“This is the final station where a TFL validated rail card or Oyster card can be used,” comes a voice over the tannoy as we approach Watford Junction.
And so I reach the very edge of the London Theatre Marathon. My Oyster card will take me here and no further.
Thank fucking gawd.
I’ve never been to Watford before.
Not even when there was a James Graham play in the Watford Palace. Which is quite the statement as I love me some James Graham.
But apparently even this love has limits. And that limit is Watford.
The play actually ended up transferring to the Bush, and I saw it there, so it all worked out just fine. But there’s no escape this time around. It’s now or never. I’m going to fucking Watford.
“Stay behind the yellow line,” shouts a station worker as we make our way down the platform. “Please! We all want to go home.”
And with that, I head towards the exit.
Outside, the pavements are empty. But the roads are clogged with cars.
I end up having the pick my way through a traffic jam just to cross a junction.
But there it is, up ahead. It’s sign blazing out red in the darkness. “PALACE.” The Watford part presumably not requiring the neon, as we are, as I have said, in Watford.
I stand on the opposite side of the road, trying not to get run over by a reversing van, to take my exterior shots.
No one goes in. No one comes out. And through the windows I can’t make out the tiniest shred of movement.
I begin to worry that I perhaps got the wrong day. That they are completely dark on this chilly Tuesday evening. But no, there’s someone, coming down the road. I keep a close eye on her, standing in the shadows like the creepy lurker that I am.
She pauses in front of the doors.
I hold my breath.
She carries on walking.
I hold back, scanning the pavement for any signs of life.
Eventually a man arrives, walking with purpose if not exactly speed.
I wait for him, glancing down at my phone in order to pretend that I’m not a weird stalker. I’m just reading a text. From a friend I definitely have.
He’s approaching the doors.
He’s slowing down.
He’s reaching out.
He’s grasping the handle.
This is it. He’s going in!
And so am I!
I skitter across the road and slip my way through the doors before the man has even managed to get himself up the short flight of steps in the foyer.
An usher spots me. “Hello!” he says, spotting me looking around, trying to get my bearings.
“Err, box office?”
“Just this way.” He points down the corridor towards the large desk tucked away right at the end.
“Hello there!” says the box officer as I approach.
Everyone is very friendly this evening.
“Hi!” I say, attempting to equal his enthusiasm. I don’t think I’m quite pulling it off. “The surname’s Smiles?”
He jumps into action, diving into the ticket box to pull out my ticket.
“Is there a programme?” I ask, spotting something large and programmey-looking at the end of the counter.
“Err,” he says, taken by surprise. This is clearly not a question he gets called upon to answer all that often. “No there isn’t a programme, errr…” He visablly pulls himself together. “Let me get my words out. Um. The people on the door should have a… crew sheet?” He pauses, puzzling over that term.
I think he means a cast sheet, but I’m not correcting him.
“I don’t think there is an actual programme,” he finishes.
“Even better!” I say, meaning it. Cast sheets are better than programmes because cast sheets are free. I mean, yes, they lack the brilliantly commissioned programme notes, the glossy double page spreads showing off beautiful production photos, the scrupulously edited biographies, but, eh, it’s still a piece of paper to take home at the end of the night. And I repeat: it’s free.
And by the looks of it, the front of housers are busy getting them all sorted.
They’ve taken over a long bench, and are sorting through various papery elements.
“There’s more coming out of the printer,” says one.
“Are we giving everyone both?” is the reply.
Excellent. It looks like I won’t be walking away with just one piece of paper tonight. I’ll have two!
I begin to realise that the front of housers probably don’t appreciate me looming over them as they sort the handouts into different piles.
I take a stroll to see what the other end of the corridor can offer me. Turns out, it’s the cafe. And everyone’s in here!
I find an empty spot on one of the high chairs by the counter on the side, and try very hard not to think about how much of a berk I must look like with my legs swinging limply, two feet off the ground.
Tables and chairs fill up rapidly, and by twenty past this corner of the building is pretty darn full.
“She said everything is like the original,” says a woman, showing her group the freesheet. “Except for this bit.” She points to a paragraph.
“But otherwise it’s like the play?”
“That’s what she said. Just this is different.”
“How does that work then?”
“She didn’t say.”
How frustrating. I guess we’ll all just have to watch it then.
A voice comes over the sound system. “Please take your seats, the performance will begin in three minutes. The performance will begin in three minutes.”
My ticket says to take the door on the left. So I head to the door on the left. Well, the door that says it’s on the left. We both know that I’m still figuring out the whole left-right thing.
“Lovely,” says the ticket checker as she checks my ticket. “Let me-“
“Could I get one of those?” I ask, rudely interrupting her in my desperation to get my hands on the freesheet action.
She hesitates. “Yeah, of course,” she says, regaining her flow. She plucks a card and a sheet of paper from her pile and hands it to me.
With that accomplished, I head inside the auditorium.
And will you look at that. It’s full of proper old-school twirly bits. There are boxes. And gilding. And mouldings.
No chandelier though.
Or rather, there is, but it isn’t a glittery crystal fountain, but a snake-like coil of neon pressed against the more traditionally Edwardian ceiling.
I’m in the front row. Which is not my preferred seating choice, but the proscenium arch makes me feel safe.
I dump my bag in my seat and snap a few pictures of the auditorium.
It’s very sparse in the whole audience thing.
Turns out, what can fill a cafe is not nearly enough to fill a theatre.
By the looks of it, both the circle and the balcony have been shut off.
It looks like a Gaslight revival on a freezing cold Tuesday evening in Watford is not that much of a draw.
I’m surprised by that.
No, seriously. I am.
I am well excited for this production. And have been ever since it was announced. I’ve had this trip planned for months. Months!
Although, to be fair, if I hadn't been prepared to make the journey for a new James Graham…
Anyway, the play starts. We’re in a women’s refuge and the residents are putting on a play. Gaslight.
They’re in their own clothes. Hannah Hutch’s Nancy seems to be in her duper comfy-looking jammies already, while Sandra James-Young's Elizabeth has opted for some sort of nightdress and house coat combo. And they are all working through some personal shit as they take on the roles of the residents of the Manningham household. With its disappearing paintings, and dimming lights.
And it’s like, super intense. And a little bit distressing. I find myself wincing as Jasmine Jones’ Jack chews over a muffin, watching Sally Tatum’s Bella with calculating eyes as he plots his next move to torment and upend her.
As Tricia Kelly, acting as both the master of ceremonies and Inspector Rough, calls time on the action, she sends both the actors and us off for a tea and tissue break.
The curtain decends. We are left in darkness. The house lights aren’t coming up. I look around, wondering if this was part of the play. Was Jack wondering around above us, messing with the gaslight? But no, a few seconds later, the house lights come up and the auditorium is filled with music as Kesha tells us she don’t need a man to be holding her too tight and the members of Little Mix demand we listen up because they’re looking for recruits.
I have a look at the freesheets.
One is just a scrappy thing run off the photocopier, explaining how the cast have worked with the team from the Watford Women’s Centre Plus. The other is much fancier. All glossy and professional, with the cast list and headshots and whatnot. But both have a note at the bottom.
“This show touches on potentially distressing themes around domestic abuse and specifically gaslighting. If you are affected by the themes in today’s production please talk to a member of our staff.”
I’m almost tempted to go ask an usher what happens when someone comes to them, but I fear that might set off alarm bells, and I don’t want to be the cause of any of that.
The second half starts. We’re back in the Manningham household and things are kicking the fuck off.
Somewhere at the back a phone goes off, and is hastely silenced.
Honestly, I’m glad of the distraction. My heart was beating at a thousand beats per second.
That thot Nancy is playing games and I am not able to deal with it.
At the end, the women of the refuge all gather for a group hug. And I kinda feel I want in on that action. I’m really in need of having someone pat my head and tell me it’ll all be okay.
Instead I have to venture back out into the freezing cold and get myself out of Watford.
Still, I did get something out of this. I found out I’m a lot stronger than I thought. If James Graham brings another play here... I might not even wait for the transfer.