Holding out for a heroine

I'm nearing the end of my Camden Fringe adventure. And it has been an adventure. All these funny little spaces that I wouldn't have had the chance to see without their epic programming. I can almost forgive them for adding venues to the marathon. Almost.

Without the Camden Fringe I wouldn't have needed to check out any comedy venues. They're not part of the remit. But those igenious folks at the festival found a way to stuff some theatre onto those tiny stages, so off I go. To 2 Northdown this time. A place I've never been, or even heard of, which is something I'm starting to get bored of saying relation to Camden Fringe locations.

2 Northdown is on Northdown Street. Number two, as it happens, which is a pretty amazing coincidence. Don't you just love it when that happens.

I've arrived far too early, but there's already a group hanging around outside, waiting to go in.

I hang back and try to get a sense of the place.

It's small. Or rather, narrow. Like a terraced house. Except there are great big doors taking up the ground floor and a winch over one of the upstairs windows, which makes me think this building must have had a more industrial past. It looks nice though. Smart. A little bit classy.

Not sure I want to be hanging out on the pavement outside though.

So I go for a walk, up to Caledonian Road and around in a loop. By the time I get back, it's five minutes before showtime, and the group outside have all relocated. Presumably inside.

I follow their lead.

There's a tiny little foyer inside the door. Just large enough for one person to turn to the left, where there is another door.

Here a posing table has been set up, complete with cash wallet and printed lists. Looks like I've found the box office.

I give my name the girl on table-duty and she draws a line through my name.

"Got you," she says, and she steps back to let me through.

Two steps in and I'm already almost crashing into the back row.

This place is small. A single room. With the bar on one side and the stage on the other.

Even the loos are in here. One on either side of the stage, like soldiers standing sentinel.

There's a bench pressed against the wall, which seems to have become the unofficial line for the loo. The two sides aren't divided by gender. In fact, both of them have a male and female little icon on them, which seems a very binary approach to take for loo-inclusivity in 2019, but oh well. There's a sign underneath, which I figure might be there to explain that the loos are for anyone who wants to take a piss, but when I get my glasses out, I see it's nothing of the kind.

"Please don't use the bathrooms during the performance," it says. "They're not soundproof and it's awkward for everyone."

Ew.

I turn my attention to the decoration.

Framed show posters cover the walls, and by the looks of it, they're all signed. They're from some pretty famous comedians. Famous enough that even I have heard of them, and that's saying something.

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The rest of the space is filled with chairs.

And almost every single one of them is taken.

I spot a single spare seat at the end of the row, and ask the girl sitting next to it if I can take it.

"Yeah!" she cries out enthusiastically.

I don't think I've ever seen someone so happy to have a stranger sitting next to them.

But then, the excitement in this room is at last-day-of-school levels. Everyone is chattering and drinking and hugging.

As new people come in, cries of recognition echo around the room.

My neighbour squeals as she spots a friend and stands up to hug her, leaning right over me to do so.

Something tells me they all know the cast, and they are super pumped to see them on stage.

It's all rather sweet.

And impressive.

There's no way I could pack out an entire venue if I were to put on a show. Maybe, if I really laid on the guilt thick, I might fill out the front row, but the fact that every seat in this place is taken tells me a lot about these performers. Whoever they are.

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Flyers had been left on our seats and I have a look at mine to find out.

Let's see. It's Denni-Tyla Bell and Olivia Martin performing in a play they wrote themselves: Bananas are a funny shape.

I mean, they're not wrong. Bananas are a funny shape.

They're also apparently being sponsored by Bonnie Tyler and in their list of thanks, they credit Russell T Davies. So, my expectations are currently sky-rocketing.

The house lights go down.

There's a roar from the audience. They are here for this.

Although, I'm not quite sure what here is.

The stage lights have gone on, but I can't see anything.

I lean out to the right and catch a glimpse of an arm, but whether said arm belongs to Bell or Martin, I can't tell.

And here is the point where I discover why theatre isn't programmed in comedy venues. The stage may be raised, but unraked seating is never going to be able to cope with the demands of an actor wanting to... sit down.

I do my best, darting from left to right, mirror the head waving of the bloke sitting in front of me, but it's no good. When the performers are sitting, they might as well be invisible to those stuck in the back.

So I settle back in my chair, and just listen.

Bell and Martin's characters are getting ready for a night out. They don't know each other, but they have a lot in common. They're virgins. Not that they're frigid, you understand. No, they're just picky. Like Cher from Clueless. But without the natty tartan suits. And like Cher, they want someone who likes them for them. And they're feeling a bit let down. By the boys who want to get in their pants, the terrible sex ed classes at school, and their own bodies.

I find myself staring at the wall of framed posters, where I can just about see what's going on in the reflections in the glass. They're getting dressed up, doing their hair, and all the while talking to us. Their invisible friend. Their diary. Perhaps even their conscious.

But when it comes time to go out, they take us with them.

Phones rise out of the sea of heads to film the girls as they bop around to club bangers. And I suddenly realise how these two young women managed to fill an entire venue, because they are completely charming and absolute darlings, and I want to be their friend too.

And when it comes right down to it, their show isn't about boys or sex and going out on the pull, it's the power of female friendship, and the importance of sticking up for one another.

And if it came right down to it, I would definitely want Bell and Martin fighting my corner.

And not just because they have Bonnie Tyler and Russell T Davies on speed-dial.

As the stage lights go into blackout, a good chunk of the audience bounces out of their seats and applauds. And keep on going, even when Bell and Martin clearly want to say something.

They thank us all for coming. And the person doing tech. A few tears are shed.

"Everyone can leave!" says Bell to finish things off with a big wave of her arms.

But this lot ain't going. A couple of audience members go up with bouquets of flowers.

Never have I felt so much love in a room.

It's intoxicating.

But it's time for me to go, so that the pair celebrate with their people.

Behind me, the great doors have been opened out onto the street and I slip out, letting the party go on without me.

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Going extinct

I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.

This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.

I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.

But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.

I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.

I go in.

It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.

A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.

I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.

Well then.

Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.

"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"

I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"

So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.

I angle it to face me.

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"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"

"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.

She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."

She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.

Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.

A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.

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The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.

There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.

It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.

And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.

We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.

"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.

The door is closed.

Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.

As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.

My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.

This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

I think we can all agree that he is not alright.

But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.

Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.

As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.

The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.

I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.

I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.

I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.

We both jump.

"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.

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The lights flicker again. And go out.

I think I'm going to have a panic attack.

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.

We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.

As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.

They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.

It's the only explanation.

But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.

The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."

"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.

I'm still not convinced.

I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.

I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.

As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.

They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.

Something feels off.

Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.

I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.

Bloody Russian bots.

I think I must be the last real person left in London.

Never More than Six Feet Away from a Theatre

Okay, so this is starting to get embarrassing now. I'm heading to yet another theatre on Gray's Inn Road that I knew nothing about. I swear they are popping up just to shame me with their existence.

It's half-past eight on Sunday night, and unsurprisingly the streets around King's Cross are dead. Everyone is at home, crying into their food prep, or whatever it is that normal people do on a Sunday evening.

I'm leaning against a tree, waiting.

My show doesn't start until nine, and it is way too early to go to the venue. With fringe theatre, timing is everything. Walking in with half an hour to spare just ends up confusing everyone. The box office isn't set up. The house isn't open. And the bar staff don't appreciate you taking up a table when there are real customers looking for somewhere to sit.

So you just end up standing around, pretending not to be a theatre nerd with no friends.

Frankly, I'd rather be batch cooking lunches so that come Friday I'll be eating five-day-old leftovers.

Okay, maybe not.

Food prep be gross, people. Let it rot.

Like your broccoli.

Unfortunatey, there comes a point when even tree-leaning gets a bit weird, and passersby begin to look concerned that there's a person standing on the pavement, by herself, on a Sunday evening, by herself.

At a quarter to, I give up. And walk the last few minutes to the venue.

A pub.

The Water Rats.

A name which takes me right back to my childhood in the countryside. Of lazy days drifting down the river, drives around terrifyingly narrow roads, and having to steal Toad Hall back from the weasels and... wait, that's Wind in the Willows.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Bright and busy.

There's a security person on the door and he stops me as I try to pass.

"Excuse me," he says. "Are you here for the gig?"

"Um, Camden Fringe?" I say. That seems to be the magic password at these places.

It works. "Can I check your bag please?"

He rummages around in there, giving it a more thorough go-over than it gets at most West End theatres.

Glad to know nothing is going to happen to me at this well-lit pub theatre on a Sunday evening...

Inside, one of the bar staffers spots me. I must have a particularly lost looking expression on my face because she comes over to say hello.

"Camden Fringe?" I try.

"Yes, yes, yes," she says, my presence now perfectly explained. "I think they're just having an interval at the moment. It's at the back there."

She points over to a pair of glass doors. There's one of those "On Air" light-up signs over it. The sort you get at radio stations. I mean, I presume you do. I've never been to a radio station.

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I squeeze through the tables and make my way over.

It looks like the previous show is still getting out.

People are running around throwing sparkly costumes into suitcases. There are sequins everywhere.

I tuck myself up against a table and wait. But while the suitcases and their owners have managed to shuffle out of the theatre, they don't appear to want to go anywhere.

They position themselves in the small slither of space between the steps leading up to those big glass doors, and the tables in the bar. Ther exact slither of space that I'm standing in.

They pace back and forth, knocking me with their luggage every time they pass. One of them even doubles down on her bag action, digging it right into me without a backward glance as if trying to knock away this weird immovable object that's standing behind her. But here's the thing, despite all the social anxiety, the introversion, the shyness, I'm a stubborn old bitch and I refuse to get out of the way.

The performer, wearing a spectacular black sequin jacket, buzzes from group to group, taking selfies with everyone. They step back, digging their elbows into my ribs and stepping on my toes as they all try to arrange themselves in the frame.

I don't know what their show was, but I think it's clear that everyone involved has the self-awareness of a narcissistic gnat on Zoloft.

It's then I realise that the guy doing security, he isn't there to protect me from any knife-carrying fascists with a grudge. Oh no. He's there to stop me from launching myself at suitcase-wielding thespians with spangles for brains. Because if this lot bash into me one more time, a bitch is going to get slapped.

I do my best to wriggle out of the way so I'm not a background character in their group-shots, and am immediately distracted by something much more interesting happening behind the bar.

They're blowing bubbles.

Hundreds of them. Floating gently down onto the beer taps.

The wholesomeness of it all calms me right down.

I don't even mind that it's now past nine o'clock and the house hasn't even opened for the next show. They've drawn a black curtain between the doors and the space. So they must be setting up or something behind there.

I stifle a yawn.

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This may not be the latest start time on my marathon, but that doesn't make it any easier. I may have survived a Midnight Matinee and a 10pm strip-show, but after so many hour-long fringe shows, I've got used to being home and in my pyjamas by this time. If they don't open the house soon, I'm going to be curling up under the nearest table for a snooze.

Without the black curtain still very much in situ, by some sixth sense, people have somehow worked out that the house is now open.

They line up, flashing their tickets to the man standing guard by the doors.

He has a table next to him, complete with money box and flyers. No list though.

We're going to have to bring out the email confirmation then, because surnames aren't going to work.

"I booked online?" I tell him, turning around my phone so that he can see the confirmation. "Sorry, there's rather a lot." As my experience at the Moors Bar showed me, apparently it's not normal to have ten shows listed in a single confirmation email. And here I was thinking people went full out at the fringe. Just me it seems.

I zoom in to the right line, somewhere near the bottom.

"Okay. Just the one?"

Yeah, like I could convince someone to see a fringe show with me at 9pm on a Sunday evening. They're all busy filling Tupperware.

He hands me a business card for the company (It's Fespian Init - cute name). Looks like this is how we're doing tickets tonight.

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That done, it's time to go in.

I've seen my fair share of pub theatres this year, and this one definitely has the look.

Dark. Wooden floor. Mismatched seating. Unexplained disco-ball hanging from the ceiling.

But there's also a bar in here. And while there are a few cabaret tables, they've been set at the back, instead of near the stage. So they are positioned with easy access to the bar, which makes much more sense.

Taking up the main space are rows of chairs. The first two of which have long benches set in front of them. Not to be sat on, of course. That's where you put your drinks.

The stage is raised and “The Water Rats” (with an adorable silhouette of one of those water rats) is painted above it.

I'm not drinking tonight, and have no need of a bench to rest my glass on, so I go for my classic seat choice - third row, on the end.

I hope we start soon. And not just because I have a duvet to get home to. The cast are already on stage. In a freeze-frame that does not look very fun having to hold up there.

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It takes a few minutes, but eventually, the seats fill and we're ready to begin.

Six short plays stuffed into one evening, under the banner of Our Walk Through the World.

We start with a woman with dungarees and very long hair, speaking to a camera on a tripod, trying to convince the viewer that she would make an excellent surrogate, despite her life falling apart all around her. Then we have an office that appears to be run on jelly beans.

Do I need to add here that there are no freesheets? I have no idea who any of these actors are. And no clue who wrote the plays. They're fun though. Short. Just the right length for my current attention span, and surreal enough to keep me awake.

Next up, a football manager trying hard not to think about his daughter giving birth in hospital while at a press conference. Then parents who have to choose between their son and their dream home, with an assault rifle blaring out over the sound system, in what has to be the least well thought out sound effect to pump out in a theatre in 2019.

With the sounds of gunfire replaced by Air's Sexy Boy we reach the last play. A man trying very hard to explain that he definitely didn't fuck a panda.

That one was weird.

The panda was sitting on stage eating an apple.

What kind of panda eats an apple?

The applause fades, the lights in the bar go on, and everyone staggers to their feet to get a drink.

As ever with fringe shows, no one wants to feckin' leave.

I have to practically climb over the person sitting at the end of my row to get out.

I get that runs are short, and celebrations need to happen with those people who love you enough to turn up, but come on. A time and a place, people. There's a cat waiting in Hammersmith who's going to get seriously pissy if she doesn't get her dinner before midnight.

The DeLorean in the Basement

I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.

So I didn't.

Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.

And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.

Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.

Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.

I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.

Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.

Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.

Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.

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There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.

I guess that's where I'm heading.

Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.

There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.

I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.

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There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.

It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.

The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.

Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

"Are you here for the show?" he asks.

"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.

"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."

Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.

Except, there wasn't any signage.

Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.

I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.

"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.

"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."

I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.

I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.

The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.

A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.

Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.

Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.

I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.

Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.

... I wear black.

A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.

A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.

"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."

As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.

I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.

When we get to me, I give my name.

"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.

It really is dark down here.

I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.

"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.

"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."

It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.

The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.

There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.

It's a small room. Tiny.

Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.

In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.

Behind are rows of chairs.

And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.

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I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.

I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.

So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.

"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.

There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.

The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."

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We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.

"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."

Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.

I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...

First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."

I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.

Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.

The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.

Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.

Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.

I leave.

As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.

I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.

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Think of Punny Title Later

It's Friday afternoon and I'm on my way to the theatre, because, well, I am on annual leave and that's apparently what I'm doing with my time off.

I'm in Crouch End which is not a part of London I go to all that often, but... oh look! A second-hand clothing shop with a rack of summer dresses on sale... No. Nope. Don't go in. Focus. We're here to go to the theatre. In a bar. Because I'm still working my way through all those Camden Fringe venues.

I think it's this place just up ahead. It looks nice enough. Although they're not making it easy working out how to get in. Two doors. One either side of the windows. Both painted the same colour. Both lacking in the signage department.

I go for the one without the flat buzzers next to it. Which was the right decision, of course. But man, my brain is mush right now. And that took way too much effort to work out.

But there's a box office right inside the door, so I'm hoping this will be an easy one.

"Hi, the surname's Smiles," I say to the young woman behind the counter. This doesn't get quite the reaction I was after. "For... Camden Fringe?"

"I don't actually have a list of the people who booked," she says.

"Oh." Oh. I'm... not sure what I'm meant to do with that information.

"Do you have the email?" she asks hopefully.

"I do!" I pull my phone out of my pocket. "Oh, I actually have it open."

"You're ready to go!"

I laugh. I am. But mainly because my anxiety insists on me checking and rechecking start times and locations at least six or seven times between leaving the house and actually arriving at the venue.

I turn the screen around for her to see and I swear she actually backs away from it.

"Wow," she says. "You've booked a lot."

There are ten shows on that confirmation email. One of two Camden Fringe confirmation emails in my inbox.

"Yeah..." I raise my hand in a stopping motion. "Let's not talk about it."

"Oh, I see..." she says. But let's be real here. No one understands what I'm doing. Not even you.

Not even me, if we're really honest.

As she examines the email, wading through all those shows, I look around.

There are a pile of programmes on the desk.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask.

"Please do..."

She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.

"Is it free?" I ask.

"It's free... or by donation."

Ah. "Okay, I get the hint," I say, pulling out my purse.

I drop a pound coin in the money box and take me and my programme off to explore the venue.

It doesn't take long.

The bar runs all down one side, and the rest is taken up by seating, facing a small wooden stage.

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Beanbags at the front, then a few rows of chairs, then those raised bar chairs running all the way to the back.

I always try to go for the first row on the rake, so I suppose that means I'm going for the first row of bar chairs. Right on the end because I like to be able to lean against the wall. And... hide.

"I'm just going to tuck myself behind you," says a woman, slipping into the row behind. "Don't be alarmed."

I wasn't. Until she gave me that warning.

"It's always a challenge deciding whether you want the height to see, or if you want your feet to actually touch the ground," I say, heaving my short-arse up into the high chair.

"I wish there were more high seats, because you can't see anything from back there," she says, pointing to the rows of stools behind us. "They're all the same height."

"You need to practice ducking and weaving to see around people's heads," I say, with the surety of someone who's been doing a lot of ducking and weaving this year.

Turns out ducking and weaving aren't high on the list of things people want to do this afternoon, and our rows of high chairs soon fill up. No one wants the chairs. Or the beanbags.

That song about lighting a candle from Rent (you know, the one ripped from La Boheme) is playing over the sound system, and the man behind the bar is singing along. He has a great voice. I'm really enjoying the harmonies,

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says when the song finishes. Really, really great voice. Deep. "The show will start in about ten minutes so please turn off your mobile phones. If you need to leave, please use the door you came in. If you need to use the toilet, please go before the show. As you can see, they're onstage, so unless you want to be in the show..." he lets the sentence trail way. "Go now."

I look over at the stage. There is a door going off it. I hadn't noticed that before.

We've got a Jermyn Street Theatre situation going on here.

No one chances the loo. The thought of accidentally walking out into the middle of the first scene is way to much pressure to put on a person when they're peeing.

We also ignore the bit about the mobile phones. Ten minutes is loads of time. I can proofread an entire blog post before then. Which might explain a lot about the state of all of this...

There is one bloke prepared to severe the link to our technolocial crutches though.

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"Can I put my phone behind the bar to charge?" he asks.

Before this marathon, I've never appreciated how willing bar people were to solve all your life problems. Charge phones. Hold bags. Refrigerate your dinner until you get out of the show. That, and, you know, serve the alcohol that will actually get us through the show.

He hands over his charger, and it's fucking massive.

The barman with the voice tests it out in a socket, but it ain't happening. "Let's try it over here..." he says, taking it off to find another plug point, because bar people are literally the best people in the world. Especially theatre bar people. Because theatre-goers are all terrible and even worse when they drink.

The lights start dimming. We all shuffle around getting show-ready.

Light pours in. Someone's come through the door.

They want to know what this place is and what happens here.

I'm on the same mission. It never occurred to me that I could just ask.

The box officer tells him we're here to watch a musical. It starts in five minutes. It's one act long.

Now these are key selling points a person with ten shows on their booking confirmation email. Not sure the shortness of the entertainment experience really does it for someone wandering in off the street.

He asks if it's on again, and then withdraws with the politeness of someone saying they left their wallet at home, but will definitely come back once they've been to the cash machine.

"This afternoon's performance is a relaxed performance, so if you need the toilet or to leave at any time... We also have some sensory toys available if you need them."

Oh! So that explains the bean bags. Kinda regretting not sitting in one now. High seats are not comfortable. I'm short. I like being close to the ground. And sinking into the gentle embrace of a beanbag sounds super comforting right now. Although from that position, right in front of the stage, a beanbagger would be able to see right up the actors' noses. Okay. No. Too disconcerting and weird. Abort mission. I'm not into it. I'm staying right here. On my high chair. At the end of the row. Next to the wall. Where it's safe.

Someone sitting behind me sneezes.

"Bless you," says the barman as he walks past on his way to turn the aircon down.

It's very quiet now.

This is it.

We're starting.

Oh, they're singing a song about singing a song. It's so meta I want to scream, or laugh, or cry. I don't know what I want or who I am, I just can't stop smiling. I'm so happy.

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I mean, I should have guessed. You don't book to see a show called [title of show] without expecting a deep-dive into self-referential humour, but having an actor dressed up as a literal blank page is too much for me.

And I can't even concentrate on any of that because one of the guys, William Tippery, has the most fantastic eyebrows I have ever seen in my life, and the other is one that I totally recognise. I know that face. I've definitely seen it before. But it was different. Those cheekbones had blusher on them last time I saw them. And he was wearing a dress. And yes, I've got it. It's Kieran Parrott. He was Stella in Fanny & Stella. I'd recognise those jazz hands anywhere. I saw them at the Above the Stag in... June, I think. Aw... I really enjoyed that show.

As they set about the challenge of writing a musical in three weeks, the same musical that we're sat here watching right now, they are also busy smashing my heart into smithereens because they are all so adorable. With their eyebrows, and their jazz hands, and Charlotte Denton with her... really incredible height and cute nose and songbird voice. And when Alyssa LeClair's Susan breaks into a song called Die, Vampire, Die - well, that's it. I'm officially smitten. Because that's really what I want right now. Not a song about killing vampires. I mean, yes. It's a song about killing vampires. But not the toothy sort. Leave them be, they're just hanging out in graveyards looking pale and wanting a good stake. No, the vampires that eat away at our confidence and get in the way of us doing the things we want to do. The ones that dig their claws into our shoulders and whisper a constant stream of contempt into our ears until we're made immobile by our insecurities.

So what if they only have three weeks? So what if their set is four chairs and they're accompanied by nothing more thab a man on a keyboard.

They're making it work to the mostest. Those chairs are sliding their way between transition scenes. And the pianist, well, they're letting him talk! They let the pianist talk! And Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, looks so happy as he turns around in his seat so that he can all see that big smile on his face as he says his line.

And that makes me happy.

And I really really needed a happy show today.

And even though it's been hard (like, really, stupidly, hard) I have to be grateful to the theatre marathon. Because without it, I wouldn't be sitting here, watching a fringe musical, in a bar, in Crouch End, by myself, and feeling like I could just burst with the joy of it all.

And oh lord, they're all taking their shirts off, and I don't know where to look. I'm feeling like a right old perv right now.

With Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, sitting at his keyboard, with his back to the audience, I can see his sheet music. And we're at the end. The last song. It's over.

It's time to go.

I wonder if that second-hand shop has vampire-killing outfits...

Lost Souls and Yeast Rolls

I've had a sandwich and a mango smoothie, and I am really to get back on the double-show day train. I'm also really to go back on the trail of the Camden Fringe after taking a little break to check out the off-West End transfer of The Barbershop Chronicles at the Roundhouse this afternoon.

I'm actually not going that far. From Chalk Farm to Camden Square. Meaning I have plenty of time to write in between. Almost a whole blog post, handwritten in my notebook because I'm old, and can't type fast enough on a touchscreen to keep up with my thoughts. Just need to type it up when I get home and finish it off. I'm feeling very virtuous right now. Although that could just be the mango smoothie kicking in.

Whatever it is, I'm feeling pretty good standing here outside my second venue of the day: the London Irish Centre.

Yeah, yeah. I can hear what you're saying. "Maxine! That really isn't a theatre..."

And yes, you're right. It isn't. It's an Irish centre. In London.

But where Camden Fringe goes, I must follow. So here I am.

It looks nice enough. One of those great big stucco-fronted houses. It's opposite a park. It's the kind of place Russian billionaires buy as a fifteenth home.

I walk slowly up the steps towards the entrance. There's a stepladder taking up most of the doorway, with just a pair of legs visible against the gloom of the interior.

As I approach, the legs descend, and I manage to squeeze past.

There's a doormat with the words "Tá fáilte romhat" printed on it in black. Google translate tells me this means "You are welcome."

I do like a friendly doormat.

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Inside it's all leather-upholstered chesterfield sofas and dark wood furniture. There's a piano. And twin Irish flags. One either side of the room.

What there doesn't seem to be though, is any form of box office.

I head towards the bar. Helpfully signposted with THE BAR writ large over the doorway in massive letters. Inside there are a few blokes standing around having a drink, but no box office.

Okay then. I try the other doorway, this one leading to a corridor. There are signs for various events, but not the one I'm going to. I make it all the way down the corridor before realising I'm now just randomly wandering around a cultural institute that I have no business wandering around in.

On my way back, I spot a young man wearing a logoed up polo-shirt.

"Hi," I say, catching his eye. "I'm looking for I Know It Was The Blood?"

He looks alarmed, and I'm not surprised. That's one hell of a title.

"Is that..." he starts.

"Camden Fringe," I say, as if that explains everything.

His face clear, so it presumably does.

"Camden Fringe is just along the corridor there, but I'm not sure it's open. There should be a man doing the box office."

Well, as long as there should be a man...

I thank him and head back to the sofa-filled foyer.

And there is a man. With a clipboard.

"Are you for...?" he starts.

I try out the magic words once more: "Camden Fringe."

They work.

"That's me! What's the name?”

"Smiles."

"Maxine?"

I nod.

"I'll take everyone though at half past," he says, before moving on to the next person.

He asks a few more people if they're there for Camden Fringe. They're not. There's another event tonight and sure enough, a table is set up next to the entrance and we've got a rival box office going.

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As newcomers are sent away from the table, Camden Fringers are left wandering around, not knowing what to do.

A divide forms.

Camden Fringers congregating in the corridor. Rival eventers on the chesterfields.

"Are you here for the event tonight?" says the rival box officer, coming over to the sofas to collect her brood. "Do you want to come over to the desk so I can get you signed in?"

There's something very different about the two groups. I don't want to say that it's race, but... it's race.

And although my Karen-like appearance would make it seem like I should be hanging out with the sofa-society, I'm actually with the corridor-collective this evening.

The man with the clipboard reappears. "You can go in and take your seat now," he tells me before touring the sofas with a call of "Fringe? Camden Fringe?"

Down a side corridor, and the door to our theatre for this evening is being held open by a young woman. "Welcome!" she says to each of us in turn as we go in. "Apologies, we had some technical difficulties," she says. explaining the late start. "Welcome. Thank you for being so patient."

And in we go.

The room kind of reminds me of the one at Cecil Sharp House. White walls. Windows. Very much a room and not a theatre.

Although there is a stage. A little one.

There are free sheets on the seats. I always appreciate a show which puts freesheets out on the seats.

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I take my favourite place, end of the third row. But that's more of an awareness of this show really not being meant for me, and not wanting to take the best seats away from the target audience here.

Turns out however, the third row is much in demand. Over on the right-hand side, the third row fills up almost instantly.

On the left side, where I am, a lady sits down in the second row before bouncing back up from her seat. "Too close," she announces, before moving back a row, a few seats down from me.

The young woman who greeted us takes up a spot in the front row, ready with a camera to film the show.

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Once we're all settled, the room fills with music. Singing.

I turn around in my seat. It's Tara Lake. And she has got a voice on her.

She walks down the aisle, carrying a big tote bag, which she sets down at the front.

She shows us the book she's holding. A bible for the Newfangled Woman. She reads a few verses.

And then she takes on a journey, through her family and personal history. From the members who just refuse to stop living, to her parents who won't stay divorced, and her own stubborn refusal to not take a job that is clearly not suitable for a teenage girl. We hear how she lost her music, and found it again, and all the while are treated to that voice.

Every-so-often she pauses to explain an Americanism that we don't understand.

But there's one that left us puzzled.

"Whether you like it or not, you're all my cousins now," says Lake, giving her closing speech after the applause has died down, thanking us all, Camden Fringe, and most especially the young woman in the front row, Day Alaba.

My neighbour on the third row leans over to me. "Yes, but do we get yeast rolls?"

"Now that's a question!"

Yeast rolls played an important role in Lake's narrative. They were there on the table when her parents had their divorce dinner. They were there when she came out to them.

I don't know what they are, but they sound delicious.

And emotionally troubling.

Lake takes up post by the side of the door to see us off.

A line builds to give her their email addresses ("I promise I won't spam you!").

"So, yeast rolls," says my neighbour. "What are they?"

Lake laughs. "Puffed. Greasy..."

"Fattening!" pipes up Alaba from the front row.

In other words: delicious.

I thank Lake on my way out. "That was wonderful." It really was.

Outside on the steps, a pretty cat sits and watches as we leave.

We each in turn pause to give her a pat on the head.

She doesn't seem to mind.

I rather think that's what she's there for.

On the way home I Google yeast rolls. Looks like they are an enriched loaf. Like brioche. Or challah.

Definitely delicious then.

I really love challah.

Like... really love it...

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

I'm onto my next venue of the marathon and I have a bad feeling about this one. This bad feeling is based on nothing more substantial than the name, but the name is The Monkey House, and that is enough.

I don't like monkies.

I really don't like monkies.

With their creepy monkey hands and their creepy monkey toes.

Nope. Not into it.

And don't give me that spiel about them being just like people. That's the problem. People are gross too. With their creepy people hands and their creepy people toes.

Yeah, yeah. I should have just called this blog the London Theatre Misanthrope. I get it.

Perhaps that will be my next project. If I ever manage to emerge from the hermit-hole that I intend to seclude myself in come January.

Anyway, it looks like I was right because I'm at the address and there's not a theatre to be found.

I'm right here. On Seven Sisters Road. And all I see is a William Hill where there's supposed to be a theatre. I keep on walking, following the pavement around the corner, and almost walk into a group of young and cool looking people. The sort of young and cool looking people who would be up for watching a play about the Jamestown cult at 6.45pm on a Wednesday evening.

I look up, and yup, the sign over the door says "Fourth Monkey."

This must be the place.

Inside the door, perched on a chair in the tiny foyer, sat at an even tinier table, is another young and cool looking person. But this one has a pile of papers in front of her. Looks like I've found the box office.

"Hi," she says with a massive smile as soon as I walk in.

"Hello. Err, the surname's Smiles?"

"Nice name," she comments as she draws a line through it on the list.

"Thank you."

Seriously.

I've been wearing this name for over three decades and it never gets old.

"Here's one of these," she says, pulling a castsheet free from the pile on the desk.

They are nice. Really nice. Full-colour headshots and printed on a heavy paper stock. It doesn't get much better than that.

"Um, where am I going?" I ask as I suddenly realise that I have no idea what lurks beyond this tiny foyer.

She points towards the door a few feet away from us.

"First floor," she says, then stops. "No. Second floor. The top floor."

I nod. "Okay. Is the house open?"

"It is, but you may have to wait in the kitchen."

Blimey. I mean, that's weird, right? Waiting in the kitchen? Let's hope they have the kettle on. Although, I'm not sure a stuffy old kitchen is where I want to be right now.

"I might wait outside," I tell her. "Bit warm."

"Okay," she says brightly, very sweetly pretending to care where I plan to send my pre-show time.

I go outside. And once more curse myself for putting on a great big pleated skirt on a breezy day.

After a few minutes wrestling to keep my skirt at least somewhere in the region of my legs, I give up and go inside. Through the door that the box officer had pointed out and into a secondary room. Which turns out to be another foyer. Or perhaps a vestibule. Or even a lobby. One of those. Can't tell you which because I don't know the difference. Let's just call it Foyer Number Two.

Whatever it’s called, it contains the promised staircase, which will take me up to the second, or possibly top, floor. And on the walls, in all capitals, is the missive: NO SHOE ZONE.

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For the first time I notice that the walls of Foyer Number Two are covered with boxy shelves. And that each cubby-hole is filed with footwear.

Shit.

But...

... they don't mean me, right? Not people going to the theatre? Right? This is just for the students... right?

Right?!

I look down at my boots. I still haven't sorted out the shoe situation since the last time I had to take them off for a show. I didn't think I would have to. Taking off your shoes to go into some's literal house is fair enough. To remove them in order to go upstairs in what I think is some sort of drama school seems a bit much. Especially when the shoes in question require straps to be unbuckled and a good deal of lacings to be loosened in order to get them off.

I look around at all the shoes on display. On the ground there is a wicker basket filled with soft slippers.

Oh gawd...

This is like going bowling. Which is something I don't do. And not just because of the public footwear situation.

I don't think there's any getting away with this. I think I'm going to have to do it.

With a massive internal sigh, I bend down and start on with the business of unbuckling and loosening. Leaning against the wall I manage to pull them off and I find a cubby hole to store them in for the duration.

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Only then do I dare examine the state of my tights. With no forewarning, I hadn't thought to pull out a pair without holes. It's unlikely that I'd picked one out by chance this morning.

I have a rule, you see. I don't throw out an item of clothing until it has been repaired at least three times. Sometimes I manage to stretch that to six or seven before I finally give up on them. Bit three is the minimum. So my tights are often held together by more of my terrible attempts at stitches than would be deemed acceptable for public viewing.

But the theatre gods have looked kindly on me once again, and brought about another miracle, because today, my toes are stitch-free. And there is not a single hole to be found anywhere. I've got the good pair on.

It feels really strange to be going upstairs in a public building with nothing more than sixty deniers worth of nylon between them and me. It makes me feel intensely vulnerable, which is not a feeling I want to be having before I've even stepped into the auditorium.

One floor up and there's an office. Over the open doorway the signage proclaims this place as "Monkey Business," which I have to appreciate, if only on a punnage level.

I ask the two ladies standing on the landing where I'm going, and they point me up one more level.

One more level it is then.

Up I go.

The sign above the next door says "Kitchen," but it's nothing like the kettle-totting kitchen of my imagination.

I've instead found myself in a large, comfortable looking room, with leather armchairs, a counter running down one wall, and a hatch serving as the bar for the evening. There are also strings of red fabric running from the lampshades off all over the place, with masses of cardboard axes swinging from them, a Sarah Kane quote on one wall, and an artwork that places the Vikings in front of the London Eye on the other.

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As I wander around, trying to find somewhere to stand which isn't in everyone's way, I tread on something.

I don't look down.

I don't want to know what it is.

I just keep on moving. Quickly.

No one else seems bothered the lack of shoe-action going on up here.

People stride around in their socks. A few have the wicker-basket slippers. Others have bare feet.

As a queue forms to get into the theatre, I spot a girl with socks so full of holes her toes clawing at the floorboards.

People hands and people toes.

Gross.

It takes a while to get through the corridor.

I'm not mad though. There's a Pina Bausch quote on the wall here. I love Pina Bausch. One of my prizest possessions is a signed Pina Bausch programme that I may or may not have lifted from work. And if I have to get stuck in a corridor with someone spouting out their views on choreography, I'm glad it's with her.

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Eventually we make it through.

The theatre is a black box. Seating has been set up on two sides, traverse style. With a small stage in the middle.

There's one seat going begging in the back row.

"Do you mind?" I ask the person sitting next to it.

No reply. So I take it he doesn't and sit down..

It's really hot in here.

Really hot.

But there's no time to get my fan out because the lights are going down and the play is beginning.

It's a drama school show (I think... I'm still not entirely sure on this) so I won't be commenting on the performance. But the play is pretty good. Zipping along with a familiar tale. You know the one. Don't drink the kool-aid and all that.

Someone a couple of rows ahead neglected that part though, as she starts coughing. And coughing. And coughing.

She gets up and after coughing more in the empty space behind the seating block, eventually goes outside.

A second later, a woman in the row in front follows her.

The bloke next to me twists in his seat, again and again, to see whether they are coming back, not focusing on the play at all, his attention completely with the coughing woman out in the corridor.

They come back soon enough. And we can all go back to watching the play.

As soon as the stage lights go down at the end, instant applause rings out. I've never seen it happen so fast.

But as soon as it starts, it peters out.

The actors do not return to the stage for their bows.

"Are they not coming out?" someone asks. "We're clapping."

"No, they don't do that here."

Well, what do you expect from people who don't wear shoes?

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Music to dance to

I'm not sure whether I should be grateful to the Camden Fringe for getting me into all these tricksy venues that don't really do the whole theatre thing, or whether I should be blaming them for getting me into all these tricksy venues that don't really do the whole theatre thing.

I'm at Cecil Sharp House tonight. The folk music slash dance... place. I'm not really sure what they do. They have quite a busy programming calendar, but it's music for the most part. Or workshops. Events that would not qualify it for the marathon. Except now it has two shows there as part of Camden Fringe, one dance, one theatre, so here I am, with another theatre to get checked off.

It's not what I expected. I've been saying that a lot on this marathon. I'm sorry. But it really isn't. It never is.

It's a red brick building. A large red brick building. With lots of steps leading up to the main door. Enough steps that you could make a fair job of recreating that iconic bit from Rocky on them if you had a mind to.

My knee is still clunky from yesterday, so I decide to forgo the training-montage scene.

I think I might be the only one though.

There's a lot of young people coming in the other direction, trotting down the steps in that way that only the truly young and properly fit ever do. Is this the type of person folk dancing attracts? Again, I'm left surprised. I thought it would be all old blokes with big beards and a standing appointment with their wife's nose clippers.

Inside, it's all very National Trust-property-in-waiting. There's a checkboard floor, and stone panels with a motif of jesters, complete with belled hats and star-pointed collars.

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What I can only presume are lyrics have been written across the glass doors in frosted script: I sowed the seeds of love And I sowed them in the Spring.

Inside there's a great big reception desk.

Two people are waiting, looking over the leaflets on display.

"Do you want to try Morris dancing?" one asks the other with a giggle.

I don't hear her reply.

The receptionist arrives and as the leaflet-readers are still engrossed in their leaflet, she turns to me.

"Box office?" I try.

"Cash?"

I stare at her. "...no."

"Oh," she says, looking worried.

"Um. I've already booked actually. I just don't know where I'm going."

Her face clears. We're on surer ground now. "What's the name?”

"Smiles."

She looks down a handwritten list. "Maxine?"

"Yes." That's me.

She places a pencil-tick next to my name. "Okay," she says, looking up. "First floor and to the end of the corridor."

"First floor. End of corridor," I repeat and she nods. I've got it.

The stairs are lined with wrought iron railings, from which hangs a red sign warning us not to climb them. Pity. With all those circles and neat scrolls, you could get a really good foot-hold in there.

I obey the sign though, and start climbing in the more conventional fashion - using the stone steps - pausing along the way to look at the black and white photographs that run of the walls, and the massive quilt that meets me on the landing.

Okay. Left or right.

I go right. No corridor worth speaking of that way. It must be left then.

Down to the end and I find a bright, but small, room.

There are chairs set up in rows, facing a piano and it’s pianist. And there's someone on the floor. Warming up.

The pianist looks up as I go in.

There's only one other audience member. Sitting on the chairs.

Although, perhaps he isn't an audience member. It's so hard to tell at these things. He could be a techie. Or a piano tuner. Or a cameraman. Or an intern. Or a butterfly collector. It's impossible to say.

"Is it okay to come in?" I ask, worried that I might have just walked into their rehearsal or something.

"Yes, of course," says the pianist.

So I do, taking a seat in the second row.

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It's a nice room in here, but it's very much a room. There's no lighting rigs or tech desks or anything like that. We're lit entirely from the sunlight flooding through the two large windows.

The walls are cream, and undecorated save for four creatures hung up in a row. Something between a hobby-horse and a pop-up tent.

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There's the piano, of course, parts of which are now sitting on the floor behind it, revealing all the inner workings within.

You already know that I have less than no musical talent. No rhythm. It's a problem. My lack of an inner metronome means I can't even clap out the simplest of beats. But that didn't stop me from undergoing years of painful piano lessons as a child. I hated every single second of it. Along with the enforced practise at home. Everyone always tried to convince me that if I just sat and did the work, every day, I would get better. But I knew better. Instead of banging out my scales, I would lift the lid to my piano, reach inside, and place my palm behind the hammers, pressing the keys so that the velvet drumsticks would hit my hand. I was always far more interested in how pianos works than how to play one. So I appreciate this glimpse into the instrument's innards.

More people turn up. They all know each other. And the cast. Which is something I'm really going to have to get used to with all these fringe things I'm going to.

"We're trying to leave this space free for the filming," says the dancer, clearing a path through the chairs.

"Mind the gap please," says the pianist in the same cadence as the Tube-voice.

But I'm not paying attention to what they're saying, because I'm listening to their voices. They both have an accent. A very familiar sounding accent. So familiar, I instantly reminded that I need to call my mum.

Shit.

We've been playing phone-tag for days, and now she's sent the Israelis to remind me that I still need to speak to her.

More people.

Strangers this time.

They come sit in front of me, in what I'm now thinking of as the strangers' corner.

Oh, wait. Maybe I'm wrong.

The pianist comes over to them. "If you want to open the window..." she says. "They move all the time and I didn't want to bang anyone on the head."

One of the newcomers says it's okay. She has a fan, and besides, she probably didn't fancy getting hit over the head anyway.

The pianist and the dancer look at each other. It's a very significant look.

"Shall we wait to see if anyone else comes up? We could start, and if anyone arrives they can just join us."

As one, we all glance down the corridor. It's empty.

Time to start.

The pianist introduces the act. They're D&DF&P. She's Danielle Friedman. He's Doron Perk. Together they create improvised pieces. Her on the piano. Him dancing. Fresh and new, every time.

She spins round on her stool... and begins to play.

At first he doesn't move. He stands there, close by, watching her.

And then his shoulder drops, his head tilting with it, his arm extending down, and he begins to dance.

Their eyes remain fixed on each other, as they follow and lead and follow again.

The movement style is contemporary for sure. I want to say it's a little bit Hofesh Shechter, but I think it's just those accents confusing me. It's definitely not Sharon Eyal. Although there might be a little Jasmin Vardimon. A dash of Itzik Galili. Maybe even some Emanuel Gat in there. Or none of those things. Perhaps I'm just listing a load of Israeli choreographers because I like showing off.

As for the music, I have no references for you. I told you about the lack of musical skill, right? It's pretty though, and I'm enjoying it.

With another significant look between them, they stop. The end of the piece. Perk takes off his glasses and puts them to one side. That's a shame. You never really see dancers wearing glasses during a performance. Unless they wearing them for comedy value. I mean... there's probably a reason for that. Glasses are a right old pain. But still. More glasses on dancers please!

They're ready to start again.

Friedman begins to play, Perk watches and listens until the music takes hold and he dances once more.

Each piece is short. Ten minutes or so. Themes are built up and dismissed. Movements merge and develop.

Perk changes his look for each one. Glasses off. Hair down. Trousers rolled up, then smoothed back down. Ponytail. Man-bun.

The eye-contact between them loosens, the gaps between the glances lengthening before Perk starts turning his back on Friedman, so into the direction of the music that he no longer needs to keep his eyes on her.

After a few pieces, Perk sits on the floor as Friedman plays, allowing him to catch his breath.

I lean back in my chair, lazily letting my gaze drift from those velvet hammers up to the open window where the view is almost entirely taken up by a large tree, the leaves being gently rustled by the breeze.

"It's very hot in here," he says.

"Hotter for you," rejoins a man sitting in the front row.

That certainly looks true. Perk is soaked. He's really working hard up there, and there isn't much of that breeze coming through the window.

Perk checks the time.

"It's three minutes to six, so one short one I think?" he says in answer to another significant look from Friedman. "Then drinks."

So, we have one more short one. And at the end, Friedman and Perk grin at each other. Job well done.

"Stay for drinks, stay for talk," they encourage us. "Or don't."

I'm going to go with the 'don't' option. Nothing against this pair. They are young and talented and adorable. But I think that pile of Budweiser on the table at the back should be for them to enjoy with their friends. Not randoms who turn up just to get a theatre checked off their challenge.

As I traipse my way back down the stairs, my fellow inmates from stangers' corner are a few steps behind.

"I mean, the music was good," says one. "But the other element was dance, and how do you talk about that?"

Oh man. You said it. As someone who has to deal in the business of dance-words to pay the bills... I have never felt so seen. It's hard.

As Perk said himself during the performance - music and language are their own languages. And they don't always translate. The whole point of dance, to me at least, is saying what words cannot. So not being able to find them... shouldn't be considered a failure. And if you could tell my boss that the next time I have to explain why our season brochure hasn't gone to print yet, that would be super.

But even without the words, he seems content enough. "It's an experience, which is why I went for it."

Yeah. That's the philosophy behind the marathon. The experiences that theatres give us.

I'm about to turn around and make a new friend with this guy, but I've just taken my phone off airplane mode and a whatsapp message pops up. It's from my sister-in-law. "Could you please call your mum?"

Yeah, yeah. As if I needed another reminder.

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And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids

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.

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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?"

"Yup."

"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.

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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.

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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.

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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 bliss.

"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.

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Because ghosts.

Someone comes to sit on my platform.

I look over.

It's the booth-stealer.

Ergh.

Fucking. Rude.

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.

Shit.

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?

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Tea and Brandy

I think I got a little too excited about living in a sorta-central location. Just because I can walk to places doesn't mean that I should. Buses exist. The tube is really rather good, and is worth tapping in that Oyster card every so often, when the places you need to go are not all that close. Like Little Venice. I mean, yes. It only took a little over an hour to get here. But not walking here on a warm and muggy day would have meant that I didn't turn up all sweaty and gross. Sorry about that.

But I'm here, at least. Outside the Bridge House. Home of the Canal Cafe Theatre. My second pub theatre in as many days.

And I'm back on the Camden Fringe fest trail again. Which I am most grateful for as I was a little bit unsure of this place. Their website claims they're a member-only theatre. I don't know exactly what that means, but there seems to be a charge attached to the first ticket that you buy. That gets you a membership card. Valid for a year. And while one pound fifty isn't all that much, and I do rather like the idea of owning a cute little membership card, I'm not going to be coming back here. Not before next year anyway. So, I am very happy that through the miracle of fringe theatre, I get to bypass all that nonsense and get straight in there.

Although, now that I'm standing here, I realise I should have probably done the whole membership thing. So much for my investigative approach to exploring London theatres.

Eh. Someone else can write a blog post about it.

They probably already have.

Anyway, too late to do anything about it now. I'm going in.

It's a nice looking pub. All white stucco frontage. And right next to the bridge going over the canal. Explaining the names of both the theatre and the pub.

There's a little courtyard garden. Very little. But it's lined with a rainbow of blooming floorboxes and is packed full of people sitting behind the bars of the smart iron railing.

There's a sign on the glass pane over the door. "Entrance to the Canal Cafe Theatre and Bar." So at least I know I'm in the right place.

Passing through the door I go from stucco-fronted sophistication to poster-ridden fringe venue.

The walls are covered in posters and flyers, and chalkboard giving a rundown of everything that's on.

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Also the claim that the theatre is "Home to the world's longest running sketch show." Sounds like great fun, but it's on at 9.30pm, which is well past my bedtime, so I'm never going to see it.

There's a man in the foyer and he smiles as I come in.

"Box office?" I ask.

He steps aside revealing another bloke, this one tucked up inside of the cupboard underneath the stairs, like Little Venice's answer to Harry Potter.

I give him my name and he looks over his list. "One ticket?"

Yup. Just me on my lonesome. As ever.

Theatrical marathons as not a way to make friends. Or even keep friends...

"We'll be opening in about ten minutes," he says, handing me an admission pass from the box. "Take a drink because it gets warm up there."

My eyebrows shoot up. "Greaattt," I say, my keenness levels dropping fast. I've seen what happens when pub theatre's get warm. It's not fun.

Knowing what I know, and seeing what I've seen, you'd think I'd follow his advice and get a drink.

But I'm a stingy fucker, and still smarting from the money I dropped at Opera Holland Park, so I head out to the courtyard instead, and find a posing table to lean against and catch what little breeze I can.

The sun is still up and the bants-game is strong out here.

I let my attention wander while proofreading a blog-post, listening in to all the chatter going on around me.

I love listening to theatre chatter. Especially fringe theatre chatter. It's so marvellously unself aware of all the gossip being laid down in public.

A woman just a few feet away from me is an actor, and she is bringing stories to her table.

Stories that I will not be repeating.

"How long does it take to pick up tickets?" she adds, presumably realising that the show tonight is not about her.

"No time at all," says one of her attentive audience members.

"Like a minute, or...?”

They debate back and forth on the length of time it takes to give your name at box office. Long enough to have actually gone inside, given a name, and got an admission pass. Three times over.

She eventually decides to stop with this procrastination and actually get her ticket. Returning all of thirty seconds later.

"There's no upstairs bar," she announces, scandalised, on her return. "Maybe we should get drinks now?"

Her group agree that drinks now is a good idea.

"I know someone in the play," she says. "So afterwards I'll have to say hello, tell them it was fantastic... So... maybe drink first?"

For once I'm not annoyed to be in an audience of people who know the cast. Fuck. This level of cynicism is feeding my soul with pure hell-grown ambrosia.

The group head back in. Presumably to gain liquid-enthusiasm from the bar.

I join the queue that is heading up the stairs, as apparently, the house has opened without my noticing.

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There's a ticket checker at the top, and I give her my admission pass.

"Would you like a programme?" she says, holding out a folded piece of paper.

You bet I would.

"Sit anywhere you like," she offers, with a wave of her hand.

I go in.

Gosh. Cabaret style. Again. That's two pub theatres in a row with it.

Not quite as pleasing as the set up at RamJam. The tables are plasticky and red instead of the mismatched wood over at Kingston. It's also a bit more on the squishy side here.

And as we know, there's no bar up here. So, we won't be getting table service. Someone that I've never understood when combined with this setup. Like seriously, what's the point of all these tables if you aren't going to bring me a drink?

No matter. I have more pressing things to think on. Like, where am I going to sit?

While the tables are taking up most of the room, there seems to be a raised section at the back with a more traditional format. With chairs set out in rows. I could sit there. I should sit there, really, considering that I'm here alone. Leave the tables to the groups.

But like... I'm here to get the full Canal Cafe experience. And I'm an arse.

So I take one of the tables at the back.

It's a double table. Two of them pushed together. Because that's the type of mood I'm in right now.

But as the theatre begins to fill up, and the tables get claimed, a couple of people join me at mine. And that's fine. I guess.

Across the room, I hear the tiny chink of spoon against saucer. I look over a see a man with a literal teapot and teacup, set down neatly on a tray. He even has an itty bitty milk jug sat on one side.

The Canal Cafe may not have a bar up here, but they sure as hell are living up to their name.

I'm finally seeing the purpose of the cabaret tables.

It's not for the wine glasses (although the table next to me appears to have their bottle cooling in an actual ice bucket right now). Oh no. It's for cream teas and theatre. I mean, granted, there are no scones on his tray. At least none that I can see. But the potential is there. I've always been fairly against the idea of mixing tea with theatre. I think it's weird. But I suspect what really puts me off is the sight of lines of people struggling with the samovar and then not being able to figure out what to do with their cup. This tray thing is a game-changer.

"Sorry," says the ticket checker, grabbing the back of one of the spare chairs at my table. "I've just got two coming up who need to sit here."

And sure enough, two people come into the theatre and take the two spare chairs.

I appear to now be sitting at the table of misfit toys. A raggle-taggle bunch made up of the friendless, and the watchless.

As I wait for the show to kick-off, I have a look at the programme. Well, we know it's a freesheet. But I appreciate the effort. Pity it didn't go as far as running off a test copy, because once again we're seeing the dreaded "forgot to click the flip-on-short-edge checkbox." No matter. I like reading things upside down.

It's an interesting freesheet actually. The biographies of characters are mixed in with the cast, so there's a brief moment when you're left wondering which drama school Mary the Maid went to, or what position the actor Laura Gamble had in the royal household. As for the writer of Brandy, Matthew Davies, he has forgone all attempts at a biography and instead spends a solid paragraph telling us that Queen Anne has been forgotten to British history. Yes, that Queen. The one which Saint Olivia Colman won an Oscar for playing only last year. That Queen Anne. Okay, Matthew Davies. You do you, I suppose. Don't let Hollywood get in the way of a neglected-narrative narrative.

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The ticket checker closes the curtain, blocking the bright light from the stairwell, and then disappears into the tech booth. Gosh. I wonder if she also has to serve the tea.

As the lights dim, a woman sitting a table ahead of me loudly shifts her chair over to the right, blocking the view of someone at my table. I'm outraged on behalf of the misfits, but not for long. Because the play is beginning, and there is some serious big-dress action going on over there on stage.

The 18th-century really knew how to fashion. The silks. The panniers. The wigs!

Bring back petticoats, that's what I say. Even better, crinolines.

Might make getting on the tube a bit awkward, but just think of the personal space we'd gain. Rando strangers wouldn't be able to get within ten feet before bumping their ankles against the metal hoops hidden under our skirts.

Light floods into the theatre as the curtains are pulled back one more. The box officer is there, with two latecomers. He indicates they should go in, and as soon as they step in from the landing, he closes the curtain behind them, sealing them in with us.

They stand there, at the side of the room, blinking in the darkness, looking around as they try to locate spare seats.

Sensing their trauma, the ticket checker, or should I say the tech person, emerges from her box and leads them both to the back.

There's a small cry as one of them fails to find her seat. But they must have settled, because the tech person returns to her box, and I hear no more signs of distress from the back.

Although, I might be feeling a little bit of it myself. Only a few minutes in, and I'm already seeing the problem with this play. The stage may be raised, but not quite enough to lift the bed-bound Queen Anne into visibility about all the crowded heads of those sitting around tables.

I lean back against the wall, finding a slither of sight-line that cuts across the room, and there I stay.

But as Mary the Maid and Queen Anne dismiss each other, I'm startled as the curtains up once more. This time it is not the box officer standing on the other side. The silhouette is altogether more dramatic.

There are panniers. Wide ones.

It's Sarah Churchill. Or rather Zoe Teverson in the role of Churchill. As played by Rachel Weisz in that film we're all supposed to have collectively forgotten.

She stalks through the tables towards to stage, paying the audience as little mind as if we were peasants clinging to the bottom of her shoe.

Her great height has her souring after the heads of the audience. As she bends down to pour herself a glass of brandy, I realise this whole arrangement was a clever directorial decision. By blocking the view, our attention is fully diverted towards Churchill. Just as every head in Queen Anne's court must be have turned towards this self-made woman.

Brilliant.

As the house lights go up, and the tech person emerges from her booth to pull open the curtain, there is a distinct lack of movement towards the exit. This is something I've noticed about fringe theatre. No one likes leaving.

Well, screw this, I'm going home.

I stomp my way down the stairs, followed by precisely no one.

Reaching the foyer once more, I turn around for one last look.

Still not sure about that sketch show, but I think I could be tempted to fork out one pound fifty on a membership card in order to come back. If only to sample the cream teas.

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The pits

Rain! Oh, glorious, beautiful, cooling rain. I am completely soaked after legging it from Edgeware Road station and I don’t even care. I may have flashed several drivers as a very insistent gust of wind worked its way under my skirt, and I’m not even slightly embarrassed. The studs are coming unstuck from my boots after traipsing through a puddle and… okay, that bothers me slightly. But it’s not hot anymore, and this fact alone is enough to send me skipping off to the next theatre on my list: The Cockpit.

When I saw this place was in Marylebone, somehow I didn’t picture what looks like an office-block left over from the seventies as my destination. But here we are, and there the Cockpit is in all its long rectangular windowed glory.

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Still, I’m feeling very positive about tonight. That Salome I saw at the Brunel Museum, the one with Sexy John the Baptist? Yup, that was a Cockpit production. And they sent a really super confirmation email. I don’t talk about confirmation emails nearly enough. Mainly because most of them are super boring and follow similar formats: directions, start times, all that guff. Usually, the only time I even think about confirmation emails is when I am getting annoyed at them for not including the postcode of the bloody fucking venue in them… but it’s fine. All fine.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that theatres rarely use the confirmation email as an opportunity for creativity. Oh yeah, they might make the background yellow, or include an image if they’re feeling frisky, but there’s a traditional format for these things, and they tend not to go off book.

Not so the Cockpit. At first glance it might look exactly the same as every confirmation email that you’ve ever received after booking theatre tickets online, but that only makes the reward of actually reading it all the sweeter. Categories are subdivided into “the ticket collection bit” and “the access bit,” clearly taking their cues from the Friends episode naming conventions. The tone is friendly. The advice clear. And at the bottom, they sign off with a bonus section “Treat-for-reading-to-the-bottom-bit,” which admittedly is only a pile of restaurant suggestions, but is written so charmingly that I almost do want to use the 10% discount for Cockpit patrons that’s on offer.

Anyway, best go inside now.

There’s a small, square, foyer, with the box office on the right, set behind a glass window.

I give my name to the young woman sitting behind it.

“Here you go,” she says, sliding the ticket under the glass without further question.

Well, that was easy.

From here, I guess I suppose I’m supposed to go through the doors.

There’s another foyer through here, although it’s the strangest theatre foyer I’ve even been in. Tucked away on the left is the bar. Straight ahead are the doors leading to the auditorium. And everywhere else…

I begin to think I must have got turn around somewhere and accidentally walked into a dentists’ waiting room. There’s a painting on the wall which seems to be of a hamster helping two showgirls wind up some pink wool. Benches, a table, and a counter running across one wall are made of something that looks a cow gave birth to a block of marble. There are plants. And macramé potholders. There are fish tanks. Two of them. With handwritten instructions not to tap the glass. And most terrifying of all, there’s a mannequin lurking in the corner, wearing a scarf and a beanie and advertising a Jazz in the Round t-shirt, which apparently costs fifteen pounds.

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Whoever writes the confirmation emails is clearly also in charge of the signage, as a laminated sign indicating that drinks can be taken into the auditorium is followed up by a bracketed note that “if you bring them back to the bar at the end of the show, we’ll love you for it.”

The one pinned to what looks like a broken chair, and leant against the barrier closing off the theatre doors, has less in the way of amusing brackets, but does at least promise the ringing of a bell when the doors open.

There are also sofas. Covered with red sheets. I try not to contemplate what the sheets may be covering as I sink into an armchair. And sink. And continue to sink.

I don’t think I have ever been hugged so completely as I have by this chair.

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It’s too much. I can’t cope with this level of intimacy. I get up again and go to stand over by the cow-print counter.

From my new position, I watch as a woman examines the armchair and then, putting down her bag on the ground, goes to sit down. I watch, fascinated, as she sinks further and further into its red embrace. A second later, she’s up again, looking at the chair. I can feel her having the same thought processes as me. The cogs spin, and then clunk into place, decision made, she comes to stand next to me at the dairy counter. The refuge of the chair-hugged.

The sofas however, they seem to be safe. A couple sitting over by the wall are having a great time on theirs. Chatting away, either not noticing or not caring that every minute sees them slipping further into the upholstered innards.

Just as I’m beginning to suspect that this might all be a fever dream caused by the dramatic change in weather, there’s a very loud clang of a theatre bell.

“Ladies and gents, the house is now open.”

The couple pull themselves up from the sofa, and the people sitting over in the bar section make their way over to the theatre doors.

I join the queue.

“Just down the stairs and on the right,” says the ticket checker as he tears my ticket. Before adding a dark warning about not talking photos.

Oh dear.

Through the door, down the stairs, and on the right, and gosh – the Cockpit is a lot bigger than I expected.

Perhaps it was the macramé that threw me off, but I was thinking this place was going to be a pocky studio. But it’s nothing of the sort. There’s fixed seating on three sides, long benches that stack up in raked rows. The stage is floor level. A glass tech box hangs high overhead on one wall.

There are freesheets sat waiting for us on the seats. Always a sign of a quality theatre in my experience. They’ve neglected to place any on the front row, which to me demonstrates a clear understanding of their audiences.

There’s already actors on stage, which may go someone to explain the no photography rule. It certainly can’t be the set, as that seems to be entirely composed of the contents of a rubbish bin, strewn across the floor.

I pick my way around the edge of the stage, to get to the other side. And find a spot in the second row.

The bench cushion slips out of place as I sit down. I shift my weight in an attempt to bring it back into line, but that only sends the other side flying off the edge of the bench.

I resolve to sit very still.

The show’s only an hour. It’s another Camden Fringer. So I won’t have to be here long.

I’m watching Earthbound, which from the show description all sounds a bit surreal with a dash of sci-fi.

The sound design is entirely in support of that, with a series of ethereal beeps making the parts of my brain that definitely believe in aliens stand up and point and say: “I told you so!”

Just as my legs decide that they too want to get in on the action, and start preparing for the journey to Nevada to join in with the mission to storm Area 51 that has taken over Facebook, the play begins.

Four characters all come to an abandoned mine in order to getting some thinking done. As we all do when we have stuff on our minds, I’m sure. All driven by loneliness and the need for answers, they come to perhaps the loneliest place of all. And there they find: Violet. A girl in a silly hat, who only speaks in echoes, leaving confusion and attraction in her wake. They bring her gifts, offer her cake, and flowers, and to take her away from this place. But she is as apprehensive as she is enigmatic.

An hour later, I still don’t understand what’s going on. But I’ve found out the words to Where have all the flowers gone, and got a hankering for some dungarees, so that’s something.

On the way out, I snap a picture of the theatre.

I’m a rebel, you see.

Especially after the front of house staff have gone out.

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I live here on the corner, I am sucking in the fumes

It’s the start of Camden Fringe today! To celebrate, I’m watching a show that is not in Camden. And not the one I’d actually booked to see.

I was supposed to be at 365 tonight, a play I know nothing about other than it was going to be performed in the Phoenix Arts Club, which, let me tell you, is a tricky venue to pin down. But the show was cancelled. Giving me a Monday off. Now I can’t be wasting a Monday night on Netflix, not when I still have over a hundred more theatres to get to, so I checked back in on the fringe, and found Class, a verbatim play, opening at the Tristan Bates. A West End theatre, as I’m sure you know. But only by way of its location. I would class it as a fringe venue really. Not that I’ve ever been.

The Tristan Bates has always confused me. Mostly because, even though I know where it is, right on the corner of Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I’ve never worked out how to get in. There’s the big square sign right there. But with a cafe on one side, and what looks like the entrance to the flats above on the other, I’ve been left with the impression that it must be some Platform 9 3/4 situation.

Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to work it out.

As I stand there, on that corner between Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I take my photos of the building, and realise maybe, that big yellow neon sign saying the actors centre, was where I was meant to be.

I have no idea what the actors centre is (lower case-ness and lack of apostrophe is all on them), but I have some vague recollection of seeing the logo on the Tristan Bates website while booking my ticket. So, that’s probably an indication that I should follow the yellow neon sign.

Inside, there’s a desk. It could be a box office. Hard to tell.

“I’m here to pick up a ticket…?” I say, letting the question mark drop into place at the end of my very hesitant sentence.

“Yes?”

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering how long we can keep this question-rally going before one of us hits a full stop right into the net.

The woman behind the counter looks something up on her computer before reaching into a small box. Admission tokens! Oh good. I made it.

I’m feeling rather over-confident now that I know I’m in the right place, so I attempt to lob over a difficult one.

“Is there a freesheet?” I ask.

The box officer gives me the kind of look that makes me think I just accidentally asked for an autographed photo of Trump, in the act of Tweeting on his golden throne.

I press on. “Like, a cast sheet?” The look of confused horror doesn’t clear. “It doesn’t matter if there isn’t,” I add hurriedly. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“No,” says the other lady behind the counter, hurredly getting up and coming out from behind the desk. “But we do have this.” She grabs one of the flyers from the rack and hands it to me. “It’s just a flyer,” she explains.

“That’s perfect, thank you!” I tell her. And it is perfect. There’s a cast list on the back. And a run down of the creatives. It’s everything I need on one smart piece of card.

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Now that’s sorted, I’m directed over to the bar. Down a small ramp, and around the corner.

It’s a bit nice in here. Cocktails are advertised as £5.50. There’s a box full of KitKats and Bounty Bars on display. And over on the other side, sofas are lined with a yellow brick wall and rows and rows of books.

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The sofas are taken, so I set up shop at the counter overlooking them. Thankfully, there’s a step underneath to help my launch myself up onto the bar stool – always a challenge for me, being on the smaller side and rather inept when it comes to balance.

Through the glass doors on the far wall, people come in and out, greeting those waiting on the sofas with hugs and kisses, and my heart begins to sink. It’s going to be one of those audiences, isn’t it? Where everyone knows everyone, and they are all connected to someone involved in the production. Great fun to be in those ranks. Really unpleasant when you’re the outsider.

An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen the doors are now open to...” I can't make out the rest. If they include instructions as to the location of the theatre, I can’t hear them.

I glance around, but no one else is moving. My neighbours on the counter haven’t even looked up.

Am I meant to go through the glass doors? They don’t look very likely. But then nothing about this place has looked very likely.

The box officer appears. “Are you here for the show?” she asks the group on the sofa. “The doors are now open.” They muddle to their feet, and then the box officer comes over to the counter. “Hello ladies! Did you hear the announcement? The doors are now open.”

Turns out the doors are back the way we came. Round the corner, up the ramp, past the box office and round. There’s a door lurking down here, with a chalkboard giving the show times. 7.45 - Class. The other time slots are all empty.

Through the door, and we’re in.

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It’s a neat little theatre. Brick walls painted black. A floor level stage. Loose chairs, but set on a raked platform.

I decide it’s time to return to my traditional seating choice: the end of the third row.

Bit of squidging past the person already in, but the seats are alright once you’re sat down. Leg room isn’t great, but hey, it’s the fringe! Shows are short, and being ever so slightly uncomfortable is part of the experience.

Lights dim, and the cast come on. Alyce Louise-Potter and Kelsey Short. All dungerees and earnest smiles.

They have earphones in. I can see the white wires dangling. No airpod nonsense here. They begin speaking, echoing the voices playing in their ears. They’re being interviewed. On the subject of class. What it is. What they define themselves as. Working class, it seems. That’s how this pair consider themselves.

With a switch from flat caps to retro fast food paper hats, they become a new pair. These ones aren’t so sure about their class. Working or middle? Hard to tell. One owns her own house, she says proudly. With five bedrooms. You can’t do that if you’re working class.

She’s not wrong.

Perhaps there are only two classes nowdays. The home owners and the home loanees. Everything else is pedantry. Accent. Education. How you hold your knife. All irrelevant in the face of an ability to acquire a mortgage.

On they go, switching it up, becoming different people as they wade through this quagmire of the class system, covering accents and jobs and stereotypes and pride.

It’s so refreshing to hear class being talked about with such openness and honestly, in the words of real people and not playwrights. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of verbatim theatre. Most people are quite dull without the and of a good editor. I mean, they’re probably not. I’m just a useless conversationalist and never know the right questions to ask. So like, I totally admit me finding people boring is entirely my own fault. That doesn’t stop me from having trouble listening to the chatter if strangers though.

But here the interactions are so fast, the bonds between the pairs so palpable, and the actors, so charming, I can’t help but smile as they wade into the family history of unnamed strangers.

Plus, it’s a fringe show. So it’s only a hour. Which is a mega bonus and aligns well with my in-bed-by-ten philosophy.

As we head out, everyone turns left, making their way back to the bar. They’re going to be making a night of it. No doubt they’ll joined by members of the production soon enough.

As for me, all on my lonesome and not friends with anyone in the cast, I go straight forward, pushing the door open and stepping back onto the corner between Earlham Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.

If I race for the tube, I might just make it back to Hammersmith before the clock strikes 9.30.