-Sid James’ as they make Ooo-err style noises.

I look over to see what has been the cause of this Carry On.

The safety curtain is down. And painted all over it, is an illustration of a woman. Ten feet tall and as blue as a Na'vi. She’s also completely nude, apart from a length of blue cloth wrapped around her hips and a red mask across her face.

I snort.

“I sometimes forget that boys are,” I say to Martha, nodding towards the naked lady.

“Was that what it was?” She laughs.

The mood lightens. The theatre is bright and warm. We are far away from tales of heavily-draped women who hang around in graveyards. There’s nothing to be scared of here.

Our joviality doesn’t last long.

Half way through the second half Martha clamps down on my wrist. Hard.

“God, I’m so sorry,” she whispers. I laugh to show I don’t mind.

But as the yelps from the boys behind us die down and our attention returns to the stage, I give my wrist a quick shake. Martha is hella strong. That girl lifts.

I find myself laughing harder and harder as the play goes on. Snorting as loud sounds and dark figures attempt to do their worst to be.

It’s all for show, and I don’t know who I’m trying to convince. Me. Or Martha.

Oh god. Oh no. There she is. The woman in black. Her face. Oh my god, that face!

Be strong, Max. Be strong. Be strong be strong bestrongbestrongbestrong.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.

The tale ends.

We’re thrown back into the theatre. The actor and the reader drop their characters. The lights are bright. The laughter is back, if a little strained.

But there’s one trick left to play.

“I didn’t see any woman,” says the reader-chappy, after the actor congratulates him for finding such a creature.

The programme bares him out.

“Cast: Arthur Kipps - Stuart Fox [that’s the reader-chappy] / The Actor - Matthew Spencer.”

That’s it.

There’s no mention of a woman in black.

“That’s a great role,” I say to Martha as we gather our things. “The woman in black. Just walking around looking terrifying.”

I wait, needing to hear Martha confirm that she too saw the woman in black.

“Yeah,” she says, but she’s half distracted by her jacket.

Oh dear.

At home I pull out the programme and go through every biography line-by-line, searching for my woman in black.

“Nina Deiana,” it reads. “Vision Productions.”

I smile. She was definitely producing visions for me.

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Chicken Soup for the Sausage Roll

“You can wait here if you like. The house should be opening any minute now.”

I’m the first one there. Which is a good thing, as the foyer space of the Jermyn Street Theatre is only big enough for one. Can it even be classed as a foyer? It’s certainly not intended for lingering. Perhaps the more appropriate word is a landing. And I do feel like I’ve landed there.

“Thanks, it’s awful outside. Hailing.”

The sudden downpour of stinging hail stones is the reason for my early arrival. When it came to deciding between digging an umbrella out of my bag, and just legging the remaining distance to the theatre, I plumped for legging it.

That may have been a mistake.

My legs are now legged out and feeling a touch wobbly. This body was not made to run.

Balancing here, on that landing, I manage to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. From the outside, the Jermyn Street theatre is a slip of a thing - a small slither slide in between a pizzeria and a clothes shop.

But step through the door and you are taken down below the streets of Piccadilly via a sparkling silver stairway.

The honking horns and hard hailstones that fill the thick air above are left behind, and I’m left recovering and slightly out of breath on the landing.

I’d been to the Jermyn Street Theatre (from here on in, the JST) before. But so long ago that I still manage to be shocked by just how titchy tiny wee it is. The box office is a proper little hole in the wall, but when the house is opened I find that the bar is to.

“Drink, ice cream, programme?” asks a lady from behind her small window. “There’s no interval, so now is your opportunity.”

I go for a programme, which turns out to be a proper playtext. I fucking love a playtext.

With the theatre to myself, I can get some proper pictures taken. But with only four rows of seats, this doesn’t take long. And with allocated seating, the rest of the audience is in no rush to turn up.

With a theatre this small, I’d usually expect there to be strings of fairy lights on the walls. Perhaps some cutsie signage pointing to the loos. But there’s none of that. Beyond the silver stairway, the decor is fairly spartan. The JST doesn’t go in for all the hipster aesthetic stuff.

So, I settle in and play my playtext game - finding a line near the end and seeing if I remember it by the time we get there in the show. Not much of a game, but it’s always nice to have something to look forward to during a rubbish performance.

Not that I was worried about that.

I was here on a recommendation. A Twitter recommendation. Which are often terrible, but this one was from someone who knew I’d loved Hundred Words for Snow and wanted to make sure that I knew the writer was currently directing this play. I didn’t. And I was more than grateful for the information.

Even better, the director was in that night.

How do you say hello to someone who broke your heart? On the list of awkward conversation starters it has to be right up there with your STD test results and telling them you ran over your dog.

After a short internal debate, I decided the best course was the simplest: Keep it real. “Hello. I’m Max. You smashed my heart into smithereens. Thank you.”

There. That wasn’t too bad. I didn’t even cry.

And people are starting to arrive now.

“I’m just going to pop to the toilet,” says a man as he walks in.

“Not that one though,” laughs a woman in reply, nodding towards the stage, where there’s a projected sign proclaiming TOILETS over one of the doors.

“Umm…”

“Is it... No!”

Yes! That door marked Toilets leads to the actual toilets and you need to cross the actual stage to get to them.

“The performance will begin in three minutes,” comes a disembodied voice over the tannoy. “The toilets are now closed.”

Sure enough the projected sign dims. The bar’s cubby is shuttered.

 

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A Hundred Words for No

Watching theatre when you’re feeling a bit fragile is a risky business. Especially when the show you’re going to see is about teenage girls and dead dads.

But the siren call of “good writing,” was too much for me. And besides, I was feeling pretty good. The season brochure at work had come back from the printers lucky pretty damn slick if I do say so myself, the blog’s going well (hello!), and the marathon even better. I hit the one-third mark on Wednesday, which considering we aren’t even done with March yet is fucking impressive, isn’t it? I mean, yes, I do have a waiting list of theatres that I need to add to my Official Theatre List that lives on this website, so this victory is pretty short lived. But I was prepared to enjoy it while it lasted.

That was, until I was walking through the West End on my way to the Trafalgar Studios and it happened. You know. That thing when you find that you are no longer walking alone. You have someone walking with you. Keeping step. In a crowd of faceless strangers, one of them has all their attention trained on you.

“Oh god,” he says. “Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. That face. I’ve seen that face before.”

And look, I know it’s part of the female experience and all that. And it was fine in the end. He went away after I gave him a few short words (“Oh gawwwwdddd”) followed by a dismissive roll of the eyes. But still, there’s nothing like getting approached by a creeper on the street for making your skin feel like its suddenly two sizes too small.

I’d planned on popping by the Chinatown Bakery put I didn’t want to hang around. I strode down St Martin’s as fast as I could, clenching and unclenching my hand as I went, as if trying to shake off the memory of him.

Honestly, I’d rather hoped I would have aged out of that demographic by now. This type of thing didn’t happen to me when I was fat…

I arrived at the Trafalgar Studios feeling a little frazzled.

The foyer was rammed as the audiences of two shows fought for dominance.

I could barely make in it through the door. Usually I’d hang back. Let the first show of the evening, the one in Studio One, clear out. But I didn’t want to be outside anymore.

Queues to get out of the foyer crossed with the one at the bar on the other side. Both of them managing to block the box office on the far wall.

Breathing in, I aimed myself at a small gap and squeezed my way through, shooting out the other end like a log at the bottom of a flue ride in a water park.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles.”

The woman on box office nods and reaches for the larger of two boxes.

“It’s for 100 Words,” I add, feeling pretty pleased that I not only managed to remember the name of the show that I had booked that morning, but also could drop a nifty shortened version of it.

She grinned. “Thank you,” she says, grabbing the other box.

Working a single box office with two shows on an evening can’t be fun.

Although I have it on good authority that the Trafalgar Studios is a good place to work front of house. Well, good in comparison to other ATG venues. (“The pay is shit but they treat you nice,” was the exact wording).

Ticket picked up, it was my turn to join the queue to get out of this tiny foyer.

“Just down the stairs,” says the ticket checker when I make it to the doors. “The show is 75 minutes with no interval, so if you need to use the toilets I would suggest going beforehand as we might now be able to let you back in.”

I may still be feeling a little brittle, but even I can cope with sitting quietly in a seat for just over an hour.

I buy a programme while I’m there, and she deftly juggles to two separate show programmes and her money pouch as I exchange a five pound note for a programme and two pounds fifty in change.

Down the stairs, with their ceiling that looks like it’s been hewn from a rock in a fantasy film, and down in the basement, deep under Whitehall. This must have been what Churchill felt like heading down into his war bunkers. Safe, with all the chaos from above left far behind.

The Studio Bar does have a certain war-bunker feel to it, with it’s low ceilings and even lower lighting. The green light that emanates from the bar itself could serve as a makeshift banker’s desk lamp. You know the ones. With the green glass shades and slim brass stand that you always see in films set in the forties.

Even down here though, there isn’t much in the way of space. People lean against the railings next to the loos, and by the steps. But despite the overcrowding, there’s a calm, with just the gentle buzz of chatter.

“One minute left, ladies,” calls one of the female ushers into the women’s loos. “One minute for Admissions.”

I must tell you that Admissions is the play in Studio 1 before you think she was referring to the more bodily kind.

She comes back out and finds a male usher. “Can you quickly run into the men’s?” she asks.

A few seconds later a line of men emerge from their own aborted set of admissions. The women have set to make an appearance.

“Ladies! We are past the call for Admissions,” I hear from inside the women’s loos a few minutes later. Eventually, the audience for Studio One is coddled and wrangled and chivvied into their seats and the bar settles back down, the buzz of chatter now noticeably gentler and the seats now free for the taking.

But there is no time to enjoy that as that now Admissions is up and running, it’s time to get A Hundred Words for Snow warmed up. The house for Studio Two opens and we all dutifully file through the door and down the corridor to the smaller of the two theatres. Very much smaller. Studio Two is an actual studio, with only a hundred seats arranged in three sides around a small stage.

Suddenly, I feolt unsure.

I’d been brave that morning. I’d been feeling good. I told you about the season brochure looking well swish, didn’t I?

I’d been feeling so damn good, and so damn brave, I’d booked for the front row.

The front row, in this tiny, intimate theatre. For a one-woman show.

I didn’t feel all that brave anymore.

As the auditorium lights dimmed, Gemma Barlett came bounding out, all youthful energy and smiles.

She wasn’t the teenage girl I had been, but perhaps she was the teenage girl I had wanted to be. Or at least, had wanted to be friends with. A bit geeky. A bit silly. Charming and brash, but also awkward and self-effacing. And with great hair.

And she was off on an adventure. To the North Pole. With her dead dad tucked away safely in her backpack, following in the footsteps of all those male explorers and carving her own path as she went, all the while paying homage to the father she had loved…

The first tear was easy enough to wipe away. A smooth blink and it was gone.

But when one tear falls, there are bound to be more to follow.

And I was sitting in the front row.

As Gemma Barlett rubbed the dampness from under her eyes, I did the same. A second later she would turn round, all brave smile again, beaming at each of us in turn and all I could think about is… I hope she doesn’t see the tracks of eyeliner smeared across my cheeks.

Dead dads and teenage girls. Gets me every time.

[She bounces around, pressing her back against the seat and the jerking forward. I can feel the bench vibrating under my as her body shakes. She’s willing the show to end. I can feel the desperation pumping out of her. She’s looking around, her head swinging from one side to the other like a bull in the ring. She’s trying to find a way out. But the only exit is on the other side of the stage. There’s no way to get to it without interrupting the performance.

As soon as the lights dim she bolts from her seat, leaving bag and coat behind.]

 

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Divorced, Beheaded, Fried

“Meet you by Agatha Christie?”

I’ve always wanted to be the person who says things like that. Well, ever since I read I Capture the Castle and fell in love with Topaz Mortain when she describes the British Museum as a place where "people do nothing but use it for assignations - I met him there myself once.”

My attempt at my own literary assignation is soon thwarted by Nicki’s look of confusion. “Where is that again?”

“It’s near the noodle shop. If you walk down the road towards Five Guys.”

 “Ah!” She nods. “Next to the crossing. I know where that is.”

Somehow, this was all starting to lose the sense of romance I was going for.

We were going to see Six that night. Something we were both very excited about. So excited, even a battle with the TodayTix app for day seats that morning hadn’t managed to dampen our spirits. In our pursuit of cheap, or at least cheaper tickets, we’d both been poised on our respective phones, to hit that button at 10am on the dot.

But it seems we weren’t the only people who wanted to see this hit show on a random Tuesday evening and were we made to wait while other, luckier, app users made tea, tried to find a date, or otherwise occupied their time, with unbought tickets sitting in their basket.

Eventually, a few single tickets crept back up for sale. I grabbed one. I tried to buy another but the app wasn’t having it. No multiple purchases for a single performance. Even if you only wanted the two tickets.

I ran over to Nicki’s desk. She was on a work call. There was no time for that. I grabbed her mobile and directed her through the medium of waving it in front of her face that she needed to unlock it. She did. App opened, I clicked the checkout button. Success! Single ticket in the basket and only a few seats down from the one I had bought.

After that, it was only a matter of finding somewhere to meet that evening.

Enter Agatha Christie.

Or at least her memorial on the intersection between Cranbourn and Great Newport streets.

Shaped like a massive book, it’s perfect for leaning against and getting in the way of tourists’ photos.

“Shall we get our tickets first?” I asked when Nicki appears at my elbow.

We dart across the road to the Arts Theatre and push our way through the packed bar.

“Is this the queue?” we ask people in general.

A man shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says before turning his back. Guess that’s a no then.

Nicki gets out her phone, but the app isn’t necessary. We are on surname terms here.

Nicki gets her ticket, then the bloke on box office hands one to me.

I frown at it. Right seat number. It has my name on it and everything.

“How…?” I start. “Did you give him my name?” I ask Nicki.

“Of course!” she says, surprised that I hadn’t noticed.

Oh dear.

I stuffed the problematic ticket into my bag.

“Food?”

We went to Five Guys. Might as well.

“Shall we share a milkshake?” asks Nicki as we stand in the queue.

“No!” I exclaim, horrified. I’m a grown woman. I can buy my own damn milkshakes.

“Max, I’m going to force intimacy on you if it’s the last thing I do. We’re sharing a milkshake.”

I opened my mouth, ready to let forth a very articulate refusal that would leave poor Nicki quaking in her shoes, but after one look at her face I shut it again.

We shared a milkshake.

“Shit, it’s five to,” I say, catching a glimpse of my phone.

We scramble for our coats. Nicki puts her leftover fries in her bag. I grab the milkshake.

“Shit, they’ve all gone in,” I say as we reach the Arts. The foyer is completely empty.

A man opening the door quickly steps to one side to let us through, terror in his eyes.

“Thank you!” I shout over my shoulder, as we run across the foyer towards the auditorium entrance. “Can we take this in?” I ask, holding up the milkshake.

“Thank you,” I say at the same time as he says: “Err…”

No time to stop to take photos or even buy a programme. We aimed straight for our seats.

Our separated seats.

Oh. I had forgotten about that.

The man sitting next to me stood up to let Nicki pass.

“Sorry,” I say. “Do you think it would be possible to move down a couple of seats…” I let me request trail off.

“No.”

“Oh.”

I mean, fair does. He was under no obligation to move because some pair of woman, who arrive seconds before curtain up, can’t get their act together enough to buy two seats next to one another.

He grinned. “Only kidding,” he said, moving down a seat.

Well, there we are then. True love reigns supreme. Or at least joint-milkshake ownership.

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Reaching the fourth level

There’s a moment in Home, I’m Darling when Katherine Parkinson’s floofy skirts take up the entirety of a sofa. In order for anyone to sit next to her, they have to coax her petticoats out of the way.

I don’t think I have ever felt so seen in all my years of theatre-going.

I too was having trouble with my skirt. A massive tartan number that could have comfortably cloaked the entirety of William Wallace’s army. I couldn’t seem to cross my legs without getting the toe of my boot caught in the hem, which was making the intricate act of uncrossing and standing up all the more tricky.

As was keeping tabs on all that fabric, which if neglected for a single would take off and work its way into the hinges of the flip-down theatre seat from where it had to be coaxed back out with all the patient tenderness of a fireman freeing a fat rat from a manhole cover.

And when it wasn’t on a death wish, it was making intimate acquaintance with my neighbour’s knees.

You might well be thinking that I probably didn’t need to wear a skirt that I already know to be problematic to the theatre. One might even go so far as to say that I shouldn’t wear it at all. But the lure of theme dressing was too great, and after seeing those gorgeous posters of Katherine Parkinson in her pinny, dotted all over London, there was no way I was missing out on the opportunity to play dress up.

Now, I do love me some fifties, but all that pastel perfection isn’t very… well, Goth, is it? So while big skirts are in, the palette was more Alexander McQueen than Her Maj, the Queen. And my biggest, stompiest boots were subbed in for the required heels.

Boots that insisted on getting stuck in my damn skirt every time I crossed my legs.

I really need to get that thing hemmed.

It’s that or pray to the theatre gods for my legs to have a late onset growth spurt.

Anyway, my boots freed from the tyranny of my skirt, I picked my way over to the front of the Royal Circle in order to get some of my patented dodgy dome photos. I do like taking pictures of the ceilings of these old West End houses. They are always so fantastically over the top.

"Just so you know, we don't allow pictures of the stage," said a voice from behind me. I wobbled dangerously on the step as I attempted to turn around. It was an usher, wearing one of those little ATG waistcoats that makes them look like old-timey train conductors. "But if you want to take pictures of the theatre..."

"I'm purely about the theatre," I assured her.

I neglected to mention that I had already got all the photos of the stage that I wanted while still trapped in my seat. As had everyone else in the audience.

But, out of deference to her efforts. I won't post them. I'm just going to hoard them for myself. Those photos are mine! All mine!

The Duke of York's is a handsome old theatre. Lots of gold and twirly bits. But to be honest, I'm starting to get a bit bored of these Edwardian West End Theatres. They've all begun to merge into one another. It doesn't help that they're pretty much all owned by one of three companies: the aforementioned ATG, which owns the Duke of York's along with the Ambassadors, the Pinter, the Phoenix, Fortune, the Savoy, the Playhouse, the Lyceum, and technically the Donmar (the building at least, but we don't like to talk about that), Lloyd Webber's company (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Cambridge, Adelphi and the Palladium, Her Majesty's, and the Gillian Lynne) and of course, Delfont Mackintosh (the Novello, the Gielgud, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, Queens, Victoria Palace, Noel Coward and the Wyndham's). Visiting these theatres, being greeted at the door by front of housers dressed in identical uniforms, being handed identically branded tickets, seeing the same red seats and gilt walls, going to the bar and getting deja vu at the sight of the chairs upholstered in mushroom coloured velvet and walls cluttered with ornate mirrors.

In the interval, I went in search of some architectural interest.

The Royal Circle at the Duke of York's is on the ground floor, so the bar in the foyer. It basically is the foyer.

I dismissed that and headed upstairs.

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Who Ate all the Pies

23 January.

Picture me, at my work, checking the ole ‘gram during my lunchbreak. It’s National Pie Day, and I’m busy rolling my eyes about these made-up days while at the same time wishing I had a pie for lunch instead of my bagel, when a post caught my eye. A post featuring the picture of a pie.

A post feature the picture of a petite pie, even.

It’s in a glass jar. A very small looking glass jar (a pint-sized potted pie picture post?). But with enough whipped cream to deflate even the most exuberate Saturday morning kids’ TV host.

“Sweet news!” read the occunying post. “We will be offering a delicious selection of our famous pie jars at performances of #WaitressLondon...” yadda yadda yadda. I had already stopped reading. I was too busy scuttling across the office to show the picture to my colleague Nicki.

“We’re going, right?” I said, as if that was even a question that needed to be asked.

We were definitely going.

At first we tried to get tickets to the open dress rehearsal, but when that didn’t work out, we decided that we were willing to buy actual tickets. With money.

“Where do you want to sit?” asked Nicki, seat plan prepped and open on her computer.

“Somewhere cheap. We want to save money for pie.”

“True.”

“I mean, pie is ninety percent of the reason I’m going.”

“Pie?!”

Our pie chat had managed to attract the attention of Martha. Not content with our upcoming Les Mis trip, she wanted in on the pie-action too.

Looks like we were having a group-outing then! I just hoped the Adelphi were ready for us.

Turns out though, when the day came round, we weren’t ready for us.

Martha was unwell, and the prospect of a West End musical with added sugar overdose was making her feel queasy. 

Sucks. 

Plus, we now had a spare tickets. 

Double sucks .

Just to demonstrate the levels of our popularity, it took the entirety of our afternoons for me and Nicki to find someone to take that ticket. And yeah, it was Nicki who succeeded in bringing in our ringer pie-eater. But that’s neither here nor there. I mean, yes - she’s younger, cooler, and has a better knowledge of Chinatown eateries than me. But I’m still great company, and frankly I’m deeply offended by all those people who claimed to have ‘other plans’ when I asked them.

It was a Monday night.

No one has plans on a Monday night.

Well, except me and Nicki. And now… Kate.

Nicki wasted no time in telling Kate all about the marathon when we all met up at Cambridge Circus.

“You’ve been to 58 theatres? Since the beginning of January?” exclaimed Kate, doing her very best to keep the panic from her eyes.

“This will be number 59,” I admitted. It does rather sound a lot when you say it like that.

Thankfully, but the time we’d reached this conclusion we were already at our first stop of the evening: Bun House, in Chinatown.

“Right, we need the custard ones,” started Nicki as we joined the queue. “Do we want savoury? I think we need savoury if we're having custard. You like spicy don’t you? Have about three custard, two chicken, two lamb, and two beef. That’s equal, isn’t it?”

It was.

And if you are ever out with Nicki, I highly recommend letting her take charge of the ordering. That girl knows her shit. The bao buns were pillowy soft. The lamb was just the right amount of spicy. The chicken was pure pate goodness and the custard…

“Did you see the sign?” said Kate after filling up her water bottle. “They have a squirty guarantee.”

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Foyled again

New crushes are so exciting. The sweaty palms. The distracting daydreams. The thumping heart. The papercuts as you riffle through their playtexts…

You know you have a writer crush bad when you use your precious pre-show minutes to rush over to Foyles in order to stare at their words.

After my Cyprus Avenue-dissection with Helen on Wednesday devolved into a doughnut-based intervention, I was left confused.

Helen had no recollection of the Tom Cruise incident from watching it in 2016.

And I had no memory of, well, let’s say the use of a particular, very strong, word, from watching it on Monday.

This needed further investigation.

And thankfully, Foyles, with its generous theatre department, was just across the road from last night’s theatrical destination.

Even better, they had the original edition of the playtext. The 2016 version. Complete with very strong word.

I snapped a picture and sent it to Helen.

“Thank god I wasn’t imagining it,” came the reply.

Job done.

Not wanting to put down David Ireland’s words just yet, I wandered around, examining all the lovely plays.

By 7pm I still wasn’t really to let go, so I was forced to buy it.

That’s how they get you, these writers. With their tricksy ways. Writing good shit that you then want to read. Damn them all, I say.

I left before I had the chance to discover any more potential writer-crushes sitting on the shelves.

Probably for the best, as by the time I made my way back over the road, there was a massive queue snacking out of the box office and right down Phoenix Street.

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The worst theatre companion in London

"I was going to stand across the street and yell 'Soup' at you," were Weez's first words after bounding up to me outside the Noel Coward theatre.

It may surprise you to learn that this isn't the first time I've heard that.

I haven't gone by Soup in years, but that's the thing with people you first met on the Twitter. Old habits die hard. And old usernames die harder.

Which is why I should probably start called Weez Janet. Because that's her name.

"I bought something on the way over," continued Weez, I mean Janet, bringing out a small card box.

"What is that?" I asked as a small golden pastry emerged.

"Pastel de Nata. Want one?"

Holy shit balls, yes. I really did.

The box containing the remaining pastry duly handed over, we headed inside.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I had already collected the tickets. I was going to be such a good theatre companion that night. Attentive. Charming. Erudite...

"I need to buy a programme," I suddenly announced in the foyer. Shit.

Well, okay. I could be attentive, charming, and erudite a little bit later. Once all the marathon-relayed housekeeping was out of the way, I'd be able to relax, I told myself. Then all the amusing anecdotes that I was sure I definitely had, would present themselves to me. Something witty about Ivo Van Hove. Or a pun on the title of the play… I couldn’t think of one (and still can’t…) but it was only a matter of time.

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"That's £4.50," said the programme seller. I stared at her. Then at the notes in my hand.

"It's the green one," whispered Janet.

Ah. Yes. The green one. 

I handed it over.

"I'm so used to programmes being five pounds," I explained to Janet as we made our way upstairs. "Her asking for not five pounds kinda threw me."

"That whole fifty pence..."

"I couldn't work out if it was more or less. I literally don't have enough brain space for that kind of maths anymore."

Clearly erudite wasn't on the cards for that evening.

Instead we headed to the bar.

"Actually I need the loo," said Janet.

"Okay, you do that and I'll find a spot for us here," I said, turning a circle in the packed bar and seeing a complete lack of spots.

Seats in the bar were not a thing that was accessible that evening.

Loos weren't either, it seemed.

"The door is blocked by two blokes," said Janet returning a moment later. "But there is a ladies down off the foyer."

We retreated back to the foyer.

Oh god, look what a monster this marathon has turned me into... commenting on the most human of needs of my theatre companions.

I even felt duty bound to ask Janet about the facilities as soon as she emerged.

"Nice? Clean?" I asked, already hating myself.

They were both those things.

"But what about the window looking out onto the street?"

Through the door I had spotted the arched windows that lurked behind the row of sinks. Covered by a thin sheet, there was at least the suggestion of privacy. But still, that's not what you want when you're washing your hands.

Our trip to the toilets now complete, I realised that being charming was off the cards too.

I had better bloody be attentive then.

"Sorry," I apologised, struggling with my phone once we'd found our seats up in the balcony. "I just need to finish proofing my post."

Ah. So not attentive then either.

I was officially the worst theatre companion in London.

Bollocks.

Janet is very forgiving though.

She even used the time to catch up on my posts.

I really don't deserve her.

"Right, done," I announced, having finally managed to post the damn thing, and even tweet a link to it.

Janet was done too, so we were finally able to concentrate on the important things. Like the decor.

"I like the balcony. You get a great views of those... things," she said, indicating the reclining naked ladies and fat babies that framed the stage.

"I like that one," I said, pointing at the most blatant of the naked babies. "Abs and fat. He's got the full package."

"And a trumpet," added Janet. "Where did he get that from?"

"What about those two?" I said, pouting at the Wedgwood-blue cameos placed either side of the stage. A man and a woman, very much not facing each other. "Who are they?"

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Shall we look at the programme?" suggested Janet.

Sometimes I forget that programmes are things to be looked at, and not just collected.

Programme duly brought out, we found the timeline. It started in 1903. Which wasn't particularly promising. These were not Edwardian-looking faces.

"They look late 17th, early 18th century to me," was Janet's opinion.

I agreed. The bloke had definite big-wig hair going on. (All about WEAVE! Holy shit. Thank god for that. You can stand down now, my friend. We got there in the end).

But I have to say, even given the benefit of 24 hours before writing this post. I still don't know the answer.

The Wikipedia page dedicated to the theatre was less than helpful.

It's as if theatre-goers aren’t interested in the minutiae of theatre interior decor, which makes no sense at all.

With a bang, the lights went out.

The curtain rose.

Darkness was replaced by... I don't even know. What is that colour? Not red. Not pink. Not purple.

Wild salmon, perhaps. 

Walls and bed-sheets and curtains and carpet and tiles and dresses and coats, all in that strange, queasy colour.

Then I realised what it was. It was the colour we were never meant to see. The colour of our insides. The chamber of a beating heart. A sliced through kidney. A length of intestine so fresh it's still digesting something...

That reminded me.

"I forgot to eat the thing!" I said as we emerged out onto a side street outside the theatre.

The pastel de nata was still in my bag.

Not for long though.

I ate it on the tube home.

Yum.

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You spin me right round, baby, right round

"I'm so excited for tonight," messaged my colleague to me before she'd even got into the office that morning.

Martha and I were going to see Les Mis together that evening, and Martha was pumped.

Martha loves Les Mis. She’d seen it twice.

I like Les Mis too. But it’s hard to feel excited about going to see a show when you literally go and see one every damn night. I've been to the theatre 47 times this year. Forty-seven. That's one per day with two extra for luck.

So, it's hard to get enthused about yet another musical. Especially one that you’ve seen before. Even if the before was… fuck… seventeen years ago.

For me, going to Les Mis felt like just another check mark against my masterlist of London theatres.

And a long-winded one at that. Have you heard what the running time on this show is? It’s three hours.

That’s a full half-hour longer than the majority of West End shows. And over an hour longer than Come From Away, the 9/11 musical currently playing at the Phoenix.

As check marks go, this one was going to take a long time to draw. And considering how low on ink I am generally at the moment (have I told you how ill I am recently? Because I’m really sick, you know) it was unsurprising that I was less than excited about the whole thing.

“Shall we go out for dinner?” said Martha, bouncing over to my desk that afternoon.

God yes.

Food was going to be an absolute necessity.

“Leon?”

There’s a Leon directly opposite the Queen’s Theatre. There’s even a crossing right there. Getting from one to the other can be achieved with little more than a stumble if you time it with the traffic lights.

Perfect. “Perfect,” I said.

And it was perfect. After a leisurely stroll into the West End, we ordered far too much food and scoffed the lot. It’s amazing how much your mood can improve after eating a burger and a portion of chicken nuggets in a single sitting - some people get endorphins from exercise. Personally, my neurotransmitters start firing after a hefty dose of Korean mayo.  

“At least we don’t have to go far,” I said as we struggled up the stairs.

On reflection, basement seating had been a bad idea.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only mountain we had to climb.

“Is that the queue?” I exclaimed in horror as we crossed the road.

The packed foyer of the Queen’s Theatre was spilling out across the pavement, blocking the doors, the signs, and any indication of where we were supposed to go.

Picking a door at random, we joined the queue. Only to be turned away by our lack of tickets.

“Aww,” said the ticket-checker on the door with a tilt of her head. “And you’ve queued all that time,” she sympathetically cooed.

So back outside we went, took two steps to the right, and joined the next queue. Attempted to, anyway. As it was impossible to tell where the queue was, or even how many there were. Did each ticket desk have its own, or were they sharing?

This is when it pays to be going with a plus one.

“Let’s split up,” I suggested. But Martha was way ahead of me. Literally. Her chosen queue was miles ahead. “Give them my surname!” I called after her.

She rightly gave me a look to indicate that she knew how to pick up a damn ticket, and didn’t need instruction from the likes of me.

A few seconds later, she was back to rescue me from my unmoving queue.

“Got them?” I asked redundantly.

“Yeah!” she said, waving them. “I enjoyed being Maxine Smiles.”

“Did you? Did she comment on it?”

“Yeah. I got a ‘Smiles!’” she said, lifting her voice in mock-surprise at the name.

I gave her a smile of my own. And not just because of the delight my surname brings, but also because I now had a witness to said delight.

We headed back to the original door, and this time managed to gain entry, and for the first time in my marathon, had a yellow security tag threaded through the handles of my bag.

“I have to buy a programme,” I apologised. This was quickly followed up by apologies for stopping to take photos of the corridor, the ceiling, the auditorium, and the aforementioned programme.

I’ve really become a pain-in-the-arse to go to the theatre with since starting this marathon.

“I need to go take photos,” has now became my general interval refrain.

“Well, I need to go to the loo,” was Martha’s retort.

After wandering around and eventually having to ask an usher as to whereabouts of the lady’s conveniences, we eventually located them down at stalls level.

“You should really write about how bad the loos are for women,” said Martha when she eventually emerged.

She’s not the first one to suggest it. I’ve even been asked to write about specific loos (“The ones at the Royal Opera House are so fancy,” commented a different co-worker, prior to my trip there. “You should review them”), but unfortunately for toilet-kind, I’m not a great theatre-micturater. But I promise you now, if and whenever I use them - I’ll give you my two cents on spending a penny.

For now however, I’ll be talking about the light features.

“Hey, look - it changes colour!” I cried out, immediately getting out my camera to video the shades shifting above our heads.

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As I stood there, in the middle of the foyer, filming to pretty coloured lights, an usher ducked down low to avoid getting in the way and ruining my shot.

A selfless act from someone keen to do their bit to enhance the experience that is: Les Misérables.

Between you and me (and I swear to the theatre gods, if you repeat any of this I’ll cut you) it is quite the experience. Even for a jaded old hag like me.

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From the huge wall of sound that is One Day More (“such an interval song,” was what I said to Martha as the lights rose. Literally nothing but an ice-cream break could have followed that), to the hottie to the waistcoat with a ponytail (character name forgotten, but you know who I mean), to the shocked giggle that sweeps the audience as Cosette changes race half way through act one, to the watery-eye inducing Bring Him Home (it’s my cold… I told you this already), to the mental exhaustion that is three hours of epic, fast moving, emotionally exerting, theatre that sent me right off to sleep as soon as head connected with pillow that night.

And the revolve.

Oh, man, the revolve.

This may well be the Korean mayo talking here, but can anything match the heartbreak of watching the barricades turn slowly round and revealing the events of the other side?

I’m not sure I have the energy to join the campaign to keep the ill-fated revolve right now, but you kids of the revolvution - I salute you. You are doing the theatre gods work. Down with the municipal guard! Down with confused queuing systems! Down with projections!

Martha may have stepped out humming One Day More, but I came out ready to start a revolution. 

At Her Majesty’s Pleasure

It occurred to me, while sitting up in the balcony of Her Majesty’s Theatre, that Phantom of the Opera was the first West End show I ever saw. My brother had taken us all out for our mum’s birthday. I remember cringing down in my seat, overwhelmed by embarrassment as the cast started to… sing. Ergh! Were they really going to do that all the way through?

I was about eight years old. And Phantom was too, as we both premiered in the same year.

And look at the pair of us now! How far we’ve both come.

Growing together. Learning together.

I’ve dropped in to check in on my theatrical-sibling a couple of times over the years. See how he was doing. As the (slightly…) elder of the two I thought it was my responsibility, as a big sister, you know.

Okay. I went once. When I was at university. Which, if your maths has been keeping up, you will know was a very, very long time ago.

I’m a terrible sister.

And as I don’t want to let our relationship deteriorate ant further, I came to the conclusion last night, while sitting up there in the cheap seats (a tenner on GILT donchaknow), that if I really was going to die during the marathon, then it was going to be on that night. At Her Majesty’s.

It just seemed right.

Not only because of my great kinship with the show. But also because, if I did manage to come back to haunt the theatre, I would then become The Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera. And if that isn’t a title worth dying for, I don’t know what is.

This was destiny knocking, and I was waiting by the door ready to go.

The usher posted on the balcony that night seemed to agree.

“I'll be looking after you in the balcony tonight,” he said, positioning himself at the front of the tier for his introductory speech. “Right now, take as many photos as you like. But once the show starts, no photography is allowed. If I see you, and your screen will betray you, I will embarrass you.”

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Yeah, okay mate. But one can’t die of embarrassment. Believe me, I’ve tried.

“During the interval,” he continued, his voice ricocheting off the ceiling. “For health and safety please don't congregate on the stairs as you may fall.”

Ah. That’s the stuff. That’s how it was going to happen. That’s how my marathon was going to end.

“The rake here is very steep, so don't lean forward,” he went on. I expected some dire warning about tripping and plunging head first into the stalls, but he merely followed up with an explanation that leaning forward blocks the view of the people sitting behind. Which is also good. I suppose.

“I'll shut up now,” he finished before taking up post at the wooden podium behind us, from which he could watch us all. Master of all he surveyed. A god up in the gods.

He was as good as his word.

“No photos in the auditorium,” he boomed during the interval. “I can see what your screens are doing.”

Obviously I instantly took my phone out and attempted to snap a shot.

Pointed down. Aimed at my knee.

I’m a rebel, not a tosser.

But obviously my phone crapped out and the image didn’t save, so you’ll just accept my confession without proof.

Devoid of a functional phone, I had to find other ways to secure my demise.

The door to the balcony was promising. Looking for all the world like it had been bought at the prison-closure sale, it held distinct possibilities.

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Seemingly made of metal, this door could do some serious damage if I could find someone to smash it into me, accidently or otherwise.

But there was no one about.

I moved on in search of other methods of extinction.

A little way down the stairs there was the strange case of cubby-hole 98. I don’t know what secrets the preceding 97 doors held, but I was sure that number 98 contained something fantastically dark and hopefully dangerous.

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I gave the handle a tentative tug.

Locked.

Whatever was in there, wasn’t getting out.

What else? What else? What else?

Choke on an ice-cream spoon?

Crash into the scale-replica of the theatre built of Lego that I found in the Grand Circle bar?

Hand over my debit card to the lady on the merchandise counter and tell her to keep on going until the inevitable heart attack?

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Somehow these ideas managed to lack both the dignity and theatricality that I was after.

I didn’t want the other theatre ghosts to laugh at me, after all.

How could I hold my floating head high in front of William Terriss, who was stabbed to death by a fellow actor at the Adelphi stage door and now haunts the theatre? Or Charles Macklin, famed ghost of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, who was the one who did the stabbing, puncturing the eye of his co-star with a cane while they argued over a wig (no one says what happened to the spirit of the stabbed man. Presumably he wasn’t that fussed about the wig after all, and has moved onto a realm where wigs are no longer a concern)?

If I met my end by way swallowing an ice-cream spoon, I would be the laughing stock of the annual theatre ghost convention, an event which, if it isn’t already a thing, I will institute as soon as I am within the theatre ghost ranks.

No, if I was going to go, it had to be impressive. A story worth telling at parties.

I ran through a few options as I watched the second act. I could have made a flying leap for the chandelier, but that had already had its crashing moment before the interval. Or I could have strung myself up with the Punjab lasso. That one fulfilled all the criteria - it would fit in with the show. I could organise some grand, on stage reveal - tears of shock and screams of horror would be bound to follow my discovery. There was one problem. The lasso is an invention of Gaston Leroux and is not a thing that actually exists. And while the show does have one that appears on stage, I’m not entirely sure how functional it is.

I was running out of ideas. Just as I was considering breaking into the cleaning cupboard and seeing what options lay within, the final notes were echoing up from the pit.

It was all over.

After stumbling my way down all the steps, drunk on tunes and eighties perms, I made it outside - safe and somewhat-sound.

And I realised that it was probably for the best that I didn’t die at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Phantom is going to outlive me whatever I do. And while I love my masked brother dearly, and would like to visit him more often. I’m not sure moving in is the best thing for our relationship right now.

Put the kettle on, love

Lord preserve me from going to the West End on a weekend.

With its hoards rampaging through Leicester Square tube station, disgorging themselves out onto Cranbourn Street and cluttering up the pavement with their... you know... presence.

They were everywhere. A gaggle of pink-hatted girls surrounded the Gillian Lynne Theatre. From a distance they looked like they were on their way to a protest, but as I got closer I realised the only thing these kids were demonstrating was a lack of spacial awareness, as they had to be corralled into one corner to allow other people through. 

"Get your tickets out and your bags ready for inspection," became the battle cry of the ushers.

Folded up pieces of A4 flapped in the breeze as everyone brought out their printed-at-home print-at-home tickets.

I didn't yet have my ticket. I was relying on the Gillian Lynne box office to print it for me.

I explained the situation to the nearest usher.

"You can go through, but I'll still need to check you bag though."

Well, naturally.

I opened it for him.

The corner of his lips twitched. "Right then," he said, after the merest fraction of a pause before waving me through.

In the safety of the foyer I peered into my own bag, wondering what it was that had caused his slick manner to stumble.

Sitting on top of the deep heap of items that I felt the need to drag with me everywhere, there was a massive bag of tea. Tetley. 240 teabags.

Ah.

Now, here's the thing: we had run out at home. And it was a Sunday. The shops would be shut by the time I got out of the theatre.

In those circumstances, carrying around a great big bag of tea is totally reasonable, right? And if your list of things-that-need-to-get-done involve going to the theatre, while said bag of tea is on your person... well, so be it.

I don't know why I'm explaining this all to you. You've hefted around worse.

I've seen the table of shame at the Coli. I known what you weirdos get confiscated trying to get into the theatre... never a bag of Tetley though, I must admit. Perhaps the bag-checkers at the Coli have a more relaxed take on teabags.

I should test this out. If I can get them in, I might do a roaring trade undercutting the bar prices. Just need to find out a way of sneaking in a kettle and fortunes will be mine for the making.

Anyway, enough of that. I got in, with the tea, picked up my ticket, and headed for the escalator.

Even having bumbled up and down the twin-pair at the ROH hundreds of times over the years, the presence of an escalator in a theatre still manages to make me feel like I have taken a wrong turn and ended up in Brent Cross.

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Although, given the brutalist concrete aesthetic the Gillian Lynne has going on, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt like I ended up in the Brent Cross car park. I'll give the Gillian Lynne this though, it's easier to navigate than the usual multi-storey.

The seats are more comfortable too.

I've never sat up in the balcony, but as far as I can tell, there simply isn't such a thing as a bad view in this theatre.

I was off to the far right (geographically-speaking...) and didn't miss a thing. If anything, I benefited from glimpses of those things that are usually hidden to those in the more prime locations - such as the screens bolted to the front of the balcony.

"That's the director," said a small child to the even smaller child sitting next to him. Small child pointed authoritatively at one of the screens showing the live feed of the conductor. The smaller child must have demonstrated some level of incredulity because small child was soon backtracking. "He works for the show anyway."

Despite this stumble, small child was clearly a practised theatre-goer, because as soon as the lights rose for the interval he was ready with his demands. "Can I get an ice cream?"

His mum ummed and ah he'd while he begged and pleaded. Things weren't looking good on the ice-cream front.

Thankfully the interval was saved by the magnanimous presence of dad. "Of course you can," he declared. "What else is there to look forward to at the theatre?"

Well, quiet.

The two boys ran off to join the impossibly long ice-cream queue. I stayed in my seat during to interval. Worn out, worn down, and quite frankly, just plain warm. I curled up and allowed the sound of childish chatter to wash over me, soothed by the scent of Haagan Daaz being rubbed into the seats by sticky fingers.

I began to suspect that the over-heating of the auditorium might be a ploy to increase ice-cream sales. The theatrical equivalent of a pub offering salted peanuts.

But I wasn't complaining. I was too sleepy to complain.

So sleepy that it took me a while to notice the jostling presence of someone trying to clamber over my knees.

The boys had returned with their School of Rock branded ice creams.

Nice touch.

I almost wanted to get one for myself then, but I had already decided that the School of Rock official drumsticks would be my purchase of choice if I were to allow my self to buy anything at the theatre. I mean... to get something other than the programme, of course. Programmes don't count as a purchase. They're an essential. Like loo roll and hobnobs.

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I will say that School of Rock is an excellent show to see if you have a cold. The music is so loud that if you can time things properly, a cough will be lost in the raging Stick it to the Man atmosphere.

I can even forgive them for making me clap in time with the finale. I was doing quite well until they busted out the aria from The Magic Flute, at which point I totally lost the rhythm and ended up just flapping my hands about in shame.

Still, the atmosphere is infectious. Even the Grown-Up Band (written in title case as that's how they are referred to in the programme) put down their instruments in order to rock out to the kids' playing.

As we all filed out, more than one parent caused permanent psychological damage to their offspring by humming a few of the tunes.

As for me, I never hum.

Except in the privacy of my own home. With the kettle’s whistling to cover my shame.

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Got Pinter?

I don’t want to do this anymore.

Yeah, I know. Quite the statement to be making after I was raving about the amazing experience I had at the London Library only yesterday. I’d left bouncing and full of the joys of winter.

How quickly exuberance can dissipate when you are having a bad day.

It’s not just a bad day though.

I’m tired. And sick. And poor. And fed up.

And I really don’t want to do this anymore.

As I walked into the West End last night, I could feel my knees clicking and slipping out beneath me, unable or unwilling to support my weight. My arms crossed, my shoulders hunched, coughing into my scarf all the way down to Leicester Square.

And as I walked, I argued with the small, but very loud, voice in my head. The voice that has been the constant companion since starting this marathon. The voice that only has a single thing to say. A single, very pointed question: what the fuck are you going to write about for this one?

The Groundhog Day loop of theatre-going I can cope with. Bad plays don’t frighten me. The spreadsheets and planning soothe my soul. I can survive late nights and lack of sleep if there’s a hot cup of tea waiting for me on the other end.

But the prospect of the blank page in the morning…

That’s terrifying.

And 39 days in, it hasn’t got any easier.

The thought of that white screen hounds me, crashing against my legs like an overexcited puppy as I walk, tripping over my heels wherever I go.

You’d think it be easy. I thought it would be easy.

Just go to the theatre, and then write about it.

It’s not like I don’t know what happens. I am there after all. Experiencing it.

But then I’d have 251 blog posts following the same Got Plot format: Got there. Got complimented on my name. Got my ticket. Got a programme. Got through the show. Got the tube home.

251 blog posts. Each between 1,000 and 1,500 words. That’s over a third-of-a-million words.

And let me tell you, the only Got Plot worth 300,000 words has already been written by G. R. R. Martin.

I mean, look at this shit. I’m doing Game of Throne puns now. That’s how low I’ve sunk. This is worse than the sofa reviews from a few days back.

I do like a good sofa though…

It was while I turning this all over, somewhere along Kingsway, that I remembered.

There would be no sofas for me that night. No sitting down at all.

Due to a combination of last minute purchasing and limited funds, I had bought myself a standing ticket.

Like a total fucking idiot.

My knees almost buckled out from under me at the thought.

Standing. For an entire evening. An evening of Pinter at that.

Ah yes. I was off to catch the final Pinter at the Pinter production: Pinter Seven. At the Harold Pinter Theatre. Naturally.

I’m not the biggest Pinter fan in the world, so you would have thought that piling on all of that Pinter might have given me pause (sorry), but hey - it’s all about the content, innit.

There was a massive queue at the theatre to pick up the tickets, with the collection desk pulled out into the foyer rather than sealed off behind the box office windows.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have it,” said the harried woman on the desk to one person after the other. “Please go to the box office and they’ll sort it.” She waved them in the right direction before turning to me. “Name?”

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so visibly relieved to pull a ticket out of a box.

Ticket in hand, I turned to the next item on my Got agenda: the programme.

I couldn’t see any for sale at the bar, so I followed the line of Pinter posters up the stairs towards the Royal Circle.

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“Is that a proper programme,” a man was asking the young woman on the door. ”Because last time I was here you were selling a one pound thingy.”

“It's a proper, five pound, programme,” she said, as I lurked. This was intel I wanted to know too.

“Good. But it isn't for the whole season is it?” he asked suspiciously. I found myself nodding along. This man was asking all the important questions here.

“Not this one, but I do have a book which covers all the plays,” she said, yanking a heavy looking volume from her Pinter at the Pinter printed pouch.

“I already have that,” he said, a little disgruntled now. “I wanted a proper programme.”

“This is a proper programme,” she said, showing him the original item.

He seemed satisfied with that, and wandered off to his seat before I was able to propose to the man who is clearly my soul mate.

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I had to settle on purchasing my own proper Pinter programme.

“Is this the standing room?” I asked, indicating the long bar behind the seats.

It was.

It took me exactly two attempts at walking the line looking for my place before I realised there were no places. The number printed on my ticket corresponded to exactly nothing.

I could stand anywhere.

After walking down the row one more time, I picked a spot behind a pillar. Restricted view. No one else would want that. I might get a bit of room to myself.

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“Standing?” asked the usher as the lights began to dim. I nodded and she asked with a thumbs up.

She moved onto my neighbour. “Standing?”

“Are we in the right place?” came the reply, with an apologetic display of his ticket.

“There's no order,” she cried, throwing up her arms in mock despair. “It's all chaos here.”

As the first act started, I leant against the bar and rested my head in my hands, and closed my eyes. Just for a moment.

When the interval finally rolled around, I relinquished my coat and shawl to the universe and rushed into the bar, grabbing the nearest seat. 

God, I felt weak.

But if anything, sitting down was making it worse. My body had seized on the opportunity to relax and was taking full advantage. It was utterly intent on sinking into itself. I felt myself slipping down the chair, like a doll incapable of sitting up without the assistance of a pair childish hands continuously jab and poke its limbs into submission.

If I wasn’t careful, the bar staff were going to find me lolling on the floor at the end of the night, and I’d get swept away with the crumbs.

But I couldn’t help myself. I sank down still further.

I wanted to close my eyes and lean my forehead against something cool. A nice marble slab. The Pinter theatre has a distinct lack of nice marble slabs.

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Too soon the bell went for the second act. I heaved myself back to my feet and returned to my spot to rescue my coat and shawl - thankfully both unharmed by after their feckless abandonment.

Sitting a few rows ahead, a woman unfolded a show poster, flipping it over to read the biographies on the back. Was this the mysterious one pound Pinter programme? I wanted to ask where she had got it, but just standing there was taking every mental and physical resource I had at my disposal.

As the audience made their final trips to the loo, I clung onto the bar, trying to avoid the large bags and sharp elbows of those passing by.

Being elbowed in the back by people still drying their hands has to be a particular low point in my life.

But at least that’s another post done.

Another 1,300 words written.

Another theatre crossed off my list.

Gotta catch em all.

Murder Most Fowl

Finally.

After leaving the office last night I walked the route I’d done a hundred times before, crossing roads and taking shortcuts without any form of conscious thought, as if I was being called home by the mothership.

The time had come.

One month and five days into my marathon, I was heading to the Royal Opera House. For an Ashton. With Pigeons. And Vadim. It doesn’t get much better.

But while the ROH may have served as my spinster-pad for a good may years, it’s now a slightly different Opera House to the one I was used to.

I’ve seen the refurbishment before - I went to a shit tonne of Bayadère’s last year - but not enough to fully get used to it, or the weird door numbers. Golden arrows, pointed in every direction, with a crossword of letter-number combinations listed beneath: 4B 4E 5B 5C 5D 5E 5F 6F - you sunk my battleship!

A post-refurbishment walk-through of the Royal Opera House left me blinking and dazed.

I still can't get over how, well... literal they were with the whole Open Up thing.

Gone are the low ceilings, dim corridors and trunk-like pillars.

Everything was so shiny and bright, all draped in beige upholstery and lined with acres of stripy wood. I almost had to shield my eyes against the glare radiating off of the glass costume display cases.

I looked around for hidden ring lights and realised the entire ceiling is a honeycomb of illumination.

This is not just an opera house. This is a champagne tinted, Instagram filtered, pan-seared opera house.

I felt like I walking through heaven. In that I had a nagging sense that wasn't supposed to be there.

I had arrived far too early. The house was still closed. I looked around for somewhere to sit.

The bars were packed with long family-style tables. Up on the terrace, the old groupings of comfortable seating had been replaced by long rows of bar stools.

It seems Open Up wasn’t just for the building. It applied to the audience members too.

Sharing tables. Talking. Communicating.

No thanks.

I fled. It was too much. Too open. Too exposed. Too vulnerable-making.

I needed somewhere quiet, away from the crash of cutlery and cacophony of chatter echoing off the cold floor.

I needed old-fashioned opera house vibes. Preferably with the insulating properties of squashy velvet and wood-paneling.

In other words, I needed the type of place where you can plot a murder in peace.

Not a particular murder, you understand. Just murder in general.

I find it a very soothing occupation.

A tiny bit of control in a chaotic world.

I consider it part of my self-care practices.

Don’t look at me like that. Don’t for a second pretend that you’ve never weighed up the various benefits of cyanide over arsenic (cyanide would go great in a Bakewell tart, I’ve always thought), or dreamt up an elaborate scheme involving a transatlantic crossing, a box of chocolates, and a purple helium balloon.

 Yeah, alright. You keep telling yourself that.

Thankfully, not all of the opera house got the community-friendly treatment. There are still some areas of the building that have retained their romance. Dark places. Secret places. Places where one can properly plan the ultimate, undetectable murder.

So here it is. My list.

The top five places in the Royal Opera House to plan a murder

The Secret Sofa

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Tucked away down the wrong corridor on the upper slips level (go in the opposite direction to those suggested by any gold arrows you encounter) is this glorious little sofa, surrounded by vintage ballet dancers hung at just the right level to whisper sweet-tortures in your ear.

A little brightly lit for my taste (it’s round the corner from a fire refuge point) but you might need that if you go in for the more complex style of plotting that requires blueprints and chemical formulae.

The Slightly Less Secret Sofa

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Found on-route to the lower slips (or the lower amphitheatre if you are that sort of person), this is another red velvet wonder. What it lacks in privacy, it gains from the shadowy lighting and dark walled surroundings.

This is where I do my best country-house conspiracies. Proper Poirot-esque plots, with cups of tea tainted by strychnine-laced sugar cubes, forged wills, family secrets, and an herbaceous border sprouting poisonous plants.

The Extra Secret Sofa

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This one is a bit tricky. You might have to get ‘lost’ while taking a backstage door in order to get here. But the rewards are great. This sofa lives in the King’s smoking room. Located behind the orchestra pit,  you’ll get this place all to yourself if you get the timing right. But the extra effort is worth it as the rarefied surroundings will give your plots the regal edge that will take them to the next level. Did you know that decaying strawberry leaves release hydrogen cyanide? Think about that when you’re counting the leaves on your next victim’s coronet.

Behind the boxes

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Now ideally you’d want to be inside a box for peak murder-plotting, but if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, the narrow corridors that lead to them can serve you just as well. Lit by small lamps, the confided space and narrow doors will enhance your lateral thinking. Just make sure that the boxes are unoccupied if you are the type to go in for muttering the details of your plan out loud.

Above the dome

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Again, tricky. To get here you might need a little assistance from someone working at the ROH, as it’s not exactly accessible to the public. But I think it would be worth it. Not only would the location, soaring above the auditorium, help engender a sense of god-like power while gazing down at the audience below, but I hear that it’s also the place to go if you are after an accomplice with a very specialised skill set.

I have it on good authority that the space above the dome is where you will find the Nudger. So called because he spends his time during performances nudging the elbows of the spotlight crew as they try and keep their lights steadily focused on a performer.

If you’re planning is moving in the accidental-death-by-falling direction, then I think the Nudger could be of great assistance.

The fact that the Nudger also happens to be a ghost can only be a bonus.

Happy plotting!

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Everyone's Talking About Everyone's Talking About Jamie

Is it morbid to treat a memorial as an experience? I think the fact that it is me asking this, the woman who wears all black, listens to The Cure, and grew up next door to a twelfth-century graveyard, is probably an answer in itself. If I am questioning whether something is morbid, it must be macabre af.

Last night the lights dimmed in the West End in memory of the theatre producer Duncan Weldon. I’d never seen that happen before, so I headed in early to try and catch it.

At seven o’clock, I positioned myself halfway down Shaftesbury Avenue and waited.

The lights glittered brightly.

A crowd had gathered on the pavement, phones poised and ready to capture the moment.

The Company sign hanging above the Gielgud was the first to go out. Shortly followed by the sequined Thriller Live at the Lyric.

We waited.

Lastly, after a painfully long moment, the Apollo switched off their lights.

The crowd clapped, but the sound was muffled by their gloves so they settled on a short cheer instead.

A moment later, the lights started coming back on, one by one, starting with the Apollo, and ending, an achingly long time later, with the Gielgud.

That done, is was time to head into my chosen theatre for the night.

The Apollo, or as I used to call it: The Worst Balcony in London.

I can't do that anymore.

Now it's: The-Theatre-That-Is-Lacking-In-The-Balcony-Department-Ever-Since-The-Ceiling-Caved-In-Mid-Performance-Following-A-Day-Of-Heavy-Rain-Fall-Way-Back-In-2013-Necessitating-The-Installation-Of-An-Admittedly-Beautiful-False-Ceiling-At-Balcony-Level-To-Cover-Up-The-Damage. Which is a less catchy name, for sure.

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The highest rank of circle on offer is now the grand one. Which, let me tell you, ain't all that grand. If you thought that theatres making the balcony-dwellers enter via a separate entrance was dodgy, here the residents of the grand circle also get the second class treatment. Once you’ve picked up your ticket from the box office, you are sent back outside, into the cold and the rain, to go in via the servants’ entrance, lest you offend the masters sitting in the stalls with your grubby, public-transported, presence. They even have the walls of the stairwell tiled, the better to hose-down our sticky finger marks after we’ve left.

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When I finally made it up, I made a cheering discovery. The Apollo may no longer hold the title of the Worst Balcony in London. But I am pleased to report, I think they may well be in good stead to claim The Worst Grand Circle in London prize.

Getting into row E required clambering up a massive step, which I’m sure fails on all sorts of access-friendliness scales. You’d think that once you’ve clawed your way into your seat, you would be rewarded by a fantastic view. Not so. Unless you have a particular fondness for inspecting the hairdos of strangers at close quarters.

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The Apollo will take your money just as easy as from the poshos in the stalls, but they don't believe in the poor people actually seeing the show.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand them entirely on this matter. Just as a popular artwork may be taken off display in a gallery to preserve it from the damage that comes along with being shuffled past by an endless stream of tourists, so must a show be kept hidden from the glare of too many retinas.

And naturally, it is only right that those who can’t afford an expensive ticket should not get an unrestricted view. The less they can see of the stage, the better, quite frankly! It must be safeguarded, far away from inferior eyeballs. Their funds will support the work going on below, naturally. One must support the arts. But this duty must be performed as a subsidy for the proper audiences. The ones that sit in the real seats. And pay real prices.

And wear appropriate clothes.

With the promise of heavy snow that evening, I had pulled out an original fifties circle skirt from the back of my wardrobe. Quilted with a layer of fleece hidden underneath, it is basically a duvet with a waistband attached. It is also frickin’ massive I had to keep on tucking it under my knees to prevent it from encroaching into my neighbours' laps. Totally the wrong thing to wear in cramped West End theatre seating.

I soon realised that the two people now living under my skirt were on wildly different rides that evening.

The girl on my right, a performing arts student, was on Splash Mountain. She bopped and danced around in her seat, cheered at every you-tell-the-bastards line and whispered excitedly, "this is so good!" to her friend. During the closing numbers she sniffed extravagantly, her sweet young face washed by tears by the end. Every emotion being pumped off that stage landed had straight in her heart.

The lady on my left however was stuck on the rotating Teacups and she wanted to go home. Every time a song ended and the cast insisted on doing the talking bits, she took out her phone to check the time, jostling and elbowing me as she reached into her bag and lit up the screen to reveal that, yes... only five minutes had passed since the last time she has performed this same manoeuvre. Half-way through act two, after a particularly clumsily choreographed attack on her bag and my ribs, she brought out, not her phone, but a tube of hand cream. Squeezing out a dollop, she then proceeded to work it into her skin during the heartfelt family moment taking place down on the stage. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so committed to skin hydration since The End of the World (“Moisturise me!”).

As for me, I just kept on thinking about a band of young men I’d passed on my way there. About how they had rushed into the road together, right into the traffic. A taxi screeched at them and one of the young men screeched back: “Run me over! Do it! I want to die!”

And I thought about the dimmed lights.

And the people taking photos.

And the girl on my right who was feeling all the emotions.

And the woman on my left who was feeling none of them.

And the stage that I couldn’t see.

And the painted forest scene hanging above us.

And the broken roof that lurked above this enchanted image.

And the snow falling on it.

And I wondered, if this was my last night on earth, would I be happy that I spent it here.

And.

And.

And.

And then I went home.

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.

Read More

The great debate

I went off book last night. Or rather, off spreadsheet.

I was meant to be going to see a play about a man on the brink of suicide. It was all planned and marked up.

Wednesday / 16 January 2019 / Evening / The Loop / Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

I’d logged that at least a week ago. But when Wednesday morning dawned and I still hadn’t bought a ticket I knew that I couldn’t face it. I needed something more upbeat. Something with songs perhaps. So, I shuffled things around and decided to go see a musical about a girl with a massive, disfiguring scar on her face, chasing after a miracle that’s bound to let her down. Much more uplifting.

Now unconstrained by spreadsheets, I headed into the West End. Or rather Charing Cross. Or, even more specially, Charing Cross Station. Well, under it at least.

I have a soft spot from sub-station theatres. 17 days into my marathon and The Union Theatre is still ranking as my number one theatre experience (followed briskly by the Playhouse and the Brockley Jack. Not that it's a competition you understand. Except it kinda is). There’s something about hearing a train rumbling on overhead that makes a play feel so much more epic. It’s as if every production is set within a permanent thunder storm.

Both under railway arches they may be, but the Charing Cross Theatre is no wee little 75-seater. In the grand throw down between Charing Cross the the Union’s Waterloo, the north-of-the-river station would win tracks-down. On size alone, you understand. You could fit at least four Unions within the Charing Cross Theatre’s auditorium.

Everything seemed bigger at the Charing Cross.

As I pottered about in the foyer (taking mirror selfies, you know how it is), I spied the usher’s snack tray. Bags of Malteasers lined up next to king size Snickers and Mars bars. Holy shit on a cracker. Those are not theatre-snacks to be nibbled on during an interval. They are proper petrol-station snacks, built to sustain the a long road-trip.

The Charing Cross Theatre ain't playing no games.

They were West End (or at least, West End-adjacent) and they were ready to compete with the big-boys. This was no fringe venue. And they weren’t going to be confused with one. No matter what type of public transportation system was sitting on top of them, rattling their bones.

They even have a proper box office. Staffed by someone who seemed to have been hired for the sole reason that she radiated loveliness. Made all the lovelier when she handed me a proper ticket. One that I could take home with me. You see? West End. Definitely.

But then something caught my eye. There, on the box office counter. Something bright. Very bright. Orange even. Surely the brightest and most eye-catching of colours. And made of paper, which is always sure to get my attention.

“Can I take one of these?” I asked.

“Of course!” said the lovely box office lady.

It was a cast sheet.

Oh.

I looked around, checking for any programme sellers. Nope. No one. This was all we got.

So, maybe they are a fringe theatre then? If you squint and forget that the Strand isn’t just around the corner.

It makes sense. West End playhouses tend to been drinking great Edwardian things. Yes, there are outlets, but when you picture a West End theatre, there tends to be more in the way of curly architecture, and less, well... trains.

I had to do more investigating.

I wandered around, gathering evidence. West End or Fringe. It was hard to tell. It was all so conflicting.

Over my head there was a massive chandelier: West End.

But behind me was a strange arcade machine shoved in the corner: Fringe.

The ushers were wearing natty little waistcoats: West End.

But… what’s that?

 Is that a proper, physical, theatre bell?

I positioned myself near it, determined to catch it in action, but when the bing bongs came they arrived over a tannoy - with more than a little flavour of Hi-de-Hi!.

Oh.

That was disappointing. And it didn’t help settle the matter of West End or Fringe either way. Further disappointment.

With a heavy heart and a confused head, I decided it was time to go downstairs and take my seat. Hopefully the auditorium would hold to key to solving this mystery.

“Nice coat you got there,” said the usher taking my ticket.

“Oh, well, thank you,” I managed to reply, feeling a little flustered. It is a nice coat. There’s no denying it. But I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my outfit by an usher before

How do we even classify that? Definitely not West End.

Still preening, I took my seat. Row X. Ticket’s ain’t cheap at the Charing Cross (they have West End prices, that’s for sure).

But with the stage in the middle of the auditorium, and with seating either side, I may have been in the back row, but there were only 11 more in front of me.

And, even better, a tech desk directly behind. Like, literally, right behind me head. That was exciting. I love a tech desk.

I was looking forward to sneaking glances behind me during the show.

“So sorry, can everyone in this row move forward,” said an usher, leaning into the back row. My row.

We all blinked at him in incomprehension.

“If you could all just move forward, exactly as you are, to this row,” he added, indicating the empty row just in front of us.

It was happening. I was being moved out of my row. Just like with that bloke in the Vaudeville. I had seen how it should be done, and now it was time to make a stand. Or rather to not make a stand. I would sit. The revolution may have been slow to get started, but I would do my part. This was it. It was our time. We were going to rise up against our oppressors, the ushers.

I stood up, ready to face down the usher.

I looked at his smiling face and refused to break.

But then I remembered the coat-comment from earlier. And the lovely box office lady.

Reader, I’m ashamed to admit it. But I moved.

The seats in front were a little bit better. And I was still feeling pretty glowy after my compliment.

Glowy people don't start rebellions. They're too busy being smug and happy.

Revolution would need to wait for another day.

Our vacated seats were soon filled by the creative team, blocking my view of the tech desk.

Fucking. Rude.

My glow faded.

I crossed my arms and waggled my foot with irritation. The show better be good, I thought to myself. I was going to have to sit there, for a full hundred minutes, no interval, and have nothing to watch but the performers.

Lights dimmed. The cast emerged. And they started singing.

Over-amped, I sneered to myself.

I was determined not to have a good time.

And then I forgot. Forgot about being made to move. And the lack of a tech-desk view. Forgot about the creatives sitting behind me, until…

One of the groaned.

Oh dear. Something had gone wrong.

I scanned the stage. I hadn’t seen anything go awry. Perhaps this seat-stealing creative just had a stomach ache.

I lost myself in the show once more.

Until…

Another groan.

The cast sang on, still nothing visibly wrong.

His stomach ache must have been really bad. I wondered if I should offered the use of an aspirin. But then I remembered I was supposed to be annoyed with them, so decided to let him suffer through without medical assistance.

Besides, I was enjoying the show. And didn’t want to be distracted.

By the time I emerged back into Cavern Street shopping arcade I still hadn’t come up with the answer to my question: West End or Fringe?

Now, looking back on it all, I’ve come to a conclusion: I am not qualified to make such decisions.

Who cares if it belongs to the bright lights of the West End, or runs with the cool cats of the Fringe? Surely all that matters is the theatre, and what it makes us feel as we come together to form the single, living, breathing organism that is: the audience... ergh. That's theatre wankery if ever I heard it.

Fine. I'm calling it. It's West End. Done.

This is how the world ends

I have something to admit.

I took a day off. No theatre at all for me on Sunday.

I stayed at home. Did laundry. Watched that James Graham Brexit thing (it was good). Painted my nails (now my programme-selfies won’t look so… chipped). It was good. I don’t know why I don’t do it more often. Oh, yeah. Marathon. Fine… moving on.

Look how good my nails look! I predict they will be chipped again by the next programme-selfie

I was back in the West End yesterday. True West at the Vaudeville.

I hadn’t intended to see this one. Nothing against the play, Johnny Flynn or Kit Harrington (or even his hair), but I really wanted to see the Globe’s Emilia, which is next up at in the theatre. I mean, an all-female cast in a play about a seventeenth century poetess? Yes please! But damn GILT got in the way with its pesky ticket offers. You know how it goes. Not that I’m not grateful. Please don’t stop, GILT. I need you!

Monday night and I was off to the Strand. Took photos. Picked up my ticket. Bought a programme (£5. Articles. Rehearsal photography. Acceptable). Took more photos. Went to the bar. Then the other bar. All fine.

The route up to the grand circle is a little… bare. Made me think that perhaps a separate entrance had been integrated into the theatre, but no one had told the decorators. Still, not quite as prison-chic as the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, so let’s not linger too much on that. There were show posters hanging up on the walls. Fine.

In fact, everything was fine. So fine that I was beginning to panic.

What on earth was I going to write about?

I’ve been worrying about this a lot lately. 233 theatres. Even accounting for double-show days, that’s a lot of blog posts. Was there really enough to say? What if every theatre I visit is… fine. Things can’t happen on every single trip. I don’t want them to happen on every single trip. My anxiety, you know. It’s very stressful. But what’s even more stressful is the thought of having to sit down the morning after and pull a thousand words out of nowhere.

And that’s the most likely scenario, isn’t it? Nothing happening.

I’ve seen a lot of theatre over the years. A lot. And the amount of truly blog worthy incidents that have happened in my vicinity can be counted on one hand. I mean, there was that time when a notable character actor swatted a woman across the back of her head with his programme at The Old Vic because she wouldn’t switch her phone off. That was pretty intense. But unless I intend to put said character actor on retainer, I couldn’t rely on that happening again any time soon.

Such worries fluttered away however when I met the usher in the grand circle. As soon as she tore my ticket, I just knew there was going to be trouble. Perhaps all those years of theatre-going experience are finally kicking in, but I sensed we were not going to be in for an easy ride.

What’s the theatrical equivalent to spidey-senses? Well, whatever it is: that.

The Vaudeville looks like it’s been recently refurbished. Or at least, recently repainted. Either side of the grand circle, right on the edges, where slips seats might usually go, are a pair of wooden scaffolds, to hold spotlights. Now, I have nothing against spotlights, nor the sinister-looking constructions required to house them. But they are rather big. And if you are sitting right on the aisle, they manage to obscure the view of a good chunk of the stage. Which is ironic. Given the purpose of lighting and all.

So it was unsurprising that when the house lights dimmed, the woman sitting on the end of my row, slunk out of her seat and sneaked forward, into the empty front row, where presumably the view was considerably better.

She didn’t get to enjoy it for long.

A few second later, the usher hurried down the stairs to the front row and after some heated whispering, the interloper was removed. She meekly returned to her designated seat.

Except, the usher wasn’t done.

And the front row wasn’t empty.

There was someone else there.

I hadn’t noticed him before.

The usher leaned in. Some more fervent whispering followed.

He whispered back.

The usher wasn’t having it. She stood to the side of the row, waiting for him.

He didn’t move.

The tension strained taught between the two of them.

Who would break first?

Something was happening on stage but I wasn’t paying attention. This impasse was far more interesting than anything our playwright could possibly come up with.

I sat, watching, utterly gripped.

The usher dithered. I could see her thinking. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. Holy shit. It was her. She was going to give in.

The man in the front row stared resolutely forward, watching the play as if all the rules and orders of theatre weren’t tumbling down around him.

Then, she walked off. Leaving the man in the front row… in the front row.

He’d won.

I almost gasped.

In fact, I might of actually gasped.

Was this the end? Had this age of polite theatre finally come to an end? Where we going to return to a time of throwing tomatoes at the stage? Would actors need to start shouting over the din of the audience’s nattering? What about booing? I feel booing is due for a comeback. Why do opera and panto-goers get to have all the fun? I want to boo too!

After that, it was hard to concentrate on the play.

Kit Harrington displayed some excellent floor-work, kicking his legs and arms up like a baby grasping for his mobile. While Johnny Flynn tackled a loaf-full of toasted bread with such enthusiasm it made me quite hungry.

And the woman sat at the end of my row?

She’s a fighter.

As soon as the lights went back down in act two, she made a second attempt at the front row.

This time the usher didn’t stop her.

What was the point? Chaos had won. The thin velvet line had been breached. There’s nothing for it but to hide behind the bar and chug the gin and wait for the reinforcements to arrive.

Audiences of London! We will no longer we shackled by the conventions of theatre. The ushers have no hold over you. Talk! Eat! Lean forward if you so desire! Because a new age has dawned, and we will not be contained in our allocated seats!

As the curtain closed I leapt up, ready to launch myself into this new world and reclaim my power as an audience member. I could see it all: Audiences pouring out of the theatres and congregating in Trafalgar Square. There was going to be a march. And banners. And quite possibly a few bins kicked over. We were going to graffiti the theatre doors and disrupt the day-ticket queues. We would build a bonfire of theatre programmes! Okay, maybe not that last one. That’s taking things too far.

I headed out of the side door, towards the staircase leading down the outside of the building, and breathed in the night air. Ah! It smelt like a riot about to happen.

And something else.

Something slightly more acidic then the rising up of theatre-goers.

Unless the rising up of theatre-goers smells of piss.

As we left the alleyway, a lady with an American accent piped up behind me. “Did you notice that? That smell was urine, I think..."

Yeah, I think you’re right.

As we emerged onto the Strand, the smell, like the rebellion, dissipated.

I went home.

Okay… so my little tale is not quite well-respected-character-actor-hitting-woman-with-programme good. But we’ll work on that. Perhaps I’ll start leaving my phone on during shows. See what kind of reaction I can provoke. Leave it with me kid. You want drama. I’ll get you drama.

Vive la revolution!

This is how it's done, people

Yes. Absolutely. A thousand times, yes.

The Playhouse is here serving up perfection. The poster child on how it should be done. I hope the rest of the West End is paying attention.

I hadn’t been to the Playhouse Theatre for a while. Not since Lindsay Lohan sped the plow back in 2014 (don’t laugh, I thought she was pretty good). Has it been refurbished since then? Because I don’t remember it looking quite so handsome.

The box office is to be found outside, just by the main doors, in its own little room, brightly light and shining white. I thought this nifty innovation, this “office in a box” if you will, was a great idea. It saves us all having to deal with the double queue-confusion that I’ve been encountering a lot recently.

Bag check done and ticket presented, I headed into the main doors. More shining whiteness. White walls. Towering ceilings. A long bar. A black and white tiled floor. All offset by gold. It practically shimmered.

Unlike the garishness of the golden Garrick, the Playhouse gave off an air of a Regency ballroom. Which is quite a considerable feat of magic, as there’s no way Mr Darcy would have enough room to glower properly in this foyer-bar, let alone led a gavotte. Plus, it wasn’t built for a good sixty years after Beau Brummell tied his cravat for the final time.

But the feeling only intensified when I headed into the auditorium and I got the overwhelming feeling that I’d somehow wandered into the Vauxhall Gardens circa 1800.

A painted garland looped its way over the stage. Rococo flourishes decorated the walls. And the balustrades of the upper circle disappeared into a pair of paintings that were giving off serious Fragonard vibes.

There were even lampposts. Actual lampposts. In the theatre.

Having bought my ticket for a mere snip of £10 (it’s all about GILT right now), I was intrigued to find out what a tenner can buy you in these pleasure gardens. Would I be tucked away behind a pillar, or relegated to a slip seat where leaning forward would grant me a glimpse of less than half the stage and a life-long enemy in the form of my neighbour?

Neither of these things, as it turns out. Instead I found myself in the dress circle, back row, in the centre, with a near perfect view of the stage.

There must have been some mistake. Surely.

Had I been upgraded on the sly? No. The house was full. No closed off balcony here.

Perhaps I was hallucinating? I have been very tired since starting this marathon. I might of nodded off and imagined the entire night.

But while I would like to believe that I could dream up the entirety of musical - one that was convincingly written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright - I somehow don’t think that’s the case.

I had to face it. I was really there. In a great seat. For a great price. In a very handsome theatre. Watching an epic musical.

Man, sometimes good things really do happen to mediocre people.

I mean… probably. Sometimes. To someone.

I wasn’t convinced.

There had to be something wrong with this place.

In the interval, I went in search of it. The Playhouse must have some dreadful failing, and I was determined to hunt it out.

I went to the bar: tasteful wood flooring. Natty velvet chairs.

And this:

Eff you painting. Hope is dead.

Okay, except this offensively upbeat painting, the dress circle bar was nice. But what about the upper circle? I was willing to put money on the fact that they were being served out of broken jam jars in some prison-style bar. Right?

I wound my way through the convoluted corridors up to the upper circle and pushed open the door to the bar up there.

Same velvet seats. Tasteful. Comfortable. Stylish. And fucking irritating.

What was wrong with this place?

It had to be the loos.

There’s been a lot of stuff in the theatre press recently about loos. The Stage seems to be running a massive campaign on the issue. This is like the theatrical version of the Daily Mail in 1992. Suggested headline: The Stage doth Drained it! No? Fine.

But when I passed by on my way back to my seat, the ladies was near empty. No queues stretching out down the stairs. No fight for the hand-dryers. Nothing.

The Playhouse Theatre is annoyingly perfect.

Lovely building. Queues are all neat and orderly. No one tried to talk to me or make me dance, threw bread at me, or manipulated me into a standing ovation (that I gave willingly and with enthusiasm). Programmes are fairly priced (£5) and interesting. Even the signage was excellent. Which is a good thing as the corridors there are very confusing, splitting off in all sorts of directions as they feed you to the various different levels.

I wonder if the separate box office room was an artefact of an old, separate, balcony entrance that has been integrated into the main body of the theatre. It would explain all those stairs and strange internal layout.

Oh wait. Hang on. Did I just find something?

Thank god.

The Playhouse Theatre isn’t perfect.

It has confusing corridors.

Phew.

I thought I was going to have to start bringing people along, just to double check that I wasn’t imaging the entire thing.

I’m not sure I could have faced seeing Caroline, or Change that many times. My heart would smash within the week.

Don’t feel bad about missing out, they were apparently filming it last night. So you can get your heart smashed on your own time.

So. That’s it.

All this perfection may make for a boring blog-post (where’s the drama! The intrigue! The panic attacks!) but quite frankly, I needed this. I mean, I really needed this. I was feeling down down last yesterday following my trip to the Lyric. This has helped immensely.

I practically bounced all the way home. I may have even hummed. Quietly. To myself. When no one else was around.

… perhaps I should go back and buy that painting.