Sneaking Feels

"Taxi!"

I'm not a taxi, but I look round all the same.

We're at the traffic lights on Waterloo Road and a man is hanging out of the window of his car, waving at the black cab next to him.

"What's that building called?" he hollers at the black cab. With a huge sweeping gesture, he motions over to big building opposite us.

I feel like shouting back that it's The Old Vic, but I think the cab driver has it sorted.

I cross the road and peel away. I'm not going to The Old Vic tonight. I've already been to The Old Vic. So, unless The Old Vic decides it's opening a new studio theatre, which wouldn't surprise me given that all the other theatres seem to be doing it at the moment, I have no business in the place before 2020.

Instead, I slip down Cornwall Road, away from all the cafes and restaurants and general bustle of the area, to a road that looks like it got lost on its way to an industrial estate.

There, little more than a door in the wall, is the Waterloo East Theatre.

And it's packed.

I can barely make it through that door in the wall, the corridor inside is so crowded.

Pushing through into the foyer area doesn't help. If anything, the press of people is even more, well, pressing, in here.

Through the jam of backs and elbows and shoulders, I can just about see a sign indicating the presence of a box office and I make my way towards it. Only through careful examination of who are holding tickets do I manage to work out the existence of a queue. I join it.

A minute later, it's my turn.

I give my surname.

"Ah yes!" says the box officer, turning to reach for the ticket box. "I was marvelling at that earlier. I had a wager with myself about whether you'd be really glum. But you're not!" he adds hurriedly.

"Well, with everyone saying how great my name is the whole time, it's hard to be glum." Which is true.

I spot something on the counter. A sign advertising programmes for two quid. Well, it's advertising ‘programs’ for two quid because apparently we're American here in the Waterloo East Theatre. That or they're actually shifting some really niche computer software. I decide not to point this out. Don't want the nice box officer thinking I'm letting my surname down.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask.

"Yes, but they're over at the bar, actually."

Somehow I manage to make it over to the bar on the opposite side of this miniature-sized foyer.

Past the loos and a ladder leading up to a terrifying-looking balcony.

At least, I think they're the loos.

The gendered signage in the forms of dancing silhouettes is a little confusing.

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As for the ladder.

"That convenient door," says someone. "I'm sure that's the entrance, and not rather up those inconvenient stairs."

"The stairs do look very inconvenient," comes the reply.

"I wouldn't want to try them."

Nor would I. I'm very glad to here that we will be accessing the space through a door. At ground level.

I reach the bar, and pay my two pounds. Getting a handsome programme in return.

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I have a flick through.

More American spelling. Theaters instead of theatres abound. They should rename this place the Waterloo Iowa Theater.

I wouldn't mind so much if they didn't flip-flop between the two throughout. Theatre or theater. Doesn't matter which. They need to pick one and own it.

The cover is very much on-trend, in that you would know you were seeing a gay play without ever having to read the marketing copy. Lots of abs. Lots of soft purple lighting. I'm beginning to think of it as the Above the Stag aesthetic.

Judging by the fire code violation that is this overstuffed foyer, it's clearly doing the job.

The men are out in force for Afterglow. And a couple of women. And by a couple I mean literally two. Me and another girl. She's over by the bar, buying herself a very small glass of wine.

The man behind the bar retreats through the convenient door, reappearing a few minutes later. "Apologies for the delay," he says to us all. "We had a slight technical problem which is now solved, so we'll be opening in a few minutes."

"Thank you!" someone in the crowd replies.

I use the time to look around.

Brick walls alternate with corrugated iron. All coated with a layer of framed playbills, and what looks like drawings of actors. There's Alan Rickman as Snape. And Carrie Fisher with her big bunned Princess Leia. And Charlie Chaplin as... Charlie Chaplin? Literally can't name any of his roles.

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A chalkboard advertises the price list for the Wet Bar, which is a term I know the meaning of, but will never understand.

The front of houser reappears. "We are about to open the house. It's very busy tonight so please sit in your allocated seats," he says, in what must be a first for this marathon. I've encountered a fair few seat-swappers along the way, but never enough to warrant that kind of announcement. Apparently, at the Waterloo East, seat numbers are only a suggestion.

"No phones inside the auditorium," he goes on. "Under any circumstances at all."

Shit. Well, that's okay. I'll just have to be super sneaky about my auditorium photos.

"Anyone spotted with a phone will be removed."

Double shit.

"Switch off social media and enjoy live performance."

Okay, Grandad.

I put my phone away in my bag. I don't want to get kicked out. I'll figure the photo problem out later.

The box officer is on the door now, and I show him my ticket as I pass through.

We file into the auditorium, the ceiling curving over our heads. We're in a railway arch. The natural home of fringe theatre in London.

The stage is tucked in at one end. With a proper, full on set.

Rising away from it is a very narrow block of seating. So that we're not just sitting inside a railway arch, we actually get the experience of sitting within the close confines of a train.

I climb the stairs until I reach my row, but am left blinking at the seats, not knowing where to go.

There are seat numbers. I can see them. But they've been stuck on the backs of the seats. Am I supposed to lean over to find out if I'm in the right chair? That sounds way more acrobatic than I am capable of on a Sunday night.

I look at the row in front. We're starting at 'one' on the aisle. That's simple enough.

I decide to count my way into my seat, and hope for the best.

"There's no seat numbers?" says a bloke staring out my row.

"They're here," says his companion.

They both stare at the numbers, before deciding to sit next to me.

I now understand why there's a pre-show announcement telling us to sit in our allocated seats. It really is more complicated then it sounds.

A second later, they are getting up and leaving the row.

They stand awkwardly in the aisle and a group of young women squeeze in.

"Shall I get out?" I ask, standing up to let them through, and realising there isn't much room for passing.

"No, it's okay," says one of them and they press on, my leaning as far back as I can and them side-stepping their way to their seats.

This must be what they mean by intimate theatre.

And then the play starts, and... I mean. I'd heard that things were rather... But this is very...

They are naked. They are all naked.

And it's fine. Because I am a grown up. At the theatre. And it's actually a rather good play. With excellent actors. Who just happen to be naked.

And... hey. I just got elbowed. The man sitting in front of my just elbowed me! Stuck his pointy arse elbow in between the seats and rammed it back into my knee. And... hey! He just did it again.

What a twat.

No matter. He seems to have got control of himself now. Back to the play.

I love all these characters. Even when they are awful And I swear if this ends badly, I am going to be very upset.

They've really got to stop having shower scenes though. I'm not sure I can handle any more.

Gasps ring out and there's a quiet moan of "noooooo," as one of them does something awful. Bastard.

The girl sitting next to me starts to sniff.

First a delicate one, but then a great big snotty one. She's crying.

Oh gawd.

She's not the only one.

Sniffs and sobs surround me on all sides.

Those bastards drew us in with well-lit abs, and now they making feels explode all over the place.

That's not fair.

Blackout.

We sit in stunned silence.

Then the applause starts.

The girl next to me sniffs and claps, sniffs and claps. The guys on the other side jump to their feet in full ovation mode.

Then it's time to leave.

I get out my phone and sneak a photo.

Well, it's not like they can kick me out now.

Plus, that's the least they can do after pummeling my heart.

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Just rip my fucking throat out already

It's Saturday morning. And I'm still very, very ill.

Okay, it's past noon and I'm mostly just feeling sorry for myself, but the point still stands.

I'm tired. And I have a cough. And the only show I want to be seeing is the immersive drama: The Duvet. Very conceptual. It involves lying under a duvet. And then being left alone for twelve to fourteen hours. Cups of tea are lovingly placed on the bedside table next to you by a silent and unseen presence. Sadly, I couldn't get the funding. So here we are.

At the Bloomsbury Theatre, for another go at the Bloomsbury Fest.

I'm just gonna pause right now and say that I'm actually super grateful for the Bloomsbury Festival because I was having the absolute worst time trying to find a show in the studio space in the Bloomsbury Theatre to book for. Ten months I've been waiting for something to be programmed that not only qualifies for the marathon, but also, you know, is on a day I can actually attend. And yes, the festival has been booking up churchs and common rooms, adding extra venues to my already overlong list, but it's given me the opportunity to check off this one, so... I can forgive it.

This place is surprisingly big. Lots of glass. It could easily be a fancy office block. Home to hundreds of accountants. If it weren't for the oversized scribble of the Bloomsbury Theatre sign I would never have guessed what was lurking inside.

I go in.

The foyer is almost empty except for the excess amount of wood panelling striping the walls. There's a box office off to one side, sealed behind glass walls.

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"I'm collecting for Declan?" I don't know why I felt the need to say the name of the show. Something about this place makes me feel like I need to explain my presence. Perhaps because it's a university theatre. And the knowledge that I wasn't clever enough to go to UCL. And now I'm here. Creeping about their theatres.

"The surname's Smiles," I add hurriedly, just in case she thinks that I'm the Declan I'm collecting for. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

The box officer doesn't seem bothered by my stuttering incompetence. From behind her glass screen she looks at her computer. "Is that Maxine?" she asks.

It is.

A man appears at the counter next to me.

He leans in to talk to the other box officer. "We're performing on Sunday," he tells them. "And I was just wondering whether you could tell us our ticket sales."

I don't get to find our how well my neighbour's show is doing, because my box officer is sliding a ticket under her screen.

"Where is the studio?" I ask at the exact same time as she attempts to give me directions.

"That's just downstairs," she says.

I thank her and go in the direction she's pointing.

Wood panelling competes with dark brick walls as each try to prove that they are the most seventies.

Downstairs, the stripes of pale wood win out, as the dark bricks give way to white walls.

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It's busy down here. Turns out it's not just me prepared to wake up early on a Saturday morning to see a one man show in a Bloomsbury basement.

That's a cheering thought.

My biggest fear throughout this entire marathon has been the possibility of finding myself as the only audience member at a show. It hasn't happened yet, and by the looks of it, it won't be happening today. Not even close.

"Ladies and gentlemen," calls out a front of houser. "If you'd like to fill in from the front without leaving any gaps, that would be very helpful."

There's a gentle stir towards the door.

I follow them, handing my ticket to the ticket checker, who tears off the tab before waving me though into a small lobby.

There's a table and chairs in here. An old show posters on the wall.

Through another door, and we're in the studio.

It's small.

Well, it is a studio.

But even so. It's a small, dark, room. With rows of chairs, and black-out curtains covering the walls. Nothing more.

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Everyone ignores the front of houser's instructions to fill in from the front, and start dotting the rows with their presence.

I slip into the third row, remembering too late that, with my cough, I should be sitting on the aisle. Way too late. More people arrive.

"Are you saving these?" a girl asks.

"No, go for it," I find myself saying before I can stop myself, and a second later, I'm blocked in by a group of young people.

I rummage around in my bag and find a cough sweet. Hopefully, that will tide me over.

It's really warm in here. I'm wearing a sweatshirt. It's a nice sweatshirt. With dinosaurs on it. But it's a sweatshirt none-the-less. And I am rapidly overheating.

Still, it's a one-hander, in a basement studio, in a pre-lunch slot on a Saturday. We're not going to be in here long. I can do this.

Our performer is already on stage. Well, on the bit of the room that isn't taken up by chairs. Well, the bit of room that isn't taken up by his chair. He's sat slumped down. Asleep. Shifting around every few minutes to find a more comfortable spot. Can't say I blame him. These chairs aren't great. I wouldn't want to nap in them either.

People twist round in their seats, watching who comes in.

As they arrive, hands dart up, waving and beckoning the newcomers into the fold.

Eventually, the trickling stops, and the door is shut.

We begin.

Our man in the chair wakes up. I usually wouldn’t name him without a freesheet, but fuck it. I remember it from the website. Our man in the chair, Alistair Hall, wakes up.

He has a story to tell us. It seems to be distressing him. He just got bitten. On the bum. And if a bite on the bum wasn't enough, the biter then drank from him.

As updates to the vampire myth go, this one is truly concerning.

I pull my sleeves down over my wrists. It may be sweltering down here in this basement, but I don't think I've ever felt so aware of the veins under my own skin and I don't want to be giving the potential biters in the audience any ideas.

There is more to the tale then bum biting though. Our new friend has to tell us about a boy. Declan. A friend, yes. But also more than that.

Someone sitting a few rows behind whispers something to their friend.

"EXCUSE ME," cuts back the saviour of the audience.

The whispers stop.

The air is so dry in here. So dry, I can feel my throat rebelling.

I cough, hoping to clear it.

It doesn't work.

I cough again. And again. And again. I can't stop. Every attempt to do so has my entire body shaking with the effort. Now my sleeves are all the way down over my hand as I do my best to stifle the noise in this tiny, overheated room. I coil in on myself in embarrassment, praying to all the theatre gods that this cough will just stop.

I need a saviour. Someone to give me a withering "EXCUSE ME."

Or even a vampire. Fuck it, I'll even take a biter right now if he promises to rip my throat right out.

The girl sitting next to me leans forward and picks something off the floor. "Would you like some water?" she asks, offering me a cup.

"Thank you so much," I whisper back, trying not to choke on my own words.

The water helps. The cough subsides.

Not long after, our tale ends. I was right. It was a short one.

"Thank you so much for the water," I say to me hero as we put on our coats and prepare to leave.

She touches my arm. "No problem," she says with a smile, as if to say: us audience members need to look out for each other. There's probably some truth in that. I've given out my fair share of cough sweets to fellow theatre-goers in need over the years.

I pick up the cup and drain the rest of the water, leaving the empty plastic on the table out in the foyer.

I've got another show to go before my theatre-going is done for the day. Let's just hope my throat can handle it.

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Come to the dark side. We have cushions.

I’m still ill.

But no longer dying. Which is nice.

Which means that I can make the long journey towards Walthamstow without worrying that I might collapse on the way, only to be found six years later, half-eaten by tube mice.

Feeling slightly sniffy and very sorry for myself, I make my way to the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. On Hoe Street.

No need to look at me like that. It’s not my fault that Walthamstow was doing a roaring trade in farm implements back in the day.

Anyway, if we’re talking names, then the alliterative triptych of Mirth, Marvel and Maud is much more worthy of contemplation.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot, usually when I’m walking in circles in an unfamiliar area, trying to find one of these blasted theatres, is what the locals call a place.

Do the residents of Stockwell call the Stockwell Playhouse the Stockwell Playhouse? Or is it just the Playhouse?

Is the Bromley Little Theatre the Bromley Little Theatre to the people of Brommers? Or merely the Little Theatre? Or perhaps the BLT? Or maybe the Sandwich? These are the questions I want answers to, but am too embarrassed to actually ask.

And it’s no different tonight. I don’t believe for a second anyone around here calls the Mirth, Marvel and Maud the Mirth, Marvel and Maud. For one, it’s ridiculous. And for two, it’s way too long. So, what do they call it? Is it the Mirth, as the towering letters on the outside of the building suggest? Or maybe it’s the Triple M. Or…

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“It’s the old cinema,” says a man as he holds the door open for his companion.

Well, okay then.

I follow them in.

The box office is just inside the door, with a fat letter M resting on the counter, glowing in the ambient (dark) lighting scheme they’ve got going on.

“Sorry,” says the box officer. “I also need to stamp her.”

The lady in front of me goes off in search of her friend and brings her back for a good stamping.

That done, it’s my turn.

“Hi,” I tell the box officer. “I have an e-ticket? Do I also need to sign in?”

Ah yes. The e-ticket.

Now, that had been a bit of work to acquire.

The Marvellous Mrs Maud have left their ticket providing services to Dice. Which is not theatre ticketing software. It’s an app. For gigs. An app that I did not have, and did not want, but was forced to download anyway.

Now, you know, I get it. Some theatres run music events. Some theatres are predominantly music venues. So, like, fine. But also, it doesn’t work and I hate it.

Case in bloody point. Door time. We all know what that means in gig-world. But in theatre? Is that when the house opens, or the show starts? Who knows? Dice certainly ain’t telling me.

And this e-ticket? Is someone going to scan it, or do I have to report into the box office, like I am now. There’s no way to know until I ask. And I hate asking.

Then there’s the whole having-reception thing. Dice won’t let you see the QR codes more than two hours before door time. Nor will they let you screenshot the page once you do have the code.

“Yeah,” says the box officer. “What’s the name?”

With a sigh, I realise the whole app thing was pointless. I drop my phone back into my pocket and give my name.

“Just you?” asks the box officer.

“Just me,” I say, now resigned to my fate of always having to admit my lonesome state at box offices across this city of ours.

She stamps me up high on the wrist, which is apparently a thing now. Backs of hands are no longer in vogue when it comes to stamping.

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“Can I get a programme?” I ask, spotting the display on the counter.

“That’s two pounds.”

“In the cup?” I ask. There’s a plastic cup with a scrappy bit of paper stuffed in it. “Programmes,” it says.

I drop my pound coins in it.

One question still remains.

“Where am I going?” I ask her.

She blinks at me. This is clearly not a question she gets often.

“Err, down the stairs?”

Okay then.

It’s ten minutes until door time. Whatever that means. So I go for a look around.

It’s a beautiful building this. Impossibly high ceilings. Panels. Chandeliers. The works.

There seems to be a trend at the moment with theatres. About making the foyer spaces accessible to non-theatre goers. They want people coming in off the street to have a drink and then not see a show.

Mostly I think that’s a nonsense. Not because of the ambition. You do you, theatres. It’s just that there aren’t many theatre bars I’d willingly spend time in without having to be there for theatre purposes. Too big. Too loud. Nowhere to sit. Nowhere to hide.

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But this place? This place is nice. A wooden carnival stall of a cocktail bar in the middle breaks up the space. Huddles of chairs and tables hug the walls. There are sofas.

It’s quiet, but not echoey.

Ornate, but not intimidating.

Large, but not overwhelming.

I could see myself coming here for a drink.

I mean, if it wasn’t in Walthamstow.

Bit of a trek for a G&T.

I lean against the back of the cocktail stall and have a look at my newly-acquired stamp. It says Marvel.

So, we’ve got Mirth. And Marvel. Where on earth is Maud?

This place may be nice to look at, but it seems to have picked looks over books.

There is a horrendous lack of signage.

Apart from the solitary chalkboard proclaiming the existence of toilets, I can’t see a single notice to direct me anywhere. Let alone the theatre. Which, I would have thought, would be an important element of the M&M&M experience.

I put my glasses on, just in case I’m missing on signs in the general blur, but nope. Nothing. Not unless I’m in serious need of a new prescription, my poor eyesight is not the problem here.

But the box office lady said to go downstairs. So I go downstairs. To the bar. And what do you know. There it is, a sign pointing towards the Maud. Between the water station and the loos.

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I follow where it's pointing, into a corrdior that smells like a lavatory, and right opposite the door to the ladies', is a bloke. He's standing next to a posing table covered with plastic cups. I think he must be the ticket checker. Or he would be the ticket checker, if this place had tickets.

"Got a stamp?" he asks as I approach.

I pull at my sleeve to show him the back of my wrist. "Yup," I say, and he nods me through.

Inside it's red.

Very red.

I mean, last night I was in a red theatre, so it shouldn't be that shocking. But if anything, the Hilariously Amazing Maud is even redder than the BLT.

The walls are red. The ceiling is red. The decorative mouldings are red. Even the chairs are of a reddish hue.

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I stand and stare at the chairs.

They are weird. And it's not the reddness that is bothering me. It's that they're evil.

And no, they're not evil because they're red.

I mean, they might be evil because they're red.

I don't know why they are evil. I just know that they are.

Because the powers that be at the Mirthiless Maud have banished them off to the sides of the room.

The rest of the space is given over to long wooden benches.

Clearly, the puritans are in charge in Walthamstow.

So as not to anger them, I take a pew.

Everyone else in here has decided to face the forces of evil arse-on, and sit on the sides.

The same conversation is played out over and over as people file in.

"Where do you want to sit?" a newcomer asks. "Shall we sit in the middle?"

"I might go for a softer seat..." comes the tentative reply.

Eventually, the chairs fill up and people are forced to turn to the benches.

A couple of women join me on mine.

A few minutes later, their friend arrives, and insists that I stand up to let her pass so that she doesn't have to go about the indignaty of walking around and entering via the other side.

Honestly. What is it with people? This is the second night in a row this has happened. Stop making strangers get up when you can ask your friends to get up instead. They presumably want you to sit with them. Me on the other hand, would rather not have to exert myself for that honour.

I'm beginning to think it's the curse of red theatres.

I knew those chairs were evil.

"It's warm in here," says the woman who can't walk round.

There's a pause, and I realise she's talking to me. I quickly hit the power button on my phone, sending the screen black. I hope she hasn't seen me typing all that shit about her.

"It is," I agree. Very warm. They have got the heating on blast.

"Why?" she asks, and I'm left stumped by this question.

"I do approve of heating in October," I say. "But this is a bit much."

She seems satisfied by that statement and she goes back to talking to her friends, and I go back to typing up smack about her in my notes.

Right, now that I have established myself as evil a character as those chairs, I check the time.

It's ten past eight.

Door time or start time, that question remains unanswered. Are we waiting for the clock to run down or has something gone wrong? Who can tell?

Across the way, I can hear the hand dryers rumbling away in the loos.

Sixteen minutes past.

I'm getting kind of bored now.

I twist round in my seat.

Someone is sitting themselves down at the tech desk. That's a good sign.

The stamp checkers closes the door.

The house lights dim.

We're off.

The cast emerge. Eleanor Bryne, Niamh Finlay, and Sara Hosford. They move around a stage cluttered with lamps, shifting things around and doing the sort of busywork that is probably supposed to set the mood but has me wiggling my foot and willing them all to get on with it.

But then we're on the line in a fish factory. Guts are flying everywhere and the talk is pouring out too. Life is hard in 1980's Dublin, even if the music is banging. Tainted Love is on the lips of all three girls, and although I'm a Manson Girl (Marilyn, obviously) I am not unappreciative of the Soft Cell version.

Our cast shimmy and sprint through the lives of an endless procession of characters. Less slipping into them and more running full tilt until they crash right in: bosses and boys and friends, so many friends, and babysitters, and first loves.

And I love them all.

The girls I mean.

The men in their life are terrible. The absolute worst of the worst.

And as we return to the fish factory, and see them on the line, dragging their knives against the firm flesh of those fishy bellies, I can't be the only one thinking those knives might have served a greater purpose.

Applause done. House lights up.

I try to stand but sharp pains run up and down the backs of my thighs.

I winch as I haul myself up to my feet and turn around to glare at the bench responsible.

I knew I should have embraced the dark side and taken one of the cursed chairs.

Being virtuous is a young person's game.

If your name's not on the list

"Madam! Madam! The entrance is this way, the first left. Phoenix Street," comes the familiar call of the Big Issue seller on Charing Cross Road. 

I don't know how long he's been directing audiences to the correct entrance of the Phoenix Theatre, but he's there, keeping the crowds in check, almost every night I've been in the West End on this marathon.

I tweeted sometime back that the Phoenix should put him on the payroll, and I stand by that. He's already doing the work. Might as well make it official.

I am not in need of his assistance tonight though. I know where I'm going. Yes, onto Phoenix Street. But not to the Phoenix Theatre. I've already made my trip to the rock, and there's no time for a return trip before the marathon is over and I draw a thick Sharpie line under my theatre-going for the rest of my life.

I'm actually off to the theatre neighbour. The Pheonix Artist Club, which you might have rightly surmised, is not actually a theatre. But a club. For artists.

But as part of that remit, they have a programme of events. Cabaret. Music. Not marathon-qualifying stuff. Except tonight there's a scratch night. So off I go.

I've never been before. It's been on my list for years, but I never quite got round to it. And by that, I mean, I never managed to work out if I'm allowed in. I've heard from various people that you need to work in the arts to get access. But what that entails seems to differ depending on who you ask for. Some say it's members only. Others that you only need a business card proving you work in the industry to get through the door.

Oh well. No such restrictions exist for attending this show, so it looks like I'm finally getting my chance.

I tuck myself under the canopy and try my best to stay out of the rain as I use my final free minutes to edit a blog post. By the looks of it, this place is underground and I'm not sure what the WiFi situation is going to be down there.

A man comes over and starts singing to the guy next to me. "My old man's a dustman," he belts out, with hand motions to match. "How's your night going?"

The guy mumbles "fine thanks," before moving away.

"Excuse me, ma'am," says the Big Issue seller as he inches his way around me. His leading an entire procession of Come From Awayers. "That's the entrance down there," he tells them, pointing the way.

They thank him and skuttle through the rain towards the long queue where an usher with a strong Scottish voice is keeping everyone in check. "If you're collecting your tickets, it's the last door!"

Blog post vaguely proofread, I figure it's time to go in.

Or at least, try to.

There's someone standing in the doorway. He looks like he can't quite make up his mind about the whole thing.

Perhaps he also got confused about their entry requirements.

"Are you...?" I ask.

"No. Sorry. You go ahead."

So I do.

Inside there's a small podium desk. With a theatre mask stencilled on the front. Gold on blue.

The person ahead of me is trying to pick up their ticket. But by the sounds of it, their name isn't on the list.

Oh dear.

Even though I know I bought myself a ticket, I can feel the anxiety rising. Mainly because I never got a confirmation email. And yes, I checked my spam folder. Nothing. I have nothing to prove that I spent my coin to get in.

I look around in an attempt to distract myself.

There's plenty to look at. The ceiling is painted with a dramatic depiction of a bird. I'm guessing a phoenix, given where we are. Paintings line the stairwell, and there's a general sense of this place having been built into the remains of an antique store, with statues and chandeliers competing for attention.

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The person ahead of me and the box officer appear to have reached an impasse.

"Let me just deal with this person," says the box officer and he leans around to beckon me forward.

"Hi, I'm here for the scratch night...?" I say, feeling more unsure about everything with every passing second.

"Yup!" says the box officer.

Well, that's one hurdle cleared at least. There is a show happening. And it's the one I thought it was.

"The surname's Smiles? S. M. I. L. E. S." I say.

He looks down the list. I shift my weight from foot to foot as he works his way down one page, and then another.

"How is it spelt?" he asks.

I spell it out for him again.

"Ah!" he says, alighting on my name. "Maxine?"

"Yup," I say with relief.

"Got it. Enjoy your evening!"

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And with that, I'm off down the staircase and into the basement.

"Hiiii!" says a young man in a red waistcoat that I can only presume is an usher. Bit smart for this kind of joint, but I'm not complaining.

"Hello!" I say back. "Um, where's the best place to go?" I ask as I look around, trying to make sense of what is happening down here.

It looks like a regular old bar. Tables and chairs clutter the space. I can't even tell where the stage area is.

"Anywhere you can find to sit," he says with a wave of his arm. "Sit down."

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He makes a fair point. There doesn't look like there are many options going spare. Might as well grab any chair going.

I creep around the edge until I find an empty table against the wall.

There are cast sheets on the table.

Hastily edited cast sheets. Someone as gone over one of the titles with a biro. It's ‘NOT Been Fingered, ’ rather than ‘NEVER Been Fingered.’ Better remember that.

Looks like there are seven of them in all (with the Not Been Fingered acting as our finale). I hope they're short. I was rather hoping for an early night.

Now that I'm settled, I can have a look around.

This place is not somewhere that has ever said no to decoration. Rows of headshots top the bar. Chandeliers and disco balls hang next to each other. The walls are covered with signed show posters. A few even making their way onto the ceiling, finding their way into the small scraps of space that aren't crowded with gilded panels that look like they got knicked sometime during the dissolution of the monasteries.

A group of red waistcoated young people rush into the middle of the room, onto a platform which I can't see, but I presume must be a stage.

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They're not ushers at all. They're actors. Playing ushers. Or actors playing ushers while trying to make it as actors. Actors who, incidentally, I won't be naming as they are all acting students this evening. So really, they're... students trying to make it as actors, playing ushers, who are trying to make it as actors. All very meta. Anyway, they are not happy with the audience. Orders to turn off our phones fly in between sneers of disgust at our behaviour and mocking jibes at one another.

A great choice to start the evening. Make sure we're all on our best behaviour.

Between acts, a host comes on to keep the energy up and introduce all the players.

A woman sitting on the table in front turns around. "Can I take?" she asks, indicating one of the spare freesheets on my table.

I slide it over to her.

"Can we…?" This time it's the woman on the table next to me. She wants to bunk up at my table in pursuit of a better view. I slide across the bench, and both she and the guy she's with squidge in next to me. This bench really wasn't meant for three.

After the fifth short of the evening, featuring a woman awaiting her execution, our host returns to the stage. "I think it’s time for a five-minute break," she tells us. "Head to the bar and I'll call you back when we're ready to start."

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There's a scamper towards the bar, and the exit, as those who've already seen their friends perform make a bid for escape.

The table next to me frees up and I no longer have to share my bench as the interlopers make their way over in search of better climes.

"Ladies and gentlemen and everything in between," says our host. "We are good to go. Ting! Ting! Ting!" she says, mimicking a theatre bell. Adding: "Shhhh," when that doesn't work.

As we make our way into the final two pieces a man comes over from the bar and gestures towards the space next to me on the bench.

I gesture back, to indicate that he's welcome to it.

After being squished for so long, I'm beginning to feel a little lonely back here all by myself.

We make it through to the end. Seven plays. And not a single dud. That must be a record. Okay, one dud. But out of seven, that’s still very impressive for a night of new writing.

Though, I am a little concerned as to what was wrong with that banana in the last one. At least it had a clear moral though: don't be eating fingered food.

The host brings back all the actors for one mega bow session, which really has to be the way to do it. None of this stop-starting with curtain calls. Save it all for the end.

"Is that what we just watched?" asks my new neighbour. He points over to my cast sheet.

I slide it over to him and he reads it while I get my applause on.

I can't help but sneak glances over to the other end of my table though.

I really hope he doesn't want to keep that cast sheet. I took pictures of it. I'm not an amateur over here. But still. I kinda want to take it home with me. And by kinda, I mean: I will literally be thinking about that lost cast sheet for the next fifteen years if he doesn't give it back.

He does, but whether that's due to his lack of interest in the more papery things in life, or the feeling of my narrowed eyes watching him carefully, I don't care to ask.

I check the time.

Twenty-past nine.

Right then. That's a challenge right there: bed by ten-thirty. Here we go.

Cast sheet in bag. Jacket on. Umbrella out. I'm off.

Another one bites the dust

All around me books are being lowered. Commuters lean forwards in their seats.

Somewhere in this carriage buskers are playing Despacito and we all want to see who’s responsible for this crime against Latin pop. I don't think I'm alone in the belief that if you’re going to be playing a song on the tube, you should probably memorise the lyrics first.

The tube driver agrees with me.

An announcement is played.

“There are beggars and buskers operating on this train. Please do not encourage their presence by supporting them.”

Bit harsh.

People immediately start reaching into their wallets to hand over their change.

That’ll teach TFL.

The lethologic musicians hop out at the next stop and rush around to the next carriage.

I can still hear them playing their intermittently acoustic cover version as I change platforms at Cannon Street.

The rest of my journey is quiet.

Not many people making the journey to Deptford tonight.

They haven’t heard the call of the Albany.

It feels weird being back already. After a gap of six years, I’m now on my second visit of the week. This time though, I’m hitting the main house.

As I round the corner into Douglas Way and find myself grinning.

Not because of the theatre. Sorry, Albs. I find it hard to get sentimental about old workplaces. I’m smiling because it’s dark. Properly dark. For months I’ve been taking my exterior theatre photos in blazing sunshine, and now, finally, the nights are closing in and I don’t have to spend my evenings leaping between the shadows and feverously rubbing sunscreen into every exposed inch of my skin.

Seriously, it’s not easy maintain this maggot-pale colouring I’ve got going on.

I burn. I freckle.

I mean, it’s fine. No one said being Goth was easy. But it’s nearly October, and it’s my time. Sweaters and shawls and coats and velvet: here I come.

And bless the Albany. They have the heating on. I can feel it as soon as I walk through the door. The whoosh of heavy dry air that feels so eternally comforting, and proving that I don’t mind heat, as long as it is entirely artificial.

I join the queue at the box office.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the box officer, turning over her list of names to find me on the back. She grabs a ruler, and a highlighter, and runs a very straight line through my entry.

“Let me just stamp you,” she says once her highlighting is complete.

I offer her my hand, and she places the stamp up on the back of my wrist.

Strange location to pick, but I respect her artistic choices in stamp placement.

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My unspecified ringed planet is red this time. To designate the main house, I presume. We wouldn’t want audience members sneaking their way between the studio and stage space without having been properly stamped and accounted for.

“Can I take one of these?” I say, pointing to a pile of freesheets on the desk.

“Oh!” she says, surprised. “Yes, of course.” She grabs one and hands it to me.

The house isn’t open, and I don't really fancy standing out here in the foyer, so I go over to the cafe to see what’s happening in there.

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The answer is: not a lot.

People sit quietly at tables, sipping on drinks and waiting.

I find a table all to myself and join in the quiet time.

“Die! Die! Die! OLD PEOPLE DIE!” someone reads dramatically from their freesheet.

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I can’t blame her. It’s a really great title. Quite possible the best one of the marathon. Even better than Kill Climate Deniers over at the Pleasance.

I take off my jacket and scarf. It's warm in here.

I’m feeling real cosy right now, and am fully prepared to join the climate deniers this winter if it means we get the have the heating on blast until March.

“Ladies and gentleman!” says a front of houser. “The house is now open for Die! Die! Die…!” he falters, and we all laugh. “Old… people… die.”

Great title. Seriously, fucking great.

There’s a scrapping of chairs as we all stagger to our feet and make our way back into the foyer, and through the doors into the main house, holding up our hands, or wrists, to show the usher that we have been marked by the red stamp.

Through the door and we get a nice view of the undercarriage of the seating.

We walk around, through the arched corridor that circles the space, until we find our way to the front.

The central block of seating is filling up fast.

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I pick my way across the stage, leaping over a wire, powering a floor light, with previously unknown grace.

I pick a seat in the third row, as is my preference. But on the aisle, as a concession to this being quite a large space, even if half the stage is taken up by a mountain of seating tonight.

As the audience shifts around, selecting their seats, I get out my phone and try to finish a blog post.

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But a gentle stirring around the room makes me look up.

Over there, behind the stage area, peeking from behind a curtain, are two performers. Jon Haynes and David Woods. They’re stepping out. Or at least, I think they are.

They’re moving so slowly, it’s hard to tell what their motivation is.

A few solo giggles sound off around the audience, unsure how to take this snail-like state. Are we supposed to be laughing? Is this a comedy? It’s hard to tell.

The pair cling onto each other as they lower themselves down the treacherous step from walkway to stage.

Then they begin the long walk to their set: a table, and two chairs.

It takes minutes. Multiple ones.

I’m beginning to get a bit bored.

The pair dribble and fart and talk over one another for the next sixty minutes or so, sometimes managing a smile-worthy line, but mostly shuffling around interminably.

I can’t help but think of that Caryl Churchill play where an entire act was dedicated to the dressing and undressing of an elderly man in a care home.

A work of genius to many. Painfully dull to me.

A few people at that onr took the Here We Go title literally, and walked out when it became clear that this cycle of costume changes was not going to end any time soon.

Over here in the Albany, a couple sitting in the second row are having the same feelings, and slip and out with a clatter of flipping seats.

With a loud bang, the show eventually ends, and we are free to leave.

And pay.

I’d forgotten about that.

Another Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy show.

I pull out my purse and have a look at what’s going on in there. Not a lot. No notes at all. I prod at the coins, trying to count up the non-coppers. It doesn’t take long.

But as we make out way round the walkway and out the auditorium door, I spot an usher holding some fancy looking equipment.

“Have you got the card reader?” I ask him.

He has.

He prods away at a few buttons on his phone. “Sorry,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t like to connect.”

“I can try to find some cash…?” I say, knowing full well I only have three quid on me at best.

“No, I can try and get it working for you,” he says, but he doesn’t sound all that convinced.

“Are you sure?”

“Ummm.”

I dither, not knowing what to do.

But then he smiles. Success. “Yeah! There we go. How much would you like to donate.”

“Ten?” I suggest, finding myself wanting his approval. Ten is the suggested donation. It says so on the signs. I gave ten to the other show. The one in the studio.

He doesn’t say anything though, just gives me the card reader all set up and ready, and let’s me do my thing.

Payment accomplished I make my way back to Deptford station.

“I was kinda expecting the handbag to come out at the end,” says a woman also waiting on the platform. “It was still under the rug and he just stood on it.”

That’s true. I had forgotten all about the handbag.

“It was deliberate, no doubt,” she finishes.

I’m sure it was. Just because it didn’t do the business for me, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one hell of a business plan going on.

And anyway, still a fucking great title.

Paper Free Finchley

I'm in Finchley!

I'm not sure that deserved an exclamation mark.

I can tell by your expression that you don't either.

"Don't you live in Finchley?" I can very almost hear you say. And it's true. I do. "But aren't you staying in Hammersmith at the moment?” Yeah. Yeah, that's also true. "So, doesn't that mean that you trekked all the way across London tonight? I kinda feel that you might have planned this a bit bett-"

Okay, you shut up now. I don't have to listen to that kind of talk. This is my blog, and I won't be insulted by someone who hasn't had to deal with the spreadsheet nightmares that have been my life over the past nine months. So: hush.

I'm in Finchley and I am going to the fucking artsdepot. Again. Because they have two theatres and that's just fucking great.

I may be a little overtired. And damp.

After dropping some stuff off at home, I hurry through the rain, down Ballards Lane and up to Tally Hoe, pass the Lidl, turn onto Nether Street and speed through the automatic glass doors.

The box office is just inside and I wait until someone is free, tucking my soaked umbrella under my arm.

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"Hi," I say, as chirpily as I can. This is my local theatre after all. I don't want to get a reputation. "The surname's Smiles?"

The box officer looks at me blankly.

"For Still I Rise?" I try. Just in case there's more than one show going on tonight.

"Did you get the text message?" he asks.

"Umm..."

I vaguely remember seeing something pop up on my phone from artsdepot, but I figured it was a reminder or something like that.

Oh gawd. Is this another Harrow Arts Centre situation? Have I just had another show cancel on me? In the same damn week? I'm really not sure I can take it.

I get out my phone and look for it.

"Sorry, I never check these things," I tell him.

"Don't worry," he says, sounding pretty chill for a man who is right now ruining my entire marathon. "It should have a link in it."

"Umm..."

"It would have been about four o'clock," he says.

I find it. "Got it," I say, scrolling down and yes, there is a link. I click it. A QR code fills my screen. An e-ticket. Ew.

I turn my screen around to show him.

"There you go! We're trialling something new. Just use that."

Ergh. I thought I was safe. I was only here a few months ago, and we were still well into paper ticket territory. And now this.

It's happening more and more. I visit once and everything is fine. I go to a box office and they give me a real ticket. Happiness reigns. And then when I return, it's all this digital shit.

2019 is turning into the year of the e-ticket.

It's completely disgusting and I don't approve.

And even worse: text messages.

With links.

I didn't sign up for this.

In fact, I did the opposite of signing up for this.

When booking this ticket I specifically selected the "Leave my tickets at the box office (no charge)" option. Because, just in case I wasn't clear on the matter, I like paper tickets. Scrap that: I love paper tickets. Almost as much as I hate e-tickets. If I wanted an e-ticket, I would have chosen the print at home option. But I don't. So I didn't.

So really, what the artsdepot is doing here, is not only ignoring my wishes, but also misselling. They tell me I can pick up from box office, and then, instead, give me this inferior product and smile while doing it.

I'm raging.

I should complain. I should go full-fucking-Karen and demand to speak to a manager. I should...

"Thanks," I say, heading off towards the escalator.

This is my local theatre after all. I might bump into these people in the big Tescos.

And I do like the escalator.

I step on and let its gentle movement soothe me as I sail up to the next floor.

The cafe is up here, with all its multi-coloured chairs and big friendly signage.

I'd kinda had it in mind that I wanted to see what happened in the gallery, but it's still closed, so I find a seat and try to dry off.

The tables fill up around me as people clutch onto cups full of hot drinks.

A few minutes later, there's an announcement over the tannoy. "Could all ticket holders for this evening's performance of Still I Rise head to the Pentland Theatre on level three. The performance will begin in three minutes."

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I check the time.

It's 7.25pm.

I see you Tannoy Lady, rushing us for no reason.

Three minutes, my arse.

But, I go all the same. Following that big friendly signage up a flight of stairs to level three.

There's a great big landing up here, with more seating.

I look at my e-ticket. It says I need the Right Door, which is the one closest to the stairs.

There's two ticket checkers standing there, and one of them beeps me in.

"A1?" I ask the usher inside.

She directs me towards the end of the front row. Which, I mean, I figured. But I thought it polite to ask all the same.

I take a few steps in that directon, and then stop.

I've noticed something.

The theatre isn't full, but every single person in here is clutching a sheet of paper.

Freesheets. They've got freesheets. I want a freesheet.

I'll be damned if I'm not walking out of here with at least one bit of paper.

I double back. "Is there a cast sheet?" I ask the usher.

"Programme?" she asks.

"Yeah?" I mean, I guess.

She goes off to check, returning a half-minute later with one of the ticket checkers from the door. She shakes her head. "No programme."

Oh. Okay.

I'm tired and wet and can't be bothered to press it.

I go off to my seat.

Front row. Right at the end.

And there's someone sitting in it.

"Are you A1?" I ask the young girl sitting in A1, knowing full well that she is not A1, because I am A1, and there can't be two of us.

She looks at me, her eyes full of innocence and embarrasment.

"No," she admits. "I'm in A5. But I can move...? Or you can have A5…?"

I look down the row. A2 and 3 are also occupied by young girls. A4 is an older lady. I see how it is. She wants to sit with her friends. Well, I can't say I've never done that before.

"I'm very happy to sit in A5," I tell her, starting to make my way down the row.

"It's a better seat anyway!" calls her friend after me.

She's not wrong. It's almost in the middle of the row.

Front row centre. It doesn't get much better than that.

I dump my back and try to flip down my new seat, but it catches on something.

"Sorry, I'm spreading out," says the lady in A4, pulling her coat free, putting her bag on her lap and... tucking away her freesheet.

"Sorry," I say quickly before she has the chance to put it away. "Can I be very rude and take a picture of your cast sheet? They've run out..."

"Oh! Oh no. What a shame," she says. And she holds it out for me to take my photo.

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That done, I look around.

It's a nice space in here. A very large stage. Surprisingly large.

It's my first time in this space and I'd always wondered why they did so much dance here. Now I know. It's this big-arse stage.

A woman slips into the row behind me, slightly out of breath.

"Sorry," she says to her friend as she plonks herself down. "I did that classic dance thing, that industry thing, of not looking up what we're seeing."

Me too, love. Me too.

I think I probably read the copy at one point, but honestly, I can't remember a thing.

I consider looking up my photo of the freesheet, but I can hear something moving beside the stage and I think we're about to begin.

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Sure enough, the lights are dimming.

Five dancers. All women.

Crinolined costumes give way to softer fair.

It's strong and vulnerable and aggressive and tender.

They lift each other up, both literally and metaphorically. One holds another, cradling her head, stopping her from sinking to the ground. They won't let each other fail.

One dancer appears silhouetted against a light, wearing only shorts and a cropped top. She moves like a bodybuilder. Like a fighter. Unafraid to show off her strength. Her muscles.

She reminds me of Arya. From Game of Thrones. A water dancer no longer in need of a sword.

"Wow, that was something," says my neighbour as our applause chases the dancers off stage.

"They were warriors!" I say.

"Yes!"

"Amazing to see a company of female dancers be so strong," I add.

"Yes," she agrees. "Very powerful. I'm glad I came."

"Me too. I'm ready to take on the world now."

I grab my bag and make for the exit.

"Is that it?" someone asks, sounding unsure.

"I think so. It was an hour," comes the equally unsure reply.

Not many people are leaving.

Most are still in their seats.

I hesitate. Maybe there really is more.

But the ushers on the door are handing out flyers. That's a send-off, not an interval activity.

I grab one, thinking this is the only bit of paper I'm going to get my hands on this evening.

Back down the stairs, through the cafe and towards the escalator which has now reversed its direction to take us downstairs.

Outside, a small group have gathered to have a smoke.

"Is it half time?" one asks.

"No, it's actually finished," says another. "I heard the ushers..."

I pull my jacket close around me and make a rush towards the tube station, dropping the flyer in the first recycling bin I see.

Gone to the Dogs

There's a paper bag lying, discarded, on the ground in Douglas Way. It must have had something very tasty in it not that long ago because three pigeons are now circling it, pecking at it, like overworked nurses attempting to impose hospital corners on a beanbag.

One of them, the one I've been thinking of as the leader of this trio, manages to get its head inside. A second later, its back out again, bringing a half-eaten cookie with it.

The other pigeons stare at this manna from carb heaven in wonder. No manky crumbs for them this evening. They be feasting like kings.

But the dinner party don't last long, because across the road, three dogs have just finished their run around the park and are barrelling through.

One runs on ahead, scattering pigeons in his wake.

It's owner calls after it. "Don't forget, the only reason I have you is because no one else wanted you."

And with that grade A guide to parenting left hanging in the air, they disappear.

It's probably time for me to go to. I've been hanging around for fifteen minutes now. It's not that I'm avoiding going inside. It's just that I don't want to, and I'm putting it off.

I mean, it's not like I don't already know what the Albany is like. I've been here before. Fucking hell, I worked here. This is where I got my first real job in theatre. Well, the first one that didn't have 'intern' in the title. It's where I met Allison, who is now a marathon-semi-regular, so, you know, that's a lasting friendship if ever there was one. And it's all because of this place. This low, long, building, sat squat on the edge of the square that once a week houses Deptford Market. That was probably a great idea at the time. Placing the arts right in the middle of the community and all that. But the bars now criss-crossing all the ground-floor windows doesn't really scream neighbourhood integration.

I head through the automatic doors and into the foyer, trying to get a sense of what’s changed in all the years that have passed since I was last here.

The truth is, not a lot.

The tables and chairs in the cafe look like they’ve been upgraded, but other than that, everything looks exactly the same as I left it. The box office is still taking up that same corner. The counter top as pink as ever. I would even swear that bunting hasn’t shifted since 2013.

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It’s all rather comforting really.

I join the queue, and when I get to the front, give my name to the box officer.

“Maxine? That’s one,” she says, using a ruler to draw a very straight line through my name. She flips open the lid to a large ink pad, and inks up a small stamp.

“There you go,” she says, applying it to the back of my hand. “It’ll be there in the Studio. Doors will open in about five minutes.”

Plenty of time for me to inspect my new artwork.

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It’s a planet. Or at least I think it’s a planet. One with rings, so that’s Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, or Uranus, if my GCSE Double Science Award serves me well. I can’t narrow it down any further. I flunked out of A-level Physics.

Someone hands me a brochure. It’s for a festival of aging. Not a subject I try to think of all that often. I have a flick through though, checking the venue names to see if there’s anything I missed.

I skip over the page advertising the 48-hour durational work set in an old people’s home. I am absolutely not doing that. No way. Not even for the marathon. I have logged it as an experience, not theatre, and I will not hear another word about it.

A queue starts to build over by the door. Lots of young, cool, looking people with oversized clothing and pastel hair. It’s all very Deptford.

I hang back. I’m not all that fussed about being first through the door. The Studio is a small space. And with a one-man show about dementia, I’m not sure I actually want to be all that close to the front.

Some keen sort rattles the door. It’s locked.

A passing front of houser spins on his heel “Oh! Hang on!” he says, rushing back towards the door. “We’ll open in about five minutes!”

True to his word, about five minutes later, the doors are opened and we begin to file ourselves in.

We all twist our hands round to show him the planets stamped on the back, looking like we’re all throwing the mimsiest gang-sign going.

It gets us in though, and we make our way down the long, dark, corridor which winds its way around the back of the main theatre space, towards the far end of the building.

A sign on the door reminds us that this show is a Pay-What-Makes-You-Happy. “Please donate what you can into the buckets,” it tells us. “We also accept card payments. Suggested amount £10 (or £5 concessions) but feel free to donate less or more!”

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Buckets. That’s interesting. I’ve only seen it done with envelopes before.

I go in.

It’s dark in here. Really dark.

The brick walls are painted black and the windows are hidden behind black-out curtains. The only speck of colour are the iron beams painted red.

Chairs have been set up in right-angled banks, fencing off a corner for the stage.

I slip into the end of the third row. There’s no rake, of course. But I can just about catch a glimpse of our performer, sat behind a drum kit.

There has to be a rule, worked out in secret meetings between artists and programmers, that spaces with bad-sightlines should only be filled with sitting-down performers. You don’t catch actors sitting down on big stages with raked seating. Oh no. But as soon as you’re in a titchy studio space, there they are, getting to grips with their floor-work skills.

At least Antosh Wojcik has the excuse of an instrument that needs playing.

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The doors close.

The lights dim

We begin.

Drumming away, Wojcik tells us a story. He was in a band. A metal band. He was the drummer. Or one of the drummers. There were two drummers. And that’s it. That was the whole band. Two boys on drums.

He imagines the two of them, in a home together, old and grey, remembering nothing but the music. The pounding of the drum solos.

And he thinks of his own grandfather. Lost in a maze of missing connections as dementia takes hold.

As he plays, ratting out that beat, Wojcik’s fluffy hair bounces in time with the music. He pushes back his long fringe in between sections. Which, I don’t mind telling you, is all very pleasing and troubling in equal measure. As he talks about a deep and personal grief, I want nothing more than to plate up some freshly made biscuits, pinch his cheek, and tell him it will all be alright.

You know, some women out there, they go all maternal in the face of troubled young men. Me? I’ve leapt straight into grandmothering.

Just as I’m about to start searching in my bag for a hairbrush to offer him, a man sitting two rows ahead leans across, lifting his arm over the seat next to him, and blocking my view.

Now I can only hear the words as they tumble over the beat, without the distraction of floppy hair and sad eyes.

Honestly, it’s a relief.

We make it through to the end, with no further issues other than a few broken hearts.

Wojcik leaves us behind in the studio, not returning despite our applause going on without him.

Eventually, the lights come back on and we struggle to our feet.

Everyone is very quiet as we make for the door, and back down the corridor.

At the end, a front of houser stands waiting for us, bucket in hand.

I pull out a note, and slip it into the slim gap at the top.

Not too sure about this method, to be honest. I think I prefer envelopes. Although I imagine this public payment does more to extract funds from audiences. No one wants to be seen to only give a few coins or a half-eaten cookie…

 

Hedgehogs are a Thing in London Theatre. Who knew?

Second show of the day and I almost didn't make it. 

I left plenty of time. There was a whole three hours between the end of show one and the start of show two. And I didn't stray far, only popping back to Finchley to pick up some stuff I needed. And, okay, maybe having quick raid of the cupboards for biscuits, in exchange for gossip over a cup of tea. That wasn't the problem. Getting back off the sofa was.  

I'm not very good at this whole more-than-one-show-in-a-day thing. And the knowledge that not only did I actually have to go to a second theatre, but then I'd have to write about it afterwards… Well, my bum was firmly planted and had no intention of getting back up again. 

At a quarter to seven, things were getting worrying. 

Because I couldn’t miss this one. I really couldn’t. I’ve been waiting nine damn months for them to programme a show. For most of that time, their website had been so static with old events, I thought the place had closed permanently. But no, they were undergoing refurbishment. 

And now, they’re back. 

For one night only. 

With no promise of a follow-up show. 

I grabbed my phone, and without letting myself think too much about it, booked myself a ticket. There. No escaping it after that. I had to go. Or else lose out on a whole fifteen quid and change. Not an amount of cash I'm really in a position to throw away.

With a bit of help, I was able to lever myself into an upright position, waddle my way over to the tube station, and journey the three stops towards Highgate, where the next theatre on my marathon list lives: the peculiarly named Red Hedgehog. 

I can’t see much from the outside. Stained glass windows hide whatever activities are lurking within. But the door is open, and it looks like it’s ready for business. 

Through the door and there’s a table set up with money box and programmes. And a box officer. Wearing a sparkly top hat, which is doing it’s mostest to wake me up. 

“Hi, the surname’s Smiles?” I say. 

The box officer dithers and I notice there’s no list of names on this table. 

“I booked on ticketsource?” I say, turning around my phone to show him the booking confirmation. 

“You’ve already booked?” he says, clearly relieved. “That’s fine then.” 

I point to one of the programmes. “Can I get one of these?” 

“That’s the programme,” he says. “That’s one pound. But…!” He does a magician’s assistant-pose, holding up another, identical-looking, booklet. “If you get one of these, this is a booklet of poetry, that’s three pounds, and you get the programme for free.” 

“That’s the bargain then?” 

He nods. Yup. That’s the bargain. 

Well, who am I to turn down such an offer? I hand him the three quid and get both booklets in exchange. 

Right, time to figure out where to sit. 

The place has been set up cabaret style. 

Rows of chairs fight for space between the tables.

It’s all very cheerful looking. Mismatched vases do their best to contain brightly coloured blooms and ginghaam tablecloths clash wildly with each other.

A woman moves between the tables, depositing tealights. 

On the far side, on the other side of a knocked through wall, is the stage. All leather sofas and what looks like a piano lurking over in the corner.

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A lady catches my eye and grins. 

“Where’s the best place to sit?” I ask. 

She thinks about this, then beckons me to follow her, sliding our way in between the tables until we’re in the middle of a row. 

“The cast are going to come through from this side,” she says pointing. “Most of the time they’ll be between those two sofas. Sometimes they’ll sit on them, but mostly they’ll be under that light. You see?” 

I do see. 

I pick a seat over on the far side, second row. You know how I hate sitting at the front. Plus, I fancy getting a proper look at that piano. 

It's a bit squishy in here. The tables are packed tight and the chairs are packed even tighter.

I distract myself with a quick look at the poetry book. I have to admit, poetry isn’t my thing. I wish it was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind poetry. I just don’t understand poetry. I think it’s my lack of musicality that does it. I can’t clap out a recognisable beat, and I can’t hear the rhythm in poetry. I can just about cope with spoken word. But poetry? Nope. Sucks, but there you go. 

I move onto the programme. That’s where my heart lives. Tucked up between the credits and the biogs. I don’t need to tell you how much I love a good programme. 

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From amongst the headshots, I spot one rather familiar looking photo. It’s the lady who advised me on seating choices. Judit Catan. The writer and poet and producer. 

Oh, well that’s not embarrassing at all. But I suppose she knows the sightlines! 

“How did you hear about the show?” she asks, leaning over the back of a chair to talk to me. 

Oh dear. It’s that question again. 

I run through a few possible answers. Telling her that I’ve been stalking the Red Hedgehog’s website for nine months is probably going to provoke more questions, if not a raised eyebrow. I’m a theatre nerd with nothing else to do on a Saturday night is going for the pity angle which I don’t really want to be exploiting right now. I decide to go for the truth. “It’s a weird one,” I tell her. “I’m doing this challenge where I’m trying to visit every theatre in London within a year.” 

She looks taken aback. I’m not surprised. I’m well used to that expression by now. 

“But why this show?” she insists. 

Is there a way to tell her that Boris Johnson could be spending his prorogation sitting on stage, picking his nose for an hour, and I would have to book it if it he was doing it at a theatre I hadn’t been to before, without sounding rude? Probably not. 

I shake my head. “I’ve been waiting for this venue to programme something, and here we are,” I say, throwing up my arms to demonstrate what a delightful coincidence it all is. 

A man sneaks into the row behind me and shifts his chair. 

“Am I in your way?” I ask.  

“Oh, no. Don’t worry,” he says, even though I clearly am.  

Then he asks it. “Do you know someone in the show?” 

Oh dear. You’ve been doing this marathon with me long enough to know what that means.  

“Well,” I start. “It’s a bit of a weird one…” And I tell him about the marathon.  

On the other side of me, the writer is chatting with a newcomer. She points to me. “I was just telling him about your theatre challenge,” she says. 

“You’re visiting every London theatre?” he asks. 

“Yup,” I confirm. And tell him about the marathon. You’d think after giving the same speech three times in one night I’d be a bit better at it. But my shame keeps me from forming coherent sentences. Bless every single person who has had to struggle their way through my jumbled explanations this year. 

The room is filling up. 

“Anyone sitting here?” asks someone struggling into my row. 

“No. You go for it,” I tell him. 

He nods and plonks himself down. “Otherwise I can’t see the piano,” he explains. 

No explanation needed my friend. I had the exact same thinking when I chose this little corner of ours. 

On cue, the box officer comes over and sets himself up at the piano, ready to play.

We start. Insanity and Song in The News Room. 

No dimming of lights. We’re going for the shared light experience here. Lamps on stage. Tealights on tables. The lighting rig above our heads is getting no use tonight. 

Songs and poems alternate, with the framing device of being in a newsroom. Correspondents called out to step forward and give their thoughts, in the form of stanzas. 

The front row is a glitter of screens as people get out their phones to take photos. 

Behind me is the whirr and click of a proper camera. 

“That was great,” says the person sitting behind me as the interval hits. 

“Yes,” I nod. “But freezing.” After spending the entire day sweltering, I now have to pull my jacket over my shoulders and dig out my scarf from my bag. 

“Is the bar open?” my neighbour asks as nobody moves from their seats. 

The writer stands up. “The bar is still available to anyone,” she announces. 

A few people do their best to escape from the tightly packed chairs and make their way over to the bar. 

I slump down in my seat and shiver. It really is cold in here now. 

Act two starts up and a woman in the front row is determined not to miss a bit of it. Holding up her phone, she starts recording the songs. Task complete, she brings up WhatsApp and starts sending her freshly minted audio to someone. A click and a tap later, it starts playing back. 

She jabs at her phone, trying to get it to stop, but it plays on, drowning out the cast as they gamely try not to lose focus. 

The writer leans over. “I’ll send you the show recording,” she says. 

The woman nods. 

But a second later her phone is back up and she’s pinching the screen to get the perfect photo. 

I think we can safely say that this show will not be short of production images. 

At the end there’s applause and the writer nips on stage to give her thanks to everyone. 

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The bar is back open. It’s time to start celebrating. 

I pull my jacket tight close around me and make a sprint for the tube station. 

 

Third Door on the Right and Straight on Till Morning

Well, it's happened. The marathon has brought me to Croydon.

Not a place I'd ever thought I would need to go, but life is funny that way.

And you know what? I've been here all of thirty seconds, and it's true what people say.

There are trams.

I can hear them clanging their way up the hill, with people scattering in their wake so as not to get run over. I stick to the prescribed crossings. You know I ain't good with roads. I am so going to get run over one day, and I'll be damned if it's by a trolley.

The pavements are cluttered with ads for Fairfield Halls. I can't move for seeing posters advertising their opening gala, and that Angela's Ashes musical which nobody asked for. There's even artwork painted onto the tarmac itself. They are going hard on the marketing. But that's not my destination tonight.

Nope, I keep on walking, turn into a cobbled street and stumble down a very steep hill. Strings of hanging bulbs criss-cross over the courtyard, and tables with long benches are set up under them.

It's all very cute.

This place is giving me some serious Neal's Yard vibes. The signage makes me feel like the windows should be crammed with classy blue bottles and dried herbs. Even the name is a rip: Matthew's Yard.

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Except I won't be buying overpriced skincare tonight. Oh no. I've heard tell that there is a theatre lurking somewhere within. And I really hope the rumours are true, because I've booked myself in to see a play.

Inside it's all big communal tables and brick walls painted with murals. There's a kitchen advertising itself as a vegan grill, and a counter covered with what I like to call I'm-having-a-bad-day cakes. You know the kind. Ones where a single slice will cover an entire plate. And have so much icing it'll dam your tear ducts for a least a couple of hours.

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What I don't see, is a theatre.

I have a wander around. There's a staircase, but that only leads halfway up a wall and no further. There's a back room with a ping pong table in it, and nothing else. And a gallery. This also leads to nowhere.

I'm stumped.

It's 7.15pm and the show will be starting in fifteen minutes. And I have no idea where the theatre is.

I look around, trying to work out which of these people are here to see a show, and which are only after the vegan burgers. Everyone is eating, or drinking, or looking really intensely at the menu.

No one looks to be ready to be watching a play right now.

My anxiety, already rumbling away in the background after all those trams, flares right the fuck up.

I bring up their website on my phone. It's not a very good website. They don't even list their events on it. Oh no, You have to go to the Facebook page for that. What they do have, however, is details about how to hire their spaces. I look at the theatre page, trying to get clues about it’s location. But there's nothing.

I do find out it's the first crowd-funded theatre in the UK. Which is nice. Not very useful in this moment. But nice all the same.

It's no good. I'm going to have to ask.

I get in the queue at the cake counter.

"Sorry, we are only taking cash tonight," says the young woman serving when I get to the front.

"Oh, no. I was just wondering where the theatre was," I ask, suddenly panicking that I was in the wrong place. There is no theatre. And never was.

"It's through there," she says, pointing to a doorway behind the counter. There's a sign hanging over it. It says: Lounge. "It's third door on the right."

I look through the door. There's a corridor going on down there. A very dark corridor.

"Okay... Do I need to check in with a box office, or..."

She laughs. "No, it's quite informal, I think."

Right... Well, here goes anything. I start walking down the dark hallway. Counting the doors on the right until I reach the third one. It's closed. Very closed. And we all know the rules of theatre doors: don't be opening them if they are shut.

But opposite there is an open door. I have a look inside. It's the promised lounge. Complete with faerie lights, tables, chairs, and even a piano.

It's deserted.

There's no one around.

Slightly scared, I go back to the cafe part and stand around, trying to think what to do.

The clock on my phone ticks on. It's 7.29pm.

My anxiety is burning up all to hell. I can't believe I came all the way to Croydon, risking death by tram, for this.

I might just go home...

A man emerges from the corridor. He's wearing a very smart white shirt. And a tie. He lifts up his arms, high above his head. The chatter in the cafe stills as we all look at him.

When he has our attention, he dramatically points behind him,

I think he wants us to follow him.

A table full of young people clatter out of their seats and go down the corridor. As does a girl who had been sitting by herself.

I follow on behind.

Down the dark corridor, and through the third door on the left. Now open.

Inside is a large room. There's a tech desk at the back. And a low wooden stage at the front. In between are rows of folding chairs, white with vinyl covered cushions the colour of sweeties. Pink and green and orange and blue.

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The group all make a rush for the front row.

As does the lone girl.

I leave them too it. You know how much I hate sitting in the front row.

I slide myself into the second. Right to the end.

The man in the white shirt hops onto the stage and grooves to the music playing. A couple of girls from the group groove back at him, swaying in their seats.

A minute later, he's off again, dancing away to gather up more audience members.

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He returns with two ladies. They sit in the front row too. There's one space left.

It does not get filled.

The man indicates something to the tech person. Close the door. Even I manage to understand that gesture. But the tech person doesn't, and it's left to our performer to dance off to the door, close it, and switch off the house lights.

Right, we're ready to begin.

The man is Tunji Joseph. It's his play. He wrote it. White board: Back pieces: Race in the west.

That's a lot of punctuation for a title.

But the show is slick and moves at a fast clip through stories and anecdotes and questions, and an attempt at some of the answers. What it is to be black in a white world. How it messes with self-perception and even something as fundamental as desire.

Joseph tells a story about being a student at ArtsEd (the group in the front row whoop - so we all know where they studied) and having to go on dates with classmates while in character. About being attracted to one the white girl he was out with. About getting a nod from a fellow black man in the restaurant and not knowing the meaning of the nod.

Joseph brings out a tennis ball and shows it to us.

Going over to the front row, he shows it to the guy sitting on the aisle. "What colour is this?" Joseph asks.

"Light green?" chances the guy on the aisle.

Joseph is horrified. Light green? That is literally the wrongest answer that ever wronged.

He looks around and spots me. Oh dear.

Making his way into the second row he holds out the tennis ball. "What colour is this?"

Well, if light green is super duper wrong. Then I'm going to go for the exact opposite. "Red?"

Nope.

"Does no one know what this is?" cries out Joseph, clearly distressed.

No one does.

And we get to the end of the show without ever finding out.

Joseph announces there will be a short break, and then we'll have having a Q&A to discuss the process and whatnot.

I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the Q&A. The whole "more of a comment than a question” thing doesn't really do it for me. I'm sure, out there, in the world, exists someone who asks interesting questions, but I've never heard one. I suspect the type of person who does have interesting things to ask, isn't the sort to stay behind after a show to ask them.

But I stay. I'm fairly confident that I'm the only person here who doesn't know the playwright, and I think it'll be a teensy bit obvious if I step out now.

A woman in the from row raises her hand. "This isn't a question, it's more of a statement..."

Oh gawd...

After a few more statements, and reminisces about the good old days at ArtsEd, we get to the first real question.

"What audience did you imagine? Who did you write this for?"

I sit forward. Now this I find interesting. Because this audience is hella white, and not at all what I pictured when I booked this show.

This marathon has taken me to all sorts of places and all sorts of shows. I've been in plenty of audiences where my whiteness put me in the minority, and even one where I was the only white person in the building apart from the staff, and I've always tried to take this into consideration. Sitting at the back, not taking space away from the people the show was created for. You know. I'm doing my best over here not to be an arsehole. Me doing this marathon shouldn't be getting in the way of someone seeing their art.

So the whiteness of the room I'm sat in, is surprising.

Joseph is more accepting though. "Theatre audiences are white and middle class," he says with a shrug after admitting we weren't quite the crowd he was going for.

"If you can stay, I'll see you in the bar in a few minutes," says Joseph and we all make our way out.

Well, apart from the few kind souls who offer to stay behind and tidy up the chairs.

ArtsEd should be proud.

Me on the other hand, I'm got a tram I need to not get caught by.

Red Mask, Gold Shoes

Well, this is a first. A theatre without a website. I honestly didn't think that was possible. Not in this year of 2019.

I thought not having online booking was bad enough. I've grumbled and moaned about having to email venues in order to reserve tickets. But this is the first one that I've come across that doesn't even have a landing page floating around on the ethernet with an address or something.

Based on the online-evidence, you'd think this place doesn't exist. Except I, for a fact, know that it does. Firstly, because it has a listing on offwestend.com, which in itself doesn't mean much. There are plenty of places on that site that don't exist, and haven't existed for a good many years. But thankfully I have a secondly. And that secondly is that I've had this place mentioned to me by a friend. Well, I say mentioned, but it was mainly her trying to convince me that I don't need to go. "It's small," she insisted, in a conversation that may or may not have been part of an intervention. "Really small. Max, I honestly don't think it counts."

Well, more fool her because it does count.

How does one buy tickets from a venue that is doing it's best to pretend not to exist though? That truly is a conundrum.

I considered going in person. It's only a short walk from my current base in Hammersmith. But the problem with that, is that it actually involves going somewhere. And despite the whole concept of this blog, I don't actually like going places.

But go places I must. All the way to Barons Court, to the Curtains Up pub, where a theatre is apparently lurking somewhere within.

I stand outside, on the opposite pavement, trying very hard not to question the plurality of the curtains.

Turns out, I don’t have to worry about getting a ticket. After a bit of Googling, I managed to find an Eventbrite listing for tonight’s show, and so git myself booked in. I check the details. It’s a 7.15pm start time.

I have a few minutes. It doesn’t do to be too early at these things.

Especially as I am highly suspect about that timing. Pub theatres don’t start their plays at 7.15pm. They just don’t. The standard London theatre time of 7.30pm? Sure. 7.45pm? Even better. 8pm? Or 9pm even? Sometimes. But 7.15? No. Never.

Either this place has a bedtime curfew, or they are sick of audience members rocking up half-way through the first act.

People sit around outside, having a drink and a cigarette. A grumpy looking pug sniffs around under a table.

I carry on walking.

I’ve told you before about this intuitive sense that I’ve developed on the marathon. I’ve visited so many theatres this year, I can tell just by looking at a place where I need to go and what I need to do.

And my intuition is telling me that I need to keep on walking.

Not too far. Just around the corner. And yes, there it is. A small side door set into the wall. And above it, on a small wooden plaque, a sign: Barons Court Theatre.

So, it really does exist.

I go in.

There’s a staircase leading down.

Another small plaque, this one affixed to a low lintel whose purpose seems to be solely to knock people on the head, says: Theatre Exit.

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A basement pub theatre. That’s unusual. Haven’t come across many of those so far. Like first wives, pub theatres are usually locked away in the attic.

I start to stroll down, but I spot something. Another sign. This one slightly above the first. On paper, sellotaped to the ceiling. “STOP!” I stop. “No entry to the theatre this way.”

Oh.

Okay.

Um.

I go back up to the landing and stand awkwardly, not knowing what to do.

So much for intuition.

The door at the top of the stairs opens, and someone comes out.

Over their shoulder I see the gleaming warmth of the pub beyond.

I suppose I should probably go in there.

It’s a nice pub. Velvety armchairs and spotlights on the walls showing off artwork. Amongst them is a painting of Salvador Dali, gazing out from the black frame, a fried egg sliding off his moustache.

I ignore all that, because there’s a door just opposite, and it’s marked up as being the way to the “Theatre & Toilets.” My intuition is back in business.

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Through the door. Down a corridor. Following an arrow which once again points out the way to: Theatre & Toilets. And down a staircase decorated with a line-up of headshots. I stop again. The arrow here is only pointing the way to the Gents. I don’t want the Gents. I want the theatre.

I try to turn around, but there is a man (perhaps even a Gent) behind me.

“Is this the way to the theatre?” I ask, more to explain my lack of movement on the stairs than to get his input.

“Sorry. It’s my first time here,” he says.

I let him pass, watching him disappear around a corner.

I don’t get that far. I find another door. It says Theatre on it. That’s good.

Except it’s closed. And has a lock on it. Which is less good.

I dither, trying to decide what I should do.

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Exactly on cue, the door opens.

“Are you here for the play?” asks the man as I jump aside to give him room.

“Yeah… umm… where’s the box office?”

“It’s just through here,” he says, pointing behind him. “With the theatre.”

But he doesn’t move aside, and we just end up standing there, staring at each other.

“Shall I go back upstairs then?” I ask, feeling its on me to break the stalemate.

“No, the theatre is here,” he says. “And the box office,” he adds, just in case I didn’t get it.

“Is it open yet?”

“No.”

“Okay…”

“We’ll let you know…”

“Right.”

Again, the awkward silence.

I look around. There isn’t much room down here. And I don’t know about you, but hanging around outside the men’s loos is not my idea of a quality evening.

“I’ll just go back upstairs then,” I tell him.

He accepts that, and we both trudge our way back up the steps, past the headshots, towards the bar.

Back in the pub, I find an empty table and plonk myself down into one of the armchairs. It’s very comfortable. I find myself leaning back, my body sinking into the chair’s sweet embrace. It’s been a long day.

Before I fall asleep, I check the time.

Huh. So much for a 7.15pm start time. I just knew that was all nonsense.

A glamourous-looking young woman, with a tiny jacket and metallic stiletos comes in. She looks around, pauses to read the sign over the door, and then walks through to the corridor. I watch her. She strides past the Ladies, turns on her stilleto, and then slowly makes her way down the stairs.

I wait.

A few minutes later she's back.

Right then. The house isn't quite open yet.

I keep an eye on the flow of people.

Mostly men, jouneying to the Gents.

I try to remember them, to see if they come back. But they're all wearing idential grey suits and I can't tell any of them apart.

Eventually the woman with the golden shoes returns, and tries her luck once more.

This time, she does not come back.

I check the time. It's a few minutes off 7.30. I should probably go see what's happening.

From the top of the steps I can see that the door to the theatre is now propped open.

Inside, rows of seating crowd in close on one side. On the other is a small hutch, where the box officer lives.

I give him my name.

"You paid, right?"

I did indeed.

He notes down my name on his clipboard. "Eventbrite?"

"Yes?"

"Smiles," he says slowly as he writes, adding the bracketed word "(PAID)" after my surname.

He points to the bank of seating behind me.

"This side is probably best," he advises.

Well, I'm always one to follow advice.

There are three rows of seating here. The first one is completly empty. I'm not a fan of the front row at the best of times, and sitting alone in a tiny pub theatre is not about to change things for me. The second row looks fairly crowded. I dismiss that one too. The third and last row has one person in it. The glamorous lady with the golden footwear.

It's fate.

"Is anyone sitting on the end there?" I ask her, indicating the seats on the other side of her.

"Err... no?" she says, sounding confused. Although, maybe she's just clocked that there was someone staring at her shoes upstairs and now she's panicking.

"Do you mind?"

She gets up and let's me pass, and I tuck myself away at the far end of the row, right up against the wall of the tech box. It's the best I can do. But there's still only one seat between us.

Oh well. Guess I'm just a stalker now.

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I distract myself from this startling self-realisation by looking around.

The stage is set amongst wide pillars, holding up a curved ceiling. The seating is on three sides. It's gloomy and creepy and I think I kind of love it. It's the sort of place you'd love to watch an Edgar Allan Poe story being performed. Which is handy. Because I'm here for The Masque of the Red Death.

So, that worked out well.

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A man comes in and pauses at the box office, picking up a piece of paper from the tiny counter.

It's a freesheet.

I'd completly missed them.

"Are these free?" he asks the box officer.

Yup. Turns out that they are completly free.

He grabs a handfull and turns to us. "Programme? Would you like a programme?" he says, handing them out.

My glamorous neighbour takes one but doesn't hand it down.

She's probably still weirded out by me. Which, you know: fair.

"Would you...?" she says, turning to me and holding it out.

Oh. Well, yes, I would. I take it from her and hold it up to do the classic blogger-freesheet photoshoot. And then lay it carefully balanced ontop of the flip-seat between us. Just in case she wants it back. I'm not entirely convinced her generosity wasn't a loan. I wouldn't be handing over no freesheets to random strangers who stare at my shoes. That's for sure.

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It's too dark to read it now anyway.

The house lights have extinguished.

It's 7.33pm.

The box officer switches off the light on his counter.

From the hallway outside I hear a voice. "I'm just going to the toilet, then we'll start."

We sit, waiting in the darkness.

A group comes in. They seem to know the people in the second row. "One more missing," they explain a front of houser reunites the friends.

"One more? Well, we need to start, but I'll be around!"

He goes over to the stage and welcomes us. "There are a few house rules," he explains. "The fire exit is over there," he says, pointing. "Please turn your phones onto silent. This performance contains fog and strobing, so... err... I hope that doesn't bother anyone."

It's time for the play to start.

It's... well, to be honest I don't know what it is. I'm lost. We seem to be at the party of a rather intense dominatrix. No one can leave becayse there is some really disgusting plague going on outside. The Red Death of the title. It all sounds rather icky and seems to involve sweating blood. Although, if it's a choice between that and having to spend the rest of my life cooped up with a woman who rents out her servants to the type of friends who think it's okay to send their playthings off for gender-realignment surgury and full-body tattoos, force others to recite poetry, and wear nude shoes with black tights... well, I think I'd take my chances.

It's super weird. Very Poe. Bit long. Only an hour, but even so... too much standing around in the pretext of creating atmosphere.

Still, I get a nice walk home, and am in bed by ten. So, I'd call that a success of an evening.

The fact that I spend the next three hours searching the web for golden high heels is neither here nor there.

Friendly Fire

On my last visit to the Park Theatre I promised myself I’d be back before the end of the summer in order to soak up that sweet, sweet air conditioning. 

It’s now September, and while we haven’t quite completed the descent into fall, it’s definitely on the way, so I better get a shift on. 

I make my way over to Finsbury Park, stopping just long enough on Clifton Terrace to take a photo of the outside of the theatre and almost get run over by a double decker. 

Inside it’s bright and buzzing and the woman on the box office gives me a great big smile as I go over and give me name. 

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“Huh, that’s strange,” she says, rummaging around in the ticket box and clearly not finding anything. 

I begin to panic, worrying that I booked the matinee or something equally stupid. 

Seitching to the evening won’t be easy. It’s all sold out.

“Shall I get my confirmation email up?” I ask, pulling out my phone. The email is already loaded behind my lock screen, because you know, I like to be prepared. It’s the anxious person in me. 

“These items can be picked up from Box Office. Warheads on Saturday 07 September 2019 at 19.45 in Park90.” 

It is Saturday 7 September. I didn’t make a mistake. For once. 

The box officer looks at her computer screen and frowns. “It says it’s already printed,” she says, sounding a mite confused. I can’t blame her. I’m a mite confused too. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do a print-at-home thingy, for one because I hate that shit, but also because I don’t have a printer. 

“Ah ha!” says the box officer. “Here you go. It’s with a programme!” 

Oh yeah! I’d forgotten I’d preordered one of those. She hands me the programme with the ticket slotted over the top. 

“The one time I try and be efficient,” I sigh. 

“That’s all on me,” the box officer says. 

“I just knew I wouldn’t have change!” I try and explain. “Never again. I promise you.” 

“I really appreciate you preordering a programme,” she assures me, and I realise that my attempts to good-naturedly take the blame on this issue are making me sound like an arse. 

I better get out of here. 

I scuttle off up the stairs and follow the signs to Park90, the smaller of the two Park spaces. 

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Up onto the landing, through a door, and down a long, red, corridor. 

A front of houser rushes the other way. 

“There you go,” he calls at me as we pass. “That way. Ushers will sort you out.” 

Well, alright then. 

At the end of the corridor, a ticket checker stands guard on the door. I show my ticket. She stares at it. The seconds tick past. I wonder if I’m supposed to do something at this point. Provide some sort of supplementary information. Perhaps I should get out the programme to show her. But whatever she was looking for, she seems to find it, and waves me through. 

The Park90 is a black box space, set up in traverse for tonight’s performance. I look around, trying to work out where I want to sit. Now usually in unreserved seating, I like to go for the end of the third row, but here there are two third rows and I need to decide what view of the stage I want. Throw in the fact that the third row is actually the back row (on both sides) and I’ve got all kinds of thinking to do before I sit down. As I try and process all this, I spot something large and fluffy down by my feet. 

It’s a dog. 

A very beautiful dog. 

An Alsatian. 

Or at least, I think it’s an Alsatian. It’s hard to tell. It’s really dark in here. 

Whatever breed, it’s definitely a dog, and they are lying down quite contentedly next to the end of the front row, beside their master. 

Well, that throws all my cogs back into a whirr because now I have to add in the extra dog-based element into my thought-processes. Do I want to sit near the dog? I do, of course, want that. But I also want to be able to see the dog, which would mean selecting a seat on the opposite side. 

I look back down at the dog. 

They are wearing a service dog harness. 

That settles it. 

I pick my way over to the other side of the stage. 

I don’t want to be near the dog, because being near the dog will mean I’ll be tempted to pet the dog, and I’m fairly certain you’re not meant to pet service dogs while they’re on duty. So I’m going to find a place where I can stare at them adoringly every time the play gets dull. 

Third row. At the end. 

No, wait. That’s too far away. 

Third row. In the middle. 

Perfect. 

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I get out my programme, but it’s far too dark to read in here. 

So dark that people have to lift their hands to wave as friends come through the door, lest these newcomers end up sitting next to a stranger. 

The front of houser I’d met in the corridor directs people around, helping them locate their plus ones, and filling in the gaps. It mat be a sold out show, but by the looks if it, some audience members must have got stuck in the bar, as there’s a big chunk of empty seats still going spare when the doors are closed. 

The blokes next to me sure spent a good deal of time there. 

They came in carrying beers, but I don’t think it’s their first round of the night. 

They are very actively not watching the play. 

One gets out his phone, flicking between apps while this tale of men broken by combat plays out mere feet away from us. 

He shifts seats, moving away from me to whisper something very loudly to his mates before sliding back again. I wonder if he too is trying to get a good view of the dog. 

I look over. The dog is sitting up. They don’t look overly keen about the whole combat thing either. As our soldiers shout and throw themselves across the tiny stage, the dog sits up, backing away towards the door. 

The usher leans down to stroke the top of the dog’s head. 

The owner looks back, but doesn’t say anything. 

Unlike my drunk friends in the back row who are only pausing in their conversation long enough to loudly exclaim at every plot point. Well, two of the friends. The third one buries his head in his hands, clearly hoping one of the explosives will blow a sink-hole into the earth for him to crawl into. Occasionally he lifts his head long enough to attempt to shush them, but these two lads are way too far gone to notice. 

And way too gone for anyone else not to notice. 

Even the actors. 

Taz Skylar rounds on them as Craig Fairbrass’ Captain flashes his torch in their direction. 

“If you fuckers don’t stop talking,” shouts Skylar, fully in character as a soldier in the depths of a PTSD-caused breakdown. 

They try to say something but Skylar isn’t having it. “You fat fuck, shut up!” 

There’s a cheer from the other side. 

The lads lapse into silence. 

For a few seconds. 

My neighbour leans over to his mate to say something. 

Joseph Connolly, playing the flatmate, and looking for all the world like he’s just found dishes in the sink for the third day running, gets up, leaning right into our row and narrowing his eyes at the talkers. “You’d better leave,” he says. 

The third friend sinks low, hands covering the top of his head as if the actors’ words were live ammunition. 

I look over at the usher. She’s over on the other side, grinning at the dog and rubbing his ears. They both look very happy. 

But we all make it through to the end of the play. 

A front of houser hands us leaflets on our way out. They have stats about the links between military service and homelessness on them. It’s shocking and depressing and I don’t know what to do with it other than shove it in my pocket to think about later. 

“I have never been so embarrassed in all my life,” says someone as we file out down the red corridor. 

“I’m going to have words with them,” a young woman says darkly. Because that’s the thing. They all knew each other. The cast. And half the audience. It was the last performance in the run. And all those threats of this-is-your-last-chance-to-see-me had paid off. 

At least they turned up. 

If those empty seats were any indication, at least one contingent never made it out of the bar. 

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54 Block Pickup

I swear, sometimes the theatre gods want nothing more than to mess with me. They like to have their fun, this we know. But even so, I cannot work out how it is remotely amusing for them to block off half the roads around Kings Cross, sending me on wild and twisting diversions all around Coal Drop Yard, when it is 32 frickin degrees outside, just so that they can have me arrive at my theatre for the evening out of breath, red, flustered around the edges, with only three minutes to go before the show is supposed to start…

Ah.

Okay, I see it now.

But even so, it's not very nice of them. Especailly after everything they've put me through this year already.

I thought we'd come to an understanding of sorts. I would visit all the damn theatres, paying my due respect as I go, and they would help me. Or at the very least, not get in my way. I don't know where it went wrong, unless for some reason they don't approve of my methods.

Perhaps they don't like the way I write. All my short sentences and four-letter words.

Oh gawd, it's the swearing, isn't it?

Shit.

Oh well.

No time to think on that. Literally no time.

I burst into the Lord Stanley pub in a heaving ball of sweaty mess.

I look around. It's Sunday night and it looks like the pub is doing a fair amount of business. But this lot are all drinkers. Where are all my theatre people?

Oxygen deprived, I begin to panic, suddenly convinced that I had come to the wrong pub. One final trick of the theatre gods before they seal my marathon in a coffin and send it floating down the Thames, with ninety or so theatres still unvisited.

It's the final day of Camden Fringe. And the Lord Stanley isn't a classic theatre pub. Some improv group or other runs the theatre space upstairs. Chances of me getting in here again before the year is out are slim.

But no, it's okay. People seem to be drift over to the back of the room, driven by an unseen herder.

And there, I see it, the box office. Or, at least, what counts as a box office in places like this. A laptop, propped up on a small ledge.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the show is about to start!" calls out the young man behind the machine.

He's standing beside a doorway, and nailed to the inside is a chalkboard. "Camden Fringe. A Tingle in the Plumbing," it reads.

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Looks like I've found The Free Association's Comedy Room.

Finding what little air is left in my lungs, I manage to give my name to the box officer.

"Oh," says a passing woman, stopping in her tracks as she heads towards the door. "Do I need to...?"

"I just need to get you checked off," says the box officer.

"We have old fashioned paper tickets," she says, which sounds deeply unlikely to me. This is Camden Frnge after all.

The box officer looks at me. "You're fine," he says and I leave him to deal with the paper ticket lady.

Through the door I go, and up the creeky, narrow, stairs, twisting my way up and up. There doesn't seem to be any signage, and I am left to follow the echoes of laughter to find my way.

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Through another door, and yes, this is it. A small room painted black, but with heavy red curtains blocking out the windows. A large medallion is stuck to one wall, and there seems to be bricks on the other.

Wait, not bricks. They're tiles. The type of tiles that are made to look like mismatched slithers of stone. Those tiles that you find gracing the bathroom walls in the facier end of hotels. I’m not sure what to make of that.

There's a small stage. Two small stages, actually. One on each side. But they have been drafted in for seating purposes. Down each side of the room are two rows of chairs, running up onto the stages on both ends. The chairs are old fashioned. Really old fashioned. The have studs all over them, pinning in the upholstery. They look so old that I'm a little bit nervous about sitting down on one, just in case it crumbles under my weight.

I pick one in the second row. It appears stable enough.

I sit down carefully.

I think we're safe.

I get out my fan and do my best to get some air circulation going in here. It's very hot. Stifling. And my already overheated body is suffering greatly.

There are freesheets on alternate chairs. I pick one up from the seat next to me.

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It's nice. Good paper. An A3 folded in half. Artwork on the front. Inside there's a credit list, biographies, and a note from the playwright, which begins by offering a mea culpa that we're only getting three stories tonight, and not the four advertised on the poster. And the front of the freesheet for that matter.

I respect that.

Nothing bugs me more than when an artist wants to change a title in order to fit an updated running order. The title is the title. It's printed on the tickets. It exists. It's in the system.

Own your titles.

I try to read the rest, but it's really hard to balance a freesheet in one hand while flapping a fan in the other.

I need to pick one.

I go with the fan.

A few minutes of dedicated fan-flapping later, I'm feeling a little better.

It's only then that I'm able to take in what's happening in the centre of the room.

Two people crouch on the floor. It's Rebecca Banatvala and David Reed. Playing Jenga.

Playing with one of those oversized sets that I think are sold for garden use, but tend to get most of their air-time at drunken parties.

A woman sitting near me giggles as she watches them.

I'm not sure Jenga is much of a spectator sport, and doesn't particularly lend itself to comedy.

Perhaps she's drunk too.

The room gradually begins to fill up, everyone clutching at their drinks. No one looking bothered or concerned that the show was supposed to be starting shortly.

As the row in front of me is claimed, the Jenga players are hidden from view.

I knew it was coming. I've sat in enough unraked second rows to know that floor-work can't survive it. It does always baffle me though, why directors are so intent on getting their performers down on the ground, when they presumably know the room set up. It's almost like they don't want half the audience to see their work. Perhaps they're embarrassed or something.

Anyway, the music stops. The Jenga pile is smashed.

Reed heads up onto one of the stages were he has a laptop set up.

Banatvala begins the first tale, The Astronaut, in which she's... well, an astronaut. And we, the audience, are all students in a lecture she's giving. She tells us of space, of the adventure, of seeing the earth from the outside, of knowing fully and completely who you want to be and what you want to do in life, and then she tells us about coming back, of motherhood, losing a part of yourself, a part which is never wholly replaced.

Reed steps down off the stage and it's back to the Jenga pile. For some reason. I can't tell what they're doing down there. I focus on keeping my fan going until eventually whatever task they are doing is complete and we can get on with the second tale. The Shopper. This one sees Banatvala as a woman always seeking more. Her parents worked hard, and each birthday saw her gifts growing as did the family's place in the world. And she sees no reason that this should ever stop. She marries well. Their wealth accumulates. She develops her tastes, and her accent. And when children come, she wants more for them too. Unfortunately, one thing you cannot purchase is buy-in from your progeny.

Last up, The Accountant. Reed straps bells to his feet for this, and seats himself on a box, because Banatvala is getting her rap on and she needs a beat. Redundancy has taken this character hard. Or rather, made him hard. Both of the soul and, ummm... delicacy prevents me from completing that thought. I hope my flapping fan and flushed cheeks are not misinterpreted here, because he's out for what he can get, and is determined to get everything. Everything being women.

A man in the front row is drafted in to play Seamus, the hapless partner to one of the accountant's conquests, and made to hear the entire tale in all its sordid detail.

Blackout.

Tale complete.

We applaud the pair of them, our clapping calling them back to the stage for one more set of bows.

Someone comes over to speak to my neighbour.

"It's really hot in here," he breathes.

"It wasn't too bad on this side," she replies.

I put my fan away. Job done I think.

On my way out I pause, seeing the arrangement of Jenga blocks on the floor for the first time. They're laid out carefully. Like a snake. Perhaps hinting at the accountants snake-like traits? I cannot tell you. This tower of direction falls down when the players can't see what's happening at the lower levels.

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Holding out for a heroine

I'm nearing the end of my Camden Fringe adventure. And it has been an adventure. All these funny little spaces that I wouldn't have had the chance to see without their epic programming. I can almost forgive them for adding venues to the marathon. Almost.

Without the Camden Fringe I wouldn't have needed to check out any comedy venues. They're not part of the remit. But those igenious folks at the festival found a way to stuff some theatre onto those tiny stages, so off I go. To 2 Northdown this time. A place I've never been, or even heard of, which is something I'm starting to get bored of saying relation to Camden Fringe locations.

2 Northdown is on Northdown Street. Number two, as it happens, which is a pretty amazing coincidence. Don't you just love it when that happens.

I've arrived far too early, but there's already a group hanging around outside, waiting to go in.

I hang back and try to get a sense of the place.

It's small. Or rather, narrow. Like a terraced house. Except there are great big doors taking up the ground floor and a winch over one of the upstairs windows, which makes me think this building must have had a more industrial past. It looks nice though. Smart. A little bit classy.

Not sure I want to be hanging out on the pavement outside though.

So I go for a walk, up to Caledonian Road and around in a loop. By the time I get back, it's five minutes before showtime, and the group outside have all relocated. Presumably inside.

I follow their lead.

There's a tiny little foyer inside the door. Just large enough for one person to turn to the left, where there is another door.

Here a posing table has been set up, complete with cash wallet and printed lists. Looks like I've found the box office.

I give my name the girl on table-duty and she draws a line through my name.

"Got you," she says, and she steps back to let me through.

Two steps in and I'm already almost crashing into the back row.

This place is small. A single room. With the bar on one side and the stage on the other.

Even the loos are in here. One on either side of the stage, like soldiers standing sentinel.

There's a bench pressed against the wall, which seems to have become the unofficial line for the loo. The two sides aren't divided by gender. In fact, both of them have a male and female little icon on them, which seems a very binary approach to take for loo-inclusivity in 2019, but oh well. There's a sign underneath, which I figure might be there to explain that the loos are for anyone who wants to take a piss, but when I get my glasses out, I see it's nothing of the kind.

"Please don't use the bathrooms during the performance," it says. "They're not soundproof and it's awkward for everyone."

Ew.

I turn my attention to the decoration.

Framed show posters cover the walls, and by the looks of it, they're all signed. They're from some pretty famous comedians. Famous enough that even I have heard of them, and that's saying something.

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The rest of the space is filled with chairs.

And almost every single one of them is taken.

I spot a single spare seat at the end of the row, and ask the girl sitting next to it if I can take it.

"Yeah!" she cries out enthusiastically.

I don't think I've ever seen someone so happy to have a stranger sitting next to them.

But then, the excitement in this room is at last-day-of-school levels. Everyone is chattering and drinking and hugging.

As new people come in, cries of recognition echo around the room.

My neighbour squeals as she spots a friend and stands up to hug her, leaning right over me to do so.

Something tells me they all know the cast, and they are super pumped to see them on stage.

It's all rather sweet.

And impressive.

There's no way I could pack out an entire venue if I were to put on a show. Maybe, if I really laid on the guilt thick, I might fill out the front row, but the fact that every seat in this place is taken tells me a lot about these performers. Whoever they are.

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Flyers had been left on our seats and I have a look at mine to find out.

Let's see. It's Denni-Tyla Bell and Olivia Martin performing in a play they wrote themselves: Bananas are a funny shape.

I mean, they're not wrong. Bananas are a funny shape.

They're also apparently being sponsored by Bonnie Tyler and in their list of thanks, they credit Russell T Davies. So, my expectations are currently sky-rocketing.

The house lights go down.

There's a roar from the audience. They are here for this.

Although, I'm not quite sure what here is.

The stage lights have gone on, but I can't see anything.

I lean out to the right and catch a glimpse of an arm, but whether said arm belongs to Bell or Martin, I can't tell.

And here is the point where I discover why theatre isn't programmed in comedy venues. The stage may be raised, but unraked seating is never going to be able to cope with the demands of an actor wanting to... sit down.

I do my best, darting from left to right, mirror the head waving of the bloke sitting in front of me, but it's no good. When the performers are sitting, they might as well be invisible to those stuck in the back.

So I settle back in my chair, and just listen.

Bell and Martin's characters are getting ready for a night out. They don't know each other, but they have a lot in common. They're virgins. Not that they're frigid, you understand. No, they're just picky. Like Cher from Clueless. But without the natty tartan suits. And like Cher, they want someone who likes them for them. And they're feeling a bit let down. By the boys who want to get in their pants, the terrible sex ed classes at school, and their own bodies.

I find myself staring at the wall of framed posters, where I can just about see what's going on in the reflections in the glass. They're getting dressed up, doing their hair, and all the while talking to us. Their invisible friend. Their diary. Perhaps even their conscious.

But when it comes time to go out, they take us with them.

Phones rise out of the sea of heads to film the girls as they bop around to club bangers. And I suddenly realise how these two young women managed to fill an entire venue, because they are completely charming and absolute darlings, and I want to be their friend too.

And when it comes right down to it, their show isn't about boys or sex and going out on the pull, it's the power of female friendship, and the importance of sticking up for one another.

And if it came right down to it, I would definitely want Bell and Martin fighting my corner.

And not just because they have Bonnie Tyler and Russell T Davies on speed-dial.

As the stage lights go into blackout, a good chunk of the audience bounces out of their seats and applauds. And keep on going, even when Bell and Martin clearly want to say something.

They thank us all for coming. And the person doing tech. A few tears are shed.

"Everyone can leave!" says Bell to finish things off with a big wave of her arms.

But this lot ain't going. A couple of audience members go up with bouquets of flowers.

Never have I felt so much love in a room.

It's intoxicating.

But it's time for me to go, so that the pair celebrate with their people.

Behind me, the great doors have been opened out onto the street and I slip out, letting the party go on without me.

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On Sundays Peckham wears Pink

I know I diss Peckham a lot in this blog. But that's only because it's so damn hard to get too, and yet still apparently contains half the theatres in London. I've been to Peckham more in the past eight months than I have in my entire life. I mean, seriously. What's up, Peckham? Why so greedy on the theatres? Some of us have to go through life living with only one theatre within walking distance, and you have them everywhere. In drama schools. And old munitions factories. And now, apparently, car parks.

Yup, I'm off to a car park. To watch some contemporary dance.

Because: Peckham.

Anyway, this place, Bold Tendencies, is apparently not just a car park. Or it's not a car park anymore. It's like, a bona fide venue. Or possibly an art gallery. I hadn't heard of it before. But I suspect that's just because I ain't cool enough to be hanging around in car park in Peckham on the reg.

They did send a super intense pre-show email, though.

E-tickets need to be scanned on the rooftop. But the performance is not happening on the rooftop. You need to get a wristband, and then that will allow you down onto Floor 8. But wait, when getting your ticket scanned, make sure the barcode is expanded to fill the entire width of the screen and the brightness is turned way up high. And when you have your wristband, make sure that it's visible to security.

I ignore everything else. Door times. And bar locations. And the artworks on display. I've hit information overload.

But it's fine. I can do this. Download ticket. Fill screen. Get scanned. Wristband on. Down to Floor 8. Flash wristband. Into venue.

Easy.

I'll figure the rest out when I get there.

If I ever do.

Now, I don't want to turn this whole thing into a rant about trains. But seriously, Peckham needs to get itself a tube station. I can't deal with this.

And like, I arrive in Peckham. And I didn't die. So whatever. Here I go.

Although, I've not sure where exactly.

The little circle in Google Maps that is supposed to be me is greyed out and ineffectual, and while that is an accurate reflection of my current state, is not exactly helpful.

I have no idea where I'm going.

I open the pre-show email again, do a bit of scrolling, and yup. There are instructions on how to find this place. So, thank you Bold Tendencies. I needed you, and you were right there. Down Rye Lane, over the pedestrian crossing, towards the Multiplex and up the staircase on my left. Exactly as promised.

I trudge my way up the stairs. Spiralling round and round and getting a good glimpse of the type of rubbish businesses leave on their rooftops.

And then I stop. Because this endless round of spiralling bleakness has stopped. And there's a doorway. And light is streaming out. And suddenly, everything is pink!

The man on the door grins and steps aside to let me through into a pink hallway.

The pinkest hallway I've ever been in.

The pinkest anything I've ever been in.

Well, at least, the pinkest anything I've been in since my best friend's fifth birthday party.

The walls are pink. The floor is pink. The ceiling is pink. The lifts have been painted pink. As have the doors. And the steps.

And not mauve or salmon or coral.

But pink pink.

Proper pink.

Flamingo pink. Or possibly bubblegum.

Oh my god. I just realised. This is it. This is the famous millennial pink. I found it. In Peckham.

And it's everywhere.

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I keep on climbing, and turning, and climbing. And it's pink. All pink.

Do I like it? I don't know. My little goth heart is screaming in agony, but that former five-year-old at her best friend's party is squeeing in delight. And just before the two sides get into a fight, it stops. I'm outside. On a rooftop. And all of London is spread out before me, twinkling in the darkness.

There's a large hut over to my right which I'm fairly confident is the place I'm supposed to get beeped in, but it's no good. I have to check out that view first. I can see everything from up here. There's the London Eye. And the Shard. And the... Walkie Talkie? Is that what it's called? I can't remember. Whatever, it's very impressive.

I take a few photos and then just stand there, breathing in the night air down to the bottom of my lungs. But it's no good. It's been raining all afternoon, and the puddles are beginning to leak into my shoes.

I'm going to go and get beeped.

I go over to the information shed, but there's a slight problem. The reception up here is crap.

Or rather, the reception in Peckham is crap.

I walk around in circles as the ticket downloads, trying not to look like I've having an anxiety attack on a rooftop, but being very aware that I'm doing a bad job of it.

Finally, it downloads. I have my ticket.

Screen brightness up. Screen zoomed in so that the barcode takes up the full width. I join the queue.

One of the box officers catches my eye. "Are you with them?" she asks, indicating a group waiting at the counter.

I tell her I'm not. I don't have friends willing to come see a show in a Peckham car park at 9pm on a Sunday night. But I'm flattered that she thinks that I do.

"I can scan you," she says.

I hold out my phone and she beeps it.

"So," she says. "That's one standing."

She rummages around in a box of wristbands. "I don't seem to have any..."

"Oh no..." I say.

And then it happens.

I don't know why. Something came over me. I couldn't stop myself. I made the joke. You know the one. The joke that anyone who has ever done even a day's worth of customer service has heard a thousand times. "You can upgrade me if you like. I don't mind." I cringe as the words come out of my mouth, but it's too late now. I've said it.

She smiles politely and refrains for leaning over the counter to batter me over the head with her scanner. For which I can only silently thank her and offer her my eternal respect.

"I have some," says her fellow box officer, bringing over another tub and rescuing the both of us.

A red wristband is duly fished out and my very sweet box office gets it ready.

I offer up my wrist and as she sticks it in place, she gives me the rundown of the event.

"The show starts at nine. The doors will be opening soon, and it's one hour. It's in two parts. There will be a short break in the middle, about four minutes. Do you know where you're going?"

"Down one level?" I say, feeling proud and a little bit smug that I remembered that detail from the pre-show email.

"Have you been here before?"

I admit that I haven't, but again, I'm secretly rather pleased that she thinks that I hang out in car parks in Peckham.

"It's down the ramp," she says, pointing behind me to the other side of the roof. "You're standing so there will be someone down there who will show you where to go."

She hands me a freesheet, and with that, I'm released.

The doors aren't open yet. But that doesn't matter. I wanted to be here early. Because this place isn't just a car park. Oh no. It's not even a car park with a theatre. It's a car park with a frickin' outdoor gallery.

The rooftop is covered with all sorts of interesting things. And I am off to explore them.

First, there's a twisting set of tunnels. I stomp my way through them, boggling at the sight of leather jackets hung on the wall and dining tables stuck to the ceiling.

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Fellow tunnels gasp and jump when they bump into me. One man even claims I almost gave him a hard attack.

It's all very pleasing.

Next up I go over to a huge painting of a mouth that looks like it was lifted staight off the truck of a travelling circus.

But as I walk over to it I stop.

There's a car up here. An actual car. I stare at it, wondering if this place still has a dayjob as an actual car park, but then a low thrumming, somewhere between a car revving and a swarm of bees, emerges from the vehicle, and I realise that it's another piece of art. I find the panel and read. Something to do with the Polish mob. Very disconcerting.

I walk around a bit more, looking at all the installations. But then I spot people beginning to make their way down the ramp, so I figure it's time to go in.

At the bottom of the ramp, a man with a suit and dark glasses nods as I approach. At first I wonder if he's anything to do with the mob-mobiles, but he smiles and the effect is gone.

"Am I going in the right direction?" I ask, suddenly doubtful. Behind him there's a huge pillar of TV scenes, and I think I might have stumbled upon another piece of art.

"You are in the right place," he says, kidly. "Just speak to my colleague over there and she'll show you to your seat..." He spots my red wristband. "Or standing or whatever."

I head in the direction he indicates, and show my wristband to the woman standing there. "Standing? Yup, if you just go to the back."

I seem to be walking behind the stage. There's loads of speakers and a tech desk here. And then in front of them, a dance floor, surrounded by little lights, and seating on three sides.

At the other end, there's a woman wearing a pink hoody. "Standing?" she asks, clocking the wristband. "Yup, you're just around here at the back," she says, pointing to a raised platform behind the seats.

There aren't many people here yet. So I pick a space near the middle. There's a railing to lean against, and the platform means I should be able to see over the heads of the people sitting in front. These spots were sold for as restricted view, but I think even my short-arse is going to be fine. Pretty darn good for a fiver, I must say.

There's someone on stage, having a photoshoot. At first I think she's a model, because she's giving serious pose. And then I figure she's one of the dancers. But when I put my glasses on, I realise I know who that is. I recognise her. It's Sharon Eyal. The choreographer.

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When they're done taking pictures, Eyal slips on those huge bulky trainers. You know the ones. They're all over Instagram. I want to say they're called Buffalos, but I might be making that up. Either way, she's rocking it and I'm super jealous, because I want some. But I know I would look ridiculous in them. And not the good kind of ridiculous. The kind with geometric hair paired with architectural glasses. Just the what-the-fuck-is-she-doing kind. Which is not a look I fancy rockin' at my age.

But somehow, I don't mind being less cool than Sharon Eyal.

That was never I battle I was going to win.

As for the rest of the audience, I'm not so sure. There's a lot of oversized shirts going on. And baggy trousers. And massive jackets. In fact, everything they're wearing is huge. Like I've stumbled into the student halls on the last day of term, and there are just piles of laundry everywhere.

Even the woman in the pink hoodie looks cool. Now I see her from the back I can see that it says "Ask me about the art," in block capitals, which is a phrase I'm spotted elsewhere around here so it must be a Bold Tendencies thing, but I don't care, because I really, really, want one now. Even in fucking pink. I don't care. Ask me about the art, dammit.

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As more people arrive, the standers all shuffle around to make room for them. But after a while, no amount of shuffling will fit everyone in, and a second row starts to form.

A small group gather behind me. They manage to push the girl in next to me, but the blokes are left behind.

"I want to sit on the floor," one of them announces,

"There's loads of space!"

But they decide to stay put.

The lights dim. People start to come out from a door behind us.

There's Sharon Eyal again, with a cute little boy next to her. They go and take up position in the middle of the central block of seating, standing close to each other.

The music bangs out loud, and the dancers appear, dressed in skin-tight black bodysuits.

It's a strange set up this. Not the stage or seating or anything. That's pretty standard for a pop up. I mean the car parkiness of it all. I'd never really noticed just how low the ceilings in car parks are before. It's not the most logical location for a dance performance. Jumping is out, for sure. They’d hit their head mid jete.

Good thing Eyal isn't really into the jumpy thing. More shuffling steps and twisting trance-like limbs.

People start getting their phones out, taking pictures. That's a thing I've noticed about these unusal spaces. Whatever barriers are broken to get performance of theatres seems to have smashed the normal conventions of watching it.

A bloke sitting in front of me films a short clip, starts editing it on his phone, then posts it to Instagram.

As soon as it's uploaded, he does it again.

Then he navigates to his profile to make sure it's gone up.

It has. So now his 18 followers can enjoy a ten-second amateur film, taken above the heads of the people sitting in front, of a group of dancers dressed in black, performing in low lighting. I'm sure they'll really enjoy it.

He shows it to the woman he's with.

She's impressed at least. She impressed that she takes her own film. Which she then sends in a Whatsapp message. "Lev dance company [heart emoji]" she types.

I can't help but think the heart emoji is a touch insincere, considering she's been playing on her phone for the entire performance.

As the bloke lifts his phone up right in front of me, yet again, to take some more footage, I let me eyes wander over to Eyal and the boy.

They are having great fun. He's drumming along to the music with his arms, she's got her own groove down.

He tugs at her sleeve, and she leans down so that he can whisper something in her ear.

It's super cute.

As the piece finishes, the lights go down and the audience roars their appreciation, masking the music that is still playing.

"What's happening?" asks the bloke standing behind me.

"It's the interval," his friend says. "Shall we go to the bar?"

"Can we?"

"Yeah. We've got like, twenty minutes. It's still open. We should get a drink, otherwise we'll just be standing here for twenty minutes."

I want to tell them it's four minutes, not twenty, but it's too late. They're already off, circling around the stage towards the bar.

Four minutes later, they haven't returned. I hope it's because they just have found some empty seats to sneak into.

I use the time to look at the freesheet. Turns out the tower of screens are actually videos taken in the rehearsal room. So, you know, that's cool.

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The lights go down, and the car park is filled with an inky blackness, made all the ribbon of London lights around us.

Trains rumble past, competing with the loud, ravey music, and I can't help but think about what the neighbours must feel about all this. Loud music pounding out at 10 o'clock on a school night, without even the benefit of walls to keep it contained.

At the end, the audience jumps to their feet - including the pair who spent the entire performance working on their social media. Through the forest of bodies, I can just about make out Eyal and the boy joining to dancers for the bows. The boy demonstrates his flossing technique and a dancer joins in, making us all laugh.

The dancers are handed huge pink blooms, which they immediately run out to the audience with, handing them over to people in the front row.

As soon as the house lights are back on, I'm off, leaping down from the platform and racing through the press of people unsure if they need to get in one more drink before they go home. There's a train back to Victoria in, gawd, six minutes, and I am going to make it, dammit.

Down the pink stairs.

Counted out by security on a little clicker.

Back outside and onto the spiral staircase, weaving through the slow-moving crowds.

I pelt it past the Multiplex, past the back, over the crossing, round the corner, into the station, tap in, up one flight of stairs, then another. I can hear the train pulling in. Oh gawd. But it's okay, I'm here, I'm here. A few more steps. I fling myself through the open doors and collapse into an empty seat just as my lungs are about to explode.

Made it.

But damn, I swear Peckham is trying to kill me.

Going extinct

I am very annoyed. Someone has been messing with my calendar. I had everything planned perfectly, and then some twat-head makes me go all the way to Islington, where I work, to see a show, when, and I can't emphasise this enough, I am on annual leave. I just had to go the long way round from King's Cross to avoid walking past my theatre. Not because I hate my theatre. But because there is something deeply wrong about being in the vicinity of your work when you don't have to work. Adding even more walking to the walking I wouldn't have had to do if I just booked to see this thing when I'm not on holiday.

This is some ridiculously poor planning. And it definitely wasn't me who did it.

But anyway, I'm here now.

At The Taproom.

Which is a bar. In case the name didn't tip you off.

I don't think their theatre space is like, an actual theatre space. It's not like the King's Head just down the road. It might be a comedy stage. Or possibly music. Somehow I don't think the play's the thing when it comes to The Taproom.

But anything goes during Camden Fringe. If they've got a stage, or even just a room, going spare. It's a theatre.

I've been doing rather well with Camden Fringe so far. I may complain that I'm often stuck in an audience of people who are best-mates with the cast, but at least I'm not the only one there. Which has been my biggest fear with these makeshift theatre spaces.

I go in.

It's, you know, a bar. Lots of beer mats decorating the bare brick walls. A chalkboard advertising all their events. Long tables with benches that are either attempting to tap into the group-bookings market, or they have this kind of sharing philosophy going on.

There's a staircase leading down into the basement.

That must be the theatre, or whatever it is, down there.

A young woman sitting on a bench over by the stairwell jumps up.

"Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

"I am," I say, surprised. "Good spot."

"Any wandering eye..." she says.

And there I was thinking I was being subtle.

"Did you book online?" she asks.

Of course I did. The other option would be booking in person, and I ain't about that life.

I offer to bring up the confirmation email, but she's ready, phone in hand, to take my name.

Well then.

Once that's sorted, she sits back down on the bench and picks up a couple of pens.

"I'm just going to draw... Is Sharpie okay?"

I offer her my hand. "Go for it!"

So she starts drawing on the back of my hand. A small circle. Then a slightly larger one. A triangle. A line. Another line. And a dot.

I angle it to face me.

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"That's a dodo," she explains.

It totally is a dodo!

"I love it!" I do! My very own dodo. "Umm, where am I going?"

"Okay, so..." She stops. More people turn up, all with those wandering eyes. "Are you here for Virtual Reality?"

They are. Thank the theatre gods, I'm not alone for this.

She looks back at me. "The show starts in fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, you can't take drinks down."

She indicates that I should take a seat. I go off and find one of those long tables. There's no one else sitting there, but that doesn't last for long. I soon have a small group of people waiting for reality to get virtual.

Fifteen minutes later, our dodo artist is doing the rounds. "Hello, it's about it start," she says, do-doing from table to table.

A queue forms by the stairwell, but I think it's just because no one wants to be the first one to go down.

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The dodo artist has to encourage us to go those final few steps down into the basement.

There's a door down here. For The Tap Comedy Club.

It leads to a small room. Brick on one side. Painted white. Wood panels on the other. Painted black. The ceiling is low and covered with pipework.

And there's creepy artwork everywhere. Canvas painted with black silhouettes over on the brick wall. Black imagery of faces on the other. And on the back wall: two mannequins wearing white masks. After staring at them for a full minute, I decide that there aren't people hiding inside, but that I'm going to keep close watch of them all the same.

We're beckoned in by a man. Closer. No, closer.

"You can come in, it's nothing scary," he says, as if he hasn't seen those creepy-arse drawings all over the walls. "Come closer, it's just me."

We shuffle in a bit closer.

He sighs. "You can literally come closer."

The dodo artist slips in and disappears behind a curtain in the corner.

The door is closed.

Our host starts talking. It's a lecture. About what makes images scary. Unnatural postures. Jerky movements. Prolonged stillness. I feel like I'm back in Psychology A-level.

As he talks, I sense someone standing near me, scratching.

My mum has a saying that she brings out whenever she catches someone having a satisfying scratch: Don't scratch. Wash.

But no amount of bubble baths would help this itch.

This isn't wearing-a-woolly-jumper scratching. Or changed-your-fabric-softener scratching.

This is I-have-a-thousand-spiders-laying-eggs-under-my-skin level of scratching.

The scratcher sighs.

People are starting to look around.

Not full-on turning. That would be rude. But there's a lot of side-eyeing going on around the audience as everyone tries to figure out what this guy's problem is, while at the same time pretending that they haven't noticed anything.

Through the sighs, he starts muttering.

He really doesn't look happy.

He walks around us, coming to sit on a keg in front of one of the pictures our host is using to demonstrate his lecture.

"Are you alright?" asks our lecturer.

I think we can all agree that he is not alright.

But we continue to ignore him, in what must be the most British response to someone who is clearly unwell in our midst.

Our lecturer moves around, and the scratcher moves with him, keeping at the back so that he is always standing behind us.

As we get a rundown of Capgras syndrome (the one that makes you think everyone in your life has been replaced by a perfect doppelganger), the scratcher cannot take it anymore. "Shut up!" he shouts.

The lecturer tries to shrug it off with a gentle laugh. "That's the first time I've been heckled," he says.

I try to laugh along, but my heart is beating like crazy and those masked mannequins in the back are beginning to worry me.

I know the scratcher is a plant. Of course he is. I booked for a theatre show, not a lecture.

But still.

My nerves are on fire.

As the lecturer explains automatons, someone in the audience raises his hand. He has a question.

I eye him up.

Another plant.

Must be.

People don't ask questions. Anyone who's sat through a post-show Q&A knows that people don't ask questions. Especially not well-thought out ones, pertinent to the subject matter.

If there are two, there could be more.

I examine the other audience members.

There's no telling how many there are.

They could all be in on it.

I might be the only genuine audience member here.

The lights flicker.

"What's going on?" says someone, who I'm now also suspecting of having plant-vibes.

I back away from him, and knock someone's foot with my own.

We both jump.

"This is the last exhibit, I promise," says the lecturer, leading us to a table of mannequin heads wearing Venetian masks.

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The lights flicker again. And go out.

I think I'm going to have a panic attack.

Movement in the darkness.

The lights go back on and...

We're back at the beginning. The start of the lecture. Getting shown those canvases.

And the scratcher is next to me again. Scratching.

And there's a voice. Whispering. Loudly. So loud I can't even hear the lecture anymore.

We all pretend to watch. Following the lecturer around the exhibits as if we hadn't heard it all before. As If the scratcher wasn't creeping around our group.

As if the voice wasn't blaring out his inner thoughts.

So. Fucking. British.

I swear this is why Brexit happened.

I bet they're all plants.

Every one of them.

They're probably not even real people.

No, not that. I don't think they're robots. I'm not crazy. Fuck's sake.

They're Russian bots. Drafted in to make me have an anxiety attack, right here in the basement of The Taproom, after which they'll go through my pockets, steal my phone, hack my accounts, take over this blog, and then use it to promote their next show.

It's the only explanation.

But then they're all standing in a row, bowing, and we're clapping, and apparently, there are actual people in the audience.

The dodo artist does a Wizard of Oz and emerges from behind the curtain. "That was a demonstration of psychosis," she explains, before going to open the door. "There's a comedy show at eight, so we need to clear the room. So if you could enjoy the rest of the night upstairs, that would be great."

"That was genuinely a bit scary," says the guy I thought was a plant. One of them, anyway.

I'm still not convinced.

I walk back to King's Cross, taking the long way round so I don't have to pass my work.

I'm feeling a bit wobbly. Everything looks ever so slightly wrong. As if someone picked up London and rotated it by a single degree while I was busy underground.

As I'm walking through a housing estate a woman and boy approach me.

They want to borrow my phone. They're French. Their phone doesn't work over here. They need to get in touch with their Airbnb contact.

Something feels off.

Perhaps it's the way they're blocking me in on the pavement. Or the fact that they won't get out their phones when I tell them how to use country codes.

I tell them I'm not comfortable with that. And I walk away.

Bloody Russian bots.

I think I must be the last real person left in London.

Never More than Six Feet Away from a Theatre

Okay, so this is starting to get embarrassing now. I'm heading to yet another theatre on Gray's Inn Road that I knew nothing about. I swear they are popping up just to shame me with their existence.

It's half-past eight on Sunday night, and unsurprisingly the streets around King's Cross are dead. Everyone is at home, crying into their food prep, or whatever it is that normal people do on a Sunday evening.

I'm leaning against a tree, waiting.

My show doesn't start until nine, and it is way too early to go to the venue. With fringe theatre, timing is everything. Walking in with half an hour to spare just ends up confusing everyone. The box office isn't set up. The house isn't open. And the bar staff don't appreciate you taking up a table when there are real customers looking for somewhere to sit.

So you just end up standing around, pretending not to be a theatre nerd with no friends.

Frankly, I'd rather be batch cooking lunches so that come Friday I'll be eating five-day-old leftovers.

Okay, maybe not.

Food prep be gross, people. Let it rot.

Like your broccoli.

Unfortunatey, there comes a point when even tree-leaning gets a bit weird, and passersby begin to look concerned that there's a person standing on the pavement, by herself, on a Sunday evening, by herself.

At a quarter to, I give up. And walk the last few minutes to the venue.

A pub.

The Water Rats.

A name which takes me right back to my childhood in the countryside. Of lazy days drifting down the river, drives around terrifyingly narrow roads, and having to steal Toad Hall back from the weasels and... wait, that's Wind in the Willows.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Bright and busy.

There's a security person on the door and he stops me as I try to pass.

"Excuse me," he says. "Are you here for the gig?"

"Um, Camden Fringe?" I say. That seems to be the magic password at these places.

It works. "Can I check your bag please?"

He rummages around in there, giving it a more thorough go-over than it gets at most West End theatres.

Glad to know nothing is going to happen to me at this well-lit pub theatre on a Sunday evening...

Inside, one of the bar staffers spots me. I must have a particularly lost looking expression on my face because she comes over to say hello.

"Camden Fringe?" I try.

"Yes, yes, yes," she says, my presence now perfectly explained. "I think they're just having an interval at the moment. It's at the back there."

She points over to a pair of glass doors. There's one of those "On Air" light-up signs over it. The sort you get at radio stations. I mean, I presume you do. I've never been to a radio station.

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I squeeze through the tables and make my way over.

It looks like the previous show is still getting out.

People are running around throwing sparkly costumes into suitcases. There are sequins everywhere.

I tuck myself up against a table and wait. But while the suitcases and their owners have managed to shuffle out of the theatre, they don't appear to want to go anywhere.

They position themselves in the small slither of space between the steps leading up to those big glass doors, and the tables in the bar. Ther exact slither of space that I'm standing in.

They pace back and forth, knocking me with their luggage every time they pass. One of them even doubles down on her bag action, digging it right into me without a backward glance as if trying to knock away this weird immovable object that's standing behind her. But here's the thing, despite all the social anxiety, the introversion, the shyness, I'm a stubborn old bitch and I refuse to get out of the way.

The performer, wearing a spectacular black sequin jacket, buzzes from group to group, taking selfies with everyone. They step back, digging their elbows into my ribs and stepping on my toes as they all try to arrange themselves in the frame.

I don't know what their show was, but I think it's clear that everyone involved has the self-awareness of a narcissistic gnat on Zoloft.

It's then I realise that the guy doing security, he isn't there to protect me from any knife-carrying fascists with a grudge. Oh no. He's there to stop me from launching myself at suitcase-wielding thespians with spangles for brains. Because if this lot bash into me one more time, a bitch is going to get slapped.

I do my best to wriggle out of the way so I'm not a background character in their group-shots, and am immediately distracted by something much more interesting happening behind the bar.

They're blowing bubbles.

Hundreds of them. Floating gently down onto the beer taps.

The wholesomeness of it all calms me right down.

I don't even mind that it's now past nine o'clock and the house hasn't even opened for the next show. They've drawn a black curtain between the doors and the space. So they must be setting up or something behind there.

I stifle a yawn.

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This may not be the latest start time on my marathon, but that doesn't make it any easier. I may have survived a Midnight Matinee and a 10pm strip-show, but after so many hour-long fringe shows, I've got used to being home and in my pyjamas by this time. If they don't open the house soon, I'm going to be curling up under the nearest table for a snooze.

Without the black curtain still very much in situ, by some sixth sense, people have somehow worked out that the house is now open.

They line up, flashing their tickets to the man standing guard by the doors.

He has a table next to him, complete with money box and flyers. No list though.

We're going to have to bring out the email confirmation then, because surnames aren't going to work.

"I booked online?" I tell him, turning around my phone so that he can see the confirmation. "Sorry, there's rather a lot." As my experience at the Moors Bar showed me, apparently it's not normal to have ten shows listed in a single confirmation email. And here I was thinking people went full out at the fringe. Just me it seems.

I zoom in to the right line, somewhere near the bottom.

"Okay. Just the one?"

Yeah, like I could convince someone to see a fringe show with me at 9pm on a Sunday evening. They're all busy filling Tupperware.

He hands me a business card for the company (It's Fespian Init - cute name). Looks like this is how we're doing tickets tonight.

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That done, it's time to go in.

I've seen my fair share of pub theatres this year, and this one definitely has the look.

Dark. Wooden floor. Mismatched seating. Unexplained disco-ball hanging from the ceiling.

But there's also a bar in here. And while there are a few cabaret tables, they've been set at the back, instead of near the stage. So they are positioned with easy access to the bar, which makes much more sense.

Taking up the main space are rows of chairs. The first two of which have long benches set in front of them. Not to be sat on, of course. That's where you put your drinks.

The stage is raised and “The Water Rats” (with an adorable silhouette of one of those water rats) is painted above it.

I'm not drinking tonight, and have no need of a bench to rest my glass on, so I go for my classic seat choice - third row, on the end.

I hope we start soon. And not just because I have a duvet to get home to. The cast are already on stage. In a freeze-frame that does not look very fun having to hold up there.

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It takes a few minutes, but eventually, the seats fill and we're ready to begin.

Six short plays stuffed into one evening, under the banner of Our Walk Through the World.

We start with a woman with dungarees and very long hair, speaking to a camera on a tripod, trying to convince the viewer that she would make an excellent surrogate, despite her life falling apart all around her. Then we have an office that appears to be run on jelly beans.

Do I need to add here that there are no freesheets? I have no idea who any of these actors are. And no clue who wrote the plays. They're fun though. Short. Just the right length for my current attention span, and surreal enough to keep me awake.

Next up, a football manager trying hard not to think about his daughter giving birth in hospital while at a press conference. Then parents who have to choose between their son and their dream home, with an assault rifle blaring out over the sound system, in what has to be the least well thought out sound effect to pump out in a theatre in 2019.

With the sounds of gunfire replaced by Air's Sexy Boy we reach the last play. A man trying very hard to explain that he definitely didn't fuck a panda.

That one was weird.

The panda was sitting on stage eating an apple.

What kind of panda eats an apple?

The applause fades, the lights in the bar go on, and everyone staggers to their feet to get a drink.

As ever with fringe shows, no one wants to feckin' leave.

I have to practically climb over the person sitting at the end of my row to get out.

I get that runs are short, and celebrations need to happen with those people who love you enough to turn up, but come on. A time and a place, people. There's a cat waiting in Hammersmith who's going to get seriously pissy if she doesn't get her dinner before midnight.

The DeLorean in the Basement

I was supposed to go to a matinee today. I was all ready for it. Looked up the way to get there on the TFL Journey Planner, walked to the train station, stood on the platform, and realised... TFL is a fucking liar. There were no trains going anywhere near where I wanted them to go. And it was going to take me at least another hour to get where I was going. And... I just didn't care enough. It was a secret location. Not a real theatre. And I didn't want to go.

So I didn't.

Instead, I went to Tesco. And bought a rhubarb pie from the bakery section. And a tub of custard. And spent my afternoon eating the entire thing.

And I didn't feel even the slightest bit guilty.

Not about the show I missed. The theatre I'm not going to. And definitely not about the pie.

Buzzing from an intense sugar rush (fruit sugars... it's fine, it's all fine) I'm off out again. And this time I'm taking the fucking tube.

I'm off to Tufnell Park this evening. To the Aces and Eights bar. Right opposite the station. Thank the theatre gods.

Not that this is a theatre. Not really. It's a bar.

Now that I've visited most of the pub theatres in London, it looks like I'm working through all the ones based in bars.

Rock music is playing. The walls are covered in gig posters. And there's a chalkboard with all their live events coming up.

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There's a sign pointing the way to pizza. Another arrow points towards the basement venue.

I guess that's where I'm heading.

Through the doorway and past the kitchens, I follow the corridor around towards the stairwell.

There's a neon sign here, advertising the saloon bar. I pause. Have I come the wrong way? A staffmember comes up the other way, but of course I don't ask him. I just press on. Down the stairs.

I find a small antechamber. There's a round table and two chairs.

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There's just enough light down here to make out the scrappy paintwork.

It all looks vaguely familiar and I can't think why.

The next door leads to a bar. The saloon bar I presume. It has those heavy, low-hanging lampshades that you would expect to be hung over a saloon bar. They have tassels.

Behind the bar the shelves are heaving with every sort of liquor you can imagine.

It's a magnificant feat of set-dressing.

Then I figure it out.

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I've walked into the new Punchdrunk. Any moment now, some plucky youth is going to come in here to play poker against some shady-folks in order to win back his girl from a life as a gangster's moll. Or something. I haven't done much Punchdrunk. But you get the idea. This place looks dressed.

Someone comes out and catches me staring at the bar.

"Are you here for the show?" he asks.

"Yeah... Camden Fringe?" I say. Those words seem to work everywhere.

"If you'd like to wait upstairs, there'll be a house call in about five minutes."

Ah. Looks like I've turned into one of those people who ignores all the signage and just wanders into venues now and scare the bejesus out of the staff. Hashtag life goals.

Except, there wasn't any signage.

Unless you count the one pointing down to the basement venue.

I definitely checked on that. You don't go living a life of anxiety without constantly checking for instructions.

"Is there someone doing box office upstairs?" I ask as he walks me back out.

"It'll be here," he says, indicating the table with the two chairs. "There's tickets available."

I don't tell him that I already have my ticket bought and paid for. I just want to make sure that someone knows I'm here. In a creepy basement. Alone. With a load of shady mobsters waiting outside the door so they can get on with their game of poker.

I hurry back up the stairs, and into the bar.

The music's still playing. The booths are full. And there's a queue of people buying drinks.

A trio of girls are hanging out near the entrance, looking totally at odds with the band t-shirted crowd of Aces & Eights. Theatre-people. Clearly.

Wow, that's pretty sneery coming from someone who's very much not wearing a band t-shirt today.

Eh. It's alright. I've got my favourite dress on. The Forsythe-Ophelia one. The one with Over My Dead Body scrawled all across the front and down the arms. I very almost look like I fit in.

I look at the woman behind the bar, with her asymmetric, bright orange, cropped hair.

Okay. I look basic as fuck in here. But I swear, in Finchley, I'm representing the fuck out of alternative fashion. Alternative to Finchley fashion, that is.

... I wear black.

A young woman emerges from the basement and goes over to the bar. She not wearing black. Or a band t-shirt. Something tells me that she doesn't work here.

A second later a bell clangs. A very loud bell.

"Anyone here for Not The Girl The Girl Next Door, make your way down," announces the girl not wearing black. "And if you weren't planning on seeing it, I think you should."

As one, a crowd rises from the booths and rushes over to the stairs.

I follow on behind. But not before I stop to get a look at that very loud bell.

"Titanic 1912," it says on the side.

See, I knew that bell was troublesome.

Back down the stairs, and this time the table with two chairs has someone sitting at it. He pretends to beep the group in front of me through with an invisible beeper. I think he knows them.

When we get to me, I give my name.

"Can you see, because I can't," he says, peering at the list of names.

It really is dark down here.

I lean over to get a better look, but I've not faring any better.

"That's me," I say, as we both spot my name half way down the list.

"There's your ticket. Well, wristband" he says, tearing off the paper strip from its sheet. "It's pink at least."

It is pink. Very pink. Hot pink. Pink enough to be able to see in this gloom.

The mobsters still haven't turned up. The bar is empty. Perhaps the plucky young lad bypassed the poker game and when straight to the burlesque show to break out his girl. Good luck to the pair of them, I say.

There's a door on the left leading to the theatre-space. I shove the pink wristband away in my bag and go in.

It's a small room. Tiny.

Tucked in one corner is the stage. There's no room on it for anything but a microphone stand.

In front of it are a few cabaret tables. These are all aready filled with the gang from the booths.

Behind are rows of chairs.

And behind those are velvet, button-backed settees, set against the wall. There's little tables in front of them. With tea lights. And dozens of mirrors hanging above them. It's totally the type of place you'd want to lounge around in, listening to jazz, and smoking French cigarettes. There might even be a beret involved in this scene.

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I'll give Aces & Eights this, they sure now how to create an atmosphere.

I don't go for the velvet settees, although they do look very comfortable.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm going to be the one person in the audience who isn't personally known to our performer, and I don't want to add to the weirdness by being the creeper in the back.

So I head into the first row of seats behind the cabaret tables. But right at the end of the row. Out of the way, but not giving off gonna-be-waiting-for-you-outside-to-ask-for-a-lock-of-your-hair vibes. I hope.

"Are you saving this seat?" asks one of the theatre girls I spotted earlier. I'm not, and my row soon starts to fill up.

There's music playing down here. Not the rock from upstairs. I think this is the Jonas Brothers. Doing their best to break the Aces & Eights hard fought for mood.

The wristband guy appears and hops on stage. "Hi everyone," he says, before introducing our performer for this evening. Phoebe. With her show, The Girl Next Door. "Please give her a massive round of applause."

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We do, and the young woman who rang the bell upstairs appears.

"It's not actually The Girl Next Door," she says. "Thanks, Dad."

Oh dear. You can convince a father to manage your box office, hand out wristbands, introduce your act. But you can't make him remember the name of your show.

I mean, not that I would know. But like... going off the evidence here...

First off, she tells us, we're going time-travelling. In a DeLorean, which has been kitted out to look like the basement of the Aces & Eights. So we better make sure we're wearing our wristbands. "We've got a lot of stops and I don't want anyone getting lost along the way."

I rummage around in my bag, pulling out the wristband. Hey. I'm keen to show willing. Plus, I don't want to get lost in time. The past wasn’t exactly good to my kind.

Via the medium of pop bangers, we're flung back to 2008. When Phoebe was 13 and I was... older than that. She mixes storytelling with spoken word as she whisks us through the years, with tales of boyfriends, and how she got on TV, and anxiety, and living with no neck, and drama school.

The girls in my row whoop. I think we can guess how they all know each other.

Half an hour later she checks her watch and says she'll leave us there.

Thankfully we're now back in 2019.

As she disappears backstage, her dad takes the stage once more.

Phoebe will be up in the bar in two minutes. If we would care to join her.

I leave.

As ever with these things, I take these invites exactly as they are intended: for family and friends.

I'm sure they'll have a great time. Especially if Phoebe's dad has anything to do with it.

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Think of Punny Title Later

It's Friday afternoon and I'm on my way to the theatre, because, well, I am on annual leave and that's apparently what I'm doing with my time off.

I'm in Crouch End which is not a part of London I go to all that often, but... oh look! A second-hand clothing shop with a rack of summer dresses on sale... No. Nope. Don't go in. Focus. We're here to go to the theatre. In a bar. Because I'm still working my way through all those Camden Fringe venues.

I think it's this place just up ahead. It looks nice enough. Although they're not making it easy working out how to get in. Two doors. One either side of the windows. Both painted the same colour. Both lacking in the signage department.

I go for the one without the flat buzzers next to it. Which was the right decision, of course. But man, my brain is mush right now. And that took way too much effort to work out.

But there's a box office right inside the door, so I'm hoping this will be an easy one.

"Hi, the surname's Smiles," I say to the young woman behind the counter. This doesn't get quite the reaction I was after. "For... Camden Fringe?"

"I don't actually have a list of the people who booked," she says.

"Oh." Oh. I'm... not sure what I'm meant to do with that information.

"Do you have the email?" she asks hopefully.

"I do!" I pull my phone out of my pocket. "Oh, I actually have it open."

"You're ready to go!"

I laugh. I am. But mainly because my anxiety insists on me checking and rechecking start times and locations at least six or seven times between leaving the house and actually arriving at the venue.

I turn the screen around for her to see and I swear she actually backs away from it.

"Wow," she says. "You've booked a lot."

There are ten shows on that confirmation email. One of two Camden Fringe confirmation emails in my inbox.

"Yeah..." I raise my hand in a stopping motion. "Let's not talk about it."

"Oh, I see..." she says. But let's be real here. No one understands what I'm doing. Not even you.

Not even me, if we're really honest.

As she examines the email, wading through all those shows, I look around.

There are a pile of programmes on the desk.

"Can I take one of these?" I ask.

"Please do..."

She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.

"Is it free?" I ask.

"It's free... or by donation."

Ah. "Okay, I get the hint," I say, pulling out my purse.

I drop a pound coin in the money box and take me and my programme off to explore the venue.

It doesn't take long.

The bar runs all down one side, and the rest is taken up by seating, facing a small wooden stage.

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Beanbags at the front, then a few rows of chairs, then those raised bar chairs running all the way to the back.

I always try to go for the first row on the rake, so I suppose that means I'm going for the first row of bar chairs. Right on the end because I like to be able to lean against the wall. And... hide.

"I'm just going to tuck myself behind you," says a woman, slipping into the row behind. "Don't be alarmed."

I wasn't. Until she gave me that warning.

"It's always a challenge deciding whether you want the height to see, or if you want your feet to actually touch the ground," I say, heaving my short-arse up into the high chair.

"I wish there were more high seats, because you can't see anything from back there," she says, pointing to the rows of stools behind us. "They're all the same height."

"You need to practice ducking and weaving to see around people's heads," I say, with the surety of someone who's been doing a lot of ducking and weaving this year.

Turns out ducking and weaving aren't high on the list of things people want to do this afternoon, and our rows of high chairs soon fill up. No one wants the chairs. Or the beanbags.

That song about lighting a candle from Rent (you know, the one ripped from La Boheme) is playing over the sound system, and the man behind the bar is singing along. He has a great voice. I'm really enjoying the harmonies,

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says when the song finishes. Really, really great voice. Deep. "The show will start in about ten minutes so please turn off your mobile phones. If you need to leave, please use the door you came in. If you need to use the toilet, please go before the show. As you can see, they're onstage, so unless you want to be in the show..." he lets the sentence trail way. "Go now."

I look over at the stage. There is a door going off it. I hadn't noticed that before.

We've got a Jermyn Street Theatre situation going on here.

No one chances the loo. The thought of accidentally walking out into the middle of the first scene is way to much pressure to put on a person when they're peeing.

We also ignore the bit about the mobile phones. Ten minutes is loads of time. I can proofread an entire blog post before then. Which might explain a lot about the state of all of this...

There is one bloke prepared to severe the link to our technolocial crutches though.

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"Can I put my phone behind the bar to charge?" he asks.

Before this marathon, I've never appreciated how willing bar people were to solve all your life problems. Charge phones. Hold bags. Refrigerate your dinner until you get out of the show. That, and, you know, serve the alcohol that will actually get us through the show.

He hands over his charger, and it's fucking massive.

The barman with the voice tests it out in a socket, but it ain't happening. "Let's try it over here..." he says, taking it off to find another plug point, because bar people are literally the best people in the world. Especially theatre bar people. Because theatre-goers are all terrible and even worse when they drink.

The lights start dimming. We all shuffle around getting show-ready.

Light pours in. Someone's come through the door.

They want to know what this place is and what happens here.

I'm on the same mission. It never occurred to me that I could just ask.

The box officer tells him we're here to watch a musical. It starts in five minutes. It's one act long.

Now these are key selling points a person with ten shows on their booking confirmation email. Not sure the shortness of the entertainment experience really does it for someone wandering in off the street.

He asks if it's on again, and then withdraws with the politeness of someone saying they left their wallet at home, but will definitely come back once they've been to the cash machine.

"This afternoon's performance is a relaxed performance, so if you need the toilet or to leave at any time... We also have some sensory toys available if you need them."

Oh! So that explains the bean bags. Kinda regretting not sitting in one now. High seats are not comfortable. I'm short. I like being close to the ground. And sinking into the gentle embrace of a beanbag sounds super comforting right now. Although from that position, right in front of the stage, a beanbagger would be able to see right up the actors' noses. Okay. No. Too disconcerting and weird. Abort mission. I'm not into it. I'm staying right here. On my high chair. At the end of the row. Next to the wall. Where it's safe.

Someone sitting behind me sneezes.

"Bless you," says the barman as he walks past on his way to turn the aircon down.

It's very quiet now.

This is it.

We're starting.

Oh, they're singing a song about singing a song. It's so meta I want to scream, or laugh, or cry. I don't know what I want or who I am, I just can't stop smiling. I'm so happy.

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I mean, I should have guessed. You don't book to see a show called [title of show] without expecting a deep-dive into self-referential humour, but having an actor dressed up as a literal blank page is too much for me.

And I can't even concentrate on any of that because one of the guys, William Tippery, has the most fantastic eyebrows I have ever seen in my life, and the other is one that I totally recognise. I know that face. I've definitely seen it before. But it was different. Those cheekbones had blusher on them last time I saw them. And he was wearing a dress. And yes, I've got it. It's Kieran Parrott. He was Stella in Fanny & Stella. I'd recognise those jazz hands anywhere. I saw them at the Above the Stag in... June, I think. Aw... I really enjoyed that show.

As they set about the challenge of writing a musical in three weeks, the same musical that we're sat here watching right now, they are also busy smashing my heart into smithereens because they are all so adorable. With their eyebrows, and their jazz hands, and Charlotte Denton with her... really incredible height and cute nose and songbird voice. And when Alyssa LeClair's Susan breaks into a song called Die, Vampire, Die - well, that's it. I'm officially smitten. Because that's really what I want right now. Not a song about killing vampires. I mean, yes. It's a song about killing vampires. But not the toothy sort. Leave them be, they're just hanging out in graveyards looking pale and wanting a good stake. No, the vampires that eat away at our confidence and get in the way of us doing the things we want to do. The ones that dig their claws into our shoulders and whisper a constant stream of contempt into our ears until we're made immobile by our insecurities.

So what if they only have three weeks? So what if their set is four chairs and they're accompanied by nothing more thab a man on a keyboard.

They're making it work to the mostest. Those chairs are sliding their way between transition scenes. And the pianist, well, they're letting him talk! They let the pianist talk! And Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, looks so happy as he turns around in his seat so that he can all see that big smile on his face as he says his line.

And that makes me happy.

And I really really needed a happy show today.

And even though it's been hard (like, really, stupidly, hard) I have to be grateful to the theatre marathon. Because without it, I wouldn't be sitting here, watching a fringe musical, in a bar, in Crouch End, by myself, and feeling like I could just burst with the joy of it all.

And oh lord, they're all taking their shirts off, and I don't know where to look. I'm feeling like a right old perv right now.

With Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, sitting at his keyboard, with his back to the audience, I can see his sheet music. And we're at the end. The last song. It's over.

It's time to go.

I wonder if that second-hand shop has vampire-killing outfits...

Lost Souls and Yeast Rolls

I've had a sandwich and a mango smoothie, and I am really to get back on the double-show day train. I'm also really to go back on the trail of the Camden Fringe after taking a little break to check out the off-West End transfer of The Barbershop Chronicles at the Roundhouse this afternoon.

I'm actually not going that far. From Chalk Farm to Camden Square. Meaning I have plenty of time to write in between. Almost a whole blog post, handwritten in my notebook because I'm old, and can't type fast enough on a touchscreen to keep up with my thoughts. Just need to type it up when I get home and finish it off. I'm feeling very virtuous right now. Although that could just be the mango smoothie kicking in.

Whatever it is, I'm feeling pretty good standing here outside my second venue of the day: the London Irish Centre.

Yeah, yeah. I can hear what you're saying. "Maxine! That really isn't a theatre..."

And yes, you're right. It isn't. It's an Irish centre. In London.

But where Camden Fringe goes, I must follow. So here I am.

It looks nice enough. One of those great big stucco-fronted houses. It's opposite a park. It's the kind of place Russian billionaires buy as a fifteenth home.

I walk slowly up the steps towards the entrance. There's a stepladder taking up most of the doorway, with just a pair of legs visible against the gloom of the interior.

As I approach, the legs descend, and I manage to squeeze past.

There's a doormat with the words "Tá fáilte romhat" printed on it in black. Google translate tells me this means "You are welcome."

I do like a friendly doormat.

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Inside it's all leather-upholstered chesterfield sofas and dark wood furniture. There's a piano. And twin Irish flags. One either side of the room.

What there doesn't seem to be though, is any form of box office.

I head towards the bar. Helpfully signposted with THE BAR writ large over the doorway in massive letters. Inside there are a few blokes standing around having a drink, but no box office.

Okay then. I try the other doorway, this one leading to a corridor. There are signs for various events, but not the one I'm going to. I make it all the way down the corridor before realising I'm now just randomly wandering around a cultural institute that I have no business wandering around in.

On my way back, I spot a young man wearing a logoed up polo-shirt.

"Hi," I say, catching his eye. "I'm looking for I Know It Was The Blood?"

He looks alarmed, and I'm not surprised. That's one hell of a title.

"Is that..." he starts.

"Camden Fringe," I say, as if that explains everything.

His face clear, so it presumably does.

"Camden Fringe is just along the corridor there, but I'm not sure it's open. There should be a man doing the box office."

Well, as long as there should be a man...

I thank him and head back to the sofa-filled foyer.

And there is a man. With a clipboard.

"Are you for...?" he starts.

I try out the magic words once more: "Camden Fringe."

They work.

"That's me! What's the name?”

"Smiles."

"Maxine?"

I nod.

"I'll take everyone though at half past," he says, before moving on to the next person.

He asks a few more people if they're there for Camden Fringe. They're not. There's another event tonight and sure enough, a table is set up next to the entrance and we've got a rival box office going.

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As newcomers are sent away from the table, Camden Fringers are left wandering around, not knowing what to do.

A divide forms.

Camden Fringers congregating in the corridor. Rival eventers on the chesterfields.

"Are you here for the event tonight?" says the rival box officer, coming over to the sofas to collect her brood. "Do you want to come over to the desk so I can get you signed in?"

There's something very different about the two groups. I don't want to say that it's race, but... it's race.

And although my Karen-like appearance would make it seem like I should be hanging out with the sofa-society, I'm actually with the corridor-collective this evening.

The man with the clipboard reappears. "You can go in and take your seat now," he tells me before touring the sofas with a call of "Fringe? Camden Fringe?"

Down a side corridor, and the door to our theatre for this evening is being held open by a young woman. "Welcome!" she says to each of us in turn as we go in. "Apologies, we had some technical difficulties," she says. explaining the late start. "Welcome. Thank you for being so patient."

And in we go.

The room kind of reminds me of the one at Cecil Sharp House. White walls. Windows. Very much a room and not a theatre.

Although there is a stage. A little one.

There are free sheets on the seats. I always appreciate a show which puts freesheets out on the seats.

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I take my favourite place, end of the third row. But that's more of an awareness of this show really not being meant for me, and not wanting to take the best seats away from the target audience here.

Turns out however, the third row is much in demand. Over on the right-hand side, the third row fills up almost instantly.

On the left side, where I am, a lady sits down in the second row before bouncing back up from her seat. "Too close," she announces, before moving back a row, a few seats down from me.

The young woman who greeted us takes up a spot in the front row, ready with a camera to film the show.

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Once we're all settled, the room fills with music. Singing.

I turn around in my seat. It's Tara Lake. And she has got a voice on her.

She walks down the aisle, carrying a big tote bag, which she sets down at the front.

She shows us the book she's holding. A bible for the Newfangled Woman. She reads a few verses.

And then she takes on a journey, through her family and personal history. From the members who just refuse to stop living, to her parents who won't stay divorced, and her own stubborn refusal to not take a job that is clearly not suitable for a teenage girl. We hear how she lost her music, and found it again, and all the while are treated to that voice.

Every-so-often she pauses to explain an Americanism that we don't understand.

But there's one that left us puzzled.

"Whether you like it or not, you're all my cousins now," says Lake, giving her closing speech after the applause has died down, thanking us all, Camden Fringe, and most especially the young woman in the front row, Day Alaba.

My neighbour on the third row leans over to me. "Yes, but do we get yeast rolls?"

"Now that's a question!"

Yeast rolls played an important role in Lake's narrative. They were there on the table when her parents had their divorce dinner. They were there when she came out to them.

I don't know what they are, but they sound delicious.

And emotionally troubling.

Lake takes up post by the side of the door to see us off.

A line builds to give her their email addresses ("I promise I won't spam you!").

"So, yeast rolls," says my neighbour. "What are they?"

Lake laughs. "Puffed. Greasy..."

"Fattening!" pipes up Alaba from the front row.

In other words: delicious.

I thank Lake on my way out. "That was wonderful." It really was.

Outside on the steps, a pretty cat sits and watches as we leave.

We each in turn pause to give her a pat on the head.

She doesn't seem to mind.

I rather think that's what she's there for.

On the way home I Google yeast rolls. Looks like they are an enriched loaf. Like brioche. Or challah.

Definitely delicious then.

I really love challah.

Like... really love it...

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

I'm onto my next venue of the marathon and I have a bad feeling about this one. This bad feeling is based on nothing more substantial than the name, but the name is The Monkey House, and that is enough.

I don't like monkies.

I really don't like monkies.

With their creepy monkey hands and their creepy monkey toes.

Nope. Not into it.

And don't give me that spiel about them being just like people. That's the problem. People are gross too. With their creepy people hands and their creepy people toes.

Yeah, yeah. I should have just called this blog the London Theatre Misanthrope. I get it.

Perhaps that will be my next project. If I ever manage to emerge from the hermit-hole that I intend to seclude myself in come January.

Anyway, it looks like I was right because I'm at the address and there's not a theatre to be found.

I'm right here. On Seven Sisters Road. And all I see is a William Hill where there's supposed to be a theatre. I keep on walking, following the pavement around the corner, and almost walk into a group of young and cool looking people. The sort of young and cool looking people who would be up for watching a play about the Jamestown cult at 6.45pm on a Wednesday evening.

I look up, and yup, the sign over the door says "Fourth Monkey."

This must be the place.

Inside the door, perched on a chair in the tiny foyer, sat at an even tinier table, is another young and cool looking person. But this one has a pile of papers in front of her. Looks like I've found the box office.

"Hi," she says with a massive smile as soon as I walk in.

"Hello. Err, the surname's Smiles?"

"Nice name," she comments as she draws a line through it on the list.

"Thank you."

Seriously.

I've been wearing this name for over three decades and it never gets old.

"Here's one of these," she says, pulling a castsheet free from the pile on the desk.

They are nice. Really nice. Full-colour headshots and printed on a heavy paper stock. It doesn't get much better than that.

"Um, where am I going?" I ask as I suddenly realise that I have no idea what lurks beyond this tiny foyer.

She points towards the door a few feet away from us.

"First floor," she says, then stops. "No. Second floor. The top floor."

I nod. "Okay. Is the house open?"

"It is, but you may have to wait in the kitchen."

Blimey. I mean, that's weird, right? Waiting in the kitchen? Let's hope they have the kettle on. Although, I'm not sure a stuffy old kitchen is where I want to be right now.

"I might wait outside," I tell her. "Bit warm."

"Okay," she says brightly, very sweetly pretending to care where I plan to send my pre-show time.

I go outside. And once more curse myself for putting on a great big pleated skirt on a breezy day.

After a few minutes wrestling to keep my skirt at least somewhere in the region of my legs, I give up and go inside. Through the door that the box officer had pointed out and into a secondary room. Which turns out to be another foyer. Or perhaps a vestibule. Or even a lobby. One of those. Can't tell you which because I don't know the difference. Let's just call it Foyer Number Two.

Whatever it’s called, it contains the promised staircase, which will take me up to the second, or possibly top, floor. And on the walls, in all capitals, is the missive: NO SHOE ZONE.

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For the first time I notice that the walls of Foyer Number Two are covered with boxy shelves. And that each cubby-hole is filed with footwear.

Shit.

But...

... they don't mean me, right? Not people going to the theatre? Right? This is just for the students... right?

Right?!

I look down at my boots. I still haven't sorted out the shoe situation since the last time I had to take them off for a show. I didn't think I would have to. Taking off your shoes to go into some's literal house is fair enough. To remove them in order to go upstairs in what I think is some sort of drama school seems a bit much. Especially when the shoes in question require straps to be unbuckled and a good deal of lacings to be loosened in order to get them off.

I look around at all the shoes on display. On the ground there is a wicker basket filled with soft slippers.

Oh gawd...

This is like going bowling. Which is something I don't do. And not just because of the public footwear situation.

I don't think there's any getting away with this. I think I'm going to have to do it.

With a massive internal sigh, I bend down and start on with the business of unbuckling and loosening. Leaning against the wall I manage to pull them off and I find a cubby hole to store them in for the duration.

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Only then do I dare examine the state of my tights. With no forewarning, I hadn't thought to pull out a pair without holes. It's unlikely that I'd picked one out by chance this morning.

I have a rule, you see. I don't throw out an item of clothing until it has been repaired at least three times. Sometimes I manage to stretch that to six or seven before I finally give up on them. Bit three is the minimum. So my tights are often held together by more of my terrible attempts at stitches than would be deemed acceptable for public viewing.

But the theatre gods have looked kindly on me once again, and brought about another miracle, because today, my toes are stitch-free. And there is not a single hole to be found anywhere. I've got the good pair on.

It feels really strange to be going upstairs in a public building with nothing more than sixty deniers worth of nylon between them and me. It makes me feel intensely vulnerable, which is not a feeling I want to be having before I've even stepped into the auditorium.

One floor up and there's an office. Over the open doorway the signage proclaims this place as "Monkey Business," which I have to appreciate, if only on a punnage level.

I ask the two ladies standing on the landing where I'm going, and they point me up one more level.

One more level it is then.

Up I go.

The sign above the next door says "Kitchen," but it's nothing like the kettle-totting kitchen of my imagination.

I've instead found myself in a large, comfortable looking room, with leather armchairs, a counter running down one wall, and a hatch serving as the bar for the evening. There are also strings of red fabric running from the lampshades off all over the place, with masses of cardboard axes swinging from them, a Sarah Kane quote on one wall, and an artwork that places the Vikings in front of the London Eye on the other.

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As I wander around, trying to find somewhere to stand which isn't in everyone's way, I tread on something.

I don't look down.

I don't want to know what it is.

I just keep on moving. Quickly.

No one else seems bothered the lack of shoe-action going on up here.

People stride around in their socks. A few have the wicker-basket slippers. Others have bare feet.

As a queue forms to get into the theatre, I spot a girl with socks so full of holes her toes clawing at the floorboards.

People hands and people toes.

Gross.

It takes a while to get through the corridor.

I'm not mad though. There's a Pina Bausch quote on the wall here. I love Pina Bausch. One of my prizest possessions is a signed Pina Bausch programme that I may or may not have lifted from work. And if I have to get stuck in a corridor with someone spouting out their views on choreography, I'm glad it's with her.

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Eventually we make it through.

The theatre is a black box. Seating has been set up on two sides, traverse style. With a small stage in the middle.

There's one seat going begging in the back row.

"Do you mind?" I ask the person sitting next to it.

No reply. So I take it he doesn't and sit down..

It's really hot in here.

Really hot.

But there's no time to get my fan out because the lights are going down and the play is beginning.

It's a drama school show (I think... I'm still not entirely sure on this) so I won't be commenting on the performance. But the play is pretty good. Zipping along with a familiar tale. You know the one. Don't drink the kool-aid and all that.

Someone a couple of rows ahead neglected that part though, as she starts coughing. And coughing. And coughing.

She gets up and after coughing more in the empty space behind the seating block, eventually goes outside.

A second later, a woman in the row in front follows her.

The bloke next to me twists in his seat, again and again, to see whether they are coming back, not focusing on the play at all, his attention completely with the coughing woman out in the corridor.

They come back soon enough. And we can all go back to watching the play.

As soon as the stage lights go down at the end, instant applause rings out. I've never seen it happen so fast.

But as soon as it starts, it peters out.

The actors do not return to the stage for their bows.

"Are they not coming out?" someone asks. "We're clapping."

"No, they don't do that here."

Well, what do you expect from people who don't wear shoes?

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