It reminds me, that it's not so bad, it's not so bad

I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not from London originally. I grew up in the arse-end of Somerset, in a house on-top of a hill, almost completely surrounded by woodland. Through the small gap in the trees we had a view of an 11th century church and, on a clear day, Glastonbury Tor. For the majority of my childhood, my only choice of footwear was my black school shoes, and my green wellies. I didn’t own a coat that wasn’t waxed until I was at university.

My village didn’t have a shop. There was the church, of course. Open one Sunday a month, and on Christmas Eve. A pay-phone at the bottom of the hill. A post-box. And cows. Lots of cows. During long summers, they would grow restless and break the fences, storming into our garden and baying at the moon until I was sent out in the middle of the night, a Barbor jacket slung over my pyjamas, to knock on the doors of the local farms, until I found the farmer responsible and convince him to come over, all grumbling and tired, and fetch his livestock home.

In the morning we would wake up to find the grass overturned by hoof prints. The flowers trodden down. And the dog in hysterics.

Still, the cows invading was better than when the hunt came through. They were technically banned from crossing our land (we were always a friend of the foxes), but they never listened. They would burst through the hedges, leaping over fences to cross our fields, leaving chaos and my mother’s curses in their wake.

Curses that would be repeated bloodily down the phone to the water company whenever our supply ran out, like clockwork, every August. Great lorry loads would inch their way up the tiny lane towards our house to deliver bottles of the stuff, to tide us over until the water tanks could be refilled.

The power-companies weren’t so easily bullied. We were often left without electricity for days on end whenever the lines went down.

Anyway, this long nostalgia-fest is just my way of telling you that there definitely wasn’t a theatre. I didn’t see my first proper, professionally-staged, play until I was fourteen, on a school trip.

I thought it was dreadful.

I didn’t go again until I was well in my twenties.

All this is to say, I don’t have only fond memories of going to the theatre as a child to draw on in this marathon.

When my native London friends get all misty-eyed over the Polka or the Half Moon, I’m left to counter with tales of the Bath and West show, or the local sheep dog trials.

As I arrive at the Unicorn Theatre this sunny Saturday afternoon, it is my first ever visit to the famous London Bridge venue.

After the pokiness of the Polka, I’m surprised by just have vast this place is. And modern. And bright.

Stepping through the automatic doors, I’m met by a photographic mural of swimming goldfish, which does rather make me wonder about the huge glass windows.

“Are you here for Dido?” an usher in a purple polo shirt asks me, in the gentle voice of someone who is used to a rather younger clientele.

I tell her that I am, and she directs me towards the box office.

She doesn’t look surprised that a grown up woman has turned up to a kids’ theatre without a little one in tow.

It doesn’t take me long to figure out why.

There aren’t any children here.

I look around as I wait to pick up my ticket.

This place is packed with grown-ups.

A few months ago, back when I was booking my ticket, I’d spent whole minutes debating whether the age guidance of 11 - adult was inclusive of adults, or if it had a cut off before the age of majority. But, by the looks of it, the fully-grown population of London have had no such qualms.

Now, I don’t know much about the story of Dido, it’s a long time since my (limited) classical education, but I presumed, it being a co-production with this most illustrious of kids’ theatres, that it would be suitable for children.

Finally, it’s my turn at the box office, and my eyes land on a sign balanced next to the freesheets. “Dido’s suicide will be presented on stage,” it reads.

Dido’s suicide?

What the hell is this opera?

I grab a freesheet, and a synopsis (which for some reason are two separate documents) and start reading.

Dido, queen of Carthage… blah blah blah… love… gods… rejection… kills herself. What the actual fuck.

Who wrote this thing?

Henry Purcell.

Oh. I mean…. Okay.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Henry Purcell. Adore him. The Baroque era is totally my jam. You can keep Stravinsky’s angry strings, and Britten’s boring drones. I love the orderliness of Handel and Vivaldi and Corelli and Bach. Well, not so much Bach. Johann Sebastian can do one, quite frankly. But the others, for sure.

Plus, after a sneaky non-marathon trip to catch the new Larbi piece at the Opera House, I had fallen in love again with Purcell’s Cold Song, and was keen to hear more.

But for an eleven year old?

I don’t know, man. This whole thing doesn’t strike me as particularly adapté aux enfants. And I say that as the type of pretentious wanker who can’t say ‘suitable for children’ in English like a normal person.

The house isn’t open yet, so I have time to wander around.

It’s really nice here.

There are vinyls on the floor instructing you JUMP and GIGGLE. I bet parents love the one saying HAVE AN ICE CREAM.

I manage to convince myself that if you perform all the actions, in the exact right way, and in the exact right order, a portal into some magical other world will open and take you off for a fantastic adventure.

I must have done it wrong, because when I gaze at the ceiling, by order of the vinyl message to LOOK UP, I see nothing but white up there.

I knew I should have bought an ice cream.

Oh well.

The house is open now, and we begin the long traipse up three floors worth of steps, past little balconies full of toys, and a deconstructed piano.

The ushers are all primed with freesheets and plastic cups, wet wipes, and indulgent smiles. Slightly strained looking indulgent smiles to be honest, as if they don’t quite know how to deal with a pile of opera-fans brandishing pink ENO tickets instead of their usual clientele.

Round the corner, through the door, and there it is. The Weston Theatre.

It’s big. Much bigger than I expected.

Much bluer too.

The seating is curved round a thrust stage, which goes back and back and back into the far distance. And I’m suddenly jealous of everyone who grew up in London and got to enjoy shows on this massive stage instead of splattering their way through cowpats in order to drag their dog away from a very aggressive badger.

The cast are already out there, warming up their voices and their bodies. One lady is sprawled on the floor, twisted her hips, first one way, then the other.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of set, but there are what looks like three conifer trees hanging from the lighting rig, and I am very excited about them.

As I lean forward to get a better look at these arboreal flying wonders, the pages of the freesheet cascade from my knee onto the floor.

I crouch down, off my seat, scrabbling to pick them up.

Damn booklet wasn’t stapled.

I shove the folded pages back together and stow it safely in my bag.

Just in time. The lights are dimming.

The harpsicord strikes up a tune. Oh, that’s the stuff.

But just as I am about to lose myself in the lush geometry of Purcell’s music, I realise something.

I can’t make out what the hell this lot are singing about.

One scene rolls into another. Dido (I think that’s Dido) sips wine while curled up in a very uncomfortable looking armchair. A great sprawl of fake grass is rolled out. The trees decend from the heavens. There’s a picnic. Dido’s bloke takes over a glass of champagne to the conductor (she sniffs it delicately before placing it on the ground, untouched). Dido’s bloke then stands at the front of the stage and gets rained on. I think this is my queue to feel sad.

“What’s going on,” whispers a small voice from a few rows behind me.

I await the answer eagerly. I could do with some help on the matter too.

No reply comes, though whether this is due to the small voice’s caregiver wanting to respect the code of audience silence, or the lack of an answer, I cannot tell you.

A few minutes later, the small voice asks again: “What’s happening?”

I don’t know, kid. I just don’t know.

What is happening? Or rather, what happened to make the people at the Unicorn and ENO think that a child’s version of Dido was something needed to be staged?

As Dido takes a total of three pills before lying on the ground to die I can’t help but question: Who asked for this? And why?

And why didn’t they staple the damn freesheet?

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Messing around on boats

Brr, it’s cold.

No like, properly freezing.

And entirely the wrong day to be heading down to the canal and hang out on a barge.

“It’s been snowing,” said Helen, bundled up in padded coat as we met by the waterside. Her huge fur-trimmed hood nodded in the direction of the ice that clung to the base of the wall next to us.

So, yes, it was really effin’ cold.

We looked from the ice, to the brightly-coloured barge, and back again.

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“Do they have heating?” asked Helen.

“I think so,” I said doubtfully. “But the website said to wear layers.”

I wasn’t wearing layers.

After my attack of the vapours on Friday’s trip to the Wanamaker, I was a little nervous about putting my heattech back on. It was just me, my dress, and my coat, against the elements.

And we were shivering.

“Let’s go inside.”

We made out way up the short gangway and onto the deck.

It was beautiful there. Moored right in the middle of Little Venice, the water was surrounded by massive stucco-fronted buildings on all sides.

The water churned as boats thrummed their way past.

The air had that sharp whiteness that comes when you’re near a really cold expanse of water.

Gorgeous.

But my knees were starting to freeze solid.

As I opened the door, a waft of warm air spilled out. Good. They had heating.

And tea.

I could see people swarming around with cups at the bottom of the steep staircase that led down into the body of the Puppet Theatre Barge.

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Tea has always struck me as a strange substance to consume at the theatre. I was really weirded out by the ubiquitous presence of it at the Orange Tree, but here, on this boat, surrounded by so much frigid water, it seemed right. Proper even. Necessary.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” offered Helen as we queued for tickets at the counter that also served as the bar. I wasn't the only one feeling the need for hot drinks.

I thought about it. I did want tea. But there was something else on the menu that sounded even more appealing. “You know what, I’d really like a hot chocolate.”

“Can we take our drinks in?” Helen asked one of the black-clad ushers.

We could.

Hot chocolates, ticket (just the one needed), and programme (£1) acquired, we were led by another black-clad usher into the theatre itself.

Rows and rows of steeply raked benches, facing the tiniest stage I had ever seen.

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While seats aren’t assigned, rows are, and we were directed to the correct one and instructed to shift ourselves to the end, where we wriggled ourselves out of our coats and then set ourselves upon our hot chocolates, letting the warmth seep into our bones and drive it the brittle cold.

What remained, was soon melted by the play.

A collective sigh of appreciation rose up from the barged audience as the first puppet appeared, and never really went away. It hovered amongst us, reveling in the charm that poured out from that tiny stage, inhabited by the clinking wooden puppets.

The Butterfly’s Spell, by Federico Garcia Lorca. Yes, the guy who wrote Yerma also wrote a play about a beetle falling in love with an injured butterfly.

“He sure had range,” I observed during the interval.

But perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Who else could have prevented such a sweet tale from devolving into schmaltz?

The woman working the box office came over. “Can I take your cups from you?” she asked. “We’ve run out at the front.”

The rush for more tea and biscuits must have been considerable.

No wonder. By that point the effects of my hot chocolate were wearing off and I dug out my scarf to put around my shoulders.

As the audience filled back in for the second act, I noticed something.

I looked around just to check.

Yup.

We were all grown-ups.

Not a single child to be seen.

I would have thought a 3pm performance on a Sunday would have been the ideal time to take a child to see a puppet-show on a barge. But perhaps only the childless can be convinced to throw off their duvet on such a wintery day in order to spend their afternoon on a boat.

Their loss.

At the end, the puppeteers came out for their bows.

I recognised them.

They were the same black-clad figures who had led us all to our seats.

“I fucking loved that,” I said, as our applause died down. “So fucking charming.”

Helen agreed.

We started plotting the casting for a ballet version. 

The entire experience was magical. I’m definitely going back. I need more magic in my life.

I just need to remember my heattech.

But there was no time to dwell on the experience. I had somewhere else to be. It was a two-show day, and I was heading off to Waterloo for my first trip to the Vault Festival… and the dreaded Unit 9.

At least there was cake...

There aren’t many people out and about this early on a Saturday morning.

Most sensible people are still tucked up in bed, or perhaps if they are real go-getters, they’ve managed to stagger downstairs in search of tea, and perhaps toast.

They’re not sitting on a tube on their way to the opposite end of London.

They’re not like me.

But hey, sensible people don’t go in for theatre marathons. They’re missing out.

I mean, not on sleep. Or hot dinners. Or that James Graham Brexit show that I still haven’t seen. Or spending time with people that love them.

They’re not missing out on any of those things.

But they are missing out on that super-charged feeling that comes from seeing too much theatre crammed into a very short space of time, with all your emotions fizzing away just under your skin so strongly that you almost crackle as you walk.

Believe me, it’s worth it.

And I’m not just saying that to make you feel jealous. I’m saying it in order to convince myself.

It’s not working.

I miss sleep.

At least I had the carriage to myself. And a chance to read. Which is almost as good as sleep.

That was, until two young lads hopped on. I call them lads because that’s what they were. A bit lary. Still obviously drunk from the night before. And very loud.

“Oof, fuck man,” said one as he collapsed into a seat.

“Fuck man,” agreed the other.

“Fucking Stockwell,” continued the first.

“Where the fucking fuck is fucking Stockwell?”

I sympathised. I’ve had similar feelings about West Norwood recently.

“Excuse me, Miss,” said one, leaning so far forward that his shadow fell over my book. He was talking to me.

I looked up.

“Do you know where Stockwell is?”

Now I don’t react well to geography quizzes. We all know that the whole knowing-where-places-are isn’t exactly my forte. Especially early on a Saturday morning. I do however know that Stockwell is on the Northern Line, and we were rapidly approaching it.

“Sorry,” I said, not risking my small amount of Stockwell-knowledge lest it lead to more complex questioning.

“Fuck me,” was the lad’s sad reply. “We’re from Margate,” he added, as if that explained everything. “And we’re trying to get back.”

“I think you need a train station for that,” I offered, as helpfully as I could.

“Yeah, but which one?”

You see? Never offer knowledge. It always leads to more questions.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“We’ve been going around for four hours.”

“That’s not what you want on a Saturday morning,” I said in lieu of anything useful to add.

“Fuck. It’s Saturday? Did you hear that? Fuck.”

“At least it’s not Sunday morning,” said his friend.

“Right. At least it’s not Sunday,” he said, just as the lady on the tannoy announced that Stockwell would be the next station.

They stumbled out onto the platform and disappeared.

I hope they got home okay.

I however, had a long day ahead of me.

First stop: Wimbledon. At the Polka Theatre for the morning show. Hence the early start.

I’m going to take a moment here to thank everyone out there who has been helping me on my mission. From those who have been linking me to theatres that I’ve missed (I swear I’ll do a recount soon, I just… can’t face upping the number of theatres I need to get to quite yet), to warning me about closures.

Today’s shout out goes to the lovely @RhianBWatts, who gave me the heads up that the famous children’s theatre, the Polka, is shutting its doors for refurbishment soon.

With day-time shows, and only a few weekends left before they went dark, I had to get there fast.

Thankfully I have a friend who lives down there who offered to meet me for pre-theatre tea and cake to help prepare me for the horrors that were sure to follow.

Pre-theatre for me, that is. Not my friend.

While Ellen is supportive of my whole marathon thing, she’s not so supportive that she was prepared to go to a kids’ show on a Saturday morning. She is one of those sensible people.

And anyway, Ellen had been to the Polka before. As a child. So was able to give me all those charming details you get from people who have a proper connection to a place. Like the tale of how she got fired from a face-painting job there when she was 12 years old.

Oh, ummm… Okay.

That was slightly less charming that I had expected.

There was also one about the sea-monster coat hooks.

“Terrifying.”

Ah.

It didn’t put her off walking me to the theatre though (told you she was a good friend. I rather like being walked places. Although, perhaps given my recent propensity to get lost, she felt the need to do so as some sort of civic duty. Still, I liked it. Theatres should start offering it as a service.)

While I waited at box office to pick up my ticket, Ellen went off to investigate the state of the sea-monster.

“One ticket?” asked the woman at box office, holding the single ticket with a concerned look on her face.

“Yes, just the one,” I apologised. I know how it looks. Being there. By myself. At a kids' show. On a Saturday morning.

I had thought about borrowing a child to take with me, but 1) I don't know any that are of the right age, and 2) I believe it's frowned upon to borrow children you don’t know.

And anyway, there has to be hundreds of blogs out there from people taking children to the Polka Theatre. I doubt I can offer any interesting insight beyond what is already out there. But a fully grown-adult going to a see a show made for five year olds all by herself? Now that's a blog post worth writing.

So, I’m not even going to apologise for being the creepy lady at the show.

Okay… I’m sorry for being the creepy lady at the show.

“They’ve repainted the sea-monster,” Ellen announced when we re-found each other. “It’s not as scary anymore,” she added, sounding a little annoyed by this. I can understand that. I don’t see why kids today don’t have to suffer through the nightmare fodder that we did back in the day.

After an inspection of the courtyard to see if the giant climbable cat was still there (it wasn’t) Ellen and I parted ways. From here on in, I was on my own. To watch The Wind in the Willows. By myself. In a theatre full of happy toddlers and their associated adults.

So, what is it like watching a show at the Polka, by yourself, as a grown up?

Weird. Like… super weird.

But not unpleasant.

I actually really enjoyed the show. There were puppets and singing and jokes. And the programmes are only three quid, and packed with fun activities (how to make a water bottle flower!) and facts after animals (did you know that moles are actually super arsey twats with poisonous spit? I love them).

But I would say there are two things I don’t like about the Polka. Number one - it was really fucking cold. Like seriously, freezing. And number two - the rake is terrible. I noticed this because of how low I had to slink in my seat in order to hide my shame at being an unaccompanied adult. So low I was almost child size. I don’t think the theatre designers thought this one through…

But perhaps that will be fixed in the refurbishment.

Oh, and I was handed a prop during the show. The battery to Mr Toad’s car. I had to pass it along the line so that poor Mr Toad couldn’t get it. So mean.

That’s three things I don’t like about the Polka.

Following the show, there was a chance to take a tour of the theatre. Which was something I was tempted to do. For ghost-hunting reasons.

12 days into my marathon, and I still hadn’t seen a theatre ghost. Surely, lucky theatre number 13 would be the one!

Now I know what you’re thinking: Maxine, you’re at the Polka. Not the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. You’re going about this all wrong. You’re not going to find a ghost in the playroom.

But it is you who is wrong, my friend.

The Polka does have a ghost. And I have it on no greater authority that the Polka’s twitter feed.

But once again, the ghosts failed to introduce themselves to me. I was left spurned, and alone, once again.

Four things. Four things I dislike about the Polka.

Rude ghosts.

Well, I didn’t want to see them anyway. Besides, I had somewhere else to be. A matinee in east London.

“Another theatre?” I hear you cry. “But this blog post is already far too long!”

I know. I’m sorry. But we can do this. Together. Just stick with me for a few more words. I swear I’ll keep it as short as I can.

Right, so instead of spending my afternoon ghost-hunting, I was on the DLR. Which I think we can all agree is also pretty good. Riding the DLR a rare pleasure for me, even if the rollercoaster movement of the trains make me feel a bit sick. What with the ground sinking down below you as you pass between skyscrapers. Makes my stomach go all funny.

After the trauma of trying to find The Yard yesterday, I made sure to read The Space’s ‘how to get here’ instructions very carefully. And I know I promised, not three paragraphs ago, that I was going to be brief, but let’s just press pause on this post for one second while I rhapsodise about their directions because they are brilliant. Well written. Clear. Concise (unlike me). Just perfect.

They carried me through right from the train (not just the station, the actual effin’ train), along the platform, up the stairs, down the wall, around the corner and right to the door of the theatre (opposite the Rose Food and Wine, donchaknow). To whoever wrote them, I give my heartfelt thanks. There was not a single moment in my journey where I felt lost or anxious or was in any doubt that I was heading in the right direction. Whoever you are, you are perfect and I appreciate you.

Right, where was I? Apart from not getting lost I mean.

The Space. Okay.

The Space is in a converted church, with the tiniest foyer in the world. I had to step in and step out more than once as people tried to get past from inside the theatre in order to head up the stairs. There’s really only space for one person to stand in front of the box office hatch (it really is a hatch, a tiny slither in the wall where you can just about catch a glimpse of the person sitting on the other side) and nothing else.

Once you collect your ticket, you really have to head back outside, or else spend your time sucking in your tummy and hugging the walls as everyone trying to get through instantly forms a long and powerful hatred of you.

There’s a bar round the side of the building, but I was more interested in the loos. There was no way I was using the ones on offer at the Polka, marked “Girls” and “Boys.” Ew.

Okay, there are six things I don’t like about the Polka. But that’s it.

“There’s only one toilet,” said a woman also waiting to use the facilities. “And that’s the men’s,” she added as I pushed tentatively on a door.

“Oh, right.”

It was so dark in that corridor, it was impossible to make out the signs.

We waited a few minutes. And then a few more.

Eventually the ladies freed up and I was the only one left in the queue.

Blimey, The Stage should do an expose on the loos at this place.

As matters became a little more… err… pressing, I debated using the men’s. But just as I was about to go for it I noticed there was a disabled loo just around the corner. It was empty. Thank the theatre gods.

After my trans-London journey and epic loo saga, there was no time to check out the bar. i headed straight into The Space to face my nemesis: unreserved seating.

With few options left to choose from, I was left in the worse possible option: the second row. Or one of the second rows anyway, as there were two. With seating either side of the aisle. Sat directly behind the front row - without a rake - the second row doesn’t allow much in the way of a view. But at least everyone in the audience was a grownup.

Good thing too, as the play I was seeing - Laundry - featured a sex scene and the bloody aftermath of an abortion. In an old church. Not that I’m religious. Or even Christian for that matter. But still. It certainly adds an extra frisson to the experience.

The scene where all the women are washing blood stains out of their clothes, and the lighting turns red, and the music rocks out - you could almost convince yourself that hell had risen up to claim us all.

And, I’m not sure the scene where they’re all cleaning the dead body was meant to trigger my ASMR. But it really did. It was all that hair-stroking. So relaxing.

I probably shouldn’t have admitted that. I mean, there’s wearing all black and listening to Without Temptation’s greatest hits on repeat, and then there’s being the creepy goth gal sitting in a children’s theatre all by herself… oh.

Oh well.

It was a strange day.

But at least it’s not Sunday.