Is it morbid to treat a memorial as an experience? I think the fact that it is me asking this, the woman who wears all black, listens to The Cure, and grew up next door to a twelfth-century graveyard, is probably an answer in itself. If I am questioning whether something is morbid, it must be macabre af.
Last night the lights dimmed in the West End in memory of the theatre producer Duncan Weldon. I’d never seen that happen before, so I headed in early to try and catch it.
At seven o’clock, I positioned myself halfway down Shaftesbury Avenue and waited.
The lights glittered brightly.
A crowd had gathered on the pavement, phones poised and ready to capture the moment.
The Company sign hanging above the Gielgud was the first to go out. Shortly followed by the sequined Thriller Live at the Lyric.
Lastly, after a painfully long moment, the Apollo switched off their lights.
The crowd clapped, but the sound was muffled by their gloves so they settled on a short cheer instead.
A moment later, the lights started coming back on, one by one, starting with the Apollo, and ending, an achingly long time later, with the Gielgud.
That done, is was time to head into my chosen theatre for the night.
The Apollo, or as I used to call it: The Worst Balcony in London.
I can't do that anymore.
Now it's: The-Theatre-That-Is-Lacking-In-The-Balcony-Department-Ever-Since-The-Ceiling-Caved-In-Mid-Performance-Following-A-Day-Of-Heavy-Rain-Fall-Way-Back-In-2013-Necessitating-The-Installation-Of-An-Admittedly-Beautiful-False-Ceiling-At-Balcony-Level-To-Cover-Up-The-Damage. Which is a less catchy name, for sure.
The highest rank of circle on offer is now the grand one. Which, let me tell you, ain't all that grand. If you thought that theatres making the balcony-dwellers enter via a separate entrance was dodgy, here the residents of the grand circle also get the second class treatment. Once you’ve picked up your ticket from the box office, you are sent back outside, into the cold and the rain, to go in via the servants’ entrance, lest you offend the masters sitting in the stalls with your grubby, public-transported, presence. They even have the walls of the stairwell tiled, the better to hose-down our sticky finger marks after we’ve left.
When I finally made it up, I made a cheering discovery. The Apollo may no longer hold the title of the Worst Balcony in London. But I am pleased to report, I think they may well be in good stead to claim The Worst Grand Circle in London prize.
Getting into row E required clambering up a massive step, which I’m sure fails on all sorts of access-friendliness scales. You’d think that once you’ve clawed your way into your seat, you would be rewarded by a fantastic view. Not so. Unless you have a particular fondness for inspecting the hairdos of strangers at close quarters.
The Apollo will take your money just as easy as from the poshos in the stalls, but they don't believe in the poor people actually seeing the show.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand them entirely on this matter. Just as a popular artwork may be taken off display in a gallery to preserve it from the damage that comes along with being shuffled past by an endless stream of tourists, so must a show be kept hidden from the glare of too many retinas.
And naturally, it is only right that those who can’t afford an expensive ticket should not get an unrestricted view. The less they can see of the stage, the better, quite frankly! It must be safeguarded, far away from inferior eyeballs. Their funds will support the work going on below, naturally. One must support the arts. But this duty must be performed as a subsidy for the proper audiences. The ones that sit in the real seats. And pay real prices.
And wear appropriate clothes.
With the promise of heavy snow that evening, I had pulled out an original fifties circle skirt from the back of my wardrobe. Quilted with a layer of fleece hidden underneath, it is basically a duvet with a waistband attached. It is also frickin’ massive I had to keep on tucking it under my knees to prevent it from encroaching into my neighbours' laps. Totally the wrong thing to wear in cramped West End theatre seating.
I soon realised that the two people now living under my skirt were on wildly different rides that evening.
The girl on my right, a performing arts student, was on Splash Mountain. She bopped and danced around in her seat, cheered at every you-tell-the-bastards line and whispered excitedly, "this is so good!" to her friend. During the closing numbers she sniffed extravagantly, her sweet young face washed by tears by the end. Every emotion being pumped off that stage landed had straight in her heart.
The lady on my left however was stuck on the rotating Teacups and she wanted to go home. Every time a song ended and the cast insisted on doing the talking bits, she took out her phone to check the time, jostling and elbowing me as she reached into her bag and lit up the screen to reveal that, yes... only five minutes had passed since the last time she has performed this same manoeuvre. Half-way through act two, after a particularly clumsily choreographed attack on her bag and my ribs, she brought out, not her phone, but a tube of hand cream. Squeezing out a dollop, she then proceeded to work it into her skin during the heartfelt family moment taking place down on the stage. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so committed to skin hydration since The End of the World (“Moisturise me!”).
As for me, I just kept on thinking about a band of young men I’d passed on my way there. About how they had rushed into the road together, right into the traffic. A taxi screeched at them and one of the young men screeched back: “Run me over! Do it! I want to die!”
And I thought about the dimmed lights.
And the people taking photos.
And the girl on my right who was feeling all the emotions.
And the woman on my left who was feeling none of them.
And the stage that I couldn’t see.
And the painted forest scene hanging above us.
And the broken roof that lurked above this enchanted image.
And the snow falling on it.
And I wondered, if this was my last night on earth, would I be happy that I spent it here.
And then I went home.