Absolutely Harrowing

I've lived in London for over ten years now. Closing in on a dozen, now that I think about it. And I've been a theatre-fan for a good number of those. So, it's amazing to me how many theatres I haven't been to yet, and plain haven't even heard of, or likely would have heard of, without the push of the marathon.

When I get to one of these new-to-me venues, I have a lot of questions that need answering. What type of work do they programme? What are the audiences like? Do they provide freesheets? You know, that sort of stuff.

It's not often my first question is: how do I get in.

I'm standing outside the Harrow Arts Centre. It's a nice building. Very nice. Red brick. Old. Surrounded by gardens. Very pretty.

There's a little enclave outside the door, with wooden benches set into the brick walls. Very cosy. The sort of place you could imagine sheltering from the rain at a church fete and falling for a naice young man sporting a woolly jumper and a stutter.

The door, however, is dark. There's no sign of life inside. There's no sign of a sign.

I'm beginning to worry that I might have got the wrong building, and that I've been traipsing all over the gardens of some company away day centre, and any encounter with a young man in a woolly jumper would be closely followed by a radio call to security and possibly some dogs being released in my direction.

But no, there's the banner up by the road advertising a solitary matinee performance of Coppelia. This is def the right place. Just possibly, the wrong door.

I decide to have a walk around the building. See if anyone else is having this problem.

Somewhere a car door slams, and then a second later, a couple emerge from behind a hedge, hurry across a flagstoned courtyard and disappear through an automatic door.

Well, I might as well go after them then.

Engraved in the stone after the door, it says The B.G. Elliott Hall. I don't know who B.G. Elliott is, or why The was carved with a different font to the rest of the message, and I really hope I'm not going to find out. I walk over slowly, fully expecting a B.G. Elliot to come marching out and order me off his property. Possibly while wearing a woolly jumper. But no one does. Instead, I find myself in some sort of antechamber. There's another door in here. And another sign above it. This one says: Harrow Arts Centre.

Thank goodness for that.

Inside it finally, finally, begins to look like an arts centre. There are flyers everwhere. And posters. And roller banners. There's even a sign for the Box Office, with an arrow pointing to... a closed door.

I look at the door.

It does look very definitely closed. The type of closed that does not appreciate being opened.

Okay then. Perhaps I don't need the box office. The pre-show email hadn't mentioned e-tickets or anything of the sort, but then it also hadn't given any advice on transportation other than for car drivers, and also misspelt the word queues ("ques"), so perhaps that email isn't the best crutch to lean on right now.

I press on, further into the building, turn left, and see a queue (or possibly 'que') of people coming out of a door, a door that, if my mental geography hasn't let me down, should be to the box office.

There's a sign on the door. "Public Notice," it says. "The Box Office opening hours are Monday - Friday 10am - 5pm." It's well past 5pm now, but there is a show on tonight, so I imagine they are making an exception.

A few minutes later, I'm at the front of the queue.

"The surname's Smiles?"

"Can I have your order number?" says the lady behind the desk.

"Umm... yes?" I say, pulling out my phone. I don't think I've ever been asked that question before at box office. Not unless there was a problem, or I was asking for something unreasonable, like a ticket exchange.

I find my confirmation email and recite the order number, and she types it in. Soon the ticket machine is puttering out my ticket. She gives it a good wiggle and a tug. It did not want to come out. Probably because the ticket stick was put in the wrong way round. Or at least, I presume the logo isn't supposed to be upside down. Not that it matters much. With the logo positioned on the ticket's stub, it'll be torn off soon enough, leaving nothing but a plain white, unbranded piece of card. The shame of its upsidedowness lost to the recycling bin.

"Just the one?" asks the box office lady, giving the ticket a once over before handing it to me.

"Yes... just the one." I didn't even try to convince my friends to come to this one. Bless them, they do try. But Harrow is an Overground journey too far for even the strongest of friendships.

"Where am I heading?" I ask.

I don't know what prompted me to ask that. I don't usually. Perhaps I've encountered too many closed doors on this trip to have faith I'll find the right one. Or maybe I just want to make it really clear that I'm the loner who doesn't belong here to the box office lady.

She blinks at me in surprise.

"Err," she says, as if she's never been asked this question before, because, presumably, simply everyone knows where the Studio theatre at Harrow Arts Centre is, and what is this person that she is now having to deal with? A person who comes to the theatre, by herself, and doesn't even know where it is? She's definitely not paid enough for this, and she'll be making a note so that she can bring it up in her next one-to-one. "Head out of this building," she starts, pointing back out the door.

I'm sorry, what the what? Outside?

She sees the alarm on my face and presses on. "Go left from the car park and you'll see a sign for the studio theatre. The medical centre will be the opposite."

"Right," I say weakly. "Thank you."

Bloody hell. I'm glad I asked.

I stop outside in the corridor to quickly make a note of what she said. More for my own use than the blog. "Left. Car park. Sign. Medical centre," I mutter to myself as I battle against the auto correct to type it out.

From inside the box office I can hear a very loud customer talking very quickly. "Can't find my email, but can I buy a ticket?"

"Sorry, it's all sold out."

Blimey, I would never even have thought of that. Buying a new ticket because I can't find the confirmation email from my last one. No wonder the show is sold out if that's how the people of Harrow sort things out. Rebuying tickets because they can't figure out the search functionality on their emails. Oh well, at least it's generating some income for the arts, I suppose.

I go outside. I'm not entirely sure where the car park is, but I follow the building around, back to where I had heard the car door slam earlier, and yes. Here it is. And as promised, there's a sign. I walk down the road to get a better look at it. I'm not wearing my glasses and can't quite read it.

It lists all the delights of the Harrow Arts Centre: Elliot Hall, Studio Theatre, Medical Centre, Swimming Pool, Cafe and Bar. With arrows all pointing in the same direction. That's convenient.

I turn left and am instantly lost.

There's hundreds of buildings here. Fancy brick ones. Whitewashed ones. Ones that look like are falling apart. Ones that look like they housed pigs in another life. And others that probably have a sweat-shop in them right now.

But down a path lined with some of the more dispiriting examples, I spy a crisp white sign, gleaming out from all that peeling paint-work. "HAC Studio Theatre."

I'd found it.

And so has everyone else. There's a line coming right out the door.

It rather looks like I've stumbled on the hit show of Harrow.

I hear the ticket checker before seeing him. He's bantering away with everyone coming through the door.

"You'll be having the stay out here with me," he laughs to a group of women, before letting loose a beaming smile on the next person in the queue.

We shuffle our way forwards into the foyer. There's a little desk in here. But it's not being used. And doesn't appear to have been used since 2004. There's a TV resting on top. It has a built in VHS player.

The ticket checker chats away to everyone in turn, seeming unperturbed by this historical artefact resting on the desk not three feet away from him.

"That's two," he asks the man in front of me in the queue. He looks closer at the print out. "Just one?" he says, looking up at me.

The man in front confirms that it is just one.

The ticket checker takes my ticket. "Thank you, madam," he says, handing it back. No banter. Barely even a glance.

Right then. I go into the studio. It's dark, long and low, and makes me think of an industrial chicken coop.

Ridgid rows of chairs are packed in.

This should be my cue to head to the front, to claim my spot at the end of the third row, as is my preference in unallocated seats. But instead, I turn the other way, heading for the first raised row, just behind the door. When the choice is between proximity and a rake, always choose the rake. That is my free and personal advice to you.

It's a bit tight in here. I had to clamber in around the chair in front so as so to disturb the nice ladies at the end of the row. There's a free seat between us, but that is doing nothing to save my legs.

I may only be a shade over 5'3" but that's not short enough for the squishy legroom here in the studio. I really hope no one sits in front of me, as they are going to end up with a knee in their back.

As soon as I have this thought, someone plonks themselves down in the seat in front, only to discover my knee in their back.

He jerks his seat back, but when he finds no relief, he looks behind him to discover the cause of this obstruction, only to discover my apologetic face.

I try to rearrange myself, but a big group has just come in and the ticket checker is trying to find seats for them all. The nice ladies at the end of my row move down with a smile. "Someone can sit on the end there," one says.

The doors are closing. There's still five minutes today but we are locked in together in the darkness.

We all sit and awkwardly look our host for the evening, Pariah Khan, sat on a table, his legs swinging, his head bowed as he reads a book.

A young woman a few rows ahead of me looks back and holds my gaze for a second too long before turning back around. It was a look of curiosity and recognition. We're the only two white girls in the audience. The only two white people.

The ticket checker comes back in to let people through and give a countdown to the tech person. Four minutes to go.

Three minutes.

Two.

Khan begins. He's come to Britain to explore what this country has to offer. To travel about. fall in love, and watch football at a reasonable hour.

"This is really good," says the man sitting in front of me, leaning towards his companion.

I'm glad he's got something decent to distract him from the knee in his back.

A minute later, a phone rings. First quietly, but louder as its owner rummages through her bag in search of the disastrous noise machine.

Khan stops, his face a still mask as we all collectively hold our breaths, waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

"Did you remember to turn your phone off?" he asks, with a sly side-long glance as the ringing eventually comes to a stop.

Unfortunately, no number of side-long glances will stop the sounds of the radio bagging through from the foyer, as messages are relayed through the hundreds of buildings that make up the Harrow Arts Centre.

But Khan presses on, taking us on a tour of this strange country of ours. Even when a woman in the front row decides to stand up, put her coat on, make her way to the door, and let it slam on her way out.

At the end, applause still going, Khan uses the flipchart that has been his companion and time marker throughout the performance to display the credits.

The clapping quietens as we all watch him flip pages.

"You can carry on applauding!" he says, showing us the director's name (Eduardo Gama).

We dutifully do so, but it's not the same. Just think how much better it would have been if they'd been a freesheet.

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The Secret Language of Flowers


With cautious glances at one another, we take up places around the edge. Balancing on knees, or curling around our legs.

A few people decide that sitting on the floor is more than they signed up for, and head for the benches by the wall instead.

Angelique keeps on talking. The party isn’t going so well. She’s spotted her boyfriend with another girl, and his dealer, the one she really doesn’t like, is there.

And… oh god. Her voice sinks as she tells us what happens next. I clutch tight at my knees, twisting around to follow her as she moves around us, wanting to look away but at the same time not being able to take my eyes off her.

There’s a crash.

As one, our heads snap towards the window behind Dennis-Edwards.

Another crash.

A young girl peeks through the blackout curtains. It’s the boys with their football.

The girl’s mother gives her a look and the curtain is dropped back into place.

But the lure of the teenage boys and their football is too much for her, and soon she is peeling open the edge of the curtain once more to look outside.

Angelique moves around the space. She wants to show us the vase of blue flowers she has put in her new home.

They're basic but bright, she says. But perhaps more than that, they embody new beginnings, and hope. Of sun-filled days. Of her own shop. Her own life. Away from those who see her as a resource and not a person.

Outside, it’s still swelteringly hot. The party next door is still going. The music still blasting.

But the streets are empty. Deserted. I walk towards the tube station, swinging my jacket from my arm.

Everything smells of heat and tarmac and fast food.

Despite the pain, I miss Angelique’s world. Her lack of nonsense. Her drive. And the lush freshness of her flowers.

I should really go buy some.

Maybe for my birthday. That’s coming up in three weeks. Three weeks and one day. Not that I’m dreading it or anything.

Still, flowers would help. Peonies, I think. They’re my favourite. I wonder what they mean. Angelique would know.

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