Well, this is rather worrying. Google Maps can’t seem to locate my next venue.
I type it in again. Blackheath Halls.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lights dim. We begin.
It’s… ummm… what is this?
We seem to be doing the story of Helen of Troy. But it’s a comedy. And a rather tedious comedy at that.
All around me the audience is laughing. The kind of performative laughter you get at Shakespeare plays. The “I get this, I’m clever,” type of laughter. Well, I don’t get this. I’m not clever.
Ruth was right. There is a massive community cast. Every time I think the stage is full, more people keep on coming out. There’s a whole classroom’s worth of uniformed kids up on stage now.
And the heat is astonishing. At first it was merely unbearable. It is now a hell inferno. I can feel the weight of it pressing down on my chest. I rub my collarbones, hoping to free them up. My skin is clammy and hot to the touch.
First act one hour thirty. Second act thirty minutes. I can do this. It’s fine. Just listen to the music.
But the music is terrible. The storyline ridiculous. The characters irritating.
I find myself rolling my eyes every time someone makes a joke. And there are a lot of them.
I can’t believe it’s only a few weeks since I saw that glorious, well-thought out programme at Queen’s House. And now I’m here. Watching this right pile of tut.
My eyes are beginning to hurt I’m rolling them so hard. I think I might have dislocated a retina.
There’s a light up board on the stage.
“1 ‘ere, 2 ‘eme, 3 ‘eme, Int,” it says. 1’ere has been lit up for a long time. I keep an eye on it. I was sure if was keeping track of what act we were in, but now I’m not convinced. It’s been stuck at 1 ’ere for ever. It must be broken.
Just as I’m debating whether the heaviness in my breathing is a precursor to me fainting or just throwing up, it switches to “Int.” I watch it hungrily, not even paying attention to what’s happening on stage anymore.
I have to get out of here.
A few minutes later, it switches again. “2 ‘eme.” Act two.
Oh my god. Only act two? Out of three?
No. Nope. Definitely not. I can’t do it. I can’t.
I will die. And throw up. And faint. In that order.
I look up, fixung my eyes on the intricate mouldings in the ceiling, willing myself to get through to the end.
Not long now. I can cool off in the interval. And then just thirty more minutes.
Thirty. More. Minutes.
I can’t do it.
Yes, I can.
I never leave in the interval. I hate leaving in the interval.
I’ve only done it once on this marathon. At an amateur performance when the room was swelteringly hot…
No. I’m staying.
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.
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.
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.