Not my Sherlock

After months and months (and months) of monitoring the Rudolf Steiner House website, they’ve only gone and programmed a play. I thought I could get away with not visiting the theatre that lives in this building. I thought it was wall to wall lectures about strange esoteric and spiritual things that I don’t understand. But no. They’ve gone all commercial. They’ve got Sherlock Holmes in for the summer.

I’m a little bit annoyed, to be honest.

But it’s fine. I’m sure the Rudolf Steiner House is very calming.

All pale walls and the smiles of the spiriually enlightened. That’s how I’m picturing it.

Full disclosure, I have no idea who Rudolf Steiner was (or quite possibly, is…) but given the titles of the things that they usually programme “Exploring Your Intuitive Self,” “Inner Light and Strength - Nurturing Seeds of Spiritual Renewal,” “How to Protect Yourself from the Demonic attacks of Electromagnetic radiation and Vaccines”) I’m thinking he must have been some proto-Scientology dude.

Hope it doesn’t turn out like when I was offered a personality test in Totteham Court Road…

The House is just off Baker Street. Close to Regent’s Park. It looks quite nice from the outside. There’s a window filled with books down one end, and an a-frame advertising the play down the other.

Inside it is all pale walls and spiritually enlightened smiling people. There’s a counter at one end. That must be the box office. And a sort of foyer space lined with blue upholstered chairs down the other. All very hospital waiting room, except for the massive roller banner with the show artwork next to the doors to the auditorium, which I think is supposed to serve as a backdrop to any Instagrammers that float through, and dozens of show posters stuck to every available surface.

“Are you picking up tickets?” asks the man behind the counter.

“Yup!”

“What's the name?

I give my surname, spelling it out letter by letter.

He looks down for a second. “Maxine?”

That’s me!

“Great,” he says, handing me a receipt-paper ticket. The same style of ticket they have at Above the Stag. “You're in I12.”

Well, okay then. I look around, decideding what my next course of action should be. The doors are open but it’s far too early to be going in.

I decide to risk it, and sit on one of the blue chairs.

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There aren’t many people here. They’re all outside, hanging out on the pavement.

I get out my phone and start editing my Jackson’s Lane post.

I hope no one tries to indoctrinate me. There’s a bit I wanted to rewrite and that’s always tricky on my phone’s touchscreen.

The man sitting closest to me says something.

I ignore him, turning to Google to double-check something.

He says something again.

I look over.

He’s staring at his phone.

He’s still talking. Or rather muttering. To himself.

He swears. He’s annoyed.

He must be editing a blog post too. I get that way sometimes.

“That’s four tickets,” says the man behind the box office, as a family waits at the counter.

Oh yeah. I’d forgotten kids loved Sherlock Holmes. I certainly did. I had all the books on tape. I used to listen to them on my way to school. Clive Merrison and Michael Williams pretty much narrated my childhood.

“Now,” says the mum, pausing dramatically. “Do you have such a thing as ice cream?”

They don’t.

Crisps? Yes. KitKat Chunkies? Yes. But not ice cream.

Oh dear. Not sure how they are going to make it through a month-long summer run of a kid-bait play without the cold stuff.

That gets me thinking about the other important theatre purchase… programmes.

There don’t seem to be any on sale. There aren’t any on display on the counter, and the ticket checker on the door doesn’t have any either.

Either there’s a programme seller inside the theatre, or programmes are against some Rudolf Steiner principal. I hope not. While I admit to being the least spiritual person in the world, composed of one part anxiety and two parts cynicism, I don’t like to think that my programme addiction is putting me in harms way of demonic attack.

Perhaps that’s why the theatre ghosts avoid me. Somehow they’ve found out about the six 35 litre boxes I’ve got filled with the things at home.

And before you say it, no, my desire to meet a theatre ghost is not a symptom of some latent spirituality. I don’t actually believe in ghosts. I grew up next to a 12th-century graveyard and never heard the slightest whisper of a WooOooOo in the night. I just want to chat to one at some point. Without the burden of belief.

I should probably go in.

I show the ticket checker my receipt.

She leans in, peering at the teeny text.

“Err…”

“It is very small,” I say.

She laughs. “Is that an I or an L?”

“It’s an I.”

She points at the door on the right. “You’re on the right,” she says.

So I turn right.

And this is it. The Rudolf Steiner Theatre in Rudolf Steiner House.

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It’s a proper little theatre. There’s a stage, with a full-on proscenium arch. And raked seating set in three blocks, divided by two aisles.

I find row I and stare at the seats, trying to work out which is mine.

All the other rows seem to have their seat numbers marked by little badges applied to the bottom of the flip seat. But not row I. They must have fallen off or something.

“Do you know what number you are?” I ask a lady in my row.

She grabs the seat next to her and points to a previously unnoticed number.

“I’m 11,” she says.

I lean in, squinting at the number. “12,” it says, very faintly.

“I would never have spotted that,” I laugh. “It looks like I’m next to you then!”

From the foyer I hear the tiniest little tinkling of a faerie bell.

“Have you read any reviews of this?” asks my neighbour.

“I don’t think they’ve had press night yet,” I tell her. I know that they haven’t had press night yet. They haven’t been shy about telling us when press night is. It’s 25 July. It’s on the Rudolf Steiner website. It’s on the play’s dedicated mini-site. It’s probably on the flyers. I don’t know, I haven’t checked. But press night is 25 July.

“Yes, it’s the second performance,” says my neighbour.

“We’re going in blind.”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “That’s the risk you take, I suppose.”

Yeah, I mean. Sure. Can’t say I read reviews before a show all that much. Even in my pre-marathon days. I was usually booked in long before the critics submitted their verdicts.

Looks like I'm in the minority though, as the audience tonight is a bit thin. Small groups are scattered about the middle bank of seats. The rows all half empty due to a price banding which discourages sitting forward. Now, I'm not a fan of flat-pricing unless that flat price is somewhere in the region of fifteen quid, but I think the Sherlock-gang were a bit ambitious with their premium seats here. But hey, maybe the reviews will have this place sold out come 26 July.

Although, I'm really not sure what the press are going to make of it. It’s a strange play. We've got a Holmes and Watson, but that’s about as close to Conan Doyle as we’re getting.

There’s ghostly goings-on as a man is murdered by… an invisible thing. The only witness, a bluestocking with a penchant for whiskey, and getting one over on Holmes.

Leaves shake, pictures lose their grip on the wall, and telescopes spin on their tripods.

I keep on waiting for the Hound of the Baskervilles-twist, but no, it looks like we're really going down the whole invisible route.

It's like Mousetrap and The Woman in Black snuck into the writers' room and locked everyone else out. Add to that a sprinkle of biodegradable woke-glitter, and you have Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Thing.

The family next to me are having a hard time coming to terms with the invisibleness of the thing too.

The keep on leaning into their mum to ask what's going on with childish whispers, and then returning to their sweets when the answer they get placates, if not entirely satisfies, them.

In the interval, I go back out into the foyer.

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The pair behind the counter warn any drink-buyers that they can't take their new purchases into the auditorium.

An old lady comes in, asking about the show. "It started at 7.30pm," they tell her. "But it's on for the next month."

And there it is again. The tinkling tiny bell.

I look over. The ticket checker is ringing a brass bell. Going over to the main doors to call back into everyone hanging out on the pavement. They're not paying attention. It's not what I would call a classic theatre bell. The bells at the Royal Opera House would laugh if they saw it, before chomping it down in a single bite. It really is small. The kind of bell an infirm Victorian lady would have used to summon her dependent niece to bring thin broth and a bottle of gin in the morning.

She changes her grip, whipping the bell up and down. "I think if I do it like a town crier..." she says, showing the guy behind the box office.

"I don't think it's working," he says kindly, as exactly no one comes through the door.

She sighs. "I don't think it's working either."

"I think we need to figure out another way to do it."

Yup. I agree. You can't be using piddly little bells on theatre audiences. The thing about theatre-goers, you see, is that we all hate sitting in theatres. We will postpone the torture for as long as physically possible. Until every usher is on the brink of getting a heart attack. Think of it like letting children out of class for their morning break. They're all hopped up on custard creams and Ribena now. There's no getting them to settle down for double chemistry. Not even if you promise to show them some cool colour-change reactions. It's too late. This is why all plays should be done in 90 minutes. No interval. No bells. No-fuss. Just good clean theatre fun. And we won't even complain too much if nothing blows up.

But we do all make it back in.

I grab my jacket from where I left it on the seat and shift down to the other end of the row. It was a bit awkward sitting right there next to that family, when there is so much space going spare.

Turns out, now that i’m sitting behind someone, the Rudolf Steiner Theatre really isn't meant to be a theatre. The rake is awful.

Maybe I really should have gone for those premium seats.

I try hard to focus. There's a lot of talking going on as Sherlock explains the mystery of the invisible thing. I was so sure they were going to do a Sussex Vampire, I'm left baffled by the revelation. I mean... okay then. I guess... Fine. Whatever. It's been a long week. And like, I get that Conan Doyle wasn't available to make notes on the script. He might have told them that The Adventure of the Creeping Man wasn't his best story. But at least the narrative decisions he made in that tied into the popular perceptions of science at the time.

It was fun though.

And no one tried to recruit me into a meditation circle.

Plus I get to use Baker Street tube to get home. And that's cool.

The Two Ghosts of Queen's House

Seven o’clock starts are tricky as fuck. Especially when they’re in Greenwich. But after a slightly leg-jiggly journey on the DLR, I’ve made it to Romney Road with twenty whole minutes to spare. I can even see my theatre for tonight. Queen’s House. In all its gleaming white glory. The problem is, how to get there? The first pair of gates I passed were firmly locked. As were the second.

I keep on walking, my heart beating in time with my rushing feet. There doesn’t seem to be a way in.

Is there a password or something? Am I supposed to run full pelt at the railings with the firm believe that I can move right through them? Are iron bars nothing but an collision for those confined to the mediocrities of reality?

Just as I’m considering how badly I would hurt myself if I attempted to heave myself over the iron fence, I turn a corner, and find the car park.

Oh. Well, fine then. I’ll just go in this way, shall I?

Now I’ve actually managed to get myself within the confines of this handsome house, I can relax a little bit. I have plenty of time. And only a short walk over these peaceful green lawns.

And there it is. Queen’s House. Set back from whatever bustle Greenwich can throw at a person, amongst acres of green grass.

Not a bad place to catch a bit of opera, I must say. And a fucking impressive place for a performing arts college performance. Those Trinity Laban kids have it well swish, I can tell you that for nothing.

I stop to text Helen, letting her know about the whole getting in situation. She’s running late. Don’t want her trying to scale a fence in a panic.

That done, I walk up the path, and find a man holding a piece of paper, waiting to greet people next to a sign advertising tonight's performance.

“Do I give me name or…?” I ask.

“Are you a performer or…?”

No, mate. Clearly not. I want to ask if they’re missing a performer, but I fear he might ask me to step in. “Err, a ticket buyer?” I try.

“Right. Err let’s check if it’s here. What’s the name?”

I give it.

I’m not on the list.

“Right,” he says. It doesn’t sound like this is the first time his list has come up short. “That’s fine. I don’t know why they gave me this list. The reception is in the Orangery, around the Queen’s House, and past the colonnade.”

Well, okay then. I follow his instructions, around the house, through the colonnade, and out the other side.

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There seems to be a bit of a party going on through here. There are canapes. And drinks. And everyone looks very fancy. Too fancy.

I don’t think I’m meant to be here.

I text Helen again.

“Have you crashed a wedding?” she asks.

“Maybe?” I reply.

Hmm. Not sure what to do. I go back the way I’d come, pausing in the colonnade to peer into a covered courtyard. People are walking through. Holding programmes.

Okay, so it appears that the audience are going somewhere. And unless my geography is totally messed up, they are coming from the Orangery.

I go back, stepping into the fancy room. It’s nearly empty now. The trays of canapes desiccated. The wine drunk.

A young woman with a box of tickets in her arms rushes over.

“Hello?”

“Hi, I’m picking up tickets?”

“For the reception or the performance?”

“The performance. Sorry,” I say, seeing the look of panic in her face. The expression of someone who just spotted their dotty aunt approaching a new boyfriend with a handful of embarrassing baby photos on hand. “Sorry. I got sent round here, but I was like… this doesn’t look right. So I thought I better just ask.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh no! This is just for the reception. The box office is just inside the main door. Tell them you’re general admission.”

I apologise again and back away from the fancy room. Places like this are not meant for the likes of me.

Okay then. Back around the building, I avoid the man and his piece of paper and duck into the surprisingly lowly doorway, rushing down the Spartan corridor and emerging into a museum shop. This looks much more my level. There’s a proper counter, and I join the queue to pick up tickets.

They do have my name here, thank goodness, and the lady on the desk pulls my tickets out of the box.

“That’s two tickets, is that right?” she asks.

It absolutely is.

She picks two programmes up from the pile on the counter and hands them to me.

Oh, yeah. Free programmes. That’s the stuff.

“Loos are to the left,” she says, pointing further into the building. “And stairs to the Great Hall are on the right.”

The Great Hall, eh? Perhaps I will be getting all fancy tonight.

Helen turns up a few minutes later. Limping slightly from a blister on her foot.

“This way,” I say, leading her towards the stairs.

“Hang on, do you mind if I use the loos?”

Well, you can’t say no to someone who just hobbled all the way over to Greenwich to spend the evening with you, now can you?

The last people in the foyer make their way upstairs.

I use the opportunity to take some photos. It’s strange down here. Like being in a wine cellar, with that curved ceiling going on over our heads.

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“Ready?” I ask as Helen emerges.

She is, so we go up the stairs. The Tulip Stairs, according to the signage. That’s an unusually specific name, I think as we make our way up. Not that they’re not pretty, just not particularly tulip shaped… Oh. Oh, I see.

As Helen points her phone upwards to take a photo of the view above our heads, I find myself staring into a spiralling vortex of steps. They seem to go on forever, reaching up into the heaves, the steps unfolding, like, well, petals.

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And on the balustrades… iron tulips.

That answers that question then.

There’s someone giving a speech in the Great Hall. Well, I presume it’s the Great Hall. There are a lot of people in here. Sat around in those spindly golden chairs you get at weddings.

A woman standing on the other side makes a big circle gesture with her arms to indicate that there are seats going spare over in the far corner.

Helen and I pick our way over between the silent rows.

Oops. Bit late.

Never mind.

The speech goes on. A potted history of the house. … I zone out. This room is far too pretty to be listening to this sort of thing. It’s the kind of room where you want murder and intrigue, not dates of construction and alignments with the river.

Once he’s done, he’s replaced by someone else. With her own set of speeches. These ones about Trinity Laban, about the operas being performed, about how marvellous the patrons are in this room for giving their money to such a worthy cause.

Someone in the front row claps loudly. The sound reverberating around the square room. The rest of us join in, more out of obligation than agreement.

I’m just here to catch some opera, and get a venue checked off.

I look up. Halfway up the high walls is a slim balcony. There are men up there. Young men. In costume. They lean against the railing, watching the audience below, looking the kind of effortless cool that only the agonisingly young and talented can achieve.

Self-congratulatory speeches now at an end, we can get on with the business of opera. First off, some Monteverdi.

The men up in the balcony begin to sing. Their voices raining down on us.

And down here, on the small bit of space being used as a stage, a lone female laments at her fate.

I don’t know what they’re singing. It’s Italian.

But I get the idea. She’s sad, and it is oh so pretty.

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“I think that broke my heart?” says Helen as we all applaud.

I nod. I think it broke mine too. “It’s amazing in here,” I say. “The sound bouncing off all the walls…”

“Yes, the acoustics are great.”

“Yeah, alright. You and your big words.” Honestly, always the intellectual is our Helen. As Laban people bustle about removing the table from the last opera, and prepping the room for the next, I lean back, taking in the carved struts holding up the balcony, fat wooden scrolls picked up in gold. A bit of warmth in a white room. “It is beautiful in here. I might move in.”

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“Perhaps not in winter though… I feel it would be quite hard to heat?”

She’s not wrong. Those high ceilings and cathedral sized windows would be the very devil to keep warm. “This is so going to be your summer palace when you become dictator.”

“It’s coming you know!”

I waft my hand towards the window behind us, from where we can see the long pathway going down to the river. “You’ll have peasants marching up the lawns with pitchforks.”

Helen gives a dismissive wave. “Just get rid of them,” she says.

The boys from the last opera return, slipping into empty seats and crowding into the windowsill to watch the next piece.

A young man takes the empty seat next to me, and I squish up to give him room.

These chairs are really closely packed.

Just as the boys settle, a group of young women burst in, their voices trilling and whirling as they start the next work. A modern opera this time. About a hen party. Svadba.

It takes me far too long to notice that they sing unaccompanied. With no instrument other than their own voices, and… some tins with spoons in them.

The dunk the wooden spoons in, rotating them around the insides and taping at the exterior.

Bored of their sound effects, they hand them to audience members.

A man in the front row looks at his newly acquired prop in bewilderment. “Should I tap it,” he asks the girl who gave it to him, and gives the tin an experimental drum with the spoon.

She leaves him too it.

The friends dance around their bride, the swirling sounds of their voices echoing off the walls, layering and combining into a symphonic orchestra that builds so high I can feel my ears vibrating by the end.

“Have your seen the painting in there,” says Helen as the applause fades. She’s nodding towards a side room. On the wall is the portrait of a rather dashing young man.

“He’s… well.” Very.

“He’s a bit of an alright,” says Helen.

“He’s totes a historical hottie,” I confirm.

The applause is still going, and shows no signs of stopping. The cast has long vacated the stage.

I look at Helen. She looks at me. We both shrug. I mean, they were good. Great evening. But I haven’t clapped this much since… I don’t know… Carlos Acosta’s farewell from The Royal Ballet probably. And no offence to Trinity Laban students, but they haven’t quite yet put in twenty years hard labour as world leaders in their artform.

Eventually, it slows, and stops.

“I’m going to get a photo of historical hottie,” I say, slipping between the rows to go into the side room.

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“Oh look, they have ceramics,” says Helen, going to have a look at the display case. But I don’t care about them. I want attractive young men with swords and gold frogging from my art.

“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be in here,” I say. And right on cue, someone from Laban walks through. They don’t say anything though. And we’re left to gaze at the art in peace.

“Oh, look at the chairs!” I say, spotting a pair of translucent chairs.

“Oh, they’re the…”

“Ghost chairs? Is that want they’re called?”

“Yeah.”

I try to remember the name of the designer, but nope. I’ve forgotten it. Never mind. Ghost chairs. You know!

Strange addition to this room though. I wonder what they’re doing here, with historical hottie and.. I squint…a young Queen Victoria?

“We should probably go,” I suggest... I kinda want to go home while there’s still a chance of an early night.

But not before I get one final photo of the Tulip Stairs.

“Sorry,” I apologise to the couple stuck behind me.

“Don’t worry. One person took a photo and got the ghost. The Queen’s House ghost,” says the female half of the pair.

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“Oh my…” Oh my! “There’s a ghost? I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost,” I tell her.

“Well, you’re in the right place,” she says, having the grace not to sound too baffled by my exclamation.

I take this as confirmation that she’d like to hear more.

“I’ve wanted to meet one for years, but I don’t think they like me,” I say. “I’m just too keen.”

“They think you’re needy,” agrees Helen.

“They do!”

The couple slips away quietly. I can’t say I blame them. If even the ghosts don’t appreciate my enthusiasm for them, I can’t expect the residents of this mortal plane to get on board.

Still, the sun is still shining and it’s only…

“That was only an hour and a quarter long,” I say to Helen as we walk down the path back towards the road. “The perfect evening!”

“And look! They’ve opened the gates for us,” she says, pointing to the end of the path.

No going through the car park for us!

We can just saunter, or at least stagger, through looking all chic in our sunglasses and…

Shit.

“Shit,” I say. “I forgot my jacket,” I say, already turning round to run back in.

Through the foyer, up the Tulip Stairs, hurried explanation of my appearance to the usher, into the Grand Hall, dart between all the singers and patrons to get to my seat right at the back, reach under, grab my jacket, nod to the usher on the way out and…

“You just wanted to see if you could find the ghost, didn’t you?” says Helen.

“No!” Yes. “And I already saw a ghost anyway. Two of them,” I say, remembering the chairs.

It's not much, but you've got to take your victories where you can find them.

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Weaving the Web

I almost got away with the idea of not going to the Union Chapel. After they cancelled their summer run of Nunsense (a musical about nuns, inspired by a line of greeting cards, apparently), I was ready to scrub them off my list, but alas, when I gave their website one final check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I spotted a show I hadn’t seen before. They must have sneaked it in when I wasn’t looking. A Web in the Heart. On for only one day. Three performances. Immersive theatre. My favourite thing.

The web copy looks intense. Not just the blurb about the show. Under all that there are six whole paragraphs worth of content warnings and access info. Loud noises. Small rooms. Blacked out spaces. Enactments of racially motivated state violence.

With the promise of further content warnings during the performance.

So a nice cheery way to spend a Sunday afternoon then.

I get there early. Doors times for theatre shows at music venues always confuse me. Am I supposed to turn up at the time on the ticket or no? Turns out no. And I definitely shouldn’t turn up even earlier than that, like muggins over here has.

Thankfully there’s a small park right next to the chapel. A slip of greenery between the church and the road. And I go plonk myself on a bench and soak in my leather jacket.

From my spot I can just about see the main doors of the Union Chapel and I keep an eye on them, waiting as people gradually turn up. They sit on the steps, turning their faces up to the sun, and generally make a show of enjoying this hell inferno that we are currently living in.

When we reach three waiters, I walk over, and lean myself against one of the bollards in the shade. But I don’t get to stay there long, as someone has come out through a side door and is making an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “If you’d like to come in here.”

Well, I for one would very much like to. So I follow him.

On the other side of the heavy wood door I find a narrow brick corridor. There’s a table set up in here as a makeshift box office.

“Are you on the list?” the box officer asks each of us in turn.

“I think I bought tickets for the later show,” someone ahead of me meekly admits.

“Oh, that’s fine,” says the box officer. “As long as you show up…”

That’s the attitude!

“Are you on the list?” she asks me when I reach the front of the queue.

“Hi, yes. The surname’s Smiles.”

She checks down her list, her pen tracing down the names. “Who did you book with?” she asks, her pen having reached the end of the page.

“Err, you? On your website.”

She looks again. “And was it for this time?”

I get out my phone and bring up the e-ticket. The time spot is blank. “It’s doesn’t say, but I definitely booked for 4.30. But it was at, like, 2pm, so maybe you’d already printed the lists?”

“Today?”

“Yes?”

“Okay,” she says, eyeing up the queue that’s been building up behind me. “I’ll check on the computer. How do you spell your surname?”

I spell it for her.

She nods. “You can go through,” she says, with a wave to the door at the end of the corridor.

I do, and it leads out into another corridor, where an usher is posted and waiting. “Just up the stairs to the bar,” she says.

Right then. Up the stairs, and into the bar. And blimey. Okay. This is… well, it’s less a bar and more of a barn. Impossibly high ceilings with wooden beams, red walls, and a massive stone fireplace.

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I take a pew. Literally. Though it feels less like a thematic design choice and more of a make-use-and-mend method of furnishing the place. The other chairs on offer have more than a whiff of assisted living about them.

Gradually, the room fills up. More people turn up than I would have thought for a promenade performance about institutional racism on the sunny Sunday afternoon.

A couple of young woman take the table next to me.

“Is this a church?” one of them asks, suddenly looking around her.

“Yeah, it’s a chapel.”

“I’ve never seen a bar in a church before.”

“Oh, loads do. They’re all converting to become bars and community centres.”

“But they don’t still have services though!” she says, sounding scandalised by the very idea.

An usher comes round, hand delivering sheets of paper to the audience members.

“Programme for today,” she says, placing a freesheet on the table in front of me.

“Oh, thank you!” I do love a freesheet.

The usher moves onto my neighbours.

“Is that the stage?” one of them asks, pointing to a raised platform at one end. There’s a piano up there. And speakers.

“No,” the usher says. “It’s happening in the chapel. You’ll go through in about five minutes.”

And sure enough, five minutes later, there’s an announcement.

“Please head over to the chapel now. No alcohol is allowed in the chapel, so please finish your drinks in the bar.”

With that mixed messaging, we traipse back down the stairs the way we had come, and nip through a side door, into the chapel.

There’s someone playing piano.

And oh man… I’m not a religious person. And even if I was, I wouldn’t be Christian. But there’s something about seeing light filter through church windows that hits me right in the spiritual-zone.

As one, we all get out phones out and start aiming them upwards.

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The ushers must be used to this reaction because they stand back, giving us time to take our fill of photos before gently guiding us into the first few rows of pews, where there are more pieces of paper waiting for us.

I take a seat and look what we’ve been given. It’s the words to I vow to thee my country. But different. Changed.

Oh god, I really hope they don’t make me sing. I’m not a singer. And, like, I’m a Jewish girl. Sort of. And in a church. And like, I’ve sung I vow to thee plenty of times. But that was at school. And I had to. And I hated every single enforced moment of it.

The cast come out. They sing. And then invite us to join in with them. Could I do it? Would I do it?

I compromised by standing up and mumbling along vaguely. Thankfully the cast are doing most of the work here. Good thing, as I vow to thee is a trickier hymn then most people remember, and with new words to fit into those convoluted rhythms, we needed all the help we can get.

The cast leave.

An usher comes up and starts counting.

“Right, this row,” she says, indicating the front row. “And you four,” she says, counting four people into the second row, with me as number two. “Please go through.”

“Do we leave these?” my neighbour asks, indicating the hymn seat.

“You can just put them in your seats.”

“But can I keep it?”

“Oh, yes. Keep it if you like!”

Excellent. Good on neighbour-lady for asking the important questions. I fold mine up and put it in my bag, hurrying to follow the others out though a low door and into a small foyer decked out in William Morris-esque wallpaper. From there, we move into a small room. Very small. Right. This is the room we were warned about.

We shuffle forward, but we’re bottle necking in the door, and the cast are already coming up behind us.

One of them gently pushes me aside so he can get in, and we all manage to shift and find room inside.

The two actors greet each other in delight, and then the lights go out.

Sound pounds around us. Shouting. A dog barking.

Someone near me gets out their phone and lights up the screen. Another phone appears on the other side.

The actors switch on torches. They aim them at around the room. They’re showing us something. Words. Writ large in capital letters on banners overhanging the windows. Printed in tightly spaced lines on sheets of A4 stuck to the walls.

They hand the torches over to two audience members. And then they leave, shutting the door with a click behind them.

The torch-bearers stare at their newly acquired props for a moment, but then they realise what to do. They point them at the words. Lighting the way for us to read.

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Stories of detention centres. Of cruelty. Of being kept in ignorance. Personal tales of anguish and pain.

“Is everyone ready to come to the next room?” asks the usher.

We nod. We are.

There isn’t far to go this time. Just down the corridor.

A grey room, filled with rows of seats.

Without being told, we all sit down.

An actor comes in. She introduces herself. She’s not here in character. She just wants to tell us something before the scene begins. There’s going to be racist language, she tells us. “You are very welcome to leave the room, and to come back. Feel free to use this room as you wish,” she says.

When she returns, she is in character. She’s a trainee officer in a detention centre. And so are we. She plays out a scene with her instructor.

We’re given small sheets of paper. What to do if you see someone being questioned by immigration. They want to teach us how to get around these meddling bystanders. An audience volunteer joins the actors to run through a scene.

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At the end, we’re graduating. Fully fledged immigration officers. We’re told to take a hat out from under our chairs. There’s nothing there. The hats are imaginary.

We put them on.

The actor who greeted us returns. Not in character.

“You don’t have to spend the rest of the performance as officers,” she assures us. “Take the hats off.”

We do.

“Just remember,” she adds. “You’ve taken your hats off now, but I haven’t.”

We’re going back up the stairs now.

An actor calls us over to the bar.

“Free Ribena!” she says, handing out glasses of the stuff. “This is a Ribena bar! Come close. Take a drink. I want to ask a favour of you…”

There are three people in the bar. Each sitting at their own tables. We’re to join them. Talk to them. Cheer them up, if we can.

I go over to a young woman weeping into her wine glass. “Mind if I join you?” I ask.

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She apologises for her tears. And then she tells her story. She’s a teacher. Her pupil is starving. He can’t claim free school meals. What can she do?

I don’t have the answers.

The next table is a woman writing. A page filled with the word ARAB, over and over again. She’s raging about the laws being pushed through, about NHS staff having to report on the nationalities of their patients, about immigrants having to pay more than the treatment actually costs.

“There’s a campaign,” she says. “Docs not Cops. If you just search that…”

“Docs not Cops?” I repeat.

She nods. “There’s also a hashtag. #PatientsNotPassports,” she says with a small smile of humour at the phrase.

There’s only two other people at the next table. A young woman, and our actor. He’s a landlord. He just chucked out his tenants, because one of them didn’t have the immigration paperwork.

He doesn’t sound very remorseful about the whole thing.

“What would you do?” he asks us.

“I’d turn a blind eye,” says my fellow audience member.

I shrug. I wouldn’t be a landlord. That’s what.

I did not like him.

“I didn’t feel sorry for the landlord at all,” says the young woman as we leave for our next destination.

“I gave him a really hard time,” pipes up another audience member.

“Property-owning capitalist pig,” I inject.

We really didn’t like him.

We’re going back down to the chapel. We retake our seats in the pews. We’re going to do some Theatre of the Oppressed. I’ve never done Theatre of the Oppressed. I’ve never wanted to.

Cardboard Citizens used to bring their Theatre of the Oppressed shows to Canada Water Culture Space back when I worked there. I always felt that I should go. Just to see what it was all about. But then I’d read a description of how it all works, and I would very firmly pick up my coat at the end of the day, and make sure I was safely at home by the time it kicked off.

If you don’t know what it is, I suggest reading their website, but basically, the actors run a scene, the audience yells stop at a turning point in the story, and then the help to reshape what happens. Changing the scene to form a better outcome.

Our MC for the show steps up and explains this.

They run through the scene.

We all shout STOP.

“Right at the beginning!” says our MC. “So you know how to help things. But why didn’t our character?”

Audience members starts shouting out answers.

“Fear.”

“She feels powerless.”

“Indifference!

“And how would you show that?” the MC asks.

He jumps onto the stage. “I want you to come up here, and move the actors into position. They’ve given permission for us to touch them, but it’s nice to ask. It’s polite.” He turns to one of the actors. “May I touch you?” The actor nods. “You can pose them,” says the MC, pushing down one of the actor’s shoulders so that he's lopsided. “And you can show them. But you cannot describe what you want them to do.”

Three volunteers from the audience go up, and after asking nicely, mould their actors into the appropriate positions to convey the emotions.

“And can you help?” asks the MC. “How do we conquer these emotions?”

More people go up. They talk to the actors. Give advice.

One woman explains to the actor representing fear, that she must fake it till she makes it.

One man reads the pamphlet we were given earlier to the powerless actor, giving him the tools he needs.

The scene runs again. This time with an audience member in place of an actor. She steps in. Stopping the detention officers. Informing their target of his rights.

We all applaud.

She did very well.

And then it’s time to go. But not before we are reminded that we have to do our things our own way. That we must do what we are capable of. In whatever way we can.

Just like being an audience member, I suppose. Each of us taking part as much as we are able. Drink the Ribena, chat to the actors, but draw the line at going up on stage? That’s fine. We all have our limits.

Knowledge is power, and content warnings mean you can be prepared.

“The bar is still open, if you like,” says an usher.

I wouldn’t mind. But I have somewhere else to be.

Somewhere where the name is it’s own content warning.

I’m going to Magic Mike Live…

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But is it art tho?

It’s my birthday today! And you know what that means? The same thing it means every night, Pinky. I’m going to the fucking theatre.

Well, sort of. Not quite.

I’m actually just making my way to the Tate Modern at the moment, sinking my way down the long ramp that takes you down and towards the entrance for the Turbine Hall.

But for tonight, that counts as a theatre.

There’s a bit of confusion on the door. A group are trying to explain to the ticket checker that they don’t actually have their tickets yet. They still need to pick them up. After a bit of back and forth, they’re let through, and it’s my turn.

“Collecting tickets?” I say.

“Ah, okay,” comes the reply. And nothing more.

Looks like I’m on my own here then.

I don’t know if you’ve been to the Tate Modern recently, but what’s surprising to me when I walk in, is how little, well, art there is. It’s all about the building. The concrete walls towering up either side of you. The walkways and overhangs and windows and struts and all the other sticky out bits that I don’t have the words for.

And in the centre of it all, running up through this vast foyer space, is a queue.

A very long queue. As long as this building is high. And growing as the dribs and drabs of people walking down towards it are drawn in, like an epic game of snake, winding itself back and trying to avoid bumping into its own tail.

But amongst all this, I’ve just spotted someone. Someone I know. Someone I work with. Someone who scored me this ticket. Someone who is coming towards me, with a wodge of tickets in her hands, ready to give me mine.

“I feel like one of those cool people who knows people,” I tell her, and then realise that I am one of those cool people who knows people.

“Welcome to Sadler’s Wells presents at our temporary venue,” she says cheerfully, handing me my ticket.

As temporary venues go, the Turbine Hall is quite something. Not exactly a pop-up tent in a muddy field somewhere, is it?

I look at what she’s give me. The ticket, and also a little booklet.

“Is that a freesheet?” I say a little over excitedly. “I love a freesheet.”

“I know you do! You must let me know what you think!”

Initial impressions are that despite only being a single sheet of A4, folded twice like a business letter, this jobby has been professionally printed. Just look how the image goes all the way to the edge of the page! Very nice.

“We’re opening soon,” she says. “So this queue will go down quite fast.”

“So you recommend joining it?”

She pauses. “Yeah… seats are unallocated.”

I don’t need telling twice.

As promised, the queue starts moving really rather fast, taking us down the hall towards a huge bank of seating that fills almost the entire width of the space. I flash my ticket at the ticket checker and get nodded into a maze of bollards, where we are snaked through to the right side of the hall.

Further down a front of houser offers me a freesheet from a large pile, but I hold mine up. “Already got one,” I say.

I’m hoping the: I have contacts, you see, is understood between us without me needing to say it explicitly.

“Ah, perfect!” she says. Yeah, she got it.

Half the seats are already occupied by the time I get around. I traipse up steps until I get to the first row that is almost empty and make my way right to the end.

It’s really hot in here. Sweltering. A dry, heavy heat, that settles on your skin like an itchy blanket. I’m hoping having nothing but the cool metal bars of the railings on one side will help. I don’t do well in heat. As soon as the mercury goes past twenty degrees I’m feeling queasy. When it tops twenty-four I’m throwing up. Any more than that and I’m gonna faint if I feel too hemmed in.

Yeah, I really don’t do well in heat.

This is going to be a real fun summer.

The seats are nice though. Much better than you usually get in these set ups. Wide, with plenty of leg room and a decent, if not brilliant, rake.

And there before us, is the Turbine Hall in all its magnificence.

It’s not often that you get to enjoy the sight of such a large empty space. Well, not without the benefit of horizons and opens skies and all that shit.

I can’t help but think though, that things might be slightly more comfortable if they’d left the turbines in. I get my fan out and give myself a good blast, but it’s only a temporary relief. I can’t keep flapping once the performance starts.

As my row begins to fill up, I start noticing the type of tickets people have. Sadler’s for some. Tate for others. And soon enough I start trying to guess which ones organisation each person bought their tickets from. That girl in the orange jumpsuit? Tate. The bloke with the round glasses and neat moustache? Sadler’s.

I think I’m starting to creep out my neighbour (Tate).

I lean against the railings and look down below.

There’s a young woman down there, bouncing around and holding her foot up behind her as she stretches out her legs. She’s very sparkly, dressed in a tomato red ice-skater’s costume.

She’s chatting with one of the security people, nodding her head in response to some unheard question.

A second later, she’s off, sprinting down the makeshift corridor and out into the hall.

She doesn’t waste much time. The name of the show is 10000 Gestures. And the intent is to perform exactly what it says on the poster. Ten thousand gestures, danced and behaved and delivered and executed and discharged. All different. And not one of them repeated. That’s a lot of gestures.

There’s no way she can do that alone.

Twenty more dancers pour out of a door at the side of the hall, flooding the dance floor with a torrent of movement.

All to the sounds of Mozart’s Requiem.

I frickin’ love Mozart’s Requiem.

And yeah, yeah. I know. I’m such a fucking cliché. The Goth girl likes a requiem. Quelle fucking surprise. But I do find it genuinely thrilling. Even without the overtones of death. And it’s not like I’m an undiscerning reqieumphile. There’s plenty of sucky requiems out there. Britten’s War Requiem can go fuck a duck, quite frankly.

But Mozart... Well.

The dancers veer between the everyday and recognisable movements, picking wedgies out of the bottoms and scratching, to performing child’s pose, upside down, while balancing on another dancer’s feet.

Does that count as one movement or two I wonder? Or perhaps even three, with each individual dancer's actions adding up to a shiny new one.

There’s so much going on, I’m never sure where I’m meant to be looking, always convinced I’m missing something better as soon as I allow my eyes to linger.

And then the screaming starts.

Long drawn out wails. Short bleats of distress.

A caterwaul of pain rising up from the stage and going on and on and on.

People start to leave. Scuttling down the aisle, their bags clutched tight to the chests.

And still the dancers cry out. Unstoppable in their anguish. And I want to cry out too, to cover my ears with my hands, rush from my seat. But I’m trapped at the end of my row, stuck in my seat with politeness.

Just as I decide I can’t take another second of screaming, they stop.

A dancer points into the audience. “Boris!” she shouts. I know, intellectually, that she’s referring to the choreographer, Boris Charmatz. But that name, this week, shouted out by a distressed sounding woman, well, it provokes unfortunate emotions inside of me.

I’m not doing well. It’s so hot, and the air is so dry. A tickle has lodged in my throat and it refuses to be coughed out.

There’s a crash, as something is knocked off the seating bank and down past the railings.

A security officer walks over to grab it.

I wonder if I can do the same. Feed myself through the railings to be picked up and looked after by security.

But there’s no escape. The dancers are coming. Leaving the safe confines of the dance floor and merging with the audience. They grab water bottles and chug from them thirstily. Tote bags are whipped out from under seats and swung in lasso mode over their heads.

They climb up between the rows, slither between the seats, and squirm back down, shouting out numbers in French as they go. The countdown of their gestures.

A small boy sitting in the row behind me is enveloped in a dancer’s arms, and she pulls him away from his parents, walking him down the aisle before releasing him. He returns, climbing back up, darting around against the overwhelming onslaught of dancers, his eyes wide with confusion. His mother pulls him back into her arms and he leans against her, safe once more.

A man is hefted up from his seat and slung over the shoulders of a dancer in a firemen’s lift before being carried away.

Hands are clasped.

Freesheets stolen and thrown away.

Clothes removed and chucked about. A flurry of jackets and cardigans.

Something is lobbed at one of the security officers. He stays resolutely in his seat, fixing the dancer with a hard stare.

A dancer wearing nothing put a dance belt climbs over my seat, his bare bottom sliding down my arm as he continues on his way down to the front row.

And then they’re gone.

A few people get up to retrieve their belongings.

Now that it’s over, and the dancers are back where they belong, a gentle giggle bounces around.

“Dancers may interact with the audience.”

That's what it had said in the sign by the queue.

I’m not quite sure that advisory message quite covers what just happened to us. It feels as if something has been broken. Not the barrier between performer and audience, but something far more sacred. Something more akin to trust.

I can’t help but think of Kill Climate Deniers at the Pleasance, where in the midst of a rave, a performer cheekily asks permission to drink from an audience member’s glass. Or Séance, where we were given a last out before the lights went down, and provided with clear advice about how to handle things if we were overwhelmed. Or Let's Summon Demons, where names are exchanged and drinks shared before secrets are exposed and dark forces take hold.

Here there was no escape. No warning. No relationship between performer and performee.

I feel a little betrayed.

I am too hot, and frankly too bothered, for any of this.

And on top of it all, it’s my birthday! Last year I went to Hamilton. This year I get a sweaty bottom on my arm.

Read More

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.

 

Read More

Go directly to hell; do not pass go

“I like this,” I say, peering at a large metal contraption outside the Brunel Museum. “It looks like a borer, or something…”

Helen comes over to stand next to me. “It’s a pump,” she says very confidently.

“Well, someone read the label.” I pause. “Or have you just not told me that you’re secretly an engineer?” One never knows with Helen. She’s an expert on things that I haven’t even heard of.

“So, what is this place?” she asks. She’s clearly not an expert on the Brunel Museum. Nor am I, to be honest. I kinda knew it was a place that existed in the world, but have never been here before or even know what sort of thing goes on inside.

“Where do you think we need to go?” I ask. There are some double doors open just ahead of us, with seats laid out in rows inside. Was that the theatre? No, the seats were all facing the wrong way, facing the doors. Somehow that didn’t seem likely for a dance performance.

“I’ve seen people going in there,” says Helen, indicating another building slightly further down. We follow the path around as is slopes down and around a squat tower.

It’s dark in here. Very dark. But I can just make out the silhouette of a table against the gloom.

“That looks like a press table?” says Helen, doubtfully.

It does look like a press table. The type set up on press nights to greet their invited guests away from the faff and queues of the box office. But I’ve been to enough makeshift theatres this year to know that this homespun look often extends beyond the PR-game.

I go over and give my surname. He looks at me. I look at him. “S-M-I-L-E-S?” I try. My name is hard. I get that.

“Smile?” says the man behind the desk.

“Yes.” Close enough.

He applies a monocle to his eye and starts flipping through the tickets.

“Maxine?” he says, still sounding doubtful. But he hands over the tickets anyway.

But my attention is elsewhere. I’ve spotted something very exciting on the table.

“Yay! Freesheets!” I say, grabbing a couple and handing one to Helen.

“Yay,” says the monocle-guy, managing to sound both deadpan and sarcastic at the same time.

There’re not letting people into the space, so Helen and I both traipse back outside. It’s raining.

“He was…” I start.

“Yes,” agrees Helen.

“Frankly, I expected better from a man with a monocle.” A thought occurs: “He was not a fop.”

“Not. He was definitely not a fop.”

We decide to go for a walk.

The original plan had been to find food, but there’s nothing here. Rotherhithe is desolate. Streets and streets full of flats, but not a single cafe open.

“Shall we try the bar?” suggests Helen.

There’s an arrow pointing upwards. We follow it.

“Those stairs are really narrow,” she says, getting out of the way so that I can take a photo.

I’m about to tell her that while I enjoy a stair-photo as much as anyone, I’m not sure I’m going to need an image of some rando-outdoor staircase in my blog, but then I see it. It’s really fucking narrow. Like the stairs to get onto a little boat.

“Are people supposed to go up and down these things when they’re drunk?” I ask the world in general.

The world declines to reply.

“Oh! It’s nice up here,” I say when we reach the top.

We’re standing right on top of the squat tower now. There isn’t much of a view, but it doesn’t matter. It’s really pretty here. Roses climb a blue picket fence and torches blaze amongst the greenery.

We stroll over to the bar to see what’s on offer.

“Just look down there,” says the barman, pointing towards the lower of two chalkboards.

We lower our gaze.

Wine. Beer. Vodka.

“To be honest, I’m not overly enthused by the sound of any of those,” I say.

“I could have a vodka, but…” Helen lets the rest of the sentence hang in the air.

We turn to leave. “You know on Fridays they have fires up there,” I say. “To melt marshmallows over,” I add quickly before she thinks the people of Rotherhithe are very into arson of a weekend. “That’s what the other chalkboard, the one with the cocktails was from.”

“So why are we here on a Wednesday?”

“Yeah, well. You know. It’s not my fault. If they have all those people coming for a show on a Wednesday, maybe they should have a mid-week marshmallow meeting too.” I’m feeling a little defensive, because I knew about this, and yet still failed to book for a Friday. But to be fair to me, I’ve already got a theatre planned for Friday, and it’s a big one. “Shall we go look at the river?” I say, changing the subject.

We go to have a look at the river. It’s all beginning to feel a bit Ancient Mariner. Water, water everywhere, but nor any tea going begging. There’s even an Albatross Way around the corner. I try and make a pun, but I my brain is sodden with drizzle.

Someone is down by the water, working their way through the grimy pebbles.

“I’d like to try that,” says Helen.

“I would too.” I consider this. “But only for like, five minutes. And then I’d like to have a bath, please.”

“A little mudlarking, then lots of hot water to wash my hands.”

“Yes please.”

“And not having to get on the tube while dirty.”

“Oh, definitely not. Mudlarking with a flat overlooking the water. That’s the way it should be done.”

We carry on walking. Towards the Mayflower Pub.

“Do you wanna go in?”

“Nah, we’re just killing time.”

We hang around on the pavement outside the pub.

I glance up. Something in an upstairs window has caught my eye. “Oh my god, look at that!”

Three costumes. Lined up on mannequins.

“Look at that cloak!” says Helen.

“Look at that dress!” I say.

“Ruffles!”

“I would have loved that dress when I was-“

“Now,” says Helen. “You would wear that now.”

It’s true. I would wear that now. If it came in black.

“What is this place?”

Turns out, it’s the Rotherhithe Picture Library. We peer in through the windows. Tables are laden with books about embroidery. There’s a quilt covered with a patchwork of signatures.

I want to go there.

“Look at the hand-painted signs!” exclaims Helen. “I love hand-painted signs.”

I can tell.

“We should probably head back now…”

There’s a queue snaking its way down the path from the entrance to the museum. Quite a long queue.

While Helen pops to the loo, I join the end of the queue.

“Do you have your tickets?” someone asks me.

“I do,” I say, showing them to her.

“So, is this the queue to get in or…?”

“I have no idea…”

 “The loos were super weird. I got caught up in a history talk while I was waiting,” says Helen when she reappears.

“This place is strange. I feel very under-prepared. People have flowers. Should we have brought flowers?”

People do have flowers. White roses from the gentlemen in front of me, and some dazzling red ones further up.

“What even is this show?”

We look at the freesheet. Helen points at one of the character names. “Jokanaan.”

“Right,” I say, weakly.

The queue is moving. We’re heading inside.

“Should I read the synopsis?” asks Helen. “I usually don’t believe in reading the synopsis, but maybe for this one…”

“Don’t you know the story of Salome?” I ask, surprised. I thought Helen knew everything.

“Well… sort of.”

“I think you’ll be fine.”

I say this with hope. As I also sort of know the story, and have no intention of reading the synopsis.

We’re inside now. There’s a staircase. The red balustrade glowing through the gloom. We wind our way down to the bottom of the tower.

It’s freezing down here. And dark. With the daylight from the doorway growing fainter and fainter as we make our descent, I begin to feel a kindredship with those witches thrown into dark hole-like prisons. It’s enough to give anyone the shivers. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the…

“Blankets!”

Each chair set in a series of concentric circles around the walls has a bright red blanket folded up and placed on it.

“These are nice. Better than the ones at the Rose,” says Helen, immediately pulling hers up to her chin.

“Yeah, those were blue and a bit… old lady on her way to the hospice. These are way fancier.”

Fancier, but not quite as warm. I tuck mine in around my knees and decide to keep my jacket on.

A woman comes over to tell us to turn our phones off. I’m surprised there’s even any reception down here. It feels like we’re sitting in the bottom of a well. A very large well.

“What is this place?” asks Helen.

“Like a pump room or something?” I suggest.

“Those diagonal lines in the bricks… are they the original staircase?”

I’m beginning to realise that I should probably have done some research before coming here.

“I thought this was a museum,” contines Helen.

“I thought so too. I thought there’d be…”

“Like display cases and things.”

“Yes, things.” There is a distinct lack of things down here. Except for what looks to be a department store’s worth of broken up mannequins cast around the floor. Arms and legs and torsos, piled up and upside down. It all looks very undignified.

A dancer appears. He leans back and rolls his stomach, making full use of his shirtless state. Is that Jokanaan? I can’t tell. I should probably have read the synopsis.

There’s someone else. Another bloke. This one dressed in black and wearing dangly earrings. He looks like he should be some sort of drug lord.

And then… ahhh. That’s Salomé. I see.

It’s all happening now. Musicians step out from behind their music stands and join the dancers for festival of hedonism within the circle. Masks are handed to audience members. Broken bodies are kicked aside. Sex, death, and power circle each other, never letting their gazes waver for a moment.

“That was…” Helen pauses. “Really fucking good.”

“Oh my fucking god, yes. That sexy John the Baptist dude…” I can’t bring myself to call him, Jokanaan.

“Oh yeah! I mean… I would.”

“Like when Salomé and sexy John the Baptist were dancing, and he was totally not into it… I totally was.”

 “Yeah, but totally.”

The man sitting in front of us turns around in his seat to look at us.

We both burst into laughter.

“I think having him murdered just to get a snog was a bit much, but like, I get it… you know?” I say, ignoring the man and his judgemental gaze.

Helen nods in agreement.

Which just goes to show, that while Helen may be about to embark on a fancy-as-fuck PhD, knows everything about everything, and could quite possibly be a secret engineer, she’s still just as low brow as the rest of us.

Well, for a while.

“I like how she was both the predator and the victim,” she says, reclaiming the intellectual high ground as we make our way back to the surface.

I flounder, trying to keep up. “It’s a very basic plot,” I say. “I mean… you can tell the whole story in three sentences. But here they’ve made it entirely about the characters. Predator. Victim. Everyone is a bit of both.”

“And the way they used the space! That moment when Salome is up on the staircase, looking down…”

“And the massive shadows cast against the walls!”

“I thought it would be like that place under the pub. You know, Ellen’s worst nightmare,” she says, referring to a mutual friend who has an absolute horror of intimate theatre.

“Vaulty Towers,” I say, knowing exactly what she means.

“Why can’t dance in small spaces be like that? I know a small space doesn’t always mean that it’s crap, but…”

Yeah. But.

“That’s the one amazing thing about this marathon. It makes me find all these gems in places I would never usually go.”

“No, I would never have come here if it wasn’t for you suggesting it.”

“No Sexy John the Baptist…” I really need to stop calling him that. “Who is he?”

Helen gets out her freesheet. “Carmine De Amicis,” she reads.

“He’s really good in that role.”

“He’s really good in that role.”

“Something… not quite human. Something, separate. Like he’s from a higher state of existence.”

“A purity.”

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “Sometimes not having the money forces artists to really work, to think about how to tell a story. They can’t waste a penny on props or sets. If that was a big name schmany ballet choreographer, you just know there would have been a half-hour feasting scene, with coordinated dancing harem girls and all that shit.”

“Yes! It all has to come from the body. Here, they didn’t have anything. Nothing. Every little bit of characterisation came directly from the body.”

We lapse into silence, thinking about their bodies.

“It was good.”

“It was so good.”

So, there you have it. Salomé is fucking great. Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn, and Fabio Dolce are fucking talented dancers. And fucking talented choreographers too, because those fuckers not only performed this fucking piece but also created it. The Brunel Museum is weird as shit. And Helen and I are going straight to hell.

Read More

Exeunt, In Pursuit of Rylance

"Is this for Shakespeare in the Abbey?" someone asks, indicating the queue.

The person positioned at the end of it, a woman wearing a red tabard that makes her look like she's a hospital cleaner who just popped outside for a cheeky cigarette but actually is one of the Shakespeare's Globe crew, nods. "This is for Shakespeare, yes."

"Is it for tickets?"

Tabard-lady's brow creases. "That," she says, with a dramatic pause. "I can't tell you."

The question asker joins the queue anyway. I do too.

"I'm just making sure that people know what they're waiting for so they don't think they're getting into the abbey," continues to Tabard-lady.

I very much hope we are, in fact, getting into the abbey. That's why I'm here. Shakespeare in the Abbey. I'm rather banking on the title being an indication of what I'm getting. Because if not, I won't have a venue to check off this marathon.

And as venues goes, this one is bloody impressive. The pavements are blocked solid all the way around as tourists try to capture the perfect selfie with the rising towers of Westminster Abbey in the background.

Usually, in order to get those images of a venue's exterior that go up on my Official Theatre List after I've visited them, I'll cross a road so I can fit the entire building within the frame. But there was no chance of that here. I'd have had to catch the ferry to France to get any hope of fitting all of that Gothic goodness in one picture.

I did my best. And I certainly captured a certain something. The essence of the abbey. With a hint of the moody sky above and the swam of tiny little people below.

The queue shifts forward, taking me through a pair of doors so massive a double-decker bus wouldn't even need to fold in its side mirrors to get through.

There's someone only the other side with one of those plastic boxes that are made to keep recipe cards in, but literally no one keeps recipe cards in. The type of person who actually writes recipe cards is the type of person who will also decoupage their own damn box for them. So, instead these boxes are used by theatres to sort the night's tickets ready for pick up.

I give my name, and get my ticket, and a nice recipe for choux buns.

I keep on going. Through the shadowy gate-way and out into the brightness of a large courtyard.

There's another tabard-wearer stationed out here, pointing people in the right direction and handing out free programmes. Which in this case, is left.

I'm already feeling lost.

Westminster Abbey, which looked like such an imposing monolith from the outside, now appears to be a jumble of buildings nestled together for warmth when seen from the back. Like turning over a beautiful piece of embroidery and seeing all the messy stitch-work.

But I don't get lost. There are tabard-wearers at every corner. And then, at the metal gate that will whisk us inside, a very fancy security guard. He has a gold badge on his hat. It matches nicely with the gilding on the gate.

I don't know whether you've ever been before, but Westminster Abbey is fucking old. Like seriously. I mean, I knew it was old. Intellectually. But I don't think you really understand how fucking ancient it fucking it until you are there, standing on the same flagstones that people literally almost a thousand years ago also shuffled their way across.

Frickin kings have walked over these stones. And not just any kings. All the damn kings. And the queens. Especially the queens, I imagine. Stilettos can pox-mark a wooden floor within seconds. Just think want they can do with centuries of heel action.

There are grave stones set into the floor that have been walked over so much that their lettering has been smudged into oblivion.

The corridor starts to fill with Shakespeare-seekers, adding to the smudging of the stones beneath our feet.

Especially my feet. I'm not feeling particular light on them today. Top tip from an experienced theatregoer: if you are planning on attending a promenade performance in the evening, don't order a Chinese takeaway for lunch. And definitely don't consume six slices of sesame prawn toast on top of the curry you were convinced was a good idea when your coworker told you she had a free delivery voucher on Uber Eats.

Oh man. That sesame prawn toast is weighing heavy on me.

I really want to sit down, but I'm pretty sure that if I allow myself to do that I might as well snuggle up with one of the skeletons under the stones as I won't be getting up again any time soon.

I start reading the programme in an attempt to distract myself.

There's a welcome note from Mark Rylance. "You are about to meet many much-loved characters from Shakespeare," it reads. Blah blah blah. Whatever Mark. I skip down a few paragraphs. "As if by chance, you will find actors sometimes even when you aren't looking for them." Blimey. Am I finding the actors? Or are they finding me? Is that a threat, Mark Rylance?

"They will be speaking Shakespeare with you in a random, intimate, and improvised manner. In return, you don't have to do anything other than listen, respond if you wish, and move where your heart takes you."

Respond how I wish?

I don't know, man. I'm not big on improvised responses. I think I'll be skipping that one. As for moving where my heart takes me, Mark Rylance - you think my stomach is an idiot? Wait til you meet my heart.

Oh well. There's no backing out now. It's not like I haven't prostrated myself at the altar of immersive Shakespeare before. Might as well do it in an abbey.

Eventually, the doors open, and we slowly begin to filter in. At first I can't work out what the hold up is. I thought this lot would be bursting to get their Shakespeare on. But as it's my turn to walk up the stone steps and pass through the ancient wooden door, I finally understand. It's hard to move with your neck craned up as far as it will go, gazing at all the wonders of that spectacular vaulted ceiling, hundreds of feet above you. And then, just as the crick is about to become permanent, my eyes lower, following the lines of the fluted stone, down the walls, past the windows, circling around all the impossibly delicate looking twiddly carvings and then finally back to earth, and those uneven flagstones.

I keep my eyes on the flagstones. I can handle the flagstones. Focusing on them feels right. They're about level with us mortals. I feel comfortable with the flagstones. I understand the flagstones. Worn by the years and carrying the load of too many people.

I wonder how Mark Rylance would feel about me standing here, communing with the flagstones. Somehow, I don't think this is what he meant by "move where your heart takes you." For a start, I'm not moving.

Everyone is else. Now that the initial shock of this grand old building has worn off, people are scattering in every direction, in search of Shakespeare.

I turn left. Attracted by the pretty blue colour of the backing behind the rows of seats in what is, according to the programme, called the Quire.

I pass under a golden arch and then the abbey opens out before me into an impossible high and improbably wide space.

Scientist's Corner is on the right, and there's a small group over there inspecting all the carved memorials on the walls. But there's an even bigger group up ahead. A huge circle gathered around two actors. A man and a woman. I get closer, drawn by their voices.

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand," says Romeo. "This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this. My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

He kisses her.

Goodness. Is that allowed? In a church?

A little girl dressed head to foot in pink covers her eyes and presses her face into her mother's leg.

Her mother laughs and strokes the girl's hair.

They go through the rest of the scene. The girl slaps her hands over her scandalised eyes as lovers kiss again.

"You kiss by the book," says Juliet, before rushing out of the circle and off towards the Quire. A grinning Romeo follows close behind.

Just as the circle begins to disband, another pair emerge, as if from the crowd.

I don't recognise this scene. I can't tell what's going on. I decide to follow Mark Rylance's advice and move on.

There's a smaller gathering further back. Only ten or so people have made it all the way down here. There's one actor, dressed as an RAF officer and speaking so quietly he's almost drowned out by the pair near Scientists' Corner.

He's holding a toy plane.

He looks up and I see his face.

It's only Mark bloody Rylance.

He's doing Richard III. I've seen him do Richard III. But not like this. Not so softly. So gently. So damn close.

He walks towards us, reaches out, and strokes a woman's cheek.

She looks like she's about to faint. Or possibly implode.

Before she manages either, he moves away, walking around a grave. I look down. It's the unknown soldier, surrounded by a garland of paper poppies.

Rylance knees down next to it, flying his toy plan over the inscription.

He pauses. Silence.

And then he walks away.

I decide it's time for me to move on as well.

I've seen something in the programme maps and I want to check it out.

Back through the Quire, across the Lantern, through the North Transept, pausing for a moment to peer into the shrine to Edward the Confessor (very tricky, the barriers are super tall, I had to stand on my tippy-toes to catch a glimpse), up a short flight of stone steps, and then through a small and utterly unremarkable looking door. So unremarkable, I thought I might have taken a wrong turn, and was heading into some side office, or possibly an ancient cleaning cupboard. But no, the award stone corridor ends and I emerge into a palace of white marble. Every inch of the walls is carved into thousands of fluted channels and intricate flowers. And in the centre, a massive black tomb, surrounded by black railings, decorated with gold roses and initials.

I recognise the initials. Its the same ER I see on post boxes every day. But these are older. Much older. The OG ER. Elizabeth the fricking First.

There's an actor in here too. She's dressed in khakis. I don't know what she's reciting. It's not terribly interesting. I wait for her to finish and go away, and then plunge forward to inspect the tomb.

There's a stone effigy laid out on the tomb. A white marble head, wearing a white marble ruff, resting on a white marble pillow. She's wearing a crown. It doesn't look very comfortable.

I look around. I'm alone. "Ignore the haters," I whisper. "Donizetti was a moron."

That's a lie. I don't do that. But I think it. Very hard.

I check the programme. My next stop was on the other side of Lady Chapel.

I squeeze myself through the crowds.

I can't even get into this room.

I wait, as an endless procession of slow-moving people files out.

I must have just missed a performance.

Eventually, the clown-car joke comes to an end and I'm able to enter the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots. Another marble effigy. Wearing another marble ruff. Resting on another marble pillow. The only difference between the two is the lack of a crown.

Even in death, they are the subject of comparison.

I look around for a sign as to why Mary Stuart is buried in London, but there's nothing.

That done, it was time for more Shakespeare. It didn't take me long to find it. In the next tomb is a young woman, dressed in a long blue gown. She's crying, gazing at a man with beseeching eyes. He looks really uncomfortable. His wife is finding it hilarious.

I see the same actor a few minutes later. She's not wearing the blue gown anymore. She's stripped down to a white shift. She's carrying what looks like a bunch of meadow grass and wandering around as if half in a dream. She stops a woman, and hands her a stem.

That must be Ophelia I think, hanging back to watch her with a professional interest.

She walks past me and catches my eye. She does not give me one of her meadow grasses.

I walk around again, catching sections of The Dream and Taming of the Shrew as I go. Young people wearing red or white roses circle the abbey, muttering about those blasted Montagues or Capulets as they go. Occasionally I see them sitting down with an audience member resting their feet on one of the chairs around the edges. Further in Ib spot two of them flirting with a woman via the medium of a sonnet - bouncing the rhyming couplets between the two of them as they take it in turns trying to win her hand and mock each other's attempts.

I'm retracing my steps back to the tombs. I fancy another look at Good Queen Bess. As I make my way, Martha Plimpton tries to rush past me with a basket, and asks me very sweetly to move aside.

I circle back round to the Quire. There's a huge crowd. As I get closer I can see why. There's Mark Rylance. He's doing a scene with Martha Plimpton and the basket.

It's Winter's Tale.

As they finish and hurry off and man sighs. "He's gone again," he says, before starting off after Rylance. He's not the only one. It looks like Rylance is now the head of a convoy of adoring fans.

I decide not to go off in pursuit.

But a minute later I'm bumping into them again. Rylance, Plimpton and the basket, at the unknown soldier's grave.

A trumpet sounds in the distance.

"Something is happening," says Plimpton, looking at us all. "Come," she says urging us forward a few steps, before turning around to stop us.

The Montagues and Capulet's come storming in, followed by the rest of the audience.

Plimpton guides us into a circle. "Can you see," she asks someone, before channelling a space and pushing them through to the front.

Rylance is doing the same.

He reaches deep into the crowd and pulls out an old lady. Her friend follows behind, taping her on the shoulder, her face scrunched up in glee. This is their moment. The rock star yanking them up on stage. The pair of them will be talking about that-time-Mark-Rylance-pulled-her-out-of-the-crowd for years to come.

Plimpton is now gesturing that the audience members in the front should sit in the ground. No one dares question her. They ease themselves down onto the cold flagstones.

The Montagues and Capulet's are batteling with words. Not Shakespeare's though. These are original words. They urge us all to shake hands and make friends. The actors walk around our circle, clasping the audience's hands as they do so, before leading a procession, out through the huge doors.

A song strikes up. And Pharrell Williams' Happy chases us out into the last of the day's sunshine.

Read More

She smelt a ghost (and she liked it)

Helen is standing in The Charterhouse courtyard. It’s early evening and the shadows are creeping their way up the old stone walls. The cherry blossom is swirling.

It’s like something out of a dream.

Not my dreams. My dreams usually involve me fleeing my childhood home, chased by some unseen figure. And being unable to close doors because they are too small to fit the frame.

Please don’t psychoanalyse me.

Anyway, it’s like something out someone else’s dream. The dream of a fictional character, rendered for the screen by a director with a large locations budget and a problematic CGI habit.

“This is just…” I say.

Helen spreads out her arms to encompass this magnitude of fairytailness that we had found ourselves in.

“You’ll like this,” she says, showing my something.

It’s a small piece of black card, with the letter C inscribed on it in gold sharpie.

It’s a ticket! An actual ticket!

Helen’s right. I do like this.

I want to get my own. We go inside. I’m immediately disappointed.

Modern. Everything is modern. The type of modern that looks like it was bought in baulk from an IKEA showroom. Acres of pale blond wood, punctuated by recessed lights.

I take my C-marked ticket with bad grace.

There's some sort of merch table action going on. We bypass it and make our way into the next room and... oh, yeah. That's the stuff. A wooden staircase, all boxy sides and wooden hounds guarding the lintels. Leaded windows. Towering paintings. And a statue of some dude in a ruff, who is possibly James I, but my history isn't good enough to confirm it, snuggling up against a hi-vis jacket. Helen makes short work of identifying the kings in the portraits, but I'm not wearing my glasses so I have to take her word for it.

"If you'd like to step into the library, there's a bar," says a woman with a bright smile. "You can stay here if you like, but..."

Nope. I'm done with this room. I want to see what else is in this place.

"I don't want to be one of those wankers that only likes old buildings," I say to Helen as I pause to take a photo of a door. "But I really like old buildings."

"I really like old buildings too."

"I have a theory," I start, as a theory has just occurred to me. "Ugly buildings get torn down. So only the nice old buildings survive. Apart from the Coliseum. But the Coliseum is so fucking ugly, it's actually fabulous." And anyway, the Coli isn't anywhere near as old as this fucking building.

Helen grabs me, saving an old lady from going flying as I turn around and around, trying to take in everything about this new room, all at once. The windows! The portraits! The fireplace! Oh my fucking god, look at that fuking fireplace. I could roast an entire hog in that damn thing.

But instead of a hog, there's a trunk inside. The wood so darkened by age it looks almost black.

I'm fairly confident there's a skeleton inside. Or possibly a pile of letters incriminating a minor lord of treason. I really want to open it to find out, but there are too many people around. (Helen grabs my arm again, saving yet another old lady from having to perform a three-point airborne manoeuvre).

The towering fireplace on one side is matched by a no less impressive door on the other. Short and squat, it looks designed for someone who barely clears five foot tall, but passed that loop on their belt-size centuries ago. I imagine a pair of liveried servants heaving with a specially designed stick, to lever their rotund master through the doorway, where he would emerge on the other side with a satisfying POP.

Helen offers to buy me a drink. I suspect in an effort to save the old ladies of the audience from further incident.

The bar is set up on a long table, with an arrangement so elaborate it must look spectacular in The Charterhouse's wedding brochure. Endless rows of shiny glassware are balanced on upturned crates. There's a smart little price list nestled next to the tumbers.

Wine. Beer. Soft drinks.

The holy trinity of pop-up bars everywhere.

I'm not much of a wine drinker even at the best of times, but drinking out of one of these squeaky clean glasses in this environment strikes me as ridiculous. Wine should be drunk out of a goblet. Or perhaps a cup carved from horn. Not glass that's been run through the dishwasher with extra rinse aid.

"What are the soft drinks?" asks Helen.

We investigate.

Two jugs. One orange. The other looking so watered down it could only be elderflower. No ice. Warm elderflower. Quite possibly the least appetising thing in the world. Next to warm orange juice that is. I pass, and return to admiring the fireplace.

"Okay, I'll take it," I announce to The Charterhouse in general. "I'll move in. Do you think they ever need those Guardian people? I could do that."

People are beginning to head upstairs. We follow them.

"Very Liberty," says Helen, examining the hound's head fixed on the top of the balustrade.

She's right. It is very Liberty. Although a bit lacking in the soft furnishings department. Or any department. This is a beautiful building, but a rubbish shop.

"Go ahead," offers Helen as a dapper-looking gentleman with a walking-stick waits for us to go in.

He indicates that we are the ones that should go, instigating a battle of politeness between the two of them.

I smile. This is a game the gentleman with a walking stick can't possibly win. I've seen Helen use her ruthless friendliness in action before. He's not playing with an amateur here.

But then he draws out a trump card so shocking I'm left reeling.

"I live here," he announces.

I'm sorry, you what?

"You live here?" asks Helen, clearly also requiring some clarification on the matter.

He doesn't offer any, other than confirming that he does indeed live here.

I didn't realise that was an actual option.

I can't let this opportunity go to waste. "Well, if you ever need a roommate..."

He laughs. "Promises. Promises."

That settled, we move on, following the crowd through a dark antechamber and then...

"Wow."

I mean... wow is pretty much the only response you can have to a room like this.

Helen is the first to find her voice.

"Look at the tapestries!" says Helen. "Actual, real tapestries."

"Look at the ceiling!" I respond.

Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

The chandeliers! The walls! The floor!

The fireplace!

If I thought the one downstairs was impressive, the one here is on a whole different level. Extending from wooden floor to intricately moulded ceiling, the fireplace is an extravaganza of religious carvings and inlays, picked out with gilt. There's a stone surround. And a brick backing. And suddenly I understand that woman who married the Eiffel Tower, because I am in love with this fireplace and ready for commitment.

"C?" says the woman on the door, seeing our tickets. "You're in the section right at the back."

We head right to the back, picking our way around the reflective stage that lies like a shimmering pool in the centre of the room.

Two rows of seating lie either side of the stage, with the section at the back is slightly separated from the main body, set at an angle and tucked away beside the piano.

"Where do you want to sit?" I ask.

Helen slides into the second row, but I pause.

There's no rake. If I've leant one thing on this marathon, it's to be very careful choosing a seat when there's no rake.

"What about sitting on the platform?" I ask.

The last row, right at the back, and almost around the corner, is raised on a high platform. But I suspect that its inferior placement will be more than compensated for by the extra height.

We try it out.

I'm right.

The view is staggering. From our elevated position, we have a clear view right down the stage. I can see everything. I feel like a king upon his throne. No, better yet: a queen.

I get out my fan. It's very warm up there. ("Don't faint," warns Helen. She knows I have form.) It's cooling, but more importantly, adds to the whole regal thing I've got going on.

A lady comes out. I lean back in my chair. I'm used to this drill. I've already seen this show. Back at the Old Church. And due to marathons beyond my control, I'm seeing it again. I would be mad at OperaUpClose for programming two London dates on their Maria Stuarda tour, but I'm sitting in the most beautiful room I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to get worked up about it at this point.

"The very room that Elizabeth herself met with her council," she says. "As she will later on in the opera."

I sit up. What the what?

Elizabeth? Here? In this room?

Holy...

The opera begins. Donizetti is doing the very most. Epic sound fills the room, pressing us back against our seats. It's hard to remember to breath.

The piano is right next to us, and the pianist is flicking pages, conducting, and pounding out those notes in a fever of motion.

With Helen next to me, I get the giggles as Leicester bangs on about Mary's beauty to Talbot. "Ah, the poor woman!" he says. "And she was such a beauty." As if beauty enhances tragedy.

Helen leans into me. "Leicester is a fucking idiot," she whispers.

I nod.

Leicester is a fucking idiot.

Oh, Donizetti. Your music is gorgeous, but you really don't know the fuck about anything.

I'm so glad Helen is here. I just knew this opera would rile her up. And no one gets riled up more eloquently than Helen.

Ignoring the sign that states very clearly that only staff and brothers are allowed past that point, I step onto the mezzanine and look down at the foyer below.

 

“But the sign said brothers,” says Helen, her mind always whirring. “It’s it still a religious order?”

Although I love the present tense, writing in it can be a total mind-fuck. Anyway, hello. I bring Do not be afraid. I bring great news. It turns out you totally can live at The Charterhouse. If you are over sixty. Don't have any money. But also don't owe any money. And some other rules that are too tedious to list here. I'm a little young to put in my application at the moment, but now that I finally have a goal worth pursuing in my life, I will be dedicating the next twenty-eight years to being poor (check) and paying off my credit card (no-cheque).

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Take Me To Church

Day 98 of the marathon and I'm watching my first opera. Not my first opera ever, you understand. Just the first opera of the year. I've seen rather a lot of opera, as it happens. I went through a bit of an opera phase a few years back. I spent a good chunk of my mid-twenties running back and forth between the ROH and the Coliseum to watch them. Strange now, that when you click those links - you don't find a post about me watching an opera. When it came down to it, my official marathon visits to the twin opera houses of this city, were to see ballets. Nowadays, ballet will always win out when it comes to a direct choice.

But I still like opera. Some opera. Okay, three operas.

Tosca (she refers to herself stabbing the #metoo award-winning prick in her life as ‘Tosca’s kiss,’ which surely has to be the greatest come-back line in history). Magic Flute (I'm basic, okay), and L'elisir d'amore (What can I say? I love, love).

I first saw Elixir of Love a million years ago, in an OperaUpClose production at the King’s Head and loved every minute of it. I loved it so much that I actually stole the heart-vision glasses that they handed out to audience members (I’m really hoping we’ve passed the statute of limitations for nicking audience-props here).

So when I heard the company where doing another Donizetti opera, and in a marathon-verified venue that I’ll admit, I’d never heard of before, well… I was there.

Except, where is there?

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church,” says their website.

Well, that sounds simple enough.

I strike out. It’s a nice evening. The sun’s still up and the rain has retreated for the time being. I have a nice stroll. Walk along the New River Path. It’s nice. There are ducks. I like ducks. Everyone likes ducks. Ducks are great. The way they waddle about on land and preen in the water. Ducking marvellous.

Even with my leisurely nature walk, I still arrive at Clissold Park far too early. So I take a short turn along the paths before the crowds of joggers chase me away again, back on to the narrowest excuse for a pavement that could be conjured up as a concession to pedestrians. A jogger comes my way and I have to clutch at the railing to avoid being sent flying into the wall.

Right. The corner of the park. That had to be coming up soon. I’ve been walking for bloody ages.

The Old Church is an Elizabethan church. The last surviving one in London, apparently. That shouldn’t be so hard to spot.

In the distance, a towering steeple looms over the tree-line.

I check the website again.

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church.”

I laugh. I can’t help myself. Those have to be the most perfectly useless directions that have ever been committed to pixels.

Let’s ignore the logic of signposting to one church by pointing out its proximity to another. That’s a nonsense, but not worth lingering on.

The more important point is that St Mary’s New Church can only conceivably be thought of as a new church when placed directly opposite a building dating from the 1560s. The new church is a friggin’ Gilbert Scott and is over 150 years old.

Here I am looking for some greenhouse with an oversized cross stuck on top, and instead I’m getting early Victorian Gothic revival served at me.

Feeling a little bemused, I turn my attentions to the old church, sat back from the road and lurking behind a veil of trees and ivy-covered graves.

The church is long. A country church. It reminds me of the one in the village where I grew up. Long and low, with proper mullioned windows that glow with warmth.

I have a little walk around the churchyard, admiring the heavy stone tombs, but people are going in and seats are unrestricted.

Through the arched doorway, I catch a glimpse of the interior. But I try not to look. I'm holding back. Saving it.

There’s a little desk set up just inside. I give my name. “Just the one?” asks the lady sitting behind it. “You’re in band C, which is in the back row over there. Pick any of the seats with a yellow sticker.”

Sounds simple enough.

There are a couple of programmes propped up on the desk.

“Can I get one of these?”

“They’re £4,” she says. “They have the full libretto in them,” as if to justify the cost, but I am fully on board already. “Card or cash?”

That’s not a question you get asked often when buying a programme, let alone in a church. I thought there were rules against that.

I pay by card.

Right, now I can look at the church. A really long, savouring look.

It’s lighter than I imagined. Despite the narrowness and low walls, it feels bright and airy. The walls are painted white. This truly is a church of post-dissolution England. That’s not to say it’s bare. Quite the reverse. The walls are packed with intricately carved memorials, dedicated to parishioners who passed hundreds of years ago.

Here’s one for Sire John Hartopp and his first wife, Sarah, who died in 1793 and 1766 respectively. Their names united in marble for eternity. There’s no indication of what his second wife thought about that.

There’s a bar in the corner. Selling wine, appropriately. And crisps, which feels altogether less appropriate.

Through the centre of the aisle is a raised stage, with that mirror like finish that I’m beginning to associate with theatres with pretensions of antiquity. The stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse had similar reflective properties.

I wander around, taking photos. With all the pillars and recess and the stage, it’s impossible to find an angle that captures this place in all its glory.

People are starting to pour in now. I should probably stake a claim on a seat.

Where had the box office lady pointed? The back row?

There are four rows of seats towards the left of the aisle.

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Well Sarki

"What does a free drink mean?" asks someone in the queue at the bar.

Sounds like a stupid question, but it had been one I'd been asking myself.

"I don't know," comes the reply. "They just said a free drink from the bar."

"So, wine? Or like... can I get a double?"

Silence. I could only presume the answer came in the form of a shrug.

I looked up at the menu. There was wine. And beer. Coke in all its variants. Water. And spirits. But no indication of which ones could be requested in exchange for the small drinks token we had been given.

I'm not a wine, or a beer drinker. And I only really go for the fizzy stuff when there's nothing else on offer. As for water, I've got some in my bar. And spirits don't tend to be included in these offers. Should I wait it out to find out?

"Can everyone move to the other side?" calls the man behind the bar. The queue shuffles its way to the other end of the bar.

I go with them.

The queue is long. Really long. And I decide the thing I want, the thing I really want, is to get out of the queue and take some photos of this venue. That's the real reason I'm there after all.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't at the Cutty Sark to find a new drinking hole. I was there to get some ship-action going on. It's not every day you get to wander around beneath the bow of a nineteenth-century clipper.

I think the good folks at Royal Museums Greenwich are fully aware of this, so open the doors a full 45 minutes before the show starts.

I had missed out on this precious wandering time because of my inability to ever judge how long a journey on the DLR will take. I rocked up with only ten minutes to go, and I spent half of them standing outside, gazing in rapture and trying to work out how to possibly take a photo that would capture this ship in all its beauty. Did I want the corner of the pub in the shot to show off the surrealness of seeing a ship there? Or perhaps have the masts stark against the night sky?

Nothing seemed right, and I just had to accept that I am not a photographer and you'll just have to live with that, as I do.

When I came to realise this, there was nothing left to do but go inside, give my name, pick up the drinks token and...

"Can I get one of these?" I asked, indicating the stack of programmes on the desk.

Turns out I absolutely could, because they were absolutely free.

Score.

After that, I was pointed in the direction of a staircase that would take me down, deep into the bowels of the earth, the hull of the ship descending with me.

At first I didn't see it. The theatre. But as the smooth curves of the dark ship fell away from me, I spotted it. The seats first. Rows of them. And then the stage. Small. Nothing more than a backcloth and a platform stuck in front of it. Like one belonging to the travelling players of a forgotten era.

I was there for Pirates of Penzance, which as shows go for watching under the looming shadow of a sailing ship, is pretty unbeatable.

"If it's terrible, we can leave in the interval," says a man sitting behind me.

His companions don't sound so sure about this deal of his,

"Apparently, it's an operetta, not an opera," he soothes. "So hopefully it's not terrible."

The musicians stroll down the big staircase, dressed in full pirate get up. With embroidered waistcoats, tricorner hats and everything.

That gets an audible reaction from the row behind me, and coos of appreciation replace the grumbles of discontent.

A few minutes later, it's the turn of the cast, the ladies wrestling with large skirts as they make their way down the endless steps and cross the huge space towards the stage.

It's my second Pirates of the year. When I started out on this marathon, I never considered this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, would be the one to steal the Most Viewed category. I figured that honour would go to some Shakespeare or other, but here we are, serving up those corny Cornish Pirates, and I've loving every minute of it. And where Wilton's was all boys in skirts, this version has meta staging and operatic trills. Because while Pirates may be an operetta, and not an opera, the company performing it, The Merry Opera, are, as the name implies, of the opera, and not the operetta, variety.

When the cast hurried back up to the stairs for the interval, in a manner which must be doing wonders for their cardiovascular fitness, the audience headed to the bar.

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

Abandoning the queue, I roamed the full length of the ship up towards the viewing platform, from where you get a real sense of the scale of the thing, with all the people below scurrying about like little insects.

But what really drew my attention, was what lay below. A chorus of figureheads, bursting out of their display like a battalion of avenging angels. Even the most cherubically cheeked among them rendered demonic by the shadows cast by their companions.

I took a few photos, but their sinister glares get the best of me and chased me back to my seat.

The free drinks must have done the trick because the audience was noticeably more excited than I had left them.

To be honest, I'd been a little concerned about the lack of humming among the older male contingent. When the good ship G&S doesn't bring about some humming among the audience, you know something's gone wrong. But I neededn't of worried. A few rival hummers started from opposing rows in what I can only describe as a hum-off. But before a winner could be declared, they were both blasted out of the competition by a woman letting out a shrill peal of opera-warbles.

"Wow," says her neighbour, sounding a little unsure about the whole thing.

Taking this as encouragement, she does it again. And again. But the repetition does nothing to widen her repertoire. It's always the same couple of notes, repeated in impressively parrot-like fashion.

People are starting to look around. But this newly acquired audience only encourage her.

Just as I wonder whether I should applaud, the band reappear.

We were ready to start the second act.

Dastardly deeds and even worse word-play follows. True love triumphs. The Major General out-raps the cast of Hamilton when he goes double-speed. Pirates are marked out as the very naughty children they are. Everyone gets a touch sentimentally patriotic. And I get my fix of boys in eyeliner.

Bliss.

Oh, and the man who thought that offered his group the opportunity to leave in the interval? Yeah, they came back for act two. I guess operettas aren't necessarily terrible after all.

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You’re in a cult; call your dad

After bidding goodbye to my intrepid theatre-pie tasters, it was time for me to head off to my next show.

Oh, you didn't think I was done for the day, did you? This is a four-show weekend, my friend. Five if you include Friday night's convoluted trip to the Barbican.

I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Not really. 

My next show was only down the road, in the basement of the Travelling Through bookshop.  

This is my first bookshop if the marathon. 

I've done the former library that is The Bush, and the library-library that is the London Library. But no bookshop. 

Unless we count the Samuel French bookshop being based in the Royal Court, but I think we can all agree that we won't be doing that. 

So, there we were. On Lower Marsh Street, about to find out if bring able to purchase the books on the shelves makes a difference to the theatre they surround. 

Travelling Through is a very small shop. Or at least, that's how it feels when you are crammed shoulder to shoulder with the rest if the audience, as you wait for one of the Vault Festival ushers to check you in on their, by now familiar looking, tablets. 

After Helen's comment at the Vaulty Towers, suggesting that waiting around while holding a pie was actually part of the show, I did wonder whether this close proximity to my fellow audience members was an attempt to show us what life was like for a book, tucked up on the shelf next to its brethren. But the house was soon opened and we filed downstairs, and I forgot all about it.

The little basement cafe is a cosy space. Long tables take up most of the room, but they'd managed to fit in enough tall poufs for us all to sit on.  Each one topped with a freesheet, which was a nice touch. You don't see many of those in the Vault Festival, which is such a shame. And not just because I'm a paper freak. Even with the wonders of the internet housed in our hand, its surprisingly tricky to find out the names of people involved in shows without one. Everyone talks big game about programmes having had their day, but I think we've still got a while to go before I'm made redundant. I mean, they're made redundant. They. Not me. I can do other things than producing programmes. I swear. Please don't fire me.

At one end, a woman cradled a mug of tea. Somehow she'd managed to score an entire table to herself. 

It was xxx. Our performer. 

We all pretended not to notice. 

"What's your view like," asked a glamorous looking woman as she took the pouf next to me.

I glanced over at xxx to assess the situation. 

"Limited," I admitted.

She considered this. "I think I'll sit on my leg, " she said, tucking up one leg under her. 

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What a good boy

When I tell people about my theatre marathon, the reactions I receive fall broadly into two camps.

The first sounds something a bit like this. "256 theatres? That's very doable. You'll have over a hundred days off!"

As if going to every theatre in London was like reading the complete works of Tolstoy, or learning Klingon. Something that can be done on your own schedule, and not at the whims of programmers.

Unsurprisingly, the people who take this line, almost exclusively, work outside of the arts.

The second group, the ones who have jobs in theatre, take a rather different stance. "That must be costing a fortune!" they start with, eyebrows disappearing into their hairlines. "How many have you done so far?" When I tell them, they usually get embarrassed and mumble something about needing to go to the theatre more. And remember, these people work in theatre, so when we're talking about their theatre-going habits, it tends to be on a trips per-week basis. At this point in the conversation, they start thinking about the logistics. "Are you doing all pub theatres? There's millions of those. And what about all those funny art-centres that are basically cinemas with a stage?" they'll ask. "Or the open air summer ones?" They'll marvel briefly when I tell them about my spreadsheets charting seasonable and pop-up venues. And then they'll frown. "God, your list must be growing all the time," they'll say. To which I agree. People are always sending me links to venues. Sometimes it's one that I’ve missed. Occasionally its one I've never even heard of. This will then be followed by a moment of silence as they try very hard to come up with the name of a theatre that I've never heard of. "Have you got the White Bear Theatre on your list?" they'll ask. For some reason, it's always the White Bear Theatre.

Which is ironic.

No, it really is. Ironic process theory. Tell someone not to think of a white bear, and they’ll instantly think of a white bear. Ask someone to think of a theatre I’ve not hear of… they’ll think of the White Bear Theatre.

I'm telling you this, not because I want to shame you into giving me better intel than the existence of the White Bear Theatre (you know better than that already...) but in order to help explain the mix of emotions that I felt on Tuesday night when a member of the Greenwich Theatre audience stood up after the play, to tell us all about another production, in another venue. A venue I had never been to. A venue I had never heard of. A venue that was definitely not on my list.

A venue that I couldn't damn well find when I start googling as soon as I got on the DLR.

"Just down the road," he'd said. But all my searches of the name plus "Greenwich" weren't turning up anything. I opened Google Maps and started inching my way around, working through all the streets that surrounded Greenwich Theatre.

Nothing.

And I had neglected to note down the name of the play. I tried to remember what he'd said about it. Something to do with the red flag. And a woman. Who gets arrested.

I tried all these as search terms.

Nada.

By the time I reached Bank, I still hadn't found anything and I was beginning to get frantic. What if I never found it? I'd have to live out the rest of this year, nay, my life, knowing that there was a marathon-qualified venue out there, in London, and I had missed it.

Just as I was seriously considering tweeting at the Greenwich Theatre to ask for their help in tracking this place down, it suddenly occurred to me that he might not have been literal.

"Down the road," might not actually be "down the road."

With that divine spark of inspiration, I changed "Greenwich" to "London" and eventually stumbled on a tweet. A tweet that linked to a blog post. A blog post that was reviewing the play. Which I now knew to be called Liberty. So, thanks Alex Hayward!

And thanks to the theatre gods too. They had done me a serious solid. We'd found it. Together.

In Deptford.

I ask you.

Anyway, after moving some things around, I managed to arrange an evening free, and come the day I bought my ticket and...

"Please dress 1930s."

I looked down at what I was wearing.

I was not dressed 1930s.

The jumper might pass, just about, but my skirt was way too short and... oh dear. It was a church. The venue was a church. I was going to a church. Wearing a short skirt. Are short skirts allowed in churches? I don't know. I haven't been in one since I left school. Not a real one, one that still had services and things. And even then it was Sherborne Abbey and my main concern was how many layers I could fit under my coat to protect me against the massive cold stone walls and yet remain unobtrusive enough to avoid notice when I didn’t go up for communion.

And... can you tell I don't do well in churches?

Going through 14 years of religious schooling can do that to a person. Especially when it's 14 years of Christian schooling (Catholic convent school, with nuns and everything, followed by high church CoE) on a Jewish girl...

Oh well. It was too late to change.

Either my outfit or my religion.

We were just going to have to do this thing. We were going to Deptford. To the Zion Baptist Church. On New Cross Road.

Fun fact - I used to work in Deptford. My very first proper job in the theatre was at The Albany. That was a very long time ago. So long that I'd forgotten just how much time it takes to get there.

"No need to run," laughed the lady on the door. She was wearing the most fantastic pillbox hat on her head. I hoped she hadn't spotted my skirt.

"I've run the whole way from the station," I puffed in reply.

"Don't worry. Start time is at five past seven."

So, I wasn't late. I was... five and a half minutes early. Excellent.

She signed my ticket, pointed out the door to the loos, and then directed me to another door where the audience was gathering pre-show. "There's free tea and coffee," she added.

Through the door, and into a space that had the air of an Oxford don's room - all comfy chairs and low lighting and teacups... and can you tell that I didn't go to Oxford and have no idea what a don's room looks like?

Do they have dogs? Because this room definitely had a dog.

He scampered up to me, demanding ear scritches and back rubs.

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Miss Smiles in the library with the chaise longue

It isn’t often that you find yourself in a queue of people waiting to be let inside a library. Well, not outside finals week anyway. And that tends to involve a bit more crying and ProPlus jitters than this group displaying.

“This square’s a bit posh, isn’t it?” said Helen, dropping her voice by at least an octave as we entered the library.

That’s quite the statement from someone I literally met at the Royal Opera House.

I knew what she meant though. Walking over from work, and turning from the West End into Piccadilly is quite the shock. Streets widen, ceilings heighten, and walls whiten. It’s like stepping into a period drama. You can practically hear the rattle of carriage wheels making their way around St James’ Square.

“I wish I could have seen in back in Jane Austen’s day,” she continued in a whisper.

It’s amazing how even out-of-hours the papery-silence of a library’s atmosphere gets to you.

As if on cue, the line shifted forward, bringing into view the most extraordinary day-bed. Built on a scale suitable for giants, and upholstered in a whisky coloured leather, this seemed better suited to Byron’s hangover than Mrs Bennett’s vapour attacks, but I’m never one to pass up the opportunity presented by a fainting couch.

“Do you want me to take a photo of you on it?” asked Helen.

I pretended to consider this for a full half-second before dropping my bag and sinking myself into the squashy leather surface.

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Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. I need to get me one of these.

I wonder if the library would consider loaning it out to me. I’ll bring it back, I swear!

Photoshoot complete, we headed to the makeshift box office. Now, in theory I had an e-ticket, but if this marathon has taught me anything, it’s that one must always check in at the box office. You never know what you’re going to get. Like a miniature postcard with optical-illusion artwork printed on the front, and your seat numbers scrawled on the back, for instance.

“Oh my god, look at this!” I showed Helen, much to the amusement of the box office lady. “So cute!”

“You and your tickets,” laughed Helen.

Yeah, well, look. Everyone has their vices. Mine just happens to be paper-based-theatre-keepsakes. And I don’t think anyone going to see a play in a library is in any position to pass judgement on that. And the illustrated artwork is really cute. There’s no denying it. What with the little bats fluttering around, and the silhouette of Dracula himself cupping the chins of the two figures behind him.

I shouldn’t complain. Helen has gone with me to some weird spaces for the sake of my marathon: Libraries, barges, the New Wimbledon.

She also bought me a drink.

And a programme.

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The woman is such a fucking angel. Seriously.

Drinks, programmes, and pretty tickets acquired, we followed the signs up the stairs to the room that would be serving as our theatre for the evening.

“Is this the main reading room?” she asked as we dumped our coats and bags.  “Look, you’re not allowed to bring laptops in here.”

“It’s very old fashioned,” I explained, staring at my assigned seat and wondering how I was going to clamber up onto it. It was a tall chair. I am not tall. Nor am I adept at climbing. I can’t see one of these things without wholeheartedly believing that I will fall off and die if I attempt to sit on it.

What can I say? I have issues.

It’s okay though. We’re working through this. You and me. Together.

Yeah, sorry to dump that on you. But I’m giving you some quality content over here, the least you can do is provide me with some unpaid therapy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say anything. You just sit there and look pretty while I prattle on over here.

I flicked open the programme. God-lord, look at that formatting! Two-spaces after the full-stops! I thought that convention went out with the typewriter. This place really is old fashioned.

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Which is exactly what I want from a library. And even more what I want for a production of Dracula.

The set, such as it is, was simple. A chaise longue (much more reasonably proportioned than the leather monstrosity lurking downstairs), a ladder, a couple of projection screens and, of course… the library itself. With its staircase and walkway and window.

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“That bit in the window!” I gasped when the interval rolled around.

“The window, was amazing,” agreed Helen.

I don’t think I’ll get the image of the screen being rolled up to reveal the shadowy form of Van Helsing standing there, in the dark, peering in at us through the panes of the French window, for a long time.

“And the projections are great,” continued Helen.

“The projections are great.”

“The way they are integrated into the work.”

“Absolutely.” I paused. “Doesn’t he look like Matthew Ball?” I said, referring to The Royal Ballet principal.

“Oh my god, he does look like Matthew Ball.”

“It’s the eyes.”

“And the hair.”

“I like him.”

“Me too.”

“And not just because he looks like Matthew Ball.”

Helen looked at me skeptically.

“I like her too,” I said hurriedly. “She has the most gorgeously vintage face.”

“She does have a very vintage face.”

“They’re both great.”

“They are.”

I reached down for my bag in an attempt to hide my flusters.

“I’m just going to get a photo of that calendar,” I said, slipping off the chair and scuttling over to the wooden pillar which housed a set of date cards.

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This place is so, so old-fashioned.

I love it so hard.

Unfortunately, my little crush on both of the cast members only increased during the second act on the reappearance of the window.

The screen was whipped away. The window opened.

They began to climb out onto the roof.

I gasped. They couldn’t do that! It was raining! They weren’t even wearing coats!

When they reappeared I had to sit on my hands in an effort to stop myself from running after the pair of them with a warm scarf.

The sight of her skirt covered in rain droplets made my heart ache.

I wanted to bake biscuits for the pair of them.

You know I’ve got it bad when I want to bake for people. It’s the Jewish grandmother in me.

They were really cute though.

I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate to get a case of the warm fuzzies from a production of Dracula, but what can I say… it’s the Goth in me.

It was still raining when we left the library.

Somehow it’s less romantic when it’s you being rained on.

And don’t have anyone to bake biscuits for you.

Messing around on boats

Brr, it’s cold.

No like, properly freezing.

And entirely the wrong day to be heading down to the canal and hang out on a barge.

“It’s been snowing,” said Helen, bundled up in padded coat as we met by the waterside. Her huge fur-trimmed hood nodded in the direction of the ice that clung to the base of the wall next to us.

So, yes, it was really effin’ cold.

We looked from the ice, to the brightly-coloured barge, and back again.

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“Do they have heating?” asked Helen.

“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “But the website said to wear layers.”

I wasn’t wearing layers.

After my attack of the vapours on Friday’s trip to the Wanamaker, I was a little nervous about putting my heattech back on. It was just me, my dress, and my coat, against the elements.

And we were shivering.

“Let’s go inside.”

We made out way up the short gangway and onto the deck.

It was beautiful there. Moored right in the middle of Little Venice, the water was surrounded by massive stucco-fronted buildings on all sides.

The water churned as boats thrummed their way past.

The air had that sharp whiteness that comes when you’re near a really cold expanse of water.

Gorgeous.

But my knees were starting to freeze solid.

As I opened the door, a waft of warm air spilled out. Good. They had heating.

And tea.

I could see people swarming around with cups at the bottom of the steep staircase that led down into the body of the Puppet Theatre Barge.

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Tea has always struck me as a strange substance to consume at the theatre. I was really weirded out by the ubiquitous presence of it at the Orange Tree, but here, on this boat, surrounded by so much frigid water, it seemed right. Proper even. Necessary.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” offered Helen as we queued for tickets at the counter that also served as the bar. I wasn't the only one feeling the need for hot drinks.

I thought about it. I did want tea. But there was something else on the menu that sounded even more appealing. “You know what, I’d really like a hot chocolate.”

“Can we take our drinks in?” Helen asked one of the black-clad ushers.

We could.

Hot chocolates, ticket (just the one needed), and programme (£1) acquired, we were led by another black-clad usher into the theatre itself.

Rows and rows of steeply raked benches, facing the tiniest stage I had ever seen.

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While seats aren’t assigned, rows are, and we were directed to the correct one and instructed to shift ourselves to the end, where we wriggled ourselves out of our coats and then set ourselves upon our hot chocolates, letting the warmth seep into our bones and drive it the brittle cold.

What remained, was soon melted by the play.

A collective sigh of appreciation rose up from the barged audience as the first puppet appeared, and never really went away. It hovered amongst us, reveling in the charm that poured out from that tiny stage, inhabited by the clinking wooden puppets.

The Butterfly’s Spell, by Federico Garcia Lorca. Yes, the guy who wrote Yerma also wrote a play about a beetle falling in love with an injured butterfly.

“He sure had range,” I observed during the interval.

But perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Who else could have prevented such a sweet tale from devolving into schmaltz?

The woman working the box office came over. “Can I take your cups from you?” she asked. “We’ve run out at the front.”

The rush for more tea and biscuits must have been considerable.

No wonder. By that point the effects of my hot chocolate were wearing off and I dug out my scarf to put around my shoulders.

As the audience filled back in for the second act, I noticed something.

I looked around just to check.

Yup.

We were all grown-ups.

Not a single child to be seen.

I would have thought a 3pm performance on a Sunday would have been the ideal time to take a child to see a puppet-show on a barge. But perhaps only the childless can be convinced to throw off their duvet on such a wintery day in order to spend their afternoon on a boat.

Their loss.

At the end, the puppeteers came out for their bows.

I recognised them.

They were the same black-clad figures who had led us all to our seats.

“I fucking loved that,” I said, as our applause died down. “So fucking charming.”

Helen agreed.

We started plotting the casting for a ballet version. 

The entire experience was magical. I’m definitely going back. I need more magic in my life.

I just need to remember my heattech.

But there was no time to dwell on the experience. I had somewhere else to be. It was a two-show day, and I was heading off to Waterloo for my first trip to the Vault Festival… and the dreaded Unit 9.