I’ve been giving a lot of big talk about small theatres in the past few blogs, but this next one looks upon them and sneers at their hulking coarseness. Where the Ambassadors and the Garrick are lumbering about, weighed down by fancy architectural flourishes and Grade II listings, the Union Theatre zips nimbly around them, laughing at their twirly bits.
Twirly bits aren’t the only things they’ve done away with.
When I arrived at the box office (perched on the end of an already small bar) I was handed a large purple disk emblazoned with the number 3 that looked like the sort of plastic tag a bored-looking shop assistant will hook onto your hangers in a shop’s changing rooms.
“Have you been here before?” asked the youngest box officer I had ever seen (I swear it’s not just me getting old).
I had to admit that I had not.
She explained the system. Once the doors open at 7.15, we’d be called into the auditorium in groups. First the 10 people with a number 1 on their disks, then the number 2s, then the 3s etc. Thus ensuring that those who had arrived earliest got first pick on the unreserved seating.
Neat system. I like it. Removes the stress and queuing that so often goes with unreserved seating.
Pressure off, I had the chance to explore.
The Union Theatre doesn’t have a foyer. As you as you walk through the door, you fall straight into a cafe that looks like it was modelled your cool friend’s kitchen. You know the one, the friend who has mismatched cutlery picked up from French flea markets, and collections of found objects arranged in a fresh and original manner, that you feel confident you could emulate in your own home, but you know deep down would only look like a towering pile of rubbish if you ever actually attempted it. The friend who reads Dostoevsky. In the original. But will only roll their eyes if you express amazement at this and ask you what you think about the new Doctor Who. The friend who only looks put together, and yet effortless. At the same time. The friend who would hate if you didn’t love them so much. Yeah, that fucking bitch.
That combined with the massive tables built for sharing and the chill vibes radiating off the staff makes for a really relaxed atmosphere. Tables are filled with strangers as they perch next to each other to read or have a drink. The director was even having his dinner at one.
All this general bonhomie floating in the air must have softened my newly-sharpened corners because I soon found myself in conversation with a fellow theatre-goer on all things Ibsen. Or rather, I was talked to about all things Ibsen. I don’t have a great deal of Ibsen anecdotes at my disposal, so my new friend had to do most of the heavy lifting on that one. Thankfully, before the load of carrying the entirety of the conversation grew too much for them, their number was called and they were off, guided behind the heavy red curtains, through the great double doors, and into the theatre.
A few minutes later, it was my turn.
I tried to get a photo of the inside of the auditorium, but the combo of me being a terrible photographer and the lighting being very… atmospheric (lit: dark. Or rather, unlit: dark) I couldn’t get anything remotely worth looking at. Unless you enjoy peering at murky-dark images, with only the shadows for highlights.
So, let me paint you a picture with words.
It’s a brick-walled room. Seven rows of seats. Green upholstery. Comfy. Excellent rake. Sound desk to the right. Staircase upstage. Lighting rig overhead. There’s a freestanding set that can be spun around to form a building caught mid-build, to a town-hall platform, to the interior of a house. Nifty.
The space is so small, and yes: intimate, that even from my position in the very-much-not-the-front-row I felt utterly immersed in the action.
The good kind of immersed. Not the actors-threatening-to-interact-with-me kind of immersed.
The construction noises were very effective. Really effective. A low rumbling on the edge of hearing gradually grew into a thundering roar until my chair was vibrating as the noise intensified still further and then slowly died down, finalising off with rhythmic metallic clangs. They were very familiar sounding clangs. Very familiar. I could have sworn I had heard that sound earlier that day. And not on a building site.
And that’s when I suddenly remembered that I was sitting inside a theatre built underneath a railway arch.
And the rumble was a train passing over our heads.
It was a bit like stepping out of a dream when I staggered back into the bar during the interval.
I was fully not prepared to chat to anyone, no matter how chill the vibes or communal the large tables.
At these times I would usually bury my head in the programme, but being the spry and nimble theatre this is, there weren’t any.
And then I realised, with no ticket, and no programme, I would have no physical evidence of ever being here. No memento for me to take away.
This was bad.
What was I going to do?
My boxes and boxes of random crap picked up from theatres was going to be missing a representative from the Union Theatre. My collection would forever be incomplete. What on earth was I going to leave to my grandchildren?
“Do you have, like, a cast sheet or something?” I asked, driven more by hope than expectation.
They did. Tucked away, behind the bar.
Now that I know that they have small bits of paper for me to hoard like a Golem of theatre ephemera, I can confidently make the decision to really like this theatre. I’m going to come back a lot, I think… starting next year.