Mmmama who bopped me

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

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

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

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

Lots of people are going in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, alright then."

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

"Exactly!" agrees the ticket checker.

The girl is convinced. She reaches for her purse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although, that could just be the air con.

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

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

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

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

It is. And it's wonderful.

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

Well, that’s one mystery solved at least.

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

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

"What's all this?"

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

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

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

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

I nod along and make sympathetic noises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end, there's a standing ovation.

I don't join them.

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

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

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

Wyrd Smells

This seems to be the week of controversial theatres. It was only last month that the Courtyard Theatre was getting dragged across The Stage for late payment of artists and “unclean working conditions.” There was mention of mice, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a theatre in London without them. At one of the theatres I worked at, we could feel the mice running across our feet all day while sitting at our desks. And that wasn’t some crummy arts centre or dodgy fringe venue. Quite the opposite. It was a rather fancy producing house. The type that has West End transfers on the reg. So, you know, not sure complaining about mice should really be a thing. Late payment though… yeah, that sucks.

Anyway, it’s a return visit for me. Done the Main House already, and now it’s time to tackle the Studio. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been checking the website every week since January, looking for a show in this space. For months, there was nothing. Just the odd music gig, which doesn’t count. But finally, finally, I got one. A play. In the studio. On for one night only, but no matter. I switched my plans around and got myself booked in.

The fact that it’s Shakespeare. And even worse, Macbeth, hardly seemed worth worrying about.

Inside, down the green stairwell, and I'm thinking that not much has changed since my last visit other than a switch up in the posters stuck to the wall, but no... I was wrong. I turn the corner and stop. I can't go any further because there's a queue taking up the last few steps. A queue leading to the box office. The proper hole in the wall one. Not just some front of houser with a clipboard.

We shuffle our way down the steps as we get checked in.

"It's a company ticket?" says the girl in front of me as the box officer tries to find her name. "My friend organised it."

"Ah!" He switches to a different list. Nods as he finds her, and hands her a freesheet.

She immediately opens it and turns it upside down. "Oh wow! He's actually in it!" she exclaims, before heading off to the bar with a big grin on her face.

They're clearly very close.

My turn.

"Is it company tickets or did you buy them online?" asks the box officer when I give me name.

"I actually bought a ticket," I say, with the same tone you'd use when admitting the designer gear you're sporting is fake. "With money," I add, just for added clarification, that yes, it's from a dodgy market stall and definetly made by child labour.

"You bought a ticket?" he says surprised, switching from the handwritten list to the printed one. "Great! Can you remind me of the name."

I spell it out for him again. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

"Smiles," he says, finding it on the list and drawing a line through it. "There you go." He hands me a freesheet.

It's rather handsome. Black cover. A red sword-tree hybrid thing going on. And the title, in a pseudo-Mackintosh font (Charles Rennie rather than Cameron) that shouldn't work, but kinda does. Must be some deep underlying Scottish aesthetic connection.

I don't actually know where the studio theatre is in this place, but I do know where the bar is, so I go there. This place is a warren of corridors and stairwells. The type of place where you have to be lead about by a front of houser, who have all presumably spent decades training so that they know the different routes. Ushers at the Courtyard are the sherpas of the theatre world.

It's pretty busy in here. This surprises me. Somehow I didn't have a fringe Macbeth performed in a studio space for one night only being much of a hot ticket, but look at all these people, drinking and laughing and... reading their freesheets upside down.

Hang on. That's weird. Even for Shakespeare audiences.

I get out my own freesheet.

And immediately turn it around the other way.

Ah, I see the problem. They forgot to switch the printer options to flip on the short edge rather than the default long edge. An easy to make mistake. Which is why you must always do a test print when making folded freesheets.

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But, you know, apart from the printing snafu, they're alright. They even have a spoiler section in the synopsis, which is frickin' adorable on a four hundred year old play if you ask me.

Plus, a two hour run time. Which suits me just fine because I am so tired everything is starting to look a bit fuzzy around the edges.

More people are coming in and there's lots of kissing and hugging as they all recognise one another. I try to get a photo of the bookshelf wallpaper that covers one side of the bar, but there are too many people in the way.

"Do you know someone in the show?" a woman asks a guy she just got talking to.

"No, we just thought we'd check it out," comes the reply.

She nods slowly and stares into her drink. "Niceee," she says before quickly walking away.

"Ladies and gentleman," calls a voice from the doorway. "The house for Macbeth is now open. If you'd like to make your way through the door here."

I sling my bag up over my shoulder, ready for the long trek through the building, but the front of houser has only taken a few steps into the corridor and is now holding a door open that leads to the room right behind the bookshelf wall.

It's dark in here. Really dark. And filled with haze.

I'm vaguely away of a railing on one side of my, leading me around the back of the room and down a ramp.

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At the bottom of the ramp I blink into the glare of a spotlight and try to make sense of the space. There's a wooden floor. A low ceiling. The walls are black. A single rows of chairs on each side, and multiple rows at each end.

I'm not sitting on the sides. That's all front row, and while Macbeth isn't usually interactive, you can never trust studio-based Shakespeares to stick to the script.

I'm going to the far end. Second row. The third row is up on a platform. A really high platform. I think it might actually be the stage. Which is taking the rake a bit too far if you ask me.

Anyway, from my second-row seat, I can see straight through the door that leads backstage, and I keep on getting glimpses of tartan, which is rather pleasing. And what looks like a tin bath full of bricks.

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It is warm though. Very warm. We are basically in an underground heat trap. The low ceiling and intense spotlight aren't helping.

Everyone starts wafting themselves with their freesheets.

I dig around in my bag and pull out my fan. Two hours down here is going to be a bit of a challenge.

More people come in, shading their eyes against that intense light.

The seats are filling up.

A group of women walk down towards my end of the room and examine the stage situation. They can't work out how to get up there. One brave soul slings her bag onto the stage, and then using her knee to heave herself after it, crawls her way up with a grunt.

The things we do for theatre.

The seats are all full now. Well, not quite. There's a few strategically placed reserved signs dotted around. A girl comes over and looks at the one in the row in front of me. And then looks around elsewhere. There's nowhere left for her to go.

Using a well of logic that I've never had access to, she slips behind me and sits herself down on the edge of the stage.

Right then. We're ready to begin.

Macbeth. Act one.

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You'd think this would be the perfect Shakespeare for me. What with the dark themes and murder and intrigue and strong women and daggers and tartan and misty backdrop. But no, I think it's super dull. And while I'm not hating this production, the source material ain't doing anything for me.

Also, I'm noticing a strange smell. Musty. And damp. Like a swimsuit that's been shoved inside a suitcase at the end of the holiday and never unpacked.

Is this part of the design? An olfactory layer to the play? I have another sniff. It's not there all the time, but it comes in strong waves whenever one of the actors wearing tartan appears. Oof. Poor them. That must be really unpleasant to be wearing. Like having a wet dog deciding they want to sleep on your lap all evening. Petrichor, but like... gross.

As the story moves to the feast, actors filled the reserved seats so that we are all sitting around the table, staring Macbeth freaks out at the sight of Banquo and his gory locks.

As soon as the actors clear the stage for the interval, I bolt back up the ramp, through the bar, up the green staircase and outside.

It's still really warm out here, but I lean against the outside wall in bliss, enjoying what little breeze there is.

Soon I'm joined by all the smokers in the audience and from their chatter it becomes very clear what type of people I'm spending the evening with.

"My mum directed him in a play."

"Yeah, so I got accepted into that playwrighting scheme."

"Are you taking it to Edinburgh this year?"

"We did a show together at university."

One of the front of housers comes around the corner holding a carrier bag, looking for all the world like he just popped into the corner shop during the interval. "Anyone for Macbeth, the show will be starting again in a few minutes," he says as he wanders back through the doors.

We all follow him.

The theatre is almost empty. Everyone is still up in the bar.

There's some stormy, drumming, atmospheric song filling the space, which my phone assures me is Helvegen by Wardruna.

One of the actors appears and starts removing the reserved signs from the seats. We're done with that part of theatricality.

A bell rings. A proper theatre bell. And soon the audience begins to make it's way back down from the bar.

And we're back. This time with swords. And I'm betting they came from the same place they got the tartan because those fuckers look heavy.

As the blades clash, a woman in my row jumps, her feet creeping up onto her seat as she hugs her knees and leans back as far the fuck away from the stage as she can least she get stuck by a flying weapon.

The three witches take up spots in the corner of the room, breathing through open mouths, almost growling like dogs as they weave their spell around the characters, leading off the dead to have their wicked ways with the entrails offstage.

And then it's over. And I can go the fuck home.

I hurry out, aiming for Old Street station. Straight up the Northern Line and home by 10, that's the plan.

I get out my phone to check the time. 10.15pm. Ten-fucking-fifteen.

Dammit.

But to be fair, it's my fault.

You should never trust a Shakespeare play that claims to be only two hours.

I Got Played

I’ve broken the pattern. I’m not on the Southbank. I’m north of the river, which is rather exciting. It's been a while. I'm in Hammersmith! Usually this would mean a quick stop off at the Crosstown concession in the tube station, but it’s a 7pm start so I better get myself shifted. Thankfully the theatre is just down the road. You can see it from the station, the massive logo peeking around the side of the pub like a friend winking at you in a crowded party.

And it is a friend now, because I’ve already done the main house. But I’m back to tackle the studio. Something that’s been a bit tricky getting myself into as the good people at the Lyric seem to mainly programme kids’ shows in that space. Thankfully I was saved from that fate by the Lyric Ensemble. Some sort of youth group. With new writing. I don’t know. I'm sure I’ll find out soon enough.

There are three box officers behind the counter tonight. They all grin wildly as I step in the door.

“Hello!” calls over the middle one in what must be the friendliest welcome I’ve had in a theatre so far.

The main house is dark at the moment. Noises Off doesn’t open until tomorrow. For now, the studio is ruling the joint. So it’s nice and quiet. And the box office team seem to be enjoying it.

I do the whole business of giving my name and middle bloke digs out my ticket from the box.

“That’s the second floor,” he says. “In the studio.”

I go upstairs, but I have no intention of going to the studio quite yet. The sun is shining, and there’s a terrace I need to become reacquainted with. I mean, you know how much I love a terrace. And the Lyric has gone a pretty mega one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one to have had this idea. There are a lot of people out here. A lot of young people.

A bench near the entrance is covered from one end to the other with stacks of pizza boxes and the general vibe seems to be sitting around cross-legged, holding slices of pizza, and laughing.

Not wanting to be the spectre at the feast, I head over to the wall overlooking Lyric Square and make friends with the pigeons instead.

Some people might consider this a bit of a low point in my life. Communing with pigeons while surrounded by teenagers having a pizza party, but to them I say… you’re probably right, let’s move on.

I do, heading back inside and making my way to the studio, which is conveniently all of ten steps away. I flash my ticket at the door and the ticket checker waves me through.

The studio is bright, with white walls and a wooden floor. No black box nonsense here.

“Just to let you know, there’s no readmission,” says a front of houser.

“Right thanks.”

Another front of houser comes over. “Would you like a free programme?”

I absolutely would. She pulls a freesheet out of the pile in her arms and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to choose where to sit.

It looks like the seating that is usually in here has been folded up and pushed back against the wall. Instead, chairs have been brought in, placed on three sides around a stage that looks like a box of earth. Each side has two rows.

I decide I’m not really feeling the front row today, so I put myself in the second. That seems to be the popular choice. Only one person has dared the front row so far.

“No readmission?” says a newcomer on hearing the party line. “So once we’re out, we’re out?” He laughs as the front of houser confirms that, yes, that is the way things are going tonight.

Slowly, the rest of the audiences filters in. The front of housers chat quietly as we all wait for the rows to fill up. One of them fetches a pile of reserved signs and starts laying them done. On the chairs near the entrance, as standard, but also half way down a row on the left, and the furthest seat in that row. All very strange.

I begin to get worried. Reserved seats in the middle of rows. That sounds like the cast might… sit amongst us. And I’m not liking the look of these pieces of paper slipped beneath the chairs. I’m tempted to get mine out and have a look at it, but I’m not sure I want to know.

“There’s no readmission, so if you need the toilet, you need to go now,” says one of the front of housers to a new group just coming in.

We’re nearly full now.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts reading. “It doesn’t say much about the show,” she says.

I’d just been thinking the same thing. It’s a nice freesheet, don’t get me wrong. Has the title treatment of the show at the top, a blood splattered Mob Reformer, which looks very exciting. There’s a cast list. Creative credits. A note from the director. A nice group photo of the ensemble, and a bit about what that is exactly. And the thanks. Obvs. I spot Conrad Murray’s name in there. That’s cool. I wonder if we’re going to get any beatboxing out of this evening.

A woman in a fabulous satin skirt comes in and takes the reserved seat at the end of the row. She’s holding a notebook and wearing a lanyard, marking for what is quite possibly the shortest round of my Blogger or Director game to date. Director. For sure.

The satin skirt gave it away.

Bloggers can't dress for shit.

The front of housers start directing the stragglers to the few empty seats left going.

“Sorry,” says one usher to the front row. “Can you all move up one, so we have one on the end.” One by one they all shift up to close the gap. “Sorry, do you mind?” she asks the last person to move. They don’t mind, and the end chair on the row is freed up.

But it’s not enough, and soon a front of houser is bringing in a spare seat for the last person standing.

Right. I think we’re done.

The cast certainly think so. Someone comes out, in full medieval garb, and an Amazon box in their arms. “I’m Niamh,” Niamh introduces herself all bright and full of cheer. Her smile only wavers when a newcomer arrives, in jeans. This is Ele. She’s late. Oops.

No matter. There’s a show to be getting on with. Niamh gets out a helmet from her box. It’s made of paper, and very impressive. There’s a grill that covers the lower half of the face, space for the eyes, coverage for the whole, you know, head area. It really is excellent.

And she wants us to make one.

“You’ll find pieces of A3 paper under your chairs,” she says. And with no further guidance, we are left to it.

I get out my piece of paper, and stare at it. It’s exactly what she says it was, a blank piece of A3, and nothing more.

“Remember the eye-holes,” she says encouragingly before handing out some masking tape.

Ah, well. Now we’re talking. There’s a lot that I can do with tape.

I wait for the tape to come around, but the front row are having way too much fun with it, wrapping it around their heads and under their chins as they create elaborate constructions.

“Three minutes!” shouts Ele.

Three minutes. Shit. Okay.

I fold the paper in half. Unfold, and then refold. But the other way. I then tear it in two.

“Two minutes!”

With my thumb, I pock through two eye holes.

“One minute!”

I look up, trying to see if any tape as made it to the second row. Nope. I’m on my own here.

Right then. I lay one side of paper over the other, and concertina the short edges together so that they just about hold together. That’ll do. Not exactly a helmet. It’s lacking the head covering element that the word helmet suggests. It’s more of a mask really. But without tape…

I look around to see what others have done.

Someone has created a sort of 18th century bonnet construction that looks rather dapper. While her friend has curved the paper right over her head, leaving a hole for her bun. That one is rather good too. Both of them used tape though.

Niamh and Ele come around to inspect our work.

“That’s really rather impressive,” says Ele to the bonnet girl. “Have you done this before?”

Bonnet girl nods. She has.

“I can tell… Would you mind coming on stage?”

Turns out bonnet girl would love to go on stage. Which is a good thing, as Ele and Niamh have more in mind for her than a mere fashion parade. They’re going to teach her how to do a battle cry.

Niamh sucks in all the air in the room and lets out a roar.

Eel prepares herself. She cracks her neck and loosens up her shoulders.

We wait.

She cracks her neck and loosens her shoulders again.

And again.

Then she stops.

She’s done.

Okay, it’s bonnet girl’s turn.

Bonnet girl pauses, considering her options. She’s just witnessed two masters at work. She’s got to make it good.

With a flutter of her fingers, she lets out a tiny sigh.

There.

Battle cry done, it’s time to ride off.

“We’ve got a recorder over here,” says Niamh.

Someone in the audience shoots up there hand. “I can play!” she announces.

“Can you? Can you really?” asks Niamh.

The hand shooter confirms that yes, she can. But only the one tune.

“You do you,” says Niamh, handing over the instrument.

And to the sounds of Three Blind Mice, the three of them trot around the stage, depositing bonnet girl back in her seat.

Introduction now over. It’s time for the actual play.

It’s about the peasant revolt of 1381.

Everyone’s angry about taxes. Wat Tyler is going to lead the rebels to London.

And… something’s going on. The front of housers are whispering in the corner.

The director gets up from her seat and rushes over.

There’s a police officer. Standing by the entrance. Talking to the ushers.

The cast press on. I try my best to concentrate, but I can’t help but look over. The police officer looks intense. She’s not letting up.

The director turns to us. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. The cast stumble into silence. “We’re just going to stop the show for a few minutes. If you could all stay in your seats. Actors, you stay on stage please.”

Oh. Oh dear. This does not sound good. Has something happened? In the theatre? Has there been a bomb threat. I bet there’s been a bomb threat. Or perhaps there’s a fire outside. No, they’d be evacuating us if that were the case. Or would they? I mean… fuck. I don’t know.

We all sit quietly, and I can’t help but think of that experiment where psychologists pumped a white gas into a room of people and waited to see what happened. Nothing, it turns out. The people in the room just sat there. All of them waiting for someone else to raise the alarm.

The director looks over to the cast and lowers her voice. “Romario?” She beckons to the actor playing Wat.

He looks back at her, his face reflecting the bafflement in all of ours.

She beckons again.

He steps forward cautiously, off the stage, his arms lifted either side of him, the very picture of confusion. He goes with the police officer.

The director’s lanyard bounces as she rushes to the other side of the room and whispers to someone sitting in the corner.

A second later, she’s by the stage, calling the actors in a huddle.

They nod.

A decision has been made.

“This is Adebayo,” she announces, indicating a young man in a red tracksuit. The person she’d been whispering to in the corner. “He’s our assistant director. He will be stepping in. This is a huge challenge for him, and the rest of the cast, so I hope you will be very supportive.”

We all applaud. But I can’t help but think of Romario.

I hope he’s okay.

I hope his family is okay.

A police officer knocking on the door is never good news. But stopping a play? Fucking hell.

My mind can’t help but go to the car crash my mum was in when I was a kid. And the police having to find my dad to tell him that his wife was in hospital. Fuck. I really hope Romario’s mum is okay. And all the rest of his family members for that matter.

Adebayo steps onto the stage, clutching a script. The cast sing around him, and he keeps his head lowered, his eyes on wodge of papers in his hands, his lips moving as he feverishly reads it.

But all those hours in the rehearsal room must be paying off, because soon he is merely glancing at the lines, and then he’s leaving the script on a stool while he joins in with the action. When it comes time to leave the stage, he takes the stool, and leaves the script.

He’s really going for it. Leading his rebels in a choreographed march around the stage, joining in with the perfectly timed chants, and then delivering a perfect rap performance…

Hang on.

What the fuck? Did I hear that right? Did he really just say “Red Power Ranger”? Like the red tracksuit he’s wearing…

Those fuckers. It’s staged. They staged it.

Did they?

No.

They couldn’t have.

Could they?

Oh fuck. I can’t tell.

Adebayo is back, clutching his abdomen. His hoodie’s unzipped. There’s blood on his t-shirt. Blood on his white t-shirt. Blood that would not have shown up on Romario’s dark robes.

A film appears, projected on the white sail hanging over the stage.

It’s the ensemble. Lolling around on the floor, tapping away on their laptops. It’s a documentary. The making of the very play we’re seeing. And there’s Romario, grinning away with the group.

They’re going on the hunt for the Lord Mayor of London. The present one. Not the 1381 one. That one's dead.

They go on a field trip. Into the City. City with a capital C.

Romario tries to get past a security guard. He’s quickly rebuffed.

He tries again.

This time he gets pushed.

After some more failed attempts by the ensemble, the film ends.

There’s a closing note. They never did get a reply from the Lord Mayor.

And something else: “Romario was issued a police caution.”

Bonnet girl gasps. “It was a set up!”

When the cast return for the curtain call, Romario is amongst them.

The police officer, however, is not.

We file out slowly. All of us turning around, looking back, as if expecting someone to come out and announce it was all a charade.

“I don’t think it was pretend,” says a bloke walking behind me. “I think he really did have to get taken out.”

I don’t know, man.

And I don't like not knowing. It makes me feel itchy and uncomfortable.

Either way, I hope his mum is okay.

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Because we're Addamses

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

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BLT with extra lettuce

It’s taken a tube ride, two Thameslink trains, and a quick march up a steep hill to get here, but I’ve finally made it to the Bromley Little Theatre.

It’s nice.

Tucked off a small side street behind a… gosh. I don’t know what to call it. My brain is serving up the term porte cochere, but I’m fairly confident that really only applies to Downton Abbey and its ilk. What I mean is, that the short path between the road and the courtyard beyond is covered by an extension of the building, arching up over my head as I walk below it. It’s the type of construction that makes me instantly think of it should belong to garage in a provincial town, for reasons that I can’t identity right now and don’t want to question too hard.

There’s a handy sign pointing to the right door, which is much appreciated as there seems to be doors everywhere.

There’s steps in here. I start climbing. They’re very steep steps. Very, very steep steps.

And I’m wearing a very short skirt. A very, very short skirt. Made even shorter by the fact that I’m a little bit chubbier than when I bought it.

I look behind me and yup, there’s somewhere there. A bloke at the bottom of the stairs.

Thank god I put my big girl pants on today. Fucking hell…

There isn’t much of a landing at the top, but what space there is is taken up by a man sitting on a stool.

He’s busy dealing with someone else, so I hang back, surreptitiously trying to pull down the back of my skirt.

When it’s my turn, I give my name.

“Smiles! I remember that name,” he says in response.

They always do.

“Here you go,” he adds, handing me a lanyard. “Would you like a programme? 50p.”

“Bargain,” I tell him, looping the lanyard over my arm and reaching for my bag.

My purse has, of course, worked its way down right to the bottom, so I step aside and let the person behind me get lanyarded up while I dig around in search of it, find it, chip my nail varnish, pull out the purse, locate a pound coin within the detritus of pennies and cough sweets, and then when the name checker is free, hand it over, get 50p in change, and walk away with my programme.

I’m exhausted and I haven’t even got through the door yet.

Thankfully, there isn’t far to go, as the show I’m watching is in the foyer bar. Now, when I saw this, I thought it was just a cheeky name for a space cordoned off from the main bar. Perhaps with the use of curtains, or some kind of sliding wall situation, but no. We are literally in the bar. There, it is, over on the far side of the room, positioned right next to the box office. Chairs are positioned in two sets of rows, one on the bar side of the room, one on the entrance side. Benches are tucked against the walls. And in between, resting on tables that fill what little free space there is, are bowls of crisps.

All around people are munching away and laughing.

It’s quite the crowd.

There may not be a lot of room but almost every seat is taken.

I spy one free spot, in between a row of chatting ladies and a bowl of crisps. A prime spot.

“Is this seat taken?” I ask one of them. It isn’t.

I plonk myself down, careful not to knock over the crisps.

In really is small in here. Or rather, it feels small. Cramped even. The ceiling is low, and made even lower but the presence of heavy wooden beams painted an inky black and playing double duty as a lighting rig.

The tiny bit of free space in the middle of the chairs contains an office desk and, well, even more chairs. That’s our set for the evening.

There’s a TV on the wall. It’s playing one of those dreary financial channels where men in suits talk sternly in acronyms to each other for hours on end. An odd choice of viewing material for a bar, I think. I didn’t have Bromley pinned as an outposts for city workers, but then, I don’t hang out with city workers if I can help it.

Everyone is wearing their lanyards. I’ve just spent a whole day wearing one, and I’m not feeling overly keen about putting on another for the evening, but everyone else has, even the staff, so I duly duck my head down under the red tape and put it on. I’m a guest here, after all. A non-local in what feels like a very local place. It wouldn’t due not to play the game.

I look down at what my lanyard actually says. VISITOR, in fat green letters, cementing my position here.

I look around. We’re all visitors.

Except, no. There are some who have something different on theirs. I watch them, trying to work out what makes them different. Behind ones belonging to the blokes behind the bar are red. They say STAFF.

Except, hang on. I spot something. Across the top, in the black banner, instead of saying Bromley Little Theatre, or the like, it has: British Universal Industries Ltd.

“Don’t forget the five aside this evening,” says a sing-song voice over the speakers. “Team work makes the dream work.”

I almost laugh. I’m such an idiot. The TV. The lanyards. And those creepy inspirational words stencilled onto the walls. They are all there for the play.

Now, I’ll admit it’s been a few years since I saw Mike Bartlett’s Bull last, but this is slow work on the part of my brain.

“It must be starting soon,” says a woman sitting behind me.

“How can you tell?” whispers back her friend.

“The lights in the bar have gone off. The lights in the bar always go off just before they start.”

Gotta love that quality insider info.

She’s right too. A few minutes later, and we’re plunged into a meeting room at British Universal Industries. Three candidates. Two jobs. It’s going to get nasty.

As the audience sip their drinks, they become more and more vocal as the play progresses. Biting words are greeted with winces and hisses through teeth. But it takes one the actors taking his shirt off to turn the chorus to vocals.

“Very nice,” says the lady sitting behind me.

She’s not wrong.

But her appreciative comments don’t last long. He’s a wrong’un and treating poor Thomas abominably, and she’s not having it. “Why doesn’t he hit him?” he hisses furiously at her friend, as Thomas suffers the ire of the shirtless-wonder, XXX, one too many times. “He should leave! I would leave! Why doesn’t he just leave?!”

Similar whispered comments circle around the room.

We’re all rooting for Thomas. To fight back. To have pride.

We’ve all been there. Felt powerless in the face of people cleverer than us, quicker than us, more attractive, more confident, more charismatic. We are all Thomases.

It’s Isabel’s turn, with her pristine pencil skirt and precise pixie-cut.

XXX

I get up to leave. I’m one of the few that does. People lean far back in their seats in order to talk to people down their row, behind them, walking past, everywhere. A frenzy of conversation buzzes around the space.

I wade through it, back towards the landing.

There’s a box out there, ready and waiting to receive the lanyards.

I dither. I don’t need to tell you why, do I? Don’t make me admit it. You know I don’t like talking about my habit of pilfering audience-props.

No one would know if I just slipped it into my pocket and walked away.

But I can’t. I just can’t.

The ticket was only a fiver. And everyone here was so nice, so into it. I just… can’t. It would be wrong.

I dump my lanyard in the box and scuttle down the stairs before I have the chance to change my mind.

Probably for the best. I need to go back to get their main space ticked off the list. It wouldn’t do to get barred.

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Lose hope all ye enter Eltham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pressed on.

Finally, up ahead, I spotted something.

MacDonalds.

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

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

“But-“ he started.

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

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

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

Closed. Closed. Closed. Everything was closed.

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

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

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

 

I gave my name.

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

Did you get an e-ticket 

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

 

Emma?

No?

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

 

Are they still giving tickets out

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

So that's the truck.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Yeah, a real stage 

 

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Very non-'U'

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

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

Don’t worry, I still got my toast.

I was actually really looking forward to this one.

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

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

It was completely deserted.

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

Spooky.

Where had everyone gone?

It was as if the entire neighbourhood had been abandoned.

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

It was hard to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah. Okay. 

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

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

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

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

I definitely wouldn’t fit in around here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Within minutes a queue had formed.

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

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

There was one thing I couldn’t help noticing.

We were all very white.

And very theatre.

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

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

“I’m on lighting and sound tonight.”

“What did you think of the script?”

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

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

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

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

This declaration didn't get the reaction it deserves. 

He tried a different tact.

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

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

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

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

Finally, we were let in. 

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

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

Where did I want to sit? 

At the back. Obvs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh, yes. They have them too. 

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

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

100 minutes later we were done.

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

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