Living in revolting times

It is incredibly hard to get a photo of the Cambridge Theatre.

I don't claim to be a great photographer. I'm very much a point-and-clicker when it comes to this kind of thing, so when I say it's difficult, I don't mean it's hard to get a good photo of the Cambridge Theatre, I mean it's hard to get any photo.

This is not an issue of light (although I wouldn't exactly call Seven Dials a sun-trap) or finding somewhere to get a good angle from. No, it's people.

Here I am, standing in the small cake-slice corner between Monmouth Street and Mercer Street, lining up a great shot, and people keep on getting in the bloody way. If it's not tourists attempting to squeeze themselves between me and the lampost, it's bikes riding up on the pavement. And when those people have cleared, it's the Instagram girls, posing in the middle of the street, while their friends risk their lives to crouch down with their DLRs to get the perfect shot of Insta-babe's outfit against the background of Matilda the Musical.

As I wait for the photo shoot to finish, someone rams their suitcase into the back of my legs.

I think we can make a good guess as to who chose looks and who chose books in this scenario. And looks are winning.

Time to go in.

The doors are flanked either side.

Experience has told me that one of them is a ticket checker and the other a bag checker. But which is which? I cannot tell. This is like that logical deduction riddle. If one man in a suit checks only tickets, and the other only bags, what one question do you ask to gain safe entry to the theatre?

"Box office?" I try with the one on the right.

"Yup," he replies. "Just through here, but I need to check your bag first."

Well, that worked, I guess.

I open up my backpack for him and he prods around at the top layer before waving me in.

The Cambridge is very thirties. All Poirot fonts and... well, that's it really.

The box office is on the left, hidden behind a glass window, with holes at face level. Put there, presumably, so the box officers can breathe. The counter is fronted by mirrors etched with a vaguely art decoish pattern.

There are three men standing behind the glass, but a big family has just come in and they are spreading themselves out.

The box officer on the end leans out to one side and beckons me over.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say as I approach the bench.

He grabs the box of tickets.

"Maxine?" he asks, picking one out. "Here you go," he says, sliding it under the glass without waiting for an answer. I must be the only Smiles in tonight. Makes a change.

My next stop is the merch desk. Which, very pleasingly, is actually a desk. Or rather, a row of desks. The old fashioned wooden ones where the lid lifts up, and there's a small hole to fit your ink well in. The type of desk that I had at my school, despite my education happening long after the advent of biros. I think they thought it added to the aesthetic. Theyust have left them there to impress the parents. All those foreign dignitaries who wanted a classic English prep school education for their little darlings. And yes, I went to a fancy school. Keep up. It was certainly an education. The headmaster had to step down in my final year because of rumours that he was a bit too friendly with the boys, if you get my meaning.

Hmm. Probably not the best place to be remembering these things.


I buy myself a programme. It's six pounds. Not really much more to say on the matter. There's some other merch stuff on offer, but nothing is really speaking to me. I like the look of the Trunch hoodie, because you know I'm always into the villains, but it has the Matilda title treatment on the front which kinda negates the entire point of the thing. If you're the Trunch, you're the Trunch, you don't be wanting the name of that little maggot on your chest. Honestly, who dreamt that one up?

I'm also handed a voucher for cut-price sweets, which is actually a pretty sweet (... sorry) deal and one I might steal for my work.

Anyway, enough of this. I've got a lot of stairs to climb because I'm in the grand circle tonight, which is the one right at the tippy top of the theatre here and, because this is the West End and we don't like poor people around here, there's no entrance from the foyer. I have to go back out into the sunshine, and get in via another entrance, leading to the povvo stairs.


I'll give it to the Cambridge though, they actually thought about this. From the foyer doors, there's a roped-off corridor leading to the grand circle entrance, meaning that I don't have to be subjected to a second bag check. Well done to whoever came up with that.

Up all the stairs, passing ads for shows currently cluttering up the other LW theatres in town ("What will you see next?" they ask. All of them, Andrew. All of them.)

As I reach the summit, the posters give way to tilted frames advertising platinum blonde hair dye and national green hair day. Looks like we've gone a bit immersive up here, and I am appreciating the effort.


A front of houser catches my eye and I show him my ticket. "Through this door, on the left and one row up," he says, pointing to the door right next to us.

I go in. Passing the little merch stand. They have programmes and CDs on display, as well as those sweets, and what looks like cups of toxic fluid. I've never seen anything so bright claiming to be edible before. Red and yellow and green. They look like they belong in the opening scene of The Secret World of Alex Mack (yes, I'm old. Leave me alone).

I'm tempted to buy one. Prove myself as the true investigative journalist that I'm definitely not. But people who remember Alex Mack are too old to drink that many e-numbers in public.

Instead, I go find my seat.

There's a break in the rows up here, forming two sections with a corridor parting the rows like the red sea down the middle.

I'm in the top half, because I'm poor. But right at the front of the top half, because I'm a master ticket buyer.

Families come in toting arm-fulls of shopping bags, which they struggle to fit under their seats. Small children perch precariously on top, like baby dragons guarding their golden hoard.

Ushers run around handing out booster seats. A must all the way up here, as even with the benefit of the corridor in front of me, and a somewhat grown-up height, the front of the stage is still hidden from view to my adult-eyes.


But, you know, I've seen it before. So it's fine. I'm guessing you have too. As have the simply astonishing number of latecomers who don't seem even slightly bothered that they've missed the first fifteen minutes. So I'm not going to go into detail about the show, but I still think the interval is in a really weird place. Bruce Bogtrotter eating a cake is not a natural finishing point, nor is it a cliff-hanger. It has to be the most awkwardly placed interval since The Royal Ballet shoved an extra one into the already existing Alice in Wonderland when they realised that getting a ballerina to dance flat out for 90 mins was a touch mean.

Anyway, I go off to explore.

Up in the third-class tier, there are two front of house spaces to hang out in. The bar. Which is packed. And a room with nothing it it but a merch desk and a mirror. Which is also packed.


I have to dive out the way as a mum lobs an empty Sprite bottle at me, presumably aiming for the bin a whole two feet away from my two feet.

"Sorry," she says, already walking away.

Honestly, I've long come to accept that I'm invisible. I don't draw the eye. And I'm fine with that. I walk alone. I am as one with the shadows. But I draw the line at someone seeing me after acting like I ain't there. Commit to my imperceptibility, you cowards.

I go back inside. My row has a railing in front. I prop my feet up on the bar. This is quality seating action. More rows should have footrests.

Mr Wormwood and the son, Michael come out. I mean, Rob Compton and Glen Facey, as Mr Wormwood and son Wormwood, come out. There's a bit of banter with the audience. Don't try this at home, and all that. "We don't want any kids is the audience tonight going home and trying these things out," says Compton, meaning the disgusting business of reading books. I can't agree more. I read hundreds of books as a kid. Thousands. And look where it got me. Visiting over 200 theatres in eight months and getting bottles chucked at me. I’m a tragedy of wasted potential. If things had been different, I would have made a great bottle-thrower.

"Veruccas of the mind," he goes on.

He's not wrong.

"Who here's read a book?" Hands pop up all over the place. "You should be ashamed," he sneers. "You, madam, what's your name?"

She gives it.

He jabs his finger in her direction, chanting that she's a nasty bookworm, a worm, and books are stupid.

"She won't stop reading," he says, calling down after his onslaught of insults. "But she won't put up her hand in a theatre again."

And that's something we can all be grateful for.

And then we're off again.

Swings descend from the ceiling, and I get all teary-eyed over the When I grow up song, like I always fucking do.

Francesca McKeown's Matilda fights the good fight, brings down the baddies, and gets her happy ending.

Confetti shower for the people in the stalls, and then it's time to go home.

I trudge my way back down the stairs, feeling exhausted.

Matilda always makes me feel really sad. Helpless. Defeated.

If even this bright and brave little girl needs magical powers to overcome her oppressors what hope is there for the rest of us?

That's probably not the takeaway I'm supposed to get from this show, and no doubt I'm projecting, but... man, I think we could all do with some laservision right now.