, 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.Read More
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.
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.
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.Read More
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.