A bottle full of glitter

Back before I started this marathon, I really liked the Soho Theatre. Well, I had positive feelings towards it anyway. What with its neon lights in the bar, and the bright pink logo. It’s cool. It made me feel cool just being there. Not that I went all that often. But every now and then there’d be a show, say… a new Philip Ridley, or a Jack Thorne, that would draw me in. The tickets are cheap, so there was nothing to stop me going. So i’d buy one, trot off to Dean Street, watch the show, enjoy it, and then leave happy enough. And I’d soon return to my default state of never really thinking about the Soho except when they have an interesting show on.

But this marathon has changed the way I look at things. With my focus now away from the work, I see theatres differently. And I have to be honest, I don’t think I actually like the Soho all that much anymore.

I’d go so far as to say I actively dislike the Soho.

Enough that I don’t really want to go in.

Here I am, standing on the pavement of Dean Street, watching a film crew chivvy people off of the road and away from thick ropes of electrical cables, and I really don’t want to go in.

I message Helen. “I’m here but gonna go for a little walk,” I say, turning around and slipping into a side street.

A few minutes later, a message pops up on my phone. “Ok. Do you want a bubble tea?”

Well, obviously I do.

I lean against a lamppost to message her back in the affirmative. And then wait. Two minutes. Three minutes. How long does it take to order a bubble tea?

After five minutes I figure it’s time to head back.

The film crew are still standing in the middle of the road with their broad shoulders and hi-vis jackets, eyeing up anyone who dares step over their cables.

I hop over them, and make my way into the entrance.

I can barely get through the door. The queue at the box office is so long its mingling with the mass of people trying to press themselves into the bar. I hang back, waiting for it to clear.

“Next?” calls one of the ladies behind the box office.

I look to someone standing nearby. I make a “are you waiting?” style gesture to her. She doesn’t look up.

“Yes? Next!” shouts the box officer, sounding more than a little pissed off.

And so it begins.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say, going up to the counter.

“Show?” she snaps.

“Cocoon,” I say, reflecting her rapped-out style. The show is called Cocoon Central Dance Team: The Garden Party, but there’s no time for multi-syllable phrases at the Soho.

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She pulls a ream of tickets free from the Cocoon box.

“And the postcode?”

I give it, and she rips away the receipt and all the additional ticket elements the printers churn out, before handing me the twin pink slips.

I turn around and almost walk into someone.

It’s Helen.

“Do you like watermelon,” she says, holding out a pink cup so bright it’s almost Soho Theatre branded.

I cringe. “I hate watermelon,” I admit.

With a nod, she swaps the cup on offer. This one is brown.

I fumble around with my phone and tickets.

Helen watches me for a second. “Hang on,” she says. “Let me put the straw in for you.”

Bless Helen. She knows I can’t handle things as complicated as sticking a straw through a foil top.

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“Shall we go outside?” I ask, with my newly-strawed cup in hand. “Oh my god, this is really good.”

It is really good. The boba are super chewy and the brown liquid smooth and sweet. Just want I needed after a hard day working down the print-mines.

“It’s black sugar,” explains Helen as we step onto the pavement.

“Like burnt sugar?”

Helen gives me a look. It’s a very serious look. “No,” she says. “Black sugar is all the rage in Asia. Everything is black sugar flavour. It’s not burnt sugar. It’s black sugar…. White people are so ignorant.”

I mean, I can’t fault her there.

Black or burnt, I suck it down greedily. It really is good.

I leave it to the last possible moment, but at 7.27pm I have to admit it’s time to go back inside.

We’re in the Downstairs theatre tonight. The Soho Theatre’s cabaret space. I even booked us spots at one of the cabaret table, which are a whole two pounds more expensive than the seats at the back.

“Can you finish your drinks please?” says the front of houser guarding the stairs down to the basement.

“Is there a bin anywhere?” asks Helen.

“Round the corner,” says the front of houser pointing back towards the box office.

Helen goes round the corner, finding the bin tucked up under the counter. I follow behind, getting a mouthful of boba in my efforts to finish my drink before chucking it. I bend down and push the cup into the very inconveniently located bin. It’s already full to the brim. I don’t envy the person who has to empty that.

Back to the stairwell, and I show the front of houser our tickets. She waves us downstairs.

A neon sign greets us: Soho Theatre Downstairs it screams in blazing blue, stark against the dark walls.

No white paint and pink accents down here. It all red and black and slightly seedy. Photos of past performers on stage line the way down. I spot Tim Minchin amongst the faces as we race downstairs.

There’s another ticket checker down here.

“Fourth row back, two tables in,” she says, glancing at the tickets.

I look at the space.

Fourth row back, two tables in.

All I see is a clutter of tables and chairs.

I try and count them.

One. Two Three. Four.

And second table in.

There are two seats free here. This must be it.

I squeeze through, dumping my bag on the chair and wriggling myself between the tiny gap beside our table.

It’s very cramped in here. The back of my chair is knocking against the back of a chair belonging to the table next to me.

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The row is indicated via a small sign propped up on the table top. The seat numbers scrawled onto the table’s surface. “5, 6, 7, 8,” out table calls out, clearly getting ready to audition for the next A Chorus Line revival.

I look around. I’ve lost Helen. She’s disappeared.

Oh well. I’m sure she’ll be fine. She knows how to stick a straw into bubble tea. That’s the mark of a grown up if ever there was one.

“I couldn’t find you!” says Helen, plonking herself down in the seat next to me. She gets out her fan and flicks it open. If you’ve ever wondered where I learnt my fan-flicking skills, the answer is that it’s from Helen. She’s not just a master straw-pusher, you know.

“Do you want a drink?” she asks.

I want to tell her not to be silly, that she just bought me boba tea, but I don’t think I’m ever getting out of this seat, and, well… I kinda want a G&T.

“It’s up to you,” she says. “I’m not fussed either way.”

Well, in that case… “I wouldn’t say no to a gin and tonic,” I tell her.

With a snap of her fan, she gets up and goes to the bar.

I look around.

Ahead of us is the stage. Raised.

Behind are the cheap seats. Although they look quite nice. Velvet benches. With slim tables fixed in front of them. They look a good deal more comfortable than the cabaret set-up out front.

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A second later, Helen’s back.

“That was weird,” she says, sitting back down. “When I went up, the woman there,” she says, inclining her head in the direction of the bar, “she kind of blocked my way. I when I asked if I could get a drink, she said the bar is closing…”

“Closing?” I say, picking up on the word. “So… not closed?”

“Well exactly!” says Helen. “That’s what I said. ‘Closing, or closed?’ And then she says ‘closed’ and then turns her back on me.”

“Fucking rude.”

“It was quite.”

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“But also like… notice how the show still hasn’t started yet,” I say, with a wave of my hand to indicate the absence of anyone on stage. “They could have totally made you a drink by now.”

“Exactly!”

“And like… these are cabaret tables…. So, like… shouldn’t there be table service?”

“Yes!”

“Otherwise, what the hell is the point?” I say, getting rather worked up now. “They might as well just have normal seating down here.”

Helen laughs. “You sound like such a little reviewer now.”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of theatres doing stuff well. It really fucking irritates me when they don’t.” I lean back in my chair. “And here they just treat you like livestock, moving the moving crowds from bar to seat, prodding anyone who gets out of line… You wouldn’t get that shitty attitude at Magic Mike.”

That’s sure enough. Say what you want about Magic Mike (and believe me, I’ve said a lot) you wouldn’t get staff like this at the Hippodrome. Not that I’m blaming the staff. It’s the management. But that doesn’t stop them from being rude.

And it’s not like it’s even Soho-cool rudeness, if such a thing even exists anymore.

This is not clever rudeness. Or snarky rudeness. Or amusing rudeness.

This is the rudeness of people who don’t care about the experience they are providing. The rudeness of people who think your ticket only buys you access to a show and nothing more. The rudeness of the overworked. The rudeness of the underpaid.

The rudeness of bad management.

“She could definitely have worded it better,” agrees Helen.

The house lights dim.

We’re beginning.

The cast come out. They’re wearing blue bodystockings. And they’re dancing.

And it’s hilarious.

I look over at Helen.

Earlier today I’d told her they’d referenced Twyla Tharp in their marketing copy. I don’t know what this is, but it is not Twyla Tharp.

But she’s smiling. She’s loving it too.

Thank gawd.

As the first number finishes and we are taken backstage into the dressing room where they begin preparations for the next act, I forget all about the dismal Soho staff and find myself lost in a world of sequins and female friendship. The type of friendship where every self-criticism is met by a chorus of personally offended “Nooooos.” Where compliments are used as punctuation. And grand proclamations of undying affection are given as standard.

It’s hard not to grin while watching these three.

They are clearly having so much fun, and we’ve been lucky enough to have been invited along for the ride.

With champagne flutes at the ready, they pour themselves glasses of glitter from wine glasses filled with the sparkly stuff. And I can’t think of a better metaphor for the Soho.

A dull, heavy, container, only rendered special by the dazzle and spark that lives inside. And without that? Well, it’s fit for nothing by bludgeoning someone over the head with.

“I am so happy right now,” I say to Helen as the house lights go up, following what must have been at least five fake-out curtain calls.

“I didn’t see any Twyla Tharp…” she says, but she’s smiling.

“I think they just picked a contemporary choreographer at random.”

“I think they must have.”

“But it was so joyful!”

“It was very joyful. But also real. I recognised everything that happened on stage.”

I nod in agreement. It did all feel very real. We’ve all had those friendships. Those conversations. Even if we weren’t in an award-winning comedy dance troupe. “The little one was totally Ellen,” I say, referring to our mutual friend.

“She was totally Ellen! Small. Brunette. Cute. And…”

“Pissy,” we both say at the same time.

“I think I’m the tall one,” says Helen. “I’m just vulnerable, you know?”

I look at her seriously. “You are loved and deserve validation,” I tell her. I pause. Something occurs to me. “Does that mean I’m Sunita?”

I don’t think I’m a Sunita. But I’m also not mad about being a Sunita.

“I loved Sunita,” says Helen.

I loved Sunita too. She was fabulous. Always with a make up brush in hand, stroking her cheeks… yeah, I’m a Sunita.

There’s a crash. The stage is already filled by people bringing down the set.

“They could have at least waited for us to leave,” says Helen as we get out from our table. But there’s no stopping them. They’re already pulling down the projection screen, lifting it down from the stage.

“We should go…” I say. And we traipse back up the stairs into the pink-filled foyer.

It’s going to be a long time before I’m back here.

Can’t say that I'm all that upset by that.

Well, not until they programme the next Philip Ridley.

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.

Read More

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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Lost in Space

Is Streatham Space Project the newest venue on my marathon thus far? I think Streatham Space Project is the newest venue on my marathon thus far. Not even a year old, it opened in June last year. I doubt they’ve even taken the plastic wrap off yet.

And, yup. It is very shiny. Very shiny. Golden even. The walls are positively gleaming in the evening sun. I don’t want to insult the people of Streatham by saying that it looks like a little gleaming nugget within a pan full of gritty river water, but… I’m just going to leave that sentence hanging there.

There’s a little laminated sign stuck on the sliding glass doors. “We are… OPEN to the public. C’mon in!” it says. I’d love to know what incident prompted the creation of this sign (probably lots of locals sticking their head around the door and asking if the place is open to the public, and can they come in) but as someone with the anxiety, who even five months into her theatre marathon, still gets a little nervous going into new places, I really appreciate it.

For all the millions the Opera House has spent on their Open Up project, a simple sign on the door can do just as well.

I follow the directions and go inside.

It’s nice in here. Less of the shiny and more of the earthy, as branches circle the ceiling lamps, and photographs of trees crowd the walls. Signage is big and clear and in caps. STAGE one way. BAR and TICKETS the other.

Now, that’s a question. Tickets. What am I needing to do on that? I have an e-ticket. But one thing I’ve learnt on this marathon is the stuff you get sent by theatres aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on. E-tickets are confirmation emails, confirmation emails get you admission passes, admission passes are stickers, and stickers are brill. Nothing means anything, and it is always best to ask.

The box office and bar take up the back wall of the cafe space. I head over and join the queue. There doesn’t seem to be any differentiation between the two spaces, as the two blokes behind the bar jump from one side to the other, box office to bar, and back again, as each person in the queue asks for different things. Tickets or drinks, or some tasty combination of the two.

It’s my turn.

“Do I need to pick up a ticket?” I ask. “Or is it just e-tickets?”

“Just e-tickets. We’re completely paperless here,” says one of the blokes behind the bar.

“Great.” I mean, not great. I fucking hate this paperless trend. It’s the red flag of a dying civilization. The end of a golden age of theatre that stretches back centuries. A victory of bean-counters over memory-makers. But, still. Great. At least I know the situation.

Although… completely paperless? Oh dear. That doesn’t bode well for potential freesheet action.

Oh well. I’m not going to think about that.

Instead I step into a side room. It looks to be a gallery and there’s some pretty amazing photos of trees by Mark Welland on the walls. The kind of photos I wouldn’t mind owning, and certanly don’t mind taking a few minutes to look at and ponder over. I do like a tree.

I get distracted by a bing-bong. An actual bing-bong. The sort of bing-bong that would open an episode of Hi-de-Hi! on a Saturday morning.

“Welcome to Streatham Space Project,” the voice on the tannoy says. “Just to let you know that show tonight, Freeman, will start at 8 o’clock, and the doors will open at 7.45. So you have plenty of time to queue at the bar. If you could make your way to the Stage at 7.45 that’ll be great.”

Oh. See, now. I was sure the start time was at 7.45. I was rather banking on it, as, let me remind you, we’re in Streatham. And that’s a long way from Finchley. Which is where I live, and more importantly, sleep. Those fifteen minutes could well be the difference between me just having a cheeky late night, and being so tired that I want to die.

I double check the website. Yup, start time 7.45. No mention of doors. So either the Space Project is still working on out some issues in their communications, or the performance is running behind.

Bing-bong!

“The house will be opening in a few minutes for Freeman. Please have your names or tickets ready to be ticked off the list. Please make your way to the auditorium.”

My quiet corner next to the fire safety equipment is soon overrun with people flapping around A4 pieces of paper that they’ve printed-at-home their print-at-home tickets (paperless my arse).

“Is this the queue?” someone asks. We all shrug in response. It is now, I guess.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” says one of the blokes from the bar. He squeezes through us, holding a laptop in his arms. “Excuse me.”

He makes it through to the other side and with the laptop balanced in the crock of his arm, beams at us all, ready to take names and check the not-so-paperless tickets.

Well, here I am, the paper-whore with only my name poised and ready to give at the door.

“Smiles?”

“Err…”

“It’s S-M-I-L-E-S.”

“S-M-I…” he types up with one finger, the laptop wobbling on his arm with every key-press. “Maxine?”

That’s the one!

I go in.

I’m running out of words to describe black box theatres. They’re black. They’re shaped like a box. There’s a single bank of raked seating. The stage is at floor level. I’ve been to at least a hundred of these this year. Probably. I haven’t actually counted.

The stage is actually surprisingly small given the amount of seat there are in here. It feels a little out of proportion. A little squashed. Like a pug’s snout. Still cute, but makes you wonder about the conduct of the people who created them.

I plonk myself down at the end of the third row. That seems to be my go-to seat in unreserved theatres at the moment. Just far enough away from the stage so that you don’t feel exposed. But closed enough that it still feelings incredibly intimate.

Someone comes to sit next to me, and the intimacy increased by an alarming factor. He manspreads out his knees, bumping and jostling my own knees out of the way. Then, room cleared, he pumps his legs together, as if working away on an invisible Thighmaster.

The lights dim and the leg exercises finish. Thank goodness.

Thirty seconds later, he’s checking his watch. He sighs. Deep and shuddering.

Something tells me this is going to be a long evening for the both of us.

He sighs through the performers creeping around after one another to Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King and shouts of “Tory scum!”

He sighs as the names of black people who have been killed by police officers are projected up the screen. So many names they overlap and merge into one another, forming a solid wall of white.

He sighs through the Equus-style horse made up of dancers and ridden around the stage. The horse ride that would lead to William Freeman be imprisoned, and beaten brutally, for five years.

He sighs through the shadow puppet failed-assassination of Edward Drummond. The failed assassination that would lead to the M’Naughten rules.

He sighs as Sarah Reed undergoes the most harrowing assault scene I’ve ever seen on stage.

He sighs through the lindy hop. Through the gospel singing. Through court testimony and horrific murders.

He sighs. He sighs. He sighs.

He sighs as we laugh. He sighs as we cry.

He sighs through it all.

I’ve never felt so sorry for someone in my entire life.

An hour later, we’re out.

“More info on the show if you’re interested!” says a front of houser, standing by the exit and handing out leaflets.

I am very much interested. I take one.

Outside, I stop to have a look at it. It’s full of information about mental health. Signs, symptoms, courses of action. All good stuff. And nicely printed too. But not a single thing about the show. No cast. No creatives. I write this post ignorant of the names of any of the performers who sang and danced and wretched out hours for a full sixty minutes.

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