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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And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids

I don't know who's idiot idea it was for me to book two shows on opposite ends of London within a single afternoon, but I refuse to believe it was mine.

I'm here. Sort of. Stumbling along. After the knee clunks it took me to get to my first venue of the day, I'm not sure all of me is going to make it. I'm already keelhauling one leg around behind me.

But it's okay. I'm nearly there. Just around the corner and... hang on. I recognise this corner. I mean, it's Grey's Inn Road, and I work just a few minutes’ walk away from here, but when the Chapel Playhouse said they were here, I didn't realise they meant they were here. Here here. As it, right here.

I must have walked past this spot a hundred times. And I never noticed there was a theatre lurking.

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To be fair to myself, it looks like a bar from the outside. Looks like a bar from the inside too. Even I there are neon lights zig zagging across the ceiling, making me feel like I’m somehow dropped into the Saved By The Bell theme song. Are we sure there's a theatre in here? Wait, there are show posters pinned up on the notice board over there. And small flyers advertising the play I'm here to see littering the tables.

This must be the place.

I look around, trying to locate the box office. Always tricky to find in pub theatres because you never know what form they're going to take. A laptop set up on a table at the back? A desk tucked away inside a broom-closet? A full-out boxed-in box office? A hole-in-the-wall upstairs? A corner of the bar? It could be anything.

And yet, I don't see anything that looks likely. No signs. No laptops. No furtive creatures drooling over their clipboards.

I'm going to have to do the worst possible thing in the world. I'm going to have to ask.

Ergh. I hate asking.

I hobble my way over to the bar.

"Where do I go for the box office?" I ask the young woman who seems to be the only employee in this place.

"That's me," she says with a smile. "Have you bought a ticket?"

She reaches for the list, sitting on the counter behind her.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles?"

She looks down the list. "Maxine?"

"Yup."

"That's great," she says, ticking me off.

Right then. I'm checked in, I guess. I should probably find somewhere to sit down before my knees' angry screams start to draw attention from the other people here.

There's a massive pistachio green booth over by the door, and I stagger over to it. It's big enough to seat eight, but I don't care. Me and my knee have needs. And those needs involve hogging an entire booth to ourselves.

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Five minutes later and there's someone sitting at the other end of my booth.

I don't know exactly when it happened. I was sitting quite contentedly, editing a blog post, as I usually am while waiting for a show to start, and then I look up, and there he is. Sitting as far away from me as he possibly can, but there's no denying the fact that he is in the same booth as me, and I do not approve.

I look around. There are a lot more people than when I first got here. All the tables over by the window are taken.

But those tables in the middle? Yeah. They're all empty. He could be sitting there. By himself. No near me. Having a great time, I'm sure. But he's here. In my booth.

I ask you. The sheer nerve of some people.

Coming over here, taking our booths...

I go back to editing my blog post. But I notice something. In the corner of my screen. The time. It's one minute past five. One minute past when this show should have started.

I look around.

The bloke in my booth is still there. He hasn't got a drink or anything, which makes me think he's probably there for the show. And if he hasn't gone in, then it's likely that I haven't inadvertently missed the theatre bell.

But then he's a booth-stealer, so what does he know? If he can miss all the rules of a functioning society that state, quite clearly, that you do not go over and sit in someone else's booth unless they invite you, especially when there are empty chairs at empty tables, then... who knows what else he could be missing.

But there are more people here than just my booth-interloper.

There are whole tables full of them.

I look over them, trying to work out whether they are theatre people, or just early evening drinkers.

They do all have drinks, which would support the later theory. But it would be quite the coincidence if this place filled up a few minutes before a show started with multiple groups of people who just fancy a pint early on a Saturday evening.

Stil, my anxiety is twanging.

It's five minutes past now.

That's really, properly, late.

The door to the theatre is over the other side of the bar. There's a big sign over there. Chapel Playhouse, it says, with an arrow pointing down at the door.

The door is closed. Very closed.

And when the door is closed, it's usually a sign that the house is, well, not open. Unless of course, it was open, and now it is closed again.

Is it possible that every single person in this pub has missed the start of the show, and that the actors are down there, in the theatre space, proclaiming their lines to an empty room, wondering why the show is so quiet tonight?

I mean... this is the fringe. It's more than possible. But somehow it doesn't seem likely.

Chances are, we really are just running five minutes late.

I check my phone. Scrap that. Ten minutes late.

Somehow, this chain of logic isn't doing much to help my ever growing anxiety.

And when the door does open up from the inside, and someone comes out to talk to the woman behind the bar, my nerves are so frazzled I almost jump out of my seat.

I really need to keep my shit together. I'm seeing a play about ghost hunters. I can't afford to get all jumpy before I've even gone in.

I almost drop my phone as the bell rings out.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes the voice from the bar. "The house is now open."

Thank fuck for that. I was almost on the brink of asking again, and I'm really not sure my angst could have taken that.

I make my way around to the other side of the door, and go down the stairs.

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There's no ticket checker, because there are no tickets. No admission pass. Nothing. The bar staff here must have hella good memories to keep track of everyone who got their name ticked off the list.

Through the door is brightly lit stairwell. The sort you stumble upon in office blocks where the fire alarm goes off. Except this one is covered in swirls of paint and multicoloured polka dots. Maybe not an office block then. This is primary school territory.

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Down the stairs and we are led through to a room darkened by blackout curtains.

Chairs surround a floor-level stage on all four sides.

It's really cold down here.

Like, properly cold.

It's bliss.

"It's freezing," hisses one audience member to his friend.

An icy blast catches me as I walk around the seats, trying to pick which one I want.

Must be the ghosts.

Although, this doesn't look the kind of place they'd usually haunt. No crumbling stone walls or haunted mahogany panelling down here. The blackout curtains can't hide the fact that this theatre lives another life as a function room. The walls are white. The ceiling covered in modern piping. There's even a hatch in the wall that must be roped into serving tea and birthday cake during the daytime.

It's not exactly the venue I'd pick to stage a show about ghost hunters investigating an old country house. If anything, I would have thought the Chapel's sister-venue would have been a better bet. The Bread and Roses in Clapham with its sash windows and creaking back stairs might have been more in keeping with the theme of the play. But I suppose programming something in SW4 might have stretched the definition of Camden too far even for the Camden Fringe festival.

Over on one side, the row of three chairs has been given a platform to sit on, so I go for one of those. The fact that the seat I pick is also next to a pillar, thus protecting my right side from any creeping ghosts, has nothing to do with my decision-making processes, and frankly, I find it insulting that you would even suggest it. I have told you countless times of my ambition to meet a theatre ghost, there is no way I would ever put an obstacle between myself and that glorious happenstance.

There are little cards on all the seats. They say "THANK YOU" in all caps, which is nice, if a little bit shouty. They give a hashtag for the show, and a url for the company.

I suppose I could probably look up all the cast names and whatnot there, but we both know I'm not going to do that.

No freesheet. No crediting. That's how it works on the marathon.

At least I'm happy with my seat though. The other audience members appear to be engaged in a game of musical chairs, sitting down, taking in their view, then jumping up to go test out somewhere else. Everyone wants to sit in the front row. But also, no one wants to sit in the front row.

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Because ghosts.

Someone comes to sit on my platform.

I look over.

It's the booth-stealer.

Ergh.

Fucking. Rude.

But also I'm grateful that I'm not sitting up here alone.

The lights going out puts a stop to these shenanigans.

An actor appears, making his way through the seats to reach the stage-area, lighting his way with a small torch and... eating a brownie?

It looks like a good brownie.

I wouldn't mind a brownie right now.

More torches flash around the audience as more cast members appear.

We have found ourselves in the middle of a ghost hunt. Two ghost hunts. One of them involving an actual ghost.

I squint against the beams of torchlight as they pass in front of me. Usually I disapprove lights being shone around the audience. It's my pet theatre-device hate. But I'm appreciating the use of it here.

Adds to the voyeuristic element. Perhaps its because I just came from that immersive show set in a private house, but I have the feeling of a being lurking in the shadows, watching these ghost hunters. And I begin to wonder, perhaps I am the ghost in this hunt.

I'm very into this idea.

I fully intend to be a theatre ghost when the time comes (I'm relying on you to scatter my ashes somewhere which will facilitate this goal, I hope you know that).

But as one of the hunters (who already has a ghost on call, and is actually on the search for a family heirloom) comes creeping around behind the chairs, flashing her UV torch over our shoulders, I begin to grow unsure about the whole thing.

She leans over me, the torch waving around next to my ear, and I can't stop myself from shuddering.

Being a ghost would be cool, I tell myself, waiting for her to retreat. All those shows I could watch for free, dressing rooms I could lurk in, and programmes I could apply my red pen too.

She moves on. I can breath again.

Being a theatre ghost would be... the fucking best.

At the curtain call, the ghost hunter's camera-person takes a bite out of her brownie, bowing as she chews away at it.

Shit.

Are there ghost-brownies?

What if there aren't ghost-brownies?

If there aren't ghost-brownies, I'm not sure I'll be able to cope.

As I start to rethink my plans for the afterlife, the writer comes out on stage. You know the drill, he thanks is for coming and asks us to tell our friends. I mean… I guess you’re my friend… so… job done?

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The creeper in your bedroom

I can't believe that there are areas of London where the trains only stop every half-hour. I truly cannot wrap my head around this. How do these people live? How do they work? How do they do anything or go anywhere? I cannot fathom living like that. And I grew up in a hamlet, with a once-weekly bus service. How do the people of Sydenham even theatre? Because that's what I'm here for, and I'm running late. My comfortable ten-minute buffer to get myself from the station to the next theatre on the marathon-list has now been compressed to six minutes. And I'm am not feeling good about the situation.

I run down the platform, dodging between some teenagers on some sort of official group outing that seems involve just hanging out on the stairs. Up the steep ramp and into the car park. Where now? Gawd dammit, Google maps is being an arse again. Okay, the blue circle has caught up. We're going left.

I race along the pavement, staring at my phone, willing the dot to move along the map screen that bit faster. My knee crunches under me, but I ignore it. There's no time for crunchy-knees right now. I've got an opera to get to.

I think it's the turning just over there. There's a guy walking ahead of me, his feet moving as fast as mine, his head bent low over his phone. Yup. I've found a fellow opera-goer.

We arch our way around the crescent, rushing along the narrow pavement, peering at each of the houses in turn. What number is that one? No. A little bit further. And look! There's a sign. Set up on an easel. With the title of the show that I can't type, so I'm going to have to copy and paste: THE鍵KEY.

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This must be the place. Normal people don't set up show posters on easels outside their houses.

I turn the corner and there it is. Number 10, Tollgate Drive. My theatre for the afternoon. And someone's home the rest of the time.

Not what I expected, gotta admit.

When I booked to watch an opera in someone's private house, well... this low brick bungalow was not in the mental picture I'd put together.

But it has to be the right place. There are people out here. All hanging around. So unless there's a garage sale going on out back, this must be it.

I join the queue taking up the garden path, and a barefoot woman with a Tête à Tête Opera Festival tote slung over her shoulder makes her way down, taking names.

"Hi, it's Smiles?" I tell her when she reaches me. "I still need to pay."

Yeah. I made a bit of a boo-boo booking this one. In that I didn't book at all. I was waiting for payday. Which I really shouldn't have done. Tickets were only seven quid or so. But like, I have a lot of tickets to buy, and I tend to bulk order once a week. Get the hit on my credit card done in one big bash, so it has a few days to recover before the next round.

Anyway, it sold out. Because of course it did.

So I emailed them.

I'm not one to play the "I have a blog, you know," card all that often, but I played this one to the fullest. Begging, pleading, for a ticket. I had to. There was no other way of getting this venue. It's not like the owner of 10 Tollgate Drive will be putting on a panto in their living room come Christmas. There was once chance, and I was throwing everything I had at it to make it happen.

They put me on the waiting list.

Thankfully all my sacrifices to the theatre gods have finally built up enough karma points for them to take pity on me, and a few days ago I got an email from the people at Tête à Tête saying that there was a ticket going spare. If I wanted it.

Only the one ticket. Which was a bit of a problem as Helen had also wanted to go. But I'm nothing if not selfish in pursuit of my goals, so I took it. And didn't tell Helen. Here's hoping she doesn't read this, huh?

"You can pay by cash, or there's a card machine over there," says the barefoot woman.

"I think I have cash," I say, pulling out my purse. "Do you have change?"

She does.

"Would you like a programme?"

I would always like a programme. Especially when they're free.

She hands me an A5 card, which is a hella-swish way to do a freesheet, I must say. Full-colour printing. A satin finish and everything. Nice.

Barefoot lady points out the cloakroom. Accessed through a side door. Something tells me this is going to be one fancy-arse bungalow.

I hand over my bag. I'm already having visions of knocking over some priceless vase with it. Once I have my numbered ticket from the cloakroom lady, I'm back outside, ready to tackle the next item on my agenda.

Shoes. Or rather the lack of them.

With the confirmation of my ticket had come the warning that this is a shoes-off household.

I'd prepared as well as I could, trying on six pairs of tights this morning before finding one that didn't have holey-toes, or the evidence of my terrible darning-skills.

Unfortunately, these preparations hadn't started soon enough for my footwear. I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment. Which means I have one pair of shoes. My favourite pair of shoes. Which aren't shoes at all. They're boots. With laces. And straps. And they're a bitch to remove.

"Do you mind if I squidge in to take my shoes off," I ask the people sitting over on the long bench by the front door. A couple slid down the narrow plank to give me room. "Thanks. Sorry. I did not plan my footwear."

I wrestle with the straps and buckles and laces, and eventually manage to pull them off, and tuck them away under the bench.

Then I double-check my toes.

Phew. No holes.

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The theatre gods are doing me a serious solid today.

"Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for coming," says the barefoot lady, making her way up onto the porch. "A couple of things before we go in. Can I ask you to take your shoes off." There's a shuffle as the few people who haven't got that far try to pull off their shoes without restoring to yoga-poses. An old man stumbles as he attempts to use the edge of the porch to scrape the heel of his brogues down. "There's a cloakroom and a bathroom," continues the barefoot lady. "But we ask you to use it either before or after the performance, if that's possible." Brave homeowners letting a bunch of opera-loving weirdos into their loos. Although with the whole side-door situation going on, they might just be letting us into the servants quarters. Or whatever the 2019 equivalent of that is.

"Feel free to move around the house," she continues. "We ask you not to open any doors that are closed, and to be respectful that we are in someone's home, and we are very lucky to be here. And... yeah. That's it."

Great.

That seems simple enough. It's like Punchdrunk, but we're not allowed to open drawers and rifle around in the closets.

And then someone is walking up the path.

She's dressed smartly. A cream cardigan buttoned up to the neck. Her hair pulled back with a taupe bow into a low ponytail.

She walks through us, stopping at the front door to turn around.

She introduces the tale. Telling us that when she found the key, well, that was the day everything changed.

She places her hand on the front door, and pushes it open.

She takes off her shoes, an slips on a pair of sandals, before disappearing inside.

We all look at one another. A man standing near me motions for me to go ahead.

Alright, I'll be the brave one. The first audience member to step through the door.

Inside there's a wide hallway, and beyond that a bright room with a wall full of windows overlooking the lush garden beyond.

A young woman in a smart shift dress waves her hand towards two rows of mismatched and multi-coloured cushions, laid out on the ground. We're to sit.

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I take a cushion in the second row, curling my legs around to one side.

In front of us are a wall full of bookshelves, heaving with those heavy artbooks on one side, and travel guides on the other. All interspersed with interesting looking crockery. Helen would have really loved this house.

There's a desk. At which sits a man in a suit. That's Hiroshi Amako. And behind him, two musicians. One on a double bass. The other a bamboo flute.

From his desk, Amako begins to sing.

His marriage is unhappy. He's going to start keeping a diary. To record everything that happens between them.

And then he's off, leaving us, and we are left with the decision: where to go? Most people go in pursuit of the husband. But I head in the other direction, down the corridor, turning left, and in there, I find a girl. The daughter. Akari Mochuzuki.

She paces about, moving from bedroom to office. Her fingers delving into the shelves to pull free diaries, filled with sheet music.

More audience members creep in, taking up spots around the walls, shifting and moving whenever Mochuzuki comes near, not to get in her way.

The door to the front garden is open, and from across the way I can hear other voices. The husband and the wife, singing separately, but joined together by the music travelling on the breeze, overlapping and overlaying. English switching to Japanese, and back again.

But here, in this bright bedroom, the daughter sinks down onto her bed, alone. The man her mother is having an affair with, he was the guy she wanted to date.

So wrong. So many levels.

Her head drops.

It's time to go.

Back the way I had come, along the corridor, but this time I turn right. Here I find the wife, Akane Kudo. She perches on the end of a green-upholstered sofa as she tries to process everything that is happening. I'm the only one here. It's just me and her. And two musicians. My own personal concert.

Kudo gets up, moving to the kitchen. I slide along that wall so that I can keep her in sight. She pulls out a book. A diary. She tears it open, and from between the pages, a photo slips out, falling to the floor next to my feet. I step back and Kudo picks it up. A black and white image. Someone in bed. Their face towards the camera. Comfortable. Intimate. As close to the photographer as I am to Kudo.

More people start to appear. Hugging the walls as they come in.

The corridor behind me fills as people trying to keep both rooms in view - the husband on one side, the wife on the other.

And there's a fourth character now.

A dancer.

Shirtless.

Moving slowly, his back curving back as the husband sing on from his desk.

This is the wife's new beau.

I can't say I blame her...

As our dancer, Shozo Ayaka, leans down to pick up his shirt, the audience scatters once more.

Should I follow the dancer? I kinda of want to follow the dancer.

I don't follow the dancer. I'm fairly confident that would be the creepy thing to do in this situation.

Instead, I go in search of the daughter.

But I find myself caught in the corridor, as Ayaka sprawls on the floor, music pouring in from all sides.

Oh well, I'll just have to be creepy then.

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When I find the wife and the boyfriend together in the bedroom, I don't even pretend not to be a voyeur anymore. I lurk in the corridor, as the wife pulls off that pristine cream cardigan, and removes the smart dress, and puts on something colourful and floaty instead. The boyfriend, skirtless again, is... apparently making love to her duvet as she changes.

Back in the main room, I watch with the husband as his wife emerges from the main room. We see her leave the bedroom, stepping out into the garden. Our eyes following her through those big windows, as her boyfriend joins her out there.

"I've never seen that dress before," comments the husband, almost as an aside.

I want to tell him that she was trying it on in front of her boyfriend, but I decide now is not the moment. He's having a hard enough time. They're kissing now. The wife and the dancer. The husband doesn't care about the dress anymore.

We're being led downstairs now.

Into a dark room, with nothing in it but a daybed, and those twin rows of cushions.

I pick one, and watch as more audience members come in, following their cast member of choice.

This must be the end game. As everyone comes together for one final scene.

The husband collapses onto the bed.

The double bass player taps out the husband's heartbeat against the hollow wood of his instrument.

And then he stops.

One by one, the lights illuminating the musicians' sheet music are turned off.

The daughter leaves, drawing closed the door behind her.

It sticks on something. She bends down and flicks it aside.

She turns the light off, and closes the door with a final click.

We are left in darkness.

Silence.

I feel the person next to me lifting their hands to clap. But they hold back. Just a second more to sit together, in the dark.

Our applause draws back the cast.

The light is switched back on.

Amako pulls the cloth that was covering his face away, and sits up grinning, alive once more.

I make my way back up the stairs, a little unsteadily.

Outside, one of the ushers is waiting, a basket full of forms and pens slung over the crook of her arm.

"Would you like to fill out a feedback form?" she asks us as we emerge.

Not for me. There's a train in nine minutes, and I am not going to miss it.

Boots on. Laces pulled and knotted. Strap buckled. And the same on the other foot.

Go. Go. Go. Go.

I won't miss it. Can't miss it. I have another show to get to and it's on Gray's Inn Road.

No time to dawdle...

"Would you like a brochure?" asks the barefoot woman as I prepare to run down the garden path.

"Oh..."

I look at her. She's holding out a white paper gift bag.

I don't really care about the brochure. I really want the gift bag.

"Yes please," I say, taking it from her.

Then I speed off, ignoring the clunking of my knee as I power-walk to the station, out of breath, but very pleased with my party-bag.

There's one thought praying on my mind thought.

A touch of guilt.

Helen really would of loved this.

Oh well.

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Tea and Brandy

I think I got a little too excited about living in a sorta-central location. Just because I can walk to places doesn't mean that I should. Buses exist. The tube is really rather good, and is worth tapping in that Oyster card every so often, when the places you need to go are not all that close. Like Little Venice. I mean, yes. It only took a little over an hour to get here. But not walking here on a warm and muggy day would have meant that I didn't turn up all sweaty and gross. Sorry about that.

But I'm here, at least. Outside the Bridge House. Home of the Canal Cafe Theatre. My second pub theatre in as many days.

And I'm back on the Camden Fringe fest trail again. Which I am most grateful for as I was a little bit unsure of this place. Their website claims they're a member-only theatre. I don't know exactly what that means, but there seems to be a charge attached to the first ticket that you buy. That gets you a membership card. Valid for a year. And while one pound fifty isn't all that much, and I do rather like the idea of owning a cute little membership card, I'm not going to be coming back here. Not before next year anyway. So, I am very happy that through the miracle of fringe theatre, I get to bypass all that nonsense and get straight in there.

Although, now that I'm standing here, I realise I should have probably done the whole membership thing. So much for my investigative approach to exploring London theatres.

Eh. Someone else can write a blog post about it.

They probably already have.

Anyway, too late to do anything about it now. I'm going in.

It's a nice looking pub. All white stucco frontage. And right next to the bridge going over the canal. Explaining the names of both the theatre and the pub.

There's a little courtyard garden. Very little. But it's lined with a rainbow of blooming floorboxes and is packed full of people sitting behind the bars of the smart iron railing.

There's a sign on the glass pane over the door. "Entrance to the Canal Cafe Theatre and Bar." So at least I know I'm in the right place.

Passing through the door I go from stucco-fronted sophistication to poster-ridden fringe venue.

The walls are covered in posters and flyers, and chalkboard giving a rundown of everything that's on.

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Also the claim that the theatre is "Home to the world's longest running sketch show." Sounds like great fun, but it's on at 9.30pm, which is well past my bedtime, so I'm never going to see it.

There's a man in the foyer and he smiles as I come in.

"Box office?" I ask.

He steps aside revealing another bloke, this one tucked up inside of the cupboard underneath the stairs, like Little Venice's answer to Harry Potter.

I give him my name and he looks over his list. "One ticket?"

Yup. Just me on my lonesome. As ever.

Theatrical marathons as not a way to make friends. Or even keep friends...

"We'll be opening in about ten minutes," he says, handing me an admission pass from the box. "Take a drink because it gets warm up there."

My eyebrows shoot up. "Greaattt," I say, my keenness levels dropping fast. I've seen what happens when pub theatre's get warm. It's not fun.

Knowing what I know, and seeing what I've seen, you'd think I'd follow his advice and get a drink.

But I'm a stingy fucker, and still smarting from the money I dropped at Opera Holland Park, so I head out to the courtyard instead, and find a posing table to lean against and catch what little breeze I can.

The sun is still up and the bants-game is strong out here.

I let my attention wander while proofreading a blog-post, listening in to all the chatter going on around me.

I love listening to theatre chatter. Especially fringe theatre chatter. It's so marvellously unself aware of all the gossip being laid down in public.

A woman just a few feet away from me is an actor, and she is bringing stories to her table.

Stories that I will not be repeating.

"How long does it take to pick up tickets?" she adds, presumably realising that the show tonight is not about her.

"No time at all," says one of her attentive audience members.

"Like a minute, or...?”

They debate back and forth on the length of time it takes to give your name at box office. Long enough to have actually gone inside, given a name, and got an admission pass. Three times over.

She eventually decides to stop with this procrastination and actually get her ticket. Returning all of thirty seconds later.

"There's no upstairs bar," she announces, scandalised, on her return. "Maybe we should get drinks now?"

Her group agree that drinks now is a good idea.

"I know someone in the play," she says. "So afterwards I'll have to say hello, tell them it was fantastic... So... maybe drink first?"

For once I'm not annoyed to be in an audience of people who know the cast. Fuck. This level of cynicism is feeding my soul with pure hell-grown ambrosia.

The group head back in. Presumably to gain liquid-enthusiasm from the bar.

I join the queue that is heading up the stairs, as apparently, the house has opened without my noticing.

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There's a ticket checker at the top, and I give her my admission pass.

"Would you like a programme?" she says, holding out a folded piece of paper.

You bet I would.

"Sit anywhere you like," she offers, with a wave of her hand.

I go in.

Gosh. Cabaret style. Again. That's two pub theatres in a row with it.

Not quite as pleasing as the set up at RamJam. The tables are plasticky and red instead of the mismatched wood over at Kingston. It's also a bit more on the squishy side here.

And as we know, there's no bar up here. So, we won't be getting table service. Someone that I've never understood when combined with this setup. Like seriously, what's the point of all these tables if you aren't going to bring me a drink?

No matter. I have more pressing things to think on. Like, where am I going to sit?

While the tables are taking up most of the room, there seems to be a raised section at the back with a more traditional format. With chairs set out in rows. I could sit there. I should sit there, really, considering that I'm here alone. Leave the tables to the groups.

But like... I'm here to get the full Canal Cafe experience. And I'm an arse.

So I take one of the tables at the back.

It's a double table. Two of them pushed together. Because that's the type of mood I'm in right now.

But as the theatre begins to fill up, and the tables get claimed, a couple of people join me at mine. And that's fine. I guess.

Across the room, I hear the tiny chink of spoon against saucer. I look over a see a man with a literal teapot and teacup, set down neatly on a tray. He even has an itty bitty milk jug sat on one side.

The Canal Cafe may not have a bar up here, but they sure as hell are living up to their name.

I'm finally seeing the purpose of the cabaret tables.

It's not for the wine glasses (although the table next to me appears to have their bottle cooling in an actual ice bucket right now). Oh no. It's for cream teas and theatre. I mean, granted, there are no scones on his tray. At least none that I can see. But the potential is there. I've always been fairly against the idea of mixing tea with theatre. I think it's weird. But I suspect what really puts me off is the sight of lines of people struggling with the samovar and then not being able to figure out what to do with their cup. This tray thing is a game-changer.

"Sorry," says the ticket checker, grabbing the back of one of the spare chairs at my table. "I've just got two coming up who need to sit here."

And sure enough, two people come into the theatre and take the two spare chairs.

I appear to now be sitting at the table of misfit toys. A raggle-taggle bunch made up of the friendless, and the watchless.

As I wait for the show to kick-off, I have a look at the programme. Well, we know it's a freesheet. But I appreciate the effort. Pity it didn't go as far as running off a test copy, because once again we're seeing the dreaded "forgot to click the flip-on-short-edge checkbox." No matter. I like reading things upside down.

It's an interesting freesheet actually. The biographies of characters are mixed in with the cast, so there's a brief moment when you're left wondering which drama school Mary the Maid went to, or what position the actor Laura Gamble had in the royal household. As for the writer of Brandy, Matthew Davies, he has forgone all attempts at a biography and instead spends a solid paragraph telling us that Queen Anne has been forgotten to British history. Yes, that Queen. The one which Saint Olivia Colman won an Oscar for playing only last year. That Queen Anne. Okay, Matthew Davies. You do you, I suppose. Don't let Hollywood get in the way of a neglected-narrative narrative.

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The ticket checker closes the curtain, blocking the bright light from the stairwell, and then disappears into the tech booth. Gosh. I wonder if she also has to serve the tea.

As the lights dim, a woman sitting a table ahead of me loudly shifts her chair over to the right, blocking the view of someone at my table. I'm outraged on behalf of the misfits, but not for long. Because the play is beginning, and there is some serious big-dress action going on over there on stage.

The 18th-century really knew how to fashion. The silks. The panniers. The wigs!

Bring back petticoats, that's what I say. Even better, crinolines.

Might make getting on the tube a bit awkward, but just think of the personal space we'd gain. Rando strangers wouldn't be able to get within ten feet before bumping their ankles against the metal hoops hidden under our skirts.

Light floods into the theatre as the curtains are pulled back one more. The box officer is there, with two latecomers. He indicates they should go in, and as soon as they step in from the landing, he closes the curtain behind them, sealing them in with us.

They stand there, at the side of the room, blinking in the darkness, looking around as they try to locate spare seats.

Sensing their trauma, the ticket checker, or should I say the tech person, emerges from her box and leads them both to the back.

There's a small cry as one of them fails to find her seat. But they must have settled, because the tech person returns to her box, and I hear no more signs of distress from the back.

Although, I might be feeling a little bit of it myself. Only a few minutes in, and I'm already seeing the problem with this play. The stage may be raised, but not quite enough to lift the bed-bound Queen Anne into visibility about all the crowded heads of those sitting around tables.

I lean back against the wall, finding a slither of sight-line that cuts across the room, and there I stay.

But as Mary the Maid and Queen Anne dismiss each other, I'm startled as the curtains up once more. This time it is not the box officer standing on the other side. The silhouette is altogether more dramatic.

There are panniers. Wide ones.

It's Sarah Churchill. Or rather Zoe Teverson in the role of Churchill. As played by Rachel Weisz in that film we're all supposed to have collectively forgotten.

She stalks through the tables towards to stage, paying the audience as little mind as if we were peasants clinging to the bottom of her shoe.

Her great height has her souring after the heads of the audience. As she bends down to pour herself a glass of brandy, I realise this whole arrangement was a clever directorial decision. By blocking the view, our attention is fully diverted towards Churchill. Just as every head in Queen Anne's court must be have turned towards this self-made woman.

Brilliant.

As the house lights go up, and the tech person emerges from her booth to pull open the curtain, there is a distinct lack of movement towards the exit. This is something I've noticed about fringe theatre. No one likes leaving.

Well, screw this, I'm going home.

I stomp my way down the stairs, followed by precisely no one.

Reaching the foyer once more, I turn around for one last look.

Still not sure about that sketch show, but I think I could be tempted to fork out one pound fifty on a membership card in order to come back. If only to sample the cream teas.

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Back Room Brahms

I'm in Kingston!

I've only been to Kingston once before. Ooo, must be six or seven years ago now. For a job interview. At the Rose Theatre. Didn't get it. Probably for the best. It's is a trek and a half to get down here.

Anyway, I am back. And not going to the Rose. Not tonight. I am going somewhere my pre-marathon self hadn't even heard of.

RamJam Records. Which sounds well dodge to me, but there's no avoiding it. They have a play on tonight, so here I am. Standing outside The Grey Horse pub, which is a short walk from the station, and is apparently the home of this mysterious theatre.

It looks promising. There's a poster for the play I'm seeing in the window: Clara. And a sign over the gated side-entrance which say The Ram Jam Club. Looks like I'm in the right place.

I duck in between the tables out on the pavement and through the gated entrance, leading into a sort of covered outdoor corridor, filled with comfortable looking booths, each with a pair of newspapers laid out and waiting on them. The Metro. With a single HB pencil sat on top. To do the crosswords, I presume.

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Down the other side, is a counter, and at the end, a woman perches, legs crossed as she sits on the bar stool, the paper open on her knees, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette ends by her elbow. She looks very content.

Me on the other hand, I'm confused. This place isn't looking much like a theatre. And while this marathon has taught me that theatres can look like pretty much anything they damn well want, they tend to draw the line at living in corridors. I mean, they could. I guess. But the sightlines would be terrible.

I keep on going, and when I reach the end, turn left, through the doors, and into the building.

This looks much more promising. There's a foyer. It's dark. Theatre loves dark foyers.

There's a door. It's painted black. Theatre loves doors. And black.

And best of all, the Ram Jam logo is painted on this black door.

There's also a massive mirror leaning against the wall. And a motorbike. I'm not sure on theatre's stance on motorbikes, but they sure love mirrors.

I think I might have found it...

Except the door is closed, and there's no one's here.

No box office.

Not even a person with a laptop.

Hmmm.

Not sure what I'm meant to do now.

I keep on going. I seem to be at the back of the pub. There's some sort of restaurant action happening, with wait-staff running around prepping for evening service.

Okay. No. Not there.

I go back to the corridor, loop around, and slip through a side door into the pub-proper.

And then I go to the bar.

I didn't want it to come to this. But needs must. I'm going to have to ask.

"Hi," I say, when it's my turn at the bar. "Where do I go for the theatre?"

The girl behind the bar points the way. "Go straight through there," she says. "Through the restaurant and you'll see a big mirror."

"Okay..."

"I think..." she checks the clock. "Yes, they should be open now."

I go through the restaurant, and find myself back in the dark foyer. With the mirror. And the motorbike. And the black door with the Ram Jam logo.

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The door opens.

A young woman comes out. She rushes off. The door closing behind her.

Huh.

I guess I'll just wait here then...

Turns out I'm not the only one who's been waiting for this door to open.

Someone emerges from the corridor, and makes a dive for the door.

The young front of houser scoots back, darting after the trespasser. "We'll open any second," she tells them, as she leads them back into the dark foyer.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to storm in!" apologies the trespasser.

She and I smile at each other, and stand around, waiting for the door to open. Officially, this time.

Soon enough it does.

"You can come. The house is now open," says the front of houser, propping open the door.

So I go in.

Or at least, I try to. I only make it three steps inside the door before I'm forced to stop.

"Oh wow," I say. "It's nice in here."

And it is nice in here.

It's like a pub within a pub.

There's a neat bar set into the painted brick wall over on the left. It's laden with glass jars full of snacky things.

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The walls are covered with records and album art.

Faerie lights hang from the ceiling.

Small tables are dotted around everywhere. Looks like we're doing cabaret-style tonight.

"It's cute, isn't it?" says the front of houser, grinning over her shoulder as she heads behind the bar.

I manage to stop staring, and meet her over there.

"I have to say, this is not what I expected," I say. It really isn't.

"I like it when it's like this, with the tables on the stage," she agrees. "Have you booked?"

I tell her I have, and give my name.

She ticks me off the list.

"And can I get you anything?" she asks.

I'm so taken in with the atmosphere, I find myself ordering a gin and tonic.

"House gin, or something fancy?" she asks.

"House is fine. I'm not fancy." Well... not when it comes to alcohol anyway.

But she hands me the glass with those fancy cuts crisscrossing themselves all over it, and a bottle of tonic, which I promptly set about spilling all over the bar. I grab some napkins to clean it up.

Hey, I told you. I ain't fancy.

Realising I'm making more of a mess then I'm managing to clean up, I decide to make my escape, and I take myself and my drink off to find a seat.

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The front of houser was right, it is nice with the tables on the stage. Even though the stage is so small there's only space for two of them.

Instead, our focus for the evening looks to be the piano. Two long mirrors have been slung up over it, to reflect the pianist's face. But the pianist hasn't taken her seat. She stands, dressed in a long Victorian gown, sighing deeply as she pours a drink from her crystal decanter.

"Don't be shy," she says to a newcomer, as they dither about which seat to pick.

"Is it better to sit close?" asks the newcomer.

"Come close to me," says the pianist, beckoning them forward. "Welcome." And then she sighs again. A sigh laden with despair and agony.

I decide to follow her advice and pick a table near to the front. But also close to the wall. Because while this marathon may have knocked a good deal of my fear of immersive theatre out of me, I'm still not on board with the whole interaction thing.

"Don't be shy, come closer," says the pianist to the next group making their way over from the bar.

Freesheets have been left sitting out on the tables. I pick one up and give it a read. Mainly so I can stop calling the pianist, the pianist. She's Elena Mazzon. And we're here to see her play Clara.

After a list of all the music being performed, we also get a rundown of all the characters. Little two-line biographies of 19th-century musicians and composers, which is a very nice touch. I like that.

The space begins to fill up. With even the two tables on the stage now taken.

The front of houser makes her way between them, taking names from those who haven’t gone up to the bar.

"Is it okay to get two tickets?" one person asks.

"Oh sorry!" says the front of houser. "I missed you. Of course." And they go about settling the business of tickets right there.

Now that is some impressive table service going on here.

It's past the start time now. The front of houser comes up to the table next to me. The one with the woman who asked if it's better to sit close. "Did you say you were holding for two?" asks the front of houser.

The woman says yes. She's still waiting for two friends.

"Hmm," says the front of houser. "Tell you what, I'll hold for a few minutes, and if they turn up after that, they can join you."

But there's no need to hold anything, because here they are, rushing in with a flurry of apologies as they make their way through the tables to the front.

They settle down, and we're ready. Lights dim. Mazzon steps forward. She begins her story. Or rather, the story of Clara Shumann. Famed pianist. And wife of the composer.

She's been asked out on a date. In a letter. Which is a very pleasingly formal way to go about things.

There's some problems though. He's a wee bit younger (eh...) and with a whiff of scandal about him, after living in the same house as our Clara and her not-dead-yet husband.

She asks a guy sitting on stage what he does on dates.

“Kiss?” he suggests.

How very forward, observes our Clara

“What about you?” she asks the last sitting on the next table to me.

“Get a drink first?”

Mazzon nods. Yes, a drink is a good start.

She asks lady sitting at the front to keep hold of the letter.

"Don't read it," she begs. Some things are private. Even when your laying bare your heart.

And then she sits at the piano, and plays.

Now, I'll always be a Baroque girl when it comes to classical music. I prefer the precision of the 18th century, to the Romantic flurries of the 19th. But man, those cascades of melting notes are doing something to me.

Perhaps it's the fact we're sitting so close, or that we've been invited into the musician's life and heart. Or maybe it's just the gin and tonic having its way with my insides. But I am seriously into this right now. To feel the rhythms at odds with the life of their creator, the endless births and demands of being a woman acting to mute the music. To hear how a marriage between equals is impossible when society places you on two different levels. And that education and talent mean nothing to the baby crying out for his mother.

No wonder she had been sighing into her glass.

I'd be sighing too.

Perhaps the best we can hope for, after a lifetime of work, is a nice young man, with long blond hair, sending us a letter, asking us out on a date. Bonus points if its Brahms.

As the play comes to a close, we applaud.

“Okay, I'll say something” says Mazzon as the clapping refuses to end.

She thanks us. And the director, who is sitting there on one if the stage tables.

And then it's time to go.

Except no one wants to leave.

Some people go over to talk to her. One woman carries over a chair to the door to hold it open. “Let’s get some air in here,” she says.

I wouldn’t mind staying. I do like it here. But it's a long way back to Hammersmith. Time to go.

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The pits

Rain! Oh, glorious, beautiful, cooling rain. I am completely soaked after legging it from Edgeware Road station and I don’t even care. I may have flashed several drivers as a very insistent gust of wind worked its way under my skirt, and I’m not even slightly embarrassed. The studs are coming unstuck from my boots after traipsing through a puddle and… okay, that bothers me slightly. But it’s not hot anymore, and this fact alone is enough to send me skipping off to the next theatre on my list: The Cockpit.

When I saw this place was in Marylebone, somehow I didn’t picture what looks like an office-block left over from the seventies as my destination. But here we are, and there the Cockpit is in all its long rectangular windowed glory.

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Still, I’m feeling very positive about tonight. That Salome I saw at the Brunel Museum, the one with Sexy John the Baptist? Yup, that was a Cockpit production. And they sent a really super confirmation email. I don’t talk about confirmation emails nearly enough. Mainly because most of them are super boring and follow similar formats: directions, start times, all that guff. Usually, the only time I even think about confirmation emails is when I am getting annoyed at them for not including the postcode of the bloody fucking venue in them… but it’s fine. All fine.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that theatres rarely use the confirmation email as an opportunity for creativity. Oh yeah, they might make the background yellow, or include an image if they’re feeling frisky, but there’s a traditional format for these things, and they tend not to go off book.

Not so the Cockpit. At first glance it might look exactly the same as every confirmation email that you’ve ever received after booking theatre tickets online, but that only makes the reward of actually reading it all the sweeter. Categories are subdivided into “the ticket collection bit” and “the access bit,” clearly taking their cues from the Friends episode naming conventions. The tone is friendly. The advice clear. And at the bottom, they sign off with a bonus section “Treat-for-reading-to-the-bottom-bit,” which admittedly is only a pile of restaurant suggestions, but is written so charmingly that I almost do want to use the 10% discount for Cockpit patrons that’s on offer.

Anyway, best go inside now.

There’s a small, square, foyer, with the box office on the right, set behind a glass window.

I give my name to the young woman sitting behind it.

“Here you go,” she says, sliding the ticket under the glass without further question.

Well, that was easy.

From here, I guess I suppose I’m supposed to go through the doors.

There’s another foyer through here, although it’s the strangest theatre foyer I’ve even been in. Tucked away on the left is the bar. Straight ahead are the doors leading to the auditorium. And everywhere else…

I begin to think I must have got turn around somewhere and accidentally walked into a dentists’ waiting room. There’s a painting on the wall which seems to be of a hamster helping two showgirls wind up some pink wool. Benches, a table, and a counter running across one wall are made of something that looks a cow gave birth to a block of marble. There are plants. And macramé potholders. There are fish tanks. Two of them. With handwritten instructions not to tap the glass. And most terrifying of all, there’s a mannequin lurking in the corner, wearing a scarf and a beanie and advertising a Jazz in the Round t-shirt, which apparently costs fifteen pounds.

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Whoever writes the confirmation emails is clearly also in charge of the signage, as a laminated sign indicating that drinks can be taken into the auditorium is followed up by a bracketed note that “if you bring them back to the bar at the end of the show, we’ll love you for it.”

The one pinned to what looks like a broken chair, and leant against the barrier closing off the theatre doors, has less in the way of amusing brackets, but does at least promise the ringing of a bell when the doors open.

There are also sofas. Covered with red sheets. I try not to contemplate what the sheets may be covering as I sink into an armchair. And sink. And continue to sink.

I don’t think I have ever been hugged so completely as I have by this chair.

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It’s too much. I can’t cope with this level of intimacy. I get up again and go to stand over by the cow-print counter.

From my new position, I watch as a woman examines the armchair and then, putting down her bag on the ground, goes to sit down. I watch, fascinated, as she sinks further and further into its red embrace. A second later, she’s up again, looking at the chair. I can feel her having the same thought processes as me. The cogs spin, and then clunk into place, decision made, she comes to stand next to me at the dairy counter. The refuge of the chair-hugged.

The sofas however, they seem to be safe. A couple sitting over by the wall are having a great time on theirs. Chatting away, either not noticing or not caring that every minute sees them slipping further into the upholstered innards.

Just as I’m beginning to suspect that this might all be a fever dream caused by the dramatic change in weather, there’s a very loud clang of a theatre bell.

“Ladies and gents, the house is now open.”

The couple pull themselves up from the sofa, and the people sitting over in the bar section make their way over to the theatre doors.

I join the queue.

“Just down the stairs and on the right,” says the ticket checker as he tears my ticket. Before adding a dark warning about not talking photos.

Oh dear.

Through the door, down the stairs, and on the right, and gosh – the Cockpit is a lot bigger than I expected.

Perhaps it was the macramé that threw me off, but I was thinking this place was going to be a pocky studio. But it’s nothing of the sort. There’s fixed seating on three sides, long benches that stack up in raked rows. The stage is floor level. A glass tech box hangs high overhead on one wall.

There are freesheets sat waiting for us on the seats. Always a sign of a quality theatre in my experience. They’ve neglected to place any on the front row, which to me demonstrates a clear understanding of their audiences.

There’s already actors on stage, which may go someone to explain the no photography rule. It certainly can’t be the set, as that seems to be entirely composed of the contents of a rubbish bin, strewn across the floor.

I pick my way around the edge of the stage, to get to the other side. And find a spot in the second row.

The bench cushion slips out of place as I sit down. I shift my weight in an attempt to bring it back into line, but that only sends the other side flying off the edge of the bench.

I resolve to sit very still.

The show’s only an hour. It’s another Camden Fringer. So I won’t have to be here long.

I’m watching Earthbound, which from the show description all sounds a bit surreal with a dash of sci-fi.

The sound design is entirely in support of that, with a series of ethereal beeps making the parts of my brain that definitely believe in aliens stand up and point and say: “I told you so!”

Just as my legs decide that they too want to get in on the action, and start preparing for the journey to Nevada to join in with the mission to storm Area 51 that has taken over Facebook, the play begins.

Four characters all come to an abandoned mine in order to getting some thinking done. As we all do when we have stuff on our minds, I’m sure. All driven by loneliness and the need for answers, they come to perhaps the loneliest place of all. And there they find: Violet. A girl in a silly hat, who only speaks in echoes, leaving confusion and attraction in her wake. They bring her gifts, offer her cake, and flowers, and to take her away from this place. But she is as apprehensive as she is enigmatic.

An hour later, I still don’t understand what’s going on. But I’ve found out the words to Where have all the flowers gone, and got a hankering for some dungarees, so that’s something.

On the way out, I snap a picture of the theatre.

I’m a rebel, you see.

Especially after the front of house staff have gone out.

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I live here on the corner, I am sucking in the fumes

It’s the start of Camden Fringe today! To celebrate, I’m watching a show that is not in Camden. And not the one I’d actually booked to see.

I was supposed to be at 365 tonight, a play I know nothing about other than it was going to be performed in the Phoenix Arts Club, which, let me tell you, is a tricky venue to pin down. But the show was cancelled. Giving me a Monday off. Now I can’t be wasting a Monday night on Netflix, not when I still have over a hundred more theatres to get to, so I checked back in on the fringe, and found Class, a verbatim play, opening at the Tristan Bates. A West End theatre, as I’m sure you know. But only by way of its location. I would class it as a fringe venue really. Not that I’ve ever been.

The Tristan Bates has always confused me. Mostly because, even though I know where it is, right on the corner of Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I’ve never worked out how to get in. There’s the big square sign right there. But with a cafe on one side, and what looks like the entrance to the flats above on the other, I’ve been left with the impression that it must be some Platform 9 3/4 situation.

Oh well. I guess I’m going to have to work it out.

As I stand there, on that corner between Earlham Street and Shaftsbury Avenue, I take my photos of the building, and realise maybe, that big yellow neon sign saying the actors centre, was where I was meant to be.

I have no idea what the actors centre is (lower case-ness and lack of apostrophe is all on them), but I have some vague recollection of seeing the logo on the Tristan Bates website while booking my ticket. So, that’s probably an indication that I should follow the yellow neon sign.

Inside, there’s a desk. It could be a box office. Hard to tell.

“I’m here to pick up a ticket…?” I say, letting the question mark drop into place at the end of my very hesitant sentence.

“Yes?”

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say, wondering how long we can keep this question-rally going before one of us hits a full stop right into the net.

The woman behind the counter looks something up on her computer before reaching into a small box. Admission tokens! Oh good. I made it.

I’m feeling rather over-confident now that I know I’m in the right place, so I attempt to lob over a difficult one.

“Is there a freesheet?” I ask.

The box officer gives me the kind of look that makes me think I just accidentally asked for an autographed photo of Trump, in the act of Tweeting on his golden throne.

I press on. “Like, a cast sheet?” The look of confused horror doesn’t clear. “It doesn’t matter if there isn’t,” I add hurriedly. “I just thought I’d ask.”

“No,” says the other lady behind the counter, hurredly getting up and coming out from behind the desk. “But we do have this.” She grabs one of the flyers from the rack and hands it to me. “It’s just a flyer,” she explains.

“That’s perfect, thank you!” I tell her. And it is perfect. There’s a cast list on the back. And a run down of the creatives. It’s everything I need on one smart piece of card.

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Now that’s sorted, I’m directed over to the bar. Down a small ramp, and around the corner.

It’s a bit nice in here. Cocktails are advertised as £5.50. There’s a box full of KitKats and Bounty Bars on display. And over on the other side, sofas are lined with a yellow brick wall and rows and rows of books.

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The sofas are taken, so I set up shop at the counter overlooking them. Thankfully, there’s a step underneath to help my launch myself up onto the bar stool – always a challenge for me, being on the smaller side and rather inept when it comes to balance.

Through the glass doors on the far wall, people come in and out, greeting those waiting on the sofas with hugs and kisses, and my heart begins to sink. It’s going to be one of those audiences, isn’t it? Where everyone knows everyone, and they are all connected to someone involved in the production. Great fun to be in those ranks. Really unpleasant when you’re the outsider.

An announcement comes over the sound system. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen the doors are now open to...” I can't make out the rest. If they include instructions as to the location of the theatre, I can’t hear them.

I glance around, but no one else is moving. My neighbours on the counter haven’t even looked up.

Am I meant to go through the glass doors? They don’t look very likely. But then nothing about this place has looked very likely.

The box officer appears. “Are you here for the show?” she asks the group on the sofa. “The doors are now open.” They muddle to their feet, and then the box officer comes over to the counter. “Hello ladies! Did you hear the announcement? The doors are now open.”

Turns out the doors are back the way we came. Round the corner, up the ramp, past the box office and round. There’s a door lurking down here, with a chalkboard giving the show times. 7.45 - Class. The other time slots are all empty.

Through the door, and we’re in.

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It’s a neat little theatre. Brick walls painted black. A floor level stage. Loose chairs, but set on a raked platform.

I decide it’s time to return to my traditional seating choice: the end of the third row.

Bit of squidging past the person already in, but the seats are alright once you’re sat down. Leg room isn’t great, but hey, it’s the fringe! Shows are short, and being ever so slightly uncomfortable is part of the experience.

Lights dim, and the cast come on. Alyce Louise-Potter and Kelsey Short. All dungerees and earnest smiles.

They have earphones in. I can see the white wires dangling. No airpod nonsense here. They begin speaking, echoing the voices playing in their ears. They’re being interviewed. On the subject of class. What it is. What they define themselves as. Working class, it seems. That’s how this pair consider themselves.

With a switch from flat caps to retro fast food paper hats, they become a new pair. These ones aren’t so sure about their class. Working or middle? Hard to tell. One owns her own house, she says proudly. With five bedrooms. You can’t do that if you’re working class.

She’s not wrong.

Perhaps there are only two classes nowdays. The home owners and the home loanees. Everything else is pedantry. Accent. Education. How you hold your knife. All irrelevant in the face of an ability to acquire a mortgage.

On they go, switching it up, becoming different people as they wade through this quagmire of the class system, covering accents and jobs and stereotypes and pride.

It’s so refreshing to hear class being talked about with such openness and honestly, in the words of real people and not playwrights. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been the biggest fan of verbatim theatre. Most people are quite dull without the and of a good editor. I mean, they’re probably not. I’m just a useless conversationalist and never know the right questions to ask. So like, I totally admit me finding people boring is entirely my own fault. That doesn’t stop me from having trouble listening to the chatter if strangers though.

But here the interactions are so fast, the bonds between the pairs so palpable, and the actors, so charming, I can’t help but smile as they wade into the family history of unnamed strangers.

Plus, it’s a fringe show. So it’s only a hour. Which is a mega bonus and aligns well with my in-bed-by-ten philosophy.

As we head out, everyone turns left, making their way back to the bar. They’re going to be making a night of it. No doubt they’ll joined by members of the production soon enough.

As for me, all on my lonesome and not friends with anyone in the cast, I go straight forward, pushing the door open and stepping back onto the corner between Earlham Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.

If I race for the tube, I might just make it back to Hammersmith before the clock strikes 9.30.

 

Playing with Dinosaurs

It's been a few days, hasn't it? I took a couple off from the marathon. A combination of the hell inferno, work inferno, and moving-to-Hammersmith inferno (temporarily... cats won't sit themselves, you know). But I'm back.

Turns out however, that even from my new, more reasonably central, location, Greenwich is still really, really far away. And I arrive at the Greenwich Theatre feeling a little battered and dazed.

The doesn't stop the bloke behind the box office giving me the biggest smile when I walk in though.

"Hello!" he calls over, in a manner far too cheerful for me to handle right now.

"Hi," I say, trying to conjure some enthusiasm, but really just wanting to sit down. "The surname's Smiles?"

He looks over the tickets, all laid out in regimented columns next to him.

"Can you confirm the postcode?" he asks, picking one up.

Ergh. I hate this question. Always a challenge at the best of times, but after brain melting-heats and a move which means I'm not even living in that postcode right now, I'm not sure I can answer without making use of a crib-sheet. It's like my Chemistry A-levels all over again.

But just as the silence stretches out for a beat too long, my mouth decides to take over and gives the answer my mind could not provide.

The box officer nods and hands over the ticket.

"Head over to the bar, just through there," he says, pointing off to the right.

It the same route I took to go to the main house all the way back in... gosh, it must have been right at the beginning of the year. February perhaps. One of the first theatres on the marathon. Well, in the first fifty, anyway.

Two front of housers flank the double doors, each with a pile of freesheets that they hand out to everyone walking through. That's what I like. Make sure everyone gets one.

Through the doors and onto the mezzanine that lines the sunken bar. I dump my bag on the counter and have a look at the sheet of paper I've been given. Little intro to the play, cast list, creative credits, bit of info about the company, and all the social handles. And it all fits on a single side of A4. The perfect freesheet.

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Except for the lack of a quotation mark right at the beginning. There's one at the end of the sentence. But not at the beginning. But no matter. I can't judge. If you follow me on Twitter (do you follow me on Twitter, by the way? I can't remember...) you'll know I made a serious fuck-up in a programme I made recently. So fucked-up was it that I had to print programme slips, which not only served to correct the mistake, but also to highlight it to anyone who hadn't already noticed it. So like, seriously, while I may point out a typo in these things, I will never, ever think badly of the person who put them together because of it. I know how hard this shit it to make happen. And typos are just a thing that exists. No matter how many times you proofread something.

I'm very much intrigued by one role. Buried half-way down the list of creatives, as if it wasn't the most fascinating thing in the word, is a Fossil Designer. I don't know what that involves, but Hannah Snaith, I salute you for your work. Whatever that is.

I don't need to tell you that I loved dinosaurs as a kid. Firstly, because every kid in the world loves dinosaurs. It's a phase they all go through. Like the Terrible Twos. The Dreadful Dinos. And secondly, because I did most of my growing up in the nineties. And the nineties were at peak-dinosaur fandom. While Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun meant that the twenties were flooded with ankh-necklaces and thrillers set in the shadows of the pyramids. The nineties had dinomania.

There was Jurrasic Park, of course. But also The Land Before Time. The puppet-led Dinosaurs sit-com. The cartoon Dink, the Little Dinosaur. And not forgetting the greatest of them all: Theodore Rex. The seminal Whoppi Goldberg vehicle which sees her non-nonsense cop paired with a new partner, who just happens to be a Converse wearing dinosaur.

The nineties really were the golden age of creativity, ending in the early 2000s with... Dinotopia. A strange tale of a pair of brothers and their dad, who crash land on an island where they discover dinosaurs and humans coexisting quite happily. Dino-riding and love-triangles insue. It wasn't very good. And the love of dinosaurs soon died out.

But of course, like choker necklaces and bucket hats, they're now back.

All those kids who grew up reading dinosaur magazines, collecting dinosaur figurines, and convincing themselves they were going to uncover a pterosaur every time they went on a school trip to Lyme Regis, are now grown up. And they're writing plays. And I'm watching one of them tonight.

I look around, trying to work out where the play will actually be. The doors to the main theatre are on the left and the right. There are no signs of the studio.

And then, from the other side of the bar area, one of the wall panels opens up, and a head sticks out. It's a door. And that's the studio. I'm baffled. I try to work out the geography of it all. I can't quite remember where everything is from my trip here half a year ago, but I think that the studio might, in fact, be right underneath the main house.

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"Ladies and gentlemen," comes a voice. "The house is now open."

From the bar, there's a great scraping back of chairs as everyone makes the mad dash towards the doors. Seating is unallocated and no one wants to be stuck at the back.

I go down the steps and join the scrum, but soon find myself having to hold back to avoid being trampled by the bar folk.

There's a young man tearing tickets on the door, but he can't keep up with the number of people pressing forward.

A woman joins him, her hands working to tear tickets as fast as possible.

"The show is sold out," she tells us. "So please sit right next to people."

"No gaps?" someone asks.

"That's right. And if they don't move, you can tell them that I told you not to leave any gaps."

Something tells me that Greenwich audiences are... tricky.

Eventually, I make it through the door, and into the theatre.

It's small, but not tiny. Not by studio standards anyway. The stage is floor level. And there's a platform on one end. The platform, however, is the only concession to rake in this space. With half the seating on it. And half at stage level. I decide to go for the front row on the platform, moving down as far as I can in the row, and sitting right next to the person on the end. As instructed.

As soon as I get settled, I realise that the platform is next to useless when there are three rows right in front of it. If any of the actors decide to sit down, they will be swallowed up behind the wall of bobbing heads.

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Oh, wait. Two people are sitting on stage. I can see them now. They're doing air steward movements with their hands, helping direct traffic as people come in.

"Please don't leave any gaps!" a front of houser shouts across the room. "We are completely sold out, so please move right down to the end of the rows."

Alright, love. We'll figure it out. That's the thing about theatre-goers. We like sitting down. And we'll find those empty seats. You don't need to worry about us.

But, she does worry. And the shouting continues until the last person is sat.

It's close in here. And not just because it's completely sold out. The low ceiling and dark walls aren't helping.

I get out my fan. The killer heatwave may be over, but it's still not exactly comfortable.

"That's a good idea," says my neighbour, indicating the fan.

"Yeah, I take it with me everywhere. An umbrella and a fan. Two essentials for British summers."

"I really need to get one," she says and I agree. Fans are great. Everyone should have one.

I shift slightly in my chair and jolt as I realise I'm pinned in place.

"Sorry!" says my neighbour, lifting her leg to free my skirts.

"No, it's my fault," I tell her. "This skirt is really big."

It's not actually that big. I'm not in one of my circle skirts today. But given half a chance, any skirt I'm wearing tends to floof all over the place. It's like they're trying to escape from me. Perhaps I don't treat my clothes well enough. Maybe I'll start using the delicate cycle on the washing machine.

It looks like we're starting. The two people sitting on stage, Emma MacLennan and Charlie Merriman, are getting up. They're starting a lecture. About Mary Anning.

And, no... wait. Someone's interupting. Someone coming from the back of the studio. Someone wearing a long, 19th-century gown.

It's Mary Anning. She's not having all this nonsense being said about her. She's taking over.

And so she does. And she has no intention of indulging us in words. Words lie. Words are used to twist and trick.

I’m in full agreement. Words are bullshit. I may earn my crust by crushing words into a semblance of sense-making, but I still won’t trust them as far as I can typo them.

For Mary though, it's numbers that she cares about. Numbers of bones in her first major find. The number of coins she was paid for them. And the number made in profit as it was sold on.

Pulling in the other two to play all the characters in her story, she takes us from a childhood spent picking up curios to sell to tourists on the beach at Lyme Regis, to her discovery of the ichthyosaur, to teaching herself French so that she might read the work of Cuvier, to being rejected by the establishment for the terrible crime of not being a man.

As someone who is, shall we say, feeling a wee bit raw at the moment about not getting proper recognition for my own work, I am boiling inside at the treatment our Mary got. Taken advantage of because she lacked connections, and money, and breeding, and a penis. Slogging away in the rain and the cold and the winds, so that others found glory from her work.

From her bag, she brings out tiny examples of her curios. "I think we can trust them," she says, as her ensemble try to hold her back. She hands them out to the audience, instructing us to pass them along to the end of the rows. They work themselves along, getting turned over and peered at in the dim light.

Smooth on one side. Rough on the other.

I rub my thumb along the marble-like sheen of the shiny side when its my turn. Are these real? Or are these the work of our Hannah Snaith, the fossil designer? I can't say. They're fun to hold all the same. I don't want to pass mine along, but I also don't want to disappoint Mary Anning. So I hand it along to the next person.

At the end, we're given more numbers.

Number of people in the audience tonight, sixty. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning tomorrow if everyone in the audience tells five people down the pub tonight, 300. Number of people who will know about Mary Anning by Wednesday if all those people tell five people... oh something ridiculous like 90,000.

Well, as someone who was educated in a proto-feminist girls' school in Dorset, there was no way I was getting away without learning about Mary Anning. I can't claim my blog will reach 90,000 people, but you at least now know about her. So, that's one down.

Numbers done, we're invited to stay for a Q&A with Antonia Weir, who brought the spirit of Mary into our midst, and some other people that I'm sure are very interesting, but I'm not sticking around to get even more sticky.

It's a long-arse way home from Greenwich. Even longer than a plesiosaur's neck, I'd venture to say.

I wonder how many vertebraes long the DLR is... I bet Mary Anning would know.

Dante's Theatre

Boris Johnston is prime minister, and temperatures are topping thirty degrees, but at least I don’t have to go south of the river tonight.

Such are my priorities right now.

Still, a nice journey on the Victoria line is not to be sniffed at. Especially when it’s almost completely empty and I get to sprawl about on the seats, lazily flapping my fan, feeling like I just stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play.

The fan stays very much out for the short walk to my destination for the evening: Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub. I really hope this place has air con. I’m not doing all that well right now.

It’s taken a while to get to this one. For a pub that makes claim to be of the pub-theatre variety, they don’t have all that much in the way of theatre. Music? Yes. There’s plenty of that going on. But no matter how many times I clicked on their website, theatre was never in the listings.

I even started following them on Twitter. Just in case they were the sort of venue that was a bit lazy about uploading their calendar. I thought they’d at the least retweet a visiting company. But all I got were weekly tweets about their Sunday roasts. Which only served to make me hungry. Not hungry enough to travel all the way to Walthamstow, you understand. But a gentle gnawing that acted as a weekly reminder that I was not having a roast for Sunday lunch, and that my stomach was not particularly pleased with my life choices.

But with summer, comes the Edinburgh previews. And the Ye Olde got in on the action with a one act musical. On for only two nights, I had to do some rearranging. But I’m here now, booked in, and ready get this pub marathoned.

Oh, and yes – they did tweet about the show. This morning. Super helpful, and more seriously, also a slightly worrisome indicator of ticket sales.

Anyway, I can see it now. Just over the road. Reached by a rainbow coloured crossing, which is rather nice. Let’s just not talk about the address. Hoe Street. They do love their farming equipment in Walthamstow…

It’s quiet inside. Going to the pub clearly isn’t high on the list of things to do on a boiling hot Wednesday evening hereabouts. I was about to ask at the bar where I need to go, but I’ve just spotted it. Over there. A table in the corner, with a BOX OFFICE sign propped up on the window behind and a laptop set up on top. There are two people sat there. Both with pints. Which surely is the best way to handle that job.

“Hi!” I say. “The surname’s Smiles?”

“Maxine?” says the female half of the pair, looking up from the screen.

That’s me.

“That’s perfect. We’ll be opening the doors at around twenty past,” she says. “Because of the weather.”

“Although you can sweat up there if you want!” says the bloke.

Well, I suppose that answers the air con question.

“You can get a drink from the bar,” says the woman, pointing to the bar behind me. “And it’s fine to bring glasses up to the theatre.”

“Where is the entrance?” I ask.

She points to the door right next to her. There’s a sign. “The show starts here.” Ah. I should have guessed that. I blame the heat. My brain is little more than pink goo right now. If it gets any hotter it'll start dripping out my ears.

Not sure alcohol is that good an idea for me right now, so I take a seat over by the window and try to cool myself down. It’s not going very well.

The minutes tick by.

People come in.

Someone buys a ticket.

Another is checking in.

Most are just here for a drink though. Perhaps they just found out who the prime minister is.

It’s past twenty past now.

I look over at the door. It is still very much closed.

It must be really hot up there.

I grab my fan and flap it about, more in nervousness at the impending heat than the current climate. Whoever’s idea it was to programme a heat wave right now clearly lacks an ability to read the room.

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“If you’re here for the show, The Room,” comes the voice of the woman at box office, cutting across the pub. “The doors are now open.”

Right then. We’re doing this thing.

I make my way over to the door, which is not actually open in the strict sense of not being closed. It requires a good push. But soon I’m through and into a small foyer, with nothing in it about from some massive windows.

There is another door though. This one is actually open. It has a sign. “Only drinks bought here allowed upstairs.” Which I suppose means that I’m going up the steps. So I do.

There’s someone at the top.

“Right down to the end,” he says, pointing down the corridor.

I follow his directions, going right down to the end of the corridor, where there’s another man waiting.

“Here’s a programme,” he says, handing me one from the stack. “You can sit wherever you like,” he says, indicating the door on the right.

Just as I’m beginning to feel like a parced-parcel, I'm in the theatre.

It's big. Well, big for a pub theatre. And it's almost all stage.

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There's a small platform at one end, with a couple of rows of seats on it. The rest of the room is given over to the set. Two chairs. A small table. And a few props. In the background, I spy a keyboard.

It feels all wrong and topsy turvy, as if the stage should have been on the platform, and the seating on the floor. But we're here for a musical, and I suppose this gives our cast lots of room to bounce around.

Our cast of one that is.

I don't think I've ever seen a musical one hander.

As our performer and accompanist come out, I fold up my fan, but all my good intentions about keeping said fan closed and out of action for the duration of the performance disappear half-way through the first number.

It's really hot in here. And not just hot, but close. The air is heavy and thick. The windows hidden behind huge wooden shutters, painted black.

A woman in the front row has the same idea, wafting herself with a neat wooden fan while I flap around with my great big fabric one.

The less well-prepared members of the audience do the best they can with their free programmes.

Our poor performer, standing not five feet away from us, has to watch as we play the roles of delicate southern belles while she struggles through this liquid heat, unable to stop for even a moment as the entire show is her. Just her. Carrying this emotionally heavy story all by herself, dragging her character's turmoil with her and all the while pretending they were weren't all trapped within an oven preheating for tonight's dinner.

I'm not a sweaty person, but my skin is as clammy as meat left on the kitchen counter overnight. My fringe is plastered to my forehead. I run my fingers through it and cringe in disgust at the feel of my damp hair.

But my shudders of horror are stilled when I feel something crawling down my neck. Visions of creeping spiders flood my mind, but when I go to brush it away I realise it's a droplet of perspiration.

Under the spotlights, the stage looks a good deal smaller than it did at the beginning. The black walls press in closer. Everything is more concentrated, pushed together, the music filling what little breathing room we have left.

And then, half-way through the third song, shit... should I even tell you this? Oh gawd. I hate this. It's an Edinburgh preview. I'm not here on a press ticket. On the one hand that means I'm under no obligation to the production or anyone involved in it. But on the other... they didn't ask for a blogger to be here, with her thoughts, and her words.

Fuck. Let's just give the facts... and not mention names. I don't want this turning up in search listings.

Half way through the third songs, as she whistfully reads a letter from her daddy, our performer falters. And stops.

Behind her, the music keeps on going.

She apologies. But can't start up again.

The man on the piano sings a line but it’s no good. She hasn’t forgotten the words.

It's too much.

She turns, running to a door at the back of the stage area, and collapsing through it. She cries out, unable to move any further.

The piano stops. The man behind iy gets up and goes backstage. The door closes behind them.

Silence fills the room.

There's a scrape as someone sitting behind me pushes back her chair. It's the woman from the box office. She disappears through the side-door to see what's happening.

We wait, fanning ourselves. We all know what happened.

I'm finding it hard enough to breath just sitting her. I can't imagine forcing my lungs to push air out into this heaving fug. Adding the extra challenge of making it sound good is an impossible demand to place on someone.

A few minutes later, the box office lady is back. "Just give us five minutes," she says. "It's very hot today."

We settle back. A few people start chatting.

The woman with the wooden fan shows it to a lady sitting in the row behind. "I got it from Spain," she explains.

Our performer reemerges. She walks back on stage and retakes her place. A second later, we're back in the room, with the letter from daddy, back into the emotionally twisted inner life of this character.

There's no stopping this time. We're drawn in deeper and deeper until there's no escape. The layers peeled back, one by one, each revealing a secret darker than the one before.

And then we're done.

We applaud. Of course. Just getting through that performance would have been hard enough, coming back on after a collapse... well, that's the act of bravery and endurance that I would never be capable of.

She disappears backstage. Our continued clapping does not call her back. Hopefully she’s chugging back a pint glass if ice cold water.

Afterwards, people hang back.

Someone opens the door, but there's no rush to the exit. They start turning around in their chairs to talk to one another.

Not me though. I can't take this anymore. My dress is sticking to me in all sorts of inconvenient places. I have to get out of here.

I stumble back down the corridor, retracing my steps down the stairs and back into the pub. The doors are open and I aim myself at them, filling my lungs with the roadside air, gulping it down as I make my way back to the tube station, feeling as if I have just walked through all nine circles of hell.

And it's not even over yet.

Thirty-nine degrees tomorrow.

May the theatre gods protect us all. Especially those that have to go on stage.

Mount Bussey

Back in Peckham again tonight. I honestly don’t know what I did in life to deserve this.

It’s not Peckham itself, you understand. I don’t have any ill-feelings towards the place. Or any good feelings for that matter. I haven’t been enough to have formed any sort of opinion. I am Peckham agonistic, one might say.

No, what I harbour my annoyance towards, is the transport. My gawd. Waiting on platform two at Canada Water for a train that never comes, sweltering away without even the distraction of wifi… I cannot. I cannot. And I will not, ever again. Not once this marathon is over anyway.

For now, I must suffer through.

At least my next venue is right next to the station. I barely have to trip across the road to get there. 133 Rye Lane. Better known as the CLF Art Cafe. Or the Bussey Building. I think that’s what most people call it.

Half the building is hidden behind hoarding, but there’s a poster stuck outside showing me that I’m in the right place.

I head through the door and find myself in some sort of industrial-looking corridor. With bare pipes running along the wall, and chip-board ramps on the floor.

I worry that I might have accidentally walked into some sort of sweatshop, but no – there’s bunting strung up overhead. And one this this marathon has told me: theatres fucking love bunting. This has to be the place.

“Hello!” says a very friendly voice.

I look up. It’s my co-worker. Blimey. Okay.

“You don’t live round here, do you?” she asks.

“God no,” I reply, a touch too venomously. I try to recover. “I’m here for a show,” I say, pointing down the corridor to what I hope is the location of the theatre. “Such a journey to get here…”

“Is it?” She pauses. “You didn’t come here via Farringdon did you?”

“No. Should I have done?”

“The secret is the Thameslink.”

I groan. I fucking hate the Thameslink. “I fucking hate the Thameslink.”

“It’s better when you learn the train times.”

Yes, I suppose it must be.

We part. Her to go home. Me to plunge further down this corridor.

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I emerge on the other side in a small courtyard. Surrounded on all four sides by high brick walls, painted with not unattractive graffiti. I’ll admit, Peckham is a little bit cool. You don’t get this kind of location-setting in Finchley.

The door directly opposite has a sheet of paper pinned to the frame, with details of the play I’m seeing this evening. So, it looks like I’m in the right place. I go in, and immediately find myself in a stairwell.

With nowhere to go but up, I start climbing.

One floor. Then another. Then another. Turning and turning as I climb higher and higher.

And then I stop.

There’s a chain blocking my path.

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“Box Office opens at 7.15pm,” it says.

It’s ten past now.

A young man in hipster glasses appears from a side door.

“You’re here for…?” he asks, his words trailing off.

“Portents,” I tell him.

“Portents.” He nods. “It’ll open in about five munutes, the bar’s through there if you want to get a drink.”

I don’t particularly want a drink, but I follow his suggestion all the same.

The bar looks like it has a day job as a performance space. There’s a massive stage down the other end. It’s dark. Candles set on top the three tables barely punctuate the gloom. It’s quiet in here. Very quiet. There’s no music playing, and the two staff members behind the bar are whispering too each other as if trying to avoid breaking the very specific atmosphere.

The floor is bare concrete. The ceiling a mass of wiring.

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But there are three industrial size fans and they are blasting out one hell of a breeze.

I stand against the wall, enjoying the fiercely blowing fans and try not to creep out the bar staff with my presence. I can’t help but think I’m the cause of all this quiet.

I check my phone. Five minutes has passed. It must be time to go in.

But when I head back towards the stairwell, the chain is still very much in place.

I don’t want to go back to the bar.

I think I might sit in the courtyard for a while, but there’s someone here. A woman.

“Is there a show on now?” she asks.

I hold up my hands. “Sorry, I don’t work here.”

The young man with the glasses does though, and he’s appeared just in time.

“Was there a show here earlier?” she asks him. “My son said he was here but I can’t find him…”

Leaving this anxious woman in the young man’s no doubt very capable hands, I go down the stairs. But there’s someone coming up the other way. And she doesn’t appear to have lost a child.

She stops. “Are you here for the theatre?” she asks me.

“Yeah,” I tell her, hanging back on the landing.

She sighs deeply. I feel she’s been holding that breath for a long time. “I’ve been everywhere!” she says. “All around.” She circles her arm to indicate the scope of her travels.

“It’s a confusing place,” I say.

“I went in the other building.”

I don’t know what other building she means, but I nod sympathetically all the same.

She passes me, just as hipster glasses pulls aside the chain. The box office, it seems, it now open.

My new friend doubles back. “We can go up!” she tells me.

I follow her, and the pair of us trudge our way up the stairs.

And more stairs.

And more stairs.

She points. “Even more stairs!” she laughs.

There are a lot of stairs.

We turn one final corner, and there it is. The CLF Theatre. I know because there’s a sign, inscribed in white against a very red wall. The same colour as my face right now.

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Positioned outside, there’s a small desk. And the person who must be our box officer for the evening is sat behind it.

My friend goes first, but when she has trouble looking up the confirmation email for her booking, she waves me forward.

“The surname’s Smiles?” I say.

“No, I see you!” says the box officer, finding me at the end of a very short list. “Have you got the reference?” she asks.

Gosh. That’s a first.

I pull out my phone and bring up the email. I find the reference. That’s a lot of numbers and letters. “Um, it’s very long,” I say, turning around my phone so she can see the screen.

“That’s perfect,” she tells me. “I just wanted to confirm the booking.”

Okay. Bit intense. I mean, we’re not exactly at Hamilton right now. Usually box offices just ask for a first name. Or the postcode if they’re really swanky. But okay.

My new friend steps forward. She’s found her email. And she gets a bright yellow wristband for her troubles.

Huh. I didn’t get a wristband. I want a wristband!

“Feel free to head in when you’re ready,” says the box officer.

Neither of us move. I don’t know about you, but sitting in an empty venue, by myself, really creeps me out. It’s even worse than being in a bar by yourself. The bar staff can at least whisper to each other. In a theatre, a small theatre especially, it’s just you and the tech person. And neither of you are supposed to talk to the other.

Two more people arrive. One of them is carrying a guitar case.

“Can I have a wristband?” he asks, after purchasing his ticket.

“These are for people booking the double bill,” the box officer explains.

Fine. That explains it. I don’t want a wristband then.

The boy with the guitar is interested though. “How much is the double bill?”

The box officer grabs a flyer to check. “Fifteen pounds,” she tells him.

He thinks about this. “if I were to decide I want to stay after the show, could I just pay the extra five pounds?”

The box officer smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll remember you.”

Not surprising, as the boy with the guitar turns out to be the chattiest person in the world, and I soon find out that he knows someone in the show, is a student, likes the box officer’s earrings, and that the box officer is not actually a box officer. She runs the theatre in Edinburgh that this show is touring to.

Well.

“You can go in by the way,” says the box officer who isn’t actually a box officer.

None of us move.

“No one wants to be the first,” I say.

The boy picks up the guitar. “I’ll go,” he announces and leads his friend through the door.

I shrug. “Alright then, I’m going in,” I say. And the four of us head into the theatre.

It’s dark in here. Darker than the bar even. Mainly because there’s a light rigged over the stage to glare into the eyes of the audience. But as I adjust to the dimness, I begin to make things out. Rows of chairs facing a floor level staff.

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A wooden floor.

Right in the middle, there’s a pillar, with more dotted around, propping up the ceiling.

It’s like having a theatre set up in your neighbour’s attic.

We take our seats, all avoiding the front row. Not that it’ll make much difference. Not when there are only four of us.

My friend leans over the aisle to me. “What time does it start?” she asks. “I thought it was 7.30pm”

“Yeah, I think they’re waiting for people to turn up.”

“Like the performers, or…” she turns around to look at the non-existent audience. “or us?”

Good question. I'd meant the audience, but who knows. Perhaps the cast had done a runner.

The doors close, and the box officer (who isn’t a box officer) slips in, taking a seat at the back.

The young man with the hipster glasses reappears. He’s introducing the show. “Welcome, to all…” his eyes scan the empty seats. “Five of you.”

Oh dear.

But the play starts and the performers go on undaunted, apart from their alarming tendency to catch eyes. Not helped by the whole thing being performed from behind a set of lecturns. I swear I spend a whole five minutes locked in a staring contest with one if them.

And they’re all so young. That combined with the all black costumes. and the music stand style lecturns, and I feel like i’ve stumbled into the rehearsal for a school choir. Except they’re busy talking about secret broadcasts, lizard people, and aliens.

Not sure I have any idea what this play actually is, but it’s interesting enough, even if it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Although their leaving out of the Facebook plot to storm Area 51 in their run down of conspiracy theories doesn’t make it all feel a bit… out of touch.

Whatever. I clap enthusiastically enough when they’re done. You’ve got to admire their gumption if nothing else.

I reach down and grab my bag.

“Are you staying for the next show?” my new friend asks from across the aisle.

“No, one play is enough for me in one night...” Turns out even I have my limits.

She nods and turns away. Somehow I don’t think she wants to be my friend anymore.

 

Peck 'em

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

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

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

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

I checked back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I join the queue for the box office.

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

“Sorry?”

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

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

“… yes.”

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

Thank goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I check my phone.

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

Oh well. At least it’s a short play.

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

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

2 hours plus interval.

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

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

Two hours

Plus an interval of unknown length.

And then the long trek back to Finchley.

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

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

She frowns at him. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully it won’t see me back here.

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

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

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

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

Oh well.

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We’re starting now. At last.

Two men. Two stories. Interwoven.

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

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

A bit… dull.

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

But it isn’t doing the business for me.

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

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

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

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

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

The darkness extends a fraction too long.

The house lights should be coming up by now.

But they don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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