The Wanderer Returns

It occurred to me while I was walking through Old Street that I was doing the exact opposite of what I used to do all the time a few years back. Walking from Bethnal Green to Angel was a regular habit of mine, as I left work at Rich Mix and went to see a show at Sadler’s Wells. Now that I work at Sadler’s, I find myself doing the reverse journey, down City Road, past Moorfields Hospital, round the Old Street roundabout, through Hoxton, past Box Park and the chain link fence covered with padlocks, up to Sainsbury’s, across the scary road I was convinced would be the death of me one day and… there it is. The place that had been my home for a-year-and-a-half back in the day.

It had been quite the traumatic journey. Seeing all the things that had changed (and even worse, the things that hadn’t). The newsagent that used to sell the most delicious, and yet worryingly cheap curries didn’t seem to be there anymore. But the car wash operated by staff a little too enthusiastic with their hoses still was (my feet remembered to cross to the other side of the pavement long before my brain did). There was the printers where I used to run down to hand-deliver my mock-up of how I wanted a flyer to be folded (now I do it via emailed clips, filmed on my phone - how times change), but it was shut so I couldn’t go in.

As I stood outside Sainsbury’s, on the opposite side of the street, I tried not to pick out all the ways the building at changed since I was last there. But, I couldn’t help it. Those vinyls are new. And the light-up poster-boxes have from the windows. I wonder if… I had to check. I ran around the building to look at the back. There’s a wall on Redchurch Street that runs along the length of Rich Mix’s backside. When I worked there it got painted with the name. It was pure Instagram bait, and I wanted to get hooked.

The words Rich Mix were still there, but they were different. Gone where the bright and blocky 3D typography and instead there was a more old school graffiti lettering going on. Metallic silver against a dark blue.

Change is weird. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Oh well, there was no use crying over lost street art. It’s time to go in and face the box office.

There is already a queue to get into the main space down on the ground floor - usually given over to the music performances that most people know Rich Mix for.

I ignore that. We aren’t here for a gig. Not tonight.

“I’m here for Stolen?” I said. I don’t know why I said it as a question. “Surname is Smiles,” I added, as if I was just a regular punter who hadn’t worked here for 18 months. Thing is, according to the box office system, I was a regular punter on a first time visit. I actually had to create a new account. Well, who needs to book tickets online when they have a box office a couple of doors down?

“The doors won’t open for another ten minutes or so, but you can hang out down here or go to the cafe,” the guy on box office suggested. I plumped for hanging out down there and busied myself admiring the new poster designs - so much better than the ones I put together during my time there.

The cushioned bench seats that line the front window were the same though. Still as ratty looking as I remembered. Comfy though. I perched, and edited my Theatre 503 blog post while I waited for the house to open.

By the time I got to the end it was 7.23 and I was pretty sure the house must have opened. Seven minutes before start time is cutting it close. I looked around. There was still a queue to get into the main space. And another one for the lift. Had there been an announcement? Did Rich Mix even do announcements? I couldn’t remember. I doubt I ever listened to them even if they did. With a staff pass, open times is just a bad pronunciation of the German banking family.

I scooted past the list and headed for the stairs, following the red line that is laid out on the floor in true hospital-style to lead cinema goers through the convoluted route up a level, past the popcorn and then around the main space’s gallery before reached the cinema-wing of this cumbersome building.

After the first floor however, the line peels off, and I am left to do the long walk up to the fourth floor alone. Really alone, as every level I pass looks dark and deserted. Still, nice views though.

The door at the top of the stairs takes you to the foyer outside of the fourth floor loos. If you’re quiet you can hear the bangs and screams filtering through from the cinema screen on the other side of the wall.

We have no time for second hand car chases though, so I turn left, through the double doors, past the lift and… there we are. Theatre space on one side, and the bar and more, shall we say flexible space, or the other.

“Sorry, can I tear your ticket?” asks one usher as I grab a freesheet from the other. Always doing things in the wrong order, me.

The theatre is already packed. These people are better than me at gauging when to go upstairs. There clusters of people sitting on the aisle end of the bench seating. No one wants to sit at the ends. Which is silly. The benches are all of three metres long. They only sit six bums or so at a time. Middle or end, it doesn’t make much difference.

“We’re pretty full tonight so move down,” says a lady who very much doesn’t look like an usher. “If people don’t move down for you… make them.” Golly. Hard line. I like it.

“I don’t mind squishing through,” I say to the three people sitting close to the central aisle. I really don’t.

They stand up, but that doesn’t help much with the whole getting past them as now their legs are in the way.

“Oh, sorry - I thought you wanted to go to the end?” says one.

Well, yes, but…

But they are already moving down the row. Oh well. Middle seat it is for me, then.

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Swoon-worthy theatre

This is not the blog post that I had intended to write.

I had other ideas entirely.

I was going to the next stop on my marathon with a friend. One who is a regular theatre-goer. We had dinner, over at Porky’s, quite possibly the least vegetarian place in existence, and even better, within full-bellied staggering distance of the Globe complex where we would be spending the remainder of the evening.

And while I was busy dribbling mayo and crumbs down the front of my favourite dress, Helen was busy dropping interesting thoughts about the art-form we both love so much. She's very clever, you see.

As an example, when mentioning the gender-swapped Dr Faustus currently playing at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, my reaction on hearing about the girl-kissing was to share how much hotter I found that than hetero-normative theatrical love scenes. Her's was to muse on how they made one look again at a well-trodden tale.

"Ah, yes. That too," I said, nodding along.

See? She’s very clever. An intellectual even.

So, I was sure that she would have lots of interesting things to say that I could... borrow... for my blog post.

That was the plan at least. 

Events, however, rather got in the way.

After finishing up our meal (and me having a quick brush down of my dress - everything sticks to velvet), we headed across the road to the theatre. We were watching the Dark Night of the Soul, a collection of new plays written in response to the same Dr Faustus that had provoked my previous, embarrassing, admission.

"Free programme," offered an usher, holding up a couple of said free programmes to show us.

Absolutely, yes please.

I can never resist a free programme. I might have even said that: “I can never resist a free programme.”

Especially not one as nice as this. No A4 freesheets run off on the photocopier here. There are pages and pages, with proper artwork and beautiful typesetting and… oh, I’m quite overcome just flicking through it again as I write this.

Such rapture extended all the way up the stairs and into the theatre itself.

I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance of stepping out of 2019 and into a space transported over from a previous age. And the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is no less startling even if you expect it.

The white hallway and the bright electric lights are left behind you as you are enveloped by shadows and candlelight.

We took our spaces. Right at the top, balancing on the narrowest of platforms, high above the pit. Spots chosen in a concession to my floundering bank balance. Once bags and coats had been dealt with, there wasn’t much room for feet to be placed.

“It’s a beautiful space, but the sightlines are terrible,” Helen had commented before we went in.

She wasn’t wrong.

It is a beautiful space.

And the sightlines are terrible.

Tucked up against the wall you don’t get much of a view of the stage. But there are compensations.

The ceiling, painted with the images of the skies that they hid, were mere inches above our heads, allowing close inspection of the golden constellations scattered across the angel-strewn heavens.

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The curtains leading out into the modern world were drawn shut, and we were left alone in the candlelight, cut off from the outside world.

As the first play started, our row settled into a common stance - arms resting on the bar before us, bums braced against the wall behind, feet positioned wherever our belongings allowed.

The warmth of the candles wafted up, brushing our cheeks.

I leant back, enjoying the feel of the cool walls through the back of my dress.

But the lure of the play was too much and I was soon back on the bar, leaning forward to catch what glimpses of the actors were available.

The air grew hotter.

I ran my finger inside the neck of my high neck of my dress. The satin-frilled collar didn’t allow much in the way of air to get through.

I settled on unbuttoning the cuffs of my sleeves and rolling them as far back as they would go.

That helped.

For a minute or so.

Could I unzip my dress? No one was behind me. I contemplated the acrobatics needed to reach my zip in such a confined space. Impossible... And let's be real here... super weird.

If I could just make it to the end of the play, I could try and grab one of the empty seats, I told myself. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if I was able to sit down.

I was sweating. Heat rushed up and down my body. My head swam.

I was going to faint. Or throw up.

I didn’t know which was worse.

It couldn’t be long now. These plays were short, weren’t they?

The air grew thick, condensing over the flames below until it was impossible to breath.

I had to get out of there.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman next to me.

With a whispered warning about the positioning of her bag, she slipped out of the row and let me past.

“I’m going to faint,” I announced to the usher. I really was.

She swept back the curtain and escorted me outside.

The cool air of the corridor flooded into my lungs.

I breathed it in greedily.

“This way,” she said, leading me back into the modern world. “This lady was feeling faint,” she explained to the ushers waiting out in the upper gallery foyer.

They lept up, sitting me down in a chair and fetching me a glass of water as I fanned myself with my hand.

“Sip that slowly,” said one, wearing a top that indicated she was a first aider.

I did my best, but the urge to tip it all back in one was almost overwhelming.

As the internal combustion engine in my chest gradually lost steam, I began to gather my thoughts.

The first of which, I am ashamed to admit, was: wow, this is quality blog content going on right now. My second, no less cerebral, was: I wonder if I'll make it into the show reports. I've always wanted to be in a show report.

They are such good fun to read.

It would be the audience member equivalent of having a character in a play based on you (quality call back to one of the night’s plays - Katie Hims’ Three Minutes After Midnight, right there).

Do we all know what show reports are? I feel if you are reading this blog you probably do. But just in case, they are basically a debrief on everything that happened that evening. Props that failed. Lines fluffed. Entrances missed. Jokes that didn’t land. Audience members who fainted. You get the idea.

“Here,” said the first aider, grabbing one of the free programmes and fanning me with it until I was back in the real world and not thinking about show reports. We laughed. “How are you feeling now?”

“Warm,” I said. But not likely to faint. Or throw up. Which was a relief. “I think I chose the wrong outfit for this theatre,” I said, smoothing down my velvet dress.

“Yes, I always stick to t-shirts when I’m working in there.”

“Yeah, this was a mistake… I’ve even got heattech under here.”

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, clearly horrified. “You can take it off. There are loos just through there, if you like.”

That sounded like a good idea.

I headed where she pointed, got lost, but then managed to find the loos anyway.

They were gloriously cool. And empty.

I managed to wrestle my zip down, remove the blasted heattech, and then put myself back together again.

I left my cuffs unbuttoned though, and repaired to the sink where I ran cold water over my wrists.

I felt so much better.

That was, until I spotted my reflection. 

Good lord, I was a sweaty mess.  

I'd left my bag in the theatre. I had no way if repairing it. 

Oh well. 

As I was leaving, I saw my first aider chatting to the duty manager, asking about getting the heat down in the theatre.

I slinked away, ashamed at the chaos I was causing. 

“You can sit down over here and watch,” said the usher who was still posted upstairs. She waved me into a seat and indicated the screen showing the live feed of what was going on inside the theatre. “I’m afraid the volume can’t go any higher,” she added as an apology for the poor sound quality.

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“Do you have a programme?” she asked.

“I do.”

“You can have another if you like. Follow what’s going on.”

For the first time in my life, I turned down the offer of a programme. Just like when you’re car-sick, I believe it’s better not to read when you’re feeling queasy. All that looking down and focusing. Not good.

We sat together and watched.

A few minutes later the first aider returned, and they switched places.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, full of concern.

“Much better.”

“Fancy heading back in?”

I absolutely did. Mama didn’t raise no quitters.

“The play's almost over. When the angel comes out, I’ll take you back in.”

We waited, watching the screens. Eventually a winged figure emerged from the doors behind the stage. An angel.

She led me back in, handing me over to the usher on the door.

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“You can sit over there,” she said, pointing to a vacant spot on the end of a bench.

The view from there was marvellous. The mirror-like stage glowed under the light of the candles.

I looked back at Helen, who was still stoically standing in her five-pound spot. 

I probably should have sprung for a better ticket. 

Almost fainting is certainly one way to get a free upgrade, but perhaps not a route I would recommend following.

Scratch that

7pm starts… man, they are a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever walked so fast in my life, racing across London to get to the Soho Theatre in time for my show.

Apologies to everyone who encountered me. And most particularly to the poor guy at the box office who had to deal with my puffed-out mess when I finally got there.

"What are you here for?" he asked, when I finally managed to suck back enough air into my lungs to talk and give him my name.

Now there's a question. Who can even remember anymore? It’s a miracle that I manage to turn up to the right theatre on the correct night. Now they wanted me to remember what I was actually there for?

"Err, the scratch night?" I said, feeling like I was about to lose this quiz.

"The scratch night," he concurred with an approving nod. I'd got that one right!

My prize was one of the trademark Soho tickets. They have to be the most distinctive tickets in London. I certainly haven’t seen anything to match them yet. Bright pink. The colour of Barbie's Dream Car. They’ll sear your retinas right off if you look at them too hard.

I tucked it safely in my bag before too much damage could be done and headed to the bar.

One benefit off 7pm start is that I actually do get to see the bar.

The Soho Theatre’s bar is one of those places that I will always agree is great if anyone brings it up, but the truth is, I've never managed to have a drink in it. It's always been heaving to the point of unbearability every time I've been to see a show.

But yesterday, let the record show, at 6.45, I got a table.

I sprawled out on the banquette and luxuriated in the space. 

I can see why people think this place is nice.

Very comfy.

Very cool.

In a kind of show-posters-wallpapering-the-walls-and-neon-lights kinda way.

All the bright young things of Soho draped themselves over the tables as they talked about all the shows they were working on, generally adding to the aesthetic.

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“We should go see this,” said one guy, picking up a flyer to show to girl he was with.

“Oh, yeah. I know him,” she said, jabbing the person pictured on the front of the flyer.

Of course she did.

Five minutes later, a bloke came up and asked to share my table.

Thirty seconds after that, there were three of us perched around the small square.

The dream was shattered. My time was up.

But it was glorious while it lasted.

Oh well.

It was nearly show time anyway.

I made my way back to the foyer.

A small gathering had formed at the bottom of the stairs. Our way bared by one of those thick red ropes, we we corralled on the ground floor.

"Have we got an estimated time of opening?" the usher said into her radio.

The crackly voice on the other end indicated it would be a few more minutes. We waited, stomping about and sighing heavily. The herd was getting restless.

The usher backed her way against the lift, keeping a close eye on us as she clutched at her radio lest we suddenly charge.

Someone tutted. It was 7pm. The show was already running late. 

The radio crackled back into life.

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"The show on the third floor is now open. Chinese Arts Now Scratch Night on the top floor is open," she announced with obvious relief as we bolted for the stairs.

With unrestricted seating, it doesn’t pay to be slow.

"Anywhere in the first four rows," called the usher after us as we rushed into the auditorium.

As I dashed past her, I spotted a pile of paper on the bench outside the door. I lunged and grabbed one, not missing a step as I barrelled into the auditorium and dumped myself into a seat, spreading my coat and bag around me - marking my territory.

I plumped for the third row - the first one with a rake. Very important that. As a shorty, I need me a rake. Not that it was a particularly good one. The slight lift the third row offered only meant that I was given a hint of what was happening beyond the head of the person sitting in front of me. It was a concession to the idea of a rake, an acknowledgement that such things exist, rather than a full and proper attempt to give people sitting there any kind of view.

"Even the first paragraph is a lot. It sounds heavy, doesn't it?" said a woman in the row in front, peering through the gloom at her freesheet.

All those black walls, black ceiling, and low lighting, doesn’t make reading easy.

But I gave it a go, inspecting my own freesheet.

It didn’t take me long to spot the name of the venue I work for.

Written incorrectly.

If I would ever dare give a piece of advice to artists it is this, double check your credits before handing over your biography for public consumption. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved when you don’t know how to spell the venues that you’ve performed at. Especially when you return and I have to correct it for you (because I do actually proofread and edit the biogs that come through me… just saying, Soho Theatre…).

And look, I'm not insinuating that poorly proofread paperwork is my hell, but it was rather warm up there… It was almost like I was getting punished for all my complaining about the cold yesterday. “Oh, you want it warm, do you?” laugh the theatre gods. “Don’t worry, we’ll make things real cosy for you.”

I rolled up the sleeves of my jumper, trying to remember what I was wearing underneath. Or if I was in fact wearing anything underneath.

I was. Heattech. Worse luck. As the festival organiser was already giving us the hosuekeeping speech and there was no time to wrestle myself out of my sweater.

“There’ll be a short interval between the two pieces for the changeover. No time to go to the bar but time to pop to the loo.”

I sat still, thinking cold thoughts, and tried to concentrate on the performers instead,

I must say, I wouldn’t usually think somewhere like the Soho, especially their tiny upstairs studio, is the best place for dance, but it was wonderful to be so close to the dancers. Especially in a piece so focused on facial expression and small movement. 

Even working in dance I don't think I've ever got so close outside the confines of the rehearsal room.

What a treat.

As was the horsey helium balloon in the second piece. 

There was a post-show talk, but I wasn’t sticking around for that.

I snuck out, and offered a smile of apology to the dancers who were waiting in the bench outside. 

I’m sure everyone involved was perfectly fascinating, but I wasn’t losing my chance to be in bed by 10pm (literally all my hopes and dreams revolve around this one goal right now).

So off I went. Buzzed out of the door by the bloke on box office. Race back to the tube. Home via a short trip to Tesco. Fixed a hole in my favourite vintage dress. And in bed my 10pm.

Magic.

The Camden People's Manifesto

"That sounds very communist," said my cake-eating friend Ellen when I mentioned that I would be at the Camden Peope’s Theatre on Thursday night (you may remember her from posts such as my Polka & The Space double-show day blog).

I’d been thinking of the Gettysburg Address: Theatre of the people, for the people, by the people. But a communist theatre right by Euston station sounded much more promising.

But, like with so many things with politics, I found it utterly baffling when I arrived.

There was a box office. I could see that. One that shares its desk space with the bar. Each end appropriately marked up with a sign. “Bar” to the left. “Box office” to the right.

Except, I couldn't get to either. A mass of people had congregated between the door and the counter.

Were they queuing?

I couldn’t tell.

By the looks of it they were merely milling.

Now, I don’t have a lot of experience with communist theatre. But come on, most theatres incline at least slightly towards the left. Surely things down this end of the political spectrum couldn’t be that different. I was fairly certain queuing was a universal concept. I just had to figure out where this one began, or ended.

Someone emerged from the theatre and there was lots of “there he is!” type of calls from the group.

Ah.

I see.

Friends of the playwright.

That made sense.

"You've all got comps waiting for you," the playwright announced magnanimously.

Yeah, well. That’s all very nice I’m sure. But I got a paid-for ticket waiting for me, and I would like to pick it up please.

I edged my way around the group, trying to get past.

“Is this a queue?” I asked someone nearby who looked like they might be a fellow-edger.

“You want to pick up tickets? The box office is just here,” said the lady standing behind the bar-half of the counter.

“Are you waiting?” I asked the other edger.

"You go if you want,” was his very gracious reply.

I did.

I’m not very gracious, so it looks like I may have queue-barged ahead of the one genuine person trying to pick up their ticket. Sorry mate.

The tickets turned out to be playing cards, marked up with CPT (Camden People’s Theatre. Come on now, keep up) on the back and a die-cut star punched out of the corner, lest anyone try to sneak in with a faked up playing card-ticket. Ingenious. I like it. And also deliciously mistrustful. Are there many people out there bent on sneaking into theatres with playing cards? Perhaps I’m just showing off my naivety here, but it that seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to. I don’t know. Maybe there are roving gangs selling individual playing cards with CPT sharpied on the back of them. “Wanna see a play?” they mutter as you pass them on a street corner, checking over their shoulder for any sight of the rozzers.

Frankly, if there really are people out there who are so desperate to see a play that they do go to the effort of putting marker pen to playing card, I say let them in. They deserve it.

“You can take one of those,” said the box office guy, clearly noticing how my attention was now fully taken up by the pile of cast sheets sitting on the counter.

I know. I’m sorry. You are so utterly bored about reading about my obsession with the more papery aspects of the theatre experience. It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything. I can tell.

I have a problem.

But these cast sheets… are really nice. The paper stock. Ooff. Thick. With a nice weight. And a subtle sheen.

If it were me, I would have given them a extra proofread, but… with paper this nice, who’s really paying attention to the use of quotation marks?

Fully stocked with paper, I went to find somewhere to sit.

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There are plenty of tables and chairs in the bar, but they all seemed to be taken. Around the edges however are these funny little benches which are just wide enough to perch on, but still so narrow that high levels of concentration are required at all times to prevent you from losing your balance and toppling off.

I grabbed one and clung on.

Sitting there, unable to fit on my very narrow bench, I couldn't help but think of the conversation I'd had with Ellen last weekend. It didn’t make it to the blog last time, but perhaps I held it back, knowing it would come in use in the future.

I'd mentioned being weirded out by the thought of going to see a kids’ show by myself, and that naturally led to a discussion about feeling nervous going to the theatre. There's been a lot of words, and even more money, thrown about at the top tier of the performing arts, in an effort to make theatre more welcoming. Opening up the building via the means of rejigging the architecture, and offering free tickets for under 18s, are current schemes at our city's two major opera houses.

"But places like that never bothered me," said Ellen, but with far more eloquence than I am able to properly recall. "It's the cool places that puts me on edge"

I had to agree. You can get lost in an opera house. And I don't just mean in the literal sense, wandering about while looking for the loos.

There are so many people there, it's easy enough to blend in. Whether wearing jeans or an evening dress, you'll just be one of the crowd. It's the smaller theatres though. The fringe-cool ones. The ones that served their community so well, they have started catering to a niche as narrow as their benches. That's where I feel my most awkward. 

I was definitely not cool enough to be here.

The seating alone should have told me that.

When the bell rang and I headed inside the theatre-space, I was somewhat alarmed to see that the front row was made up of what looked like those old wooden packing boxes. With thin cushions placed on top as the only concession to comfort.

I quickly bypassed those and made my way to the safety of the third row, where their were proper chairs.

The play was timely. And by that I mean it was about Brexit. Not that you'd know it until the punchline. You have to get through a very surreal first hour before the payoff of the final ten minutes hits.  

Curtain call over, everyone was very slow to move on. There was another play coming up. A double bill. I'd been tempted to stay. Adding the second play to my ticket order would have only have required a few extra quid, but there are no bonus points for repeat views in this challenge. And the idea of being back in my bed by 10pm was just too tempting.

Yeah, when I say I'm not cool, I'm not playing.

So, I was off. Even if this lot weren't. 

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As I started layering up, winding round my scarf and shrugging on my coat, ready to launch myself back into the freezing night, the applause started up again.

I thought the cast may have reemerged but I couldn't see them.

"Max! Max! Max!" chanted the front row.

Err. Thanks? I know my coat is pretty spectacular, but really... applause really isn't necessary.

Then the playwright emerged.

The playwright who was dishing out comps to their mates.

The playwright who is also called Max.

Oh.

So yeah, it is a bit communist but only in the sense that it benefits to be in the inner circle of our great leaders.

All theatre-goers are equal, but some theatre-goers are more equal than others.