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.