At Her Majesty’s Pleasure

It occurred to me, while sitting up in the balcony of Her Majesty’s Theatre, that Phantom of the Opera was the first West End show I ever saw. My brother had taken us all out for our mum’s birthday. I remember cringing down in my seat, overwhelmed by embarrassment as the cast started to… sing. Ergh! Were they really going to do that all the way through?

I was about eight years old. And Phantom was too, as we both premiered in the same year.

And look at the pair of us now! How far we’ve both come.

Growing together. Learning together.

I’ve dropped in to check in on my theatrical-sibling a couple of times over the years. See how he was doing. As the (slightly…) elder of the two I thought it was my responsibility, as a big sister, you know.

Okay. I went once. When I was at university. Which, if your maths has been keeping up, you will know was a very, very long time ago.

I’m a terrible sister.

And as I don’t want to let our relationship deteriorate ant further, I came to the conclusion last night, while sitting up there in the cheap seats (a tenner on GILT donchaknow), that if I really was going to die during the marathon, then it was going to be on that night. At Her Majesty’s.

It just seemed right.

Not only because of my great kinship with the show. But also because, if I did manage to come back to haunt the theatre, I would then become The Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera. And if that isn’t a title worth dying for, I don’t know what is.

This was destiny knocking, and I was waiting by the door ready to go.

The usher posted on the balcony that night seemed to agree.

“I'll be looking after you in the balcony tonight,” he said, positioning himself at the front of the tier for his introductory speech. “Right now, take as many photos as you like. But once the show starts, no photography is allowed. If I see you, and your screen will betray you, I will embarrass you.”

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Yeah, okay mate. But one can’t die of embarrassment. Believe me, I’ve tried.

“During the interval,” he continued, his voice ricocheting off the ceiling. “For health and safety please don't congregate on the stairs as you may fall.”

Ah. That’s the stuff. That’s how it was going to happen. That’s how my marathon was going to end.

“The rake here is very steep, so don't lean forward,” he went on. I expected some dire warning about tripping and plunging head first into the stalls, but he merely followed up with an explanation that leaning forward blocks the view of the people sitting behind. Which is also good. I suppose.

“I'll shut up now,” he finished before taking up post at the wooden podium behind us, from which he could watch us all. Master of all he surveyed. A god up in the gods.

He was as good as his word.

“No photos in the auditorium,” he boomed during the interval. “I can see what your screens are doing.”

Obviously I instantly took my phone out and attempted to snap a shot.

Pointed down. Aimed at my knee.

I’m a rebel, not a tosser.

But obviously my phone crapped out and the image didn’t save, so you’ll just accept my confession without proof.

Devoid of a functional phone, I had to find other ways to secure my demise.

The door to the balcony was promising. Looking for all the world like it had been bought at the prison-closure sale, it held distinct possibilities.

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Seemingly made of metal, this door could do some serious damage if I could find someone to smash it into me, accidently or otherwise.

But there was no one about.

I moved on in search of other methods of extinction.

A little way down the stairs there was the strange case of cubby-hole 98. I don’t know what secrets the preceding 97 doors held, but I was sure that number 98 contained something fantastically dark and hopefully dangerous.

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I gave the handle a tentative tug.

Locked.

Whatever was in there, wasn’t getting out.

What else? What else? What else?

Choke on an ice-cream spoon?

Crash into the scale-replica of the theatre built of Lego that I found in the Grand Circle bar?

Hand over my debit card to the lady on the merchandise counter and tell her to keep on going until the inevitable heart attack?

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Somehow these ideas managed to lack both the dignity and theatricality that I was after.

I didn’t want the other theatre ghosts to laugh at me, after all.

How could I hold my floating head high in front of William Terriss, who was stabbed to death by a fellow actor at the Adelphi stage door and now haunts the theatre? Or Charles Macklin, famed ghost of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, who was the one who did the stabbing, puncturing the eye of his co-star with a cane while they argued over a wig (no one says what happened to the spirit of the stabbed man. Presumably he wasn’t that fussed about the wig after all, and has moved onto a realm where wigs are no longer a concern)?

If I met my end by way swallowing an ice-cream spoon, I would be the laughing stock of the annual theatre ghost convention, an event which, if it isn’t already a thing, I will institute as soon as I am within the theatre ghost ranks.

No, if I was going to go, it had to be impressive. A story worth telling at parties.

I ran through a few options as I watched the second act. I could have made a flying leap for the chandelier, but that had already had its crashing moment before the interval. Or I could have strung myself up with the Punjab lasso. That one fulfilled all the criteria - it would fit in with the show. I could organise some grand, on stage reveal - tears of shock and screams of horror would be bound to follow my discovery. There was one problem. The lasso is an invention of Gaston Leroux and is not a thing that actually exists. And while the show does have one that appears on stage, I’m not entirely sure how functional it is.

I was running out of ideas. Just as I was considering breaking into the cleaning cupboard and seeing what options lay within, the final notes were echoing up from the pit.

It was all over.

After stumbling my way down all the steps, drunk on tunes and eighties perms, I made it outside - safe and somewhat-sound.

And I realised that it was probably for the best that I didn’t die at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Phantom is going to outlive me whatever I do. And while I love my masked brother dearly, and would like to visit him more often. I’m not sure moving in is the best thing for our relationship right now.

Put the kettle on, love

Lord preserve me from going to the West End on a weekend.

With its hoards rampaging through Leicester Square tube station, disgorging themselves out onto Cranbourn Street and cluttering up the pavement with their... you know... presence.

They were everywhere. A gaggle of pink-hatted girls surrounded the Gillian Lynne Theatre. From a distance they looked like they were on their way to a protest, but as I got closer I realised the only thing these kids were demonstrating was a lack of spacial awareness, as they had to be corralled into one corner to allow other people through. 

"Get your tickets out and your bags ready for inspection," became the battle cry of the ushers.

Folded up pieces of A4 flapped in the breeze as everyone brought out their printed-at-home print-at-home tickets.

I didn't yet have my ticket. I was relying on the Gillian Lynne box office to print it for me.

I explained the situation to the nearest usher.

"You can go through, but I'll still need to check you bag though."

Well, naturally.

I opened it for him.

The corner of his lips twitched. "Right then," he said, after the merest fraction of a pause before waving me through.

In the safety of the foyer I peered into my own bag, wondering what it was that had caused his slick manner to stumble.

Sitting on top of the deep heap of items that I felt the need to drag with me everywhere, there was a massive bag of tea. Tetley. 240 teabags.

Ah.

Now, here's the thing: we had run out at home. And it was a Sunday. The shops would be shut by the time I got out of the theatre.

In those circumstances, carrying around a great big bag of tea is totally reasonable, right? And if your list of things-that-need-to-get-done involve going to the theatre, while said bag of tea is on your person... well, so be it.

I don't know why I'm explaining this all to you. You've hefted around worse.

I've seen the table of shame at the Coli. I known what you weirdos get confiscated trying to get into the theatre... never a bag of Tetley though, I must admit. Perhaps the bag-checkers at the Coli have a more relaxed take on teabags.

I should test this out. If I can get them in, I might do a roaring trade undercutting the bar prices. Just need to find out a way of sneaking in a kettle and fortunes will be mine for the making.

Anyway, enough of that. I got in, with the tea, picked up my ticket, and headed for the escalator.

Even having bumbled up and down the twin-pair at the ROH hundreds of times over the years, the presence of an escalator in a theatre still manages to make me feel like I have taken a wrong turn and ended up in Brent Cross.

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Although, given the brutalist concrete aesthetic the Gillian Lynne has going on, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I felt like I ended up in the Brent Cross car park. I'll give the Gillian Lynne this though, it's easier to navigate than the usual multi-storey.

The seats are more comfortable too.

I've never sat up in the balcony, but as far as I can tell, there simply isn't such a thing as a bad view in this theatre.

I was off to the far right (geographically-speaking...) and didn't miss a thing. If anything, I benefited from glimpses of those things that are usually hidden to those in the more prime locations - such as the screens bolted to the front of the balcony.

"That's the director," said a small child to the even smaller child sitting next to him. Small child pointed authoritatively at one of the screens showing the live feed of the conductor. The smaller child must have demonstrated some level of incredulity because small child was soon backtracking. "He works for the show anyway."

Despite this stumble, small child was clearly a practised theatre-goer, because as soon as the lights rose for the interval he was ready with his demands. "Can I get an ice cream?"

His mum ummed and ah he'd while he begged and pleaded. Things weren't looking good on the ice-cream front.

Thankfully the interval was saved by the magnanimous presence of dad. "Of course you can," he declared. "What else is there to look forward to at the theatre?"

Well, quiet.

The two boys ran off to join the impossibly long ice-cream queue. I stayed in my seat during to interval. Worn out, worn down, and quite frankly, just plain warm. I curled up and allowed the sound of childish chatter to wash over me, soothed by the scent of Haagan Daaz being rubbed into the seats by sticky fingers.

I began to suspect that the over-heating of the auditorium might be a ploy to increase ice-cream sales. The theatrical equivalent of a pub offering salted peanuts.

But I wasn't complaining. I was too sleepy to complain.

So sleepy that it took me a while to notice the jostling presence of someone trying to clamber over my knees.

The boys had returned with their School of Rock branded ice creams.

Nice touch.

I almost wanted to get one for myself then, but I had already decided that the School of Rock official drumsticks would be my purchase of choice if I were to allow my self to buy anything at the theatre. I mean... to get something other than the programme, of course. Programmes don't count as a purchase. They're an essential. Like loo roll and hobnobs.

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I will say that School of Rock is an excellent show to see if you have a cold. The music is so loud that if you can time things properly, a cough will be lost in the raging Stick it to the Man atmosphere.

I can even forgive them for making me clap in time with the finale. I was doing quite well until they busted out the aria from The Magic Flute, at which point I totally lost the rhythm and ended up just flapping my hands about in shame.

Still, the atmosphere is infectious. Even the Grown-Up Band (written in title case as that's how they are referred to in the programme) put down their instruments in order to rock out to the kids' playing.

As we all filed out, more than one parent caused permanent psychological damage to their offspring by humming a few of the tunes.

As for me, I never hum.

Except in the privacy of my own home. With the kettle’s whistling to cover my shame.

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