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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Keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie

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

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

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

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

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

"My life is weird," I explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice.

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

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

I looked around. And looked around again.

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

That was weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One problem.

The stage isn't empty.

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

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

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

I do it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wanderer Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, yes, but…

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

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Playing gooseberry

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

I would say, if anything, they gatecrashed mine.

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

So I booked a ticket to The Talented Mr Ripley.

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

Oh.

Um.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on then.

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

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

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

“At all?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall we just sit down?”

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

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

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

I could only sigh my agreement.

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

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

“Drinks?” asked Luke.

Fuck yes.

And food.

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

“This is really good,” said Martha.

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

The G&Ts didn’t hurt either.

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

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

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

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

We all made polite noises until she went away again.

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t. Neither were Martha or Luke.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Punctuation of Penetration

“What are you seeing tonight?” asked a colleague curiously.

“Pain-T” was my reply, using a hard 't' that forces its way past the teeth. I’d been saying it like that all day, much to my own amusement and everyone else’s bafflement.

“Right…” she said, quickly hurrying away.

In my defence. That’s how it’s spelt: Pain(t).

Slight pause before the t, before tackling the last, segregated, syllable with full force.

I’m nothing if not literal when it comes to titles.

You don't see it much in the word of theatre, but randomly punctuated titles is a running joke in contemporary dance. Or contemp/ary dance. Or quite possibly, con(temp)/ary dance. Or perhaps even, c⁰(t3mp)/RE d@nc3.

The more the title looks like an unsolvable algebraic equation, the higher the art. That's how it works.

You wouldn't believe the nonsense that I've prevented you lot from seeing. Forget those lists of the 100 most influential people in the arts. Those list-makers don't know shit. You want to find the people who are really making an influence? Go to any theatre's admin office. That's where they live. 

Slogging it out, making ideas happen. Or not happen.

I spend a huge chunk of my time putting myself in the way of artists’ intent on throwing the entire keyboard at their titles.

Like that time I was asked to make the title a colour. Not the word for a colour, you understand. The actual colour.

It must have been around then that I started pronouncing titles exactly as they are written.

“Yes, I’d like to talk about Eggs Plus Ham. Sorry, is it not called that? But, that’s how it’s written? Eggs plus-sign Ham. Oh, do you not want people to call it that? You’d prefer them to say Eggs AND Ham? Would you like me to change that to an ampersand? Yeah, thought you would.”

When you do end up seeing one of those titles crops up, what you're really witnessing is the death of a marketer’s soul. Try as hard as you might, you just can’t hashtag a bracket.

So spare a thought for the marketing team at the New Wimbledon, who as part of the Richard Foreman season in their studio (the Time and Leisure Studio - there’s another terrible name for you) had to deal with the unsociable Pain(t).

Spare a thought for me too, because I had just passed the theatre on my way to meet my friend Ellen for tea and cake and I had spotted something unexpected on the poster.

“It’s 18+,” I said. “I did not know that when I booked.”

“What does that mean? Nudity, I guess.”

Yeah. Nudity. Now, I’m not fussed about nudity on stage. Even on tiny, intimate, studio stages. But that age warning worried me.

“It won’t be that bad,” Ellen soothed as she walked me back to the theatre apres-cake. “It’s Wimbledon. Probably just a few bare bums.”

Well, that was cold comfort.

“Can I check your bag please?” asked the sole person standing in the studio foyer.

Tucked into the side of the New Wimbledon, the studio lurks between amongst a line of squat looking shops.

It’s a bit of a shock after the New Wimbledon proper. No marble staircases. No gilt curlicues stuck on the walls. No stained glass.

Instead I was directed up a grey staircase. Purposely grey. With paint rather than breeze blocks, but still. Grey. Its knock-off Farrow and Ball credibility knocked still further by the purple balustrade. Even the doors, still set with their stained glass panels, got the grey treatment.

 

Like the stained glass doors on just down the stairs, the bones of this old building had been covered up with all the sniffiness of a Victorian lady unable to look upon the bare legs of her dining table least it provoke inappropriate thoughts.

Talking of inappropriate thoughts, what was that noise?

Panting. Female panting. Very excited female panting. And moaning. Very decidedly female and distinctly excited panting and moaning.

The top of the stairs was crowded with men.

Somehow I didn’t think any of them were the source of this symphony of sex.

Nor was the woman balancing the tickets on a small ledge that I could only presume was serving as our box office that night.

“Name?” she said, barely looking up as she was buffeted by people squeezing past.

“Is my name in the programme?” came a voice loud with laughter from the back of the crowd. “My name better be in the programme.”

Let’s just hope the there was no one from the marketing team in ear shot. That’s not the kind of joke that anyone wants to hear after battling against a print deadline. Least of all after they’ve spent months having to deal with that blasted set of brackets.

Name or no, I grabbed a programme and went into the theatre. Red lights simmered in a haze over the stage, and the moans grew more intense. I peered through the gloom, trying to work out where I should sit. At the back. Obviously.

That decided, I made my way up the steps towards back, and promptly tripped down a step, making my entrance to the row rather more dramatic than I had intended.

“I would have done that too if I hadn’t seen another person trip earlier,” said a lady in my newly chosen row, not unkindly.

“It’s all part of some masterplan,” I said, recovering my bag and my dignity.

“They’re secretly filming it.”

“It’ll be all over the internet by next week,” I agreed.

Though if the Time and Leisure (that name…) really wanted to go viral, they should have kept the camera trained on my face during the show. Never have I put on such a varied display of facial expressions: from squinting against the lights being blasted into the audience, to bewilderment, perplexion, and puzzlement.

Now, I consider myself an experienced theatre-goer. I’ve been to the theatre more times this year than most would even attempt in a lifetime. But nothing in the 73 shows I had seen in 2019 could have prepared me for Pain(t).

The disconnected phrases. The lack of characters. The complete contempt for storytelling.

I had to go way back to 2012, to In the Republic of Happiness, to find a mental-match to store Pain(t) with.

After a while I let my brain off the hook, and started planning my dinner. At only 70 minutes long I could be at home before ten, throwing up a whole world of culinary possibilities.

Ellen had been right. It was only Wimbledon.

I’ll leave the genuinely 18+ exploits for Magic Mike Live.

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You’re in a cult; call your dad

After bidding goodbye to my intrepid theatre-pie tasters, it was time for me to head off to my next show.

Oh, you didn't think I was done for the day, did you? This is a four-show weekend, my friend. Five if you include Friday night's convoluted trip to the Barbican.

I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Not really. 

My next show was only down the road, in the basement of the Travelling Through bookshop.  

This is my first bookshop if the marathon. 

I've done the former library that is The Bush, and the library-library that is the London Library. But no bookshop. 

Unless we count the Samuel French bookshop being based in the Royal Court, but I think we can all agree that we won't be doing that. 

So, there we were. On Lower Marsh Street, about to find out if bring able to purchase the books on the shelves makes a difference to the theatre they surround. 

Travelling Through is a very small shop. Or at least, that's how it feels when you are crammed shoulder to shoulder with the rest if the audience, as you wait for one of the Vault Festival ushers to check you in on their, by now familiar looking, tablets. 

After Helen's comment at the Vaulty Towers, suggesting that waiting around while holding a pie was actually part of the show, I did wonder whether this close proximity to my fellow audience members was an attempt to show us what life was like for a book, tucked up on the shelf next to its brethren. But the house was soon opened and we filed downstairs, and I forgot all about it.

The little basement cafe is a cosy space. Long tables take up most of the room, but they'd managed to fit in enough tall poufs for us all to sit on.  Each one topped with a freesheet, which was a nice touch. You don't see many of those in the Vault Festival, which is such a shame. And not just because I'm a paper freak. Even with the wonders of the internet housed in our hand, its surprisingly tricky to find out the names of people involved in shows without one. Everyone talks big game about programmes having had their day, but I think we've still got a while to go before I'm made redundant. I mean, they're made redundant. They. Not me. I can do other things than producing programmes. I swear. Please don't fire me.

At one end, a woman cradled a mug of tea. Somehow she'd managed to score an entire table to herself. 

It was xxx. Our performer. 

We all pretended not to notice. 

"What's your view like," asked a glamorous looking woman as she took the pouf next to me.

I glanced over at xxx to assess the situation. 

"Limited," I admitted.

She considered this. "I think I'll sit on my leg, " she said, tucking up one leg under her. 

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What a good boy

When I tell people about my theatre marathon, the reactions I receive fall broadly into two camps.

The first sounds something a bit like this. "256 theatres? That's very doable. You'll have over a hundred days off!"

As if going to every theatre in London was like reading the complete works of Tolstoy, or learning Klingon. Something that can be done on your own schedule, and not at the whims of programmers.

Unsurprisingly, the people who take this line, almost exclusively, work outside of the arts.

The second group, the ones who have jobs in theatre, take a rather different stance. "That must be costing a fortune!" they start with, eyebrows disappearing into their hairlines. "How many have you done so far?" When I tell them, they usually get embarrassed and mumble something about needing to go to the theatre more. And remember, these people work in theatre, so when we're talking about their theatre-going habits, it tends to be on a trips per-week basis. At this point in the conversation, they start thinking about the logistics. "Are you doing all pub theatres? There's millions of those. And what about all those funny art-centres that are basically cinemas with a stage?" they'll ask. "Or the open air summer ones?" They'll marvel briefly when I tell them about my spreadsheets charting seasonable and pop-up venues. And then they'll frown. "God, your list must be growing all the time," they'll say. To which I agree. People are always sending me links to venues. Sometimes it's one that I’ve missed. Occasionally its one I've never even heard of. This will then be followed by a moment of silence as they try very hard to come up with the name of a theatre that I've never heard of. "Have you got the White Bear Theatre on your list?" they'll ask. For some reason, it's always the White Bear Theatre.

Which is ironic.

No, it really is. Ironic process theory. Tell someone not to think of a white bear, and they’ll instantly think of a white bear. Ask someone to think of a theatre I’ve not hear of… they’ll think of the White Bear Theatre.

I'm telling you this, not because I want to shame you into giving me better intel than the existence of the White Bear Theatre (you know better than that already...) but in order to help explain the mix of emotions that I felt on Tuesday night when a member of the Greenwich Theatre audience stood up after the play, to tell us all about another production, in another venue. A venue I had never been to. A venue I had never heard of. A venue that was definitely not on my list.

A venue that I couldn't damn well find when I start googling as soon as I got on the DLR.

"Just down the road," he'd said. But all my searches of the name plus "Greenwich" weren't turning up anything. I opened Google Maps and started inching my way around, working through all the streets that surrounded Greenwich Theatre.

Nothing.

And I had neglected to note down the name of the play. I tried to remember what he'd said about it. Something to do with the red flag. And a woman. Who gets arrested.

I tried all these as search terms.

Nada.

By the time I reached Bank, I still hadn't found anything and I was beginning to get frantic. What if I never found it? I'd have to live out the rest of this year, nay, my life, knowing that there was a marathon-qualified venue out there, in London, and I had missed it.

Just as I was seriously considering tweeting at the Greenwich Theatre to ask for their help in tracking this place down, it suddenly occurred to me that he might not have been literal.

"Down the road," might not actually be "down the road."

With that divine spark of inspiration, I changed "Greenwich" to "London" and eventually stumbled on a tweet. A tweet that linked to a blog post. A blog post that was reviewing the play. Which I now knew to be called Liberty. So, thanks Alex Hayward!

And thanks to the theatre gods too. They had done me a serious solid. We'd found it. Together.

In Deptford.

I ask you.

Anyway, after moving some things around, I managed to arrange an evening free, and come the day I bought my ticket and...

"Please dress 1930s."

I looked down at what I was wearing.

I was not dressed 1930s.

The jumper might pass, just about, but my skirt was way too short and... oh dear. It was a church. The venue was a church. I was going to a church. Wearing a short skirt. Are short skirts allowed in churches? I don't know. I haven't been in one since I left school. Not a real one, one that still had services and things. And even then it was Sherborne Abbey and my main concern was how many layers I could fit under my coat to protect me against the massive cold stone walls and yet remain unobtrusive enough to avoid notice when I didn’t go up for communion.

And... can you tell I don't do well in churches?

Going through 14 years of religious schooling can do that to a person. Especially when it's 14 years of Christian schooling (Catholic convent school, with nuns and everything, followed by high church CoE) on a Jewish girl...

Oh well. It was too late to change.

Either my outfit or my religion.

We were just going to have to do this thing. We were going to Deptford. To the Zion Baptist Church. On New Cross Road.

Fun fact - I used to work in Deptford. My very first proper job in the theatre was at The Albany. That was a very long time ago. So long that I'd forgotten just how much time it takes to get there.

"No need to run," laughed the lady on the door. She was wearing the most fantastic pillbox hat on her head. I hoped she hadn't spotted my skirt.

"I've run the whole way from the station," I puffed in reply.

"Don't worry. Start time is at five past seven."

So, I wasn't late. I was... five and a half minutes early. Excellent.

She signed my ticket, pointed out the door to the loos, and then directed me to another door where the audience was gathering pre-show. "There's free tea and coffee," she added.

Through the door, and into a space that had the air of an Oxford don's room - all comfy chairs and low lighting and teacups... and can you tell that I didn't go to Oxford and have no idea what a don's room looks like?

Do they have dogs? Because this room definitely had a dog.

He scampered up to me, demanding ear scritches and back rubs.

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The center of attention back for the winter

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

If they let me in, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was no good.

I had to go in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She frowned.

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

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

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

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She smiled. “Here you go.”

Oh.

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

Which meant that she hadn’t read the tweet.

That was good.

I guess.

I felt a little deflated.

Offended almost. 

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

I considered telling her this.

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

She was still holding out the ticket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost applauded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tripping the Ecto Fantastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We nodded.

She clapped. “Can you hear that?”

We nodded again. We could. Just about.

“Alright.”

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

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

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

I wasn’t overly fussed about that.

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

Any spirit would do me.

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

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

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

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

Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.

A second later it disappeared.

The blackness took over.

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

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

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

My heart was hammering.

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

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

My hands began to tremble.

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

If only it weren’t so dark…

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

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

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

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

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

The awful clanging stopped.

Something was moving around the room again.

Something… not human.  

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

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

The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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My big fat brain

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

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

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

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

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

Why did I go? Why this show?

Okay, great start. Good, strong start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever, I was fat.

And I never saw myself on stage.

No, wait. That’s not true.

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

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

And it killed me.

No prizes for guessing it was a Martin McDonagh.

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

This blog post is not about Martin McDonagh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. Too many times. Too much hurt.

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

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

Because it knows the world’s dark secret.

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

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

And I have to live with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of course they are.

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

The world has grown the smaller I got.

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

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

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

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

The incorporeal manner of cats

The Omnibus Theatre must have the most middle-class "how to get here" instructions in London. 

"You should see a Little Waitrose the opposite side of the road," it lightly trilled - or at least, that’s how it sounded in my head, in the tones of a boarding school housemistress whose fiancee had left her for a nightclub dancer.

I did see a Little Waitrose on the opposite side of the road.

We were off to a good start.

“Follow The Pavement,” it continued. I followed The Pavement. And all the rest of the instructions, until I found the theatre, on the corner of Clapham Common Northside and the very literary sounding Orlando Road, “opposite the Starbucks,” exactly as advised.

This air of quiet gentility continued through the door, as I saw signs for the Common Room which gave off less of an air of Man on the Clapham Omnibus, and more the Girls of Malory Towers. I half expected to see Darrell and Felicity toasting crumpets over the fire.

Oh, god. I could do with a crumpet right about now… Nope. I don’t. What I could do with is stopping thinking about food all the time.

Words. Writing. Theatre. That’s what I should be concentrating on.

Anyway, where was I? Yes. Clapham. The Omnibus. Fine.

I gave my name at the box office, and was handed a laminated token in exchange.

“Seating is unreserved. The house is open now. But there's still time to get a drink.”

A very relaxed statement given the usual rush to get seats when doors open.

This atmosphere extended into the Common Room, where people lazed about on squashy sofas and chatted quietly. No one looked like they were in any particular rush to head into the theatre.

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“I do like an arched door,” commented one woman, taking a photo of said arched door. She turned to her companion. “Shall we get a drink?”

Flummoxed by all this tranquility, I too hung back, taking my own pictures of the space. There’s plenty there to photograph. Bookcases, artworks on the wall, big sprawling wooden tables, a bar heavily laden with knick-knacks.

But you and I both know that such serenity couldn’t last. Not in my little anxious soul.

As the clock above the bar sloughed away the seconds, I began to grow restless and I found myself heading over to those arched doors. There was no holding back. I was going in.

After all the arched doors and squashy sofas and bookcases, I’d expected something a little bit different than the regimented rows of neat blue seats that I found inside the theatre.

With the light pouring in from the rear, highlighting the backs of everyone’s heads, it was almost like being inside a cinema. A feeling not helped by the actors already in situ on stage, sat in formation, staring out at us. Watching. Dressed in vintage blacks, they looked a still from a silent movie come to life.

I may have been in all-black too, but mine wasn’t vintage. My own efforts had a distinct lack of black satin flowers. There was no black lace capes draped over a matching black lace gown. No black beaded trim, black ribboned shoes or… Ooo… what was that? Shiny black jacquard? Yes, please! The costume-envy was going to be strong on this one. I could already tell.

Hoping the cast didn’t misconstrue the lust in my eyes, I quickly shuffled into an aisle seat about half-way back for some quality outfit-perving.

But someone was coming down the aisle, blocking my view. Someone familiar looking.

Michael Billington, theatre reviewing royalty. Nay, the king himself. Whatever grain of salt you use on his reviews, he deserves respect. The man’s been a drama critic for The Guardian since before I was born.

Golly.

It wasn’t press night was it?

I checked.

No. It was the last preview.

Cheeky.

Still, I was intrigued to see where the great master would sit. I creeped on him under the guise of reading the freesheet. 

The row behind me. On the aisle.

I congratulated myself on my seat choice. Mid-way back and on the aisle - the critics' choice.

But in all my pretend reading of the freesheet I had managed to not read something.

I went back to it, unsure if I had not read it because I was not actually reading, or not read it because it was not there.

I scanned the narrow pages.

Nope. It wasn’t there. No running time.

Had the woman on box office mentioned a running time? I couldn’t remember. I had been thinking about crumpets.

Was there even an interval?

Considering the play I was watching was primarily set in intervals, this could all become quite meta very fast.

I was there for The Orchestra, where the frenzied back-biting between the musicians takes place in the interludes in their playing.

Or rather, not playing. The music was piped in as the actors bowed, plucked, and pounded at their instruments - not making a sound for themselves.

When a cello was replaced by knitting needles, I craned forward, trying to see if that was being faked too.

“Japan stitch is vulgar,” sneered one of the characters, also leaning in to have a look.

Japan stitch?

I’d never heard of it, but then, I haven’t knitted much since I was a teenager.

I turned to the expert, my fiend Ellen. She knits for the stars of The Royal Ballet. She’d know.

“Ellen - is the Japan stitch vulgar?” I messaged her as the lights rose.

“I’ve never heard of it! It’s a knitting term?” she messaged back a minute later.

Hmm.

Helen was equally dubious. “I reckon Japan stitch is completely made up,” she interjected. “1. Japan doesn’t knit traditionally. 2. If it was a stitch it would be all metaphysical and ineffable and inscrutable and zen and that.”

Well, quite.

But all this lead to another question. Had the play finished? I mean, I knew it had, because we’d clapped and shit. But the other things that happen when plays come to a close had, well, not.

For example, leaving. People weren’t doing that.

The laid back atmosphere of the Common Room had invaded the theatre. No one wanted to budge.

Taking some initiative, I put on my coat and scarf, and as no one made an attempt to stop me, I left.

“Excuse me,” came a voice from behind me as I paused to look at one of the pieces of art on the wall.

Oh, shit. Maybe there really was more.

I turned round.

“Would you like me to explain the artwork?” said the small woman standing behind me.

I did. It looked strange and wonderful. A series of white cloth dolls, perfectly poised on rows of string - like a display of voodoo dolls, available to purchase for the curse-rich but time-poor witch.

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“They belong to an art project called Dreams and a Heart. I ask members of the community to fill the doll with dreams,” she said, touching a cloud of cotton wool on the table. “Then we insert a heart and meditate over it before adding it to the display.

“Would you like to make one?” she asked gently.

I did rather fancy sewing a doll, but I fancied going home even more. So I passed.

I'd hate the give the poor things my dreams anyway. It must be hard enough being strung up there without my unconscious thoughts fucking it up.

I made to hurry out, but as I was leaving I spotted something.

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What the…

There are cats? Two of them? At the Omnibus? And I missed them?

I am outraged, appalled, and frankly hurt that the cats hadn’t made themselves known to me.

This is worse than the ghost hunt of theatre 3/251. Ghosts at least have the decency to exist in an incorporeal manner that might easily escape detection. Cats, on the other hand, have too much fluff to occupy liminal spaces.

I dithered in the doorway. I could go back, I told myself. I might see a cat. I might even see two cats. I might… here my brain took on a zealous tone: I might partake in the making of art!

I cringed.

Ergh. Too much, brain. Way too much.

Stick to thinking up blog post titles from now on, will you?

The Ruffians on the Stairs

Proving once again that I really can complain about anything, I would like it on record that the Hope Theatre is too close to my work.

I stayed an extra hour in the office, walked as slowly as my legs would allow, took a half-mile detour, popped into Boots, and still managed to arrive with fifteen minutes to spare.

At least that gave me time to wrestle with my phone. In the rain. It's now got to the stage where I can't take a photo at all if it isn't plugged into some form of charger.

Let me tell you, if you haven't stood in the rain, balancing an umbrella on your shoulder, a phone in one hand and a charger in the other, than you have not truly experienced a theatre marathon.

Oh yeah, I'm sure it's possible to do this challenge with fully functional technology at your disposal, but is that really in the spirit of the enterprise? No, my friend. No, it is not.

I mean, sure... you would benefit. Better photos, perhaps even better blog posts. They'd certainly be produced by a less stressed blogger. But if my phone didn't crap out and lose my changes at least twice while writing each of my posts, what on earth would I blame my typos on? Riddle me that.

Perhaps we should consider my terrible photos as an external expression of my inner marathon trauma. An artistic series if you will. We can call it: The Downfall of a Theatre Blogger 251.

Fine, we’ll workshop the title later.

Anyway, yes - sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself there. Running down a path that no one is interested in. Certainly not you.

Let's go back to the image of me, standing in front of the Hope & Anchor Pub, taking photos, in the rain.

No, wait. Let's go even further back. All the way to my detour.

Because the truth is - I lied to you.

It wasn't a detour. Or at least not a planned one. I got lost. Well, not lost exactly. I knew where I was. But where I was wasn't at the Hope.

But Max, I hear you sigh. You literally just said this theatre was close to your work. How did you manage to get lost?

Well, I wasn't lost. As I've already told you. I was just... elsewhere.

I walk past the Hope & Anchor a lot. Exactly because of the whole working nearby thing. So when I headed out to go there, that's exactly what I did. I walked past.

I have a lot on my mind at the moment, and... can I blame the rain? Eh. I'm going to blame the rain. It was coming down pretty strong.

Anyway, I caught myself before I had gone too far. And walked myself back.

I must have been looking a bit bedraggled by that point as the man having a cheeky cigarette by the door almost stumbled in his efforts to open the door for me.

The pub was packed, and it took a fair bit of squeezing between tables to make my way to the box office, positioned at the end of the bar.

“Have you been to the Hope before?” asked the bloke manning the box office lapton after I’d been handed my ticket and bought myself a programme (£1).

Ah. He’d sussed me out. Yes, to my shame, this was the first time I had been to the Hope. Over two years of walking past, and I’d never made it through the doors before.

“Right,” he said. “Well, you'll be heading up the stairs. I'll ring the bell when it's time. Its 60 minutes, no interval. And if you leave you can't come back in.”

Nicely done.

Though I think some of the regulars could have stood to have heard that speech. As a few minutes later, I spotted a group heading upstairs. Not wanting to be left behind, I dropped into line and followed them.

The line stalled at the door.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be up here yet,” came an unseen voice from the top of the stairs.

A queue started forming behind me.

There was no going back now.

We were doing this thing.

Soon the line was winding its way right back down to the pub. I may be a newbie, but this felt very familiar. This was Royal Court Upstairs-style queuing going on right there.

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“I have cheese in my pocket,” said the man behind me.

Not to me, you understand. I was just eavesdropping.

“What a strange admission,” laughed his companion.

A very strange admission indeed, but I didn’t get to hear the explanation for the pocketed cheese as the bell started clanging below.

“The doors are now opening for the Ruffian on the Stair,” called out the box office bloke. I fancied he gave the queue a derisive look but that was probably my imagination. Still, I wouldn’t blame him. There was certainly a collective air of delinquency going on amongst us.

The door finally opened, and we made it upstairs. And after having my ticket ripped (what a joy to actually have a proper ticket getting its stub ripped off. It’s one of those theatrical rituals that is so joyful in its simplicity. A proof of use. Like a stamp getting postmarked) we headed inside.

The stage was so small, the front row looked as if they were part of the set. Like dining table chairs pushed back against the wall because the room is needed for something more important than the business of eating.

The bravery that had gradually been building up this month suddenly evaporated. I headed to the second row, in the darkest corner I could find.

And from my tucked away spot, I inspected my ticket.

I hadn’t given it proper attention before. But the combination of ripping and unreserved seating intrigued me.

It had the logo on it. And the twitter handle. The address and the url.

So far, so standard.

But then on the back:

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“DID YOU KNOW?” it shouted out in all caps (and bold too!). “By purchasing this ticket,” it continued, in a more reasonable font, “you are personally helping to ensure that all actors you see tonight are paid a legal wage. Aren’t you great?”

I preened. I am pretty great.

That was quite the distracting thought though.

Not my greatness. That’s something I have to live with every day. I mean the legal wage bit.

The Hope Theatre is tiny. TINY. And there were three people on stage.

I tried to do the maths, but failed. I… got distracted by the play.

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I’d never seen a Joe Orton work before, and I had really wanted to. I admit it, I was drawn in by story of his demise, a modern-day Christopher Marlowe. But man, that guy could write.

The lady sitting across from me certainly agreed. Her facial expressions as each shocking new line was dropped were magnificent. It was like sitting opposite a live reaction gif. Mouth dropped. Eyebrows raised. She jumped and gasped and jerked back in her seat in perfect time with the action.

I don’t think I have ever loved anyone more than I loved that women during this hour-long play.

May the theatre gods bless and protect you, lady. You are perfect.

Feeling a little woozy from the play and my short-lived love-affair, I had to hold onto the balustrade for balance as I made my way back down the stairs.

The pub was nearly empty now.

I buttoned up my coat, slung on my shawl, and stepped outside.

The rain had stopped by then, and it was snowing.

Garfield isn't the only one

Finding shows to see on Mondays is becoming increasingly difficult.

So many theatres take the day off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor the friendliness of the staff.

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

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

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

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

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

I changed the subject.

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

“Oh yes! Help yourself!”

I did.

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

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

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

"Without public support tickets would cost £51.11." 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sat in the front row.

Oof. 

The bench seats were covered in golden velvet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was not the only one to appreciate it.

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

The Gate really does foster a community atmosphere…

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

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

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

Mwah. Mwah. Kissssessss…

I was beginning to regret my seat choice.

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

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

Curtains lifted.

Seiriol and Temi, our actors, stepped out.

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

They opened the first script packets.

And we were off.

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

It was brilliant fun.

Bows. Applause.

They had made it. And so had we.

We packed ourselves up crunched out over the cornflakes

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

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Yes, I suppose they are going to have to.

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

Even on Mondays.

Pottering about

People who have anxiety shouldn’t have to go to immersive theatre.

People who have anxiety shouldn’t do theatre marathons.

When the Vault Festival released their line-up earlier in the year I was a just a tad concerned about the number of spaces they were taking over, but also a little thrilled. Nine venues that were relevant to the rules of this challenge. Nine venues that need to be burst through within a single festival. Nine venues that include: Unit 9.

I didn’t understand the significance of this space at first.

It was just one in a long list of venues that I needed to get to.

That was until the very moment when I sorted my massive spreadsheet of Vault shows by venue and spotted something: every single show taking place in Unit 9 was immersive.

Every. Single. One.

Because, and forgive me if you already know this, Unit 9 is an immersive theatre space. That’s what it’s there for. That’s its thing.

If I was going to complete this marathon, I was going to need to get my immersion on.

After releasing a plaintive cry out over Twitter, the no-nonsense @Weez sorted through the options and leant me her analysis of the situation. Something for which I will forever be grateful for.

The Archive of Educated Hearts it was.

Ticket booked!

After the gentle charm of the Puppet Theatre Barge earlier than afternoon, I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to be thrown into the anxiety-inducing world of immersive theatre.

When I got to Waterloo, I headed straight for the nearest Cafe Nero for a restorative hot chocolate and toasted tea cake.

Yes, it may be rather pre-emptive to be having my restorative sugar-dose before the show, but who knew if I would actually survive to eat carbs again!

And yes, I’d already had a hot chocolate that afternoon on the barge, but I’d got a taste for it by then. I wanted that warming feeling in my belly once more.

Teacake consumed, I had to admit that I had done as my preparation as could possibly be expected, and I made my way over to Leake Street.

I’d been there before. Back when the Vaults first opened and everyone was buzzing with excitement about this brand new venue. But since then, my internal map has grown a little faded and I had to look up the “Finding Us” information on the e-ticket. A little vague on first read, but I put my faith in the instructions and soon I was making my way down the “first set of stairs you come to” and found myself in the heavily graffitied tunnel that is home to the Vaults.

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Bag checked, I headed inside.

Oh good. There was a map up on the wall.

I scanned it: Cavern, Pit, Forge. All places that I’ll be visiting over the next few weeks.

But no Unit 9.

I looked over at the chalk boards displaying all the start times of the shows that day.

No The Archive of Educated Hearts.

Had I imagined the entire thing?

Have my dreams of going to the theatre now extended into my waking hours?

Was Unit 9 nothing more than a nightmare dreamt up by my anxiety? I sure hoped so.

But I thought I better double check all the same.

“Hi. Where’s Unit 9?” I asked at box office. “I don’t see it on the map.”

“Are you seeing one of the immersive pieces?”

I cringed. “Yes.”

“Is it Séance?”

“No. It’s the one with the really long name.” We stared at each other. “Hang on.” I got my phone out. “Archive of Educated Hearts?” I said, as a question.

“Right,” she nodded. “If you head outside you’ll see a sign for it. Just wait there and you’ll be led over to the venue.”

I did as she said, heading back out.

I saw a sign of the studio. But nothing for Unit 9.

“Sorry, where’s the queue for Unit 9?” I asked a pink-jacketed usher.

“Are you here for one of the immersive experiences?” she asked.

I cringed again. I wish that would stop using that word.

I nodded. “Archive of the Educated Hearts,” I said.

She pointed my across the road.

“Just over there. If you talk to the lady in the pink jacket, she’ll tell you where to go.”

Passed over to my second pink-jacket of the evening, I was checked in via the medium of a tablet and then the both of us, pink-jacket and me, waited for the rest of the gang to arrive.

I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one confused by this system.

“Is this for Archive?”

“Are you queuing for Unit 9?”

“Do I need to give you my name now?”

But eventually we all got our names ticked off on the tablet and a third pink-jacket arrived.

“Everyone for The Archive of Educated Hearts and Escape the Jacket…” He paused dramatically. “Follow me!”

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We followed him, down the tunnel, past the graffiti artists and the photographers recording their work. Past cafes tucked into arches and anti-Brexit artwork. Past a rapper who was apparently filming a music video (“he has his lyrics on the floor,” giggled the girls in front of me who seemed to recognise him).

Then reaching for a part of the wall that looked like every other part of the wall, our personal pink-jacket opened a previously invisible door and ushered us in.

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The stark pale stones and strung up lights were a bit of a shock after the riotous colour of the tunnel. It was like being ushered into a cave.

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“If you’re here for Escape the Jacket, stand over by that wall,” called the man behind the desk. “Everyone for Archive - over there.” He pointed slightly further into the space.

Our group split into two.

Standing a few feet off, a woman in full Marlene Dietrich mode (including the top hat), escaped from another show (and possibly a jacket), smiled at us as we were led past, deep into the cavern.

We rounded a corner, and there, was our destination.

A small garden-shed.

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“You can leave your bags over there, if you like. No one else will be let in. They’re quite safe,” said a young woman wearing comfy looking dungarees and a warm scarf. “Come in, take a seat. If we’re sold out one of you will need to take the very special seat on the floor. Don’t worry, there’s a cushion.”

We ducked our heads and went in, inching our way along the walls to reach our seats.

It was a tight squeeze, but very comfortable. Postcards flittered above our heads, clipped onto twine. A desk was cramped with oddments from old watches to books to dried flowers.

And the smell… something floral and herby. Like the insides of a Miller Harris boutique. I breathed in deep.

“I’m closing the door now,” announced our dungareed host. “If you want to leave, just let me know. I’m only locking it to stop it from opening itself.”

She introduced herself (“I’m Casey”) switched on a CD player that looked like it was lifted straight from my dorm bedroom at school, laughed at the music (“spa music”), removed her coat and began to give us the housekeeping speech. All very casual. All very chill. I began to relax.

So did everyone else.

One woman even asked if the music could be turned down. “You don’t worry about that,” assured Casey. She was right, we didn’t.

We didn’t need to worry about anything.

Casey led us through the show, sometimes playing clips of people talking, sometimes showing us photos, sometimes talking herself. Everything with a warm earnestness that was a soothing balm on my anxious soul.

A men closed his eyes to listen. A woman rested her head on her partner’s shoulder and squeezed his hand tight. The lady who had asked for the music to be turned down dabbed at her eyes.

After half an hour, we were let out.

“I’m just going to give you a card from CoppaFeel,” said Casey, removing a pile of small cards with instructions on how to self-exam your breasts from the desk. “Keep one or give it to a loved one.”

I took a card, and a minute later I was disgorged back into the tunnel - with its graffiti artists, and photographers, and people queuing for shows. And I felt utterly, and totally, calm.

Rose-tinted theatre

I’m going to like this place.

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

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

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

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

Wait, what?

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

Shit.

Double shit.

Shit on a cracker.

The Arcola has more than one theatre.

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

Shitshitshitshitshit.

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

She glanced at the ticket.

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

But I wasn’t paying attention.

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

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

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

Wait.

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

"Let me check," she said.

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

She checked.

I had.

Phew.

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

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

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

The bunny-hop bench had betrayed me.

I felt less kindly to it after that.

I decided to go for a wander.

The bar looked nice. But busy.

Staff everywhere.

And on the wall… oh bliss… oh rapture.

Cast sheets.

Free for the taking.

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

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

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

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

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

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Hmm. That didn’t look right.

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

Shitshitshitshitshit.

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

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

I didn't make it that far. 

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

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

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

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

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What I didn't forget was the cold.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong of me to doubt them.

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

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

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

Call me, yeah?

Wet floor, warm hearts

I went to the Sadler's Wells archive in Finsbury library yesterday. It's not a theatre. Just records of a theatre. Stretching back hundreds and hundreds of years. They have massive playbills from the 1840s. And a letter from Margot Fonteyn’s mum to Ninette De Valois asking about ballet lessons for her daughter. It doesn’t count towards the marathon. But it was fun anyway, and if you're interested I have some photos over on my Instagram.

Don’t worry, I did get to a marathon-qualified venue eventually. 

Even if the weather did its best to stop me.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays this theatre-goer from the slow completion of her marathon.

Fucking snow.

If you can call it snow.

It was sleet at best. Or perhaps we should just call it slush. Airborne slush. That didn’t even have the decency to land on the ground before becoming dirty and grey and gross.

But I made it through. Me and my umbrella. Battling through the cold and wet to make it to Regent’s Park. Hugging the buildings the entire way to avoid the huge splashes of frigid water that lept up to bite my ankles with every passing car. My boots sliding around on the icy pavements. Unable to see through the curtain of snow that was pounding down on us all.

Turning the corner and seeing the warm lights of the New Diorama Theatre blazing out against the dark square was like being called home to a roaring fire and a pot of freshly brewed tea. I could feel my entire body relaxing. I had made it.

A few quick shots for my Instagram stories and I would be inside. I even thought I might order myself that tea.

I positioned myself in at the other side of the square, balancing the handle of my umbrella on my shoulder and trying hard not to think about chilblains as I peeled the mitten-portion of my gloves off my fingers.

Lined up my shot. Sign visible. Outside not too dark. Foyer welcoming. Nice.

Then my phone shut itself off.

Fuck.

I tucked my umbrella handle under my chin so that I could use both hands to turn it back on again, key in the code and relaunch the camera app.

A few minutes later we were back. The battery half-drained but no matter. I could deal with that later.

Prepped the shot again. Sign. Outside. Foyer. Welcoming. Nice.

The screen went black.

It had turned itself off again.

By this point my fingers were so numb I couldn’t even feel the power-button. I smashed at it a few times and hoped for the best.

Shit. The battery was dead.

Shivering by this time, I fought my way out from under my massive shawl and wrestled the zip of my bag open. There was no need to panic. I had a charger. Finding a black charger, in a black bag, with numb fingers however… tricky.

#GothProblems. Am I right?

My fingers eventually managed to wrap themselves around the wire and I hoiked it out.

Plug in. Smash button. Phone on.

We were back in business.

I got my photos, and sent my Instagram Story. I just hope my Instagram followers know what I go through for them. Ungrateful sods.

As I shook out my umbrella and pushed my way inside the theatre, I realised I wasn’t the only one suffering in this weather. Because there, shuffling around on the floor, where two staff members. I paused, hanging back, wondering what a person was supposed to do when confronted with the sight of two women crouched down on their hands and knees.

“That’s better,” said one of them, sitting back on her feet.

The other kept on going, wiping the ground with a paper towel.

They were drying the floor.

I made sure my feet were safely on the mat and wondered whether I should give myself a shake like a dog coming out of the sea. Or perhaps ask to be hung up somewhere warm so that I could drip-dry in peace.

I waited for them to finish before venturing over to the box office. A real box office! There might even be real... oh.

 "This ticket is recyclable. Please hand it in as you enter the auditorium," proclaimed the laminated pass I was handed.

Recyclable? Damn them. I can't even be annoyed now they've played to eco-friendly card. 

"Are their programmes?" I asked, more in hope than expectation.

I was waved towards a pile of freesheets stacked in front of me on the counter. 

That was something at least. I took two. 

But next to the freesheets was something else. Something far more exciting. 

A little tray. And in the tray... 

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Badges!

I had already spotted them online while booking my ticket. But I hadn't expected them to be quite so big and shiny. 

My magpie eyes stared at them longingly. 

I had almost ordered one off their website. At two quid they are almost justifiable as a throw-in when buying a ticket. But my card hadn't gone through on the first attempt, and when I came round to try again the more sensible portions of my brain had caught wind of my intentions and put a stop to it.

But there they were. All enamely and gorgeous. 

I wanted one.

"Thanks," I said, pocketing my admission pass and walking away as quickly as I could. Stronger, yes. But badgeless. There were no winners here.

I decamped to the other side of the foyer to fold my freesheets and put them away, all the while sneaking glances a the badge tray.

A man came in asking about tickets to that night's performance. He asked a lot of questions. How much are the tickets? When does it start? Where is the theatre? Can I sit here?  (He asked that one twice).

I got the impression this was his first outing to a theatre. 

The woman on box office answered all his questions patiently and clearly. (He could indeed sit there). 

It was interesting to find out what a first timer felt he needed to know. But I didn't stick around to find out what else baffled him because the one and only sofa in the cafe had just been vacated and I was determined to sit on it.

Facing directly onto the floor length windows it was a prime snow watching seat, even if by then it was mainly rain.

Still, a great place to sit and read a freesheet. 

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I was enjoying it so much I didn't realise that the queue to go into the auditorium had been building up until it had filled the entire foyer and was spilling out into the cafe - right in front of my sofa. 

Oops. 

I quickly gathered my things and positioned myself in the midst of all these people. 

For unreserved seating, the house opened very early. Ten whole minutes (in should have been five, but the show started late) for us to sit around getting to know our fellow audience members. A time fully taken use of by my neighbour who insisted on introducing his elbow to my ribs on multiple occasions, despite them already being well acquainted.

The little shit.

He stopped once the play started, clearly too engrossed to waggle his arms about.

Or perhaps I was too engrossed to notice. 

After all the buzz about this play which merges the 1938 Orson Wells radio play, and the spread of internet trolls, I thought that the hype around Rhum & Clay's War of the Worlds might have been fake news.

It certainly would have made a better blog post if it was. 

But I can't fault them for being excellent... can I? No. I can't. Or maybe...? No. Sorry.  

I even have to award bonus points for having the tech team positioned in a booth overlooking the stage so I could watch them in all their glory.

After being so close (and yet so far) back at the Charing Cross Theatre, it was nice to finally get my fix of techy goodness. 

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Now if they could just fix my phone...

Scratch that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can see why people think this place is nice.

Very comfy.

Very cool.

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

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

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

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

Of course she did.

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

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

The dream was shattered. My time was up.

But it was glorious while it lasted.

Oh well.

It was nearly show time anyway.

I made my way back to the foyer.

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

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

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

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

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

The radio crackled back into life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written incorrectly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a treat.

As was the horsey helium balloon in the second piece. 

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

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

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

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

Magic.

Science fiction, double feature

Is there anything more hedonistic than taking a half-day off work to watch ballet?

No, my friend. There isn’t.

And I can’t even blame the marathon for such an extravagant use of my time.

I’d had this outing planned for months. There was no way I was going to miss ballet-god Rupert Pennefather’s glorious return to the London stage.

Sadly, we all know what they say about god and plans.

But I wasn’t going to let the little matter of an injury and the resulting cast changes get in the way of my self-indulgent afternoon. So, after a quick lunch at my desk, I sauntered down to the London Coliseum. Or rather, the Coli. Everyone calls it the Coli. Or at least, I think everyone does. I certainly do. Perhaps just the pretentious twats who frequent it on the regular use that name. Of which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, I am very much one.

Which leads me to this question… how do I write about a venue that I am this bloody familiar with? One that I even have a charming nickname for? I can’t describe walking around in wide-eyed wonder as I’m sure I would have done if I’d been a newbie. The Coli really is the most extraordinary venue. Over-the-top in almost every aspect. It’s not just the gilt, and the velvet, and the massive stage. These are merely the base layer onto which Frank Matcham built his monument to excess. There are domes. Multiple ones. With stained glass. And stone gargoyles guarding the staircase. Marble balustrades. Mosaic covered ceilings (with umbrella’s to match). Carved wooden doors. Roman iconography. Golden horses. And then topping it all, a spinning globe lit up with the name of the theatre.

It has so much bling, even Elizabeth Taylor would think it a bit gaudy.

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