Going Barking

After spending the best part of five hours on the tube, running errands all around London, I step off the platform in Barking at 6.55pm. The show I'm seeing tonight starts at seven. TFL claims the theatre is an 11-minute walk away. Google Maps has estimated seven minutes. 

Looks like I'm going to take the advice of AWOLNATION and RUN. 

I pelt it down the highstreet, darting between the market traders packing away their stalls and into a wide sidestreet. Without bothering to check to see if there's a car coming I launch myself across the road, almost running over a small child skipping her way down the pavement. No matter. Kids heal fast. I keep going. Through the foliage of a large three I can just about make out a banner: "DANCE COMEDY MUSIC." It's the Broadway Theatre. I've found it. I skid to a hault, pausing just long enough to take a photo before aiming myself at the sliding doors. 

I'm in the box office. There are people queuing at the desk. It's 6.59pm. I fucking made it.  

I join the queue, clutching at my side and trying to think calming thoughts as I get my breath back. 

Behind the box office desk, there are three clocks. One set to the performance start time (7 o’clock). One to the finish time (10 o’clock). And one for the current time. That is the middle clock. And it has just clicked to one minute past seven. 

“The sound check ran over,” explains the box officer to the person in front. “They’d just finished their tech rehearsal. It should be starting in five minutes, but the doors are open. They just need everyone to take their seats.” 

Thank the theatre gods for overrunning tech run-throughs. 

It’s my turn. 

I give the box officer my surname and she sorts through the few remaining tickets. It doesn’t take her long. She frowns. 

“Hmm.” 

“I booked this morning?” I say, thinking they might be the sort of venue to print their tickets in advance. Turns out they’re not. 

“I have the confirmation email?” I try.

The box officer looks through the four last tickets once more, before taking my phone and inspecting the email. 

“Hmm,” she says again, setting it down by her keyboard and glancing between the screen of my mobile and the one on her computer. 

The minute hand on the central clock clicks forward another minute. 

And another. 

A queue grows behind me. Presumably all owners of those last four tickets. 

With a final tap of the mouse, the printer under the counter putters into action, and a ticket comes out. Thank goodness.  

Ticket in hand, I make for the stairs, finding myself in a large, light-filled bar. 

Not sure where I’m meant to go now. 

I look around confused, but my feet, led by some sixth theatre-sense, takes me off to some low doors across the way. 

A woman grabs my ticket from my fingers as I pass, too fast for me to react. “That way,” she says, pointing over to the low doors. “The ladies in blue will show you the way,” she adds, handing back the ticket to me.  

I turn around to thank her, but she’s already moved on. “The show is about to start!” she shouts to the bar. 

Through the doors and I’m in some sort of lobby. Sofas and armchairs nestle around large photos of shiny people doing earnest community things. 

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There’s lots of doors in here. I pick the one that goes up to the balcony and start climbing the stairs in the very red stairwell. One day, I’m going to write a thesis about the presence of red corridors in theatres. There must be some psychological reason behind it. Perhaps to get everyone to hurry the fuck up. 

Well, it works, because I storm my way up those stairs, and find myself emerging at the back of the auditorium, right behind the tech desk. 

And there’s someone sitting in my seat. 

I check the row. And my ticket. Which is hard because it is black as the proverbial pitch in here. But yes, there is a bloke. In my seat. 

“Hi, sorry,” I say to him. “Are you V1?” I ask, knowing perfectly well that he is not V1. Because I am V1. And we can’t both be V1 unless things went very wrong at the box office. 

“Sorry,” he says, jumping out of the seat. “I was just sitting with my friends,” he adds, nodding to the group sitting behind. 

Apology accepted. I go to sit down. But the bloke is still hanging around in the aisle. 

“Sorry I…” he says, indicating the spare seats to the other side of me. 

I stand again to let him pass. 

I start on the business of getting settled in, taking off my jacket and putting on my glasses. 

But the peace doesn’t last for long. 

The owners of those four tickets have arrived and they want to claim their seats – right where the bloke is sitting. 

And they’ve brought an usher with them. 

Again, he tells them that he was just wanting to sit near his friends, but the usher asks to see his ticket and he is soon led off elsewhere. 

As for the friends? Yup. You guessed it. They were in the wrong seats too. Another usher comes to take them away, depositing them in the empty slip seats as the show starts. 

It’s Shakuntala. A dance drama based on the Indian tale. Full of glittery costumes, synchronised dances, lip-synching, projections, surtitles and a voiceovered narrator. 

But the drama isn’t contained on the stage. 

The seat-hopping at the back of the auditorium was only the start of a game of musical chairs that has no intention of quitting any time soon. 

One guy in the row in front begs his escape from his neighbour, only to return a few minutes later with a water bottle which he hands to the person sitting at the end of the row with the instruction to “pass it down.” 

Blue shirted ushers lead people in, turfing seat-stealers out of the way as they go, before starting the process anew as these seatless-wonders are led back to their official places, creating a domino effect of movement throughout the first act. The games only pause as the house lights rise to allow for the procession of an angry sage and his cymbal-clattering followers are they make their way down the aisles towards the stage. 

When it is the turn of Shakuntala herself, in her bridal red, to climb the stairs, I swear I see shadows scattering in her wake. 

There can’t be a single person in this place who reached the interval in the same spot they started the show in. 

The narrator tells us there will be an interval of 20 minutes. And that there are CDs of the songs available for purchase. 

I go back downstairs. Mainly to get some photos of the space. I didn’t have much time on the way up. 

As I aim my camera at some signage, a man comes up to me. “Where are the toilets?” he asks. 

I tell him I don’t know, and he apologises so profusely I realise he must have thought I was an usher. 

I’m currently wearing a Louis Theroux t-shirt, and playing with my phone. Not exactly the picture of the perfect usher. Oh well. 

In the bar, I look up and find that the word THEATRE has been marked out in huge, blocky, capital letters against the windows. 

I try to get a photo of that, but I can’t find the right angle. I go all the way to the far side of the bar to try to get it in, but from here, the letters are completely invisible. 

It’s only after the fourth or fifth attempt that I realise that windows are see-through, and I could go outside to get my photo. 

I do. And discover that from out here, the letters are all the right way around. 

Bonus. 

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Back inside, and I find a quiet spot to inspect my art. 

“Where are the toilets?” 

I look up. It’s a woman, with her family in tow. 

“Sorry… I don’t know…” I say slowly,  

She apologies. She looks utterly embarrassed. 

And I wonder if I have somehow managed to get hired by the Broadway Theatre without my noticing. 

It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s happening though. 

It’s a race thing. 

The only white people in this theatre tonight are the ushers. And me.  

I make it through the rest of the interval without sullying the name of usher any further, and go back upstairs. 

The audience filters back in slowly. 

As I stand to let a group in, last person touches me on the arm and says thank you, in a gesture of such warmth I almost thank her right back. 

“Are you enjoying it?” asks my neighbour. 

I tell him I am.  

I mean, we’re not talking Martin McDonagh levels of scripting here. And the dancers aren’t exactly Mavin Khoo. But everyone on stage looks like they are having a great old time. And that has a charm all of its own. 

As the lights descend once more, I spot that he’s holding something. A programme. 

Where on earth did he get that? I was all over the place downstairs, and I didn’t see anyone selling programmes. I didn’t see much in the way of a front of house presence at all. Probably why everyone was asking me where the loos were. 

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“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice that is definitely not the narrator’s. “Can I ask if you are eating peanuts in the theatre, please put them away, as there are people with allergies.” 

I momentarily panic before I remember that not only am I not eating peanuts, I don’t even have any with me. So the chances of me being the source of this person’s flair up must be elsewhere. 

Peanuts presumable removed, the show starts again. 

Shakuntala is in all sorts of difficulties, but after some friendly fishermen have finished their dance, they manage to sort things out and break the curse that’s keeping her from her true love, the king. 

A microphone is brought out, and it’s time for the speeches. The cast and crew are thanked. All the back-stagers are brought out for bows, and there’s some moving talk about the connection to Barking. 

It’s all very sweet. 

That done, the house lights go up and I make for the door. It’s a long way back to Hammersmith. 

A man stops, and doubles back to talk to me. 

“That was interesting, wasn’t it?” he says.

“Yes,” I agree. “It was good.” 

He wants to say something else. I can tell. 

And sure enough, as we make our way to the stairwell, he asks: “Do you come to this kind of show often?” he asks.  

I smile. I know what he’s really asking. “What is a white girl doing at a show like this?” 

I admit that no, this isn’t my usual fair. I think that real answer would be even weirder than the whatever is going on in his head. “I’m just a theatre-nerd,” I shrug. 

A Goth goes to Redbridge

I've just travelled from one end of the Central Line to the other, and I feel like I have stepped up the train into another county. I'm in South Woodford. Redbridge. Which is not a part of London I'm familar with, and yet recognise instantly. The shops are all exactly the same as anywhere else in London. There's a Starbucks. And a Marks. And I can spot a Waitrose coming up ahead, but even so. Something feels off.

I feel different.

Or rather, I look different.

Which is odd because I'm wearing my classic combo of great big black skirt and black t-shirt.

And then I realise, it's not me that's changed. It's everyone else.

Do you remember back when I told you about my trip to the artsdepot, and I mentioned how out of place my friend Helen looked in Finchley? Well, that's me in Redbridge.

In a world of untucked pastel t-shirts, I'm walking around looking like Joy Division wrote my personal theme song.

Although apparently, I'm yet to perfect my resting bitch face as everyone is smiling at me. It's making me feel paranoid.

A homeless man sitting on the pavement offers me a cheery "Hello Miss!"

A group of men all wearing flip-flops grin as the shuffle past me.

Everyone is happy.

It's weird.

I'm beginning to think they must pump something into the air around here.

The confirmation email I got from the Redbridge Drama Centre after booking my tickets has been the chirpiest I've received to date on the marathon, and by far the most delightful. Following an assurance that Emily and Molly will be busy stuffing my tickets into envelopes as I read, the email goes on to promise a "rather unique!" box office if I "thought better of it and will be picking up tickets."

With nothing further to go on, my brain has been going all sort of wild places (Up a tree! Underground! A hole in the wall you must whisper your darkest secrets into before being allowed inside!), but nothing could have prepared me for the next email.

The show had been cancelled.

That was a serious blow.

I could actually feeling my heart sinking as I read it.

This isn't the first time this had happened to me. I'd planned to get to the Redbridge right at the start of my marathon. It would have been one of my first venues. I had it all diarised and planned out. And then the day before, when I went on their website to buy the ticket, there was nothing but a note to say that the show was no longer going ahead, but I could see it at some other theatre on its tour. Which was no bloody use to me.

The disappointment was compounded by the problem that, despite the name, the Redbridge Drama Centre doesn't have all that much drama going on. It's taken nearly half a year for me to find another marathon-qualifying event on their appalling website for me to go to.

So, I was feeling a wee bit stressed about the whole thing.

But all was not lost.

It was not really cancelled. Just postponed. Moved from the Friday to the Saturday.

I didn't need to do anything. My tickets had been moved across to the new date. All I had to do was turn up.

Fair enough. I could move things on my end. I wasn't missing out on what might be my last chance to get to this place before the year runs out. Except, the email didn't end there.

"If there are any problems with this," it went on to say. "Please let us know and we will be able to make arrangements for you to see the show on the Friday still."

What on earth...

The show on Friday was cancelled. But I could still see it.

It was all very strange.

I began to wonder whether I had done something wrong. If perhaps I should have paid homage to the keepers of the box office in advance. Perhaps they just already knew that my secrets aren't dark enough.

Maybe it was all a test. And by turning up on Saturday, I have already failed it.

So, it's with some trepidation that I turn off the main road, walk through a housing estate, and pause in front of what looks like an old school building to get a photo of the outside.

There's a ramp leading the way down to the main entrance, which I follow around and go in.

I find myself in a barn-like space. Brick walls painted white. The bar takes up one side, decorated with black umbrellas and a street sign hanging from the ceiling pointing out the way to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue (in completely different directions).

In the corner is a model of a cow. I don't have the brainpower to process that right now, so I move on.

Over the other side is... I'm not sure, I have to take a few steps to one side to fully understand it. It's the front of a tube train. Bursting out of a brick tunnel which leads to a back office. The TFL logo is painted on one side, and the driver's seat has a computer next to it.

It must be the rather unique box office!

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They weren't lying.

There's no one sitting inside, so I hang around, trying to make sense of this place.

A woman comes in and slips into the tube carriage. "The box office is now open," she half-sings through the front window, with a Broadway-style opening of her arms.

I sidle my way over as someone in the office calls out: "And the bar!"

"And the bar," the box office lady confirms. "More importantly."

"Everything is open!" I say, not wanting to be left out.

"Are you picking up tickets?" the box office lady asks me. "What's the surname?"

"Smiles?"

"What a lovely name," she says. "I would love that to be my name. I would smile every day."

I give her my standard patter that I dole out whenever anyone shows interest in my surname. It's Scottish. It means small.

"Aww," she says, as she hands over my ticket. "Well, smile through the performance!"

The Redbridge air must be getting to me, because I leave the tube grinning from one ear to the other.

There are a few tables dotted around, but over by the cow (I'm still not ready to contemplate the cow) there's a black sofa that looks mightly comfy and more in keeping with my aesthetic. I lob my bag and myself onto it and watch all the people come in.

It's soon packed. Every table is full of people chattering, excited about the upcoming show. Music is playing. Someone dims the lights. A party atmosphere starts to form.

I just hang out with the cow.

We start by merely side eyeing each other, before I realise that it's not the cow that's looking back at me. She seems to have a see through centre - a glassed off compartment where her four stomachs should be, and through that a poster of two men peer out. It's most disconcerting.

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"The auditorium is now open!" calls a voice from the door on the far side.

I sigh in relief, and head over to join the queue.

The door takes us through a corridor lined with show posters, around a corner, through another room that looks like it belongs in a hospital, round another corner, and this time into a hallway lit by a row of chandeliers. Very la-di-da.

An usher stands guard by the door, checking tickets.

The boy infront of me shrugs.

"You don't need a ticket," she laughs, clearly recognising him. "You just turn up!"

I can't just turn up so I flash her my ticket and she nods me through.

The old man behind me tries to hand his over. "I'm just looking at them," she explains, and he is also nodded through.

Inside is a floor level stage, with a good-sized bank of seating rising up away from it.

I clamber up the stairs, making my way to the back. I don't want to be taking any of the good seats away from these people. But it's not a large theatre, and even from the back few rows, I'm still not all that far from the stage.

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One of the front of housers comes and asks for a surname. "Can I have a show of hands?"

Said owner of surname shows his hands and the front of houser goes over to him. "These are yours I believe," he says, handing over a pair of tickets.

Now, I don't think I've ever seen in-seat ticket delivery. I bet ATG are pissed they didn't think of that.

Tickets all delivered, the show starts. Five minutes late, but no one seems to care. They're all so happy.

I can't say it lasts for long. The show is Elergies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and it is super depressing. A serious of monologues from people who died of AIDS, interspersed with songs.

And that finale, with a massive cast busting out a tune together, filling the entire stage... Really not sure I can take on that on a Saturday night. My poor emotions.

As the doors open, I slip out quickly and hurry back to the tube station.

It's a long way back to Hammersmith.

It's a long way back to anywhere from here. I'm almost grateful that the theatre's programming is so infrequent. The chances of me ever feeling the need to come back here are very slim. Shame though. I did like that box office.

As I cross the North Circular, a man dances out of my way, and then stops, startled.

"Hey!" he says. "I saw you coming the other way."

I give him a confused look and keep on walking, but as I pass his friends I realise that yeah, I do recognise them. They're all wearing those frickin flip-flops!

Oh dear.

It's probably for the best I'm not coming back. Only been here two hours and already people are starting to remember me. They'll be talking about this for years: The day the Goth came to Redbridge.

I better get out of here.

Offenbach Off

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

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

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

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

“Amazing, thank you.”

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

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

Still… two frickin’ pages.

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

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

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

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

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

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

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

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

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

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

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

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

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

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

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

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

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

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

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

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

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

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

Take two then.

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

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

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

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

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

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

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Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a light up board on the stage.

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

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

I have to get out of here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

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

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

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

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

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

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

Screw that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mmmama who bopped me

I have to admit, I don't know anything about my next theatre. Not for lack of trying though. I've been on the Stockwell Playhouse website a lot, but even with that research happening, the things I've learnt are limited to the following: it's in Stockwell, there is lift access to all floors, and they have very short runs of musicals, spaced very far apart. That's it. I don't know whether it's a receiving house or a producing one. I don't even know if the shows are amateur productions. I just know that they have Spring Awakening on tonight, and I am going.

I've never seen Spring Awakening before, but I hear it's rather good. Nicki from my work, who went to see Six with me all those months back, claims it's her favourite musical. She saw it on Broadway, because of course she did. I'm perfectly willing to believe it's great. Duncan Sheik did the music after all, and I'm a major fan of American Psycho: The Musical.

Anyway, here I go. Short walk from Stockwell tube station and... that is not what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting. But not that.

There, directly opposite the traffic lights, is a large, modern building. With a glass-fronted ground floor. It doesn't look anything like a theatre. If I had to guess, I would say... I don't know... a gym maybe? But that's it. And the reason I know that's it, is because there are twin screens over the doorway, flashing and displaying the name: Stockwell Playhouse, as if we were standing outside some regional cinema or something.

Lots of people are going in.

Looks like Spring Awakening is the hot ticket in Stockwell tonight.

Inside there's a small foyer, and then the box office, in its own little hut. The box officer sealed off behind glass windows.

I join the queue and half a minute later it's my turn.

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I give my name and to my surprise the box office starts flicking through a ticket box. For some reason, I hadn't expected there to be paper tickets. I thought we'd be fully in check-list country here but it seems not. There it is, in my hand. With no fuss whatsoever. I didn't even need to confirm my first name. It was just given to me.

Well, I better go see what's happening upstairs then.

First stop, the bar. It's very busy in here. Very, very busy. So busy, I'm not sure I could even squeeze myself in. There's a pink light glowingly hazily over the crowd. I try to get a photo, but there's just too many people for me and my inferior photography skills to capture any sense of the space, so I move on. Further down the corridor.

On the walls, rehearsal photos have been arranged in neat patterns. I've noticed that this seems to be rather a thing in amateur theatre. This sticking of photos on the wall. Kinda reminds me of when I was at school, and they'd blutack all the play photos to try and convince our parents to purchase copies.

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There's a group of young women getting their tickets checked at the door to the theatre and chatting about some mutual acquaintance

"Can I interest you in a programme?" asks the ticket checker, putting on her best sales assistant voice. "Only one pound fifty."

"Does it have a picture of him in it?" asks one of the girls.

"It does!" The ticket checker flicks through the pages and turns around the programme to prove the existence of this photo. "There," she says, pointing to one of the headshots.

"Well, alright then."

"You have to get it," says her friend. "So you can ask him to sign it."

"Exactly!" agrees the ticket checker.

The girl is convinced. She reaches for her purse.

The other ticket checker spots me, and she leans around the group to reach for my ticket.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask. I want in on this headshot action.

"That's one pound fifty," she says, pulling one from her pile in readiness as I try to find the coins.

"Bargain," I say as I hand over the funds. It really is. By the looks of it, there is quite a few pages in that thing.

"Enjoy the show!" she wishes me as I take the programme and move on.

Everyone is so cheerful tonight. I can feel it in the air. The energy is crackling.

Although, that could just be the air con.

I'm in the theatre now and it's like a fridge.

I shiver as I find my seat in the front row and take off my jacket.

It's big in here. Like, properly big. No circle on anything, but the stalls go back quite a ways. And it's, you know, a theatre. Fixed seating. None of that temporary nonsense, or a room filled with chairs. Even the front row is on a rake, with a little step up from the entrance. And there's a raised stage. A bit thrusty, but nothing major. And a good size for a musical. I like it.

"Oo. It's cold in here," says a man as he walks in.

It is. And it's wonderful.

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I have a look at the programme, and yup. It’s an amateur production. There’s a note from the director. You only ever get those in am dram programmes. And yes, look - there’s that crediting line you always get at these things: “This amateur production is presented by arrangement…” blah blah blah.

Well, that’s one mystery solved at least.

A young woman comes in. She's carrying far too many drinks.

"There you are!" she cries out to the other, equally young, woman sitting two seats away from me.

"What's all this?"

"This one's yours," she says and through some shared shuffling they manage to get a bottle out from between her fingers. Then she turns to me. "Sorry," she says. "I don't know you but can you hold this?"

She's holding out a plastic cup of water. "Don't worry," I say, taking it from here. "I have a spare pair of hands."

Now down to only two drinks she can get on with the business of organising herself and sitting down.

"I like your t-shirt, by the way," she says to me, dumping her bag down. "I want to a Hanson Christmas concert a few years back..." She then tells me this story about how they didn't sing MmmBop, because, well, it was a Christmas concert, and her friend never forgave her because of it.

I nod along and make sympathetic noises.

I don't have the heart to tell her it's actually a joke Nirvana t-shirt.

Oh well. No time for that anyway. The show is starting.

And, oh great. I'm getting a serious case of costume envy again. Everyone is dressed in black and white. The girls in black dresses with white detailing and the boys in natty breeches and jackets. I really want some. The breeches I mean. They look so comfy. Like pyjamas. And yet with that whole 19th-century German schoolboy groove going on.

The music's good too. It's very Duncan Sheik. Can spot his stuff a mile off. If only because he has this habit of building up a serious tune, and then suddenly stopping it just as it gets going. Like an Oscar's speech cut off when it gets too political. Like, we all want to hear some A-lister ranting on about the president, but there's a time limit and we've got six major awards to get through before the commercial break.

Now, I’m all for short musicals. The shorter the better, quite frankly. A nice ninety-minuter fits in well with my whole in-bed-by-ten way of life. But come on Duncan, finish the damn songs.

Still, it's fun. Even as they warn us about the dangers of an abstinence-only sex ed policy. Who can resist the sight of these prim Calvinist kids rocking out to these serious bangers?

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In the interval, there's a race to the bar. I don't know how they all fit in that room, but they must have done, because when the audience comes back, they've tipped over from pleasingly tipsy to properly pissed.

One young man starts pulling out Dairylea Dunkers and handing them out to his mates, which is a hell of a choice of something to be munching on in the theatre. Crunchy and dippy? That's intense. Is this the future of theatre snacking? What next? Houmous and crudites?

As the lights dim, the drunken shushing stretches well into the first song, and the audience is there, right in the action.

You can hear the wimpering when the gun comes out, and as it gets aimed under a chin a cry of "Jesus Christ!" echoes down from the back of the auditorium. Followed by cries of "oh no! Don't!" as one of the girls gets led off. We all know what's going to happen. And this lot are really feeling it.

At the end, there's a standing ovation.

I don't join them.

Not because it wasn't good, just, you know, I see a lot of shows and I can't go around ovating for everything. I like to save them. Hold them back for the productions and performances that kick me right in the belly and leave me utterly winded.

"Night folks!" says one of the front of housers as we make our way back down the stairs.

No one replies. They're all too busy humming the tunes.

Witness her gate-crash my tiny hell

It is way too early on a Saturday morning for me to be awake. The sun is high in the sky and the birds outside my window are tweeting up a storm, but I am not ready for any of this nonsense.

Whatever demon possessed me to book a noon-time matinee has now vacated my body and left me to suffer through the morning all by myself.

At least I'm off somewhere rather thrilling today. Somewhere that I hadn't even heard of before this whole marathon thing. I'm going to the Crossrail Roof Gardens, which is apparently a place that not only exists, but also has a theatre. So, that's fun.

What does one wear when one goes to a roof garden? Layers, according to the email I got a few days ago from the good people at The Space who are behind the events there today. Says right here that it's covered (so no need of waterproofs, which I'm not entirely convinced I own anyway), but "it is 3 storeys above ground level so it can be a bit chilly."

I look doubtfully out the window. It doesn't look chilly. But sitting for two hours in the cold doesn't sound like much of a good time, so I stick a cropped sweatshirt over my dress and then sling on my 49er jacket on top of the whole thing. That'll do.

I don’t actually know where this place is, but thankfully the email has got me covered, with chunky paragraphs of directions both from the Canary Wharf tube station and the DLR.

“Take the large escalator up from the ticket hall,” it says. Well, there’s no mistaking that. The escalator is fucking massive. I take it.

“Turn right out of the main exit and walk through Reuters Plaza past the clocks.”

I don’t know what Reuters Plaza is, but I do see what looks like a little outcrop of clocks, planted like a walkway of trees either size of the path.

“Walk straight ahead through the set of glass doors underneath the steps and continue straight through until you come back outside.”

I spot the glass doors underneath the steps. They look dark, and a little bit grim. As if they belong to a political consultancy firm, utilising data analysis to bend democracy to their will. This is not the type of door that I would walk though. But the instructions have got me this far, might as well see where they lead me.

Turns out where they lead me is to a shopping centre.

Terrifying.

What next? “Straight through until you come back outside.”

Okay then. Straight through it is and Ooo… they sell salt beef here. I could do with some of that. Nope. Don’t get distracted. Straight through. Off we go.

I push my way through one set of doors after another, feeling very dramatic as they swing shut after me, leaving me blinking in the bright light of Adam’s Plaza. Well, I’m guessing this is Adam’s Plaza. That’s where the instructions say I should be, so let’s just hope they’re right.

It’s quiet here. Just a few smart looking people strolling around in the shadows of skyscrapers. There’s a bridge overhead. Linking one building to another, like a relic from some dystopian film set, where the rich never stoop to walking at ground level and the rest of us are left in the shadows to fight it out over the rat droppings.

There’s a couple of sloppy fountains, the type where the water gushes over the edge and into a waiting drain without the showy travesty of flying through the air first. There’s nowhere to sit though. No benches. This square was made for walking, not hanging around in.

But I hang around all the same, leaning over the railings, looking into the murky water of the docks and feeling a bit of a rebel. A tired and slightly complacent rebel, but a rebel nonetheless.

It occurs to me, that if I’m after views, I’d probably get better ones on a roof garden than in a square, so I bring up that email again and see what it has to say for this last part of my journey.

“The entrance to Crossrail Place is in front of you,” it says.

It’s that building next to me, I suppose, now that I’ve gone off course.

“Go up the escalators to the Roof Garden and follow signs for the Performance Space.”

Well, aye aye, Captain. Will do.

I go inside. There’s a staircase. And signs for a lift. I ignore those. The email said escalators and if the email says escalators then I am damn well taking the escalators.

Ah, there they are. I see them. I hop on, and ride up in style to the first floor.

There’s a piano up here. One of those Instagram-bait painted pianos that are left out in public in the hopes that some maestro will play it and we’ll have a nice viral video to distract us from the end of the world.

The entrance to the bridge is here. The dystopian one. It’s actually a tunnel, and looks even more science fiction from this angle. Quite the dramatic visual, actually. A spaceship's corridor stretching out to infinity. There’s already someone crouching down in front of it to get a photo. I take a photo of him taking a photo. Mainly because I don’t want to wait for him to finish up.

One more set of escalators and then we’re there! At least, I think we’re there. Trees and plants and a transparent roof. If this is not the roof garden, then it’s a pretty darn good reproduction.

I wander between the bushes, following the winding path.

There’s a sign here, pointing the way to the performance space. And a giant robot. Not sure what business a robot, giant or otherwise, has in a rooftop garden, but glad this place is covered. Wouldn’t want him getting all rusty when it rains.

Turns out, I don’t need the signs. I can hear the space. It sounds like singing.

I stop, trying to make out the words. Something about knowing someone is bad news because they have tattoos. It would almost be offensive if it weren’t so hilariously sheltered.

I turn a corner and I see them. The singers. Their childish faces just about visible through the foliage. They are very young, thank goodness. I would dread to think what kind of grownup is scared of tattoos.

There’s more signs here, for the Bloom Festival. That’s why I’m here. A few days filled with free events, split into ticketed slots of a few hours each. Mine doesn’t start until noon, and I still have a few minutes left, so I go for a wander.

I don’t get far though before I find something very exciting.

A short-story machine! I do like a short-story. I even write the bloody things on occasion. Mostly as gifts (my poor friends… they are very sweet about it all, but how they must suffer). The intro above the machine claims it can print one out of a one minute’s read time, two minutes, or five minutes. Just tap the button and a short-story of that length will be printed in some eco-friendly manner, just for you.

I immediately hit the five minute button.

Nothing happens.

The one minute button is lit up though.

Perhaps they are out of stock of the five minutes.

I try the one minute button instead.

Nothing.

Oh.

Okay.

I walk back to the performance space to watch the end of the singing.

It’s fairly open here, with nothing but the plants to shade the stage from view.

The kids finish and file off stage.

It’s time to go in.

No one stops me as I squeeze myself through the leaving audience-members. No one asks for my name, or to check that I have a ticket. I don’t suppose it matters when it’s free.

Two steps in though, and my path is cut off.

Someone is blocking the way in.

She’s grabbed one of the festival-workers wearing a Bloom Festival t-shirt. She’s talking very fast. It’s something very important.

She wants to leave flyers on the benches.

I wait for her to finish. And wait... And wait...

Who knew there was so much to say about flyers.

Eventually she moves enough to let me pass and I go in.

It’s very much a garden theatre. A floor level stage, with curved benches on three levels, backed by a wall of greenery. It’s like a mini amphitheatre, except more garden centre than gladiatorial. I pick my favourite seat, third row - right at the end. Which here is a nice little corner, cuddled up with the leaves.

A Bloom t-shirt wearer comes out and begs the seated audience to stay. “There’s lots more coming up,” he says invitingly. “Stay. Please!”

They go.

There aren’t many people left.

I mean, it’s a small venue. Only three rows and not all three go all the way around. The third row could probably only fit ten people if they were intent on getting cosy, but still.

There are some kids on stage. They give a short play about trainers. It’s cute.

Parents watch their offspring through the medium of their phone cameras.

People walk past the theatre. Some pushing buggies. A few stop to look in, just as I had done, but none cross the threshold.

I can’t blame them. Two people wearing Bloom t-shirts are blocking the entrance. Their backs turned to the gap in the fence. There’s no way a buggy could pass through without them having to ask for the Bloomers to move.

The children finish their play.

There’s another changeover of the audience.

It’s a younger crowd now. Teens.

The stage is empty. And remains so. No one knows who’s meant to go on first.

The teenagers are all called to the front to work out the order they’ll be going on. This goes on for quite some time.

Straws drawn, and first victim selected, a Spotify ad blasts over the sound system.

The young performer makes a swift joke about it as she struggles with the microphone.

Something tells me that these guys haven’t had the chance to rehearse in this space. Sound checks are presumably just a test of coolness round this way.

There’s a crunch of broken twigs behind me, I turn around and find a photographer lurking amongst the vegetation, like a creeping pervert on Hampstead Heath.

I turn back around.

A woman pushing a pram manages to inch her way into the space by using the other entrance, thereby avoiding the Bloomers.

That brings the grand total of people in the audience not directly involved in the performance up to three.

The photographer must have climbed their way out of the boscage, because they are now down by the stage.

I scroll through Twitter while I wait for the next act to begin. I see a photo of me. Sitting in the third row of the Crossrail Roof Gardens.

Great.

I look longing at the group of old people, laden down with shopping, sauntering past. They pause, watch one of the performers sing a song, and then move on.

Another woman arrives. She’s also a bit older, and carrying a great number of bags. She takes a seat on the bottom bench, and then, after a moment of consideration, picks up the largest of the bags, climbs up the benches, and then dumps it in the second row, blocking my exit, before going back to her seat.

Gradually, more people arrive. They go sit by the older lady. She greets them all with a lifted hand and a wide smile, until one half of the space is packed with what looks like three generations of a single family.

The teens finish their set. Within seconds, every single one of them has gone.

The next performer arrives, and she starts setting up a table full of props.

The family all get up and take up new positions in the middle of the benches. The prime spots, head on to the stage.

With the bag to my left, and the family everywhere else, I am utterly trapped.

There’s no one else here. Just me, the family, the Bloomers, the creeping photographer, and a single performer: a spoken word artist.

I seem to have found myself in a private performance.

One of the group looks around at me, her eyes scraping up and down as if trying to work out how I had managed to wangle my way into their family show. Frankly, I’m wondering the same thing.

The spoken word artist asks us to raise our hands if we believe in luck. I’m not sure I believe in anything right now, least of all luck. I keep my arm down.

The poem is all about the serendipitous-stuff apparently. Not that I can tell. I hear a lot of words, but over the sound of the breeze blowing itself through the roof gardens, I can’t figure out how any of them join together.

The microphone stands unused and unnoticed as the performer's words are lost to the wind.

A few minutes later, the words stop and we all applaud.

Our performer goes over to one of the Bloomers and whispers something.

“Are you finished?” asks the Bloomer.

She is indeed, finished.

The Bloomer comes forward to the mic and draws the session to a close.

It’s time for me to get out of here.

“Excuse me,” I say to the woman boxing me in. I stumble over the bag, down the steps, and flee.

But then I stop.

There is one last mystery to solve.

I walk out, past the performance space, leaving the gardens behind me.

There, up ahead, is a sign. “Giant Robot.”

It’s a cafe.

Oh well.

Perhaps I can get myself a salt beef sandwich, u think as I hurry back down the escalators, past the sloppy foundation, under the tunnel, and back through the shopping centre.

I stand before the salt beef place.

It's closed.

Of course it is.

I trudge back to the tube station, sans salt beef sandwich.

At least I got another theatre checked off the list today.

 

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Because we're Addamses

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

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Lose hope all ye enter Eltham

I’ll give the Bob Hope Theatre this: it’s well named.

Everywhere you look, you see him. From the huge photo next to the box office, to the bust near the door, to the portrait glaring at you through the front windows. He’s everywhere.

After my crash course in the horror that is Great Northern Rail on Wednesday, I was determined not to suffer the vagaries of the rail networks again. Leaving the office a full two hours before kick-off time, I found myself enjoying the most stressfully drama-free journey south of the river I have managed to undertake since beginning this marathon. No crowds. No cancellations. Not even a hint of a delay. I even managed to get a nice photo of the Shard while I lazily hung around on the platform at London Bridge for my train that disconcertingly arrived exactly on time. It was most disconcerting.

As this meant that I arrived in Eltham a tiny bit early. Forty-five minutes worth of early.

No matter, I thought. I was in Eltham. A new, exotic, local for me. I could explore! Buy myself a little snack perhaps. The rain-sogged air practically fizzed with possibilities.

As I made my way up from the train station, fighting with, and inevitably giving up on, my umbrella, the fizz dissipated like a forgotten can of Fanta.

Everything was closed. The intriguing looking Wiccan shop had its shutters firmly down. As did every cafe that I passed. Even the police station was dark.

I was beginning to get worried. I really didn’t want to spend the next three-quarters of an hour standing around in the blustery rain.

I pressed on.

Finally, up ahead, I spotted something.

MacDonalds.

What a relief. Maccy Ds never close. Not until all the drunks have cleared out anyhow.

“We’re closed,” said a lady blocking the doorway as a man tried to get in.

“But-“ he started.

She shook her head. “Nope. We’re closed.”

I hung back, marvelling at the exchange. What was this place where a MacDonalds closes at 7pm?

I turned the corner, trudging in the opposite direction to the theatre, desperate to find anywhere were I could get something warm to drink before diving into the frantic world of amdram theatre.

Closed. Closed. Closed. Everything was closed.

Except. There. Just ahead. A Costa. And open until 7.30pm. Thanks the theatre gods, I was saved. Thirty minutes later, an overpriced hot chocolate warming my belly, I retraced my steps, back towards the theatre.

Eltham really is a sleepy little town. Permanently sleepy by the looks of it. I passed two funeral homes on the short work to the theatre.

Which might go some way to explaining this architectural memorial to a dead comedian. When considering their highly specific decorative themes, the Bob Hope can only truly be matched by the Pinter for shrine-like dedication.

 

I gave my name.

She looked through the ticket envelopes. It didn't take long. There were only two of them.

Did you get an e-ticket 

Now, I never select an e-ticket by choose.

 

Emma?

No?

I looked at the list. "It's Maxine," I said, indicating my name. But there was an Emma just below me. Emma Smillie. My god. There were two of us.

 

Are they still giving tickets out

Yeah, if you come here, they give you one. 

So that's the truck.

 

What is it with these small local theatres and tea? Do these people, when they go to the west end, march up to the bar and demand a cuppa?

 

Chairs and weird boards everywhere, membership, the young theatre group, Bob hopes involvement

 

Very high stage. I wouldn't recommend sitting in the front row 

 

Yeah, a real stage 

 

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O, so that's how it is

One of the best, and perhaps also the worst, thing about doing this marathon is having to go all over London to get to these venues. To areas that I have never been to before, have no reason to go to again, and could possibly have spent my entire life without ever visiting.

Last night was the turn of Barnes. A place I had only vaguely heard of, and had to Google multiple times to double check that it was actually in London.

Getting off the train in a sleepy looking village didn’t help matters.

As I walked down the lane (yes, a literal lane) I felt like I was stepping back in time, all the way back to my teen years when I lived in Somerset would take the train to visit friends in neighbouring counties, a huge bag slung over my back and the hoot of owls chasing my down the dark roads, praying that there would be a car waiting for me at the corner.

With the towering shadows cast by the woodland to my left, I could almost convince myself that I was 15 again. Almost.

Except the West Country never smelt quite so thick, and the roar of cars just beyond the tree line reminded me that yes, this was, technically, London.

Gradually, the lane widened. Streetlamps emerged. And houses replaced the trees.

Big houses.

Big old houses.

Big old Victorian houses. With decorative windows and fancy flourishes.

I followed the road further. More houses. A hair salon. A church.

So, this was Barnes.

Pretty. But imagine doing that commute every day... Nu uh. No way.

But just as I was crossing Barnes off my list of places to live, I spotted something. A sign.

“The Gothic Cottage.”

Well hello!

Barnes is one of those former villages that at some point over the past hundred years got gobbled up by the great monster that is London. I haven’t looked that up. I don’t need to. You can see it in a thousand different ways, from the village green to cards parked up on the pavement. But most telling up all is the lack of front gardens. Houses are built right up to the road. Or rather, the road stretches right up to the front doors of the homes that line it.

Which meant that all I could see of this Gothic Cottage was an expanse of white wall.

So, obviously I cross the road to get a look at it.

Ah. Now I see why people live here. 

House-hunting now concluded satisfactorily, it was time to make my way over to the next theatre on my list. The OSO Arts Centre.

Except, where the hell was it?

I looked down at the Google Maps screen on my phone, and then up at the street. I should be there.

Except I wasn’t.

Instead I appeared to be standing in front of a rather depressing looking office block.

Trusting the theatre gods would not lead me so far astray, I checked OSO’s website.

“The OSO entrance is at the rear of the building and faces Barnes Green, so you need to walk around the corner from Côte Brasserie to find us.”

Ah ha! I could see the Côte Brasserie. I walked around the corner and there…

Found it!

For the first time in this marathon, I actually stopped to take a few photos of the venue’s view before the venue itself.

Even in the dark I could tell it was rather fine. A lake. Tree. A wide flat green.

I wish I hadn’t wasted my trip on a wet March evening! This is a summer view, for sure.

Oh well. That’s something to look forward to for next year, I guess.

Up the stairs, through the door and… I almost bump into a tiny desk, standing sentinel by the entrance.

“Are you taking names?” I asked the lady behind it, noticing the print out covered in tiny check-marks.

“I am. What’s yours?”

A second later I was ticked off and handed over to the programme seller.

“Would you like a programme?”

“I would,” I said, committing myself to programme ownership before I had even asked the price.

They were two pounds. My bank-balance would survive another day.

“I keep my pound coins seperatly,” I comment as I open my purse. “So I'm well prepared.”

She laughed at that. “I'm very impressed,” she said sweetly.

“So am I,” I agreed. I really was. I'm not usually anywhere near so organised. But I'd had a bit of a wait while buying my afternoon slice of cake at the Sadler's cafe earlier that day, and I'd made good use of the time.

From the programme seller they tried to pass my off to the bar, but my days as a parcel were over. I had no more layers to unwrap. Taking a sly sidestep I went the other direction, diving deep into the cafe, with its long wooden tables and pot plants. And signs.

“Please keep the tables free for our adult customers to meet up, work, drink coffee, chat. Thank you.”

Wow, that’s… okay.

Here am I, in my thirties, and I’m back in my school uniform for the second time that evening. Except this time I wasn’t having a slightly hung-over walk down a country-lane, but was instead hopping from foot-to-foot outside the local petrol station, waiting for friends to finish buying up all the Quavers, as apparently bad things happen if more than three teenagers are in a shop at the same time.

Look, I’m not the most kid-friendly person in the world, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to criticise this but… no, wait. That’s exactly why I’m a great person to unpack this. I’m not a born baby-cooer and yet I still think it’s utterly obnoxious…

Why should non-adult customers (and there is no reason to presume they are not customers) have to give way to adults? If they are not in fact customers, then OSO could write just that on the sign. “Please keep the tables free for our adult customers.” No need to bring age into it. Or their table use for that matter.

Look, I get it. Nothing irritates me more than a child taking up a seat on the tube when there are people standing everywhere. If they're old enough to have their own seats, they're old enough to stand. But on the other, grownups are jerks, let's not teach them how to be like that before they be had a chance to grow into it naturally.

As if to prove my point, an older couple came over to the table I was sitting at and dumped their belongings all over it with such force that the wobbled on its sturdy legs, without even an excuse me to give notice of their intentions, despite there being an empty table next door to us, just waiting to be cluttered up with their heavy bags.

After long minutes of table-rocking as they made themselves comfortable, one of them noticed something.

"There's no light here" the man half gasped, suddenly deciding our table was not fit for purpose. He got up, smashing the chairs around so violently that an usher rushed over to help.

Chair now fully subdued, he rampaged around, waving his programme, saying that it didn't say anything about the play.

“There's no synopsis,” he said, failing to notice the page dedicated to introducing each of the three short plays we’d be watching that evening, and the logic of not including a synopsis in a programme. Theatre has a very long history of trying not to spoil the stories they are telling before they even have the chance to tell them. “Keep the secrets,” didn’t start with J.K. Rowling.

Somehow I don't think it's the kids that the OSO should be worrying about...

When the house eventually opened, I made sure to sit as far away from him as possible.

 

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Very non-'U'

You’d think after my near-fainting incident at the Wanamaker on Friday I’d be taking it easy this weekend. A couple of days off to laze around in bed and eat toast.

Unfortunately, the theatre gods had other ideas. A marathon won’t wait for no woman. So, I was off again, to Ealing this time, for theatre number 28 on the list - a spot of Polly Stenham at The Questors Theatre.

Don’t worry, I still got my toast.

I was actually really looking forward to this one.

I do like Polly Stenham’s work. Even if her plays are all about posh dysfunctional people. Perhaps that's the appeal. As a (somewhat) posh and (somewhat) dysfunctional person myself, I mean.

I’d never been to Ealing before. Stepping out of the South Ealing tube station was a bit of a shock to the system.

It was completely deserted.

Empty pavements. Closed shops. Every house a collage of darkened windows.

Spooky.

Where had everyone gone?

It was as if the entire neighbourhood had been abandoned.

Do the people of Ealing go to bed really early on Saturday nights? Or were they already out partying?

It was hard to tell.

If it weren’t for the constant flow of cars coursing down the road, I might have thought I was in some 28 Days Later kind of situation.

Feeling a little creeped out, I headed straight for the theatre.

This road looked very residential. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice residential, with fuck off massive houses. The type you can imagine being the home to a sweet family of children who rule over a magical kingdom at the back of a wardrobe during the school holidays. But it was residential none-the-less.

Was there really a theatre down there? And if so, what did the neighbours think?

I had to ask myself: would I want to live next door to a theatre? Perhaps, I decided. It would depend on the theatre.

As I was making a mental list of the theatres that I wouldn't mind living next to (yes to the Almeida and the Bush, no to the Young Vic and the Polka) I passed a primary school.

Ah. Okay. 

If living next to a theatre means also living next to a school… even a fancy preparatory school, I’d rather nope out of the whole thing. Sorry Ealing. I won’t be moving quite yet.

Amongst all these gargantuan houses, Questors itself was a surprise. It was not the converted mansion that my brain had been expecting, but a modern, glass-fronted building, set back from the road behind a packed car park.

As I picked my way between the vehicles and made my way to the front door, I realised why the pavement here are so devoid of life: everyone drives.

As to prove my point, two cars pulled in and manoeuvred themselves into the last free spaces.

I definitely wouldn’t fit in around here.

Still, you have to admire the people of Ealing for their dedication to amateur theatre. This is quite the building.

There’s a huge blazing sign over the doorways (there are two - with separate entrances for the studio and the main house). I mean, yes - the ‘u’ has burnt out. But I’m sure that will be fixed after the next fundraising drive. It’s still bloody impressive.

As are the staff... or should I say volunteers?

"Is this for the studio?" asked the lady on box office, already reaching for the box of studio tickets. "Or the playhouse?"

"The studio. Good guess," I said, wondering what gave me away. Do I look like a Polly Stenham fan? And if so, what does a Polly Stenham fan look like? It’s my nose, isn’t it? Always gives me away.

Ticket collected (oh, yes - they have real tickets here), I headed back outside and across the way to the Studio door.

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Within minutes a queue had formed.

“A queue for the studio? Bloody hell,” laughed a bloke as he came in.

Looks like there are a lot of Polly Stenham acolytes in Ealing. I suspiciously looked up and down the queue, checking to see if we shared any characteristics.

There was one thing I couldn’t help noticing.

We were all very white.

And very theatre.

"I can't believe this is our last proper rehearsal.”

“I’ve just come off 11 weeks of panto.”

“I’m on lighting and sound tonight.”

“What did you think of the script?”

I debated whether I should announce my own theatre creds ("who are we going to commission to write the programme notes?") to indicate that I too was just like them, but somehow I didn't feel necessary. I was there. I was already one of them.

"The play as one hour, forty minutes. No interval," came a booming voice from the front of the queue. "Please use the facilities now, as there's no readmittance." And then, just in case we didn't understand the full implications of this: "It's in the round so you'll be walking across the stage."

The theatrical equivalent of the walk of shame, that is.

"And please read the sign here." He paused. "It says there's smoking and a lot of bad language."

This declaration didn't get the reaction it deserves. 

He tried a different tact.

"There's smoking and a lot of swearing," he said, moving down the line and tearing tickets.

"A lot of fucking swearing," piped up the man behind me.

Too much. The ticket tearer attempted to reign in this unruly crowd.

"A lot of interesting language," he amended as he tore the final tickets.

Finally, we were let in. 

Even after seeing the fancy frontage, I was taken aback by the scale of the studio. 

A good size square floor was surrounded on four sizes by neat rows of seats. 

Where did I want to sit? 

At the back. Obvs. 

But somehow I found myself heading to a front row seat. 

After my incident at the Wanamaker, I was feeling invulnerable. 

Actors don't scare me no more. So, they want to catch my eye... well, let them. They can even talk to me if they want. To hell with it all. 

Though, I still put myself in the corner. Just in case. I was feeling brave. Not stupid.

Plus, there was a nice little gap between the chairs for me to dump my coat and whatnot. 

Congratulating myself on my seating choice, I settled in for a good read of my programme. 

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Oh, yes. They have them too. 

I suspect not professionally printed. No bleed on the images. But hey, they were only a pound ("although a donation is always welcome" - they've got a 'u' to repair after all).

The power of the Questors soon became evident as the play started. Piles of black-clad stage hands flooded in, furnishing the space under cover of darkness. 

100 minutes later we were done.

As I stepped back out, buttoning my coat in preparation for the fifteen minute walk to the station, clunks sounded all around me. Car doors opened and slammed shuts. Engines started. 

And very soon I had Ealing all to myself once more.