Hell's bells and buckets of blood

Did you know the Central School of Speech and Drama was opposite Hampstead Theatre? Because I did not know that the Central School of Speech and Drama was opposite Hampstead Theatre. Even when I saw the address was Eton Avenue, I still didn’t twig. It was only when I rounded the corner, and saw the red rondel of Swiss Cottage station, stark against the blue hoarding of the endless building works round there, that I realised. The Central School of Speech and Drama is opposite Hampstead Theatre.

Funny you’d think all those young people hanging out at the Hampstead would be noticeable. But perhaps, like me, they can’t afford the ticket prices.

But I’m not here to throw shade at the Hampstead. Not today, anyway. I’m off to the Embassy Theatre, which apparently belongs to good old CSSD. No, I didn’t know about that either. It’s yet one more pin in the map of ignorance that is my brain.

Anyway, there it is, in all its stucco-fronted glory. The steps up to the entrance are crowded with people enjoying the good weather and having good theatre chat.

The steps themselves are carved with names. I spot Harold Pinter amongst them. And Cameron Mackintosh. And Laurence Olivier. Jennifer Saunders. Michael Grandage.

I’m just listing names now. I should really go in.

I hop up the steps, treading on Philip Glenister as I go (sorry Phil) and then stop. “Student & Staff Entrance,” says a laminated sign by the door. Oh. Well, that’s not me. I look over at the next set of doors. There’s a sign there too. “Visitors Entrance.” I guess that is me. Back down the stairs I go, around the railing, and back up the steps and towards the correct entrance.

Okay then.

Inside there’s a great big reception desk and I make my way over to it.

“Hi, where do I pick up tickets?” I ask. “Is that here?”

A radio beeps and the man behind the desk picks it up with a sigh and answers the call.

“Yes, here” he says with an apologetic smile once that business is dealt with.

“Great! The surname’s Smiles.”

From a box next to him on the desk he pulls a red admission pass and hands it to me. “It’s just through there,” he says, pointing at a wide set of double doors on the other end of the foyer.

There’s a pile of programmes on the counter, and I nab one of those before heading in the direction instructed.

There’s more laminated signs here, stuck on the glass. “Welcome to Thebes,” they say. Which, before you think I’ve gone and widened the scope of my marathon to epic proportions, is the name of the play I’m seeing. There’s some content warnings listed underneath. Flashing lights and the like. I don’t pay too my attention. I’m too excited about what’s happening on the other side of the door. Through the glass panes I can see it, the theatre. Or at least the doors.

Double doors. With a gleaming brass surround. Set into an arch. It looks like the portal to another dimension. Albeit one that was created in the jazz age.

This being a drama school, the boards are out with the headshots of the cast, and they are a gorgeous bunch, all fresh-faced and photogenic. Honestly, I don’t know why I like these drama school shows so much. You’d think I’d boak with jealously of being presented with so much talent and youth and whatnot, when I am so very much lacking in all of those things, especially the whatnot, but there’s something about them - the earnestness and the dedication of it all - that just charms me so frickin’ much.

I stand around near one of the boards, looking at the photos with the kind of soppy expression I get on my face whenever I see a clumsy puppy who hasn’t quite grown into his paws yet, and try to ignore the wafts of musty urine scent wafting out of the Gents every time the door is opened.

Gradually, the corridor fills out and we all gently bump into each other as people working on the show try to push through to get into the theatre.

If there’s a queueing system, it’s lost within the general hubbub and chatter.

“Good evening,” says someone standing underneath the arch. “And welcome to this evening’s performance of Welcome to Thebes.” The hubbub and chatter stills. “Make sure you have one of the little laminated tickets,” he continues. “If not, go to the box office to pick one up.” I check my pocket. Still got mine. “For run time, we’re looking at two hours and thirty minutes. There will be no readmittance. That’s not allowed.

“The production contains strobe lights, audience participation-

“-Fuck!” says someone, and I’m surprised to discover that it’s not me.

“…and scenes of an adult nature,” continues the announcer.

“I fucking hate audience participation.”

I’m with you there, mate. Not a fan of the old participation thing myself. But good thing we’re getting a warning about it, I suppose.

Or is it? As I hand my admission pass to one of the ushers on the door, I wonder how extreme audience participation needs to be to get a full-on pre-show announcement.

Just last weekend, I had someone crawling over my shoulder wearing a dance belt, and only a dance belt. And that had warranted nothing beyond a single line at the bottom of a sign, just above a plea for no photography. In that performance, the dancers were giving audience members firemen’s lifts, throwing their belongings around, and walking off with their children.

What could be more extreme than that? Perhaps tonight they won’t be giving the children back…

The Embassy is a proper little theatre. Rows and rows of fixed red seats. A proscenium arch. The works. It’s small. Small enough that the word ‘diddy’ is presenting itself for use. Kinda worn looking. It could do with a refurb. But it looks comfortable enough.

An usher offers me a programme, but I already got one at the front desk so I dedicate myself to the business of picking a seat.

There’s no way in hell I’m doing my end-of-the-third-row dealio at this show. Not with gale-storm levels of audience participation in the offing. I'm sitting in the middle of a row, dammit. As far away from any crusading actors as I can get.

A group of young women plonk themselves down in the row behind me. Students, I think, getting all cow-eyed again at the thought of them supporting their friends.

“Do you know the story?” one asks.

“I should do, I’m studying classics!” replies another.

Oh. So, yes to students. But no to them attending this place. Unless CSSD has a sideline in Ancient Greek that I’m unaware. I mean, that’s possible I suppose.

A third gets out a snack from her bag.

“There’s no eating. They said no eating!” says the first.

“Oh. I didn’t know!” comes the reply. And the snack is quickly put away.

Cow-eyes are officially back in play.

I should really stop listening.

“Oh my, that person isn’t a prop!” one says. “They were sitting so still!”

I look at the stage. My new friend in the row behind is right. There’s someone sitting in the middle of the stage. And they are sitting very still. Staring at the audience. It’s unnerving.

The lights dim

“Shut up!” says the definitely-not-a-prop actor

A nervous giggle spreads through the audience. But the actor isn’t joking around.

“If you’re still talking, shut up.”

“Close the doors!” shouts another.

The usher on door duty peers out nervously, but there’s no ignoring that order. She closes the doors.

“Put down those booklets. They’re shit.”

Does she mean the programmes? I hope not. They’re lovely programmes. Quite well done, even if they are basically freesheets. Nicely printed. Colourful. With headshots and everything.

On of the actors climbs out of the pit of the stage and starts marching back and forth, ordering phones off. They’re melting our brains, he tells us.

The door opens and a latecomer sneaks in.

The actors round on them. They are not impressed.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.

All my cuddly thoughts of drama students quickly vanish. These ones are not here to play.

We’re dropped into Thebes, where the dead are still rotting on the street, and the people too broken to treat their new democracy with anything other than sneering cynicism. Not while the bombs are still exploding in the streets.


Oof. They are doing the sound design.

I don't usually credit people in drama school shows, cos no one asked for a blogger to turn up with her opinions, Rose Farbrother. .. I'm digging your shit.


An actor with a folding fan flaps it in front of her microphone, so that the sound of a helicopter whirrs around the space.

Others sit down and play music. There’s a strange instrument that requires a bow and yet has no strings. Kinda like a musical saw. But not. Possibly a daxophone. I can’t tell from here. Whatever it is. it sounds eerie. Like the soundtrack to a horror film.

The sound desk is right on stage. The laptop and all the rest of the equipment, simply part of a set that is already placed in the aftermath of a war zone.

The actors race up and down the aisles, diving out one door to reappear round the other side - their voices staying with us as their bodies disappear.

No one tries to touch us. Or interact with us.

Not until the bloke playing Prince Tydeus starts his campaign to take on the presidency and works his way through the audience shaking hands and winning hearts.

Well, that’s not so bad.

But the girl playing Talthybia isn’t to be outdone. With a disco ball sending pinpricks of starlight around the auditorium, she clambers up through the seats, climbing between the rows until she reaches an empty space half way up. Just one single row in front of me. And there she stays, opening up her arms and expounding on the universe.

“I didn’t know what to do when that girl climbed over the seats,” laughs one of the young people in the row behind during the interval. “I didn’t know whether to look at the stage, or her. We kept on making eye contact, and it was really awkward.”

Next to me, a young man is explaining how the actors got from one point of the auditorium to the other. Taking us through all the back corridors and paths that they would have needed to use.

“You see those chairs, over there,” he says, pointing to the row in front. The space where Talthybia had shown us the stars. “The arms are all trashed.”

He’s not wrong. They do not look good. The upholstery is threadbare. And the stuffing inside is making a bid for escape.

“In tech, they have a big table and it goes right there. It gets carried over the seats, so that row gets fucked.”

Nice to know there’s a reason for this place’s… distressed take on decor.

There’s a strange sound. A scraping, almost crunchy sound. My head tingles.

I look over at the stage.

The actor playing Ismene is sat there, working a pestle and mortar. There’s a wire coming out of it. It’s been rigged up to a microphone. The sound shudders through us. Or me at least. It’s really nice. I don’t want it to ever stop.

On the other bench is Antigone. She taps at the side of the furniture. The taps echoes through the auditorium. That’s also be rigged up.

That sound designer, Farbrother… they’ve been watching too many ASMR videos. Crisps are eaten and scrunched right next to a microphone. A gun’s trigger is clicked again and again.

I don’t think these tingles are ever going to stop.

A red dot appears on Junior Lieutenant Scudor’s chest. The mark of a sniper. I brace myself. But when the boom comes, it’s only voiced by the actor. They don’t need the big guns here. There’s carnage enough as he drops, and two buckets of blood are tipped over the body, flooding the stage with the red stuff. Staining Eurydice’s white outfit. Coating the arms and limbs and chests and faces of everyone on stage.

There’s so much of it I swear I can smell it.

It smells so sweet.

And then the fans start. Blasting us from above. Filling the room with a strong wind. My skirt ruffles against my legs with the force of it. Sound roars over our heads as Theseus runs up the stairs to the back of the auditorium. It’s a helicopter. Coming to take him home to Athens.

And we are left with a couple. Dancing. They are planning their future. She spins him under her arm as they plot the destruction of anyone who stands in their way. Athens better watch out.

The lights dim. The sound quietens. And we are returned to London. A little shaken.

I really fucking love drama schools.

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