A Lion's Instinct

I need to learn to trust my my own instincts. I’m so convinced of my inability to read people, that when my spidey senses do end up tingling, I brush it off as my imagination.

There I was, walking though Highgate on my way to the theatre, and I could just feel someone following me. The fact that most of the time he was walking ahead of me on the pavement does not seem to have affected the queasiness in my belly.

After changing sides of the road three or four times, he stopped, stood at the side of the pavement, not looking at me until the very last moment before he turned around. And said something.

“You have beautiful eyes.”

The street was deserted. There was no one else there.

Of all the things to say to someone, it was not the most worry-inducing, but still. I was alone. Even worse: we were alone. I don’t want people creeping around me for minutes on end to make comments about my eyes. It’s not even true. I don’t have beautiful eyes. I mean, they’re alright. But it’s my eyeliner that’s doing the heavy lifting there.

I kept on walking, pretending not to have heard him, and don’t stop until I get to Jackson’s Lane.

That’s my theatre for tonight.

A first for me. I’ve never been here before. Although I’ve walked past a good deal. It's right opposite Highgate tube, and it’s pretty hard to miss. A massive red brick church, it does rather dominate the cross-roads if not exactly the horizon.

A couple are lounging on the steps outside what must have been the main door back when it was still a sanctified space. They are looking very young and glamorous together there. As if they’re posing for an Abercrombie and Fitch advert, or whatever brands young people are wearing these days. Something to do with Hype clothing or something, isn’t it? Christ I’m old…

Shit, probably shouldn’t blaspheme around a church. Even if it’s not a church anymore.

It’s nice in here. All fairylights and bunting and streamers and rainbows. I fully expect to turn a corner and get myself punctured on the horn of a passing unicorn. It’s like stepping into the ultimate children’s party. One thrown by some very dotting, and very rich parents. Thinking about it, this is what all the kids party around here must be like. Although, knowing Highgate mums, they probably hire Jackon’s Lane itself for their little darlings.

The young woman behind the box office looks up and grins as I come in. I go over.

I give my surname, and she pulls open a box marked “Pay What You Want tickets” on the top. I’m seeing a show as part of their Postcards Festival. When booking online there's a choice. Either get your ticket for free, with the caveat that you’ll pay some figure based on how much you think the show is worth, on the night. Or you type in your credit card details and get all that shit sorted in advance. For fifteen quid.

I went for the free option. No because I’m cheap. I am cheap, but that’s not the reason. I was intrigued to see how it would all work. I haven’t done this type of arrangement yet on the blog.

I’m not entirely sure how it all works.

“When you go in,” she says, handing me the ticket. “You'll find an envelope on your chair, at the end of the show just pop some cash in there.”

“I was just going to ask!” I say.

She grins. “I could sense it was coming. The door will open in about ten minutes,” she goes on, pointing towards the doors at the far end of the foyer. “The show is about fifty minutes.”

Fifty minutes? Holy sh..ugar. We’ll be done by 8.20pm. And I’m only a couple of stops from home. In bed by ten, here I come!

Ticket now acquired and rules of the game established, I have a walk around the space. It’s really nice in here. Usually this excess of decorations would have my anxiety flairing up, but it’s really laid back. Comfortable. People sit around tables chatting quietly. The queue at the bar is short and well managed. There’s a cafe space tucked away behind a low wall, which is dark and homely looking.

I go up there, and pull up a pew.

A literal pew in case you think I am indulging in cliché.

Looks like they got more than the building when the Christians moved out.

With the pew-based booths and miles of bunting, the whole place is very Pastel Goth. Not my personal style, but one I’ve always appreciated in others.

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“Excuse me, can I sit here?” asks a bloke, pointing to the other side of my pew.

“Go for it!”

He’s brought food with him from the cafe. Something very savoury looking. Steam is rising off of it and the smell is making my stomach rumble.

I really miss hot dinners.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” comes a voice from the foyer behind us. “The performance will start in two minutes.”

Blimey. Time to go in then.

I join the queue at the door.

The young woman from the box office is now serving as ticket checker. She smiles at every one in turn, thanking them as they hand over their tickets to be torn free of their stubs.

“Carrot, would you like a carrot?”

I can’t see what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure I just heard a voice asking someone if they wanted a carrot.

I turn the corner. There’s a popcorn seller. Or someone who looks like a popcorn seller. With that boxy tray hanging from a strap against her neck. The type worn by Cigarette Girls in cinemas back when smoking and pillbox hats were still things that happened.

“Popcorn? Loose popcorn? How about a carrot?” she asks.

The man she’s talking to consents to the carrot.

“Yes? You want a carrot? The carrots are very popular.” The next person also demonstrates interest in the carrots. “The carrots are all gone, I’m sorry. But I have loose popcorn? No? Take a party popper.”

She hands the party poppers out. I take one.

“Don’t pop it! Not yet!” she warns. “Sit at the front please!” she calls after a group kitted out with party poppesr.

I begin to make my way to the front, but something stops me. I remember the man from earlier. And I resolve to pay attention to my tingling senses.

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I stop a third of the way down, and slip into a row, putting a good distance between myself and the stage.

From the entrance, there’s a bang.

“Did you pop the party popper?” shouts the popcorn seller in mock outrage. A second later, she recovers herself. “Thank you,” she says, friendly once more. Someone asks her something. “Yes, you can eat the popcorn.”

A group of young men with man-buns and ripped t-shirts sit in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. They are very tall, and the rake isn’t all that good. I move down a few seats.

Just in time. One of the young men leans back, his arms stretched taut over his head as he bends himself over the back of his seat, his hands reaching down into my row.

Something tells me these are all circus boys.

The queue has cleared.

She makes her way down the aisle, honking a horn and making sure everyone has party poppers. “Not yet!” she warns before disappearing into the wings, to be replaced by a woman in a sparkly red leotard and a black tail coat. Our ringmaster for the self-billed Greatest Show on Earth.

The show is… having some problems.

The cast of a thousand acrobats are trapped in Calais. Or is it Dover?

But the show, as they say, must go on. Our sparkly host will be persevering. With the help of popcorn seller Poppy, and… the audience.

Oh dear.

She needs a horse.

Oh shit.

I mean… oh sugar.

No, fuck that.

Oh shit!

“Bring the house lights up so I can look at all your horsey faces,” she says, peering into the audience. I sink down into my seat, but her attentions are focused on the font few rows. “I need someone with luscious hair and a strong back.”

She extends her arm, her pointed finger wavering.

“You!” she announces as she selects her equine assistant.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to do it.

She copies him. Shaking his head. “You’ve got the moves already,” she says, encouragingly.

But he’s not having it. He really doesn’t want to do it.

No matter. She didn’t want him anyway. It was a test. And he passed. “Well done.”

The pointing finger finds another mark, and this audience member is more willing to play the pony.

“What’s your name?” asks the ringmaster.

“James!”

After a short lesson in hoof display, trotting and dressage, James is really to ready for his rider. And as he bounces around with Poppy the popcorn seller balanced on his back, he’s offered a carrot to munch.

As James the horse is allowed to return to his stall, and the sparkly ringmaster performs a very unconventional aerial display, I think the worst is over. But nope. They need lions now.

And they’re holding auditions.

“Show us your lion claws!” orders the ringmaster. “Claw at your neighbour, the person in front of you. I want to see blood!”

The young men in front paw at each other, attacking shoulders and backs with curved hands.

A small child in the front row lets out a ferocious roar and we all laugh. Even the sparkly ringmaster.

The next stage of the audition is teeth.

The young men chew on each other’s arms and shoulders.

I’m sitting alone, so I’m spared the gummy mastication. I’m relieved. I’ve already been bitten once in a theatre. It’s not something I feel the need to go through again.

Last up, the thing that all trainee lions need to master: the roar.

We all wait for the small child in the front row. This is their moment. We are not disappointed. Over the feeble roars of the adults, the small child let’s all the hugest, fiercest, most terrifying roar ever hear by man or beast.

We all tremble in its echo.

But the sparkly ringmaster, for the sake of her own safety, decides to pick a grown-up for the role, and coming into the audience, declares she is going to insert her head between his jaws. We all cheer as Antoine, which has to be the best name for a lion ever, opens his mouth very, very wide, and she sticks her head in there. Sort of.

Sparkly ringmaster returns to the stage, and we are allowed to relax a little with some tent dancing.

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But not for long. The house lights are going up again. We’re getting a lesson in trapeze catching.

Never drop the flyer. That’s the first rule. Eye contact. That’s important. Shout “up” when you release. And “mine” when you catch.

They go to fetch their flyer. With the acrobats all caught in Calais (or was it Dover?), the role of flyer would be played by… a cuddly toy owl.

Poppy and the Ringmaster practice a little with the front row.

“Up!” shouts the Ringmaster as she throws her little friend.

“Mine!” shouts the audience member as they catch.

And then it begins.

First the cuddly owl goes out. It bounces a little around the audience.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Then more come out. Snakes. Lots of snakes. A massive fish. A curly wig.

The young men in front of me grab anything that comes within ten feet, using their long arm spans to reach across seats and rows, scooping up the fallen friends.

“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

Behind me, someone runs up and down the back row, collecting any flyers that fly too far, and lobbing them back into the fray.

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“Up.”

“Mine.”

“Up.”

“Mine.”

A snake skims over the young men's fingertips and I find myself catching it.

“Up,” I shout, throwing it forward.

“Mine!” shouts back someone in the second row.

At the signal, the cuddly toy fights ends, and we pop our party poppers.

The room smells of gunpowder and traumatised toys.

And then we’re done.

Show over.

I grab my purse and examine the envelope. Pay what you want, it says. “Based in how awesome you think the experience was.”

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Awesome. Hmm. I mean, it was fun. And sweet. And stressful. Really stressful. Can awesome things be stressful? I suppose truly awesome things are very anxiety inducing. Like… space. And… lions.

I slip a note into my envelope.

Front of housers are out in the foyer, buckets in hand, ready to take them.

“I liked your roar,” says someone to the tiny child as we file out.

The small child doesn’t say a word. They’ve gone shy.

Or maybe not. Maybe they's sensed something. Something not right. And their lion's instinct has told them not to roar.

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Doughnut Do That!

Back on the Southbank again tonight. I’m going to have to move. Get a second home. Or at least find a sofa to crash on. This is getting ridiculous.

It’s the turn of the Underbelly tonight. The Belly specifically. Neither of which I have ever done before. All that cabaret and comedy ain’t my thing. But there’s a circus show on at the moment that looks interesting, so here I go. Under Hungerford Bridge and off to the world of faerie lights and fake grass.

But first, the box office.

Things are off to a good start. There are purple signs pointing to the place, and the building itself, a wooden structure that looks like it spends its winters fulfilling the wrong of writer’s shed for some big time fantasy author, is right on the Southbank. There’s no missing it. It has BOX OFFICE posted outside in massive foot tall lettering. And an even larger sign next to the service windows, listing all the shows.

I’ll give Underbelly one thing. They know how to make a statement.

There’s only a couple of people at the window. This might be because I’m a little early, but far more likely is the fact that they push e-tickets hard here. Even on the email confirming my order (where I selected the option to pick up my tickets, natch) they take time to tell you how glorious e-ticketage is (“If this email has a barcode at the top, there's no need to queue at the box office!”) and let you know that changing your mind about the whole printed ticket business is only a matter of replying to the confirmation and everything e-tickety will be sorted out for you. No fuss.

This, I like.

I know that e-tickets are the future. I see it. I’m not stupid.

But Underbelly are still finding a way to serve old foggies like me, while also gently nudging in the direction of progress.

They haven’t got me this time. But, who knows… maybe next year.

For now, I’m waiting in the queue to get the real deal.

“Do you want to see my confirmation email or is just my surname okay?” I ask once it’s my turn. I don’t know why I ask this. Perhaps all that talk of barcodes threw me off.

“Err,” says the box officer, who is clearly also not sure why I felt the need to ask this. “Let’s go with surname first, shall we?”

I give it. And a second later a neat paper ticket is puttering out of the machine.

“What’s your first name?” he asks, double checking the ticket.

I give it, and with a nod, I’m handed my ticket.

Hurrah. What now?

I wander back the way I had come.

There’s a entrance here which looks fairly magical. All wooden decking and overhanding plants. But there are two bag checkers on duty and they look ready to check the fuck out of my bag. I keep on going. I’m sure there was another way in slightly further down.

There is. This one is slightly less magical. More of the astroturf and sunshine, and less of the faerie-glad. But the bag checker here doesn’t look nearly as intense, and I walk in without hindrance.

People are sitting around on the fuzzy green floor. That doesn’t look comfy. Apart from the likely wet bottom scenario going on there, I can well remember sitting on the all-weather hockey pitch back at school, and ending up with legs pox-marked with indentations from the end of my culottes to the start of my socks. I mean, that was a long time ago. So perhaps the fake grass industry has improved matters, but that’s not something I really want to explore right now.

I carry on.

The space widens out into something an area that makes me think I might have stumbled into a summer wedding.

Picnic tables huddle under bowers of flowers. Young women waft around in long skirts. And everyone has a glass of something bubbly clutched in their hands.

There are stalls everywhere. If you want crepes, there’s a stall for that. Burgers? Yup. Wraps? Yup. Prosecco? Double yup. That’s gone a whole area set off to one side.

All in the shadow of the massive curved tent that is The Belly.

I take a circle of the square. There’s a lot of people here. They can’t all be seeing the show.

A huge chunk must be here just to… hang out? Eat? Drink? Be merry?

They all seem very happy, laughing away in their groups.

I begin to feel a little awkward handing around by myself.

This place doesn’t really seem built with the lone theatre goer in mind. There’s nowhere to start that isn’t utterly in the way. And nowhere to sit that wouldn’t mean requisitioning a chair from people who actually have friends.

There’s some young women hanging out near the entrance to the theatre space. So I go over there too, tucking myself in against a blue shed which claims to be selling tickets and merchandise, but isn’t open for business.

A queue forms.

Someone comes out of the door, and squeezes himself around the rope bollard.

“Can I see your ticket?” he asks the young women.

They start flustering around, trying to dig out their e-tickets.

I pull my printed ticket from my pocket, and feel very smug about the whole thing.

But the ticket checker doesn’t want to check my ticket. He bypasses me and heads straight to the queue.

I get it. He probably thinks I pushed my way in front. So I stand around, waiting for him to double back to me.

The next lot are also fussing about with their phones.

With an internal sigh so great I can almost see it, he turns to me.

“Can I see your ticket?”

I show it to him.

“This is for our Sirloin Seats,” he says, taking it from me. “They have priority?”

“Oh?” I say, not knowing what to make of that.

“The queue for standard seats is over there,” he says, pointing to the door on the other side. “Enjoy the show!” He rips the ticket and hands it back to me, before moving onto the next person. Who still hasn’t found their e-ticket.

Well. Okay then.

I go over to the other door. But not before looking before me to check the signage. There are signs. Next to both entrances. Both advising on queuing. And in fact, both saying the exact same thing. “QUEUE HERE FOR SHOWS IN THE BELLY THEATRE.” I mean, I don’t know about you. But on reading that, I would queue there for shows in The Belly Theatre.

Oh well. I join the second, standard seat, queue.

“It’s already been ripped,” I tell the Standard ticket checker.

“That’s fine,” she says, and waves me through.

And in I go.

Up some metal steps and into the dark cavern of the tent.

It’s like walking into a cave. Cramped, with only a glimmer of light coming from the stage.

Seats are unallocated, so I edged myself between the rows until I get to the central block, about half way back. Yeah, that looks good.

I sit down.

Oh. Shit. Um.

Leg room. There’s a leg room issue. Or rather, there’s a lack of leg room issue.

Tell me, do you have these problems? It surely can’t just be me. I mean, I’m a little. Not in the kink way. In the literal way. I’m short. And I’m still struggling here. Is this normal? Do other people’s knees hit the seats in front when they go to these squishy theatres? If yes, then theatres really need to sort their shit out. And if no, and it really is just me, then can I get this fixed? Is there a cure? Because I bruise easily, and purple knees aren’t fun.

More people are coming in through the Fillet Steak entrance. I’m not sure why they need priority access. They have seats reserved for them right there, in the front few rows. Surely the real benefit would be swanning in at the last moment, when everyone else has been queueing and waiting and getting their knees bruised in these cramped conditions.

There’s a tannoy announcement. Sounds like we’re all about to take a flight.

“Please switch off personal devices that might distract you,” says the disembodied voice amongst pieces of advice about forming human pyramids on the plane.

The performers come out. I don’t know who any of them are (no freesheet), but they are all very bouncy.

It’s hard to feel sorry for my knees when this lot are literally throwing leaping off up massive trunks mere feet away from my tortured legs.

Now, I’ll admit. I’m not big on circus. I find it hard to get worked up about tricks. I wish there was a circus show out there with a proper narrative, rather than just the barest excuse for a story for the performers to hang their diablos off. But it is all very impressive. Even if they are just killing time while waiting for a delayed flight.

But the performers aren’t the only things flying around.

The audience flinches and cries of “ewww,” whip around as a freshly chewed piece of banana is spat into our midst.

I shudder. Then remember my poor knees. There’s no room for that sort of movement here.

But proving they can take it as well as dish it out, our waylaid travellers start spitting sweets up, into the air, where they drop neatly into their fellows’ mouths. Or on the floor. To be picked up. Reinserted. And sent on its travellers once more.

With one sweet remaining in play, the inevitable happens, and it is spat into our midst.

“What would you do, if this was our last show together?” they ask each other.

The answers differ. One wants to beat a world record. Another fancies having a go at lifting the entire troupe on his broad shoulders. Yet another voices a wish to perform at twice his body weight.

I should have seen it coming.

The inevitable happens.

It’s their last show. They are to disband.

“They gave me these back stage,” says the performer who wanted to double his weight. He holds out a plastic tray of doughnuts. He’s changed. He’s wearing a suit. A proper suit. With a shirt and whatnot. And under that, a fat suit.

He shoves a doughnut into his mouth, and offers out the tray to the audience.

Someone takes him up on his offer, and the doughnut is duly thrown in their direction.

I don’t think a smile has ever left my lips so fast.

He makes his way onto the stage and straps himself into the aerial straps, a doughnut still stuffed into his mouth. And up he goes, crashing into the set, twisting himself into knots, and chasing after his new found sugar addiction.

I have absolutely zero patience for fat suits. And even less for fat jokes.

Fuck. That. Shit.

I am in no mood to play along when we are called upon to grant our next performers final performance wish: to be treated like a rock star.

Underwear is thrown into the audience. Boxes of it. Bras and pants of every colour.

“Here, anyone not got one?”

More is brought out and lobbed around until we are all knickered up.

A white pair of pants lands on me. Not my style personally, but they’re clean, which is a relief.

At the call, we all lob our pairs of smalls down towards the waiting rock star. I’m surprised and a little bit pleased with myself that I managed to get mine down to the stage. Turns out I do actually have a muscle somewhere.

It does little to rid the bad taste of fat shaming in my mouth though.

I mean, seriously. Fuck. That. Fucking. Shit. Right. In. The. Bumhole.

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Wheely need a change

I’m feeling a bit down at the moment. A trifle low. A touch, if I dare say it, sad.

I hate admitting it. Not because I’m ashamed or anything like that. It’s the reactions I get to these statements that keep me quiet. I don’t know how it is for you, but when I tell people that things are a bit sucky in Maxine-land, they either brush it off with a series of dismissive noises, or they take the exact opposite approach, going into hyper alert, as if I’m about to off myself right then and there in front of them. When what I really want is for them to pat me on the head, agree that everyone is terrible, and tell me that it’s all going to be okay, because they are going to beat up everyone who has ever wronged me.

Okay, I hear it. You’re right. That’s not the way to handle things.

I can beat up my own damn people.

In the meantime, as it is mental health awareness week, I’m going to admit to you that the marathon is really getting to me at the moment.

It’s the relentlessness of the whole thing.

It just goes on and on and on.

For nearly five months, I’ve been going to the theatre almost every night. And then filling in every free moment in between shows with writing about them. Thousands of words. Hundreds of thousands of words. Three whole novels’ worth of words. I’m not even kidding. No wonder at least half of them are misspelt.

And, you know, it’s a bit lonely.

I don’t mean the going to the theatre part. Because I’m very often not alone. And, as someone pushing the limits on how far one can sit on the introvert scale, going to the theatre by myself never bothered me anyway. It’s the loneliness of the marathon itself. The fact that I am entirely on my own in this enterprise. The lovely people that accompany me on my trips don’t have to spend the evening desperately trying to recall fragments of conversations, or their intervals making notes on their phones. They don’t have to give up their lunchbreaks to writing blog posts. And their weekends to emailing PR companies. They don’t live within the confines of a spreadsheet.

I sometimes think about it akin to being jetted off on a solo mission to Mars. Thousands of people will be involved in the enterprise, but in the end, when it comes right down to it, no matter who is on the other end of the shuttle’s radio, they’re up there, all by themselves. But at least that lonesome soul goes in the knowledge that they have a place in the history books set aside from them. Somehow I don’t think they’ll be a ticker-tape parade waiting for me at the end of this year.

Anyway, all this maudlin moping is just a build up to saying that I was after something different. Something I hadn’t seen before. Something to shake me out of my funk.

So, I’m going to the circus.

Well, I’m actually going to Shoreditch Town Hall. But I’ll be watching circus. The new Barely Methodical show: SHIFT. I’m pretty stoked.

I even bought my ticket. With money.

Mainly because I just couldn’t face dealing with a press person long enough to ask for comps, but still.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love press people. I love especially theatre press people. They do a job that I in no way ever want to have to do (again). But putting in ticket requests requires being nice. And I’m in no mood to be nice right now. Wait. No. I don’t mean that. I am nice. Most of the time. I suppose what I mean is: positive. Asking for tickets requires a certain level of bouncy cheer and enthusiasm that I am not capable of at this moment in time. I’m too busy embracing my inner Eeyore to use the required amount of exclamation marks in an email.

Still, even after I’d made the decision to lay down my debit card in the pursuit of another check mark in my marathon spreadsheet, it didn’t mean I wasn’t in full money-saving mode.

And as I analysed the seating plan for tonight’s performance, I realise that the cheapest seats are all gone. Greyed out. Not there.

Dammit.

I click through a few more dates until I see them. There. Thursday night has some. Up in the balcony. Well, that was no good. I’d already made plans for Thursday. Oh well. Second price down it was then. I picked my seat and bought the ticket and then…

Shit.

I hadn’t clicked back to Tuesday. My ticket was for Thursday.

As soon as the confirmation email landed in my inbox, I forwarded it onto Shoreditch Town Hall with an abject apology and a begging request for them to exchange it.

Nine minutes later, it was done. Ticket exchanged. Followed by a friendly command to enjoy the show.

Ah. Now that’s the stuff.

While I respect press people, it’s admin staff that I really admire. They are the real heroes in theatre. The ones who turn chaos into order, dreams into reality, and an outing into an experience. I would lay down my cloak on the wet ground before them if they hadn’t already organised for building services to sort out that dangerous looking puddle outside the front door.

I could almost forgive them for having e-tickets.

Not that this stopped me from heading right over to the small podium positioned just inside the very fancy foyer of the town hall to absolutely double check that printed tickets were not a thing that would be happening in my life tonight.

They’re not. But I take it with relative good grace, and do not in any way express contempt for the future of this planet we call home.

They do have freesheets though.

There’s a stake of them on the counter. I take one and go off to explore.

As former town halls go, Shoreditch must be on the more sophisticated end of the scale.

Where Battersea Arts Centre is all collages and finger paintings and a bee strewn mosaic floor, Shoreditch has oversized faerie-lights and light up screens in place of posters and a more geometric approach to tiled flooring. They even have a ladies powder room, which I took to be the loos until I saw that they did actually have loos. Accessed through an entirely different entrance. The door to the powder door was blocked off, so in lieu of being able to ascertain its actual purpose, I’m going to imagine a line of vanity tables inside, complete with soft pink lighting and deeply padded chairs, where ladies touch up their makeup with fluffy puff-balls and leave a trail of lipstick-marks in their wake.

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