Offenbach Off

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

I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.

Nope. Nothing.

Great. Looks like I’m on my own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freesheets! Fuck yeah!

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

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

“Amazing, thank you.”

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

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

Still… two frickin’ pages.

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

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

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

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

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

On the opposite side, there’s the bar.

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

Where are the programmes? Do they even exist?

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

Well thank the theatre gods for that.

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

Programmes are in high demand at Blackheath.

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

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

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

Transaction complete, I return to my pillar.

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

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

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

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

“I wondered if you’d be here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you in the interval?” asks Ruth.

I nod.

It’s time to go in.

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

Take two then.

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

“R20?” I ask the usher standing there.

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t seem to be working!”

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

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

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

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

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Lights dim. We begin.

It’s… ummm… what is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a light up board on the stage.

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

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

I have to get out of here.

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

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

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

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

I look up, fuxung my eyes on the intucateoudlings in the ceiling, willing myself to get through to the end.

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

Thirty. More. Minutes.

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can.

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

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

Oh.

Oh…

No. I’m staying.

Am I?

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

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

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

Screw that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Feet of Klee

We've known each other a while now. I would say that we've grown pretty close over the last three months or so, wouldn't you? I've admitted some pretty shameful stuff to you, and you've... well, you've read it. I think we've built up a relationship of sorts. One based on mutual respect and affection. A bond of trust has formed between the two of us.

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