Demon Theatre of Fleet Street

I thought I was well past the point where I was able to shock my coworkers with my theatre-going, but the expression on their faces as I wrap my scarf around my neck and breezily say that I'm just popping out to watch a play tells me that I've hit a new low.

Turns out, slipping into an empty seat at the back to catch the matinee in your own theatre is one thing, but running down to Bridewell Theatre in order to squeeze a short play into your lunch break is quite another.

Oh well. Doesn't matter. I'm already halfway down Farringdon Street and too out of breath to worry about my rapidly deteriorating reputation in the office.

I haven't been to the Bridwell Theatre before, but I've seen the signs for it, so I'm not entirely surprised when I step out of the smog of grey suits on Fleet Street and into a quiet little side-street that looks like it's pitching itself as a location for this Christmas' glossy Dicken's adaptation.

Two ladies chat outside the front door to the theatre, but apart from that, it's entirely deserted.

I'm guessing lunch-time theatre can't really compete with M&S sandwiches in the life of a city worker.

I'm up for it though. A 45-minute play in the middle of the day sounds great. It's just a pity that this place is too far from my work for me to ever justify coming here outside of my marathon. Best make the most of it.

Huh. This place is not nearly as exciting looking inside. After a brief interlude involving floor to ceiling tiling, those old Victorian stones have given way to white walls and grotty floors.

But no matter. There's a good old fashioned hole-in-the-wall box office. It even has a circular speaker thing set into the glass. The metal surround is inscribed with the directive to: SPEAK HERE. I do, giving my surname, and I'm handed a small entrance token in exchange.

They are small. And laminated. There's a picture of a sandwich on the front (cucumber on wholemeal) and a poorly hyphenated set of terms and conditions on the back. I'm disappointed. Somehow I had got into my head that the Bridewell was connected to the printing industry, but I couldn't imagine any proper printer producing this sort of nonsense.

To be fair, that connection may exist nowhere outside of my own fuzzy memories, and no be based on anything even approaching reality. In which case, the tokens are just fine. And cucumber sandwiches are totally ace. But like... not on brown bread. Don't be gross, people. No one wants that shit in their lives. It should be white bread or nothing when it comes to cucumbers. And plenty of butter. The good stuff. Yeo Valley, or Kelly Gold if you must.

"The house will open at five to one," says the man behind the window. "We'll ring a bell."

That's only a couple of minutes away. I better start exploring.

I follow the signs down to the bar.

Oh, blimey. That's not what I expected. There I was, traipsing down the white-walled staircase, never knowing that the basement bar was lurking underneath like the Phantom's lair. Bare brick walls. Metal beams holding up curved arches. And there, squatting between the tables like an old man waiting for someone to buy him a pint is, oh my god, is that a printing press?

I fucking love a printing press. I’m always trying to drop hints to our printers that they should invite me around for a tour, but they are doing the absolute mostest to change the conversation to one of paper stock, or types of fold, which I suppose is also good.

I go over to have a proper look at it.

I suppose it could be a printing press. If what you're printing is shirts and by press you mean, wash out the dirt. They're washing machines. I'm in an old laundry.

Oh.

I'm beginning to think I really did imagine the whole printing thing. Which is worrying.

Still, it is nice down here. I do like old machines, even if their purpose is to remove ink rather than print it. I like that you can see how they work. This wheel turns, that cog rotates, then this plate lowers, yadda, yadda, yadda, and your socks are clean!

It's surprisingly busy down here. All the tables are full.

I'm trying to work out how many of these people are here for a sneaky pint during their lunch hour. But none of these people look like the type to work around here.

There's less in the way of suits than I would expect. And far more anoraks than is reasonable.

I feel like I've somehow stumbled group in their pre-meet for a walking tour of the Lake District, rather than a bunch of city workers taking a short rest-bite from their heady day propping up capitalism.

There's a rustle of Goretex as they all stumble to their feet and make towards the door.

They must have heard something I didn't because the queue to get into the theatre is starting and if I don't hurry up and join it, I'm going to be stuck right at the back.

Back up the stairs, through the door by the box office, and via a small foyer taken up by some rather fetching blue curtains, and we're into the theatre.

It's a standard black box, with raked seating, and a rather fantastical lighting rig - meal bars jutting off at all sorts of wonderful angles. Each side of the space is lined with slim metal columns, the type you'd find on an old factory floor. I rather like it.

It takes a while for everyone to settle.

There are considerably more people here than I could ever have expected. Lunchtime theatre is clearly a thing, and I feel like I've been missing out. Someone needs to tell all the pub-theatres in Islington, because I want to get in on this action.

After five months in marathon-mode, even 90-minutes-no-interval is starting to feel like a chore. With a standard 7.30pm start, you're still not getting out before 9pm. And then there's the journey home, and by the time you've got your coat off, put the kettle on, and shoved all the clothes off of your duvet, accomplishing the coveted In-Bed-By-Ten prize is a bit of a challenge. If you ask me (and I'm sure you are), 45 minutes is the perfect length for a play.

I didn't know anything about this one, but with such a short run time, there wouldn't be much room to go wrong.

Even so, Stanley Grimshaw Has Left The Building manages to pack it in: family tensions, false allegations of violence, missed messages, Elvis impersonations, and not one - but two - twists, before the clock runs out. There's even a reverse of the man-sends-his-inconvenient-female-relative-to-the-madhouse trope, which was very pleasing.

I would credit those involved, but there wasn't a freesheet to be found. Which if the Bridewell really did have a connection to the printing industry would be really fucking embarrassing for them.

Now, I have to know - where did I get that idea from?

As I hurry up Farringdon Street on my way back to work, I quickly Google it.

"Housed in a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian building, St Bride Foundation was originally set up to serve the burgeoning print and publishing trade of nearby Fleet Street, and is now finding a new contemporary audience of designers, printmakers and typographers who come to enjoy a regular programme of design events and workshops."

They even have a library dedicated to printing and its associated arts.

Oh, Bridewell Theatre. Dedicated to the print trade and you can't even put together a freesheet. For shame. For shame!

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So Pissed that I've already used "You’re in a cult; call your dad" as a Title

"If you don't understand it then I sure as hell don't understand it."

That's Helen after I try to explain the mystery that is Theatro Technis to her.

It's not often that I'm left stumped by a theatre, and I have never been as stumped by a theatre as I am by Teatro Technis.

It started early. Right from the moment I first go on the Theatro's website, I'm inflicted with the huge image of a Greek mask, rendered in black and white, and staring out of my screen. I quickly scroll down. That's far too terrifying an image for my innocent eyes. I only went there to find out what shows they had, not test my bladder control.

Further down there's some text about the theatre. Always helpful. "Independent theatre in Camden," it says. Nice. I like it. To the point. Helpful even.

I carry on, greedy for more intel about this new-to-me theatre. "'Teatro' speaks for itself," it starts. I'm not so sure about that, but let's press on. "'Technis' is an ancient Greek word. It come from a time when people made no distinction between art, work and craft. People didn't make theatre for money, they had to live, yes -but the work itself was rewarded enough. It was important then to have passion for what you were doing and to believe that your work benefited others too. That is Theatro Technis."

Right. Well, ignoring the typos, which I swear to god are not mine, that's a whole lot of words adding up to not a lot.

I decide not to dwell on it and keep scrolling. And keep scrolling. God damn. Does this theatre have any shows, or does it just specialise in the production of grammatically suspect manifestos?

I'm beginning to think there must be more to it. With every "Learn More" link leading me to ever more obtusely written pages, and no sign of a show to book, I am growing ever more suspicious. A number of conspiracy theories peek out from behind the Greek masks. "Perhaps it's a front," one of them suggests. "Who could ever suspect a small fringe venue as a location for shady drug deals?" The second one shakes her head. "Nope," she says. "You just can't translate Theatro. It's actually a corruption of the word thearchy, meaning ruled by the gods." She looks very smug about this theory. "It's a cult," she adds, just to make sure we all got it. The third one doesn't look impressed. "It's a hipster cafe," he says. "Tro is short for trophy. They only serve award-winning teas. Tea-tro. Get it? The Technis just means they won't kick you out for using plugging into your charger to the wall-socket."

Well, that's enough of them. I always find it pays not to listen to the voices in your head.

Moving on.

I eventually found a show and booked myself in. Despite all their best efforts to put me off, I was going. I have a marathon to complete and no amount of menacing mask images are going to put me off.

Besides, I had my own, slightly more mundane, conspiracy theory. That the website was part of the experience. Like when Punchdrunk has a new show. It sets the mood. Provides an atmosphere. Gets you in the right frame of mind for your visit. And if a certain queasiness in the stomach area was what they wanted to provoke in their audiences, well... they have certainly achieved that with me.

So, off I went, negotiating the crowds in Camden until I found myself on a quiet road, with a tall townhouse marked Teatro Technis half way down it. It's an interesting looking building. There's some sort of religious statue action going on over the front door. And the black wall down the side makes me think it used to have a neighbour that has since been disposed of.

There's also a sign. "THEATRE ENTRANCE," it says, in all caps, with an arrow pointing metal railing, behind which there is a wide alleyway with a door at the end of it.

Well, okay then. We weren't going through the statue-guarded front door. Down the creepy alleyway it is, then.

Inside, there's a small table, which I can only presume is the box office. But it's empty of both people and paper. Not the box office then. On the opposite end, there's a bar.

"Hello!" calls the lady behind it.

I go over and give my surname.

"Maxine, is it?" she asks.

I'm taken aback. I mean, yes, I have an interesting surname. But my first name isn't usually ready to go at the front of strangers' memories.

I soon find out the reason for this immediate recognition. There's a print-out of the online bookers. There's me, at the bottom, being ticked off as I watch. Above me, there's only one other name. Two advance bookers. Oh dear.

Forget the masks and the alleyway. That's my worst fear: being in an audience with only one other person. Or even worse. Just me.

Thankfully, we are not there. Not quite yet. There are a few people more hanging out in this foyer.

I look around, trying to work this place out.

The door to the theatre is to the right of the bar. There's a door to the loos on the left.

Which begs the question - where's the townhouse? I'll admit, my geography isn't that great. But even I can't be this badly turned around. The saintly townhouse should be on the left as well, but unless those are some exceedingly luxuriously proportioned toilets, it can't be. Which means the two buildings are separate. Which in turn means... well, I don't know.

A couple push their way through the loo doors. They're each holding a glass of wine.

My pet conspiracy theorists each shrug. This is a mystery too big even for them.

The house opens. It's time to go in.

The room is large. And old. The ceiling is vaulted and there are two blocked off fireplaces behind the main bank of seats. It looks like an old village schoolroom, although given the statue on the main building, I presume it must be church related in origin.

I find a spot in the second row.

There aren't two of us watching the show. Or even four.

Nine people make it in before the lights dim.

The door is left open.

Light from the corridor floods in, as does the sound of glasses and chatter from the bar. By the sounds of it, there are more people out there than in here.

A woman sitting in my row stands up and tries to wave to the person in the tech booth, set high in the wall, but there's not much the tech person can do.

A latecomer arrives. The woman waves and points frantically at the door. He doesn't understand. He ducks his head and hurries into a seat.

The woman looks around, clearly ready to storm across the stage and close the door herself. But she is blocked in on either side. She sits down again and we spend the next few minutes listening to the talk over at the bar while the actors hold some kind of meditation circle.

The play is about a religious group. A cult.

I shift uncomfortably in my chair. My pet conspiracy theorists are nodding knowingly. It was all a test. A series of challenges designed to ensure that only the most dedicated would come here. The cryptic website with its unnerving masks. The impossible floorplan. And now this play. It was like those people hawking personality tests outside the Scientology Centre on Tottenham Court Road. "Come, watch a play. Perhaps you might discover something about yourself."

The thing that I was fast discovering about myself is that I wanted to get out of there. Right now.

I try and concentrate on the play. The cult on stage is falling apart but the one in the audience is growing ever stronger.

More people come in. A large group. Halfway through the play and suddenly the audience has doubled in numbers.

I look over. They're all young and shiny-faced, glowing with some inner contentment.

The perfect example of a cult member.

I can't look for long. The lighting cues are all over the place. One part of the room is illuminated for a scene, then another joins in to greet the arrival of more actors to the same scene. Too often we're plunged into darkness, left alone to stare unseeing at an empty stage. I am convinced they are trying to break my will.

When the play ends, my instinct is to make a burst for the exit. But I hold back, waiting for the young people to gather their things and leave.

Eventually, the path is clear and I get up, walking straight towards the exit, pushing them open without a backwards glance.

I don't turn back. Not until I'm safely in Mornington Crescent tube station. I jump onto the first train to arrive, not caring what branch it's travelling on. I just want to get as far away as possible.

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Etcetera, etcetera and so forth

I’m standing outside The Oxford Arms again. My second time in two days. Yesterday’s attempt at seeing a show here proved to be a major fail due to my inability to write words in the correct cell of a spreadsheet. But I am undetermined. I shifted some plans. Freed up an evening. And I’m back. Ready to catch some quality pub theatre.

I’m there on the right night.

Believe me.

I’ve checked. Multiple times.

The date on the poster matches the one on my phone. Just like it did when I got here thirty seconds ago.

“Got a light?” says a bloke, tucking himself in beside me in the doorway.

I don’t smoke.

“So, what’s your name then?”

Christ. Do we really have to do this?

I decided that, on balance, I'd really rather not.

So, after some tedious back and forth, I push open the door and fling myself inside. It’s crowded and dark and a little bit dingy.

I can't see the theatre. I start to think that, despite the presence of the A-frame outside, I'm in the wrong pub. I've been to a lot of pub theatres on this marathon. This is my third one of the week, and it's only Wednesday. I would say that I'm fast becoming a connoisseur of pub theatres. And this does not look like the sort of pub that has a theatre in it.

I remembered the face my coworker had pulled when I told her I was going to the Etcetera.

"That bad?" I'd laughed.

"No. Just... um..."

I was beginning to see what she meant. Just... um...

There was a little ray of light however. I could see it pouring in from the back. A glimpse of a small garden. Or at least a terrace. I head towards it.

I don't make it. The light has lead me to something else entirely. If not salvation, something close enough. "Etcetera Theatre Upstairs," says a sign, with an arrow next to it pointing up at the ceiling.

The box office isn't visible from the pub, but there are more arrows pointing the way and I follow them until I find the box office just around the corner.

Someone is in the queue ahead of me. He's after a ticket but the show tonight is sold out. There's even a waiting list.

I hang back while this guy tries to blag his way in, but there's nothing to be done. No seat that can be magiced up for him.

Not for the first time, I feel a little guilty.

Here I am, caring nothing for this show other than as a means to ticking off yet another venue on my marathon, and I'm standing behind a bloke who genuinely wants to go. So genuinely he's here, in person, trying to argue with the box office to let him in.

And for what? So at the end of the year I get some mediocre bragging rights? As dinner-party anecdotes go, "the year I spent visiting every single damn theatre in London," isn't going to get me far beyond the appetisers.

Eventually, he gives up and leaves. I consider calling after him, offering him my place, but I don't. Because the only thing worse than an "I completed a dumb challenge" anecdote is an "I didn't complete a dumb challenge" anecdote. I've already had one fail at this venue. I'm not sure my nerves can take another one. Besides, I gave up a non-marathoning evening for this. I am damn well getting the Etetcerta theatre signed off tonight.

If he really cared about seeing this show, he should have booked earlier.

It's a capitalist society we live in, after all. They that buy the tickets, have the right to see the show.

That's what I tell myself. Doesn't stop me from being a terrible person though.

Getting signed in takes a few minutes. It looks like there's a full house tonight and the grid system they are utilising is packed full of scrawled-out surnames.

But he locates me in the end and hands me a small ticket the size of a business card.

"Is the house open yet?" I ask, glancing towards the stairs, which are blocked by a chain with a laminated sign swinging off of it.

Unsurprisingly it isn't, and wouldn't until just before 7. Which meant I had ten whole minutes to deal with. Time to investigate the garden.

It's sunny. Or as sunny as you can expect for a mid-April London evening. The people of Camden are making full use of it, and it's busy out here. There's only half a bench to spare and I grab it (after asking permission from the current bench resident, of course... this may be a capitalist society that we live in, but it still has a code of manners).

It's nice out here. Quite despite the number of people and the proximity to the high street. I get out the ticket and have a look at it. There's a date written in biro, which at first glance, before stuffing it into my pocket, I had presumed to be today's. But it's not.

"This card entitles the bearer £1.50 off entry to shows at the Etercera Theare, subject to availability."

That's clever. I like that.

The expiry date is a year from now, which means that even I, in full marathon mode, will have the chance to use it.

I check the time. It's two minutes to 7. Has the house opened? I hadn't heard a bell.

Worried that I'd missed it, I decide to go back in and check.

The little corner of the pub which houses the entrance to the theatre is packed full of young people. They cluster together, separate from the pub regulars, bumping into each other gently as they try to say hello to each other.

The friends and family brigade are out in force. No wonder that guy was desperate for a ticket. The playwright is probably his sister. I don't see him around. He must have given up. I hope not. If only for the sake of my guilt.

The bell rings and we all troupe upstairs.

There's no time to take photos but I manage to grab one of the sign over the auditorium door. Lit from behind with blue and pink lights, it looks like it's decorating the entrance to a unicorn-themed club.

Inside it's a proper black-box theatre, with ranks of red-cushioned benches facing a floor level stage.

I choose the centre of the third row and gradually find myself shifting further along down it as more and more people pour in.

"The house is full," says a bloke to the girl he's with.

She grins in response. "It makes me so happy for them."

It's so full the guy from the box office goes into full air-traffic control mode, motioning us all with his arms to move down the benches towards the wall. "Can everyone move along the rows as far as they can, so we can get everyone in," he orders, before counting us off to make sure we were all there and then closing the doors.

Silence.

Is it starting?

A woman gets up from her seat to take a photo of her friends sitting in the row behind.

She looks over her shoulder with an anxious giggle, but the stage is still empty.

Everyone seems a little nervous.

I think it's the set.

Two desks, side by side. And walls covered in posters about maths and religion.

It's a school room.

I'm seeing Detention, a show I chose solely on the premise in the marketing copy. A good girl gets sent to detention for the very first time. There she meets a detention regular, and yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea.

Good girl gone bad basically. It sounded like something from Twilight. I was well up for that.

Although now I say it, it is beginning to sound like the set up to a porn film...

Oh well. I just wanted some quality romance in my life. Is that so wrong? And if that involved an unexpected visit from a pizza delivery man, with no possible way to pay him, then so be it.

But when it comes to it, the kiss between good girl Mary's Ella Ainsworth and Faebian Averies' unexpellable Olive is the least sexy thing I have ever witnessed in my life. As one the audience slams themselves back against their seats as they tried to get as far way from it as possible. We wince and grimace and howl in horror as Olive did her very best to teach Mary how to find the rhythm. Dangerous Liaisons this is not.

What it is is a tale of unexpected rapport and understanding.

Like the protagonist of Killymuck at the bunker, Olive lives in a society where opportunities are given to the Mary's of the world. While Mary has been brought up to believe that success is worth sacrificing happiness for.

I don't get the romance I was after, but I do get the joy of true friendship, boys called Kieran, and a longing to wear space buns, which is enough for me.

When I go back downstairs, the pub isn't the grim place I remembered. It's buzzing. The shadowy depths transformed into warm corners. Most of my fellow audience members join the queue at the bar. Everyone is laughing with amazement at how good the show was.

What a difference an hour makes.

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Keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie

Nicki and I are in the lift, trying to get out of the office.

"What are you seeing tonight?" she asks, as the lift decides to stop on every single floor on the way down.

I hesitate. Fuck it. Nicki knows about the marathon. She won't judge. "A play about chemsex," I say proudly.

Nicki shocked face is reflected out into infinity in the lift's mirrors.

Perhaps that's not the kind of thing you're supposed to tell your coworker. I'll need to check the employee handbook.

"My life is weird," I explain.

"No. It's brilliant!" she says, recovering quickly. "Just don't take any poppers. They'll probably be handing them around."

With this caution from a collegue eight years my junior ringing in my ears, I set off in the direction of Old Street. I was off to The Courtyard, which is a theatre I have only visited once before, nearly four years ago, but remains the location of my top theatre experience of all time: King Lear with Sheep. For those that missed the heading days of 2015, King Lear with Sheep was a shortened version of the Bards great play, with only one actor, and lots of sheep. Real sheep. Really real sheep. You could smell them all the way down the corridor and half-way down the stairs. Hear them before they appeared on stage. Read about them in their biographies listed on the back of the freesheet. And cry with them. The Sheltand Sheep by the name of Snowdrop, who plays Cordelia, rested her head back against's Lear's shoulder with such swanlike grace, her death-scene still haunts me. It was masterful, magical, and completely mad.

And now I'm back. For a play about chemsex. Potentially with poppers.

I don't know what The Courtyard was originally, but it has a certain Scottish Baronial look going on with its high walls and turrets. And effect only added to by the forest green canopy over the entrance, hidden away down a side street. The lairds of this castle are down on their luck, and have opened up a B&B while they save up to dredge the loch.

Other than the canopy, The Courtyard doesn't really go in for signposting their presence It's only when you step inside the green corridor within (grass now, rather than forest) that you get confirmation that you're in the right place, with posters and flyers dotted around the place.

Down the stairs and round the corner is the box office. Or rather, that's where I remember the box office as being. The nook is closed tonight. But there's a man with a clipboard, and he's taking names.

"The show starts at 7.30," he says, as he ticks me off. "I'll make an announcement in the bar when it's time to go up."

Nice.

The highland theme extends into the bar. Leather sofas. Dark wood floors. Candelabras sitting on top of a piano. A traffic cone (no doubt left by a student. I went to a Scottish uni. I know what they're like). They've got a bit of trompe l'oeil action going on in the form of wallpaper printed with a bookcase design. And for true authenticity, they are completely lacking in signal. No bars in the bar. And not even a sniff of wifi to be found.

That wasn't the only thing conspicuously missing from the bar.

I looked around. And looked around again.

Yup, no ladies. Well, not many. Just me and... I looked around again, just to double check. Two others. Standing on opposite sides of the room, as if to prevent the air from becoming too saturated with oestrogen.

That was weird.

I mean... not surprising, given the subject matter. But a strange experience none the less. I don't think I've ever been in an audience that was not entirely dominated by women. Is this what blokes feel like when they go to the theatre?

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the one front of houser on duty. "The house is now open if you'd follow me to your seats."

He turns around and starts leading us down the corridor. Now that we've left the cosy bar behind, The Courtyard is beginning to look a bit like a school. Not Hogwarts. More like a secondary comprehensive. A nice one though, as we find out on our tour of the building - past some old-fashioned wooden lockers, up the stairs, and through what looks like a deserted dance studio, complete with mirrored walls, a forlorn-looking piano, and folding chairs stacked up against the mirrored walls.

The front of houser takes up position next to the door of the auditorium. Presumably so that he can count us back in and go in search of any audience members who got drafted into detention along the way.

For a converted school, laird's castle, or possibly library, the auditorium is surprisingly large. With a deep stage then seems to stretch back for miles, faced by banks of raked seating. But I know better than to trust the rake in fringe venues and stomp my way down the steps all the way to the third row.

There's something on the seat. There is something on all the seats. A freesheet. But not like one I've ever seen before. With the credits on one side and a full-page image on the back, these babies have been professionally printed. On a nice cardstock too.

These are going to make some quality programme-selfies. You know the ones. When a person holds their programme up in front of the stage to capture both the set and the paperwork in one perfectly lined up shot, as beautifully demonstrated by theatre bloggers everywhere.

One problem.

The stage isn't empty.

I don't mean the set. That's fine. The sofa and coffee table and whatnot aren't the problem.

The problem is sitting on the floor, snorting up white powder from that very same table. A coffee table which looks exactly like the one in my own living room. Without white powder though, just to be clear.

I still haven't quite worked out the rules of taking pre-show photos when there's a performer on the stage. My queasiness about the situation is probably indication enough that I shouldn't do it.

I do it anyway.

I mean, I have to. Right? It's what bloggers do. It's probably in the bylaws somewhere.

The seats around me gradually fill up and I left sitting in a cloud of cologne. I don't think I've ever been in such a well-scented audience. I dig out a cough sweet from my bag just in case my throat decides to rebel against the wafting perfumes.

The play begins. Two angels emerge from behind the back curtain. Stimulates and the spiritual combine with lots of talk of AIDS and sex and death. And if you're thinking this all sounds a bit Tony Kushner, then yeah - I've been getting those Angels in America vibes too. It's even there in the title: Among Angels.

It's just lacking the themes of identity within a broader community told on an epic scale, against the backdrop of late twentieth-century American politics, with a mixture of wit, ruthless observations, and absolute tenderness. But hey, I get it. That's a bit much to ask for from a seventy-five minute running time.

We are treated to a heavy dose of meta-magic though as our main character, Stephen Papaioannou, is whisked away to the other side in an overdose-induced coma, finds himself in a theatre, and indulges us in a spot of the Prospero's "our revels now are ended" speech.

Angels come to listen to him, positioning themselves right in front of the front row, much to the annoyance of a member of the real audience, who turns to his neighbour with an expression of absolute outrage.

Even in the front row you can't escape the curse of the fringe theatre rake.

I take my time leaving. Packing away the freesheet carefully in my bag so that it doesn't crumple, and taking a moment to pay my respects at the sight of Cordelia's demise. Small groups stand around in the studio. There's more downstairs, talking quietly in the corridor. They could be waiting for someone who's involved with the show. That's the most likely explanation. But I prefer to think they were waiting to be called into the headmaster's office. I make a break for it, bursting out of the door before one of the teachers catches me.

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The Sound of the Underground

The Bunker. That’s a bar, right? In like, and old bunker left over from the war or something. Yeah, somewhere like Shoreditch. Yeah, yeah. I know the one. Full of hipsters. I mean, I don’t know at all, but I can imagine.

No? Really? A theatre? No. In Borough? What? No. Are you sure?

Turns out they were sure. And so The Bunker was added to the Official Website List™ for the London Theatre Marathon (as opposed to the unofficial list which lives on my laptop and is full of venues I’m still not entirely convinced actually exist).

Trying to pick one solitary show to visit at a theatre I know absolutely nothing about is a bit of a challenge. I try and do a bit of research, visit their website, follow them on Twitter if I’m really feeling rigorous.

So, I did both those things. Nice website. Full of triangles. I like a triangle as much as the next person, so, you know. Good stuff. Quality info too. Nice copy. Very much enjoyed the mention of them testing each and every one of their chairs for comfort. Not sure I entirely believe that, or even know what constitutes a comfort test (I would have thought sitting quietly for two hours, not being allowed to move beyond a crossing and uncrossing of the legs would be a good baseline), but it’s a nice line. Also stuff about e-tickets and QR codes and all that stuff which theatres always seem to bang on about on their websites, but never actually end up using in practice. I ignored all that. You can too.

Over on their Twitter feed we’ve got a lot of retweets. A lot of retweets. Let’s be real. It’s all retweets. And they’re from some very fervent and adoring fans. Not just about the shows either. They also like the loos (and the free tampons). And the writers’ snug. And the staff. And the music choices being pumped out in the bar. That’s all a good sign.

This trip was sounding more promising by the day. I just needed to pick a show. Any show.

I went back to the website, scrolling up and down the What’s On page, trying to figure out what would be the best option for me. Did I want poetry or political? An adaptation or a debut? I couldn’t decide. It was all very stressful.

But really, in the end, the best way to learn about the kind of work a theatre put on is to actually go there. Learn by doing and all that.

So I just picked a show, and booked.

Or rather, I cheated and booked two. In a double bill.

This blog is about the experience of going to the theatre and I was going to experience the hell out of The Bunker.

And, oh wow. It really is a bunker. Somehow this comes a surprise, despite the clue being in the name. Set back from Southwark Road, you slide down a long ramp that sinks below street-level until you get to a small door topped with one of those bunker-triangles that is now starting to make me think that this theatre has some illuminati tie-in.

Inside, water drips down the wooden walls and heaters try their damndest to fight against the chill blasting through the front door, but despite these grim conditions, The Bunker manages to avoid feeling like an air-raid shelter. In fact, I begin to think I might have been right the first time. This is a hipster bar in Shoreditch. I mean, let’s just examine the evidence shall we? We’ve got a circus colour scheme and faerie-lights to match. There’s a bar purporting to sell craft beers. Rugged wooden floors under our feet. And everyone here looks way cooler than me.

And like, not in a dungarees and beanie hat type of cool. But in a: I-work-in-the-theatre kinda way. I place a mental bet with myself that at least seventy percent of the audience tonight works in the theatre industry. I have no way of finding that out of course, but all the same, I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win that bet.

I sign in at the box office. No need for e-ticket nonsense, I get given a paper wristband. Purple this time. I’m starting to build a collection. It will sit nicely against my BAC one. Purple and green. The suffragette colours.

Writstband acquired, I perch on the end of a bench and try not to lean against the wet walls as I listen in for theatre-related conversation.

“I am the patriarchy,” declares someone loudly.

The rumble of chatter stops.

A woman turns round in shock at such a blatant admission.

“Thank you!” she says. “I'd been wondering who it was! So happy to know it’s you!”

Well, I’m glad we got that sorted. But it doesn’t help me win my bet.

“The house is now open,” calls out a front of houser. “If you have a stamp or a wristband you can go straight through. If not, come see me at box office.”

Stamps for the light-weights only going to the first show of the night. Wristbands for the dedicated souls committed to seeing both of them… like me.

The three sides look like they each belong to a different theatre. On the right, the chairs have been pilfered from a pub somewhere. On the left, they definitely came from a board room. Whereas in the middle, we have colourful, squashy-looking benches. If The Bunker needs any help with their next round of comfort tests, I volunteer to tackle the centre block.

By the looks of it, The Bunker wouldn’t be short of volunteers, as we all headed for those soft and padded benches.

 

 

In my experience, a notepad in the lap of an audience member for a non-press night performance can mean one of two things. Either the director is making tweaks, or there’s a blogger in the building. Director or blogger. Director or blogger. I have a lot riding on this. As he flips the page, his sleeve rides up and I spot a flash of purple. Ha! Blogger.

Oh… wait. That’s not what I wanted. My chances of winning this bet are falling rapidly.

 

All ordered out for the changeover - if you don't have a ticket to bx clever but would like one you can upgrade at the box office

 

Should I buy a playtext? I really want a playtext.

They’re five pounds. Ten if I end up loving the second show too and want both.

I can’t afford it. Can I? No, I can’t. I have a freesheet. That’s enough.

It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.

 

Reviewer or director has a purple wristband

 

The f word which I know both the meaning if and the need to call it the f word word from my friend Helen

 

Box office keeps disappearing - buy h a radio alteagu

 

 

 

I'm doing all the drama schools at the moment. I was at rada the other night and guildhall last night

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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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Branching out

So, here's the thing. My marathon has rules. Not many of them. But they rules.Theatres only count if I can get to them by Oyster card. They need to put on actual theatre, or dance, or opera. They need to have publically accessibly performances, and I need to actually watch the show. You know all this. You've read my FAQ.

But there are the rules.

And then there are the rules.

The unofficial ones. The ones I don't publish anywhere because they only live inside my head. The ones that drive my booking decisions.

Throughout the marathon, I've been picking the shows I see with two things in mind. Firstly (and most importantly) I try and go to something that I'm actually interested in. Or the thing I have the most potential to be interested in based on what is on offer. This can be tricky, especially when theatres only announce their season a few months in advance. Do I book this semi-non-awful looking scratch night? Or do I hold out and hope they have some phantasmagorical musical later in the year? The second thing I try to do, is pick a piece that is in keeping with the general artistic values of the theatres. Where possible, I avoid hires (when an outside company pays money to show their work there, rather than being invited to perform by the artistic team at the theatre, or a work that is produced by the theatre itself), and I also avoid things that stand out - not because they look brilliant - but because they are so starkly different to the rest of the programme. If a theatre specialises in say, Restoration comedies, I don’t feel comfortable booking a night of political poetry, just because I fancy a bit of spoken word that week.

This can be tricky.

There are some theatres that almost exclusively programme cabaret or comedy, neither of which count towards my marathon, but are included because every so often they put on a play. Obviously, in these situations, I need to go with the play.

Other times, the options look so completely awful that I cannot, simply Can Not, bring myself to go to them. I hold on, waiting, hoping, begging them to bring something more within the realms of what I'm into, until... thank the lord. Something appears on their website.

So it was with the Rosemary Branch.

Months and months of interactive game nights filled their space, and I just couldn't do it. Not for the marathon. Not for you. Not for nothing. I’m sure they are just brilliant, but to quote the great Elle Woods: “Suffice to say, it was just wrong, all wrong. For me, ya know?”

And then, while doing by fortnightly blitz through all the website of the remaining theatres on my list, I spotted something. A scratch night. Theatre. Plays. Written by women. And it was free! My patience had been rewarded. I booked so fast I broke a nail (true story).

That sorted, I was off to the Rosemary Branch.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. Which is shocking as it’s a pub theatre within walking distance of my work. And I love a pub theatre within walking distance of my work! When talking pub theatres, Islington is the land of Milk & Honey (name of my pub theatre when I open it in Islington). So, I was more than happy to add another one to my mental roster.

After a short stop of a Paul on Upper Street I would my way down through all the wide streets of gorgeous terraced houses towards Shepperton Road. The dogs I pass along the way all crane their heads to get a sniff of the Pavot Poulet baguette I have in my bag. They’re right to. It does smell good (and taste good. Just had it for my lunch while writing this here post. Yum).

Turns out the Rosemary Branch is right next to a park, which would explain the number of four-legged friends I had made that evening.

On their website they claim to be a former music hall. From the outside, I can see no evidence of this. It looks pure London pub to me.

Inside, it’s quiet. Well, it’s early on a Monday evening, so I’m not expecting heaving crowds at the bar.

I look around, trying to work out what sort of pub theatre it is.

Oh yes. I’ve started classifying them!

From what I can tell, there are two sorts of pub theatres. There are the ones where the theatre is fully integrated into the life of the pub. Box Office is set up one end of the bar, and you’re expected to grab a drink and a seat before a bell summons you upstairs (see: The Hope & Anchor). The other keep their activities separated. Box offices are tucked away upstairs with their theatres. Pub patrons and different from theatre patrons, and never the twain will meet (see: The White Bear). Okay, that isn’t fair, I’m sure lots of theatre-goers pop down for a pint after the show, but we’re using broad brushstrokes to paint this picture here. I mean, at the Gate Theatre, a venue which is only above a pub in the very loosest sense, advises the audience that they can bring up a drink from the Prince Albert pub, no problem.

Then there’s the Vaulty Towers, which doesn’t seem to know what the hell it is, but is doing it anyway.

After a quick glance around, I pinned the Rosemary Branch as a one that is divided by a common venue. The door to the theatre (with a helpful large sign handing over it) is closer to the entrance that the bar.

The steps that lurk behind are lit by lined by faerie-lights and old posters, with more signage at the top leading you through the next set of doors (propped open by a heavy bust). If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Rosemary Branch, it’s the signage. It’s everywhere. From arrows guiding you in the right direction, to politely worded messages to advising you to keep away (“Dressing Room. Artists Only”). I liked it immediately. I mean, you know how much bad signage (or even worse: no signage) irritates me, so seeing it done well is incredibly pleasing.

“Do I give my name?” I asked the young lady positioned behind the box office counter.

“How many is it?”

“Just the one.”

With a nod she handed me a small admission token.

“We’ll ring the bell when it’s time to go in,” she says, indicating that I can wait in the next room.

There’s already a small group of young people in what I presume is the pub’s function room. There’s a bar on one end, with a glass drinks dispenser waiting on it, and a stack of glasses nearby. Massive sash windows line up on two sides, and the spaces in between are filed with plants and Tiffany-style lamps. There’s sofas, and armchairs, and a fireplace. It’s a lovely room.

“They didn't even ask my name,” whispers one young person when his friend arrives. By the sounds of it, she’s connected with the show. “They just gave me a ticket.”

“Probably means it hasn't sold very well,” she says with a shrug.

“Oops,” he giggles.

But more people arrive and soon there are little gatherings dotted around the room.

Soon enough the bell sounds and it’s the tinkliest little bell I’ve ever heard. So tinkle it must have brought a few faeries back to life all by itself last night.

I show the woman on the door my admission pass, but she just waves me through, not taking it from me. I still have in it my coat pocket.

“You can sit anywhere,” she says. “But it’s best to sit at the front.”

Choices, choices!

The Rosemary Branch theatre is very small. A true black box. But the unrelenting darkness of the walls is broken up by strings of lights on the ceiling and mismatched cushions on the chairs, give the room the feel of a Bedouin tent. Or at least an overpriced yurt at Glastonbury.

You know my feelings about the front row. But I took her advice to heart and sat in the third.

There’s a fine rake to the seating here, and the third row is just fine.

My row, and the two in front, fill up and I begin to regret my seat choice. The chairs are very close together and my shoulder is getting smushed into a wooden plank nailed to the wall.

Four short plays. All written by women. All acted by women too. All excellent, but with two major standouts to my tired eyes. Tiger Mum by Eva Edo and HoneyBEE by Eleanor Dillion-Reams. Both one-woman shows. Both performed by their writers. But otherwise completely different. A mother looking to protect her son against the world, and a millennial trying to find her place in it. A plaid shirt, and a sequined jumpsuit. A bus stop, and a festival.

Keyed up by exciting lady-theatre, I get up to leave. The rest of the audience looks like they are intent on hanging around. They all know someone in the production and are determined to celebrate.

I squeezed myself between their excited hugs and out I go, walk by the canal, tube it home, and am in bed by 10pm with a cup of tea and a chocolate éclair from Paul.

Life doesn’t get much better than that, my friend, now does it?

No, wait. It does. Apparently the Shrill Voices Showcase wasn’t a one off. It’s part of a series. Which means now I have an opportunity to go back to the faeries’ yurt… next year.

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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

“Are you here for Hopeful Monster?” she asked.

I was.

“25% of the ticket price goes to child.org,” she says, peeling off a large round sticker off an A4 sheet.

“Oh nice,” I say taking it from her.

It’s pink. “I [heart] my mum,” it reads.

I look around, not knowing where to stick it. Not sure I want to wear it on my coat. I leave it flapping around on my fingertips.

I tuck myself away next to the staircase and make friends with a horse’s head wearing a St Paddy’s Day Guinness hat. He doesn’t look overly happy about it, although whether it’s the hat or my need for company that’s distressing him I can’t quite work out.

Soon more people arrive to collect their stickers, each looking more perplexed than the last as they try to work out what to do with it. A man dances around as he bounced his stickered-up hand between coat and scarf as the final home of his sticker. He settles on the front of his hoodie and pats it down on his chest. The look on his face suggests that he has immediate regret.

One woman has it on the back of her hand.

The stickiness on my fingertips is starting to bother me. Without thinking about it, I grab my phone and smooth the sticker down on the back. Just like I would if I were at the Donmar and this was one of the stickers handed out to the fillers’ queue on press night.

I couldn’t see my face, but I imagine it looked just like the man in the hoodie.

Regret. Deep and sorrowful.

My phone is new. So new that I still haven’t managed to buy a case for it.

And now I had a cheap paper sticker stuck to it proclaiming how much I [heart] my mum.

People rush up and down the stairs and I press myself against the wall, out of the way while they lift chairs from unoccupied tables and carry them back up.

A seat cushion slips off one.

“That's not supposed to happen,” laughs the woman as she tries to fix the chair.

“Don't worry, I won’t tell anyone,” I whisper back.

Eventually, the procession of chairs came to an end and we were allowed upstairs.

“It's unreserved seating, but if you can leave the first two rows free for children that would be ideal,” said the person greeting us at the top.

The stage was small. A table, flooded with light from a totem pole of lamps set up on either side. Close proximity would be essential.

I dither next to the third row, trying to decide whether the aisle seat on the short right-hand row would be superior to the aisle seat on the slightly closer left hand row.

“It’s a full house,” calls the usher. “So if you can all move down.”

I panicked, and picked the long row on the left, going right to the end, next to the fireplace.

“A minute later they first two rows are completely filled with grownups.”

I looked around. There was not a single child to be seen. Reminds me of the Puppet Barge in Little Venice. These shows may be made with children in mind, but it takes a childless adult to want to traipse out to these things on a Sunday afternoon.

Now, you know that I don’t write a lot about the actual performance in this blog. That’s not what we’re about at the marathon. But in this case, I wouldn’t have been able to even if I wanted to. Because I didn’t see it.

No, I didn’t have to leave due to a near fainting incident. I assure you, I was in the room and in my seat the entire time.

I just couldn’t see it.

Literally, none of it.

Oh, I occasionally caught a glimpse of a hand when it was lifted far enough off the table to be visible over the heads of the people sitting in front of me. But not enough to establish any kind of storyline. For me, Hopeful Monster was nothing more than 40 minutes of listening to gentle music.

There was a giraffe at one point, I think. And some grass. And a creature which was possibly a pterodactyl. But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what the show was about or what happened in it.

Recently I’ve been playing with the idea of awarding badges to certain theatres. Best Madeleines. Longest queue for the loos. You get the idea. There’s one badge in particular that scratches away at my conscious. Forget the “I [heart] my mum” stickers. If I were going to hand out anything after this trip it would be the “If this were my first trip to the theatre, I would never return.”

 

 

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Playing gooseberry

Let me get one thing started before you go getting any ideas. I know what you're like. Always thinking the worst of me. But, and I cannot say this strongly enough, I absolutely and utterly did not gatecrash someone else's date night.

I would say, if anything, they gatecrashed mine.

I was perfectly content taking myself off to see my last show in the Vaults. I tramped up and down that black corridor, seeing plays about serial killers, and young people making mischief in foreign lands, and confidence tricksters, and I was ready to watch something completely different.

So I booked a ticket to The Talented Mr Ripley.

See, I have breadth. I can also watch a play about a young man who goes to Italy and ends up murdering multiple people while defrauding the father of a friend who thinks he's helping return the boy home...

Oh.

Um.

Anyway, as I was saying. I was fine going by myself. I had my ticket all booked already.

But then Martha saw the show in my spreadsheet and wanted to come along. So she bought a ticket to the show.

And then a few days later I get a Whatsapp message at nine in the morning from her. I knew it had to be important, as Martha isn't the type to send my Whatsapp messages at nine in the morning.

"Soooo I just told Luke about Talented Mr Ripley, and he was outraged that I hadn't invited him as it's his fave book and film... so I'm afraid we have a plus 1 on Weds, he's bought a ticket."

And that's a direct quote. Apart from the punctuation. I added that in.

So, you can see. I am not responsible and I refuse to accept the label as gooseberry. Are we clear? Great.

Moving on then.

Martha and I took the bus down to Waterloo. It was only Wednesday but it had already been the longest week since records began. This was not the evening for any form of activity that could even tangentially be linked to healthiness. We needed stodge. And alcohol. And to be dropped at the door with the minimal amount of walking possible within the confines of the TFL infrastructure.

“I can’t download my ticket,” said Martha, stabbing at her phone screen with a frustrated finger, as we made our way down Leake Street.

“You don’t need it,” I said, slightly hurt. It was true. She didn’t need it. But she would have known if she had read any one of my multiple Vault Fest blog posts.

“At all?”

“No. It’s only bag checks to get through the main door and then you give your name at the actual venue entrance.”

But of course, I don’t need to tell you this. You’ve been with me enough times to the Vaults to know the system off by heart.

But for once, I was going off script. I wouldn’t be heading straight to the venue door to start queueing. With a guest in tow, it was time to sample what the Vaults to offer in the way of emotion-drowning sustenance.

That is, if we could figure out how to get hold of it.

“Do we order at the bar?” Martha asked as we made our way past security and down the dark corridor of doom.

“Yeah, I think so. But which one?” By my count we had already passed two, and there was a third coming up.

“Shall we just sit down?”

That sounded like a sensible option. I am very much in favour of sitting down.

At barely past six o’clock, the Vaults were almost empty. We grabbed the end of a long table, coated with a thick later of flyers and festival listings, and a few other overeager festival-goers over on the other end.

“I do like the Vaults,” said Martha, as I struggled with the stools. Shaped like beer barrels, they needed to be tilted on their edge and rolled in order to shift anywhere. Which is fine, under the cushion topped falls off. I was way too tired for that shit.

I could only sigh my agreement.

The Vaults are a fine place to visit. When you’re young. Personally I like proper chairs. And tickets. And good signage. And not to feel like the oldest, most uncool, person in the building.

Being around Martha, and the newly arrived Luke didn’t help, with their young, fresh faces, and ability to sit on a barrel without looking like a plonker.

“Drinks?” asked Luke.

Fuck yes.

And food.

Frankfurters were on the menu. Which sounded just the right level of stodge and carbs for a night like this. Bonus points for being topped with curry sauce.

“This is really good,” said Martha.

It really was. Nice soft bread. Lots of onions. The side of roast potatoes was mediocre (too soft. No salt), but the currywurst was really doing their job.

The G&Ts didn’t hurt either.

“So, why do you love Ripley so much?” Martha asked Luke.

Ah! Now that was a good question. I’ve seen the film (who hasn’t), and started off the year with a play about its author, but we had a bonafide fan at the table and I was keen to hear more.

“He’s just a great character,” started off Luke.

“Sorry to interrupt,” said a woman, interrupting. “Would you mind if I gave you this?” she asked, flapping a flyer around. “It’s a dark and funny show about eating disorders…”

We all made polite noises until she went away again.

I looked at the table, strewn with flyers, and saw before me a league of performers, desperate to yank people into their shows.

“We should probably go in,” I suggested, picking at the last potato. They may not have been great, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to polish them off.

We gave our names on the door and were whisked off into a wide corridor.

“Would you be interested in using our captioning service tonight?” asked a lady, poised to pounce on anyone walking through.

I wasn’t. Neither were Martha or Luke.

We pressed on. Down the corridor and… up a flight of stairs. That was new. I didn’t even know the Vaults had an upstairs.

Although, if I were to have imagined an upstairs at the Vaults, it would have looked exactly that. Cramped up against the top of a tunnel, battered looking armchairs huddle together in groups on the opposite end to a neglected bar. In an effort to inject a form of whimsy, some plastic wisteria was draped around the doorway, giving the whole space a rather atticy vibe. Although I couldn’t decide whether it was more Jane Eyre, or Flowers in…

Across the room and we were transported to the back the Crescent’s auditorium, the rows of chairs descending before us.

Somehow, I had managed to save the best Vaults venue for last. It was a theatre. A real theatre. No temporary seating here. These chairs looked like they had been lifted from an art deco cinema - in the 1930s. Everything had a gently moldering air. As if we were the first people to step inside for decades.

Down on the floor-level stage, a man sat with his back to us, clacking away on a typewriter. The sound echoing against the rumble of trains above our heads.

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The lady and the unicorn

The Museum of Comedy has a unicorn in it.

And no, I’m not being metaphorical here. The Museum of Comedy is not some magical venue amongst a city of more pedestrianly equine London theatres.

I mean an actual unicorn.

Well, not an actual unicorn. There isn’t an overgrown horned creature tucked between the exhibits. Not to my knowledge anyway. For all I know there might well be a unicorn hiding out between the bar, sampling the spirits.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the Museum of Comedy is a funny old place.

For two reasons. Firstly because it’s a museum of comedy. Not explanation needed here, I feel. And secondly because it’s underneath a church. Literally underneath a church. As in, down a flight of stone steps and down a creepy tunnel lined with wooden pews and a stained glass window, underneath a church.

And then there’s the unicorn.

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A statue. Sealed behind glass, he looks over his shoulder, an expression of horror carved into his features as if he’s just had a surprise visit from Marie Kondo and he’s suddenly realised that the pile of tasteful boxes he’s been locked in with don’t really do much in the way of sparking joy in his marble heart and he wishes he’d picked the glittery tiara instead.

Things don’t get any less strange when you round the corner and turn into the museum proper. More pews surround square tables in a manner that makes you question whether they are meant to be looked at, or sat on, or, quite possibly… laughed at. It is the Museum of Comedy after all. An art form (is it an art form?) than I know next to nothing about.

Like yesterday’s post about the Zion Baptist Church, I had found myself at a venue that I would never usually visit, a venue that I would never have heard of, if it wasn’t for the London Theatre Marathon. But they had a play on, and so, there I was, standing amongst the strange exhibits and probably looking a bit strange myself.

A strangeness not helped by the fact that I had no idea where the theatre was.

I looked around for signage, but while there were plenty of things stuck to the wall (so much that the fire escape route signs were relegated to the display cases) there was no THE THEATRE IS THIS WAY to be found.

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There was a bar though. So I hung around, figuring that when the time came, in the event of an announcement, it would happen there.

It was nearly 8.30pm. A start time that would have had me dismissing this show as way past my bed-time in my pre-marathon life, but now, after experiencing some of the ludicrously late starts at the Vaults Festival, almost sounds reasonable.

Still, it was a Saturday. And a 75 minute run time.

I couldn’t be dealing with that nonsense on a school-night. And an interval would have been out of the question.

Just as I was smothering a yawn with my hand, the large red curtains at the back of the bar, that I had utterly failed to register, drew back.

“The house is now open,” came the cry.

Chairs scrapped back and coats put back on as everyone in the bar got to their feet and headed towards the newly revealed door.

I soon discovered the reason for the rush.

The theatre is tiny. A fifty-seater at most. And the chairs are just… well, chairs. No rake. In fact, nothing to vary the height between rows.

The only concession to it being a being a performance space rather than a… I don’t know, a school’s detention room, was the stage, lifted off the ground by just a few inches.

If ever there was a theatre that would reward sitting in the front row, it was this one.

However, the front row remained empty. Suspiciously so.

Perhaps because this theatre tends to host comedy nights rather than plays, the front row has more of a reputation as a danger zone than the non-unicorn-adjacent venues of this city.

I looked around, trying to work out who these people, my fellow audience members, were. Were they comedy people or theatre people? Did they come because there was a play at their favourite comedy venue, or was it the play itself that drew them here? Or maybe, I suddenly thought, they were all doing their own marathons. Racing across London collecting shows in museums, or staring Game of Thrones actors, or unicorns…

Whatever the reason, I took their lead, and avoided the front row, balancing the pressing need to see with the even more pressing need for safety, by sitting in the second row.

The stage, a tiny black island, was entirely taken up by the set - a table, two chairs, and a collapsed pile of newspapers, that as the lights dimmed, rose up like a circus top to become a small house at the edge of the world. Which is neat. As that’s the title of the play I was there to see: A Small House At The Edge Of The World. Starring the Game of Thones actor Laura Pradelska, and Alan Turkington, and no one else. Good thing too, as there wasn’t an inch of stage space left to fit anyone else.

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And let me tell you, I have never been so glad to be sitting in the second row. Not because there was interaction, because there wasn’t.

It was their eyes.

Both of them.

Both of the actors I mean.

And both of each actors’ eyes too.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such astonishing eyes in real life. Huge. Piercing. Luminous under the stage lights. And here was two of them, two sets of them, even, being flashed and squinted and glared until I was pinned back in my seat by the full force of them.

Sometimes, in the more intense moments, when one or other of them looked out into the audience, I had to look down, focusing on my knees to save myself from total spontaneous combustion.

And wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I'd followed my fellow audience members leads and wore my coat. It was freezing. And that combined with those eyes meant that I couldn't stop shivering.

When the play ended I gratefully shrugged it back on. I had to get out of there. Back outside where it couldn't possibly be as cold as this.

But on my way out, I paused to say goodbye to the unicorn.

He wasn't impressed. The unicorn carried on staring off into the museum, his face screwed up as it struggled to contain thoughts full of untold terrors.

Something tells me it wasn’t Marie Kondo that had caused the unicorn to look that way.

I followed his gaze and saw the source of his terror.

I was right. 

There's been something else. 

Something I'd missed. 

He was staring at the bear..

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The center of attention back for the winter

Standing outside the now familiar double doors of the Arocola, I took a deep breath and steeled myself. I was back. My first return visit since starting this challenge. Last month I wrote up the theatre's Studio 1. This time I was there to tackle Studio 2.

If they let me in, that is.

Not that I had said anything bad about the place. I had actually really enjoyed the whole experience. 

Still, it managed to feel like I was somehow returning to the scene of a crime.

But it's hard to feel nervous there, standing in the pink haze of the light filtering through the glass panel that was fitted above their door.

Chances are they didn't even remember what I wrote - good or bad.

But I did. It suddenly hit me, right in the belly. Oof.

I had compared them to scrofula. In a tweet. Or rather, I had compared myself to scrofula. Whatever, scrofula had definitely been mentioned. In the same context as the Arcola. I don’t know about you, but if someone mentioned me in the same sentence as a medieval disease, I would remember. It’s not a mental image that’s easy to forget, what with all the neck pustules and all.

It was no good.

I had to go in.

Studio 2 could not be missed. The marathon demanded it.

I figured I might as well just get it over with.

I pushed through the door and headed over to the box office, with its happy yellow Tickets sign, and gave my name.

For the first time in my life, I wished my surname was slightly less memorable.

“Smile?” asked the young woman on box office duty, her voice filled with doubt.

“Smiles. With an s...” I said. “Two Esses,” I corrected myself. (This is when @weez would have inserted the longest-name-in-the-world joke if she’d been around. But as she wasn’t, I’ll allow you to work out the punchline for that one yourself).

She pulled the ticket from the box. Then paused, looking at it.

Oh dear. She recognised the name. She was going to throw me out.

She frowned.

There it was. She was thinking of neck pustules. No one wants to think of neck pustules. Not on a nice, quiet, Monday evening. Not on any kind of evening. But especially not one at the start of the week. You need a good five days to work up to pustules.

“Was that a comp?” she asked, looking up.

“Oh, yes,” I admitted. Thanks to a bit of Twitter magic, I had indeed got my hands on a comp for that evening’s performance of Stop and Search.

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She smiled. “Here you go.”

Oh.

That was the smile of someone who was definitely not thinking about neck pustules.

Which meant that she hadn’t read the tweet.

That was good.

I guess.

I felt a little deflated.

Offended almost. 

You know, I may not tweet as much as I used to, but there was a time when I was considered quite funny. A wit, if you will.

I considered telling her this.

It wasn’t all neck pustules, you know. I did puns too.

She was still holding out the ticket.

“Oh,” I said, taking it from her. A little embarrassed.

“There’s no latecomers and no re-admittance,” she pressed on, ignoring the fact that she was talking to someone who wasn’t capable of taking a piece of paper that was being offered to them. Or perhaps not, as she then went on to detail exactly where Studio 2 was, how to get there, and when I should go, in the simplest, neatest, most user-friendly language I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve said it before, but the Arcola really do walk-the-walk (and talk-the-talk) when it comes to making theatre open and accessible to all.

As the main house (Studio 1) show had closed that weekend, the building was lovely and quiet.

I found myself an empty table, settled in and tried very hard not to think about glandular swellings.

I had almost, but not entirely forgotten about the incident (let’s be real here, I’ll be mumbling about the scrofula-tweet to my nurses as I lay on my deathbed) when it was announced that the doors were open. It was time to head downstairs.

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With the stone walls and tunnel-like corridors, I could almost think myself back in Unit 9 at The Vaults, but as we turned into the theatre it was not a shed that appeared out of the gloom, but a cosy space with proper seating on three sides and the heating thwacked on high. And seat numbers. No unreserved seating nonsense going on here.

If I have one criticism of the Studio 2 it is this: legroom. Or rather, the lack of it. Or even more rather, trying-to-squeeze-between-the-rows-to-get-to-your-seat room. Three seats in an I ended up with two banged knees and a rather satisfying bruise this morning.

Now, I admit, I’m a klutz. There’s no use being coy about it when I spend my days in the near vicinity of some of the most graceful people on the planet. But still, I’m beginning to think that the Arcola is out to get me.

My neighbour for the evening, having examined the narrowness of the rows, was having none of it.

Setting down bag and coat and umbrella, she proceeded to climb her way in.

We all watched with admiration and a touch of envy as she skipped happily over row A, before retrieving her bag and coat and umbrella, and plonking herself down next to me.

I almost applauded.

“Rather you than me,” came a voice from down the row.

Absolutely. Fairly certain I would have died if I attempted to do the same thing. And you know what, the Arcola really don’t deserve that.

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Not after all the quality theatre they’ve been throwing at me this marathon.

That’s a lot of words to be chucking around in such a confined space. A lot of words. Good words, for sure. But so friggin’ many of them.

I came out feeling spent. Every word in the world had been utterly used up.

I had to stand in the pink light of the foyer for a moment, quietly recharging, until the memory of neck pustules chased me home.

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Tripping the Ecto Fantastic

“Come close,” said a red jacketed usher, looming above us as she stood in the doorway of the van that will serve as our theatre. “I have a little speech to give.”

After my emotional trip to the Studio at the Vault Festival earlier that afternoon I was back, this time in one of their vehicle venues - parked at the end of Leake Street.

I was a little annoyed when I saw how close it was.

After trying and failing to get an answer out of the Vault Festival twitter feed as to how much time I should allow to get myself from a show in the Studio to a show in a vehicle venue, I could now see that time was zero seconds.

The check in point is literally just outside the main doors.

Thanks @VAULTfestival. You’re doing great work there not allowing yourself to get distracted from all that praise retweeting by indulging in a touch of customer service. Really super. Well done.

We do as the usher says, gathering close together - just as much to protect our shivering figures again the cold as to hear about our fate.

There weren’t many of us. Three sets of couples, and me.

“Once you come in,” red jacket continues now that we were suitably huddled. “You’ll be given a short opportunity to leave. But once the lights are off, that’s it. You’re stuck.”

A woman standing near me giggled nervously and her companion for the evening smirks. I’d already clocked the pair of them as out on a first date. She’s into tarot cards and healing. He’s trying to pretend that he doesn’t find that incredibly off-putting.

“If you really don’t like it,” says red jacket, “take your headphones off, and it will draw to a close naturally.”

Suitabley terrified, we were ushered into the back of the van.

A long table covered in a white tablecloth greeted us. Hanging above were dim lights, and bells, both hanging low. And either side - two rows of comfy chairs. With headphones.

“If you’re sitting on the right, take the headphones from over your right shoulder. If on the left, your left shoulder,” ordered the red jacket from the door.

After a little confusion about getting my left sorted from my right, I managed to pick the right (that is… left) headphones.

Further left and right disentanglement followed, matching up the big painted L and R on the phones themselves to my corresponding L and R ears.

“Can you hear me?” came the faint voice of the usher once we’d all managed this challenging feat.

We nodded.

She clapped. “Can you hear that?”

We nodded again. We could. Just about.

“Alright.”

And with that she left, shut the door, and plunged us into darkness.

From the other side of the van I heard a door open, and someone coming in. Footsteps clomped around behind me. I had the remind myself there was nothing behind me other than the solid wall of the van.

An unseen voice instructed us to place our hands on the table. I did as I was told, setting my palms flat against the rough cloth. We were taking part in a séance, calling on the departed souls of our loved ones. We must not remove our hands from the table. That was very important. Or the spirits might break free.

I wasn’t overly fussed about that.

Or calling about the spirits of my loved ones, to be honest.

Any spirit would do me.

I’ve been hankering after meeting a theatre ghost for years. And if this was my time to finally get my ghoul on, there, inside a dark van parked on the end of Leake Street… well I wasn’t about to complain if the ectoplasm dripping on my shoulder belonged to a stranger.

I blinked in the darkness. It didn’t seem to make any difference.

I experimented. Closing my eyes, and then opening them again.

A few feet away, I spotted the glimmer of a light.

Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.

A second later it disappeared.

The blackness took over.

The voices in my ear grew more frantic. Something was going wrong.

I clamped my hands down hard on the table. It was a touch too far away. My arms ached from being stretched out so long.

I wriggled forward, until my knees crashed against the solid block that was the table. It was really uncomfortable sitting like that. My muscles ached. I needed to move my arms, shake them out, but I didn’t dare.

My heart was hammering.

It was so cold. I hadn't taken my coat or shall off, but the freezing air had seeped under my skin.

I wanted to take my headphones off. I wanted to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders. But I couldn’t lift my fingers from the table.

My hands began to tremble.

Was it the cold, or terror? I knew it was all rubbish. No one was there. It was just a recording.

If only it weren’t so dark…

The trembling became a shudder. It wasn’t my hands. It was the table. It was rising up, taking my hands with it.

I bit the inside of my mouth, telling myself over and over that it was okay. 

Noises clanged around us. It was so loud. My fingers twitched as they begged to cover my ears.  

Louder and louder until I couldn't take a second longer... 

The table shook violently as it sank back down to the floor.

The awful clanging stopped.

Something was moving around the room again.

Something… not human.  

And then… and then the lights flickered back on. A faint glow, inching itself brighter until we were left blinking at each other across the table.

The pair on the first date had their hands stowed in their laps. They grinned at each other sheepishly. Those two will go far.

The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.

The door crashed open. “Everyone out!” ordered red jacket.

We scuttled out of the van, our heads bowed. No one wanted to meet each other’s eyes, lest we reveal how scared we were.

Safely back in Waterloo and juddering off home on the tube, I checked my phone.

I’d tried to take a photo of the inside of the van, but my photo roll was completely empty. It jumped straight from the graffiti of Leake Street to the shadowy outside of the van. There was nothing to show for my time inside.

Now, either that’s just my crappy phone or...

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My big fat brain

It has suddenly occurred to me, sitting here, on my bed, at home, that I have no idea how to write this blog post.

Usually I have something to start off with. A funny thing that happened, an embarrassing moment that I figure I might as well tell you, or an annoyance that can fill a few hundred words. And the fact is, that yes - I have all of those. But it feels inappropriate to go down that route. Because this show is the first one that I actually booked for me, and not for the marathon. I went to see it because I thought it was important for me to do so. Not to fill some self-imposed quota. And not to check off a venue. This was the show that I organised all my Vault Festival bookings around. Because I thought it was the one I had to go to, above all the others.

So, while I could spend a blog post detailing everything that irritates me about the Vaults, I’m not going to do that. Not with this one.

That’s a big statement from something who is just sat here floundering about with words.

So, let’s try and impose some order on this colloquy chaos shall we?

Why did I go? Why this show?

Okay, great start. Good, strong start.

I went to see Fatty Fat Fat because I used to be a Fatty Fat Fat.

And no this isn’t going to be a preachy blog post about how I lost the weight or any such bollocks, because fuck that shit. I lost weight through a combination of anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Which put me in the strange position of gaining thin privilege and yet not having done anything to deserve it. Result: I have a fuck tonne of unresolved issues on the matter.

I was fat. And now I’m not. And it’s weird. And it’s impossible to talk about properly.

I spent so much of my life as a fat person that I can’t ever imagine myself as anything else. No matter what I look like in the mirror, I will forever think fat. I have a fat mentality. A fat brain. Fat emotions. A fat soul, even.

And yes, I say fat because I was fat. Not chubby. Not fluffy. Not over-whatever-weight. I was fat. Properly fat. Very fat.

How fat was I? I believe it's considered harmful, by those people who understand these things, to post actual numbers, but I also know how annoying it is to not know - so let's say: a fashion designer would have called me plus size, to a teenage boy I’d have been an ugly fat cow, and a doctor would have termed me class three morbidly obese.

Whatever, I was fat.

And I never saw myself on stage.

No, wait. That’s not true.

I can remember seeing one significant fat character on stage. A girl. Who flirted with a boy. And he flirted back. And it was adorable. They were adorable. And I was so frickin’ happy.

That was, until the playwright turned her into the joke.

And it killed me.

No prizes for guessing it was a Martin McDonagh.

God, I hate him. And love him. And hate him more.

This blog post is not about Martin McDonagh.

Other than to explain why I wanted to see a play written by a fat woman, and one who claimed that fatness. A play where if there was a joke, that the fat people would be in on it.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a one-woman show. Sorry Katie Greenall, I was asking a lot of you as I headed into the Studio at the Vaults and took my seat.

But that’s the thing with underrepresented classes. When a show does come around, it has to cater to every single need and taste, because there’s nothing else out there offering it as a choice on the menu.

So, I can forgive Katie for making the audience clap along to the Cha-Cha Slide. You already know that I can’t clap in time with music, so I sat that one out.

I can also kind of forgive her picking someone to come onstage through the medium of hiding a crisp packet under their seat, but only because I’ve told myself that was a set-up, and both the crisp packet and the audience member were planted - because the alternative is too abhorrent to contemplate.  

And I can forgive her making us play Never Have I Ever, a game I hate because I find the grammar confusing, because she gave us all crisps to eat along with her and I ended up eating a lot of crisps.

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What I can’t forgive is the raw words that she threw down once all the silly games had ended. With truth flying all over that small space there was nowhere to hide.

Story followed story, dripped out - sometimes as simple throw-away tales, others more poetic in structure - and each one burning out a hole in me as they found a similar tale in my own memories, burrowing in deep to pull them out.

It was brave. It was painful. And I really, really, needed it.

I needed to hear those stories. Perhaps as much as Katie seemed to need to tell them.

And perhaps as much as I need to tell a few of my own.

Like the time that the piano teacher in my childhood ballet lessons pulled me aside to ask if I ate crisps (what is it with crisps?).

Or the time when I was playing Charlie’s mother in my school’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory my English teacher stopped the rehearsal to change Charlie’s line from “my mother looks so pale and thin” to “pale and tired” in front of my whole class.

Or the time I was given a digital scale as a birthday present.

Or the time my mother offered to pay for weight loss surgery.

Or the time I had to explain to my landlord exactly how I had managed to break my bed.

Or the time when my nephew asked me why I was so big. Well, not exactly that time. I would have forgotten it entirely if I hadn’t mentioned it to my sister-in-law - laughing as I shared the joke. “He means impressive,” she quickly explained. Too quickly. That was not what he had meant at all, but her desperation to cover his gaff hurt more than his words ever could.

Or the times, so many times, that my old flatmate, Leanne, the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life, used me as a human shield when we went out dancing together, to protect her from the predatory eyes of boys who could see only her.

Wow. Too many times. Too much hurt.

But here’s the thing they don’t tell you about being fat: it gives you superpowers.

The fat brain is very perceptive. It can see the world differently to those who have never carried the weight.

Because it knows the world’s dark secret.

It knows that every time someone stops their car to let me cross the road, that five minutes later they'll be speeding up to make a fat person run.

It knows that when a waiter gives an admiring smile in response to my request for a massive slice of cake, that they’ll be fighting back a wave of disgust at the next fat person who does the same thing.

And I have to live with that.

And let me tell you, it makes it super hard to trust new people.

Every comment about a fat person, every joke I hear, will be analysed and turned over a thousand times.

Would they have liked me if they knew me when I was fat? Would they have even seen me?

Would you? No seriously. I’m asking. Would you be reading this blog if I was still fat? I know I certainly wouldn’t have written it.

I had the idea for this marathon five years ago. And this is the year I chose the go through with it. The year I wasn’t fat anymore.

It hadn’t occurred to me before this moment, this exact moment, that these two things might be connected.

But of course they are.

I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.

The world has grown the smaller I got.

And just thank god that all of my closest friends now knew me when I was fat. Knew what I looked like and still treated me as a human being, and a friend, and not something other.

Because fat people are other. They are set-apart. Their stories untold and unheard.

And that is why I went to see Fatty Fat Fat, and you should too.

Right, that’s enough of that. I’m going to quickly post this before I wimp out.

Garfield isn't the only one

Finding shows to see on Mondays is becoming increasingly difficult.

So many theatres take the day off.

I get it. Mondays are hard enough already what with the waking up and going to work. There’s no need to extend it any longer than it needs to be. I mean, really, what kind of obsessive theatre-goer wants to see a show on a Monday?

Yeah, okay - put your hand down. Didn’t anyone tell you that it was rude to point? It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t really want an answer.

Yes, this obsessive theatre-goer wants to see shows on Mondays. If I’m taking a day off the marathon, it ain’t going to be a work day. What would be the point of that?

Now, if I were a sensible person, I would have made sure to see productions that do actually have Monday shows on Mondays, and Mondays only. But that would have required a level of research that did not quite fit into the slapdash week of planning I managed to accomplish before starting this marathon.

Thank the theatre gods for the Gate Theatre, coming to my rescue when I had a Monday-slot that needed filling up.

They don’t need to give their actors the day off at the moment, because they only work the one show. Their current production, Dear Elizabeth, gets a new pair in for every performance - unrehearsed and unprepared. So Mondays are a-go.

I’d never been to the Gate before, so I made sure I read their website’s Visit section before setting out.

They encourages walking, which I am all about, but as they are a chunk over four miles from my office I don't think I could have made it on time. I felt a bit bad about that, not very in keeping with their Green Gate policy, but what can you do? Anyway, the walking guide they link to no longer exists. No one's checked that link for a while, so they can't be all that committed to the whole thing.

Also, small thing - but they don’t put the address on the same page as the travel instructions? I mean… you do you Gate Theatre, but that doesn’t feel logical to me.

Anyway, I compromised by walking into the West End and then taking the tube from there, and found the venue just fine. The huge yellow Tetris-block of a sign next to the door helped. As did the pink-painted stairs leading up above the Prince Albert pub.

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The dour black website utterly failed to prepare me for the carnival of colour that is the Gate Theatre in person.

Nor the friendliness of the staff.

“Ooo!” cooed the woman on box office when I gave her my name. “That's a nice name.”

I did my usual spiel. It's Scottish. It means small.

She seemed disappointed. I get it. The backstory doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the name.

She rallied. “But in England, it means smiles,” she said, handing me the laminated admission pace.

That's true. It does indeed mean smiles in England. I should really stop explaining my name. It’s such a downer for people in the wake of so much joy.

I changed the subject.

“Can I take one of these?” I asked, pointing to the freesheets fanned out on the counter.

“Oh yes! Help yourself!”

I did.

Situated as it is above a pub, there isn't much in the way of space at the Gate. And what there was was filling up fast.

Turns out there are a lot of people willing to watch a play on a Monday night given half a chance. 

I found a spot by the wall and read my freesheet. No bios. With a new cast every night that might be a bit too much to ask. But that back was interesting.  

"Without public support tickets would cost £51.11." 

They must be quite pleased with this statistic, because it's also printed in the admission pass. 

I felt slightly less outraged that my ticket had cost me £24 (twenty-four pounds! Okay, I'm still outraged by this. Twenty frickin' four pounds for a theatre ticket. I'm not saying that theatres don't deserve the coin, but spending that much on an evening makes me want to boak, it really does).

Thankfully I didn't have much longer to dwell on such matters as the house was opening. 

“Your actors tonight will be Temi Wilkey and Seiriol Davies,” came the announcement.

"As this is the first time they have performed it, we don't know how long it'll be. The performance will be around one hour forty-five minutes, but as they've never done it before it might be a bit longer." He paused for a moment, then said with masterful comic timing: "Not too much longer, we hope." There was a titter from the foyer and we headed towards the doors, ready to score those good seats.

Benches lined both sides of the stage. With a short second and third row on one end. 

After near fainting, immersive theatre in a shed and seeing thirty shows, in thirty venues, in less than a month, I felt unstoppable.

I sat in the front row.

Oof. 

The bench seats were covered in golden velvet.

Let me tell you something, wearing a velvet skirt and sitting on a velvet bench is an experience. And not one that I think was ever meant to be felt by mortal beings.

It was like stroking a cat's belly. Dangerous but irresistible. 

Okay, you can wipe that look off your face right now. I know what you’re thinking - how much velvet does this woman own? Every time she comments on her outfit it's velvet this, and velvet that. Well, my love, I'll tell you. The answer is: a lot. An absolute fuck-tonne, in fact. And thank you for asking. Dresses of course, and last night's skirt, natch. But also jackets and scrunchies and shoes. A shawl. Underwear even. From September until March I am enveloped in velvet. What can I say? It’s warm and fuzzy and I love it.

And there, sitting on velvet benches, and with the golden velvet curtains surrounding us on all sides, I felt quite at home.

I could have sat their all night, quietly luxuriating, but I was awfully distracted by the floor.

The floor? Yes. The floor. Let me tell you about the floor. The floor was sensational. An oil slick of pastels. As if a unicorn had barfed on it. Wait, that's a lazy metaphor. Unicorns are forever barfing and pooping whenever there's a rainbow nearby. Unicorn Land must be a complete bio-hazard by now.

How about: the sheen on a bubble, or mermaid's looking glass, or perhaps a pearl dissolved in vinegar.

You get the idea. It was pink and blue and shiny. 

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I want that floor in my house. I want it rolled out before me wherever I go.

I was not the only one to appreciate it.

We'd been instructed to tuck our bags and coats safely under our benches. But one man went a step further and stowed his boots under the bench as well. He leaned back, stretched out his legs and planted his besocked feet on the mermaid's mirror.

The Gate really does foster a community atmosphere…

In fact, everyone there seemed to be part of the local society.

“You’ll never guess who I just saw,” a young man said to his companion, pouring out the names in a flood of excitement. “I promised we’d save spaces for them.”

Across the way, a woman squealed and ran across the room to greet someone she recognised.

Mwah. Mwah. Kissssessss…

I was beginning to regret my seat choice.

Actors I can deal with. The audience is another matter altogether.

Thankfully by this point the show was beginning and everyone was forced to return to their chosen seats.

Curtains lifted.

Seiriol and Temi, our actors, stepped out.

They hugged and swapped handwritten letters. They apologised for everything they were about to get wrong. They tore into their fellow actor’s letter and read it aloud, full of proclamations on how excited they were to be doing this thing.

They opened the first script packets.

And we were off.

Balloons, toucans, toys, confetti, wine, words, and cornflakes were spilled around in a tribute to messy theatre.

It was brilliant fun.

Bows. Applause.

They had made it. And so had we.

We packed ourselves up crunched out over the cornflakes

“You taking photos of the mess?” asked a man as we were leaving. I couldn't deny it. I was doing just that. “They're going to have to clean that up. And separate it,” he added.

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Yes, I suppose they are going to have to.

The actors may only have to do the one shift, but the backstage crew has to sort this out every single night.

Even on Mondays.

Rose-tinted theatre

I’m going to like this place.

That was my thought the second I walked through the door of the Arcola.

I don’t know what it was that provoked such a strong reaction. Perhaps it was the pink coloured light that blazed out over the door. Or the fact that it was an easy walk from my work. Or maybe that being so close to an overground station, my journey home was going to be a cinch. The staff, bustling around in their branded aprons, demonstrating open friendliness and scary efficiency in equal measure, might have contributed to my thought process. The £1 playtext sale must have helped. And the huge yellow sign over box office proclaiming “Tickets” which is exactly the no-nonsense, anti-jargon, stance that I can get behind. But between you and me, I think it was the bench.

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There, slunk low, just inside the foyer door, was a long wooden bench. Exactly the sort you would find in a school gymnasium. It conjured up memories of being five years old and doing bunny hops along the full length. Bunny hops were my absolute favourite thing to do in gym. Leaping about from one side to the other, while gripping onto the surface of the bench for support. The feeling of flying as you soared over the bench. The power in your arms as they take your full weight for that fraction of a second. It doesn’t get much better than that. Plus, no one is throwing anything at you and expecting you to catch it.

"Is this for Daughter-In-Law?” asked the woman at box office (or “Tickets”) as I gave my name.

Wait, what?

I looked around. There, to my left was a sign. “Studio 1.”

Shit.

Double shit.

Shit on a cracker.

The Arcola has more than one theatre.

The warm glow that had been sitting in my stomach at the sight of the bench wavered. I had another theatre that I needed to add to the list. 251 theatres in London. 252 now. And this was only number 25.

Shitshitshitshitshit.

I managed to fight through the pain and indicate that yes, I was there for Daughter-In-Law.

She glanced at the ticket.

"Now you'll have to go outside and back in. There’ll be a bell when it's time. I'm afraid no drinks are allowed in these seats."

But I wasn’t paying attention.

252 theatres. I wasn’t even a tenth of the way through my marathon and I’d just found out that another mile was being tagged onto the end.

I could feel myself boarding the Anxiety Express. I needed to think nice calming thoughts.

Tickets (real tickets). Programmes with full-page photography…

Wait.

"I think I ordered a programme?" I posed it as a question, but I definitely recalled seeing programmes for sale during the online booking process and I couldn’t imagine not sticking one in my basket.

"Let me check," she said.

"I mean, I might not have,” I prattled on, suddenly starting to doubt myself. “But I feel very strongly that I did."

She checked.

I had.

Phew.

It was still early, so I took myself and my programme over to the bunny-hop bench and had a flick through (really good by the way. An absolute bargain at only £2 online. £3 at the theatre. Lovely paper-stock. Interesting articles. Recommended).

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As I stood, reading about D.H. Lawrence’s use of dialect, something jabbed at my leg. I tried to swat it away with my foot, but only succeeded in stubbing my toe. I looked down, fearing some creepy-crawly had got my leg.

A massive splinter was sticking out and clawing at the back of my calf.

The bunny-hop bench had betrayed me.

I felt less kindly to it after that.

I decided to go for a wander.

The bar looked nice. But busy.

Staff everywhere.

And on the wall… oh bliss… oh rapture.

Cast sheets.

Free for the taking.

Good lord. Programmes, real tickets and free cast sheets? Arcola, you spoil me, you really do.

See? I couldn't stay mad at this place for long.

Soon enough, the theatre bell rang as promised and people began to saunter out.

I busied myself tucking my cast sheet away in my bag, and by the time I looked up again, the door was banging shut after the last person had left.

I hurried after, heading back out into the street, rounded the corner and headed for the brightly lit door and the other end of the building.

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Hmm. That didn’t look right.

Where did the lady on box office say I was supposed to go again? I hadn’t been paying attention.

Shitshitshitshitshit.

This was going to be another The Wrong Door situation again, wasn’t it?

The Anxiety Train going full speed by this point. I backtracked. I’ll just go back inside, and ask, I told myself. Like a normal, functioning adult. It’s fine. It’s all fine. There’s plenty of time. No need to stress.

I didn't make it that far. 

Just as I was about to head through the main door, I spotted another one. It was narrow. Barely a slither in the stonework, but there was no question, this was The Right Door. 

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I must admit, I'd been a little worried about what sort of seat I'd get. Usually I just buy the cheapest and hope for the best. But this time, I levelled up. 15 quid for a value ticket instead of a ten pound restricted view one. I prayed to the theatre gods that it was worth it.

After making almost the entire length of my row stand up to let me past, I made it to my seat it the front row of the balcony. 

There was a pillar in front of me, but so narrow I forgot it was there within minutes. 

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What I didn't forget was the cold.  

Eighty minutes is a long first act at the best of times, but when you're stuck in your seat, shivering, it can feel like an eternity.   

I thanked the theatre gods that I had remembered to back my shoe grips in my Theatre Survival Kit that morning. The pavements were bound to be icy by the time we got out of there.

Don't get excited. My Theatre Survival Kit, such as it is, is mainly composed of whatever crap I remember to shove in my bag to help me get through these very long days. Snacks and... well, mainly snacks. But also the aforementioned shoe grips on icy days, a folding fan for warm ones, and cough sweets all year.

Speaking of cough sweets... I reached into my bag. I've had a cough since Christmas, one that refuses to go away. It's always made worse when I'm stuck in confined spaces. Like lifts, or the tube, or theatres. I could already feel a small niggle starting at the back of my throat and...Shit. No cough sweets. I had meant to pop out over lunch and restock but I'd... forgotten.

I stuck my hand right down to the bottom of my bag, past my wallet, my book, my Tupperware and shoe grips, and explored the slightly sticky base, feeling in between the empty wrappers and forgotten receipts.

Ew, when was the last time I cleaned this thing out?

After much scrabbling around I found one, lonely, cough sweet. A little bit dusty from accumulated bag debris, but by that point I would have sucked on the contents of my hoover bag if it promised some relief.

This play better be worth it, was all I could think at that point.

How wrong of me to doubt them.

I should have known the Arcola wouldn't do me wrong. 

The first act flew past. As did the second. And I didn't cough once, well... not until the curtain call when I suddenly remembered about my tickely throat. 

Now, Arcola. You need to package this shiz. You and me. We can make a mint. Or rather... a cough sweet (sorry). Arcola's Awesome Cough Remedy: two and a half hours of relief - guaranteed! As approved by the overtired theatre-marathoners of London.

Call me, yeah?

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.

The great debate

I went off book last night. Or rather, off spreadsheet.

I was meant to be going to see a play about a man on the brink of suicide. It was all planned and marked up.

Wednesday / 16 January 2019 / Evening / The Loop / Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

I’d logged that at least a week ago. But when Wednesday morning dawned and I still hadn’t bought a ticket I knew that I couldn’t face it. I needed something more upbeat. Something with songs perhaps. So, I shuffled things around and decided to go see a musical about a girl with a massive, disfiguring scar on her face, chasing after a miracle that’s bound to let her down. Much more uplifting.

Now unconstrained by spreadsheets, I headed into the West End. Or rather Charing Cross. Or, even more specially, Charing Cross Station. Well, under it at least.

I have a soft spot from sub-station theatres. 17 days into my marathon and The Union Theatre is still ranking as my number one theatre experience (followed briskly by the Playhouse and the Brockley Jack. Not that it's a competition you understand. Except it kinda is). There’s something about hearing a train rumbling on overhead that makes a play feel so much more epic. It’s as if every production is set within a permanent thunder storm.

Both under railway arches they may be, but the Charing Cross Theatre is no wee little 75-seater. In the grand throw down between Charing Cross the the Union’s Waterloo, the north-of-the-river station would win tracks-down. On size alone, you understand. You could fit at least four Unions within the Charing Cross Theatre’s auditorium.

Everything seemed bigger at the Charing Cross.

As I pottered about in the foyer (taking mirror selfies, you know how it is), I spied the usher’s snack tray. Bags of Malteasers lined up next to king size Snickers and Mars bars. Holy shit on a cracker. Those are not theatre-snacks to be nibbled on during an interval. They are proper petrol-station snacks, built to sustain the a long road-trip.

The Charing Cross Theatre ain't playing no games.

They were West End (or at least, West End-adjacent) and they were ready to compete with the big-boys. This was no fringe venue. And they weren’t going to be confused with one. No matter what type of public transportation system was sitting on top of them, rattling their bones.

They even have a proper box office. Staffed by someone who seemed to have been hired for the sole reason that she radiated loveliness. Made all the lovelier when she handed me a proper ticket. One that I could take home with me. You see? West End. Definitely.

But then something caught my eye. There, on the box office counter. Something bright. Very bright. Orange even. Surely the brightest and most eye-catching of colours. And made of paper, which is always sure to get my attention.

“Can I take one of these?” I asked.

“Of course!” said the lovely box office lady.

It was a cast sheet.

Oh.

I looked around, checking for any programme sellers. Nope. No one. This was all we got.

So, maybe they are a fringe theatre then? If you squint and forget that the Strand isn’t just around the corner.

It makes sense. West End playhouses tend to been drinking great Edwardian things. Yes, there are outlets, but when you picture a West End theatre, there tends to be more in the way of curly architecture, and less, well... trains.

I had to do more investigating.

I wandered around, gathering evidence. West End or Fringe. It was hard to tell. It was all so conflicting.

Over my head there was a massive chandelier: West End.

But behind me was a strange arcade machine shoved in the corner: Fringe.

The ushers were wearing natty little waistcoats: West End.

But… what’s that?

 Is that a proper, physical, theatre bell?

I positioned myself near it, determined to catch it in action, but when the bing bongs came they arrived over a tannoy - with more than a little flavour of Hi-de-Hi!.

Oh.

That was disappointing. And it didn’t help settle the matter of West End or Fringe either way. Further disappointment.

With a heavy heart and a confused head, I decided it was time to go downstairs and take my seat. Hopefully the auditorium would hold to key to solving this mystery.

“Nice coat you got there,” said the usher taking my ticket.

“Oh, well, thank you,” I managed to reply, feeling a little flustered. It is a nice coat. There’s no denying it. But I don’t think I’ve ever been complimented on my outfit by an usher before

How do we even classify that? Definitely not West End.

Still preening, I took my seat. Row X. Ticket’s ain’t cheap at the Charing Cross (they have West End prices, that’s for sure).

But with the stage in the middle of the auditorium, and with seating either side, I may have been in the back row, but there were only 11 more in front of me.

And, even better, a tech desk directly behind. Like, literally, right behind me head. That was exciting. I love a tech desk.

I was looking forward to sneaking glances behind me during the show.

“So sorry, can everyone in this row move forward,” said an usher, leaning into the back row. My row.

We all blinked at him in incomprehension.

“If you could all just move forward, exactly as you are, to this row,” he added, indicating the empty row just in front of us.

It was happening. I was being moved out of my row. Just like with that bloke in the Vaudeville. I had seen how it should be done, and now it was time to make a stand. Or rather to not make a stand. I would sit. The revolution may have been slow to get started, but I would do my part. This was it. It was our time. We were going to rise up against our oppressors, the ushers.

I stood up, ready to face down the usher.

I looked at his smiling face and refused to break.

But then I remembered the coat-comment from earlier. And the lovely box office lady.

Reader, I’m ashamed to admit it. But I moved.

The seats in front were a little bit better. And I was still feeling pretty glowy after my compliment.

Glowy people don't start rebellions. They're too busy being smug and happy.

Revolution would need to wait for another day.

Our vacated seats were soon filled by the creative team, blocking my view of the tech desk.

Fucking. Rude.

My glow faded.

I crossed my arms and waggled my foot with irritation. The show better be good, I thought to myself. I was going to have to sit there, for a full hundred minutes, no interval, and have nothing to watch but the performers.

Lights dimmed. The cast emerged. And they started singing.

Over-amped, I sneered to myself.

I was determined not to have a good time.

And then I forgot. Forgot about being made to move. And the lack of a tech-desk view. Forgot about the creatives sitting behind me, until…

One of the groaned.

Oh dear. Something had gone wrong.

I scanned the stage. I hadn’t seen anything go awry. Perhaps this seat-stealing creative just had a stomach ache.

I lost myself in the show once more.

Until…

Another groan.

The cast sang on, still nothing visibly wrong.

His stomach ache must have been really bad. I wondered if I should offered the use of an aspirin. But then I remembered I was supposed to be annoyed with them, so decided to let him suffer through without medical assistance.

Besides, I was enjoying the show. And didn’t want to be distracted.

By the time I emerged back into Cavern Street shopping arcade I still hadn’t come up with the answer to my question: West End or Fringe?

Now, looking back on it all, I’ve come to a conclusion: I am not qualified to make such decisions.

Who cares if it belongs to the bright lights of the West End, or runs with the cool cats of the Fringe? Surely all that matters is the theatre, and what it makes us feel as we come together to form the single, living, breathing organism that is: the audience... ergh. That's theatre wankery if ever I heard it.

Fine. I'm calling it. It's West End. Done.

No one told me there would be running on this marathon

I swear I’m going to have a heart attack by the end of this year.

Last night was the turn of the Brockley Jack Theatre (or possibly the Jack Studio Theatre, I’m not quite sure. Their website isn’t very clear on the matter of what they are called), which meant I was back off to south London and had to endure all the transport issues that go along with venturing south of the river.

I thought I’d give the ThamesLink a go. Be adventurous. Avoid the trains.

That was a mistake.

I arrived at Blackfriars just in time for the 6.26 to Orpington. Excellent work. Except the train wasn’t.

Ten minutes later I was still waiting. Then twelve. Then fifteen.

I was beginning to panic.

No, scrap that. I had left panic behind back in the office. This was way beyond that.

Now, being a feminist and all, I have a problem using the word hysterical. But… stripping away the history of the term, as words go, it wasn’t far off what I was feeling. Inside. I think I managed to keep it contained for the most part. I mean, yes, a few people on the platform gave me looks as I bounced around on my heels, staring at the departures board with an unblinking stare and muttering under my breath. But they probably just thought I’d been mixing meds.

Finally, just as I was giving up all hope, and with absolutely no consideration of my nerves, the train arrived.

After that, it was easy. Well, almost. I’m fairly certain the American lady from Monday’s theatre excursion might have fainted if she had a sniff around Crofton Park station. Best just to hold one’s nose and make a run for it, I find.

I’m quickly becoming a connoisseur of the ‘how to find us’ pages on theatre websites.

And the Brockley Jack is a very fine vintage… can you tell I don’t know wine?

Regardless, so good where the instructions that the delivered me straight to the door of the theatre. Which turned out to be exactly what I didn't need. The pavement there was far to narrow to get a photo of the building. Where were the warnings about that, Jack Studio… or whatever your name is?

My first attempt to zip over to road was quickly aborted when I realised that I would definitely die. Instead I sprinted, yes - actually ran - down to the nearest crossing, jumped around waiting for the light to change, dashed to the other side, took my photos (all full of cars damn it) then scampered back for the return journey before making it in the door... fifteen minutes early. I'll say this for anxiety... I'm rarely late.

"Surname is Smiles" I said to the person manning the box office desk. I was a little out of breath. "S-M-I-L-E-S," I spelt out. I always need to spell out my name. Otherwise people tend to think they’ve misheard.

"I was just looking at your booking."

"Oh dear". Now, it's not uncommon for me to get that kind of comment when I'm picking up tickets. What with the aforementioned surname. I end up having some form of name-based conversation at least twice a week. Four times a week now that I'm hitting up so many box offices while in marathon-mode. But this man was not interested in my surname.

"It says here that you paid zero pounds for your ticket"

"Oh... ummm" I was fairly certain I had paid slightly more than zero pounds for my ticket. But perhaps I had somehow managed to circumnavigate the whole paying step without noticing. I thought back, trying to remember the transaction. I couldn't. There's been rather a lot of them recently. They all seem to merge together.

I looked where he was pointing. There, listed next to my name on the box office print out, was the figure £0.00.

“But I double checked the machine and you paid ten pounds.”

“That’s good…”

“Sometimes it just happens.”

“I can check on my end if that helps…” I said, reaching for my phone, not knowing quite sure how I would do that but wanting to show willing.

“No, it’s fine. You have definitely paid.”

“Oh… good.”

“Can I interest you in a programme?”

He definitely could. Only a pound. Bloody bargain.

Programme and ticket-token acquired, I was directed to the adjoining pub.

You could tell who all the theatre-goers were there. We all sat on one end, huddled together like awkward penguins, silent, surrounded by a mess of coats and programmes.

At 7.25, the theatre bell rang, and we stirred. Slowly at first. The bell’s clang taking its time to work its way into our trance states. One person managed to stumble to their feet, lumbering their way towards the theatre. Another followed. Until we all managed to stagger our way down the hall, like a plague of zombies, except slightly more worn-looking.

The theatre itself is teeny tiny. Although seating is technically on three sides, two of the sides only manage about fifteen seats between them. End-on, there is a single row at stage level, and then a further three tucked away on a platform behind them. Plonking myself in the second row, I managed to enjoy the twin pleasures of having a view unobstructed by any heads in front of me, and none of the vulnerability associated with sitting out front. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I was there to see Gentlemen Jack, which I chose for two reasons. Firstly, I liked the idea of double-Jack action, what with the play name and the theatre. What can I say? I’m a simple person. The other was that being about Anne Lister, the 19th century diarist, mine-owner, and very-out lesbian, the play had a higher chance than usual of containing bonnets.

After the disappointing lack of frothy-headgear in my last theatrical trip to the 1800s, I was doing my best not to get too excited about the prospect. I do get why directors might not want to insert bonnets into their plays. They obstruct the face and all that. But god-dammit, I love them. And they are period appropriate. And and and… I just want bonnets. Is that too much to ask?

No, as it happens. Because this play delivered.

Yes, my friends. There were bonnets. Multiple ones. 

I was so bloody happy.

What a fucking excellent play. I really enjoyed it.

Not just because of the bonnets you understand.

I mean, it was mainly the bonnets. But there were other things too.

The entirety of Lister’s wardrobe, for one. All black. All fabulous.

That floor-length black velvet coat? Yeah, I wanted to take that home with me.

It made me feel quite gauche sitting there in my dress covered in a loud and obnoxious print of red roses. Yes, it was from Killstar. And yes, the roses had some spiky grey thorns. But my Goth-points were running at an all time low in the face of such Regency-gothic goodness.

And then the lacey dressing gown worn by one of her lovers… damn. I should wear more lace. My life is definitely lacking in the lace department.

I wonder if I can get one on eBay…

Yeah, but do they serve milkshakes tho?

Right, let’s keep this one short, shall we? I’m wearing a rapidly hardening face-mask right now which promises to return my pre-theatre marathon glow. Not in so many words you understand. The marketing blurb wasn’t that specific. But I was reading between the lines. I’ve been looking decidedly rough lately. Late nights do not agree with me. I’m old. I should be tucked up in bed by 10pm at the very latest. So something that promises to brighten and exfoliate and plump and tighten is very much in need right now. Still, I don’t want to leave it on too long. My face will probably fall off.

Anyway, enough of all that. That’s not what you’re here for. You don’t care about my skin-care routine. You want drama. Or at least theatre. And I am here for you, ready to serve up fresh theatrical anecdotes. You’re welcome.

So on Friday night I headed to The Yard.

Another first-time trip for me, and we all know what that means. I should change the subtitle of this blog to: Max gets lost in London.

This is worrying. I feel like the message that I’m putting out onto the ethernet is that I’m an idiot who can’t locate a theatre in a world where websites and Google Maps exist. The fact that I am an idiot who can’t locate a theatre in a world where websites and Google Maps exist doesn’t help matters.

So, there I was, standing outside Hackney Wick station, reading and re-reading the “Your Visit” page of The Yard’s website, and flicking back and forth to Google Maps, and not knowing which way to go.

Perhaps it’s the strain of going to the theatre for 11 days in a row. Or the fact that I had spent the whole day snacking junk food and couldn’t remember the last time I had consumed a vegetable. But no matter how many times I read it, “we’re right around the corner from Hackney Wick Overground station” failed to make any form of sense to me at all. Which corner? I could see at least three. Is it just me? Is that a truly helpful direction to everyone else in the world? Please tell me I’m not alone here.

In the end I turned left, as that looked the darkest and most scary of the options available. If I have discovered anything on my adventures, it’s that dark and scary places are where fringe theatres are most likely to live.

I’d also spotted some fairy-lights strung up in the distance that looked promising. Fringe theatres also tend to love fairy-lights. Fact.

But the closer I got to the string of lights, the more it looked like a pub, and not a theatre. Now, these two things are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of pub-theatres (and even a few theatre-pubs), but The Yard is not one of them.

Going any further was prevented by the little matter of a canal, so I turned right, struggled blindly up a metal staircase (did I mention it was scary and dark down there?) and back onto a road. Huh. Okay. That wasn’t right. I may not have known where exactly The Yard was, but I was fairly certain it was in, you know, a yard.

Right again then. Past a few very industrial looking buildings, until there was another opening on the right. I’d just done one big circle.

Except this time, I could see it. A great shining light calling me home. I’d found The damn Yard. I’d walked right past it the first time. Go me.

Once I’d rounded that corner, everything suddenly became easy. With blazing signage everywhere. There was a massive ENTER HERE painted on the entrance, so even a complete moron like me managed to find the correct door. The box office and theatre were also both lit up with signs posting the way. While the loos were pointed out with big, easy to read lettering on the walls. “Toilets” over one door, “Toilets & Urinals” over the other. No Ladies and Gents nonsense here. The Yard is gender neutral when it comes to your waste-expelling needs. I like it.

I also like that there are freesheets with the casting details, which were left next to the box office. Although I didn’t spot them at first, and it was only when I saw other people walking around with them that I realised they existed. Apologies to everyone in the queue that I barged in front of in order for me to get that sweet, sweet paper. There was no way I was leaving without it. The Yard doesn’t do tickets. Not the sort you can take away with you. So I had to get my hands on whatever they were offering.

Talking of paper. I was there to see a staged reading. One of those things where the actors stand around holding their scripts while they do their thing on stage. I am a big fan of these. I love seeing the pages turn and knowing exactly how far we are through the play. I’m not saying that I am willing them to end, just… that I like knowing when that end will be.

In fact, I would like it on record that one of my favourite theatre-based memories is watching Noma Dumezweni perform, script in hand, at the first preview of Linda at the Royal Court, having taken over from Kim Catrall at short notice. Like, the way she wielded that stack of pages - as if it were notes on her desk, or her kids’ homework - just heaven.

I’m not sure I entirely understood the concept behind the reading. It’s part of a festival that’s something to do with Brexit. There’s various plays written by playwrights from around Europe. At the end of the play you’re meant to guess whether it was written by a European or an artist based in Britain (that’s how it was worded in the little explanation at the end of the play - ‘based in Britain,’ not British, which even further confused the meaning of all this to me). There were even little Union Jacks left on our seats to enable your voting via the medium of flag-waving, which was I thought was cute - even if the whys of the whole thing were lost on me.

I got it wrong. Because of course I did.

At least I know how to read signs though.

Remember that door I mentioned? The one with ENTER HERE painted on it?

Turns out the other door opens straight into the theatre.

Know how I know this?

Because mid-way through the reading, it opened.

The actors stopped. They looked to the door.

We all looked to the door.

Silence.

As one, we wondered, “is this meant to be happening?” No. It wasn't. 

"Hello?" one of the actors posited.

The door quickly closed.

More silence.

Then a giggle. Then proper laughter.

The actors returned to their scripts.

The play continued.

It was very satisfying.

I may not be able to find a theatre. But at least I know which door to go through.

And on that note, my face-mask is now so hard I can no longer feel my forehead.

I’m going to wash this thing off.

Until tomorrow! Hopefully next time you see me, I’ll be looking proper beautiful for you.