I don't know who's idiot idea it was for me to book two shows on opposite ends of London within a single afternoon, but I refuse to believe it was mine.
I'm here. Sort of. Stumbling along. After the knee clunks it took me to get to my first venue of the day, I'm not sure all of me is going to make it. I'm already keelhauling one leg around behind me.
But it's okay. I'm nearly there. Just around the corner and... hang on. I recognise this corner. I mean, it's Grey's Inn Road, and I work just a few minutes’ walk away from here, but when the Chapel Playhouse said they were here, I didn't realise they meant they were here. Here here. As it, right here.
I must have walked past this spot a hundred times. And I never noticed there was a theatre lurking.
To be fair to myself, it looks like a bar from the outside. Looks like a bar from the inside too. Even I there are neon lights zig zagging across the ceiling, making me feel like I’m somehow dropped into the Saved By The Bell theme song. Are we sure there's a theatre in here? Wait, there are show posters pinned up on the notice board over there. And small flyers advertising the play I'm here to see littering the tables.
This must be the place.
I look around, trying to locate the box office. Always tricky to find in pub theatres because you never know what form they're going to take. A laptop set up on a table at the back? A desk tucked away inside a broom-closet? A full-out boxed-in box office? A hole-in-the-wall upstairs? A corner of the bar? It could be anything.
And yet, I don't see anything that looks likely. No signs. No laptops. No furtive creatures drooling over their clipboards.
I'm going to have to do the worst possible thing in the world. I'm going to have to ask.
Ergh. I hate asking.
I hobble my way over to the bar.
"Where do I go for the box office?" I ask the young woman who seems to be the only employee in this place.
"That's me," she says with a smile. "Have you bought a ticket?"
She reaches for the list, sitting on the counter behind her.
"Yes, the surname's Smiles?"
She looks down the list. "Maxine?"
"That's great," she says, ticking me off.
Right then. I'm checked in, I guess. I should probably find somewhere to sit down before my knees' angry screams start to draw attention from the other people here.
There's a massive pistachio green booth over by the door, and I stagger over to it. It's big enough to seat eight, but I don't care. Me and my knee have needs. And those needs involve hogging an entire booth to ourselves.
Five minutes later and there's someone sitting at the other end of my booth.
I don't know exactly when it happened. I was sitting quite contentedly, editing a blog post, as I usually am while waiting for a show to start, and then I look up, and there he is. Sitting as far away from me as he possibly can, but there's no denying the fact that he is in the same booth as me, and I do not approve.
I look around. There are a lot more people than when I first got here. All the tables over by the window are taken.
But those tables in the middle? Yeah. They're all empty. He could be sitting there. By himself. No near me. Having a great time, I'm sure. But he's here. In my booth.
I ask you. The sheer nerve of some people.
Coming over here, taking our booths...
I go back to editing my blog post. But I notice something. In the corner of my screen. The time. It's one minute past five. One minute past when this show should have started.
I look around.
The bloke in my booth is still there. He hasn't got a drink or anything, which makes me think he's probably there for the show. And if he hasn't gone in, then it's likely that I haven't inadvertently missed the theatre bell.
But then he's a booth-stealer, so what does he know? If he can miss all the rules of a functioning society that state, quite clearly, that you do not go over and sit in someone else's booth unless they invite you, especially when there are empty chairs at empty tables, then... who knows what else he could be missing.
But there are more people here than just my booth-interloper.
There are whole tables full of them.
I look over them, trying to work out whether they are theatre people, or just early evening drinkers.
They do all have drinks, which would support the later theory. But it would be quite the coincidence if this place filled up a few minutes before a show started with multiple groups of people who just fancy a pint early on a Saturday evening.
Stil, my anxiety is twanging.
It's five minutes past now.
That's really, properly, late.
The door to the theatre is over the other side of the bar. There's a big sign over there. Chapel Playhouse, it says, with an arrow pointing down at the door.
The door is closed. Very closed.
And when the door is closed, it's usually a sign that the house is, well, not open. Unless of course, it was open, and now it is closed again.
Is it possible that every single person in this pub has missed the start of the show, and that the actors are down there, in the theatre space, proclaiming their lines to an empty room, wondering why the show is so quiet tonight?
I mean... this is the fringe. It's more than possible. But somehow it doesn't seem likely.
Chances are, we really are just running five minutes late.
I check my phone. Scrap that. Ten minutes late.
Somehow, this chain of logic isn't doing much to help my ever growing anxiety.
And when the door does open up from the inside, and someone comes out to talk to the woman behind the bar, my nerves are so frazzled I almost jump out of my seat.
I really need to keep my shit together. I'm seeing a play about ghost hunters. I can't afford to get all jumpy before I've even gone in.
I almost drop my phone as the bell rings out.
"Ladies and gentleman," comes the voice from the bar. "The house is now open."
Thank fuck for that. I was almost on the brink of asking again, and I'm really not sure my angst could have taken that.
I make my way around to the other side of the door, and go down the stairs.
There's no ticket checker, because there are no tickets. No admission pass. Nothing. The bar staff here must have hella good memories to keep track of everyone who got their name ticked off the list.
Through the door is brightly lit stairwell. The sort you stumble upon in office blocks where the fire alarm goes off. Except this one is covered in swirls of paint and multicoloured polka dots. Maybe not an office block then. This is primary school territory.
Down the stairs and we are led through to a room darkened by blackout curtains.
Chairs surround a floor-level stage on all four sides.
It's really cold down here.
Like, properly cold.
"It's freezing," hisses one audience member to his friend.
An icy blast catches me as I walk around the seats, trying to pick which one I want.
Must be the ghosts.
Although, this doesn't look the kind of place they'd usually haunt. No crumbling stone walls or haunted mahogany panelling down here. The blackout curtains can't hide the fact that this theatre lives another life as a function room. The walls are white. The ceiling covered in modern piping. There's even a hatch in the wall that must be roped into serving tea and birthday cake during the daytime.
It's not exactly the venue I'd pick to stage a show about ghost hunters investigating an old country house. If anything, I would have thought the Chapel's sister-venue would have been a better bet. The Bread and Roses in Clapham with its sash windows and creaking back stairs might have been more in keeping with the theme of the play. But I suppose programming something in SW4 might have stretched the definition of Camden too far even for the Camden Fringe festival.
Over on one side, the row of three chairs has been given a platform to sit on, so I go for one of those. The fact that the seat I pick is also next to a pillar, thus protecting my right side from any creeping ghosts, has nothing to do with my decision-making processes, and frankly, I find it insulting that you would even suggest it. I have told you countless times of my ambition to meet a theatre ghost, there is no way I would ever put an obstacle between myself and that glorious happenstance.
There are little cards on all the seats. They say "THANK YOU" in all caps, which is nice, if a little bit shouty. They give a hashtag for the show, and a url for the company.
I suppose I could probably look up all the cast names and whatnot there, but we both know I'm not going to do that.
No freesheet. No crediting. That's how it works on the marathon.
At least I'm happy with my seat though. The other audience members appear to be engaged in a game of musical chairs, sitting down, taking in their view, then jumping up to go test out somewhere else. Everyone wants to sit in the front row. But also, no one wants to sit in the front row.
Someone comes to sit on my platform.
I look over.
It's the booth-stealer.
But also I'm grateful that I'm not sitting up here alone.
The lights going out puts a stop to these shenanigans.
An actor appears, making his way through the seats to reach the stage-area, lighting his way with a small torch and... eating a brownie?
It looks like a good brownie.
I wouldn't mind a brownie right now.
More torches flash around the audience as more cast members appear.
We have found ourselves in the middle of a ghost hunt. Two ghost hunts. One of them involving an actual ghost.
I squint against the beams of torchlight as they pass in front of me. Usually I disapprove lights being shone around the audience. It's my pet theatre-device hate. But I'm appreciating the use of it here.
Adds to the voyeuristic element. Perhaps its because I just came from that immersive show set in a private house, but I have the feeling of a being lurking in the shadows, watching these ghost hunters. And I begin to wonder, perhaps I am the ghost in this hunt.
I'm very into this idea.
I fully intend to be a theatre ghost when the time comes (I'm relying on you to scatter my ashes somewhere which will facilitate this goal, I hope you know that).
But as one of the hunters (who already has a ghost on call, and is actually on the search for a family heirloom) comes creeping around behind the chairs, flashing her UV torch over our shoulders, I begin to grow unsure about the whole thing.
She leans over me, the torch waving around next to my ear, and I can't stop myself from shuddering.
Being a ghost would be cool, I tell myself, waiting for her to retreat. All those shows I could watch for free, dressing rooms I could lurk in, and programmes I could apply my red pen too.
She moves on. I can breath again.
Being a theatre ghost would be... the fucking best.
At the curtain call, the ghost hunter's camera-person takes a bite out of her brownie, bowing as she chews away at it.
Are there ghost-brownies?
What if there aren't ghost-brownies?
If there aren't ghost-brownies, I'm not sure I'll be able to cope.
As I start to rethink my plans for the afterlife, the writer comes out on stage. You know the drill, he thanks is for coming and asks us to tell our friends. I mean… I guess you’re my friend… so… job done?