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.

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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.