After spending the best part of five hours on the tube, running errands all around London, I step off the platform in Barking at 6.55pm. The show I'm seeing tonight starts at seven. TFL claims the theatre is an 11-minute walk away. Google Maps has estimated seven minutes.
Looks like I'm going to take the advice of AWOLNATION and RUN.
I pelt it down the highstreet, darting between the market traders packing away their stalls and into a wide sidestreet. Without bothering to check to see if there's a car coming I launch myself across the road, almost running over a small child skipping her way down the pavement. No matter. Kids heal fast. I keep going. Through the foliage of a large three I can just about make out a banner: "DANCE COMEDY MUSIC." It's the Broadway Theatre. I've found it. I skid to a hault, pausing just long enough to take a photo before aiming myself at the sliding doors.
I'm in the box office. There are people queuing at the desk. It's 6.59pm. I fucking made it.
I join the queue, clutching at my side and trying to think calming thoughts as I get my breath back.
Behind the box office desk, there are three clocks. One set to the performance start time (7 o’clock). One to the finish time (10 o’clock). And one for the current time. That is the middle clock. And it has just clicked to one minute past seven.
“The sound check ran over,” explains the box officer to the person in front. “They’d just finished their tech rehearsal. It should be starting in five minutes, but the doors are open. They just need everyone to take their seats.”
Thank the theatre gods for overrunning tech run-throughs.
It’s my turn.
I give the box officer my surname and she sorts through the few remaining tickets. It doesn’t take her long. She frowns.
“I booked this morning?” I say, thinking they might be the sort of venue to print their tickets in advance. Turns out they’re not.
“I have the confirmation email?” I try.
The box officer looks through the four last tickets once more, before taking my phone and inspecting the email.
“Hmm,” she says again, setting it down by her keyboard and glancing between the screen of my mobile and the one on her computer.
The minute hand on the central clock clicks forward another minute.
A queue grows behind me. Presumably all owners of those last four tickets.
With a final tap of the mouse, the printer under the counter putters into action, and a ticket comes out. Thank goodness.
Ticket in hand, I make for the stairs, finding myself in a large, light-filled bar.
Not sure where I’m meant to go now.
I look around confused, but my feet, led by some sixth theatre-sense, takes me off to some low doors across the way.
A woman grabs my ticket from my fingers as I pass, too fast for me to react. “That way,” she says, pointing over to the low doors. “The ladies in blue will show you the way,” she adds, handing back the ticket to me.
I turn around to thank her, but she’s already moved on. “The show is about to start!” she shouts to the bar.
Through the doors and I’m in some sort of lobby. Sofas and armchairs nestle around large photos of shiny people doing earnest community things.
There’s lots of doors in here. I pick the one that goes up to the balcony and start climbing the stairs in the very red stairwell. One day, I’m going to write a thesis about the presence of red corridors in theatres. There must be some psychological reason behind it. Perhaps to get everyone to hurry the fuck up.
Well, it works, because I storm my way up those stairs, and find myself emerging at the back of the auditorium, right behind the tech desk.
And there’s someone sitting in my seat.
I check the row. And my ticket. Which is hard because it is black as the proverbial pitch in here. But yes, there is a bloke. In my seat.
“Hi, sorry,” I say to him. “Are you V1?” I ask, knowing perfectly well that he is not V1. Because I am V1. And we can’t both be V1 unless things went very wrong at the box office.
“Sorry,” he says, jumping out of the seat. “I was just sitting with my friends,” he adds, nodding to the group sitting behind.
Apology accepted. I go to sit down. But the bloke is still hanging around in the aisle.
“Sorry I…” he says, indicating the spare seats to the other side of me.
I stand again to let him pass.
I start on the business of getting settled in, taking off my jacket and putting on my glasses.
But the peace doesn’t last for long.
The owners of those four tickets have arrived and they want to claim their seats – right where the bloke is sitting.
And they’ve brought an usher with them.
Again, he tells them that he was just wanting to sit near his friends, but the usher asks to see his ticket and he is soon led off elsewhere.
As for the friends? Yup. You guessed it. They were in the wrong seats too. Another usher comes to take them away, depositing them in the empty slip seats as the show starts.
It’s Shakuntala. A dance drama based on the Indian tale. Full of glittery costumes, synchronised dances, lip-synching, projections, surtitles and a voiceovered narrator.
But the drama isn’t contained on the stage.
The seat-hopping at the back of the auditorium was only the start of a game of musical chairs that has no intention of quitting any time soon.
One guy in the row in front begs his escape from his neighbour, only to return a few minutes later with a water bottle which he hands to the person sitting at the end of the row with the instruction to “pass it down.”
Blue shirted ushers lead people in, turfing seat-stealers out of the way as they go, before starting the process anew as these seatless-wonders are led back to their official places, creating a domino effect of movement throughout the first act. The games only pause as the house lights rise to allow for the procession of an angry sage and his cymbal-clattering followers are they make their way down the aisles towards the stage.
When it is the turn of Shakuntala herself, in her bridal red, to climb the stairs, I swear I see shadows scattering in her wake.
There can’t be a single person in this place who reached the interval in the same spot they started the show in.
The narrator tells us there will be an interval of 20 minutes. And that there are CDs of the songs available for purchase.
I go back downstairs. Mainly to get some photos of the space. I didn’t have much time on the way up.
As I aim my camera at some signage, a man comes up to me. “Where are the toilets?” he asks.
I tell him I don’t know, and he apologises so profusely I realise he must have thought I was an usher.
I’m currently wearing a Louis Theroux t-shirt, and playing with my phone. Not exactly the picture of the perfect usher. Oh well.
In the bar, I look up and find that the word THEATRE has been marked out in huge, blocky, capital letters against the windows.
I try to get a photo of that, but I can’t find the right angle. I go all the way to the far side of the bar to try to get it in, but from here, the letters are completely invisible.
It’s only after the fourth or fifth attempt that I realise that windows are see-through, and I could go outside to get my photo.
I do. And discover that from out here, the letters are all the right way around.
Back inside, and I find a quiet spot to inspect my art.
“Where are the toilets?”
I look up. It’s a woman, with her family in tow.
“Sorry… I don’t know…” I say slowly,
She apologies. She looks utterly embarrassed.
And I wonder if I have somehow managed to get hired by the Broadway Theatre without my noticing.
It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s happening though.
It’s a race thing.
The only white people in this theatre tonight are the ushers. And me.
I make it through the rest of the interval without sullying the name of usher any further, and go back upstairs.
The audience filters back in slowly.
As I stand to let a group in, last person touches me on the arm and says thank you, in a gesture of such warmth I almost thank her right back.
“Are you enjoying it?” asks my neighbour.
I tell him I am.
I mean, we’re not talking Martin McDonagh levels of scripting here. And the dancers aren’t exactly Mavin Khoo. But everyone on stage looks like they are having a great old time. And that has a charm all of its own.
As the lights descend once more, I spot that he’s holding something. A programme.
Where on earth did he get that? I was all over the place downstairs, and I didn’t see anyone selling programmes. I didn’t see much in the way of a front of house presence at all. Probably why everyone was asking me where the loos were.
“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice that is definitely not the narrator’s. “Can I ask if you are eating peanuts in the theatre, please put them away, as there are people with allergies.”
I momentarily panic before I remember that not only am I not eating peanuts, I don’t even have any with me. So the chances of me being the source of this person’s flair up must be elsewhere.
Peanuts presumable removed, the show starts again.
Shakuntala is in all sorts of difficulties, but after some friendly fishermen have finished their dance, they manage to sort things out and break the curse that’s keeping her from her true love, the king.
A microphone is brought out, and it’s time for the speeches. The cast and crew are thanked. All the back-stagers are brought out for bows, and there’s some moving talk about the connection to Barking.
It’s all very sweet.
That done, the house lights go up and I make for the door. It’s a long way back to Hammersmith.
A man stops, and doubles back to talk to me.
“That was interesting, wasn’t it?” he says.
“Yes,” I agree. “It was good.”
He wants to say something else. I can tell.
And sure enough, as we make our way to the stairwell, he asks: “Do you come to this kind of show often?” he asks.
I smile. I know what he’s really asking. “What is a white girl doing at a show like this?”
I admit that no, this isn’t my usual fair. I think that real answer would be even weirder than the whatever is going on in his head. “I’m just a theatre-nerd,” I shrug.