Pas de Door

Honestly, for someone who actually went and sat through the whole grinding ninety minutes of Magic Mike Live, I’m feeling more than a little awkward walking into the Above the Stag to see Boy Toy. The artwork doesn’t help. With the half-nakedness and very shiny pants. But that’s the Above the Stag for you. Shiny pants seem to be the default setting for their marketing.

In my defence, if a defence is required, I picked this show because it’s based on the ballet Coppélia, and I love Coppélia. Okay, I don’t love Coppélia. It’s a bit silly, even by ballet standards, and doesn’t have the genius of a choreographer like Ashton to elevate the silly story into silly art. But you know, it’s alright. I enjoy Coppélia, and watch it quite happily whenever it’s revived.

If you don’t know the story, and frankly, I can’t imagine you would, think Pygmalion. But the original one. As in, the Greek myth where a sculptor falls in love with a statue. But in Coppélia’s case, the statue is a mechanical doll, and it’s not the maker who goes falling in love, but a passing young man, who sees the doll in the window and decides that the porcelain princess is way hotter than the girl he has waiting for him at home. As you can imagine, the girl isn’t all that impressed by her boyfriend trying to get with a wind-up doll, and decides to get her own back on him. Chaos ensues but true love prevails. Eventually.

So, here I am to see William Spencer’s take on this ridiculous tale.

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It’s pretty quiet. No nearly as busy as the last time I was here. There’s no one at the bar and most of the tables are empty. That’s what happens with a 7pm start in a studio space, I suppose. No one wants to be drinking that early on a Tuesday. Or perhaps everyone is still getting over Pride weekend. The Pride flags are still out in force outside the theatre, in a rainbow coloured bunting running out to the nearest tree.

I take up position on the end of the bar, the end with the huge TICKETS sign glowing above, and wait. Someone joins me and soon we are a nice little queue waiting for service.

It looks like the bar staff are having a meeting down the other end, but they spot us soon enough and one of them comes over.

I give my surname and he scrolls around on the touch screen in search of my booking. “Maxine?” he asks.

I confirm that I am indeed Maxine and soon my ticket is chugging on the little printer they have behind the bar. The one that spurts out soft paper, like a receipt. I rather like them.

“Oh, um,” I say, suddenly remembering something. “I think I ordered a-“

“Programme?” he says, completing the sentence for me. He grabs one from the display on the counter and hands it over.

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That’s the kind of service I like. Providing the words that my brain can’t form in the moment.

With my programme and ticket, I set up shop at one of the posing tables and look around, taking in the theatre goers. And for once, the other theatre goers are also looking at me. I can’t blame them. It’s becoming increasing obvious that I am not the target audience for this show, being as I am, how shall I say this… a woman. Now, I don’t want to make any presumptions here, but I think I can safely say I have the only female presenting person in this bar right now.

I don’t think this has happened yet. I mean, yes - audiences have been heavily male at some shows. Not many. But some. There was that chemsex play at the Courtyard and ummm… no, I think that was it.

Outside, there’s a small group of people drinking beside the tree. And look - there’s a woman! But when the doors open and we start going through, the group stays outside. Whatever brought them to the Above the Stag tonight, it wasn’t a Coppélia retrelling.

I show my receipt paper to the ticket checker and he nods me through the door. Here, instead of turning right into the main space, we go left, into the studio.

As studios go, it’s not a bad stage. Long and thin, taking up almost the entire length of the space. If you’re going to put dance in a studio, this is the kind of space you want. Give the dancers a bit of room to leap around.

There’s only three rows of chairs, set up against the long wall.

I go for the back row.

I don’t want to be taking away any good seats from the core audience here. But as it turns out, the third row is pretty popular. It’s the second row that people are avoiding. No one likes being trapped in the middle.

A young man comes in and after testing out a few places in the bank of seats right on the end, comes over to me.

“Is any one…?” he asks, with a hand gesture that encapsulates the rest of the question.

“Oh, go for it,” I say, with a matching hand gesture.

The two of us, this young man and me, have to be the only people in the audience below the audience below the age of fifty. We are in serious middle aged white male territory here. It’s almost like being at the Royal Opera House.

The music that’s been filling the room comes to a sudden halt, and a man runs in from the foyer to manually set it up again before rushing back out into the foyer. Looks like the tech team are also on front of house duty tonight.

It’s past seven now. We should have already started. They must be holding the start for some latecomers.

I have a look at the programme. At only £2.50 it is quite the bargain. I mean, it’s not stuffed full of interesting articles or glossy photos, but it does the business, and is a nice enough souvenir. Even if it does have a typo on the first page. Seriously though, no judgement. I’ve done plenty worse in my programmes. And anyway, what do you want for £2.50? Especially for a studio theatre work. I sure as hell don’t make proper programmes for the stuff in the studio where I work. Audiences get freesheets and they’re grateful for it.

Surely we must be starting soon?

I put the programme away in readiness.

The tech person is still out in the hall.

Probably on the lookout for those latecomers. Bet they’re stuck on the Northern Line somewhere. What a fucking kerfuffle that was this morning. Our driver kept on telling us to get off, that despite all the announcements to the contrary, the train was going to be diverted to Charing Cross any moment, and then, as soon as we get to Camden, he blazes right through the Bank branch and I end up exactly where I want to be. Honestly, is it any wonder that Londoners cannot follow signage. We’re taught from our first day in this city that it’s all nonsense. It doesn’t take more than a month to find out that No Entry signs on the underground are nothing more than an indication that there’s a short cut happening nearby.

While we wait, I sit back and take in the set. It’s very simple. Three doorways, all lit up in neon. Rather effective in real life, but an absolute arse to capture effectively in a photo.

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Finally, the tech person comes in and takes up his spot behind the desk in the corner.

Looks like we’re ready to begin.

Music starts.

The doorways flash in time with the beat.

Someone near me gives an appreciative snort.

Looks like we’re getting a dance of the flashing doorways. One could say it’s a… Pas de Door.

Oh, come on! That was a fucking fantastic pun and you know it. So, don’t you dare pull that face.

Well, funny or no, those doors are still dancing. Looks like we’re getting the full on overture. Seems a bit much considering the entire show is only an hour. You’d think the choreographer would want to use every second, but hey - I’m not a dance-maker. I’m sure there is some artistic reason for this very long intro.

Eventually, we get some dancers. And some rather fab punnage. I mean, not as good as mine. But nothing in the world is going to top Pas de Door this century. But we get our cast partying at the Gay Barre, before popping into Cocksta for their morning coffee, and then escaping Homo Sweet Homo for a rather balletic sex scene.

As for the doll… well, he’s a mannequin in a sex shop window, because of course he is.

But doesn't Saul Kilcullen-Jarvis look an absolute darling dressed up as the doll? With his little t-shirt and shiny shorts. Good on Andrew Beckett for making those designs happen. And, I mean... that is some great casting right there. I don't think I've ever seen someone how looks so like a Ken doll brought to life than this handsome fellow.

In fact, they are all darlings. I just want to pinch their collective cheeks.

Although perhaps not while they are in the midst of a dildo fight. That looks dangerous.

It is a shame that they're using the Delibes music though. Or at least, music based on the Delibes. I just can't imagine those jaunty tunes being played within the back room of a sex shop somehow. Not very sleazy Soho. Feels like a wasted opportunity when they could have had some proper club bangers for them to pirouette too. William Forsythe managed it in Playlist. Okay, he's Forsythe. Literally the greatest living choreographer. And the all-male cast of English National Ballet dancers was pretty spectacular. And they too looked darn cute in their costumes, matching red American football jerseys, with their surnames printed across the back. And yeah, it's true, Playlist 1, 2 ranks as perhaps the greatest piece of dance I've ever seen. So great I almost went to Paris to watch the follow-up works of Playlist 3, 4. But like, if I wanted to watch boys dancing around to a nineteenth-century ballet score, I'd book tickets to see the Trocks.

Oh well. Can't have everything, I suppose.

I got my puns. I should be content with that.

As the dancers give their final bows, someone sitting near me leans over to the person he's with. "Now, where else could we find high art like this?"

Where indeed.

Still, we're just a short walk to Vauxhall station. Up over the bridge and there we are.

Not even that much past eight right now. I can pop into Tesco on my way home. Perhaps even shove some laundry in the machine, Need to finish that blog post on the Gielgud too... Oh god. So much for an early night.

As I stand on the platform, an announcement pumps through the speakers. "The Northern Line will close at 21.30 to allow our engineers to repair a fault. This means you should complete your journey before 21.30."

Fucking hell... Closing the Northern Line... as someone who both lives and works on the Northern Line, this week has been fucking brutal.

Thank the theatre gods for short plays and early starts. I may have had to sit through unnecessary Delibes, but at least I don't have to get the bus home afterwards.

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The Safe Word is Unicorn

You’ve read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. We’ve all read the Exeunt review of Magic Mike Live. The tears. The drama. The fist-pump to female empowerment. A battle cry for female desire. It was an unmissable read.

I can tell you right now, that’s not what you’ll be getting here.

Because I do not want to go to Magic Mike Live.

Let me say that again, just so that we’re really clear: I do not, under any circumstances, want to go to Magic Mike Live.

The fact that I have to go to Magic Mike Live, in order to check off the theatre that lurks within the Leicester Square monolith that is the Hippodrome Casino, is something that has been giving me a great deal of stress over the past six months.

And it’s not because I’m a prude.

The fact that I’m a prude has nothing to do with it.

“I would honestly rather go to a real strip club,” I tell Helen and Ellen, as we do our best to get very, very drunk, somewhere below street level in Soho. (“Pre-loading,” Helen calls it).

“Really?” Helen is baffled by this. She’s looking forward to the show. Or rather, she’s looking forward to me not enjoying the show. “Why?”

“Because in a strip club, you are the one in power. You can tell the dancers to go away without feeling that you’re ruining things. It’s a one-on-one transaction. Not part of this, whole… thing.” I wave my hands about to demonstrate the scale of the… thing. One drink down and I’m already getting expansive. This place doesn’t mess around with their measures.

Earlier today I’d done something I’d never done before.

I told Twitter where I was going to be tonight.

I’ve always been very careful not to do that. Stalkers be scary, you know.

But I’m not worried about that anymore. If anything, I was courting that danger. Encouraging it. Asking for it. “Bring your arsenic and find me in Soho,” I told my followers.

A jokey “kill me,” that was only half a joke.

I really don’t want to go to Magic Mike Live.

A co-worker of mine went last week. She loved it.

“They’re really good dancers,” she said excitedly the next morning.

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who works at one of the most famous dance-houses in the world.

“But is there…” I pause, not wanting to use the word grinding, but not being able to come up with a suitable alternative. “Audience interaction?”

Yeah, okay. This is the real issue. Some rando stranger grinding on me is not something I want. If it were, I would go to a club, and you know what, I'd probably get a free drink into the bargain.

“Oh yeah. Where are you sitting?”

“In the balcony.”

“You won’t be taken on stage then.”

Thank fuck. “So, I’m safe then?”

She laughs at that. “No. They will find you!”

“Oh…” Oh fuck… “I think I’m going to have to get really drunk.”

Half way through the second drink and my head is starting to spin. Whatever the fuck they put in these cocktails is working. Every time I turn my head, I feel like I’m leaving my thoughts behind. That’s good, I tell myself. A couple more sips and I’ll be in a full on dissociative state. Just what I need to get through the next few hours.

It’s time to go.

We stagger back up to the street and start walking down to Leicester Square.

Helen and Ellen are all in a rush, though I keep on saying we have plenty of time.

Helen dives across Shaftesbury Avenue. Right across the road.

I jog behind with a squeal of “we’re going to dieeee,” before remembering that getting hit by a car was a great excuse for not going to see Magic Mike Live tonight. No luck though.

I point out the casino, but really there’s no need. Even from the back, it does rather loom.

There’s a kind of mural thing going on here. All lights and images and I’m not really able to focus on the presise nature of it, but I feel I should take a photo anyway.

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“Sorry,” says a bloke, who on seeing me taking a photo of the wall display thing decides he also wants in on the action.

“Don’t worry, I’m done.”

“You also seeing the show?”

“Yes,” I say, in the tones of someone saying they’re just about to sit their Chemistry A-level.

“We are too!” He sounds super-duper excited about the whole thing.

“Are you looking forward to it?”

“Oh yeah. Aren’t you?”

“Not really.”

“Ah. Well, see you in there!” he says with a cheery goodbye.

I have really got to get my shit sorted. Me not having a good night is fine. I mean, it’s not fine. But it’s fine.

However, me being the cause of someone else not having a good night… well, that’s taking the whole marathon thing too far, isn’t it?

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In a move of openness that must have the Royal Opera House nashing their teeth, the box office is fully open to the street.

I stop, the cogs in my brain slowed by the excess alcohol.

“Do we go in here, or…?”

A man on the door sees my confusion and steps in. “Are you picking up your tickets?” he asks.

I nod. “Yeah.”

He waves me through and we join the queue.

There’s a man leaning on the counter and as I give my name to the lady at box office he starts rummaging in a Magic Mike Live branded gift bag.

“How many of you are there?” he asks.

“Three.”

He pulls out three envelopes. “Unfortunately a few of our cast members have a bug and won’t be performing,” he says. “There’s a drinks voucher in here, and a letter. We’d like you to come back and see the show properly, for free of course, as long as you promise to buy lots of drinks.”

Gosh, well. Okay. We take the envelopes, and our tickets, and join the queue to get in.

There's a red carpet.

A young woman stands on the door. She has a stack of envelopes in her hand.

“We should put our letters away,” I hiss at the other two. “Might get another one!”

Ellen gives me a look. I don’t think she’s ever seen me this drunk before.

“Max, are you leaning against the wall?” she asks.

I may be leaning against the wall. Hard to tell. It keeps on moving.

She gives me another look, but puts away her envelope all the same.

“Hi ladies!” says the young woman on the door. “A few of our cast members are off sick. The others will still be going on, and it’s the same show, exactly the same length. But we’d like to offer you’re the chance to come back and see it as it should be seen. For free of course,” she says, counting out more envelopes for us.

We now have two envelopes each.

Score.

If the bag checker notices this excess of envelopes he doesn’t say anything.

He does pick up on Helen’s water bottle though.

“It’s water!” she protests, but it’s no good. She has to go outside and down the whole thing.

“It’s very fancy in here,” I say, noting the old mirror with the Hippodrome’s name faded on the glass and the chandelier handing overhead. “Watch out if you don’t want to be in the photo.” Ellen jumps out the way.

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“I’m very well hydrated,” Helen says on her return, and as the bag checker wishes us a good evening, we head up the stairs.

The stairs take us up straight to the loos. The Hippodrome clearly know their audience.

“It’s a ninety minute show, ladies,” says an usher. “Toilets are here and down there.”

I hang around, people watching as Helen and Ellen partake of the facilities. Everyone is dressed really fancy. Like, really fancy. Not just going out fancy. But going out out fancy. Hotpants and sequins and satin and tiny mini dresses.

I look down at my own efforts. A black dress. Vivienne Westwood. It’s really nice. But not nearly showy enough. I consider opening another button for added cleavage, but my fingers are all fumbly and I don’t think I can manage it. The mourning brooch pinned to my lapel was probably also a mistake. As were the stompy boots. Although considering my wall-leaning, perhaps its best I didn’t attempt heels.

Plus, I doubt any of these women just came from church.

“They have so adapted this place for women,” says Helen on her return. “There are urinals in the ladies’ loos. They must have transferred them over. Although you know what Caroline Criado Perez said about unisex loos?”

I do know what she says about unisex looks. “Only men use unisex loos with urinals. But they also use the ones that don’t have urinals. So, there’s even longer queues for the ones without urinals than if they were just ladies’ and gents’. Wait…” I stop. “Are we seriously having feminist discourse outside the loos at Magic Mike?”

“Oh, look, a hen party,” says Ellen, bringing the tone right back to where it needs to me.

The Hen, in her shiny satin sash, looks over and gives us a big grin, and we all grin back.

We go to the bar.

A girl walks past with a massive fishbowl of a drink.

“Wow,” says Ellen, gapping at the drink.

The girl laughs. “They just told me it’s a ninety minute show without a break,” she says with a shrug of resignation.

There are screens all over the place, warning us to take our seats because the show is about to start. I check my phone. There’s still ten whole minutes. I mean, I get that moving hundreds of drunk women into their seats might be tricky, but ten minutes!

“Hello ladies, are you seeing the show tonight?”

“Yup!” says Ellen, looking up from the drinks menu.

“Well, the show’s about to start, so you should probably take your seats. You can order your drinks from there. Don’t worry, it’s exactly the same menu, same choice, same everything.”

“Oh, okay then!”

“Can I see your tickets?”

I hand them over and he points us in the right direction, but a second later, we’re lost, having gone up a flight of stairs that we should not have gone up.

“I’m going to get a programme,” I say, spotting a merch desk on our way back down.

I glance over at the price list, kinda squinting as I do so because I don’t want to know. Ten pounds? Fifteen? Twenty probably.

“That’s seven pounds, please,” says the woman behind the desk.

Oh. “Oh!”

Well, I mean, it’s hardly bargain of the century, but selling a programme for only seven pounds to an audience who are probably drunk enough to empty out their purses on the counter…. well, that is some Saint Simeon Stylites levels of ascetic restraint right there. Hang on, did I just say the word ascetic? Fucking hell, I must really be drunk right now. I’m not sure I even know how to spell that when sober. Or pronounce it. Wait, what’s going on?

“Are you taking pictures of the merch, Helen?” I ask, spotting Helen kneeling on the ground in front of the glass display.

“Just of the underpants.”

Well, that’s alright then.

“I don’t want one, but how much are these?” she asks, now back on her feet and poking through a bowl of temporary tattoos.

“Five pounds,” says the merch lady. Very patiently.

“We should probably go in…” I suggest.

We find the door. There are two ticket checkers. Both men.

“There are a lot of men working here,” I say, looking around. “Almost all men.”

Yes, there was the young woman on the main door. And the one at the merch desk. But everywhere else: bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke, bloke.

“And they’re all so nice!” says Ellen. “Like the guy who told us to go to our seats. He could have just said it, but he made the effort to tell us we could order drinks in there.”

Helen is nodding away enthusiastically. “And it’s not just nice it’s…”

“Gentlemanly,” I say.

“Yes!”

“And like, not sleazy. At all.”

There’s more enthusiastic nodding from the pair of them as we get to the front of the queue.

“I’m just going to put this stamp on your hand,” says one of the ticket checkers, with the air of a paediatric nurse telling their young charge not to worry about the needle. It really won’t hurt.

“It’s a unicorn!” says Ellen, examining her new hand print.

I look at mine. I have to twist my arm in a very unnatural way to see it properly. It is a unicorn!

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“Oh dear… it’s really small in here,” says Ellen as we go into the auditorium. She doesn’t sound overly happy about that. She’s not a fan of intimate theatre. Even when the performers are fully clothed.

“Hang on ladies, I’ll be right with you,” says yet another (male) usher.

We hang around as he seats another group.

“Oh god…” I say to the world in general.

“I know!” says a woman right back. “I’m dreading this. I keep on thinking about all the failed decisions in my life that brought me up to this point…”

I nod along sympathetically. Me too, love. Me fucking too.

A minute later, our usher is back. He bounds over with a grin, executing a neat spin as he approaches us.

“You alright?”

“Yeah!” I say, very much impressed by the spin. I show him the tickets and he points out our seats.

Front row.

Oh.

I remember booking these. Vaguely.

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“You’re over here. One, two, three,” he says, counting out the seats. “Wait, hang on,” he says as I make off. “Just some things I need to tell you first.” And he launches into a short speech. We’re allowed to take photos. But we need to keep the cameras close to us. He demonstrates, holding an imaginary phone close to his chest. “No leaning on the railing. The dancers will be moving around everywhere. So keep your drinks close, and your bags under your seat.”

And with that, we’re released.

The seats are wide and comfy. And there’s plenty of leg room.

The leg room is worrying me. As is the glass platform that is running around the outside of the balcony.

The lights go down.

A roar goes up from the audience. A blast of pure animal noise.

A male MC in a blue suit comes out on stage and starts stirring up the crowd.

A front of houser comes over with a drinks menu.

He crouches down and lean in as Helen and Ellen order.

“What do you want?” asks Ellen, handing me the menu.

I stare at it, but can’t make anything out. Is this even in English? It’s all just swirly lines on a page.

I hand it back. “It’s okay,” I say. “I don’t want anything.”

“Are you sure?” asks Ellen.

“Err.”

“It free,” Helen reminds me.

“Shit, err…” but it’s no good. It’s too dark. And too loud. I can’t focus. “What are you having?”

Ellen says something but it sounds like nonsense string of syllables.

“That sounds good,” I say. I trust Ellen’s drinks order than I do my own sense right now.

The MC has gone out into the stalls. He’s talking to an audience member.

A dancer comes over.

Oh, god. He’s grinding on her. The grinding has started.

This is so unpleasant.

The MC asks if she’s wet.

I am so grossed out right now.

She says no, but that answer just earns her a trip on stage where a dancer dressed as a firefighter pulls out a hose from his trousers. It squirts.

No euphemism intended on my part. That’s all on them.

The woman looks down out her outfit. Covered in a pink mess.

“Stop!” she shouts.

The dancer stops.

We all stop.

Lights change. A disembodied voice comes over the speakers.

Who is that?

Channing Tatum?

What the fuck is going on?

The audience member is outraged. This isn’t what she wants. Male MCs asking if she’s moist, and dancers throwing around double entendres. And she’s not having it.

A microphone descends from the rig.

She’s taking over.

Ellen leans into me. “I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

Nor do I.

Nor. Do. I.

But it looks like we’re under a new regime. The girls are taking over.

She wants the firefighter costume off. He duly obliges, throwing it into the audience and revealing a crisp white t-shirt and nice pair of jeans underneath.

Blimey, that’s… well, that’s much better.

“He’s kinda hot,” says Helen.

I nod. He is kinda hot.

And so it begins.

Our new MC introduces the dancers. We have a CEO. A man holding a baby (not our baby, she is quick to clarify. That’s not part of the fantasy going on here). The boy next door.

The audience duly roars with every new revelation.

The dancers strut their stuff in routines that seem mainly made up of lighting changes. But even in my sodden state I can see that they’re not bad. These guys can dance.

And they don’t stay still.

A minute on stage, and they are off, prowling around the audience, shifting seats around to give themselves room to show off their moves.

Our drinks arrive.

Mine is very pink. It has a straw.

I give it a sip.

It seems to be primarily made up of sugar, with the merest dash of alcohol.

“It’s very sweet,” says Ellen. She puts her’s down under her chair.

I carry on drinking.

Helen tries to say something to me, but I can’t hear her. A second later she’s showing me her phone. “The way you look next to them…” it says. She points at the girls sitting next to me.

They’re screaming. Properly screaming. And bouncing around in their seats.

They are very drunk.

Drunker than me.

Drunker than I have ever been in my life.

I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to get that drunk. The world would run out of alcohol before that happened.

As dancers gyrate their way around the glass platform, the girls scream at them, wave at them, reach for them.

They are so happy.

And all the while, young men in smart shirts and red aprons dart between the rows, taking orders and bringing drinks.

I catch Helen looking at me again. “You’re watching the audience, not the stage!” she shouts over the music.

“I’m here as a professional,” I shout back. But she’s right. I am watching the audience. It’s fascinating stuff. Seeing the excitement. The enjoyment. The letting go.

A rope descends from the rig just in front of us. I nudge Ellen and point at it.

We raise our eyebrows at each other.

Looks like we’re going to get some aerial work going on.

Someone appears next to our row.

He’s not a dancer. He’s a stage manager or something.

He grabs the rope and starts tightening knots and getting it ready and… gosh, he’s very attractive.

Fuck. No. Stop Maxine. Don’t do that. Don’t perv on the poor stage managers, who are just trying to do their jobs.

Honestly, it is so on brand of me to go to a strip show and end up getting a crush on one of the backstage team.

I look back at the stage.

The dancers are doing their very utmost. Shirts are coming off. Abs revealed. All very impressive.

And our MC is keeping them under strict control.

A dancer rubs her shoulders before moving down to her feet.

“I don’t need my foot rubbed,” she snaps back. “I’m trying to do a show here. What about her?” She points at a woman in the front row, and the dancer trots over as bidden, sits on the edge of the stage, and holds out his hand, ready to receive the audience member’s foot.

She needs a little encouragement from our MC, but soon enough, her sandled foot is getting a rub down.

Our MC has found herself a prodigy. A young neophyte she wishes to mold into the perfect man.

“What’s the most important thing when dealing with a woman?” she asks him.

There’s a pause as he considers the answer. He leans in, speaking into her microphone. “Permission,” he whispers.

The effect is electric. The room almost bursts as 300 women levitate from their seats at that word.

The MC decides what we need is a safe word. “Unicorn,” she decides. If anything happens that we don’t want to be happening, just say unicorn “and they will listen!” she promises.

Women are starting to come up on stage. They get picked up, danced over, and gyrated against.

A few of them cover their faces with their hands not knowing what to do with their faces as they get lain back on tables and danced on top of.

“Look, they’re sweeping!” says Ellen, pointing back at the stage where yes, a few stage hands have run on to clean things up while we were all distracted.

My neighbour flaps her hand in front of me. “Look! Look!” she says in my ear. “He's coming up!”

I look. One of the dancers is climbing up to the balcony.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend, or a partner,” says our MC, “sing you your favourite song?”

The dancers come back out, this time with instruments.

Helen jumps in her seat. “This is my favourite song,” she shouts and laughs, unable to keep her joy contained.

I can’t tell you what Helen’s favourite song is. I don’t know it. I haven’t recognised any of the music tonight come to think of it.

But I seem to be the only one because everyone is having great fun singing along.

I sit back and decide to wait until they bring out Marilyn Manson’s greatest hits.

A dancer comes out with an arm full of roses and starts handing them out, even lobbing a few into the balcony.

Helen catches one.

She's doing really well tonight.

And then it comes. The bit I’d been dreading.

“You’ve all had hard days,” says our MC. “You should get a lapdance! Just remember. The safe word is unicorn. Say it if you need to and the dancers will listen.”

“They are working fast,” I say, watching as the dancer assigned to the balcony moves and grinds his way along the front row, not spending more than a few seconds on each person.

He pauses a few times, to push back hair and whisper in ears, but never for long. There are a lot of people to get through.

Finishing the end of the row, he crosses the aisle and dives into the row behind us. From there he goes to the other end of our section, working on one woman then leaving again.

“It’s beginning to feel a bit pointed,” says Ellen, not sounding overly disappointed at not getting a dancer thrusting at her.

But that’s not it. I’ve noticed something. It’s been happening all night.

They’re reading the room. The dancers. Or at least someone who is telling the dancers.

Girls wearing shorts were lain down on stage. Ones wearing trousers had their legs lifted in the air. Larger girls where presented with dancers to feel up. Smaller ones were lifted around.

And those three woman sitting in the balcony who weren’t on the feet, dancing around with everyone else? Yeah, someone noticed that they weren’t totally into it. And they made sure that they didn’t need to unicorn their way out of anything.

Down in the stalls, a woman has spilt her drink. One of the red aproned front of housers runs over with a roll of paper towels. He spins out reams of the stuff. Feet of it. Metres. Making a spectacle of the paper towels flying around as he cleans up the table for her.

And I want to laugh, because that’s it, isn’t it? That’s how you look after an audience. Not just one composed of drunk women. Any audience. You look after them. Make them feel cared for. And safe. And give them an out. Just in case they need it.

“It had the kind of camaraderie you find in night club bathrooms,” says Ellen as we try to find our way out. “Girls lending each other their mascara, you know?”

“That was an amazing feeling,” says Helen, inspecting her rose. “Like, the audience is the most important part of a show. You can’t have one without them. But to feel it… to have the experience focused on you…”

Yup.

The show isn’t for me. I didn’t expect for it to be.

But what I expected it to be was awful.

And it wasn't that either.

It was all perfectly fine.

In a week when I have been thinking so much about audience consent, from the assault on audiences at 10,000 Gestures, to the warning-laden A Web in the Heart earlier today, Magic Mike Live feels like a shining example of how to treat them. And yes, Boris Charmatz fans may point out that the results here are hardly art. And the extreme behaviour of his dancers served some higher purpose. But in 2019, as the world goes to shit, perhaps what we need, what we all need, is not some choreographer’s intellectual fantasy, but reasonably priced programmes, ushers who actively want their guests to have a good time, and a safe word to arm ourselves with.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to concentrate very hard on not throwing up as I try to find the night bus home.

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But is it art tho?

It’s my birthday today! And you know what that means? The same thing it means every night, Pinky. I’m going to the fucking theatre.

Well, sort of. Not quite.

I’m actually just making my way to the Tate Modern at the moment, sinking my way down the long ramp that takes you down and towards the entrance for the Turbine Hall.

But for tonight, that counts as a theatre.

There’s a bit of confusion on the door. A group are trying to explain to the ticket checker that they don’t actually have their tickets yet. They still need to pick them up. After a bit of back and forth, they’re let through, and it’s my turn.

“Collecting tickets?” I say.

“Ah, okay,” comes the reply. And nothing more.

Looks like I’m on my own here then.

I don’t know if you’ve been to the Tate Modern recently, but what’s surprising to me when I walk in, is how little, well, art there is. It’s all about the building. The concrete walls towering up either side of you. The walkways and overhangs and windows and struts and all the other sticky out bits that I don’t have the words for.

And in the centre of it all, running up through this vast foyer space, is a queue.

A very long queue. As long as this building is high. And growing as the dribs and drabs of people walking down towards it are drawn in, like an epic game of snake, winding itself back and trying to avoid bumping into its own tail.

But amongst all this, I’ve just spotted someone. Someone I know. Someone I work with. Someone who scored me this ticket. Someone who is coming towards me, with a wodge of tickets in her hands, ready to give me mine.

“I feel like one of those cool people who knows people,” I tell her, and then realise that I am one of those cool people who knows people.

“Welcome to Sadler’s Wells presents at our temporary venue,” she says cheerfully, handing me my ticket.

As temporary venues go, the Turbine Hall is quite something. Not exactly a pop-up tent in a muddy field somewhere, is it?

I look at what she’s give me. The ticket, and also a little booklet.

“Is that a freesheet?” I say a little over excitedly. “I love a freesheet.”

“I know you do! You must let me know what you think!”

Initial impressions are that despite only being a single sheet of A4, folded twice like a business letter, this jobby has been professionally printed. Just look how the image goes all the way to the edge of the page! Very nice.

“We’re opening soon,” she says. “So this queue will go down quite fast.”

“So you recommend joining it?”

She pauses. “Yeah… seats are unallocated.”

I don’t need telling twice.

As promised, the queue starts moving really rather fast, taking us down the hall towards a huge bank of seating that fills almost the entire width of the space. I flash my ticket at the ticket checker and get nodded into a maze of bollards, where we are snaked through to the right side of the hall.

Further down a front of houser offers me a freesheet from a large pile, but I hold mine up. “Already got one,” I say.

I’m hoping the: I have contacts, you see, is understood between us without me needing to say it explicitly.

“Ah, perfect!” she says. Yeah, she got it.

Half the seats are already occupied by the time I get around. I traipse up steps until I get to the first row that is almost empty and make my way right to the end.

It’s really hot in here. Sweltering. A dry, heavy heat, that settles on your skin like an itchy blanket. I’m hoping having nothing but the cool metal bars of the railings on one side will help. I don’t do well in heat. As soon as the mercury goes past twenty degrees I’m feeling queasy. When it tops twenty-four I’m throwing up. Any more than that and I’m gonna faint if I feel too hemmed in.

Yeah, I really don’t do well in heat.

This is going to be a real fun summer.

The seats are nice though. Much better than you usually get in these set ups. Wide, with plenty of leg room and a decent, if not brilliant, rake.

And there before us, is the Turbine Hall in all its magnificence.

It’s not often that you get to enjoy the sight of such a large empty space. Well, not without the benefit of horizons and opens skies and all that shit.

I can’t help but think though, that things might be slightly more comfortable if they’d left the turbines in. I get my fan out and give myself a good blast, but it’s only a temporary relief. I can’t keep flapping once the performance starts.

As my row begins to fill up, I start noticing the type of tickets people have. Sadler’s for some. Tate for others. And soon enough I start trying to guess which ones organisation each person bought their tickets from. That girl in the orange jumpsuit? Tate. The bloke with the round glasses and neat moustache? Sadler’s.

I think I’m starting to creep out my neighbour (Tate).

I lean against the railings and look down below.

There’s a young woman down there, bouncing around and holding her foot up behind her as she stretches out her legs. She’s very sparkly, dressed in a tomato red ice-skater’s costume.

She’s chatting with one of the security people, nodding her head in response to some unheard question.

A second later, she’s off, sprinting down the makeshift corridor and out into the hall.

She doesn’t waste much time. The name of the show is 10000 Gestures. And the intent is to perform exactly what it says on the poster. Ten thousand gestures, danced and behaved and delivered and executed and discharged. All different. And not one of them repeated. That’s a lot of gestures.

There’s no way she can do that alone.

Twenty more dancers pour out of a door at the side of the hall, flooding the dance floor with a torrent of movement.

All to the sounds of Mozart’s Requiem.

I frickin’ love Mozart’s Requiem.

And yeah, yeah. I know. I’m such a fucking cliché. The Goth girl likes a requiem. Quelle fucking surprise. But I do find it genuinely thrilling. Even without the overtones of death. And it’s not like I’m an undiscerning reqieumphile. There’s plenty of sucky requiems out there. Britten’s War Requiem can go fuck a duck, quite frankly.

But Mozart... Well.

The dancers veer between the everyday and recognisable movements, picking wedgies out of the bottoms and scratching, to performing child’s pose, upside down, while balancing on another dancer’s feet.

Does that count as one movement or two I wonder? Or perhaps even three, with each individual dancer's actions adding up to a shiny new one.

There’s so much going on, I’m never sure where I’m meant to be looking, always convinced I’m missing something better as soon as I allow my eyes to linger.

And then the screaming starts.

Long drawn out wails. Short bleats of distress.

A caterwaul of pain rising up from the stage and going on and on and on.

People start to leave. Scuttling down the aisle, their bags clutched tight to the chests.

And still the dancers cry out. Unstoppable in their anguish. And I want to cry out too, to cover my ears with my hands, rush from my seat. But I’m trapped at the end of my row, stuck in my seat with politeness.

Just as I decide I can’t take another second of screaming, they stop.

A dancer points into the audience. “Boris!” she shouts. I know, intellectually, that she’s referring to the choreographer, Boris Charmatz. But that name, this week, shouted out by a distressed sounding woman, well, it provokes unfortunate emotions inside of me.

I’m not doing well. It’s so hot, and the air is so dry. A tickle has lodged in my throat and it refuses to be coughed out.

There’s a crash, as something is knocked off the seating bank and down past the railings.

A security officer walks over to grab it.

I wonder if I can do the same. Feed myself through the railings to be picked up and looked after by security.

But there’s no escape. The dancers are coming. Leaving the safe confines of the dance floor and merging with the audience. They grab water bottles and chug from them thirstily. Tote bags are whipped out from under seats and swung in lasso mode over their heads.

They climb up between the rows, slither between the seats, and squirm back down, shouting out numbers in French as they go. The countdown of their gestures.

A small boy sitting in the row behind me is enveloped in a dancer’s arms, and she pulls him away from his parents, walking him down the aisle before releasing him. He returns, climbing back up, darting around against the overwhelming onslaught of dancers, his eyes wide with confusion. His mother pulls him back into her arms and he leans against her, safe once more.

A man is hefted up from his seat and slung over the shoulders of a dancer in a firemen’s lift before being carried away.

Hands are clasped.

Freesheets stolen and thrown away.

Clothes removed and chucked about. A flurry of jackets and cardigans.

Something is lobbed at one of the security officers. He stays resolutely in his seat, fixing the dancer with a hard stare.

A dancer wearing nothing put a dance belt climbs over my seat, his bare bottom sliding down my arm as he continues on his way down to the front row.

And then they’re gone.

A few people get up to retrieve their belongings.

Now that it’s over, and the dancers are back where they belong, a gentle giggle bounces around.

“Dancers may interact with the audience.”

That's what it had said in the sign by the queue.

I’m not quite sure that advisory message quite covers what just happened to us. It feels as if something has been broken. Not the barrier between performer and audience, but something far more sacred. Something more akin to trust.

I can’t help but think of Kill Climate Deniers at the Pleasance, where in the midst of a rave, a performer cheekily asks permission to drink from an audience member’s glass. Or Séance, where we were given a last out before the lights went down, and provided with clear advice about how to handle things if we were overwhelmed. Or Let's Summon Demons, where names are exchanged and drinks shared before secrets are exposed and dark forces take hold.

Here there was no escape. No warning. No relationship between performer and performee.

I feel a little betrayed.

I am too hot, and frankly too bothered, for any of this.

And on top of it all, it’s my birthday! Last year I went to Hamilton. This year I get a sweaty bottom on my arm.

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I blame Natalia

Way back in the midsts of time, when Cadbury sold out to Kraft, the coalition government was first coalilating, and everyone was freaking out about a dust cloud, little Maxine, fresh-faced and filled with hope, went to the ballet. She had been to the ballet before, but had never really got what the fuss was about. All a bit pink and silly, she thought. She was working a corporate job in the city. Dedicating her life to making even more money for people who were already far richer than she would ever be. She didn't exactly enjoy it, but she had graduated straight into the recession and was told by pretty much everyone she should be grateful for what she could get. In the mornings, she used to take the tube to Leicester Square and walk to her office from there, right through the West End. After a while, all the bright posters with their promises of excellent night outs got to her, and she started to see a few shows. They were okay. Then the Bolshoi came to town. She'd heard of the Bolshoi. They were that famous Russian ballet group, weren't they? She decided that as a sophisticated young lady, she should probably take in some proper culture and go see them. If only to say that she had, in fact, seen them. So she did. She booked a performance pretty much at random, and off she went. And there she saw Natalia Osipova.

And that, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the beginning and end of everything

She saw a lot of ballet after that. A lot of ballet.

She also started talking about herself in third person.

Eighteen months later, she quit her corporate job that she was really and truly, very grateful for, and got an unpaid internship in the arts, leading her on the path that would one day result in her declaring that she was going to see a show in every theatre in London within a single year.

Frankly, I blame Natalia.

As the dancer who really did start it all for me, the catalyst to the person you know and... know, today, I couldn't not include Osipova's show in the marathon.

So I'm going to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to see it, and get the first of the Southbank Centre venues checked off the list.

The Southbank Centre always manages to confuse me. It's so big and sprawling. With entrances and staircases and terraces all over the place. I can't remember exactly where the QEH is. I've been there before. But only once. And that was a fair number of years ago. But thankfully, someone on team Southbank Centre has realised the problematic scale of their, well, scale, and the entrance I need it marked out in huge letters. QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL. With a handy reminder of one of the other venues that I need to go to listed underneath: PURCELL ROOM.

No good getting ahead of myself there. I try and find a spot on on this terrace to take a photo of the building. It's tricky, as there's a bloody great fountain in the middle of it. And while the weather is pretty good, I'm not overly keen on getting soaked right at this minute. Not that other people have any qualms about that. There's someone standing stock still in the middle of all the spurting water. He's wearing a suit. With a buttonhole. And looks quite content in there

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It's a damn cold night

It’s Monday and I’ve decided to be nice to myself today. Got a new top which I’m rather pleased with, and I’m wearing my favourite boots and my big gold hoops, and I’m feeling rather swish. I even put a massive satin bow in my hair, which is making strangers on the tube smile at me. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who enjoys being smiled at on the tube, but here we are. I must be getting soppy in my old age.

I’m taking this rather nifty outfit and me to the theatre tonight. Of course. I take myself to the theatre every night. But tonight is special because we’re going to one of my favourites: the Young Vic.

Now I’m not saying it’s my favourite because I love the work there, although I totally do. Or at least, I did. It’s hard to say now as they have a new AD and I’ve haven’t had the chance to check out what Kwame Kwei-Armah has been up to yet. Anyway, what I’m trying to say, rather cack-handedly, is that I really love the theatre. The building. The staff. The location. Everything.

You always get the feeling that they are looking after you there. That they have the audiences’ back. They call the front of housers the Welcome Team, which is the type of theatre wankery that I don’t personally have a lot of patience for, but I also recognise that this title was not created with people like me in mind, and that it probably does go a long way to welcoming the type of people that require a team called the Welcome Team.

Whatever they’re called, they’re great.

Always lovely and helpful to the above and beyond level of loveliness and helpfulness. Like, ridiculously so. I was once, many years ago, handed a pair of cupcakes when picking up my tickets because I’d been chatting with one of the box office team on Twitter forever and he’d fancied getting his bake on that day.

As loveliness and helpfulness go, home baked cupcakes are hard to beat.

Do you remember when Twitter was like that? When you could have a proper natter with the theatre social media accounts? Back before content teams were a thing, and you still knew the names of every person tweeting behind the official handle. And the not so official handles. Back in those days, the Young Vic had an unofficial account run by one of the box office team: @YVTeaBitch. Actually, thinking about it, it was the Tea Bitch who baked those cupcakes. It’s all coming back to me now. Carrot cake. With lots of cream cheese icing. They were bloody good.

The account is gone now. Properly gone. Not just dormant. Pity.

It would never happen today. If you were handed cupcakes by box office, there’d be someone with a smartphone standing by to capture the #theatremagic. And there is no way in hell an unofficial, and slightly sweary, theatre account could be allowed to bumble along without interference from the office-bods for so long.

2013 really was a heady year.

Anyway, enough about the past. We’ve moved on, haven’t we? It’s 2019, and I’ve got a theatre to get checked off the list.

“Sorry,” says a lady, stepping in front of me to stop me just as I’m rushing to cross the road. “Where’s the Aldwych Theatre?”

I point in the direction of the nearest theatre. “It’s that one,” I say before hurrying off. The countdown clicking its way to the lights changing.

Behind me I just hear her say, “They’re showing The Lion King!”

Shit. I just pointed at the Lyceum.

Which is, in case you haven’t noticed, not the Aldwych.

And it’s not like I don’t know where the Aldwych is. I went there last week. It’s in the friggin’ Aldwych. Clue is in the name and all that.

I really need a fucking holiday, I can tell you that.

Oh well. She’s gone now. Disappeared into the crowds. She’ll be okay. The good people at the Lyceum will see her right, I’m sure.

Failing that, she can watch the Lion King. It certainly can’t be worse than Tina - The Tina Turner Musical. I might have actually done her a favour.

I sprint across the road, the lights shifting to amber before I’m even half way across, the guilt chasing me safely to the other side before the cyclists run me over.

I cross my arms to keep my jacket close to me as I brave Waterloo Bridge. It’s really windy, and freezing. How did it get so cold so fast? My hands are completely numb. I’m beginning to regret wearing my new top today. It’s not exactly insulating. It’s made of mesh. The wind is going right through me. As for my ridiculously large ribbon, let’s just say that hair ribbons and windy bridges don’t mix. And that even soft satin can be a bit owie when it gets whipped in your face at fifteen miles per hours.

The strong breeze blows me half the way to The Cut, and I stumble the rest of the road by myself. There’s a lot of people out here, standing around in front of the theatre. There always are at the Young Vic. I can never tell why. The bar at the Young Vic is pretty famous. I can’t imagine wanting to stand around in the cold when there’s somewhere nice to sit down inside. But what do I know. Perhaps standing outside in the cold is the new hip thing to do.

There’s a bit of a queue at the box office, but they are zipping through it. I barely have a chance to snap a photo of the mirrored ceiling and the old tiled walls (left over from the building’s former life as a butcher shop, which is a fact which I’m fairly confident that I am not making up).

“Are you collecting,” asks the bloke behind the box office.

I tell him that I am.

“Is it for Death of a Salesman?”

Unfortunately not. “No, the other one,” I say, the name of the show completely evading me. “The one in the studio?” I can’t remember the name of the studio either. It’s not even a studio, really. It’s a whole ‘nother theatre.

No matter, he gets what I mean, jumping over to the smaller of the two ticket boxes.

“What’s the surname?”

I give it.

“And your postcode?”

I pause a fraction too long before my postcode decides to make an appearance in my brain. Blimey, that was scary. Not remembering the name of a show I can deal with. I was never much good at that. Pointing at the wrong theatre could just be classed as tourist-based-arseiness. But my own postcode? I should definitely be able to recall that. This marathon, man… It’s getting to me. It really is.

He nods. I got that one right. Phew.

“Just head through there,” he said, indicating the direction, “and it’s on the left. The doors should be opening in about fifteen minutes.”

There’s already a bit of a queue by the doors to the second theatre space. (The Maria, I remember that now that the high-pressure stakes of ticket negotiation are now over). Seating is unallocated, so it pays to get in line early. Seems everyone else got the memo too, because within minutes that queue is stretching right across the bar and all the way back to the box office.

It’s also blocking the loos. I’m conflicted about the loos. There’s a sign stating that visitors are free to use whichever loo the they feel most comfortable with (with the added bonus of gender neutral toilets upstairs), but annoyingly, they are really inconveniently located, right next to the doors to The Maria.

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse me.”

It’s only been a few minutes, and I already feel like I’ve excused half of London as I jump forward and back to let people through to the facilities.

A front of houser in a red polo shirt comes through. Sorry, I mean: a member of the welcome team in a red polo shirt comes through.

“Just wave your ticket at me at the door,” she says, taking my ticket and ripping off the stub. “Goldfish brain.” She hands back my ticket. “It's an hour and twenty straight through.”

Nice.

“Excuse me please,” says an old man.

I step back as far as I can go without trampling the person behind me.

He stands there, looking at me.

I stand there, looking at him.

“Well, go on then,” I say, rather rudely, and wave my hands to indicate that he should pass.

He bows his head and scuttles through.

I mean, really.

The lights above the bar are flashing. Death of a Salesman is going in. The bar begins to clear out as audience members head to their seats.

The Welcome Teamer returns. “I've done all your tickets, right?” she asks the queue in general. We all nod. Our tickets have all been shorn of their stubs.

Another old man appears. This one holding his hands in a prayer gesture, begging to get through.

I’m rather fed up with being the gatekeeper to the loos, and I sigh as I step back for him.

A second later, he returns, pushing through the queue in the other direction.

“Fucking idiot,” says a man standing behind me. “Realised the show was about to go in and that he didn’t need to go all that much after all.” He pauses. “Twat.”

The doors are opening.

As instructed, I flash my ticket at the Welcome Teamer. She nods. “Down to the bottom and turn left,” she says.

I follow the line through the brown corridor, down to the bottom, and then turn left.

The space has been sealed up with high white curtains. There’s a small gap and we each make our way through and into the theatre.

There’s another Welcome Teamer in here. “It's unreserved seating,” he says, handing me a freesheet. “Move down the rows please, as we’re sold out tonight.”

I don’t even have to think about it anymore. Third row, right at the end. It’s my spot now.

I take off my jacket and settle down, looking around to take in the space. You never know what you’re going to get in The Maria.

For Bronx Gothic, it looks like we’re getting a floor level stage, with raked seating on two sides, so that the stage forms the last quarter in this square space. All surrounded by those high white curtains, sealing us off from the world.

Carrier bags hang limply from the lighting rig above our heads, and lamps are strewn across the floor, as green shoots spurt out from underneath their shades. There’s even a small knot of grass working its way up from beside the front row, as if we have found ourselves in a forgotten ruin, given over to the unstoppable plant life.

And in the furthest corner, Okwui Okpokwasili.

She stands, shimmering and shimmering, facing away from us.

Body shuddering, shaking, as her hands twist elegantly with controlled rotations, she’s in her own world. One far away from the audience taking their seats behind her.

People are still coming in, through two different entrances.

The Welcome Teamers rush about as they try to keep their streams separate.

“How many of you are there?” the Welcome Teamer on my side asks a young girl as she leads in a big group.

The benches are filling up fast. And they don’t want to be split up.

He looks around and points. “There’s a whole row over there,” he says, and they traipse up towards it happily.

The lights are gradually fading. The darkness creeping in minute by minute.

I’m also happy with my choice of seat. The rake really is marvellous here. I can see clear over the tops of the heads of the people sitting in the row in front, with plenty of room to spare. The tallest person in the world could sit in front of me and I’d still have a great few.

This is what I mean about the Young Vic looking after their audiences. Ignore the loos. The location of the loos were a mistake. But here, in the theatre, someone, at some point, thought about how people would sit on these benches and would need a clear view of the stage. A surprisingly rare stop on the journey to show creation, judging from the seats I’ve been sat in this year.

The lights have dimmed to extinction.

The show has begun.

But the audience isn’t. One person pops through the white curtain. The Welcome Teamer closest to me jumps from his seat and motions for the newcomer to walk around the stage and join him in the front row. A second later another person appears, and he is also manoeuvred deftly into the front row.

Okpokwasili turns round. After ignoring us for so long, we are now the subjects of her gaze.

She shimmers and shakes, her head tipped back, her eyes fixed, still and then roving.

With a jolt I realise she is looking straight at me. She holds my gaze. The seconds stretch on into an uncomfortable eternity, before she moves onto someone else. I follow where the path of her eyes. She’s getting all of us, one by one, drawing us in.

And then she stops. The shimmering shakes stilling. Her muscles slackening.

She has a story to tell.

Two girls. Passing notes. One teacher, the other pupil. One beautiful, the other ugly. One ignorant, the other wordly.

Okpokwasili prowls around her corner square, explaining her choice of words. “You know what they mean when they say they’ll slap the black right off you?” She pauses, examining the line of white people sitting in the front row. “Well, maybe you don't,” she says.

The lights switch back on, blazing white. Then crash us back into darkness.

A Booming sound grows in pitch and volume until it becomes painfully loud. I want to cover my ears. Just as it becomes unbearable, the stop. The silence rings throbs through my body.

Okpokwasili’s tale skins in circles, doubling back on itself and picking up threads as it goes.

And then we are released.

“Just go straight on past the crowd,” says a Welcome Teamer as we make our way back down the brown corridor. “It's the interval for the other show, so it’s very busy.”

It is. So is the pavement outside. I rush down The Cut, catching my breath in the square opposite the Old Vic.

So much for a gentle start to the week.

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Under My Roof

This is it. This is the big one. The theatre I've been most excited for, but also really dreading.

I'm only going to Sadler's fucking Wells tonight.

The theatre I'm most familiar with. The home team. My pad. The place I'm been spending the majority of my days for the past three years.

The place I haven't seen a show now for over five months. That's been a fucking nightmare, let me tell you.

I've spent the whole day feeling a little queasy. Five months in the making and I still don't know how I'm going to write about this one. Like, how am I supposed to talk about the place I work? Without getting fired I mean...

It's almost a relief to be spending my afternoon hiding in the photocopier room printing out castsheets for the weekend performances. Oh gosh, am I supposed to review these? I pick one up and give it a critical once-over. They look good to me. They should do, after the amount of back and forth needed to put them together. I only just got off the phone with the company - talking through the final changes before I fired up the printer.

Okay, perhaps they are a little too overstuffed on the content side of things. There are a lot of words packed into these two-sides of A4. But San Francisco Ballet is a big company, with lots of dancers, sponsors, and egos, that all need to be mentioned. There's even a line about one of the violins in there which is a first for me. But then, it's not every day that we have a Stradivari in the Sadler's orchestra pit. I'm really rather excited about that.

I start piling up the stacks of paper, one for each of the four performances that will be taking place over the weekend, ready to be picked up by front of house and distributed throughout the building and handed out to the audience. Of which I'm going to be one. Oh, god. I feel really fucking nervous now.

I keep an eye on the printer. We had to get an engineer out this morning. The pages were coming out yellow. And that would never do. No one wants yellow castsheets. Diseased, that's how they looked. But now they are pristine white. Perfect.

Right, those are printing. And I've ordered the reprint for the programmes.

Wait, have I? I double check my emails. Yes. Thank goodness. That was scary. We sold a fuck-tonne on the first night. I'm not surprised. They look luscious. Our designers did a really good job on this one. And they sure had there work cut out for them. I gave them the longest brief I've ever written. Over ten thousand words. Excluding the article. That came later. But it was worth it. They are seriously swanky. And heavy. Poor front of house. They're never going to forgive me for all this, are they?

Oh well. No time to think on that. I'm meeting Helen for a pre-show dinner. We're going to Kipferl. An Austrian cafe in Camden Passage. The type of place where they serve hot drinks with a small glass of water on the side. I'm not sure what the purpose the small glass of water is. But it looks very sophisticated with its small spoon balanced on top.

We order schnitzels. My favourite food in the whole world. With potato salad. My second favourite food. And some sort of shredded pancake thing for afters, which I have yet to rank in the food-stakes, but I'm suspecting will come out very high. It comes to the table in a large metal pan, served with a dish of the thickest and sweetest apple sauce I've ever seen. For dipping. Helen and I fish out the leftover crunchy bites from the pan with our fingertips.

"We've got time," I say as we pay the bill and get ready to leave. I check my phone. "We just have to walk fast. Very fast."

We walk fast. Or at least we try to. Walking quickly with a belly full of veal and multiple forms of carbs is tricky.

We stumble our way down Upper Street, catch our breath at the traffic lights, then plunge our way down St John Street, from where you can already spot the massive sign for Sadler's Wells peering out from behind the rooftops. Round the corner, onto Rosebery Avenue., past the stage door, and here we are.

"Where are the loos?" asks Helen.

A perfectly reasonable question to ask someone who has worked here almost three years, and yet I still have to double-check the signage before answering.

I try to cover this embarrassing gaff by grabbing a couple of castsheets from the nearest concession desk. Can't go wrong with a castsheet.

We're sitting in the first circle this evening. Prime celeb-spotting ground if your idea of a celebrity is Royal Ballet dancers and the odd choreographer. Which it totally is for me. And, thank goodness, for Helen too. We give each other significant glances as people we recognise take their seats.

Within minutes we're waving across the circle at our favourite dance critic who is sitting on the other side.

The lights dim.

Out comes the conductor. We all clap. I have to try hard not to bounce around in my seat with excitement.

Nope. Can't help it. "There's the Strad," I say.

"Where?"

"In the middle," I say, referring to the orchestra pit. "She's standing up."

"That's the Strad?"

"That's the Strad!"

I am definitely bouncing in my seat now. I've never heard a Stradivarius being played before. Not live anyway. I can't wait.

An orange sun hangs low over the stage. The dancers flit around in iridescent outfits, covered in glittering veins like an insect's wings. Across the Infinite Ocean. That's the name of the piece. A title that feels incredibly distant. The divide between the living and the dead. But it doesn't feel that way. The Strad sounds so sweet, so yearning, I can almost feel it reaching up from the pit towards me.

And I'm crying.

I don't know why I'm crying. If I did I might be able to stop. But there is no way these tears are ending before the ballet does. They're proper tears. Snotty and fat and utterly unstoppable.

Is it the music? Probably. The effortless grace of the dancers? Most definitely. The achingly lovely choreography? For sure. But also, perhaps, the tiny little scrap of knowledge that I was a part of this. The tiniest cog in the mighty machine that is Sadler's Wells.

"So beautiful," sighs a person sitting in the row behind us as the first pas de deux comes to a close.

Did they book after reading the copy I wrote about the show for the season brochure? They might have done. They may have even bought a programme. Lots of people have. I can see the orange covers sitting on people's laps all around us. I want to turn around and offer this person my castsheet, just in case they didn't pick one up. But I stop myself. That would be weird. A crying woman turning around in a dark theatre to offer you a piece of paper. They can pick one up in the interval, if they really want one.

"Do I have mascara on my face?" I ask Helen as the lights come back up.

She frowns at me. "Why?"

"I was crying, so hard."

She frowns even harder. "From that?"

"Yes, from that. Didn't you like it?"

She pulls a face. "No!"

That's alright. We never agree about anything. Well, except for ponies, Sexy John the Baptist, and Emily Carding. Gives us something to talk about, I suppose. Although it is rather tiresome having a friend who is wrong all the time.

In the interval, we gatecrash the press drinks. I probably shouldn't be telling you this. But I'm trusting you not to blab your mouth here. Anyway, it's nice being able to catch up with all the writers I spend my days emailing.

Plus, it gives Helen the chance to show off about a principal dancer saying thank you to her.

"He said 'thank you' to me," she tells everyone who will listen.

"Such a gentleman," I agree, as witness to the fact that he did indeed thank her.

Next up is a Cathy Marston narrative work. Always a cause for celebration around these parts. Except, I'm not at all familiar with the story, and within minutes I'm totally lost.

"I loved that," says Helen after the applause has died down.

"I... did not understand any of that."

"Oh?"

"Were they dead? I thought they were dead. But then they got up... Were they not dead?"

"Have you read Ethan Frome?"

"No."

"Ah."

"But I shouldn't have to!" This is the one thing we always agree on. No one should have to read the synopsis in order to understand a ballet. Ballet isn't school. You can't assign the audience homework. Everything should be there, on the stage. Not in the castsheet.

"No. Of course but..." Helen goes on to explain what happens in the story. It all makes a lot more sense now.

Back to the mezzanine bar and we're scoffing a dance critic's birthday chocolates. It looks like I'm in the minority on the Marston. Everyone is gabbling excitedly about it and I'm just nodding along as if I have any idea what they are talking about. I really should read that book...

The bells are ringing. We need to get back to our seats.

Helen and I rush towards the stairs. A front of houser gives me an exasperated look. I should really know better than to leave it so late.

We make our way back to our seats, apologising to the poor folks sitting at the end of our row who have to get up once again to let us past.

Next up is the Arthur Pita. I adore Arthur Pita. And this Arthur Pita is the reason I picked this show to attend for my marathon, out of an entire year's worth of programming at Sadler's.

As we go back to our seats, I look around to check he isn't sitting near us. That might sound like an odd thing to be doing to you, but believe me, I have my reasons. I love Arthur Pita's work so much, that it is hard for me not to talk about Arthur Pita's work when I am attending an Arthur Pita work. Once I get started, I can go on hugely long screeds about the man, his quirky wit, his surreal manner of storytelling, his use of music, his... well, you get the idea. So passionate do I get, that I wouldn't even notice if Arthur Pita himself had been sitting behind me the whole time that I've been gabbing. And I'd be left to sink into my seat in shame, praying that he had gone temporarily deaf for the duration. And if this all sounds like something that has happened, then I am delighted to tell you that it has. Three times. Three times I've gone off on one of my Arthur Pita lectures, only to discover that the Arthur Pita has been sitting just behind me.

Three. Bloody. Times.

And if you're thinking, Max - so what? At least you were saying nice things. It's not like you were slagging him off. I mean, wouldn't you enjoy overhearing someone else saying how marvellous you are?

Well, yes. That would be fine. Embarrassing. But fine.

But you may have noticed over the past five months, that when I love someone, I really fucking love them. Like: intensely. I say things that no artist should ever have to hear. You may roll your eyes, but like... When I tell people the things I've said, the general consensus is that I really need to start checking to see who is sitting behind me before I start talking.

So, that's what I'm doing.

He's not there.

Thank god.

"I'm really looking forward to this one," says Helen.

"Me too."

"I love Bjork."

"Oh." Okay. "Yeah, me too." That's true. I do. But Bjork's music isn't the reason I'm here.

The curtain turns blue.

"What colour is the curtain here?" asks Helen.

"Grey?" I chance. "I think it's the lights that make it look red. Or... blue." The curtain isn't usually down during the day. I haven't had the chance to inspect it without the lights on.

The blue, or possibly grey, curtain lifts. The orchestra starts playing.

I sink back into my seat and enjoy the pretty.

Everything is so shiny. The stage is mirrorlike. Tiny metallic palm trees gleam from the ceiling. The dancers look like they have rummaged in the Christmas decoration box to put their costumes together.

There's an electronic crash. Helen jumps. Her body expanding at the noise. Her elbow connecting with my ribs.

A shock of laughter pours over the audience at the startling sound and then retreats, pulling back like a wave leaving silence in its wake.

Bjork's voice fills the void.

A ballerina is carried in on a palanquin. It tips up, and she slides off into a dancer's arms before being whirled away.

A masked dancer carrying a rod sits on the end of the stage, he casts his line into the dark orchestra pit and fishes out another mask for him to wear.

The corps flutter around like exotic birds. Shimmer like fish. Scamper like insets. Anything, everything, other than human.

Helen is hugging her knees, curled up in her seat and she holds herself tight with the huge effort of not exploding.

I feel the same. Everything is glitter and magic and fantasy. I don't know where to look. I want to see everything at once. A thousand times over.

"I could watch that all over again," Helen says, still clapping. The curtain has long fallen. The dancers have left the stage. But we're all still applauding. No one is ready to stop quite yet.

But eventually, we have to stop. It was getting a bit weird.

"I thought it was going to be orchestral all the way through. I jumped!" exclaims Helen.

"I noticed!" I exclaim back.

"I'm a jumpy person."

"I'm glad I didn't take you to The Woman in Black..." I stop. "Hang on, that's pretty." I go over to the windows to take a photo of the faerie-lights strung around the trees on Rosebery Avenue. I realise I haven't been taking any photos. It's hard to see what's interesting about a building you see every day.

I consider taking Helen up to the second circle, where there is currently a mural of a cat painted on the wall. And the portrait of Edmund Keen dressed as Richard III, up in the Demons' Corridor. But the stairs are packed. There's no easy way up there. Likewise, the well on the ground floor is out. Besides, she's probably already seen it.

We chatter all the way to the tube station. It isn't often we both love a show. But when we do, there's no shutting us up.

"Have you decided how you're going to write this up?" she asks.

Nope. I've no idea.

We part at King's Cross, and I sink back against the tube seats.

Seven months. There are seven months left of the year. Seven months before I can justifiably see another show at Sadler's.

That's... not good.

I've been thinking a lot about what's missing in my marathon. I've gone in search of things to make me cry, things to make me feel. But I wonder if what's missing, isn't the emotion, so much as the connection.

I work in the arts because I want to be part of it. To be part of the machine.

And, while I don't create the art, I do go some way to creating the experience. Perhaps that's why my blog is the way it is. There are a thousand people out there writing about the art. I might as well be the one to critic the castsheets.

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Go directly to hell; do not pass go

“I like this,” I say, peering at a large metal contraption outside the Brunel Museum. “It looks like a borer, or something…”

Helen comes over to stand next to me. “It’s a pump,” she says very confidently.

“Well, someone read the label.” I pause. “Or have you just not told me that you’re secretly an engineer?” One never knows with Helen. She’s an expert on things that I haven’t even heard of.

“So, what is this place?” she asks. She’s clearly not an expert on the Brunel Museum. Nor am I, to be honest. I kinda knew it was a place that existed in the world, but have never been here before or even know what sort of thing goes on inside.

“Where do you think we need to go?” I ask. There are some double doors open just ahead of us, with seats laid out in rows inside. Was that the theatre? No, the seats were all facing the wrong way, facing the doors. Somehow that didn’t seem likely for a dance performance.

“I’ve seen people going in there,” says Helen, indicating another building slightly further down. We follow the path around as is slopes down and around a squat tower.

It’s dark in here. Very dark. But I can just make out the silhouette of a table against the gloom.

“That looks like a press table?” says Helen, doubtfully.

It does look like a press table. The type set up on press nights to greet their invited guests away from the faff and queues of the box office. But I’ve been to enough makeshift theatres this year to know that this homespun look often extends beyond the PR-game.

I go over and give my surname. He looks at me. I look at him. “S-M-I-L-E-S?” I try. My name is hard. I get that.

“Smile?” says the man behind the desk.

“Yes.” Close enough.

He applies a monocle to his eye and starts flipping through the tickets.

“Maxine?” he says, still sounding doubtful. But he hands over the tickets anyway.

But my attention is elsewhere. I’ve spotted something very exciting on the table.

“Yay! Freesheets!” I say, grabbing a couple and handing one to Helen.

“Yay,” says the monocle-guy, managing to sound both deadpan and sarcastic at the same time.

There’re not letting people into the space, so Helen and I both traipse back outside. It’s raining.

“He was…” I start.

“Yes,” agrees Helen.

“Frankly, I expected better from a man with a monocle.” A thought occurs: “He was not a fop.”

“Not. He was definitely not a fop.”

We decide to go for a walk.

The original plan had been to find food, but there’s nothing here. Rotherhithe is desolate. Streets and streets full of flats, but not a single cafe open.

“Shall we try the bar?” suggests Helen.

There’s an arrow pointing upwards. We follow it.

“Those stairs are really narrow,” she says, getting out of the way so that I can take a photo.

I’m about to tell her that while I enjoy a stair-photo as much as anyone, I’m not sure I’m going to need an image of some rando-outdoor staircase in my blog, but then I see it. It’s really fucking narrow. Like the stairs to get onto a little boat.

“Are people supposed to go up and down these things when they’re drunk?” I ask the world in general.

The world declines to reply.

“Oh! It’s nice up here,” I say when we reach the top.

We’re standing right on top of the squat tower now. There isn’t much of a view, but it doesn’t matter. It’s really pretty here. Roses climb a blue picket fence and torches blaze amongst the greenery.

We stroll over to the bar to see what’s on offer.

“Just look down there,” says the barman, pointing towards the lower of two chalkboards.

We lower our gaze.

Wine. Beer. Vodka.

“To be honest, I’m not overly enthused by the sound of any of those,” I say.

“I could have a vodka, but…” Helen lets the rest of the sentence hang in the air.

We turn to leave. “You know on Fridays they have fires up there,” I say. “To melt marshmallows over,” I add quickly before she thinks the people of Rotherhithe are very into arson of a weekend. “That’s what the other chalkboard, the one with the cocktails was from.”

“So why are we here on a Wednesday?”

“Yeah, well. You know. It’s not my fault. If they have all those people coming for a show on a Wednesday, maybe they should have a mid-week marshmallow meeting too.” I’m feeling a little defensive, because I knew about this, and yet still failed to book for a Friday. But to be fair to me, I’ve already got a theatre planned for Friday, and it’s a big one. “Shall we go look at the river?” I say, changing the subject.

We go to have a look at the river. It’s all beginning to feel a bit Ancient Mariner. Water, water everywhere, but nor any tea going begging. There’s even an Albatross Way around the corner. I try and make a pun, but I my brain is sodden with drizzle.

Someone is down by the water, working their way through the grimy pebbles.

“I’d like to try that,” says Helen.

“I would too.” I consider this. “But only for like, five minutes. And then I’d like to have a bath, please.”

“A little mudlarking, then lots of hot water to wash my hands.”

“Yes please.”

“And not having to get on the tube while dirty.”

“Oh, definitely not. Mudlarking with a flat overlooking the water. That’s the way it should be done.”

We carry on walking. Towards the Mayflower Pub.

“Do you wanna go in?”

“Nah, we’re just killing time.”

We hang around on the pavement outside the pub.

I glance up. Something in an upstairs window has caught my eye. “Oh my god, look at that!”

Three costumes. Lined up on mannequins.

“Look at that cloak!” says Helen.

“Look at that dress!” I say.

“Ruffles!”

“I would have loved that dress when I was-“

“Now,” says Helen. “You would wear that now.”

It’s true. I would wear that now. If it came in black.

“What is this place?”

Turns out, it’s the Rotherhithe Picture Library. We peer in through the windows. Tables are laden with books about embroidery. There’s a quilt covered with a patchwork of signatures.

I want to go there.

“Look at the hand-painted signs!” exclaims Helen. “I love hand-painted signs.”

I can tell.

“We should probably head back now…”

There’s a queue snaking its way down the path from the entrance to the museum. Quite a long queue.

While Helen pops to the loo, I join the end of the queue.

“Do you have your tickets?” someone asks me.

“I do,” I say, showing them to her.

“So, is this the queue to get in or…?”

“I have no idea…”

 “The loos were super weird. I got caught up in a history talk while I was waiting,” says Helen when she reappears.

“This place is strange. I feel very under-prepared. People have flowers. Should we have brought flowers?”

People do have flowers. White roses from the gentlemen in front of me, and some dazzling red ones further up.

“What even is this show?”

We look at the freesheet. Helen points at one of the character names. “Jokanaan.”

“Right,” I say, weakly.

The queue is moving. We’re heading inside.

“Should I read the synopsis?” asks Helen. “I usually don’t believe in reading the synopsis, but maybe for this one…”

“Don’t you know the story of Salome?” I ask, surprised. I thought Helen knew everything.

“Well… sort of.”

“I think you’ll be fine.”

I say this with hope. As I also sort of know the story, and have no intention of reading the synopsis.

We’re inside now. There’s a staircase. The red balustrade glowing through the gloom. We wind our way down to the bottom of the tower.

It’s freezing down here. And dark. With the daylight from the doorway growing fainter and fainter as we make our descent, I begin to feel a kindredship with those witches thrown into dark hole-like prisons. It’s enough to give anyone the shivers. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the…

“Blankets!”

Each chair set in a series of concentric circles around the walls has a bright red blanket folded up and placed on it.

“These are nice. Better than the ones at the Rose,” says Helen, immediately pulling hers up to her chin.

“Yeah, those were blue and a bit… old lady on her way to the hospice. These are way fancier.”

Fancier, but not quite as warm. I tuck mine in around my knees and decide to keep my jacket on.

A woman comes over to tell us to turn our phones off. I’m surprised there’s even any reception down here. It feels like we’re sitting in the bottom of a well. A very large well.

“What is this place?” asks Helen.

“Like a pump room or something?” I suggest.

“Those diagonal lines in the bricks… are they the original staircase?”

I’m beginning to realise that I should probably have done some research before coming here.

“I thought this was a museum,” contines Helen.

“I thought so too. I thought there’d be…”

“Like display cases and things.”

“Yes, things.” There is a distinct lack of things down here. Except for what looks to be a department store’s worth of broken up mannequins cast around the floor. Arms and legs and torsos, piled up and upside down. It all looks very undignified.

A dancer appears. He leans back and rolls his stomach, making full use of his shirtless state. Is that Jokanaan? I can’t tell. I should probably have read the synopsis.

There’s someone else. Another bloke. This one dressed in black and wearing dangly earrings. He looks like he should be some sort of drug lord.

And then… ahhh. That’s Salomé. I see.

It’s all happening now. Musicians step out from behind their music stands and join the dancers for festival of hedonism within the circle. Masks are handed to audience members. Broken bodies are kicked aside. Sex, death, and power circle each other, never letting their gazes waver for a moment.

“That was…” Helen pauses. “Really fucking good.”

“Oh my fucking god, yes. That sexy John the Baptist dude…” I can’t bring myself to call him, Jokanaan.

“Oh yeah! I mean… I would.”

“Like when Salomé and sexy John the Baptist were dancing, and he was totally not into it… I totally was.”

 “Yeah, but totally.”

The man sitting in front of us turns around in his seat to look at us.

We both burst into laughter.

“I think having him murdered just to get a snog was a bit much, but like, I get it… you know?” I say, ignoring the man and his judgemental gaze.

Helen nods in agreement.

Which just goes to show, that while Helen may be about to embark on a fancy-as-fuck PhD, knows everything about everything, and could quite possibly be a secret engineer, she’s still just as low brow as the rest of us.

Well, for a while.

“I like how she was both the predator and the victim,” she says, reclaiming the intellectual high ground as we make our way back to the surface.

I flounder, trying to keep up. “It’s a very basic plot,” I say. “I mean… you can tell the whole story in three sentences. But here they’ve made it entirely about the characters. Predator. Victim. Everyone is a bit of both.”

“And the way they used the space! That moment when Salome is up on the staircase, looking down…”

“And the massive shadows cast against the walls!”

“I thought it would be like that place under the pub. You know, Ellen’s worst nightmare,” she says, referring to a mutual friend who has an absolute horror of intimate theatre.

“Vaulty Towers,” I say, knowing exactly what she means.

“Why can’t dance in small spaces be like that? I know a small space doesn’t always mean that it’s crap, but…”

Yeah. But.

“That’s the one amazing thing about this marathon. It makes me find all these gems in places I would never usually go.”

“No, I would never have come here if it wasn’t for you suggesting it.”

“No Sexy John the Baptist…” I really need to stop calling him that. “Who is he?”

Helen gets out her freesheet. “Carmine De Amicis,” she reads.

“He’s really good in that role.”

“He’s really good in that role.”

“Something… not quite human. Something, separate. Like he’s from a higher state of existence.”

“A purity.”

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “Sometimes not having the money forces artists to really work, to think about how to tell a story. They can’t waste a penny on props or sets. If that was a big name schmany ballet choreographer, you just know there would have been a half-hour feasting scene, with coordinated dancing harem girls and all that shit.”

“Yes! It all has to come from the body. Here, they didn’t have anything. Nothing. Every little bit of characterisation came directly from the body.”

We lapse into silence, thinking about their bodies.

“It was good.”

“It was so good.”

So, there you have it. Salomé is fucking great. Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn, and Fabio Dolce are fucking talented dancers. And fucking talented choreographers too, because those fuckers not only performed this fucking piece but also created it. The Brunel Museum is weird as shit. And Helen and I are going straight to hell.

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Dance to the Music of Time

Going to see a show at a venue that you used to work for is like going back to your old school to pick up your exam results. You're kinda excited about the possibilities, but that's buried deep under a mountain of fear, trepidation, and the deep conviction that you never wanted to see any of these people ever again, and you've somehow managed to forget all their names over the past three weeks.

I'm not saying that's how I felt walking to Canada Water Culture Space, but I'm also not not saying it.

Thankfully, a lot of time has passed since my time here, and everyone I knew has now moved on. But that didn't stop them popping into my head to say hello as the ship-shaped building appeared around the corner. So intense was that feeling of their presence, I could swear that I could hear them squawking in the distance. I decide to go check, crossing over the small terrace outside the building towards the water of Canda Water. I look down over the railing. Yup. There they are, tossing their heads and doing their very best to pretend that they had never seen me before and we definitely didn't spend our lunchtimes together on the reg. Ducking bastards.

Well, two can play at that game. I leave them to their ducking rude behaviour and go inside.

Everything is just as I remember it. The cafe on one side. The bar on the other. The bright orange walls, and the spiralling staircase. There's the doors which will take you up to the offices. And on the right are the ones that lead to the auditorium. Go further in and you will find bookshelves. Because CWCS just a theatre. It's also a library. Or rather, it's a library and a theatre. I'd say the ration between library and theatre is probably 85:15. So really, it more library than theatre. A library with a theatre attached, if you will.

Even so, there's the disconcerting shift. Where everything is the same enough to be recognisable, but just different enough to confuse and make me question things.

Like, where the hell is the box office?

I'd expected there to be someone with a laptop and a box of admission passes on the end of the bar. But there's nothing at the end of the bar apart from bar.

I'm not the only one looking around.

"I don't know, mate," says a bloke. He looks at his phone. "Ground floor it says."

A woman arrives. She's involved with the show. I can tell she's involved with the show because she spends the next five minutes loudly saying hello to people she recognises.

"I'm just going to pick up my ticket. I'll be right back," she declares with a regal wave of the hand before disappearing off towards the library half of the foyer.

Ah. I can see where she's going. There's a small desk set up over there, dwarfed and in the shadow of the library's one. What do we call that? The lending desk? The circulation desk? The desk you take the books to? Well, that one.

Stuck to the front of the small desk is a small sign. Box Office it says. I'm in the right place.

CWCS has gone up in the world since my day.

A real box office. Amazing. There are even freesheets piled up on the corner, just waiting to be picked up.

When I get to the front of the queue I give my name.

Nothing. Not a flicker of recognition.

"Here you go," says the girl on box office, handing me an admission token as if I were just some regular punter coming to see a show.

My fantasies that there might be some plaque dedicated to all my hard work somewhere in the halls of the building upstairs, perhaps something tasteful next to the kettle in the kitchen, are dashed.

"Thanks," I say, and move away to lick my wounds in peace.

I turn over the admission pass in my hands. These things have improved too. Gone are the laminated logos of four years ago. Printed on the photocopier and cut out by hand. They're now heavy plastic cards. Gold heavy plastic cards.

I put it in my pocket and turn my attention to the freesheet. It follows the standard formula. One I use myself when making these things: title and company name, then intro, then credits, then supporters. Simple, effective, and nothing out of the ordinary, except for the largest arts council logo I have ever seen in my life. They must have been extremely grateful for that funding.

This gets folded and put in my pocket too.

There's a long queue at the bar.

I want to recommend the matcha lattes. Matcha lattes were my drink of choice when I worked here. Me and the other girl in the office would go up onto the roof on sunny afternoons to drink the obscenely green froth and watch the reflection of the clouds pass across the high glass towers. Now that I think of it, I'm not entirely sure we were allowed to be on the roof, matcha lattes or no. But hey, it was a while back, and I'm sure the statute of limitations on roof-matcha drinking has now passed.

I try looking back through my old photos to find of the view, but all I have turn up is one of a duck on the roof. I don't plan on apologising though. You're getting a picture of a duck on a roof.

Oh dear. I seem to have spent a little too long on anecdote island. People are going in.

I follow them.

CWCS is a strange venue. And not just because it's inside a library. There are two banks of seating, but they are not on opposite sides of the stage as you might expect, but angled either side of an aisle, so that they hug the diamond-shaped stage like the setting of a ring.

I don't remember where the best seats are anymore, so I pick a spot near the aisle on the third row. It looks as good as any other.

To seats are slow to fill up. The queue at the bar is clearly in still in full force.

But there's loud music playing and the mood is high. Bonnie Tyler tends to have that effect on people, and I Need a Hero is an absolute banger of a tune.

Even the front of houser on door duty is getting in the mood, mouthing along to the lyrics.

"We went around twice and couldn't find it," laughs someone sitting behind me. "I was like, is it in the library...?"

Yeah, this place really needs better signage out there.

Still, plenty of people have managed to find it. The house looks full. Which is definitely different to how it was in my day. Though to be fair, it was all folk-music and flamenco back then. Nothing like the show on tonight, which from the looks of the freesheet features a spoken word artist and "two acrobatic dancers." Sounds good, although I'm not entirely sure what acrobatic dancers are. There aren't any biogs to draw clues from, but judging from the twitter handle of one of them, she's a b-girl. I guess that explains it. Breakin is fairly fucking acrobatic.

The spoken word artist comes out. He's Adam Kammerling and he's doing a show about masculinity and violence. He introduces the two dancers: Si Rawlinson, who was drafted in at the last minute, and the b-girl, Emma Houston, who trained in contemporary dance. Then he points to the tech desk. Rachel will be doing the lighting, and playing the role of his mother. I look over. Oh my god! It's Rachel Finney! I know her! Well, I mean. Know in the sense that we worked in the same place for a while. Aww. That's nice.

Introductions done, Adam invites the audience to heckle him.

I slip down in my seat, praying that it won't be that kind of show.

It's not. After Adam gets his heckle ("Cut your hair!") we're allowed to relax, or as much as one can relax in a super pumped audience.

Kammerling tells stories from his childhood back in Somerset and as a fellow Somerseter, I feel an instant kinship. Even if I ran with the young-farmers crowd rather than the car-park kids, some experiences are universal, even to those who grew up outside the confines of the West Country. I mean, haven't we all gone on Mission Impossible style expeditions to secure the new box of cereal from the top shelf? I didn't have the benefit of two dancer side-kicks though.

And oh god, the dancers are cool. Playing brothers and friends and bullies and furniture, they preen and pose and punch as Kammerling tells his tales. There are not mere props in a spoken word performance. Something to look at while we listen to Kammerlong's words. We all wince and groan as Rawlinson tells a story about falling during a performance, and laugh as the pair of them lend their knees as a seat for Kammerling.

They definitely didn't have shit like this in my day.

After the show, it's only a matter of going out one door and heading straight through another as I rush into the tube station that lurks directly underneath the building.

Part library. Part theatre. Part tube station. And built like a ship. That's CWCS. The weirdest damn theatre in London.

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Confused Hearts and Coronets

I'll say this for the marathon. It's transformed my friendships. Gone are the days when the people I love treated me like a fellow human being, one who can get up, get dressed, and arrive on time at a shared destination. Over the past few months they've all come to realise that this year, I'm basically a spreadsheet in a dress. What to spend time with me? Put your name down in the appropriate column.

They've also all changed the way they talk to me. They don't ask how I am anymore, they ask what I've seen. The answer is pretty much the same anyway.

And as each theatre trips begins to merge into the one before, they've all stepped up to fill in the gaps in my rapidly diminishing brain-power.

"I'm in Pret by exit 2, which is the right exit for the Coronet," messages Helen.

That's the kind of meet-up message I like right now. Clear. Concise. And requiring no thought processes at all from my end. At Notting Hill Gate, I followed the signs, left by exit two, practically fell into Pret, and found Helen.

"I was there, but I had to leave," she explains as I offer her a Nutella taiyaki. "There was a table, which I presumed was the box office. But when I said my friend had booked the tickets, they said I could wait. But there weren't any chairs? So... I left."

Replenished by our pastry fishes, we make our way to The Print Room at The Coronet, just a few doors down.

"Has it had something done recently?" asks Helen.

I have to admit ignorance. It did look very shiny and fancy though. Bigger than I had imagined. With bright paintwork and gleaming windows, and those narrow wooden doors that you find on old West End theatres.

"It does look very fresh," agrees Helen.

It smells fresh too. Or floral at least. Was it the small bunch of flowers on the tasteful side table? That didn't seem likely. Real flowers haven't smelt of anything since 1974.

"Did they... spray perfume around?" I ask the world in general.

The world doesn't have an answer for me.

"Look at this," says Helen, pointing out a hanging display in the middle of the foyer and proving her worth once again as an excellent marathon companion. Always pointing things out for me to photograph, and then getting out of the way of the shot with seamless grace. Still not entirely sure what the display was, but I liked it.

I liked everything about The Print Room's foyer. And there was lots to enjoy. From the black and white tiled floor, to the cushions neatly tucked up against the marble stairs, to the...

"What is that? Is that a ruff?"

"It is some kind of ruff," agrees Helen, going over to inspect the mannequin wearing a lacy collar. Now I love a ruff. I even own a ruff. But no one in the entire world appreciates a ruff like Helen appreciates a ruff. If there was a magazine called Ruff It, Helen would be the editor.

The presence of a mannequin wearing a lacy collar in the foyer of The Print Room was not explained. But remains only one of a thousand mysterious objects we discovered on the way to our seats.

Up the stairs was a wood-panelled corridor, curving around the auditorium.

Freesheets were balanced on tiny side tables, weighed down by books and other assorted items. There were decanters, and tea lights, and even a globe.

"Says a lot about Notting Hill that they can leave all these knick-knacks lying around," she says, as she acts the photographer's assistant, repositioning a flyer into a more eye-pleasing position.

"Wow... that's... wow." I might not have said it out loud, but I was definitely thinking that as we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the auditorium. It was like Stratford East and Wilton's Music Hall had somewhere found their way to each other across Tower Hamlets, and made a baby together.

Still gaping in awe, I show our tickets to the usher.

"Right, so if you go up the stairs until row f..." she says before giving instructions so detailed I was beginning to think Helen might have called ahead to warn them about me.

"She knows we're not Notting Hill natives," I whisper to Helen as we make our way up the stairs. "Probably thinks we'll eat our tickets when she's not looking."

We squeeze our way into row f.

"Christ, there's like... zero leg room," I say, as my knees bash against the seat in front.

"Wow, there really isn't," said Helen, managing to somehow tuck herself neatly into the seat next to me, despite having a full two inches on me height-wise.

Not having legroom is not something I encounter all that often, considering I'm all of five-foot-three (and a half, but I don't want to be one of those twats who adds fractions to their height, or their age).

I wriggle around, trying to get my legs to fit, but it isn't happening. I was going to have to make peace with one knee or the other getting smooshed that evening. I decided to sacrifice my right knee, and twisted slightly to the left.

In an attempt to distract myself from the protests of my already suffering right knee, I take a photo of the stage. "It's just all black," I say as I inspect the image.

"Even with you new camera?"

Helen has had to sit through a lot of explanations about my I love my Pixel 2. "Even with my new camera," I sigh.

"Do you think that's a backdrop, or a curtain?" asks Helen, referring to the black cloth that's messing with my photos.

"You think there's a whole stage behind there? That would make this place enormous."

"It is a big stage," says Helen, looking around. "For not that many seats."

"Good for dance, I suppose."

"Yeah... do they do a lot of dance?"

I couldn't answer. I have no idea. We were there for a dance performance. The Idiot by Saburo Teshigawara & Rihoko Sato. But apart from that, I had no idea the level of their dance programming.

"What was this place?" she asks. "Was it like a cinema or...?"

Again, I don't know.

"You mean you don't research every theatre carefully, giving all the stats in a neat sidebar?"

"No. That's Wikipedia."

Having now read the freesheet, I can tell you that The Print Room started in a former, well, print room and since moved into The Coronet. Hence The Print Room at The Coronet. But still squished in my seat, I didn't know that. I don't think it's just the late nights and constant bombardment of theatre that's making me dim. I think maybe, just maybe, I was always a little bit ignorant.

The lights dim, and stay dim, long after the start of the show. Dancers scurry through the darkness, leaving only a hint of shadow and footsteps to show where they'd been.

"When the lights didn't come up, I did wonder if it'd stay like that for the whole performance," said Helen as we made our way out.

"God yes. I felt like one of those annoying old people at the Opera House who complain that modern ballets are too dark."

"Yes!"

"I was trying to convince myself that if I can't see anything, it was because the choreographer didn't want us to see anything, but then also... I did kinda wonder if something was broken."

"And there was someone frantically flicking switches backstage. Yes, I thought that too."

"What is that?" I ask as we pass a knick-knacked alcove in the foyer. "Is it a bar or..."

"I don't think it's a bar," says Helen.

"Well then, what is it?" We duck in to examine the paintings and a little figurine of a beetle lurking within. "I mean I like it..."

"I like it to."

"But what is it?"

"No idea," says Helen. "And these cushions... they're everywhere," she says, pointing to a black and white cushion portraying a close of a vintage looking face. They were everyone. On chairs and sofas, yes. But also on the staircase and the floor.

"They look like those expensive candles you can buy in Liberty."

"Yes. And plates and things too. Fornasetti," she says.

"Pornasetti more like," I say, feeling more than a little smug about my pun. "They always look a little bit dirty." Not the ones in The Print Room, mind you. Very PG in their cushion choices, I must say.

I frown. "Was that piece based on the Dostoevsky, do you think?"

"I have no idea."

"I haven't read it."

"Nor have I, but I always think with these things, when art is transferred between medias, you shouldn't have to read the source text, It should stand up on its own."

"I don't even know who the characters were. I'm pretty sure he was in love with the woman in the satin skirt."

"Did you? I thought she was a figment of his imagination."

That hadn't even occurred to me. "Okay. But who was the other one? His mother? His sister? His wife?"

"They didn't really interact enough to demonstrate a relationship."

"I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it. But like... as an abstract dance work in drama costumes."

"I don't have an opinion. And you know me, I always have an opinion..."

It's true. She does.

Not for the first time, I'm grateful for my marathon being about describing the experience I have at the theatre, rather than reliant on reviewing what I see. I don't have to have an opinion. Opinions are not obligatory. So, I'm not gonna have one.

Goodnight.

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Scratch that

7pm starts… man, they are a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever walked so fast in my life, racing across London to get to the Soho Theatre in time for my show.

Apologies to everyone who encountered me. And most particularly to the poor guy at the box office who had to deal with my puffed-out mess when I finally got there.

"What are you here for?" he asked, when I finally managed to suck back enough air into my lungs to talk and give him my name.

Now there's a question. Who can even remember anymore? It’s a miracle that I manage to turn up to the right theatre on the correct night. Now they wanted me to remember what I was actually there for?

"Err, the scratch night?" I said, feeling like I was about to lose this quiz.

"The scratch night," he concurred with an approving nod. I'd got that one right!

My prize was one of the trademark Soho tickets. They have to be the most distinctive tickets in London. I certainly haven’t seen anything to match them yet. Bright pink. The colour of Barbie's Dream Car. They’ll sear your retinas right off if you look at them too hard.

I tucked it safely in my bag before too much damage could be done and headed to the bar.

One benefit off 7pm start is that I actually do get to see the bar.

The Soho Theatre’s bar is one of those places that I will always agree is great if anyone brings it up, but the truth is, I've never managed to have a drink in it. It's always been heaving to the point of unbearability every time I've been to see a show.

But yesterday, let the record show, at 6.45, I got a table.

I sprawled out on the banquette and luxuriated in the space. 

I can see why people think this place is nice.

Very comfy.

Very cool.

In a kind of show-posters-wallpapering-the-walls-and-neon-lights kinda way.

All the bright young things of Soho draped themselves over the tables as they talked about all the shows they were working on, generally adding to the aesthetic.

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“We should go see this,” said one guy, picking up a flyer to show to girl he was with.

“Oh, yeah. I know him,” she said, jabbing the person pictured on the front of the flyer.

Of course she did.

Five minutes later, a bloke came up and asked to share my table.

Thirty seconds after that, there were three of us perched around the small square.

The dream was shattered. My time was up.

But it was glorious while it lasted.

Oh well.

It was nearly show time anyway.

I made my way back to the foyer.

A small gathering had formed at the bottom of the stairs. Our way bared by one of those thick red ropes, we we corralled on the ground floor.

"Have we got an estimated time of opening?" the usher said into her radio.

The crackly voice on the other end indicated it would be a few more minutes. We waited, stomping about and sighing heavily. The herd was getting restless.

The usher backed her way against the lift, keeping a close eye on us as she clutched at her radio lest we suddenly charge.

Someone tutted. It was 7pm. The show was already running late. 

The radio crackled back into life.

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"The show on the third floor is now open. Chinese Arts Now Scratch Night on the top floor is open," she announced with obvious relief as we bolted for the stairs.

With unrestricted seating, it doesn’t pay to be slow.

"Anywhere in the first four rows," called the usher after us as we rushed into the auditorium.

As I dashed past her, I spotted a pile of paper on the bench outside the door. I lunged and grabbed one, not missing a step as I barrelled into the auditorium and dumped myself into a seat, spreading my coat and bag around me - marking my territory.

I plumped for the third row - the first one with a rake. Very important that. As a shorty, I need me a rake. Not that it was a particularly good one. The slight lift the third row offered only meant that I was given a hint of what was happening beyond the head of the person sitting in front of me. It was a concession to the idea of a rake, an acknowledgement that such things exist, rather than a full and proper attempt to give people sitting there any kind of view.

"Even the first paragraph is a lot. It sounds heavy, doesn't it?" said a woman in the row in front, peering through the gloom at her freesheet.

All those black walls, black ceiling, and low lighting, doesn’t make reading easy.

But I gave it a go, inspecting my own freesheet.

It didn’t take me long to spot the name of the venue I work for.

Written incorrectly.

If I would ever dare give a piece of advice to artists it is this, double check your credits before handing over your biography for public consumption. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved when you don’t know how to spell the venues that you’ve performed at. Especially when you return and I have to correct it for you (because I do actually proofread and edit the biogs that come through me… just saying, Soho Theatre…).

And look, I'm not insinuating that poorly proofread paperwork is my hell, but it was rather warm up there… It was almost like I was getting punished for all my complaining about the cold yesterday. “Oh, you want it warm, do you?” laugh the theatre gods. “Don’t worry, we’ll make things real cosy for you.”

I rolled up the sleeves of my jumper, trying to remember what I was wearing underneath. Or if I was in fact wearing anything underneath.

I was. Heattech. Worse luck. As the festival organiser was already giving us the hosuekeeping speech and there was no time to wrestle myself out of my sweater.

“There’ll be a short interval between the two pieces for the changeover. No time to go to the bar but time to pop to the loo.”

I sat still, thinking cold thoughts, and tried to concentrate on the performers instead,

I must say, I wouldn’t usually think somewhere like the Soho, especially their tiny upstairs studio, is the best place for dance, but it was wonderful to be so close to the dancers. Especially in a piece so focused on facial expression and small movement. 

Even working in dance I don't think I've ever got so close outside the confines of the rehearsal room.

What a treat.

As was the horsey helium balloon in the second piece. 

There was a post-show talk, but I wasn’t sticking around for that.

I snuck out, and offered a smile of apology to the dancers who were waiting in the bench outside. 

I’m sure everyone involved was perfectly fascinating, but I wasn’t losing my chance to be in bed by 10pm (literally all my hopes and dreams revolve around this one goal right now).

So off I went. Buzzed out of the door by the bloke on box office. Race back to the tube. Home via a short trip to Tesco. Fixed a hole in my favourite vintage dress. And in bed my 10pm.

Magic.