Peck 'em

Between you and me, I’m feeling rather pleased with myself right now.

I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight. I was supposed to be somewhere else entirely. I was supposed to be at a brand new theatre, on opening night. But turns out booking opening nights at brand new theatres are risky things to book for, and now I have the evening free.

Now, usually this would be a cause of panic. I’d be scrolling through TodayTix, my thumb a blur as I try to find a West End theatre that I both haven’t been to, and can afford to buy a last minute ticket to. With just over five months to go before the final countdown, I can’t afford to take Saturday nights off. No way. Ain’t no time left for that nonsense. I’m going to the theatre, dammit.

But I vaguely remembered getting annoyed at the theatre not do long ago. Annoyed because for the third time, they’d put up a marathon-worthy show on their website, with so little notice I’d already booked myself in for that evening.

I checked back.

Yup. There is was. On for one night only. A play. And there were still tickets available.

Hello, Theatre Peckham! Despite all your best efforts, not programming anything of any use, and then dumping things online with next to no advance notice, I’m going to get you checked off my list.

My feelings of smugness last exactly as long as it takes me to stick in their postcode into the TFL Journey Planner.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Peckham might as well be in the Lake District for all the transport links it has. Looks like I’ll be walking half-way across London to get to this one.

But being the brave, intrepid, explorer that I am, I set off. Battling against cancelled Thameslink trains and walking for miles and miles to fall down at their door.

Turns out, the Theatre Peckham’s laissez-faire attitude to getting shows on sale doesn’t seem to have affected their ability to pull in an audience. This place is packed. There’s a small courtyard outside of the main door, and it’s filled with happy-looking people having drinks and enjoying the sun. Inside, it’s even busier. The queue for the bar stretches out from one side of the foyer to the other, echoing the line of bunting strung up overhead.

I inch my way around the walls, trying to find somewhere where I’m not in everyone’s way. It’s tricky. There are people waiting at the box office. People waiting for the loos. People waiting beside the entrance to the theatre. People waiting for friends and drinks and the doors to open.

This place has clearly set itself out to be a community hub and it's doing it well. There’s a piano on one side, a dress up corner on the other, and even a casting opportunity notice board. No wonder they can fill a theatre with only a few days' notice.

I find a small space near a pillar and tuck myself in.

At least I don’t have to get involved with any of that. I have an e-ticket. It says right here in the confirmation email “use your smartphone to display the .pdf ticket on-screen so that the person on the door can examine and check its authenticity.” Not sure how they go about that, but I’m hoping there’s a beeper. I hate e-tickets, but I love a ticket beeper.

It’s warm in here. It’s a bit Hardwicke Hall (“more window than wall”) and the sun is blazing through the glass, heating us up like a bunch of rapidly ripening tomatoes.

Someone standing near me leans back against the pillar and fans herself.

I stare at her. That fan looks surprisingly like an admission pass.

I should have known better. Ticket confirmations are nonsense emails. You should never trust a word they say. There’s not going to be a ticket beeper. And no one is going to check the authenticity. They might have fancy pdfs to send out, but that doesn’t stop them from handing out laminated scraps of logoed up paper like all the rest of the old school venues.

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I join the queue for the box office.

“The surname is Smiles,” I tell the lady behind the counter when I finally get to the front of the queue.

“Sorry?”

“Smiles?” I say, wondering if I had been mistaken after all, and the admission token had been nothing more than a trick of the dazzeling light. But no, there they are. I can see them. Piled up neatly next to her mouse. I press on. “S. M. I. L. E. S. Smiles? That’s the surname?”

She looks it up. “Just one?” she asks.

“… yes.”

She hands me a token. It’s white, laminated, with the Theatre Peckham logo, and is in no way an e-ticket.

Thank goodness.

I return to my little corner near the pillar, and soon find myself part of the queue to get in without the bother of moving.

A young man in a Theatre Peckham branded top makes his way down to queue, talking to everyone in turn.

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“Sorry?” I ask when he gets to me. I shade me eyes against the sun still forcing its way through those massive windows.

“You don’t mind being filmed?” he repeats.

“Oh…” Do I mind being filmed?I mean… the answer is: yes. I do. But I’m not sure I mind enough to cause a fuss. “No,” I tell him.

He moves on, asking his question all the way down to the end of the queue.

I’m not sure how I feel about this direct approach. On the one hand it’s great that he’s making sure everyone going through the door knows that there’s going to be a camera in there, but on the other, it does rather put you on the spot more than a sign ever would.

I make a mental note to pick a seat at the back.

I check my phone.

It’s 7.35pm. The doors still aren’t open.

Oh well. At least it’s a short play.

Or is it? I can’t remember. But it surely must be. In this run up to Edinburgh, everything seems to be coming in at under an hour.

I go to the Theatre Peckham website and look for the show we’re queueing for, Sweet Like Chocolate Boy, and scroll down.

2 hours plus interval.

2 hours plus interval. What does that mean? How long is an interval? It doesn’t say. It could be five minutes or thirty or anything in between.

It’s 7.38pm and we still haven’t gone in.

Two hours

Plus an interval of unknown length.

And then the long trek back to Finchley.

I’m not getting home before midnight, am I?

The usher is back. He slips through the queue to reach a lady a few places ahead of me. “Don’t forget to sit at the top, yeah?” he says. “The back of the back of the tip of the top.”

She frowns at him. “Why?”

“Because you don’t want to be filmed, yeah?”

Her face clears and she nods. Back of the back of the tip of the top. She’s got it.

7.43pm. The doors have opened. We’re going in.

Gosh. It’s quite nice in here. A balcony circling three sides. A floor level stage.

There’s multi-coloured upholstery across the seating, which I notice are those flip-down benches which require you to coordinate the sitting down process with your neighbour.

I can see what the usher meant by the back of the back and the tip of the top.

There are a few rows right at the back that are cordoned off by a railing. I suppose they’re supposed to be considered part of the balcony, but really they look like an extension of the stalls with a wall to keep back the riffraff.

I can see the camera. It’s just there, in front of the first row.

Hopefully it won’t see me back here.

Its presence doesn’t seem to have put many people off though. The front row fills up fast. As do the second and third row.

As the seats gradually fill up, spaces gradually disappearing as newcomers are forced to go further back, I can see why. The rake… isn’t great. It’s disappointingly bad. Especially for such a new theatre. I always wonder about this. Do theatres not test the rake before opening to the public? Do they not consider that someone sitting in their seats might actually like to see what is happening on stage? It always makes me think they are just gambling on them never selling enough tickets for it to matter. And in the event of them having a hit show, for the audience to be so desperate to see it, they won’t care if their view is a little obstructed by the person in front.

It’s nearly ten to eight now. And we still haven’t started.

I suppose that says it all. Bollocks to the audience. There’ll be a show. At some point. And they’ll get to see it. Most of it, anyway. Whatever.

Oh well.

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We’re starting now. At last.

Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.

All time travel and the voice of god and returning to the scene of the crime and prophets and machetes and rhyme.

A bit poetic. A bit dance theatre. A bit strange.

A bit… dull.

I mean, it’s fine. Well written. Well performed. All that.

But it isn’t doing the business for me.

Too many characters. Too much stuff going on. Too long. Too drawn out.

I’m sure the twin timelines will come together at some point, but right now… eh.

But you know, this play wasn’t created for the likes of me. And the rest of the audience seem to be loving it. Laughing at what I presume are the right bits.

The air conditioning is good though. A bit too good. It’s freezing. But I’m not complaining. Better too cold than too warm. I’m just waiting to wriggle back into my jacket as soon as the interval hits.

Just as I’m rubbing my arms to get some warmth back into them, the stage light extinguishes, plunging into darkness. The man sitting next to me lifts his hands, ready to clap. But he holds back. Is it the interval?

The darkness extends a fraction too long.

The house lights should be coming up by now.

But they don’t.

Someone at the front risks a clap, and we all follow their lead.

The house lights go up. As one, the audience gets to their feet and disappears to the bar. I reach under my seat and grab my jacket, snuggling down into its woollen warmth.

As everyone begins to filter back, they come laden with drinks and snacks. One person appears to have popped out to the shops, and his hands are full of crisps. Around five packets if I’ve counted correctly. Not quite the Dairylea Dunker of snack masters that I saw at the Stockwell Playhouse, but he’s certainly up there.

He opens up the first pack, and starts munching, tipping out the last of the crumbs just as the house lights descend for the second half.

I pull my jacket tight around me and shiver through the rest of the play, trying to enjoy the frigid chill of the auditorium, and being annoyed with myself for not appreciating the cold as much as I should.

At the end, there's a standing ovation. A little one. And not undeserved. Those actors put in the work. Jumping between characters with little more than the unzipping of a jacket and putting on of a hat.

Oh well. Time to start the long walk to Oval. There's no way I'm risking the Thameslink again.

In the foyer, I turn around to have another look. Taking in the piano, the bunting, the reading nook with it’s chair and accompanying bookshelf.

I doubt I'll be back. Not until Peckham gets a tube station anyway.

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The Old Curiosity Theatre

It's the second time on this marathon that I've had to book my tickets by email. To be fair to the Pentameters, there was a box office phone number on the website. But there was no way in hell I was going to call it. Not with my social anxiety. All my phone call-energy is spent by the time I finish work. There isn't a scrap of call-making energy going spare to deal with the business of ticket buying. So, email it was. Just a little note, asking if I could buy it advance. Seven minutes later, I had my reply. A ticket had been put aside for me. I just needed to turn up and pay on the door. In cash. Of course. I wouldn't have expected anything else.

The last time I did these email dealings, I found the theatre behind a curtain at the back of a bookshop. But tonight's is a bona fide pub theatre. Not only that, it has its own separate entrance. Pentameters Theatre is writ large in a handpainted sign above the door. Inside there are some steps, and another sign. This one leaning against the wall, close to the ground. "Tickets," it says. "Available from the box office," with an arrow pointing towards a door. I guess that's where I'm going then. Through the door and up some very steep stairs.

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As I clunk my way up, a woman in a bright red t-shirt leans out and says hello from what must be the promised box office. A small ledge, wedged into a doorway.

"Have you booked?" she asks as I near the top.

"I emailed earlier to reserve a ticket," I tell her.

"Ah yes!" She nods. "Remind me of your name."

I give her my surname and she checks a ledger, scrawled with names.

"Just the one ticket was it?"

"Yup. All by myself."

Honestly, I don't mind going to the theatre by myself. Most of the time I actually prefer it. Especially when I'm going somewhere new, or to a play I'm not too sure about. I don't have to feel worried about whether the person I'm with is enjoying it, or guilty if they're not. But like... I don't enjoy being called out on it, you know? I'm very delicate.

A queue is forming on the stairs.

Box office lady waves them all up onto the landing. "Come up on high ground," she says. "Where it's safe."

As they traipse their way up, she recognises one of them, "You've got a ticket, haven't you? You go on in." And she steps aside to let them through, squeezing them in through the box office and the doorway beyond.

Space is tight at the Pentameters.

Reclaiming her spot at the ledge, she turns back to me. "How did you hear about it?" she asks.

"Err, Google?" I say, not really wanting to admit that I've been stalking the Pentameters website for the best part of seven months before finding a show which was both marathon and calendar-friendly.

"You've been here before?"

I admit that I haven't. Should I tell her about the blog? Ergh. I don't really want to. Not with those hoards of... three people behind me on the landing. I decide to keep schtum on the blog, feeling guilty about the confusion I'm causing by my caginess.

"You're not a student are you?"

"No, bit old for that...." I say. I haven't been a student for a long, long time.

"Are you an actress or...?"

She's trying to flatter me. There's no way anyone in god's green theatre who would think the socially awkward penguin that I am could possibly be a performer.

I relent, and give her a little personal intel. "No, but I work in theatre."

"Oh! What do you do?"

"Publications," I tell her, before remembering that no-one knows what publications is. "I make programmes."

"We do all that ourselves here."

As it should be. I always prefer programmes that are made in house. That's why I work in house, and not for an agency. Although I won't deny the privilege of a venue having a person dedicated to making them. There aren't many in house publications people in this city of ours. Not theatre ones anyway. You could probably count us all without having to resort to using your toes. I am a fucking luxury in theatre-land. The Birkin bag of theatre employees.

She turns the open ledger towards me. "Now, you write your name and email. I've put you here," she says, indicating a hand-drawn box half-way down the page.

Well, that's a first. I've never been asked to put my details into a ledger before. I write my name, only slightly worried that I might be signing my soul over to some theatre god or other. Now the email. I pause. Shall I ask her what it's for? She hasn't mentioned being added to a newsletter or anything like that, and I certainly haven't given permission to be added to a mailing list. I'm a little bit concerned that the great ghoul of GDPR hasn't quite made its way to the Pentameters yet. You can't just go around collecting people's email addresses. Not anymore. Not without their explicit consent. Those days are over. The Wild West of the internet has been tamed. There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is General Data Protection Regulation.

"Programmes are by donation," she tells me, checking her watch. "It's twenty to. I'd go in now and grab a seat, as it's first come first served. Then you can get a drink if you like." She hands me the ticket. It's a long strip of card, with illustrated title treatment and hand-lettering. Very nice.

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"You head in through here," she says, standing aside to let me through. It's very narrow back here. I feel I'm being whisked away into a secret backroom where shady men do even shadier dealings.

Except, I can't imagine any mob boss being content with the line up of cuddly bears and rabbits looking over their shoulders as they send someone off to sleep with the fishes.

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Every corner of the Pentameters is stuffed with... stuff. Dolls houses and books and crockery and toy trains. Framed pictures crowd the walls: photos and paintings and old posters. Nowhere is safe. Even the seating. A suitcase takes up a chair at the end of my row. There's a speaker tucked underneath the seat in front of me. There are laundry bags and cardboard boxes. I spot a ceramic bowl underneath a chair in the front row which I'm really hoping didn't start life as a chamber pot.

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The front row itself is a mismatch of armchairs and assorted seating options.

Everyone else gets a quilt of cushion options.

It's like the entire space was sourced from an upmarket car boot sale.

A man with long hair wanders around chatting to people as they come in. He seems to know everyone. And they all know him.

He's carrying a bowler hat around with him, and inside: programmes.

"Can I get a programme," I ask him?

"Yup, they're a pound."

I peer into my purse, angling it towards the light to try and make out the contents. "I think I gave all my pound coins away," I say. All those lovely pounds from the National. Gone and spent.

"Or whatever you've got," he says with a verbal shrug.

But then I spot one, lurking in the side pocket, placed there for emergencies such as these. "We're in luck!" I say, picking it out.

"In the hat," he says, holding out the bowler, and I drop it in.

The programme isn't really a programme. It's a freesheet. Or would have been a freesheet, apart from the small matter of costing a pound.

Two pieces of A4, folded into a booklet. Poster artwork on the front. Marketing copy on the inside. Credits, biographies, and a rundown of future events.

It's not worth a pound.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get why they are charging a pound. Every penny counts and all that. But if we're talking strict financial value: it's not worth a pound. You pay a pound to support the theatre. You don't pay a pound to get a souvenir worth keeping.

But you know, got to check my privilege here. It's easy enough to drive down prices of a glossy multi-page programme to a pound when you're printing five hundred of the damn things. Not so much for a three night run in a 60-seat space.

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The bloke sitting behind me is giving his companion a potted history of the theatre. "Been here fifty years," he tells her. She cooes appreciatively. "French and Saunders started here." That gets an even more appreciative coo.

The lady from the box office comes out. I can see her red t-shirt properly now. It has the poster artwork printed on the front. Now that's dedication to marketing right there.

"We have a few regulars here!" she says, pointing to a few people around the audience. A group in the back say hello.

"If it's your first time, wave your hand," she orders. I raise my hand and wave it, along with a few others, scattered about the theatre. Usually sitting next to someone who's been here before. "There's too many of you to welcome, so there's a double welcome to all of you!" she says before giving a little intro into the play and its writer. "I asked her to focus on the boys," she tells us. "And she did. She got it down to sixty minutes, and a few weeks later, it's being performed." That, is one hell of an accomplishment. Getting a playwright to condense their work to a single hour. This woman is a fucking hero. "If you're wondering where we are," she says, waving her hands to take in the dark cloud-like miasma of the painted set as she steps off stage. "It's a coal mine."

And with that, she's gone. House lights down. Actors out. We begin.

Two young men, so fresh-faced I just want to pinch their cheeks, are working down the mines as part of the war effort. English young men. In Welsh mines. The Welsh aren't happy about it, and nor are the English lads. A few bloody noses, callused hands, and panic attacks in the dark later, and we're clapping. That went quickly. Tight writing. You can't beat it.

The two actors, David Angland and Tom Taplin, disappear backstage, the applause chasing after them, but our t-shirted lady opens the door and calls them back out for another set of bows.

She stays behind on the stage. "How about some applause for Viv the playwright!"

We all give it. Enthusiastically.

"And Robyn!" she says, pointing up at the young woman at the tech desk, hanging precariously over one side of the stage.

I don't think I've ever been given the opportunity to applause the light engineer, but I like it.

The lady in the red t-shirt waits for us to finish our appreciAtive applause before giving her speech. Turns out, she's not just a lady in a red t-shirt. She's Léonie Scott-Matthews. The founder. The producer. The everythinger. She is Pentameters. She tells us tales of wiring and funding and the sheer effort of keeping the lights on and then takes up position at the door to see us all off.

"Night," I say on my way out.

"Come again!" she says. "You know where we are now!"

I have to admit, six months ago, I would have hated this place. The clutter. The friendliness. The entrance down a side-road. My anxiety klaxons would have been ringing loudly all over the place. My perfect theatre was one where I could slip in, a person in the crowd, utterly unnoticed. And now? Well, I still enjoy the odd delve into anonymity, but after I've seen so many theatres, and so many fringe venues in particular - which so often feel closed off to anyone who isn't part of the group, with the side-eyed looks at the stranger in their midst and the Mwah-mwah darrrlinnngggs of the audience - well, let's just say I might well be taking Scott-Matthews up on that offer. I may even let them put me on the mailing list.

Wyrd Smells

This seems to be the week of controversial theatres. It was only last month that the Courtyard Theatre was getting dragged across The Stage for late payment of artists and “unclean working conditions.” There was mention of mice, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a theatre in London without them. At one of the theatres I worked at, we could feel the mice running across our feet all day while sitting at our desks. And that wasn’t some crummy arts centre or dodgy fringe venue. Quite the opposite. It was a rather fancy producing house. The type that has West End transfers on the reg. So, you know, not sure complaining about mice should really be a thing. Late payment though… yeah, that sucks.

Anyway, it’s a return visit for me. Done the Main House already, and now it’s time to tackle the Studio. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been checking the website every week since January, looking for a show in this space. For months, there was nothing. Just the odd music gig, which doesn’t count. But finally, finally, I got one. A play. In the studio. On for one night only, but no matter. I switched my plans around and got myself booked in.

The fact that it’s Shakespeare. And even worse, Macbeth, hardly seemed worth worrying about.

Inside, down the green stairwell, and I'm thinking that not much has changed since my last visit other than a switch up in the posters stuck to the wall, but no... I was wrong. I turn the corner and stop. I can't go any further because there's a queue taking up the last few steps. A queue leading to the box office. The proper hole in the wall one. Not just some front of houser with a clipboard.

We shuffle our way down the steps as we get checked in.

"It's a company ticket?" says the girl in front of me as the box officer tries to find her name. "My friend organised it."

"Ah!" He switches to a different list. Nods as he finds her, and hands her a freesheet.

She immediately opens it and turns it upside down. "Oh wow! He's actually in it!" she exclaims, before heading off to the bar with a big grin on her face.

They're clearly very close.

My turn.

"Is it company tickets or did you buy them online?" asks the box officer when I give me name.

"I actually bought a ticket," I say, with the same tone you'd use when admitting the designer gear you're sporting is fake. "With money," I add, just for added clarification, that yes, it's from a dodgy market stall and definetly made by child labour.

"You bought a ticket?" he says surprised, switching from the handwritten list to the printed one. "Great! Can you remind me of the name."

I spell it out for him again. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

"Smiles," he says, finding it on the list and drawing a line through it. "There you go." He hands me a freesheet.

It's rather handsome. Black cover. A red sword-tree hybrid thing going on. And the title, in a pseudo-Mackintosh font (Charles Rennie rather than Cameron) that shouldn't work, but kinda does. Must be some deep underlying Scottish aesthetic connection.

I don't actually know where the studio theatre is in this place, but I do know where the bar is, so I go there. This place is a warren of corridors and stairwells. The type of place where you have to be lead about by a front of houser, who have all presumably spent decades training so that they know the different routes. Ushers at the Courtyard are the sherpas of the theatre world.

It's pretty busy in here. This surprises me. Somehow I didn't have a fringe Macbeth performed in a studio space for one night only being much of a hot ticket, but look at all these people, drinking and laughing and... reading their freesheets upside down.

Hang on. That's weird. Even for Shakespeare audiences.

I get out my own freesheet.

And immediately turn it around the other way.

Ah, I see the problem. They forgot to switch the printer options to flip on the short edge rather than the default long edge. An easy to make mistake. Which is why you must always do a test print when making folded freesheets.

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But, you know, apart from the printing snafu, they're alright. They even have a spoiler section in the synopsis, which is frickin' adorable on a four hundred year old play if you ask me.

Plus, a two hour run time. Which suits me just fine because I am so tired everything is starting to look a bit fuzzy around the edges.

More people are coming in and there's lots of kissing and hugging as they all recognise one another. I try to get a photo of the bookshelf wallpaper that covers one side of the bar, but there are too many people in the way.

"Do you know someone in the show?" a woman asks a guy she just got talking to.

"No, we just thought we'd check it out," comes the reply.

She nods slowly and stares into her drink. "Niceee," she says before quickly walking away.

"Ladies and gentleman," calls a voice from the doorway. "The house for Macbeth is now open. If you'd like to make your way through the door here."

I sling my bag up over my shoulder, ready for the long trek through the building, but the front of houser has only taken a few steps into the corridor and is now holding a door open that leads to the room right behind the bookshelf wall.

It's dark in here. Really dark. And filled with haze.

I'm vaguely away of a railing on one side of my, leading me around the back of the room and down a ramp.

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At the bottom of the ramp I blink into the glare of a spotlight and try to make sense of the space. There's a wooden floor. A low ceiling. The walls are black. A single rows of chairs on each side, and multiple rows at each end.

I'm not sitting on the sides. That's all front row, and while Macbeth isn't usually interactive, you can never trust studio-based Shakespeares to stick to the script.

I'm going to the far end. Second row. The third row is up on a platform. A really high platform. I think it might actually be the stage. Which is taking the rake a bit too far if you ask me.

Anyway, from my second-row seat, I can see straight through the door that leads backstage, and I keep on getting glimpses of tartan, which is rather pleasing. And what looks like a tin bath full of bricks.

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It is warm though. Very warm. We are basically in an underground heat trap. The low ceiling and intense spotlight aren't helping.

Everyone starts wafting themselves with their freesheets.

I dig around in my bag and pull out my fan. Two hours down here is going to be a bit of a challenge.

More people come in, shading their eyes against that intense light.

The seats are filling up.

A group of women walk down towards my end of the room and examine the stage situation. They can't work out how to get up there. One brave soul slings her bag onto the stage, and then using her knee to heave herself after it, crawls her way up with a grunt.

The things we do for theatre.

The seats are all full now. Well, not quite. There's a few strategically placed reserved signs dotted around. A girl comes over and looks at the one in the row in front of me. And then looks around elsewhere. There's nowhere left for her to go.

Using a well of logic that I've never had access to, she slips behind me and sits herself down on the edge of the stage.

Right then. We're ready to begin.

Macbeth. Act one.

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You'd think this would be the perfect Shakespeare for me. What with the dark themes and murder and intrigue and strong women and daggers and tartan and misty backdrop. But no, I think it's super dull. And while I'm not hating this production, the source material ain't doing anything for me.

Also, I'm noticing a strange smell. Musty. And damp. Like a swimsuit that's been shoved inside a suitcase at the end of the holiday and never unpacked.

Is this part of the design? An olfactory layer to the play? I have another sniff. It's not there all the time, but it comes in strong waves whenever one of the actors wearing tartan appears. Oof. Poor them. That must be really unpleasant to be wearing. Like having a wet dog deciding they want to sleep on your lap all evening. Petrichor, but like... gross.

As the story moves to the feast, actors filled the reserved seats so that we are all sitting around the table, staring Macbeth freaks out at the sight of Banquo and his gory locks.

As soon as the actors clear the stage for the interval, I bolt back up the ramp, through the bar, up the green staircase and outside.

It's still really warm out here, but I lean against the outside wall in bliss, enjoying what little breeze there is.

Soon I'm joined by all the smokers in the audience and from their chatter it becomes very clear what type of people I'm spending the evening with.

"My mum directed him in a play."

"Yeah, so I got accepted into that playwrighting scheme."

"Are you taking it to Edinburgh this year?"

"We did a show together at university."

One of the front of housers comes around the corner holding a carrier bag, looking for all the world like he just popped into the corner shop during the interval. "Anyone for Macbeth, the show will be starting again in a few minutes," he says as he wanders back through the doors.

We all follow him.

The theatre is almost empty. Everyone is still up in the bar.

There's some stormy, drumming, atmospheric song filling the space, which my phone assures me is Helvegen by Wardruna.

One of the actors appears and starts removing the reserved signs from the seats. We're done with that part of theatricality.

A bell rings. A proper theatre bell. And soon the audience begins to make it's way back down from the bar.

And we're back. This time with swords. And I'm betting they came from the same place they got the tartan because those fuckers look heavy.

As the blades clash, a woman in my row jumps, her feet creeping up onto her seat as she hugs her knees and leans back as far the fuck away from the stage as she can least she get stuck by a flying weapon.

The three witches take up spots in the corner of the room, breathing through open mouths, almost growling like dogs as they weave their spell around the characters, leading off the dead to have their wicked ways with the entrails offstage.

And then it's over. And I can go the fuck home.

I hurry out, aiming for Old Street station. Straight up the Northern Line and home by 10, that's the plan.

I get out my phone to check the time. 10.15pm. Ten-fucking-fifteen.

Dammit.

But to be fair, it's my fault.

You should never trust a Shakespeare play that claims to be only two hours.

Who let the dogs out?

I’m back at the Young Vic tonight.

And no, we’re not talking about all that stuff going on. I’m not getting involved. I don’t know what’s going on and I refuse to have an opinion on the matter.

Not that I haven’t been thinking about it. A lot. And talking about it. A lot. It doesn’t help that one of the upcoming shows at my work features a dancer in… that show. I mean, how do you credit that in a biography without sounding like you are taking sides?

No. We’re not talking about it. Not here.

The controversy doesn’t seem to have damaged attendance figures though. The Cut is absolutely thronging with people having a last drink and a cigarette before going in. That Death of a Salesman is a juggernaut, and nothing can get in its way.

I’m not here to see that though.

“The surname’s Smiles,” I say to the lady behind the box office. “It’s for Ivan and the Dogs,” I add hurriedly as her hands reach for the larger of the two ticket boxes on the counter. I allow myself a smug smile. It isn’t often I manage to remember the name of a play in these situations.

She nods and digs out my ticket. “Maxine? You’re in the far corner,” she says, pointing off to the other side of the bar.

Ticket in hand, I launch myself into the crowded bar and head in the direction she was pointing. And find myself back in the exact same place I queued for Bronx Gothic on my last visit. The signage, stencilled onto the brickwork, is on the same patch of wall. And the arrow is pointing towards the same door.

I begin to panic.

Don’t tell me that I booked into the same venue twice. Please don’t tell me that.

I check my ticket.

Nope. It’s the Clare. Not the Maria.

Okay then. We’re alright.

There’s an usher on the door. Sorry, scrap that. There’s a member of the Welcome Team on the door. But no one else. It’s too early for the queue to start forming. And I’m not about to start it.

I turn around and go outside, finding a spare patch of wall to prop myself against and check my emails.

I seem to be leaning against some posters. I look over my shoulder to see what they are advertising.

Oh.

It’s Tree.

Because of course it is.

“Are you watching the show tonight?”

I look up. It’s a Welcome Teamer.

“Yes?”

“Death of a Salesman?”

Ah. I see. “No. No. No,” I assure here. “I’m here for the other one.” Which I’ve already forgotten the name of.

“That’s alright then,” says the Welcome Teamer, and she’s soon off rounding up any other wall-hangers.  “Are you watching Death of a Salesman? Are you watching Death of a Salesman?”

I wait a few more minutes, until the start time of the main house show has safely passed, then I go back in.

The bar is empty.

Well, relatively. Can the bar at the Young Vic ever be said to be truly empty?

At the far end, there’s a queue under the Ivan and the Dogs sign.

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Not a big one. But then, it’s not a big venue. I hurry over and join the end of it.

A Welcome Teamer makes his way down the line. “I’m going to tear the tickets now,” he explains. “Make it nice and easy when you go in. The show is an hour and five minutes, and no interval.”

I give him my ticket, and he rips off the stub. And a large chunk of the actual ticket. But no matter. I may be precious about getting paper tickets, but what happens to them afterwards doesn’t bother me. I probably don’t need to tell you that I am the sort of person who cracks the spines of her paperbacks and folds down pages to mark my space. Adds character, you know.

The line is growing, almost reaching the box office now.

We wriggle and flow, breaking apart and shivering back into place, as people squeeze past us.

“Beep, beep!” says a staff members pushing a flat trolley. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The queue goes into Red Sea mode, parting for him and then splashing back into place as soon as the Deliverer of Trollies has passed through.

I jump aside for people going to the loo. For a waitress returning plates to the kitchen. For Welcome Teamers. More piss-takers. And more bar staff.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” says a waitress as she moves nimbly through the queue up towards the bar.

Honestly, the Young Vic really need to get this queue situation sorted. It’s impossible. I hope it’s next on the list after… well… you know.

I use the time to massage my hands. Work is really doing a number on me at the moment. I thought it would be the marathon that would kill me, but now I think my job might get in there first. Eleven pages of programme amends typed up before 10am this morning, and my hands are cramped the fuck up.

“Hi guys!” says the Welcome Teamer on ticket duty. “If we could make a little room for my colleague here,” he says, leading the way for the trolley pusher, now with his vehicle laden with two huge bins full to the brim with empty wine bottles.

We all shuffle out of their way, reforming the queue in their wake.

“Have I ripped you?” asks the Welcome Teamer as the trolley pusher disappears through the doors. We all nod. All ripped round here.

As one, the two Welcome Teamers open up the double doors with such ceremony I almost expect there to be a trumpet player on the other side ready to launch into a fanfare.

Instead the cry of “Has everyone been ripped?” reigns out as we walk through.

“Just remember to turn off your phone,” comes the voice of a Welcome Teamer as we make our way down the hall. “Straight down and to the right.”

I try to work out were we are in relation to the Maria, but it’s dark and this place is a labyrinth. I just focus on following everyone else and not getting lost.

Straight down. Turn right.

And there we are. The Clare. Bright and shining after so long in the dark.

A Welcome Teamer in a red polo shirt is handing out freesheets. “Wherever you like,” he says, indicating the multitude of options there are with seating.

The stage is a small square, set in the middle of the room at an angle. Around in, on four sides, are four matching banks of seats. Two rows. Seats set into wooden fortresses. The same colour as the walls, which look like someone has been having a lot of fun with panels of plywood and a nail gun.

I pick a seat in the second row, on the end, so that I’m forming a point of the diamond.

The seats begin to fill up.

“If you’re holding drinks,” announces the Welcome Teamer, “keep hold of them and don’t put them on the floor.”

“What did he say?” asks my neighbour.

“Don’t put your drinks on the floor,” her friend replies, with an audible roll of the eyes.

I say fair enough though. There isn’t much legroom and cups are liable to get kicked down there. And with all this pale wood… well, I wouldn’t envy the poor sod attempting to scrub red wine out of it.

My neighbour gets out her freesheet and starts inspecting it. “This doesn’t tell you what it’s about,” she says. “It’s just who’s in it.”

I open up my own to have a look for myself. She’s not wrong. There’s a cast list. And two biogs. One for the writer. One for the director. Nothing about the actor… which seems like a strange decision to make when there’s only one of them.

No dogs I notice. I do enjoy a dog on stage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the top things I enjoy seeing. I’ve even been known to book a show on the strength of its canine casting. I would say the same about cats, but I think I’ve only seen a cat once on stage. In an opera. She was called Girlie and she was very talented. Really captured the essence of ‘cat’ by sleeping and then running off stage.

“They’ve added in these seats,” my neighbour continues. “I wonder if they had complaints.”

Yes, I was wondering about that. Not the late addition of them, I’ve never been in this space before. But their arrangement. Actual chairs, sunk into wooden structures. Their legs hidden in the box below. “Before you just sat on it,” she explains.

That doesn’t sound all that comfy. This arrangement is much better. Even if it is a little bit odd-looking.

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The actor, Alex Austin comes out and perches on the edge of the stage. He looks sad. I’m not surprised. Probably got a look at those freesheets.

The Welcome Teamer is hanging out the door, peering down the dark corridor, on the lookout for latecomers.

Someone does come in.

She takes one of the reserved seats, just across from me. She gets out a notebook and positions it on her lap.

Time for another round of Blogger or Director? Nah. I recognise her. No missing that fabulous hair. So shiny. Straight out of a Pantene ad. She used to work at my work. And now look at her! A fancy director.

The lights dim.

Austin gets up. He’s ready to tell us a story. A story of fists and fear and running away. A story of hunger and hiding. A story of dogs.

He pauses, grinning as he looks around the audience, after telling us about how the white dog ate his potato.

We all aww in response. A couple sitting across from me look at each other and smile.

We are all utterly charmed.

The lights flash back on. I’m left squinting against the brightness. Austin turns around, holding our stares, not allowing us to blink.

I curl round my shoulders and try to hold his gaze against the onslaught of the light, suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

Just as my poor eyes grow used to this blazing light, the theatre dims once more.

Austin finishes his story. A few snuffles make their way around the audience.

He’s moved on. Started a new life.

And at the end, it is the empty stage that gets the spotlight.

Our applause brings him back though. He bows in one direction, and then the other, before bouncing off the stage and out the door in a gigantic leap that he must have learnt from the dogs.

Pas de Door

Honestly, for someone who actually went and sat through the whole grinding ninety minutes of Magic Mike Live, I’m feeling more than a little awkward walking into the Above the Stag to see Boy Toy. The artwork doesn’t help. With the half-nakedness and very shiny pants. But that’s the Above the Stag for you. Shiny pants seem to be the default setting for their marketing.

In my defence, if a defence is required, I picked this show because it’s based on the ballet Coppélia, and I love Coppélia. Okay, I don’t love Coppélia. It’s a bit silly, even by ballet standards, and doesn’t have the genius of a choreographer like Ashton to elevate the silly story into silly art. But you know, it’s alright. I enjoy Coppélia, and watch it quite happily whenever it’s revived.

If you don’t know the story, and frankly, I can’t imagine you would, think Pygmalion. But the original one. As in, the Greek myth where a sculptor falls in love with a statue. But in Coppélia’s case, the statue is a mechanical doll, and it’s not the maker who goes falling in love, but a passing young man, who sees the doll in the window and decides that the porcelain princess is way hotter than the girl he has waiting for him at home. As you can imagine, the girl isn’t all that impressed by her boyfriend trying to get with a wind-up doll, and decides to get her own back on him. Chaos ensues but true love prevails. Eventually.

So, here I am to see William Spencer’s take on this ridiculous tale.

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It’s pretty quiet. No nearly as busy as the last time I was here. There’s no one at the bar and most of the tables are empty. That’s what happens with a 7pm start in a studio space, I suppose. No one wants to be drinking that early on a Tuesday. Or perhaps everyone is still getting over Pride weekend. The Pride flags are still out in force outside the theatre, in a rainbow coloured bunting running out to the nearest tree.

I take up position on the end of the bar, the end with the huge TICKETS sign glowing above, and wait. Someone joins me and soon we are a nice little queue waiting for service.

It looks like the bar staff are having a meeting down the other end, but they spot us soon enough and one of them comes over.

I give my surname and he scrolls around on the touch screen in search of my booking. “Maxine?” he asks.

I confirm that I am indeed Maxine and soon my ticket is chugging on the little printer they have behind the bar. The one that spurts out soft paper, like a receipt. I rather like them.

“Oh, um,” I say, suddenly remembering something. “I think I ordered a-“

“Programme?” he says, completing the sentence for me. He grabs one from the display on the counter and hands it over.

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That’s the kind of service I like. Providing the words that my brain can’t form in the moment.

With my programme and ticket, I set up shop at one of the posing tables and look around, taking in the theatre goers. And for once, the other theatre goers are also looking at me. I can’t blame them. It’s becoming increasing obvious that I am not the target audience for this show, being as I am, how shall I say this… a woman. Now, I don’t want to make any presumptions here, but I think I can safely say I have the only female presenting person in this bar right now.

I don’t think this has happened yet. I mean, yes - audiences have been heavily male at some shows. Not many. But some. There was that chemsex play at the Courtyard and ummm… no, I think that was it.

Outside, there’s a small group of people drinking beside the tree. And look - there’s a woman! But when the doors open and we start going through, the group stays outside. Whatever brought them to the Above the Stag tonight, it wasn’t a Coppélia retrelling.

I show my receipt paper to the ticket checker and he nods me through the door. Here, instead of turning right into the main space, we go left, into the studio.

As studios go, it’s not a bad stage. Long and thin, taking up almost the entire length of the space. If you’re going to put dance in a studio, this is the kind of space you want. Give the dancers a bit of room to leap around.

There’s only three rows of chairs, set up against the long wall.

I go for the back row.

I don’t want to be taking away any good seats from the core audience here. But as it turns out, the third row is pretty popular. It’s the second row that people are avoiding. No one likes being trapped in the middle.

A young man comes in and after testing out a few places in the bank of seats right on the end, comes over to me.

“Is any one…?” he asks, with a hand gesture that encapsulates the rest of the question.

“Oh, go for it,” I say, with a matching hand gesture.

The two of us, this young man and me, have to be the only people in the audience below the audience below the age of fifty. We are in serious middle aged white male territory here. It’s almost like being at the Royal Opera House.

The music that’s been filling the room comes to a sudden halt, and a man runs in from the foyer to manually set it up again before rushing back out into the foyer. Looks like the tech team are also on front of house duty tonight.

It’s past seven now. We should have already started. They must be holding the start for some latecomers.

I have a look at the programme. At only £2.50 it is quite the bargain. I mean, it’s not stuffed full of interesting articles or glossy photos, but it does the business, and is a nice enough souvenir. Even if it does have a typo on the first page. Seriously though, no judgement. I’ve done plenty worse in my programmes. And anyway, what do you want for £2.50? Especially for a studio theatre work. I sure as hell don’t make proper programmes for the stuff in the studio where I work. Audiences get freesheets and they’re grateful for it.

Surely we must be starting soon?

I put the programme away in readiness.

The tech person is still out in the hall.

Probably on the lookout for those latecomers. Bet they’re stuck on the Northern Line somewhere. What a fucking kerfuffle that was this morning. Our driver kept on telling us to get off, that despite all the announcements to the contrary, the train was going to be diverted to Charing Cross any moment, and then, as soon as we get to Camden, he blazes right through the Bank branch and I end up exactly where I want to be. Honestly, is it any wonder that Londoners cannot follow signage. We’re taught from our first day in this city that it’s all nonsense. It doesn’t take more than a month to find out that No Entry signs on the underground are nothing more than an indication that there’s a short cut happening nearby.

While we wait, I sit back and take in the set. It’s very simple. Three doorways, all lit up in neon. Rather effective in real life, but an absolute arse to capture effectively in a photo.

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Finally, the tech person comes in and takes up his spot behind the desk in the corner.

Looks like we’re ready to begin.

Music starts.

The doorways flash in time with the beat.

Someone near me gives an appreciative snort.

Looks like we’re getting a dance of the flashing doorways. One could say it’s a… Pas de Door.

Oh, come on! That was a fucking fantastic pun and you know it. So, don’t you dare pull that face.

Well, funny or no, those doors are still dancing. Looks like we’re getting the full on overture. Seems a bit much considering the entire show is only an hour. You’d think the choreographer would want to use every second, but hey - I’m not a dance-maker. I’m sure there is some artistic reason for this very long intro.

Eventually, we get some dancers. And some rather fab punnage. I mean, not as good as mine. But nothing in the world is going to top Pas de Door this century. But we get our cast partying at the Gay Barre, before popping into Cocksta for their morning coffee, and then escaping Homo Sweet Homo for a rather balletic sex scene.

As for the doll… well, he’s a mannequin in a sex shop window, because of course he is.

But doesn't Saul Kilcullen-Jarvis look an absolute darling dressed up as the doll? With his little t-shirt and shiny shorts. Good on Andrew Beckett for making those designs happen. And, I mean... that is some great casting right there. I don't think I've ever seen someone how looks so like a Ken doll brought to life than this handsome fellow.

In fact, they are all darlings. I just want to pinch their collective cheeks.

Although perhaps not while they are in the midst of a dildo fight. That looks dangerous.

It is a shame that they're using the Delibes music though. Or at least, music based on the Delibes. I just can't imagine those jaunty tunes being played within the back room of a sex shop somehow. Not very sleazy Soho. Feels like a wasted opportunity when they could have had some proper club bangers for them to pirouette too. William Forsythe managed it in Playlist. Okay, he's Forsythe. Literally the greatest living choreographer. And the all-male cast of English National Ballet dancers was pretty spectacular. And they too looked darn cute in their costumes, matching red American football jerseys, with their surnames printed across the back. And yeah, it's true, Playlist 1, 2 ranks as perhaps the greatest piece of dance I've ever seen. So great I almost went to Paris to watch the follow-up works of Playlist 3, 4. But like, if I wanted to watch boys dancing around to a nineteenth-century ballet score, I'd book tickets to see the Trocks.

Oh well. Can't have everything, I suppose.

I got my puns. I should be content with that.

As the dancers give their final bows, someone sitting near me leans over to the person he's with. "Now, where else could we find high art like this?"

Where indeed.

Still, we're just a short walk to Vauxhall station. Up over the bridge and there we are.

Not even that much past eight right now. I can pop into Tesco on my way home. Perhaps even shove some laundry in the machine, Need to finish that blog post on the Gielgud too... Oh god. So much for an early night.

As I stand on the platform, an announcement pumps through the speakers. "The Northern Line will close at 21.30 to allow our engineers to repair a fault. This means you should complete your journey before 21.30."

Fucking hell... Closing the Northern Line... as someone who both lives and works on the Northern Line, this week has been fucking brutal.

Thank the theatre gods for short plays and early starts. I may have had to sit through unnecessary Delibes, but at least I don't have to get the bus home afterwards.

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Doughnut Do That!

Back on the Southbank again tonight. I’m going to have to move. Get a second home. Or at least find a sofa to crash on. This is getting ridiculous.

It’s the turn of the Underbelly tonight. The Belly specifically. Neither of which I have ever done before. All that cabaret and comedy ain’t my thing. But there’s a circus show on at the moment that looks interesting, so here I go. Under Hungerford Bridge and off to the world of faerie lights and fake grass.

But first, the box office.

Things are off to a good start. There are purple signs pointing to the place, and the building itself, a wooden structure that looks like it spends its winters fulfilling the wrong of writer’s shed for some big time fantasy author, is right on the Southbank. There’s no missing it. It has BOX OFFICE posted outside in massive foot tall lettering. And an even larger sign next to the service windows, listing all the shows.

I’ll give Underbelly one thing. They know how to make a statement.

There’s only a couple of people at the window. This might be because I’m a little early, but far more likely is the fact that they push e-tickets hard here. Even on the email confirming my order (where I selected the option to pick up my tickets, natch) they take time to tell you how glorious e-ticketage is (“If this email has a barcode at the top, there's no need to queue at the box office!”) and let you know that changing your mind about the whole printed ticket business is only a matter of replying to the confirmation and everything e-tickety will be sorted out for you. No fuss.

This, I like.

I know that e-tickets are the future. I see it. I’m not stupid.

But Underbelly are still finding a way to serve old foggies like me, while also gently nudging in the direction of progress.

They haven’t got me this time. But, who knows… maybe next year.

For now, I’m waiting in the queue to get the real deal.

“Do you want to see my confirmation email or is just my surname okay?” I ask once it’s my turn. I don’t know why I ask this. Perhaps all that talk of barcodes threw me off.

“Err,” says the box officer, who is clearly also not sure why I felt the need to ask this. “Let’s go with surname first, shall we?”

I give it. And a second later a neat paper ticket is puttering out of the machine.

“What’s your first name?” he asks, double checking the ticket.

I give it, and with a nod, I’m handed my ticket.

Hurrah. What now?

I wander back the way I had come.

There’s a entrance here which looks fairly magical. All wooden decking and overhanding plants. But there are two bag checkers on duty and they look ready to check the fuck out of my bag. I keep on going. I’m sure there was another way in slightly further down.

There is. This one is slightly less magical. More of the astroturf and sunshine, and less of the faerie-glad. But the bag checker here doesn’t look nearly as intense, and I walk in without hindrance.

People are sitting around on the fuzzy green floor. That doesn’t look comfy. Apart from the likely wet bottom scenario going on there, I can well remember sitting on the all-weather hockey pitch back at school, and ending up with legs pox-marked with indentations from the end of my culottes to the start of my socks. I mean, that was a long time ago. So perhaps the fake grass industry has improved matters, but that’s not something I really want to explore right now.

I carry on.

The space widens out into something an area that makes me think I might have stumbled into a summer wedding.

Picnic tables huddle under bowers of flowers. Young women waft around in long skirts. And everyone has a glass of something bubbly clutched in their hands.

There are stalls everywhere. If you want crepes, there’s a stall for that. Burgers? Yup. Wraps? Yup. Prosecco? Double yup. That’s gone a whole area set off to one side.

All in the shadow of the massive curved tent that is The Belly.

I take a circle of the square. There’s a lot of people here. They can’t all be seeing the show.

A huge chunk must be here just to… hang out? Eat? Drink? Be merry?

They all seem very happy, laughing away in their groups.

I begin to feel a little awkward handing around by myself.

This place doesn’t really seem built with the lone theatre goer in mind. There’s nowhere to start that isn’t utterly in the way. And nowhere to sit that wouldn’t mean requisitioning a chair from people who actually have friends.

There’s some young women hanging out near the entrance to the theatre space. So I go over there too, tucking myself in against a blue shed which claims to be selling tickets and merchandise, but isn’t open for business.

A queue forms.

Someone comes out of the door, and squeezes himself around the rope bollard.

“Can I see your ticket?” he asks the young women.

They start flustering around, trying to dig out their e-tickets.

I pull my printed ticket from my pocket, and feel very smug about the whole thing.

But the ticket checker doesn’t want to check my ticket. He bypasses me and heads straight to the queue.

I get it. He probably thinks I pushed my way in front. So I stand around, waiting for him to double back to me.

The next lot are also fussing about with their phones.

With an internal sigh so great I can almost see it, he turns to me.

“Can I see your ticket?”

I show it to him.

“This is for our Sirloin Seats,” he says, taking it from me. “They have priority?”

“Oh?” I say, not knowing what to make of that.

“The queue for standard seats is over there,” he says, pointing to the door on the other side. “Enjoy the show!” He rips the ticket and hands it back to me, before moving onto the next person. Who still hasn’t found their e-ticket.

Well. Okay then.

I go over to the other door. But not before looking before me to check the signage. There are signs. Next to both entrances. Both advising on queuing. And in fact, both saying the exact same thing. “QUEUE HERE FOR SHOWS IN THE BELLY THEATRE.” I mean, I don’t know about you. But on reading that, I would queue there for shows in The Belly Theatre.

Oh well. I join the second, standard seat, queue.

“It’s already been ripped,” I tell the Standard ticket checker.

“That’s fine,” she says, and waves me through.

And in I go.

Up some metal steps and into the dark cavern of the tent.

It’s like walking into a cave. Cramped, with only a glimmer of light coming from the stage.

Seats are unallocated, so I edged myself between the rows until I get to the central block, about half way back. Yeah, that looks good.

I sit down.

Oh. Shit. Um.

Leg room. There’s a leg room issue. Or rather, there’s a lack of leg room issue.

Tell me, do you have these problems? It surely can’t just be me. I mean, I’m a little. Not in the kink way. In the literal way. I’m short. And I’m still struggling here. Is this normal? Do other people’s knees hit the seats in front when they go to these squishy theatres? If yes, then theatres really need to sort their shit out. And if no, and it really is just me, then can I get this fixed? Is there a cure? Because I bruise easily, and purple knees aren’t fun.

More people are coming in through the Fillet Steak entrance. I’m not sure why they need priority access. They have seats reserved for them right there, in the front few rows. Surely the real benefit would be swanning in at the last moment, when everyone else has been queueing and waiting and getting their knees bruised in these cramped conditions.

There’s a tannoy announcement. Sounds like we’re all about to take a flight.

“Please switch off personal devices that might distract you,” says the disembodied voice amongst pieces of advice about forming human pyramids on the plane.

The performers come out. I don’t know who any of them are (no freesheet), but they are all very bouncy.

It’s hard to feel sorry for my knees when this lot are literally throwing leaping off up massive trunks mere feet away from my tortured legs.

Now, I’ll admit. I’m not big on circus. I find it hard to get worked up about tricks. I wish there was a circus show out there with a proper narrative, rather than just the barest excuse for a story for the performers to hang their diablos off. But it is all very impressive. Even if they are just killing time while waiting for a delayed flight.

But the performers aren’t the only things flying around.

The audience flinches and cries of “ewww,” whip around as a freshly chewed piece of banana is spat into our midst.

I shudder. Then remember my poor knees. There’s no room for that sort of movement here.

But proving they can take it as well as dish it out, our waylaid travellers start spitting sweets up, into the air, where they drop neatly into their fellows’ mouths. Or on the floor. To be picked up. Reinserted. And sent on its travellers once more.

With one sweet remaining in play, the inevitable happens, and it is spat into our midst.

“What would you do, if this was our last show together?” they ask each other.

The answers differ. One wants to beat a world record. Another fancies having a go at lifting the entire troupe on his broad shoulders. Yet another voices a wish to perform at twice his body weight.

I should have seen it coming.

The inevitable happens.

It’s their last show. They are to disband.

“They gave me these back stage,” says the performer who wanted to double his weight. He holds out a plastic tray of doughnuts. He’s changed. He’s wearing a suit. A proper suit. With a shirt and whatnot. And under that, a fat suit.

He shoves a doughnut into his mouth, and offers out the tray to the audience.

Someone takes him up on his offer, and the doughnut is duly thrown in their direction.

I don’t think a smile has ever left my lips so fast.

He makes his way onto the stage and straps himself into the aerial straps, a doughnut still stuffed into his mouth. And up he goes, crashing into the set, twisting himself into knots, and chasing after his new found sugar addiction.

I have absolutely zero patience for fat suits. And even less for fat jokes.

Fuck. That. Shit.

I am in no mood to play along when we are called upon to grant our next performers final performance wish: to be treated like a rock star.

Underwear is thrown into the audience. Boxes of it. Bras and pants of every colour.

“Here, anyone not got one?”

More is brought out and lobbed around until we are all knickered up.

A white pair of pants lands on me. Not my style personally, but they’re clean, which is a relief.

At the call, we all lob our pairs of smalls down towards the waiting rock star. I’m surprised and a little bit pleased with myself that I managed to get mine down to the stage. Turns out I do actually have a muscle somewhere.

It does little to rid the bad taste of fat shaming in my mouth though.

I mean, seriously. Fuck. That. Fucking. Shit. Right. In. The. Bumhole.

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Kill Bloggers

Right then. Here we are, back at The Pleasance. It’s my last trip of the marathon. Two spaces down, one to go. And I’m feeling determined. Not about the show. The show’s fine. That will happen... probably. I just need to make sure I get there on time.

No, what I’m psyching myself up for is the ticket.

Or rather the paper ticket.

Two times I’ve asked for one, and two times I’ve been fobbed off with inferior, and frankly unacceptable, e-tickets, while all around other theatre-goers fan themselves with their fancy yellow paper tickets, flaunting their superior negotiating skills.

This time however, I’m not giving up. It’s my last chance. If I don’t get a paper ticket tonight, then I never will.

I am fully prepared to do what it takes. Beg. Cry. Stomp my foot. Prostrate myself on the floor. Throw a full scale toddler-style temper tantrum. Hunger strike. Whatever. I am placing no limits on my behaviour in pursuit of this paper ticket.

As I walk over the grey cobbles that separate Caledonian Park and Shearling Way, I accidentally find myself as an extra in a music video, as some young person raps away while balancing on the low brick wall while getting filmed by his mate with an iPhone.

It’s not raining, but huge droplets land at random, and the threat of an oncoming downpour sends the rapper and his mate off in search of shelter before their song is done. At least, I hope that’s the reason, and not the woman wearing an oversized check jacket wandering around in the back of their shot.

I round the corner, and walk the last few minutes alone. The streets are really quiet round here. Those large wet droplets have scared away even the most ardent outdoor lovers. All the tables laid out below the Pleasance are empty save for a slick of dampness on their surfaces.

I go up the stairs, glancing over the railing to have a look at the big pulleys that hang over the courtyard below. They are fantastically heavy duty, and make a great picture with the cheerful bunty hanging there below and the bright signage of the Pleasance Downstairs theatre in the background.

There’s where I’m going to be tonight. The downstairs theatre. Last one on my list for the Pleasance.

Let’s do this thing.

I go inside and aim straight for the ticket machine. The bright yellow monster that sits next to box office. You may well ask yourself how I’d managed to miss it so completely on my previous visits. I sure ask myself that question every damn day.

The screens, which had previously shown adverts for upcoming shows, are dark.

I stand there, staring at it.

It can’t be broken. It just can’t. I refuse to accept it.

There’s a sign stuck to the front. It’s not an out of order sign though. If anything, it’s the complete opposite - giving instructions for use.

I decide to give it a go, as if pure force of will would spur circuits into action. I get out my card, and swipe it, as instructed. Upside down. Magnetic stripe facing me.

Nothing.

The screens remain resolutely dark.

“Is the ticket machine not working?” I ask the lady sitting behind box office. I try and say it as casually as possible, not letting the trauma raging beneath squeak out in my voice.

“No,” she says. “Sorry about that. Are you collecting?”

“Yes,” I say, swallowing my heavy sigh and sliding over to the desk. I really don’t fancy going all toddler tantrum right here but I’m steeling myself to the fact that I might just have to.

“What show is it?”

Errr. Fuck. Why can I never remember? My eyes land on a pile of freesheets resting on the counter. “Kill Climate Deniers,” I read.

“And the surname?”

“Smiles.”

“And the postcode?”

Err. My eyes cast around. Sadly there are no freesheets with my address lying on them. Somewhere deep inside, a neuron sparks, and I manage to say it before it splutters out once more.

She nods, and a second later a ream of yellow tickets are puttering out of the machine under the counter.

She tears them off, folds them up neatly, and hands them over.

“I…. thank you!” I say, taking them from her. I think my hand is shaking.

Is that it? Did I do it? Did I manage to get a printed ticket out of the Pleasance? And from their box office, no less!

I actually did it!

Or rather, the lovely box office lady did it.

No, we did it. Together. The pair of us. A team.

“There’s also a freesheet,” she says, indicating the pile.

I want to cry.

I take one. Then another. Just in case.

“The show’s in the downstairs theatre,” she says, pretending, very sweetly, not to notice the emotional crisis I’m going through in front of her.

“Oh, yes,” I say, managing to pull myself together for a few more seconds. “Do I have to go out and down?” I ask, pointing in the general direction of the pulleys.

“No. You'll go through here,” she says, pointing in the opposite direction, towards a black fire door off in the corner. ”Someone will call you when it's time to go down.”

I retreat with my prizes to the tables off to the side, where I stare at them for far too long.

I am really, really pleased with myself.

I take a photo of it and text it to a couple of friends.

They are perplexed, but do a good job of being supportively excited about my victory.

I lay the ticket reverently on the table and look at the cast sheet. It’s a decent cast sheet. There’s some stuff about blocking out the sun for the purposes of temperature control on the back, which is a little worrying, despite the cheerful looking drawing to illustrate the process (it’s done with balloons, apparently). I hastily turn it back over. Not sure I want to be looking at that. All sounds a bit super-villain if I’m honest. Something on the front catches my eye. A trigger warning. Or is it called a content warning now? Whichever. One of those.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised that the following production may contain images of people who have died.”

I read it. Then I read it again, just to make sure I understand.

Is it… I can’t tell… are they trying to be funny here?

I break it down into parts, reading each one multiple times.

The first part, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members are advised,” is very specific. But okay.

“That the following production may contain images.” May contain images? May? Do they not know?

Now, I’ve gone to print on programmes before a show is fully finalised. I know the panic that ensues when something comes up the day a new production opens and you suddenly have to coordinate the printing and distribution of several hundred programme slips. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this on a freesheet. A freesheet which has obviously, and I don’t mean to be rude here because I do it myself, been run off a photocopier, and therefore doesn't require much time to print.

Moving on. “Of people who have died.” People. Just people. A phrase as broad as the first one was narrow.

Why are only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members being advised of this? Are there Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dead people? Is that why? If it isn’t, why aren’t we all being advised? And how do they not know? Is the showing of dead people somehow randomised between shows? French and Germans one performance, Americans and Marshall Islanders the next.

I am very confused.

A front of houser walks past. “Five minutes. Fuck, what’s going on!” he says to himself, as he makes his way to the box office. A minute later, he’s coming back. “Are you here for Climate Deniers?” he asks the few people hanging around. We nod. We are.

Five minutes soon becomes three, then two, then…

“The house is now open for Kill Climate Deniers,” says the front of houser, taking up position in the pivot point between the bar and the foyer. “The show is one hour thirty minutes with no interval. There's no remittance so if you have to go wee-wee do it now. Err,” he pauses. “There's an adult way to say that…” He regroups. “You can take drinks in plastic cups and... Follow me!”

He marches over to the fire door, and opens it for us, nodding as we flash our tickets at him.

Down a staircase lined with posters made of posters - all collaged together with a sign on top pointing the way to the loos and the bar in one direction, and the downstairs theatre in the other.

There’s someone to meet us at the bottom, ready and waiting with a ticket beeper in hand. I do like a ticket beeper. When it’s not my phone that needs beeping.

“Sorry,” she says as a packet of cigarettes drops to the ground and she crouches down to retrieve them.

No need to apologise. I’m just here to get my ticket beeped!

She obliges and I go past, up some metal steps and onto the next person.

I show her my ticket.

She waves me past. “It’s free seating,” she says with a hand movement that indicates she has no interest in my paper ticket and it might as well be yesterday's Evening Standard for all she cares.

I put the ticket away safely in my pocket and go in.

It takes a few seconds for my brain to catch up with what I’m seeing. Somehow, this is not what I expected. The stage is sunken, surrounded on all four sides by purple seat. Double seats, I notice. Since telling my seat-neighbour at Soho Theatre that double-seats were a thing that didn’t exist I've been seeing them absolutely everywhere.

Turns out people have had to coordinate their sitting down together in theatres all over London, and I didn’t even notice.

That is not my fate tonight though. I have a double-wide all to myself.

In fact, everyone in the audience could have claimed a wide seat of their very own if they had a mind to. There aren’t many of us here. Not that it’s empty. Just… not full. Really not full. We are in serious Tuesday-night levels of not-fullness right now.

But the banging eighties tunes blaring over the sound system are doing their very best to fill the space and the energy is happy, if not exactly bouncing.

A door opens.

Not a door.

The door. The door we had come through earlier as audience members.

But this is definitely an actor. He’s holds up a copy of the playtext. The same playtext that had been available for sale from the box office for the mighty sum of five pounds.

Kill Climate Deniers.

It’s his play.

I mean, it’s not his play. The play was written by David Finnigan, and this dude is Nathan Coenen playing the role of David Finnigan (or Finig, according to the cast sheet). But for the purposes of us sitting, hearing this tale, it’s his play.

He taps the front of the book, in what must be the most meta use of a prop in theatre history.

He tells us about the title, and all the spiralling problems that resulted from it.

Which, I mean, okay, it's a little bit inflammatory. But with all the Tumblr kids threatening to eat the rich at the moment, merely killing a climate denier sounds a little... twee. It's hard to imagine anyone getting worked up about it.

But all these explanations are only a framing device for the actual play. The one that is apparently riling everyone up. A play about terrorists, the Australian environment minister, her press rep, and some quality eighties bangers.

The cast rush in and out of the doors. That first door, and another one the leads from the outside world straight onto the stage, so we get glimpses of daylight every time they come on.

Good thing the rain has cleared up.

"Bloggers mean nothing,” says Kelly Paterniti in her role as press rep when Felicity Ward's environment minister is confronted by an online journalist. She scans the audience, daring the bloggers to reveal themselves. “If you are a blogger, you mean nothing.” I purse my lips and try not to giggle. You tell ‘em love, bloggers are scum.

But she’s not done with her blogger-baiting. “If there is a blogger within earshot I hope they get sick and die.”

I press my lips together even harder, and stifle the cough that is suddenly attacking the back of my throat.

It's hard to stay mad at her, she's wearing a great dress and I kinda want it. Dammit. Costume envy strikes again, and isn't going anywhere fast as Bec Hill appears wearing an amazing cut off leather jacket with the most extraordinary black eyeshadow action going on, that I am definitely going to attempt, but fail to recreate, at some point very soon. And clearly pink Lennon glasses are now a trend in London theatre, because look, Hannah Ellis Ryan is wearing them too. God, this cast looks cool.

That is, until they start to dance.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that they can't dance. But when you are attempting to recreate a rave atmosphere in a theatre, it helps to have more than ten people in it. And having the story stopped in order for the playwright, who isn't actually the playwright, to tell us more about the history of the play, means we're stuck in a Sisyphean loop of building up energy only to have it put on hold and let to drain away before starting it up again.

A few people in the front row bop around to show willing, but I'm not a bopper even at the best of time so I leave them too it.

The cast point guns at people, take swigs from an audience member's drink, and accuse an innocent man in the front row of writing for the Daily Mail. All with the playwright-who-isn't-a-playwright there to step in and apologise on his play's behalf, rendering it all rather... sweet really. Made toothless by cavities.

After the bows Felicity Ward leans forward towards the front row. "Thank you for being a nice Tuesday audience."

Yeah.

I wonder what the playwright, who is actually the playwright, thinks about paper tickets.

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Absolutely Harrowing

I've lived in London for over ten years now. Closing in on a dozen, now that I think about it. And I've been a theatre-fan for a good number of those. So, it's amazing to me how many theatres I haven't been to yet, and plain haven't even heard of, or likely would have heard of, without the push of the marathon.

When I get to one of these new-to-me venues, I have a lot of questions that need answering. What type of work do they programme? What are the audiences like? Do they provide freesheets? You know, that sort of stuff.

It's not often my first question is: how do I get in.

I'm standing outside the Harrow Arts Centre. It's a nice building. Very nice. Red brick. Old. Surrounded by gardens. Very pretty.

There's a little enclave outside the door, with wooden benches set into the brick walls. Very cosy. The sort of place you could imagine sheltering from the rain at a church fete and falling for a naice young man sporting a woolly jumper and a stutter.

The door, however, is dark. There's no sign of life inside. There's no sign of a sign.

I'm beginning to worry that I might have got the wrong building, and that I've been traipsing all over the gardens of some company away day centre, and any encounter with a young man in a woolly jumper would be closely followed by a radio call to security and possibly some dogs being released in my direction.

But no, there's the banner up by the road advertising a solitary matinee performance of Coppelia. This is def the right place. Just possibly, the wrong door.

I decide to have a walk around the building. See if anyone else is having this problem.

Somewhere a car door slams, and then a second later, a couple emerge from behind a hedge, hurry across a flagstoned courtyard and disappear through an automatic door.

Well, I might as well go after them then.

Engraved in the stone after the door, it says The B.G. Elliott Hall. I don't know who B.G. Elliott is, or why The was carved with a different font to the rest of the message, and I really hope I'm not going to find out. I walk over slowly, fully expecting a B.G. Elliot to come marching out and order me off his property. Possibly while wearing a woolly jumper. But no one does. Instead, I find myself in some sort of antechamber. There's another door in here. And another sign above it. This one says: Harrow Arts Centre.

Thank goodness for that.

Inside it finally, finally, begins to look like an arts centre. There are flyers everwhere. And posters. And roller banners. There's even a sign for the Box Office, with an arrow pointing to... a closed door.

I look at the door.

It does look very definitely closed. The type of closed that does not appreciate being opened.

Okay then. Perhaps I don't need the box office. The pre-show email hadn't mentioned e-tickets or anything of the sort, but then it also hadn't given any advice on transportation other than for car drivers, and also misspelt the word queues ("ques"), so perhaps that email isn't the best crutch to lean on right now.

I press on, further into the building, turn left, and see a queue (or possibly 'que') of people coming out of a door, a door that, if my mental geography hasn't let me down, should be to the box office.

There's a sign on the door. "Public Notice," it says. "The Box Office opening hours are Monday - Friday 10am - 5pm." It's well past 5pm now, but there is a show on tonight, so I imagine they are making an exception.

A few minutes later, I'm at the front of the queue.

"The surname's Smiles?"

"Can I have your order number?" says the lady behind the desk.

"Umm... yes?" I say, pulling out my phone. I don't think I've ever been asked that question before at box office. Not unless there was a problem, or I was asking for something unreasonable, like a ticket exchange.

I find my confirmation email and recite the order number, and she types it in. Soon the ticket machine is puttering out my ticket. She gives it a good wiggle and a tug. It did not want to come out. Probably because the ticket stick was put in the wrong way round. Or at least, I presume the logo isn't supposed to be upside down. Not that it matters much. With the logo positioned on the ticket's stub, it'll be torn off soon enough, leaving nothing but a plain white, unbranded piece of card. The shame of its upsidedowness lost to the recycling bin.

"Just the one?" asks the box office lady, giving the ticket a once over before handing it to me.

"Yes... just the one." I didn't even try to convince my friends to come to this one. Bless them, they do try. But Harrow is an Overground journey too far for even the strongest of friendships.

"Where am I heading?" I ask.

I don't know what prompted me to ask that. I don't usually. Perhaps I've encountered too many closed doors on this trip to have faith I'll find the right one. Or maybe I just want to make it really clear that I'm the loner who doesn't belong here to the box office lady.

She blinks at me in surprise.

"Err," she says, as if she's never been asked this question before, because, presumably, simply everyone knows where the Studio theatre at Harrow Arts Centre is, and what is this person that she is now having to deal with? A person who comes to the theatre, by herself, and doesn't even know where it is? She's definitely not paid enough for this, and she'll be making a note so that she can bring it up in her next one-to-one. "Head out of this building," she starts, pointing back out the door.

I'm sorry, what the what? Outside?

She sees the alarm on my face and presses on. "Go left from the car park and you'll see a sign for the studio theatre. The medical centre will be the opposite."

"Right," I say weakly. "Thank you."

Bloody hell. I'm glad I asked.

I stop outside in the corridor to quickly make a note of what she said. More for my own use than the blog. "Left. Car park. Sign. Medical centre," I mutter to myself as I battle against the auto correct to type it out.

From inside the box office I can hear a very loud customer talking very quickly. "Can't find my email, but can I buy a ticket?"

"Sorry, it's all sold out."

Blimey, I would never even have thought of that. Buying a new ticket because I can't find the confirmation email from my last one. No wonder the show is sold out if that's how the people of Harrow sort things out. Rebuying tickets because they can't figure out the search functionality on their emails. Oh well, at least it's generating some income for the arts, I suppose.

I go outside. I'm not entirely sure where the car park is, but I follow the building around, back to where I had heard the car door slam earlier, and yes. Here it is. And as promised, there's a sign. I walk down the road to get a better look at it. I'm not wearing my glasses and can't quite read it.

It lists all the delights of the Harrow Arts Centre: Elliot Hall, Studio Theatre, Medical Centre, Swimming Pool, Cafe and Bar. With arrows all pointing in the same direction. That's convenient.

I turn left and am instantly lost.

There's hundreds of buildings here. Fancy brick ones. Whitewashed ones. Ones that look like are falling apart. Ones that look like they housed pigs in another life. And others that probably have a sweat-shop in them right now.

But down a path lined with some of the more dispiriting examples, I spy a crisp white sign, gleaming out from all that peeling paint-work. "HAC Studio Theatre."

I'd found it.

And so has everyone else. There's a line coming right out the door.

It rather looks like I've stumbled on the hit show of Harrow.

I hear the ticket checker before seeing him. He's bantering away with everyone coming through the door.

"You'll be having the stay out here with me," he laughs to a group of women, before letting loose a beaming smile on the next person in the queue.

We shuffle our way forwards into the foyer. There's a little desk in here. But it's not being used. And doesn't appear to have been used since 2004. There's a TV resting on top. It has a built in VHS player.

The ticket checker chats away to everyone in turn, seeming unperturbed by this historical artefact resting on the desk not three feet away from him.

"That's two," he asks the man in front of me in the queue. He looks closer at the print out. "Just one?" he says, looking up at me.

The man in front confirms that it is just one.

The ticket checker takes my ticket. "Thank you, madam," he says, handing it back. No banter. Barely even a glance.

Right then. I go into the studio. It's dark, long and low, and makes me think of an industrial chicken coop.

Ridgid rows of chairs are packed in.

This should be my cue to head to the front, to claim my spot at the end of the third row, as is my preference in unallocated seats. But instead, I turn the other way, heading for the first raised row, just behind the door. When the choice is between proximity and a rake, always choose the rake. That is my free and personal advice to you.

It's a bit tight in here. I had to clamber in around the chair in front so as so to disturb the nice ladies at the end of the row. There's a free seat between us, but that is doing nothing to save my legs.

I may only be a shade over 5'3" but that's not short enough for the squishy legroom here in the studio. I really hope no one sits in front of me, as they are going to end up with a knee in their back.

As soon as I have this thought, someone plonks themselves down in the seat in front, only to discover my knee in their back.

He jerks his seat back, but when he finds no relief, he looks behind him to discover the cause of this obstruction, only to discover my apologetic face.

I try to rearrange myself, but a big group has just come in and the ticket checker is trying to find seats for them all. The nice ladies at the end of my row move down with a smile. "Someone can sit on the end there," one says.

The doors are closing. There's still five minutes today but we are locked in together in the darkness.

We all sit and awkwardly look our host for the evening, Pariah Khan, sat on a table, his legs swinging, his head bowed as he reads a book.

A young woman a few rows ahead of me looks back and holds my gaze for a second too long before turning back around. It was a look of curiosity and recognition. We're the only two white girls in the audience. The only two white people.

The ticket checker comes back in to let people through and give a countdown to the tech person. Four minutes to go.

Three minutes.

Two.

Khan begins. He's come to Britain to explore what this country has to offer. To travel about. fall in love, and watch football at a reasonable hour.

"This is really good," says the man sitting in front of me, leaning towards his companion.

I'm glad he's got something decent to distract him from the knee in his back.

A minute later, a phone rings. First quietly, but louder as its owner rummages through her bag in search of the disastrous noise machine.

Khan stops, his face a still mask as we all collectively hold our breaths, waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

"Did you remember to turn your phone off?" he asks, with a sly side-long glance as the ringing eventually comes to a stop.

Unfortunately, no number of side-long glances will stop the sounds of the radio bagging through from the foyer, as messages are relayed through the hundreds of buildings that make up the Harrow Arts Centre.

But Khan presses on, taking us on a tour of this strange country of ours. Even when a woman in the front row decides to stand up, put her coat on, make her way to the door, and let it slam on her way out.

At the end, applause still going, Khan uses the flipchart that has been his companion and time marker throughout the performance to display the credits.

The clapping quietens as we all watch him flip pages.

"You can carry on applauding!" he says, showing us the director's name (Eduardo Gama).

We dutifully do so, but it's not the same. Just think how much better it would have been if they'd been a freesheet.

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It's just not cricket

It’s the benches that are to blame.

Now, I understand why some theatres have a bad rake. When you’re trying to fit in as many seats as possible into a small space, sometimes you are limited by the frickin-ceiling. But when there are only two rows, the reason for placing the second of these on a platform that barely clears a couple of inches, doesn’t not a logical decision make.

Especially in a studio space, where you just know the cast is going to be sitting on the floor.

I have a theory. If you were to plot the size of a cast against the number of minutes spent at floor level, you’d get a classic exponential curve. Okay, perhaps they’d be a spike for the solo-players - they like to do things standing up, but after that, it would be bums on the ground for the majority of the run time, falling rapidly as the number of credits on the cast list increases, until you reach those massive community project casts, which are all-standing, all the time.

Just as I am having these thoughts, the lights go out. We are left in darkness, listening to Arly Ifenedo and Amina Koroma fret in the dark as they try and figure out where they are and what’s happening to them. The answer appears far too easily for our outside eyes. They’re on a ship. A slave ship. Packed in with hundreds of others just like them. They are strangers, but not for long. They are driven together by proximity, pain, and a shared language amongst so much confusion. Sister forged in blood rather than born in it.

They never leave the ship, but Koroma’s play covers a lot of ground: differing races and religions, obviously, but not just between the slavers and their prisoners, but also between the girls themselves. Female genital mutilation is breathed about in whispers between the two of them, and forms the basis of choice for Ifenedo’s character. Her choice to run from being cut had her fleeing into the path of her captures. And her prayers result in her being faced with another choice: return, and face the blade, or stay, and face the slavers. It’s here that the play lost me, I must admit. Both of these two options too awful to contemplate or to weigh against one another. My mind and my emotions shrank away from it.

On the way out, our front of houser hands us feedback forms. To help the artists with the development of their work. I tuck mine away in my bag.

I never fill these things out.

I’m really

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Glitter in the Rain

I’m really happy right now. Like, stupidly, happy. Bouncing down the street, happy. I feel like the Sharky Twins in Wolfie, throwing pocketfulls of sequins all over the place as a physical  manifestation of all the shiny joy that’s gurgling inside me. I have no reason for this happiness. I’ve been to some great fucking theatres recently. That helps. And people keep on smiling at me. That’s true. And also strange. Not sure what’s going on there. You’d think reading a black-bound copy of one of Kafka's short stories would be enough to put anyone off, but no. There they are, on the tube, gurning at me. It’s so weird I can’t help but gurn right back.

It’s all very troubling.

My happiness has grown to such excessive levels that people are starting to notice.

“That’s very positive of you!” said one of my co-workers this morning.

And she was right. It was very positive of me.

And it wasn’t even ten o’clock. Far too early to be positive about anything, let alone work.

If this goes on any longer, I’m going to get my Goth-card revoked.

But even after a full day listening to Nightwish on blast, I’m still springing my way through the rain like Tigger after a long session snorting lines of icing sugar at a birthday party.

Oh well. Might as well make the most of it before the inevitable crash sends my friends into intervention-crisis-mode again.

Damp of clothes, but not of spirits, I arrive at the Soho Theatre. it’s my second trip here of the marathon. I seem to be working my way down from the top. I’ve done the upstairs studio, now it’s the turn of the theatre space on the second floor, with only the basement left to go.

I give my name at the box office, basking in the reflection from the neon pink surround.

The lady behind the box office stares at me, waiting.

“Oh sorry,” I say. I had forgotten where I was. The theatre of a thousand shows. “It’s for Citysong.”

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A cat called Ghost

It’s Tuesday night, and I’m crouching on the ground in the middle of what looks like an industrial wasteland, clucking my tongue. It has just started to rain.

The reason I’m here is that I think there might be a theatre around here somewhere. I’m not exactly sure though. I’m just following my intuition on this one. I find, that when you’re in doubt about the location of a fringe venue, it’s always best to take the route that looks most likely to contain your murderer. That’s where fringe theatres tend to live. In the most scary of all the available options.

As to the ground crouching and tongue clicking, I've just met a cat. Pure white and very pretty. We’re making friends

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Stag Party

It's June! It's Pride month! And I'm off to the self-styled "home of the UK’s LGBT+ Theatre."

Yup, I'm off to Above the Stag.

It's almost like I planned it,

Now, if I were a decent blogger (or even a decent liar), I'd tell you that's exactly what I did. But I'm not, and I didn't. I was actually intending to get this one checked off the list in May, but a last-minute diary reshuffle had me bumping the home of the UK's LGBT+ Theatre over a couple of weeks. And it's only while I'm walking through Vauxhall, and seeing all the rainbow-tinged goodness everywhere, that I connect the brightly-flashing dots, and apologise to the theatre gods for spending so long bitching them out for messing with my calendar. I should have known they had this shit covered. I mean, someone has to. And I certainly don't.

It's a warm evening, and it looks like there's more people hanging out, drinks in hand, on the small square of grass outside the entrance, then there are gathered within.

I lean against a tree and try and get a photo of the theatre, but it's completely impossible. I can barely even see the entrance through the absolute party that seems to be going on our here. All I'm getting is a hazy purple light, glowing from within the curved glass frontage. A halo hanging over the heads of my fellow theatre-goers. It's all rather magical.

Despite the image conjured by the name, the Above the Stag is not actually above the Stag. It's not above anything, let alone a pub. If anything, it lies underneath. Tucked within one of the railway arches that live near Vauxhall station.

I decide it's time to go in.

It's pretty busy in here too. There's a massive queue at the bar, and every day is filled. No wonder the people are spilling out onto the street.

One end of the bar has been assigned to box office duties. There's a big sign screaming TICKETS up on the wall behind. The queue is significantly shorter on this end. There's only one person in front of me.

Not that anyone's serving. There are two people behind the bar and they are rushing back and forth, measuring spirits, pouring glasses of wine, and taking payments, all at the same time, as they fight to get through this queue of thirsty theatre-goers before the doors open.

But with our queue now composed of two, we manage to attract the attention of one of the bar people and she comes over to deal with the business of ticketage.

When it's my turn, I give my surname and the bar person taps away at my name on the touchscreen behind the counter. A second later a small printer buzzes, and my ticket emerges, printed on thin receipt paper. All very fancy.

The doors still aren't open, so I suppose I should find somewhere to stand. At least, I think they're not open. I don't actually know where they are. None of the doors around the edge of the room looks likely. And there's no THEATRE sign to match the TICKETS one above the bar.

But the bar is full, and there's still a healthy queue of people intent on getting their drinks, and no one looks overly concerned about going anywhere quite yet, so I find myself just hanging around, waiting for instruction.

I find myself darting back and forth as I try and get out of people's way. It really is very busy in here. All my darting and side-stepping gradually moves me from one side of the bar to the other, and I find myself standing amongst a small group, all clutching receipt-paper printed tickets in their hands. There's a set of double doors down here. Unmarked. Unlike the loos right next door. Through the small windows set into the doors I can see show posters. This must be it. And these people must be all the keen-bean theatre crowd, just bursting to get into the space. Or possibly, given our location busting for the loo. I can't quite tell. Bursting for something or other, for sure, though.

A voice comes over the tannoy. "Ladies and gentleman, the house is now open for Fanny and Stella. Please take your seats."

We look at the doors, and then at each other.

"Are we...are we just supposed to open the doors ourselves?" someone asks.

We all look back at the doors.

They are still closed. And don't look likely to open of their own accord any time soon.

This is getting ridiculous. What we need is a hero. Someone to step forward and liberate us from this bar, guiding us through the parted doors towards the promised land of the theatre.

Just as I am debating with myself whether that person could, or indeed should, be me, I am saved from such brave actions by a woman who pushes her way through the group, places her hand on the door, and pulls it open.

We all follow on meekly behind, passing the weight of the door between us as we go through.

We turn right. The light of the theatre almost blinding with its brightness. It's probably not a good idea to follow a guide towards a bright light, not unless you're prepared to never come back, but it looks so inviting I can't stop myself.

The posters on the wall shift from colour-filled sweet-wrappers, with the saturation turned up to max, to the text filled advertisements of the old music halls.

"Know where you're sitting?" asks a man dressed in a dandified top hat and tails.

He chats away, making bants with everyone coming through the door.

I find my seat without assistance, but I can't stop looking over at the dandy by the door.

He looks really rather familiar. If only I had a freesheet...

Except, hang on. Someone sitting in the row in front of me is flicking through something. A booklet. The kind of booklet, that if I didn't know better, would say looks exactly like a programme.

He stops mid-flick, turns back a page, and starts reading.

There are pictures interspersed with the text. Photos. Headshots.

That's a fucking programme.

He has a programme.

Where on earth did he get that? I want to lean forward and ask, but he's just a couple of seats too far along the row for that to be reasonable.

I sit back, and prepare myself for the long wait until the interval.

It's alright, I tell myself. At least I know there are programmes. They exist. Out there. Somewhere. And I'll find them, buy one, and damn well look this actor's name up before I combust.

I distract myself by looking around. It's nice in here. Wide seats. Allocated. And a magnificent rake. I can see right over the heads of the two tall blokes sitting in front of me.

"Oo. Lots of room here," says my neighbour, kicking our their legs to demonstrate the amount of room there is.

This is fringe theatre to the lux.

Every now in, and the doors closed, our dandy friend, whoever he may be, steps onto the stage. He's going to be our compere for the evening, in this tale of Fanny and Stella, the OG drag-queens of Victorian London.

And they're signing? Like properly. Not just a music hall ditty to illustrate what they're all about. But like, an opening number about sodomy. On the Strand. The cast's voices and the single piano fight against echo of trains rumbling overhead.

How did I not realise this was a musical? Oh well. I'm sold, bought, and paid for. Three times over. This is hilarious.

Too soon it's the interval, and still giggling, I make my way back to the bar.

I'm on a mission after all. Gotta get that programme.

I walk over to the bar. If they're anywhere, they must be here. And yes, there's one. In a display on-top of a glass case of confectionary. That was easy.

Buying one however, now that's where it gets tricky.

I'm already surrounded on all sides as everyone tries to place their drinks order at once.

A woman elbows me out of the way to get to the bar, and flags down a passing staff member to serve her.

"Sorry, sorry," she says, just as her wine is being poured. "I ordered sauvingnon blanc."

The server looks from the bottle in her hand, to the two glasses of red wine she just poured. "Yes, yes you did," she says, covering each glass with a napkin and going to fetch the right bottle.

The other server behind the bar comes up. He sees me. And another woman. He dithers between the two of his, finger-gunning as he decides who's up next.

"Sorry," I say to the other lady. "I just want a programme. Can I get a programme?"

"For which show?" he asks.

I'm stumped.

"Umm," I say, pointing vaguely in the direction of the theatre.

"Fanny and Stella," steps in the other lady, demonstrating more grace than I could ever be capable of.

"Yes. Thank you," I say, nodding to her. "That one."

He goes off to fetch a programme. They're £2.50, which isn't bad. Not bad at all.

Programme now acquired, I decide that I should probably get out of the way.

I flick through the pages until I get to the biographies. Ah, there he is. Mark Pearce. I scan his credits. I don't have to go far. Fourth line down: Maggie May. That's where I've seen him. At the Finborough Theatre.

Isn't that something.

I flip forward to the credits. Bit of a habit of mine. I like seeing who works on shows. And for the first time in a good long while, I see someone credited for the programmes. That's lovely. I like that. I'm certainly not mentioned as the producer of my programmes anywhere. Perhaps I should start sneaking my name in there... anyway, good on you Jon Bradfield. You've done a great job. Love the interview with the writer, Glenn Chandler. Very nice.

The bar's getting crowded again. Really crowded. Without taking a single set I seem to have been swept along, away from my little corner, into the middle of the room. And people are still pouring in from the theatre doors. I didn't think that small space could even hold this many people.

"Please take your seats in the main house for Fanny and Stella," says the man over the tannoy.

The main house.

The. Main. House.

That's why there are so many people.

That's why I got asked which programme I wanted.

Above the Stag isn't one theatre. It's two.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck, with bells on top.

We're skirting dangerously close to 300 theatres now. Finding a new studio that add to my list is really not what I need right now.

No time to think on that now, I'm going back in, ready for the trial of William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella.

But, hang on. There's someone crossing the stage. Someone very much not wearing Victorian dress. She's holding a wine glass and shuffling along.

The cast stop to stare at her in wonder.

"She's going through a stage," says Mark Pearce.

The audience groans in response and the woman throws up her arms in a shrugging apology as she heads towards her seat.

"Oy!" he rejoins. "That's the best joke in the whole show."

The pianist pulls a face.

Pearce points a finger at him. "Don't you start!"

It doesn't look like anyone's starting. They've all forgotten their lines.

Tobias Charles' Fanny taps Pearce on the chest. "I know where we are," he says. And after a few false starts, we're back up and running.

And oh, this is bliss. Silly and sordid, with all the sad bits delivered with high kicks and jazz hands, and Kieran Parrott's impossible Stella-pout.

Heaven.

I'm not even mad that I have to come back for that studio space now.

Read More

Almost like a Thursday

It seems to be my destiny to always book theatre trips during big sporting events.

I just got off the tube at Oval, and apparently there’s a thing going on.

Half the roads are closed, and the other half are crowded by people who don’t seem to be doing very much. But whatever they are doing, they are doing with purpose. There’s a lot of looking around and nodding with emphasis at one another.

Who knew London had so much sport?

I’m early, so I trot past the theatre to the other side of the road, and have a stroll around The Oval. Now, I may not know a lot about sport, but even I know there’s probably some cricket going on in there right now.

It’s a funny old place, isn’t it? The Oval, I mean. You can see all the backs of people’s heads of the crowds sitting in the stands down from the pavement. They look so venerable sitting up there, the backs of their necks reddening in the sun. I hope they brought some sunscreen with them.

There’s a general wail of noise coming from inside. It’s utterly intelligible. A wall of pure noise reacting to whatever is happening down on the field (ha! I knew that one. Not a pitch. A field). Over the tannoy I can make out the voice of a commentator. From what I can tell, he’s saying words, but I don’t understand a single one of them.

Nope. Sport isn’t for me. Words are hard enough as it is without adding this whole new language to the mix.

I’m heading back to where it’s safer.

Safer, anyway.

I loop my way back to the appropriately named Ovalhouse.

It’s very blue. Blue panes in the curved glass wall. Blue frames around the windows and the doors. An enormous blue sign tied to the side of the building, and sagging under the weight of its own massiveness.

Someone has been taking style tips from the Blue Elephant…

Inside, blue floors, and blue armchairs are added to the colour mix. There’s even a blue pillar stuck in the middle of this pleasingly oval-shaped foyer.

I may enjoy a touch of theme dressing, but I must bow before the master here. This is a level of commitment that I could never hope to replicate.

Doors lead off in all directions from this glass-walled oval, giving me intense hall-of-mirrors style dizziness. Thankfully, I don’t lose myself on my way to the box office window.

I complete the surname-in-exchange-for-ticket transaction, and then head over to the other side of the oval towards the cafe.

It’s nice in here. Quiet but not empty. There’s lots of rustic wooden tables giving off basement kitchen in Maida Vale vibes.

There’s a stage over on the far side, where I presume they have live music when it isn’t a quiet Wednesday night with a cricket match going on over the road.

I claim a table all to myself and have a look around.

There’s the door to the upstairs theatre, over by the bar. I won’t be visiting that one tonight, but I make a mental note of its location for my return.

I’m going to be in the downstairs theatre. The main space. At least I hope I am. Because I’m looking around and I can’t see it. Is it back in the mirror-maze like foyer? I don’t remember seeing a sign for it. Just the cafe, the box office, and the loos.

I could go back and check, but I’m comfy now. And besides, no one else looks like they’re in any rush to go anywhere. I might as well settle back and relax.

A few more people come in and take up the surrounding tables. Others head for the bar. But this is a hushed crowd. Or perhaps the better term would be: laid back. After spending last night having my pockets picked at the Aldwych, it feels nice just being sat here, by myself, and not being asked to buy something.

A young woman wearing a headset steps up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman,” she starts, and we all pull ourselves out of our daydreams to listen to her. “The doors are now open, over in the furthest corner of the bar.” She points the way into the next room, just beyond the bar.

Nice. I love it when an announcement comes with directions.

We stumble to our feet, gathering our things with the slow care of a hungover student attempting to clean their flat the morning after their first flat warming.

As one, we make our way into the next door. There’s a counter serving food on one side. And a door over in the far corner. Is that it? We all stop. The people at the head of our caravan turn around, eyes wide with confusion.

“Is that…?” one asks.

I’m thinking the same: is that?

There’s no sign. And no one there to check tickets.

But people are piling up behind us. There’s nowhere to go but forward. Onwards!

There’s a corridor through here. It doesn’t look very theatrey. If anything, it looks like the corridor outside a primary school classroom. I swear I see coats hung up on hooks as we press on.

Through another unlikely looking door, and there, thank goodness, is a ticket checker. He’s got one of those beeping machines to scan tickets so you know he’s legit.

That doesn’t explain the presence of the chalk board behind him.

“BRIAN. FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS,” it says, surrounded by tiny, fluttering hearts. The message, I’m sure, is connected to the show. The writing is too well done, the hearts too perfectly placed, to have been placed by anyone other than a theatrical. But the chalkboard? Does that always live here? I was kinda, but not really, joking about this corridor looking like a school earlier, but now I can’t shake the feeling that by day, this place plays host to a few hundred pre-teens intent on learning their ABCs.

I get my ticket beeped. Funny how I don’t mind the beeper when it’s a paper ticket on the receiving end of the beeping, and not my phone. Perhaps my reputation as a neo-luddite isn’t quite as deserved as everyone seems to think.

Into the auditorium, walking around the dark spaces formed by the bank of seats. The brick walls are painted black, but there are bright rectangles set amongst the gloom. I squint at them, trying to make them out. Lines of white, left by a thick brush, form the canvas to sharpie message of love. “YOUR LIFE MATTERS BRIAN,” one says. “KEEP SAFE BRIAN SEE YOU OX RIP XX,” reads another.

Around towards the stage and up the steps to find a seat. There are more messages to Brian up here. An outpouring of loving words, written on luggage labels and tried to the metal railings.

I want to stop and read them all, but I’m blocking the way. And besides, seats are unallocated and I better hurry up and pick one if I want to score my favoured place: third row, at the end.

The cast are already on stage. Moving in slow motion. Their faces twisted into grimaces of despair.

This is not going to be a happy evening.

I’m here for Custody. A new play about a young black man (I’m guessing the famous Brian here) who dies in police custody.

Well, I say play, but with all this slo-mo going on, I suspect there is going to be more than a little, what they call in the biz, “movement.” I might go as far as to say, “movement” tipping right the way into physical theatre.

Everyone in the audience keeps their heads down, struggling not to make eye contact with the performers and almost visibly flinching whenever they creep a peek and spot one of the cast looking their way.

Instead they focus on their flyers. Everyone has a flyer tonight.

That’s what people do when they’re aren’t any freesheets available. They grab a flyer.

See? It’s not just me that wants a memento. Any bit of print with the title of the show on it will be picked up by an audience member, given half a chance.

A man sitting in the row in front of me flicks at the side of his flyer, expecting it to open up to reveal more information inside.

I can’t blame him. As information goes, the flyer is a little lacking. Marketing blurb and dates of the run are all very nice, but when it comes to matters of who is actually standing on the stage in front of you looking like they’re just stepped on a very sharp thumbtack, they can’t compete with a freesheet.

It’s starting now.

Layered words as the cast form a Greek chorus of grief. Brian is dead. And no one is taking the blame.

Mother, brother, fiancé, sister. They tote around bags, clutched tight to their chests, hugged under arms, and slung over shoulders, a literal baggage that will only be laid to rest at the end.

Except, they don’t leave.

While the performers in You’re Dead, Mate left us stranded and alone, as we clapped in the dark, the cast of Custody stay with us, returning to vacate state. The lights come on. An usher crosses the stage in front of them to open the door. The cast are unseeing, as all they see is pain.

We look around at each other. Are we supposed to leave now?

I tentatively grab my jacket and slip it on.

I spot a few others doing the same.

Small groups get to their feet, unsure of themselves as they make their way to the exit.

No one wants to look at the cast as we file our way past them.

We leave them alone in their anguish.

It’s palpable. Hanging in the air. Heavy. Seeping off of the stage.

No wonder they move so slowly.

I would credit them, but… well, you already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Let’s do a thing. Let’s say it together. I would credit the cast but… 3…2…1… THERE ARE NO FUCKING FREESHEETS.

Ah. That was fun.

But seriously, there were no fucking freesheets.

“Feel free to write a message on your way out, if you'd like,” says the woman with the headset.

She indicates a small table in the foyer. “Please write a message to Brian,” says a small sign. There are luggage labels. And pens.

Someone is already jotting down her thoughts.

“What should I…?” she asks as she finishes.

“Just tie it up here,” comes the reply. There’s a string pinned up behind the table, waiting for the messages.

I move on. Words are hard.

The cricket must have finished now.

The tube is packed.

I head north, finally managing to get a seat around London Bridge.

Two men come and sit either side of me. They lean forward so as to continue their chat. Usually I would offer to switch. But I can’t move. I still feel the heaviness of the play pushing down on me.

“It's very busy,” says one, tacking in the still-busy carriage. “Something must be going on tonight. It’s almost Iike a Thursday.”

Almost.

Read More

What Do We Say to the God of Death?

“Where are you going tonight?”

Bless my coworkers. They do try and be supportive of my mission, even if they think it’s completely bonkers.

“Katzpace?” It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. I think that’s how you say it.

“Cat space?”

“Katz-pace,” I try again, feeling altogether less confident about my chosen pronunciation. Perhaps it really is Cat Space.

They give me a look. “Are you going to a cat cafe, Maxine?”

“I don’t think so…?”

I mean, who even knows anymore. I’ve been some weird-arse places lately. Perhaps Katzpace really is a cat cafe masquerading as a theatre. I sure won’t be the one to complain if that’s true.

I check the website.

No mention of cats. Or even a cat.

They do have a tagline though. “London’s coolest theatre.”

Well. That’s something. I hope they’re being literal because it is very, very warm today. And I don’t do well in the heat.

And it’s not even sunny. Just muggy and disgusting. On my way south of the river I stop on Blackfriars Bridge to try and grab a blast of that cool air coming off the river.

The breeze remains resolutely still. Bastard.

Oh well. I make my way down onto Southwark Street, passing The Bunker and the Menier. Borough Market is looming just ahead. It should be around here somewhere. I carry on, eyeing up all the buildings on the other side of the road. Nope. Nope. That’s not it. Pub. Pub. Pub. Nope. Not that either. That’s a bank.

I think I’m gone too far.

I cross the road and double back.

The proximity doesn’t help. My eyesight surely can’t be this bad.

Just as I’m reaching into my bag to grab my glasses, I spot something. A crowd of young people gathered around a doorway. They look like the sort of people who might attend London’s coolest theatre.

They’re really pushing that tagline hard. It’s even written on the A-frame sign positioned out on the pavement, and stencilled onto the doors.

I’m beginning to get a bit worried.

Katzpace may well be London coolest theatre. But I am not London’s coolest theatre-goer. I barely scrape the top five.

The sign above the door is for Ketzenjammers. A bierkeller, apparently. I don’t know what a bierkeller is, but I’m guessing it has something to do with beers and cellars.

The stairs inside lead down. The walls are covered in a mural featuring beer steins in a battle with what looks like wine bottles. Ah yes, the great Wine War of 1262.

At the bottom of the stairs, I have a chose. Left or right. Both directions look equally deserted. Katzpace is supposed to a basement theatre, but we’re already below street level.

I pick a direction at random, and turn left.

More empty corridors. More turns. This time I go right.

There’s a door here. I go through.

Tables. And benches.

All empty.

Is this what a bierkeller is? Twisting corridors and empty rooms?

There’s another staircase. Very industrial looking and metal. It has a sign stuck right in the middle.

You. I've got you. Let's a programme. The bars open if you'd like to get a drink and take it in.

“Youre Dead, Mate. DOWNSTAIRS. BOX OFFICE & BAR @ 7pm. SHOW @ 7.:30pm.”

Thank goodness. It looks like I’m going the right way.

Expect, there’s another sign. A content warning one. You know the type of thing: this production contains nudity, forced religious indoctrination, and faeries offering forbidden food. That kind of thing. Except this one is followed up by the warning that readmittance is not allowed if you need to leave the theatre. After the gentle care taken at Bernie Grant to both warn and protect their audiences, this seems a little mercenary. We’re going to be throwing all of the words around, and you better be strong enough to handle it, because there’s no chance of a time-out here.

Further down I think I’ve found it. The bierkeller. Long curved ceilings mold themselves around the long rows of tables below. Lone theatre-goers sit at tables, not talking to each other.

There’s a table right at the base of the stairs. It’s after 7pm. This must be the promised box office. I wait awkwardly on the bottom step until the queue has cleared.

Eventually, one of the three young people sitting behind the desk looks up.

I give my surname.

She finds my name on the list and gives it a tick. “Yup. I’ve got you. Here’s a progamme,” she says, handing me a freesheet. “The bar is open if you’d like to get a drink and take it in.”

Getting a drink in a bierkeller is probably the thing to do. But it’s Monday. And I’m alone. And, well, I don’t want a beer.

I take myself and my freesheet to an empty table.

The freesheets may not be programmes, but they are pretty swish all the same. Decent paperstock. Nice full page print of the poster image. Printed in colour. Run off on a photocopier, but I’m not judging on that.

And could have done with a proofread. Katzpace is misspelt in the thanks (Katzspace), which doesn’t seem all that grateful. But you know, typos happen. As literally every post on my blog will testify.

Year 3000 is blasting over the sound system. It what seems to be an attempt to inject atmosphere in this vast, empty space.

Strangely empty, now that I come to think of it.

I look around. The lone theatre-goers seem to have disappeared. Instead, there’s now a queue over on the side of the room. From behind the line of people, a neon sign glows. “Katzpace Theatre.”

Looks like we’re going in.

I hurry after them, trying to stuff the freesheet into my bag while also attempting to get said bag over my shoulder.

The neon sign points the way to a pair of low doors. Tall people need not apply.

It’s dark in here. Really dark. The only light seems to be coming from a small lamp on stage.

I peer through the gloom, trying to work out the best place to sit.

There are three banks of seats.

The central tier is on a rake. That looks like the best option, but it’s full already.

The side options are empty. Three rows. No rake.

I take a chance and go for the second row, hoping all the tall people are kept at bay by the low hanging door frame.

A second later, someone sits in front of me.

She’s not even that tall, but I can’t see a damn thing.

I scoot along right to the edge of the bench, where I find a slither of a view between a pillar and the lady’s head.

That’ll have to do.

Others are not so content with their lots.

“We don’t want to spend an entire fucking hour in bad seats,” says a bloke sitting in the row behind me.

They get up and start testing out different locations.

They’re not the only ones.

People pop up and down in different rows, clambering into spare seats and darting back out again as they try to negotiate themselves the best possible view in a giant game of musical chairs.

And they’re all so young.

I don’t think I’ve even been in an audience where the average age is this close to twenty.

In three weeks I’ll be turning thirty-three. Thirty-fucking-three. The same age that our lord and saviour, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, had Fleabag 2 and Killing Eve on our tellie-screens. Oh, and Jesus was crucified. But no one cares about that anymore.

And it’s fine. Totally fine. Like, I’ve been Googling what people have accomplished by the age of thirty-three. But you know, whatever. We all go at our own pace. Some people write era-defining scripts or start religions that span millennia, and other people go to watch a lot of theatre and write silly blog posts about it. It’s all good.

I mean, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women at thirty-three, laying the foundation for feminism, and I have a This is What a Feminist Looks Like t-shirt that I sometimes sleep in. So, I’m doing my bit to the continuing efforts to crush the patriarchy. Sort of.

And Amelia Earheart flew the Atlantic, which is something I’ve yet to accomplish even with the benefit of easyjet.

Samuel Smiles gave a speech that was to become the foundation to his book, Self-Help. A book which went on to sell 20,000 copies in its first year, and is still in print 165 years later. And I’ve… been bested by my own ancestor.

But it’s fine.

All. Fine.

It could be worse. Alexander the Great was already dead by my age. And yet still managed to conquer the known world.

I can’t even conquer the known theatre-world.

Turns out though, I’m at the perfect play. Cos our hero is having a similarly angst-filled evening.

But even worse, because like Alexander the Great, he’s dead.

Twenty-three years old (because of course he is) and he’s having a crisis. Unable to go back, and not ready to move on, he’s having to be comforted by the only entity available - Death himself.

Not exactly who I’d want as a councillor, if I’m honest, but deaders can’t be choosers. And he’s met everyone. Literally everyone. Even Alexander the Great. I suppose if anyone has any insight into the human condition, it’s him.

It’s a brave writer who takes on that character. I’m not sure I would have had the guts in a post-Terry Pratchett world. But it’s an even braver writer who decides he also wants to play the part. I mean, good on you, Teddy Morris.

The young people seem to be enjoying it too. They’re laughing themselves sick. The kind of hard, explosive laugh that you only get from audiences that are mates of the people on stage. The kind of laugh that’s filled with the shock and surprise of finding out that your weirdo friend is actually pretty talented.

Death and his patient leave the stage and we’re plunged into darkness.

“Are they coming out?” someone asks as the applause stretches out into eternity.

Turns out they’re not.

They’ve moved on.

And we’re left to make the most of our lives.

Read More

The Secret Language of Flowers


With cautious glances at one another, we take up places around the edge. Balancing on knees, or curling around our legs.

A few people decide that sitting on the floor is more than they signed up for, and head for the benches by the wall instead.

Angelique keeps on talking. The party isn’t going so well. She’s spotted her boyfriend with another girl, and his dealer, the one she really doesn’t like, is there.

And… oh god. Her voice sinks as she tells us what happens next. I clutch tight at my knees, twisting around to follow her as she moves around us, wanting to look away but at the same time not being able to take my eyes off her.

There’s a crash.

As one, our heads snap towards the window behind Dennis-Edwards.

Another crash.

A young girl peeks through the blackout curtains. It’s the boys with their football.

The girl’s mother gives her a look and the curtain is dropped back into place.

But the lure of the teenage boys and their football is too much for her, and soon she is peeling open the edge of the curtain once more to look outside.

Angelique moves around the space. She wants to show us the vase of blue flowers she has put in her new home.

They're basic but bright, she says. But perhaps more than that, they embody new beginnings, and hope. Of sun-filled days. Of her own shop. Her own life. Away from those who see her as a resource and not a person.

Outside, it’s still swelteringly hot. The party next door is still going. The music still blasting.

But the streets are empty. Deserted. I walk towards the tube station, swinging my jacket from my arm.

Everything smells of heat and tarmac and fast food.

Despite the pain, I miss Angelique’s world. Her lack of nonsense. Her drive. And the lush freshness of her flowers.

I should really go buy some.

Maybe for my birthday. That’s coming up in three weeks. Three weeks and one day. Not that I’m dreading it or anything.

Still, flowers would help. Peonies, I think. They’re my favourite. I wonder what they mean. Angelique would know.

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Attack of the Vapours

I’m taking you somewhere exciting today. Somewhere I’m fairly confident that you haven’t been before. I know I certainly haven’t.

It’s just down here. On The Cut.

No, not The Old Vic. Carry on, keep on going. Yeah, yeah, not the Young one either. We’re crossing the road here.

Yup. That’s it. Over there. Or at least, I think it is. I have to admit that I’ve marched up and down this street a thousand times as I make my way to one theatre or another (the aforementioned Vics, young and old, the Union further down, and the neighbour-theatres of the Menier and the Bunker further still, not forgetting the Vaults and and Network over on the other end) and I have never, not once, noticed this place.

I mean, sure. I could see there was a bookshop here. A theatre bookshop even. But I had no idea that there was a theatre lurking within.

I hope you didn’t either, or I’m going to feel rather stupid showing you this.

I stop outside, just to double check that I have, in fact, got the right place. I’m looking for the Calder Bookshop Theatre and the big shop sign says THE BOOKSHOP THEATRE. Ah, close enough. I go in.

There’s a wooden desk over on the right. I’m guessing that’s the box office for the evening. There’s a laptop sat on top, and that’s usually a sign of box officeiness in the lack of… well, an actual sign.

There’s a group of woman standing in front of it. They are all talking busily. Are they in the queue, I can’t tell.

A second later, the man behind the desk spots me.

“Can we move over?” he asks the ladies. They shuffle half a pace to the left and start chatting again.

I make full use of this small concession of theirs and squeeze my way over to the desk.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say. “I emailed a few days ago?”

Ah, yes. The email.

Here’s the thing. The Calder Bookshop Theatre doesn’t have online booking. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered such a thing on this marathon. But it’s the first time that I’ve actually attempted to negotiate such a system. I’ve still yet to tackle Baron’s Court and their utter lack of a presence on the old interwebs. Thankfully, the Calder does have a website. And a note directing you to either call or email them if you are after some ticket action in your life.

Well, there was no way I was calling. I haven’t willingly picked up the phone since 1989, and even then it was the Fisher Price variety and I was lured in by the grinning face printed below the rotary dial. So email I did. A few days ago. Basically just asking how one goes about this whole process, as I have never negotiated a ticket purchase via email before. Turns out it’s easy. And someone emailed back that evening saying that a ticket had been reserved for me and I could pay on the door when I arrived.

Brill.

The man behind the desk taps away at his laptop. “Ah yes! Paying full price?”

Yes. I mean… I guess…

I handed over the cash.

“How much are these?” I ask, indicating a pile of handsome looking programmes on the desk.

“Please take one! They’re free!”

I perk right up. The only thing better than a programme is a free programme.

There’s no need for tickets. So I’m left to wander the shop.

Wander is perhaps too strong a word. Shuffle would be the more accurate descriptor. It’s rather busy in here. Turns out the Caldor is not quite the secret I thought it was. Plenty of folks have managed to not only hear about this place, but also negotiate the tricksy ticket buying procedure.

Who are these people? And how did they get here?”

Calls of “how very nice to see you!” ring around the shop, growing ever more high-pitched.

“Have your performed here?”

“No. Gosh no. Oh, wait… have I?”

“I’ve just finished on the poetry festival.”

“… the actors’ workshop.”

“… the writers’ retreat.”

They’re all bloody theatre people.

It always makes me cringe a bit when the entire audience is composed of people who make theatre. It feels so insular. So self-congratulatory. Like a private members’ club. A bit… “this is a local theatre, for local people; there’s nothing for you here,” if you get my meaning.

When I’m in crowds like this, it does make me question this whole theatre thing. If the only people coming to your show are other theatre people, then really, what are we all doing here? Are we really such an isolated industry? Creating shows for our friends? Our in-group? Our tribe?

Just the thought of that being the case makes me feel all squicky.

And even worse, I’m a bloody theatre person too. So, I’m just perpetuating the problem by being here.

I go off to the far corner and have a look at the books. Books are good. Books are quiet.

There’s a curtain back here. That must be the entrance to the theatre.

A woman emerges.

“It’ll be about three minutes until we let people in,” she says to the nearest person. “We’re waiting for people to arrive.”

I commented on this holding of the curtain for latecomers back in my Blue Elephant post, and the artistic director ended up tweeting me to explain it. But no justification is necessary. I think this is a great and wonderful thing for small theatres to do. Latecomers cause so much more havoc in small spaces, it’s far better for everyone involved to wait a few minutes. And besides, if your audience really is drawn from such a small community, you might as well do your damndest to serve it.

She disappears back behind the curtain, only to pop out a few minutes later. This time holding a torch.

“Are you happy to wait?” she asks the nearest person. “I just have to pop to Sainsbury’s to get some batteries for the actors that they can see.”

Well, it would be churlish to say no now, wouldn’t it?

She leaves the torch on top of a convenient bookshelf and leaves. Supposedly to get batteries.

I spend my time looking at the programme. “Victorian Woman in Bed,” it says in a curly script on the front cover.

I look at it very hard, so as not to get distracted by the books. You see, I have a problem when it comes to books. It’s not that I don’t like books. Quite the opposite really. I’ve got shelves and shelves of the damn things at home. Double stacked. With piles of them on the floor. On the window ledges. On my pillow. In the bathroom. The kitchen. On the stairs. You think I have a problem with programmes? You wait until I show you how many copies of Rivers of London I own (Three. People keep on buying it for me. It’s a great book. But please, I don’t need anymore).

I’m not going to pretend that it’s not an uncommon problem. I’m not one of those twats on Twitter that likes to pretend they’re quirky just because they have a pile of unread books waiting on their bedside table. There’s even a Japanese word for it: tsundoku. And if there’s anything to kill the eccentricity of a trait, it’s having its own special word to describe it.

And actually… I read my fucking books. So, there.

The battery-buyer returns. Avec batteries.

I get jostled further into my corner as she retrieves the torch and starts slotting them in.

“Right,” she says, with the air of a job done. “I’ll go get the actors ready.”

They must have been prepped and ready to go, because the curtain is drawn back and we’re going in.

Gosh, it’s tiny in here. Really small, and rather cute.

The walls are bare brick, and the seating is upholstered in plum coloured velvet.

There’s only four rows. With a slim aisle down the middle.

I head to what is now officially my favourite seat: third row, right on the end.

The actors are already on stage. All dressed in their finest Victorian nightwear. One of them is even in bed.

Has there ever been a play more perfectly designed to attract me? Victorian women. In bed. I mean, fucking hell. That’s my soul, my dream, my aesthetic (as the kids say) in one simple sentence. It’s what I yearn to be.

But what kind of Victorian woman in bed am I? That’s the question.

I’m glad I’m going to get four examples tonight to help me choose.

First up is Charlotte Brontë. Now obviously I’m a huge Brontë fan. Charlotte especially. Jane Eyre is my gal. Whenever I’m feeling poor, obscure, plain and little, it’s Ms Eyre I turn to for a dose of no-nonsense snappy comebacks. Although when I get to that quote, I have to stop, because I am actually soulless and heartless.

Charlotte’s taking-to-her-bed involves pregnancy. And a lot of throwing up. And a lack of clean nightclothes.

Not sure I’m really up for any of that.

My fantasies are more of the frilly-nightgown variety. Vomit need not apply.

Moving on. And it’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poetess (a word I am determined to bring back, alongside aviatrix. Now, usually I hate gendered job titles, but these ones are so damn great I think they should be brought back with such enthusiasm and force, they take over and dominate to become gender neutral). She has squirreled under her blankets and she’s absolutely determined not to come out. Her bed is her sanctuary. Her defence against the world. I can get behind this. Except staying in bed means spending the rest of her life with a nosy sister, and an overbearing father. Whereas getting up means being whisked away to Italy by a handsome man.

Hmm. Not sure about this one. Let’s circle back to it when we see what else is on offer.

Next up: Emma Hardy. Wife of Thomas Hardy. Now she has some faboulous hats. An I do enjoy a hat. And she’s a writer. This one has definite potential. Except there’s the whole Thomas issue. And the being unappreciated, unpublished, and unhappy.

Maybe not.

Thankfully we still have one left.

And it’s the lady with the lamp, the ministering angel, the saviour of Scutari: Florence Nightingale. I do like Florence Nightingale. She invented the pie chart, you know. And I love a pie chart.

I think we might be onto a winner here.

Now, I’m not good at that whole, you know, caring thing. So being a nurse is out. But we’re past that by this point. Florence is at home. In bed. And I am totally on board. She’s dictating letters. Ordering men about. And generally being the boss from the blankets. There are even cats keeping her toes warm. And you know how much I adore cats.

Yes. When I take to my bed, I shall be doing it in true Florence style. Bonnet and all.

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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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