The center of attention back for the winter

Standing outside the now familiar double doors of the Arocola, I took a deep breath and steeled myself. I was back. My first return visit since starting this challenge. Last month I wrote up the theatre's Studio 1. This time I was there to tackle Studio 2.

If they let me in, that is.

Not that I had said anything bad about the place. I had actually really enjoyed the whole experience. 

Still, it managed to feel like I was somehow returning to the scene of a crime.

But it's hard to feel nervous there, standing in the pink haze of the light filtering through the glass panel that was fitted above their door.

Chances are they didn't even remember what I wrote - good or bad.

But I did. It suddenly hit me, right in the belly. Oof.

I had compared them to scrofula. In a tweet. Or rather, I had compared myself to scrofula. Whatever, scrofula had definitely been mentioned. In the same context as the Arcola. I don’t know about you, but if someone mentioned me in the same sentence as a medieval disease, I would remember. It’s not a mental image that’s easy to forget, what with all the neck pustules and all.

It was no good.

I had to go in.

Studio 2 could not be missed. The marathon demanded it.

I figured I might as well just get it over with.

I pushed through the door and headed over to the box office, with its happy yellow Tickets sign, and gave my name.

For the first time in my life, I wished my surname was slightly less memorable.

“Smile?” asked the young woman on box office duty, her voice filled with doubt.

“Smiles. With an s...” I said. “Two Esses,” I corrected myself. (This is when @weez would have inserted the longest-name-in-the-world joke if she’d been around. But as she wasn’t, I’ll allow you to work out the punchline for that one yourself).

She pulled the ticket from the box. Then paused, looking at it.

Oh dear. She recognised the name. She was going to throw me out.

She frowned.

There it was. She was thinking of neck pustules. No one wants to think of neck pustules. Not on a nice, quiet, Monday evening. Not on any kind of evening. But especially not one at the start of the week. You need a good five days to work up to pustules.

“Was that a comp?” she asked, looking up.

“Oh, yes,” I admitted. Thanks to a bit of Twitter magic, I had indeed got my hands on a comp for that evening’s performance of Stop and Search.

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She smiled. “Here you go.”

Oh.

That was the smile of someone who was definitely not thinking about neck pustules.

Which meant that she hadn’t read the tweet.

That was good.

I guess.

I felt a little deflated.

Offended almost. 

You know, I may not tweet as much as I used to, but there was a time when I was considered quite funny. A wit, if you will.

I considered telling her this.

It wasn’t all neck pustules, you know. I did puns too.

She was still holding out the ticket.

“Oh,” I said, taking it from her. A little embarrassed.

“There’s no latecomers and no re-admittance,” she pressed on, ignoring the fact that she was talking to someone who wasn’t capable of taking a piece of paper that was being offered to them. Or perhaps not, as she then went on to detail exactly where Studio 2 was, how to get there, and when I should go, in the simplest, neatest, most user-friendly language I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve said it before, but the Arcola really do walk-the-walk (and talk-the-talk) when it comes to making theatre open and accessible to all.

As the main house (Studio 1) show had closed that weekend, the building was lovely and quiet.

I found myself an empty table, settled in and tried very hard not to think about glandular swellings.

I had almost, but not entirely forgotten about the incident (let’s be real here, I’ll be mumbling about the scrofula-tweet to my nurses as I lay on my deathbed) when it was announced that the doors were open. It was time to head downstairs.

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With the stone walls and tunnel-like corridors, I could almost think myself back in Unit 9 at The Vaults, but as we turned into the theatre it was not a shed that appeared out of the gloom, but a cosy space with proper seating on three sides and the heating thwacked on high. And seat numbers. No unreserved seating nonsense going on here.

If I have one criticism of the Studio 2 it is this: legroom. Or rather, the lack of it. Or even more rather, trying-to-squeeze-between-the-rows-to-get-to-your-seat room. Three seats in an I ended up with two banged knees and a rather satisfying bruise this morning.

Now, I admit, I’m a klutz. There’s no use being coy about it when I spend my days in the near vicinity of some of the most graceful people on the planet. But still, I’m beginning to think that the Arcola is out to get me.

My neighbour for the evening, having examined the narrowness of the rows, was having none of it.

Setting down bag and coat and umbrella, she proceeded to climb her way in.

We all watched with admiration and a touch of envy as she skipped happily over row A, before retrieving her bag and coat and umbrella, and plonking herself down next to me.

I almost applauded.

“Rather you than me,” came a voice from down the row.

Absolutely. Fairly certain I would have died if I attempted to do the same thing. And you know what, the Arcola really don’t deserve that.

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Not after all the quality theatre they’ve been throwing at me this marathon.

That’s a lot of words to be chucking around in such a confined space. A lot of words. Good words, for sure. But so friggin’ many of them.

I came out feeling spent. Every word in the world had been utterly used up.

I had to stand in the pink light of the foyer for a moment, quietly recharging, until the memory of neck pustules chased me home.

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Rose-tinted theatre

I’m going to like this place.

That was my thought the second I walked through the door of the Arcola.

I don’t know what it was that provoked such a strong reaction. Perhaps it was the pink coloured light that blazed out over the door. Or the fact that it was an easy walk from my work. Or maybe that being so close to an overground station, my journey home was going to be a cinch. The staff, bustling around in their branded aprons, demonstrating open friendliness and scary efficiency in equal measure, might have contributed to my thought process. The £1 playtext sale must have helped. And the huge yellow sign over box office proclaiming “Tickets” which is exactly the no-nonsense, anti-jargon, stance that I can get behind. But between you and me, I think it was the bench.

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There, slunk low, just inside the foyer door, was a long wooden bench. Exactly the sort you would find in a school gymnasium. It conjured up memories of being five years old and doing bunny hops along the full length. Bunny hops were my absolute favourite thing to do in gym. Leaping about from one side to the other, while gripping onto the surface of the bench for support. The feeling of flying as you soared over the bench. The power in your arms as they take your full weight for that fraction of a second. It doesn’t get much better than that. Plus, no one is throwing anything at you and expecting you to catch it.

"Is this for Daughter-In-Law?” asked the woman at box office (or “Tickets”) as I gave my name.

Wait, what?

I looked around. There, to my left was a sign. “Studio 1.”

Shit.

Double shit.

Shit on a cracker.

The Arcola has more than one theatre.

The warm glow that had been sitting in my stomach at the sight of the bench wavered. I had another theatre that I needed to add to the list. 251 theatres in London. 252 now. And this was only number 25.

Shitshitshitshitshit.

I managed to fight through the pain and indicate that yes, I was there for Daughter-In-Law.

She glanced at the ticket.

"Now you'll have to go outside and back in. There’ll be a bell when it's time. I'm afraid no drinks are allowed in these seats."

But I wasn’t paying attention.

252 theatres. I wasn’t even a tenth of the way through my marathon and I’d just found out that another mile was being tagged onto the end.

I could feel myself boarding the Anxiety Express. I needed to think nice calming thoughts.

Tickets (real tickets). Programmes with full-page photography…

Wait.

"I think I ordered a programme?" I posed it as a question, but I definitely recalled seeing programmes for sale during the online booking process and I couldn’t imagine not sticking one in my basket.

"Let me check," she said.

"I mean, I might not have,” I prattled on, suddenly starting to doubt myself. “But I feel very strongly that I did."

She checked.

I had.

Phew.

It was still early, so I took myself and my programme over to the bunny-hop bench and had a flick through (really good by the way. An absolute bargain at only £2 online. £3 at the theatre. Lovely paper-stock. Interesting articles. Recommended).

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As I stood, reading about D.H. Lawrence’s use of dialect, something jabbed at my leg. I tried to swat it away with my foot, but only succeeded in stubbing my toe. I looked down, fearing some creepy-crawly had got my leg.

A massive splinter was sticking out and clawing at the back of my calf.

The bunny-hop bench had betrayed me.

I felt less kindly to it after that.

I decided to go for a wander.

The bar looked nice. But busy.

Staff everywhere.

And on the wall… oh bliss… oh rapture.

Cast sheets.

Free for the taking.

Good lord. Programmes, real tickets and free cast sheets? Arcola, you spoil me, you really do.

See? I couldn't stay mad at this place for long.

Soon enough, the theatre bell rang as promised and people began to saunter out.

I busied myself tucking my cast sheet away in my bag, and by the time I looked up again, the door was banging shut after the last person had left.

I hurried after, heading back out into the street, rounded the corner and headed for the brightly lit door and the other end of the building.

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Hmm. That didn’t look right.

Where did the lady on box office say I was supposed to go again? I hadn’t been paying attention.

Shitshitshitshitshit.

This was going to be another The Wrong Door situation again, wasn’t it?

The Anxiety Train going full speed by this point. I backtracked. I’ll just go back inside, and ask, I told myself. Like a normal, functioning adult. It’s fine. It’s all fine. There’s plenty of time. No need to stress.

I didn't make it that far. 

Just as I was about to head through the main door, I spotted another one. It was narrow. Barely a slither in the stonework, but there was no question, this was The Right Door. 

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I must admit, I'd been a little worried about what sort of seat I'd get. Usually I just buy the cheapest and hope for the best. But this time, I levelled up. 15 quid for a value ticket instead of a ten pound restricted view one. I prayed to the theatre gods that it was worth it.

After making almost the entire length of my row stand up to let me past, I made it to my seat it the front row of the balcony. 

There was a pillar in front of me, but so narrow I forgot it was there within minutes. 

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What I didn't forget was the cold.  

Eighty minutes is a long first act at the best of times, but when you're stuck in your seat, shivering, it can feel like an eternity.   

I thanked the theatre gods that I had remembered to back my shoe grips in my Theatre Survival Kit that morning. The pavements were bound to be icy by the time we got out of there.

Don't get excited. My Theatre Survival Kit, such as it is, is mainly composed of whatever crap I remember to shove in my bag to help me get through these very long days. Snacks and... well, mainly snacks. But also the aforementioned shoe grips on icy days, a folding fan for warm ones, and cough sweets all year.

Speaking of cough sweets... I reached into my bag. I've had a cough since Christmas, one that refuses to go away. It's always made worse when I'm stuck in confined spaces. Like lifts, or the tube, or theatres. I could already feel a small niggle starting at the back of my throat and...Shit. No cough sweets. I had meant to pop out over lunch and restock but I'd... forgotten.

I stuck my hand right down to the bottom of my bag, past my wallet, my book, my Tupperware and shoe grips, and explored the slightly sticky base, feeling in between the empty wrappers and forgotten receipts.

Ew, when was the last time I cleaned this thing out?

After much scrabbling around I found one, lonely, cough sweet. A little bit dusty from accumulated bag debris, but by that point I would have sucked on the contents of my hoover bag if it promised some relief.

This play better be worth it, was all I could think at that point.

How wrong of me to doubt them.

I should have known the Arcola wouldn't do me wrong. 

The first act flew past. As did the second. And I didn't cough once, well... not until the curtain call when I suddenly remembered about my tickely throat. 

Now, Arcola. You need to package this shiz. You and me. We can make a mint. Or rather... a cough sweet (sorry). Arcola's Awesome Cough Remedy: two and a half hours of relief - guaranteed! As approved by the overtired theatre-marathoners of London.

Call me, yeah?