It's June! It's Pride month! And I'm off to the self-styled "home of the UK’s LGBT+ Theatre."
Yup, I'm off to Above the Stag.
It's almost like I planned it,
Now, if I were a decent blogger (or even a decent liar), I'd tell you that's exactly what I did. But I'm not, and I didn't. I was actually intending to get this one checked off the list in May, but a last-minute diary reshuffle had me bumping the home of the UK's LGBT+ Theatre over a couple of weeks. And it's only while I'm walking through Vauxhall, and seeing all the rainbow-tinged goodness everywhere, that I connect the brightly-flashing dots, and apologise to the theatre gods for spending so long bitching them out for messing with my calendar. I should have known they had this shit covered. I mean, someone has to. And I certainly don't.
It's a warm evening, and it looks like there's more people hanging out, drinks in hand, on the small square of grass outside the entrance, then there are gathered within.
I lean against a tree and try and get a photo of the theatre, but it's completely impossible. I can barely even see the entrance through the absolute party that seems to be going on our here. All I'm getting is a hazy purple light, glowing from within the curved glass frontage. A halo hanging over the heads of my fellow theatre-goers. It's all rather magical.
Despite the image conjured by the name, the Above the Stag is not actually above the Stag. It's not above anything, let alone a pub. If anything, it lies underneath. Tucked within one of the railway arches that live near Vauxhall station.
I decide it's time to go in.
It's pretty busy in here too. There's a massive queue at the bar, and every day is filled. No wonder the people are spilling out onto the street.
One end of the bar has been assigned to box office duties. There's a big sign screaming TICKETS up on the wall behind. The queue is significantly shorter on this end. There's only one person in front of me.
Not that anyone's serving. There are two people behind the bar and they are rushing back and forth, measuring spirits, pouring glasses of wine, and taking payments, all at the same time, as they fight to get through this queue of thirsty theatre-goers before the doors open.
But with our queue now composed of two, we manage to attract the attention of one of the bar people and she comes over to deal with the business of ticketage.
When it's my turn, I give my surname and the bar person taps away at my name on the touchscreen behind the counter. A second later a small printer buzzes, and my ticket emerges, printed on thin receipt paper. All very fancy.
The doors still aren't open, so I suppose I should find somewhere to stand. At least, I think they're not open. I don't actually know where they are. None of the doors around the edge of the room looks likely. And there's no THEATRE sign to match the TICKETS one above the bar.
But the bar is full, and there's still a healthy queue of people intent on getting their drinks, and no one looks overly concerned about going anywhere quite yet, so I find myself just hanging around, waiting for instruction.
I find myself darting back and forth as I try and get out of people's way. It really is very busy in here. All my darting and side-stepping gradually moves me from one side of the bar to the other, and I find myself standing amongst a small group, all clutching receipt-paper printed tickets in their hands. There's a set of double doors down here. Unmarked. Unlike the loos right next door. Through the small windows set into the doors I can see show posters. This must be it. And these people must be all the keen-bean theatre crowd, just bursting to get into the space. Or possibly, given our location busting for the loo. I can't quite tell. Bursting for something or other, for sure, though.
A voice comes over the tannoy. "Ladies and gentleman, the house is now open for Fanny and Stella. Please take your seats."
We look at the doors, and then at each other.
"Are we...are we just supposed to open the doors ourselves?" someone asks.
We all look back at the doors.
They are still closed. And don't look likely to open of their own accord any time soon.
This is getting ridiculous. What we need is a hero. Someone to step forward and liberate us from this bar, guiding us through the parted doors towards the promised land of the theatre.
Just as I am debating with myself whether that person could, or indeed should, be me, I am saved from such brave actions by a woman who pushes her way through the group, places her hand on the door, and pulls it open.
We all follow on meekly behind, passing the weight of the door between us as we go through.
We turn right. The light of the theatre almost blinding with its brightness. It's probably not a good idea to follow a guide towards a bright light, not unless you're prepared to never come back, but it looks so inviting I can't stop myself.
The posters on the wall shift from colour-filled sweet-wrappers, with the saturation turned up to max, to the text filled advertisements of the old music halls.
"Know where you're sitting?" asks a man dressed in a dandified top hat and tails.
He chats away, making bants with everyone coming through the door.
I find my seat without assistance, but I can't stop looking over at the dandy by the door.
He looks really rather familiar. If only I had a freesheet...
Except, hang on. Someone sitting in the row in front of me is flicking through something. A booklet. The kind of booklet, that if I didn't know better, would say looks exactly like a programme.
He stops mid-flick, turns back a page, and starts reading.
There are pictures interspersed with the text. Photos. Headshots.
That's a fucking programme.
He has a programme.
Where on earth did he get that? I want to lean forward and ask, but he's just a couple of seats too far along the row for that to be reasonable.
I sit back, and prepare myself for the long wait until the interval.
It's alright, I tell myself. At least I know there are programmes. They exist. Out there. Somewhere. And I'll find them, buy one, and damn well look this actor's name up before I combust.
I distract myself by looking around. It's nice in here. Wide seats. Allocated. And a magnificent rake. I can see right over the heads of the two tall blokes sitting in front of me.
"Oo. Lots of room here," says my neighbour, kicking our their legs to demonstrate the amount of room there is.
This is fringe theatre to the lux.
Every now in, and the doors closed, our dandy friend, whoever he may be, steps onto the stage. He's going to be our compere for the evening, in this tale of Fanny and Stella, the OG drag-queens of Victorian London.
And they're signing? Like properly. Not just a music hall ditty to illustrate what they're all about. But like, an opening number about sodomy. On the Strand. The cast's voices and the single piano fight against echo of trains rumbling overhead.
How did I not realise this was a musical? Oh well. I'm sold, bought, and paid for. Three times over. This is hilarious.
Too soon it's the interval, and still giggling, I make my way back to the bar.
I'm on a mission after all. Gotta get that programme.
I walk over to the bar. If they're anywhere, they must be here. And yes, there's one. In a display on-top of a glass case of confectionary. That was easy.
Buying one however, now that's where it gets tricky.
I'm already surrounded on all sides as everyone tries to place their drinks order at once.
A woman elbows me out of the way to get to the bar, and flags down a passing staff member to serve her.
"Sorry, sorry," she says, just as her wine is being poured. "I ordered sauvingnon blanc."
The server looks from the bottle in her hand, to the two glasses of red wine she just poured. "Yes, yes you did," she says, covering each glass with a napkin and going to fetch the right bottle.
The other server behind the bar comes up. He sees me. And another woman. He dithers between the two of his, finger-gunning as he decides who's up next.
"Sorry," I say to the other lady. "I just want a programme. Can I get a programme?"
"For which show?" he asks.
"Umm," I say, pointing vaguely in the direction of the theatre.
"Fanny and Stella," steps in the other lady, demonstrating more grace than I could ever be capable of.
"Yes. Thank you," I say, nodding to her. "That one."
He goes off to fetch a programme. They're £2.50, which isn't bad. Not bad at all.
Programme now acquired, I decide that I should probably get out of the way.
I flick through the pages until I get to the biographies. Ah, there he is. Mark Pearce. I scan his credits. I don't have to go far. Fourth line down: Maggie May. That's where I've seen him. At the Finborough Theatre.
Isn't that something.
I flip forward to the credits. Bit of a habit of mine. I like seeing who works on shows. And for the first time in a good long while, I see someone credited for the programmes. That's lovely. I like that. I'm certainly not mentioned as the producer of my programmes anywhere. Perhaps I should start sneaking my name in there... anyway, good on you Jon Bradfield. You've done a great job. Love the interview with the writer, Glenn Chandler. Very nice.
The bar's getting crowded again. Really crowded. Without taking a single set I seem to have been swept along, away from my little corner, into the middle of the room. And people are still pouring in from the theatre doors. I didn't think that small space could even hold this many people.
"Please take your seats in the main house for Fanny and Stella," says the man over the tannoy.
The main house.
The. Main. House.
That's why there are so many people.
That's why I got asked which programme I wanted.
Above the Stag isn't one theatre. It's two.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck, with bells on top.
We're skirting dangerously close to 300 theatres now. Finding a new studio that add to my list is really not what I need right now.
No time to think on that now, I'm going back in, ready for the trial of William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella.
But, hang on. There's someone crossing the stage. Someone very much not wearing Victorian dress. She's holding a wine glass and shuffling along.
The cast stop to stare at her in wonder.
"She's going through a stage," says Mark Pearce.
The audience groans in response and the woman throws up her arms in a shrugging apology as she heads towards her seat.
"Oy!" he rejoins. "That's the best joke in the whole show."
The pianist pulls a face.
Pearce points a finger at him. "Don't you start!"
It doesn't look like anyone's starting. They've all forgotten their lines.
Tobias Charles' Fanny taps Pearce on the chest. "I know where we are," he says. And after a few false starts, we're back up and running.
And oh, this is bliss. Silly and sordid, with all the sad bits delivered with high kicks and jazz hands, and Kieran Parrott's impossible Stella-pout.
I'm not even mad that I have to come back for that studio space now.Read More