She is risen

I ATEN'T DED.

I know, I know. You were worried. I drop a blog post about being very, very ill and then disappear without another word. I meant to put a banner on the site to let you know that I'm, well, n't ded, like an internet-soaring Granny Weatherwax, but then I realised that if I did actually die, there would be no-one to take the message down, and while I would appreciate the humour of my determined declaration of non-death surviving me until the payment on my domain is due, I figured that the other ghosts might laugh at me, and even worse, attempt to stage an intervention.

So, anyway. I'm not, in fact, dead. I am quite the opposite. I am risen. Like the phoenix, Or the daffodils. Or any other spring-appropriate return-to-life metaphors that you can to think of. And while we all debate whether I am the messiah or a very naughty boy, can I take a moment to say how much I've enjoyed all the responses I've had to my... sickness. Over the past week I've been compared to Mimi from La Boheme, Violetta from Traviata, Marguerite from Marguerite and Armand, and... errr... Satine from Moulin Rouge. And while I revelled in being cast among the canon of sex-workers-dying-from-consumption (who knew it was such a trope?), I'm not sure I belong among those aria-singing delicate creatures. Personally, I see myself more as a Billie Piper in Penny Dreadful, spluttering all over that nice Mr Dorian. Like... it was intense. Blood everywhere. Seriously, I had to have a shower and put on a load of laundry before going to the hospital.

Right, now I've finished my course of antibiotics and thoroughly grossed you all out, it's time to take you with me to the next theatre on the marathon list.: Hampstead Theatre. I do like the Hampstead. Firstly because it requires little more than falling out of Swiss Cottage tube station in order to get to, and secondly because it makes me feel like I'm making a real contribution when I'm there. I swear, I bring down the mean age of the audience by a good decade the second I stumble through the door. It's not often that I get to feel so young and cool, and believe me, I relish every moment of it.

But as I arrive in the foyer, I find it devoid of octogenarians to compare myself to. Devoid of anyone of any age.

The place looks deserted.

One of the lady’s on box office beckons me forwards.

“Err, the surname’s Smiles,” I saw. Her hand is already on the box of tickets and she is flipping through them before I’ve even got the first syllable out.

“What was the name again?” she asks, still riffling through the box.

“This is the final call for Jude,” comes a booming voice over the tannoy.

Ah, that explains the frenzy.

“It’s for The Firm,” I tell her. I thought the information might calm her. The Firm, the play in their smaller, downstairs, theatre, doesn’t start for another 15 minutes. But she barely pauses, thanking me and reaching over for the other ticket box to flick her way through the tickets there.

“Here you go,” she says, unfolding them to check the tickets before handing them over. “You’re downstairs.”

I go down the stairs, passing the great bulbous curves of the main space, which bulge out like the bow of a ship, giving me flashbacks to when I watched Pirates under the hull of the Cutty Sark a few months back.

There’s a large foyer down here, filled with the kind of tables and chairs that make me think I should be in the subsidised cafe of some trendy modern university.

Not one is using them now.

Seating is unreserved and the queue is already stretching from bow to stern.

I push my way through and join the end of it. No wonder the box office lady was so stressed. This queue is massive.

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I managed to make it to one of the Downstairs shows at the Hampstead. Been a while since I was Upstairs, come to think of it. Gosh, when was I last here? Suddenly it comes to me. Gloria. How could I forget that? Best interval cliff-hanger since… well, ever…? I spent the entire interval stumbling around, staring into the distance, and whimpering. That Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one hell of a playwright. I really think he has the potential to go all the way, you know. I pause, trying to conjure the name last Downstairs play I saw, but I’m failing. Perhaps because it didn’t have an interval. Downstairs shows rarely do.

Queue up, sit down, watch a play, then get the hell out. That seems to be the motto of the downstairs space.

Well, I’m sure it was just great, whatever the hell the play was.

The queue is moving.

There’s a sign by the door.

The play is only an hour and a half. No interval.

Ah. Was that good? I can’t tell. Usually that would be good. But now I’ve remembered Gloria and my interval stumbling and I’m suddenly not so sure anymore.

We file through the door, down a very dark corridor, and emerge in what looks like a fancy cocktail bar.

My position at the back of the queue doesn’t seem to have affected my seat selection. There are two banks of benches, arranged at an obtuse angel to each other, and I manage to nab a spot close to the central aisle, in the third row back.

Nice.

I’m well pleased with that.

I’m even more pleased to find a programme on my seat.

I’m said before that a freesheet placed lovingly on the seats for the audience is the sign of a swanky theatre, but the Hampstead being, well, the Hampstead, just have to go one step further and offer up a fully-colour printed, 16 page, full-on programme. The sort I would charge a whole two quid for. And here they are, just lying around, to be picked up. For free.

I go to flick through it, but I don’t get much further than the third page.

“Hampstead Theatre would like to thank RADA for the loan of beer pumps.”

I can’t help it. I laugh.

Bless them. Isn’t that just the must perfect sentence ever committed to paper? How gloriously middle-class. Congratulations to everyone involved. Especially to RADA, for their stock of beer pump props.

Eventually, I manage to move on. But not by much as I find another gem on the centre-fold.

Well done programme-maker of the Hampstead Theatre, whoever you are. And to the playwright, Roy Williams, I suppose. I’m certainly feeling all kinds of damn aches at the moment. In places that I didn’t even know I could ache. And, I know I’m on a marathon and everything, and marathons are notoriously bad on your joints, but I didn’t think that applied to the theatrical variety.

But then, I didn’t think people seriously coughed up blood in this post-industrial revolution, post-slum era of socialised medicine that we live in, and yet here we are, so….

Anyway, you don’t care about that. Just pour me a shot of indulgence for this pity party of mine and let’s move on.

Back to the theatre. And the play. Which is starting now.

Looks like they are getting ready for a party, and not of the pity variety. It’s a welcome home jobby. They even have a banner.

The Firm, in true John Grisham style, is a gang of, Ooo, what shall we call them? Thugs sounds too violent, although there’s plenty of then. But I think the word thug suggests a certain mindlessness to their brutality and there’s nothing mindless about this lot. Everything is thought of, worked over, considered. Words are tested and tasted and thrown around.

Ne'er-do-well, perhaps? Nah, too cutsie. And these blokes aren’t cutsie.

Mobster? Too Godfather. We’re in London not New York.

Gangster then? Very East End circa the 1960s. Very Jez Butterworth’s Mojo.

And it is all very Mojo. With the bar and the gang of… whatever they are. Just… without the mojo.

Shame.

Okay, that’s not fair. I mean, it’s lacking in the grimy glamour of the sixties which is a huge portion of Mojo’s mojo. And the Soho seediness that can never be replicated south of the river, no matter how hard the people of Streatham try.

But it does has that hot guy from Fleabag in it. No, not that one. The other one. The lawyer, not the priest.

So, it does have a little mojo. Just not Mojo levels of mojo.

Not gangster then. Besides, a gang of gangsters is some weak-arse writing. Even for me.

Let’s just move on, shall we?

The man sitting next to me certainly is. He’s not paying attention at all. He’s got his coat over his knees and I can see it moving as he scratches himself underneath.

At least, I hope he’s scratching.

I slide over a little on the bench.

It’s alright. There’s plenty of room.

This is the Hampstead after all. No Finborough-style packing them in over here.

I bump into something.

It’s a handbag, belonging to my other neighbour. She’d placed it rather pointedly between us on the bench when I came to sit next to her. A makeshift wall to divide us. A fencing off of her personal space. I wanted to tell her the show was sold out, and that if it wasn’t me, she’d have someone else sitting here. Put I didn’t. Mainly because I was worried that she would reply that her problem wasn’t with anyone else, but with me, specifically.

Looks like I’m stuck between a bag and a hard… ummm.

Let’s leave that there.

The play’s over anyway.

It takes a while to get out. The seats might be generous, but the audiences of Hampstead Theatre like to take their time, and the gangways are all full as they chatter about the play.

“It was good, but I didn’t understand a word of it,” observes one lady. She must have been a fan of those beer pumps.

Finally, I manage to escape and I make a break for the stairs.

But half-way up I realise something. I stop, blocking the man behind me.

“Sorry,” I say, but I don’t move. I’m wrestling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to bring up the camera.

There, staggered up the steps, is The Firm’s artwork.

That is such a nice touch. Swish as fuck.

Perhaps that’s way I love the Hampstead.

They do good marketing.

I respect that.

Not sure about their press though. Those bastards wouldn’t give me a ticket. Not for this play. Not that I tried for this play. The ticket was only a fiver, and I feel a bit mean about putting in a request for a ticket that well-priced (plus… free programme. Fucking bargain). I mean for the main house. Rejected. Bastards. And at a whopping cost of thirty-eight quid, I’m going to have to do some serious saving up to get the upstairs space ticked off my list.

Pity about the penicillin. With my bloody cough I could have made a fortune wafting around with a stained hankie…

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This is how it's done, people

Yes. Absolutely. A thousand times, yes.

The Playhouse is here serving up perfection. The poster child on how it should be done. I hope the rest of the West End is paying attention.

I hadn’t been to the Playhouse Theatre for a while. Not since Lindsay Lohan sped the plow back in 2014 (don’t laugh, I thought she was pretty good). Has it been refurbished since then? Because I don’t remember it looking quite so handsome.

The box office is to be found outside, just by the main doors, in its own little room, brightly light and shining white. I thought this nifty innovation, this “office in a box” if you will, was a great idea. It saves us all having to deal with the double queue-confusion that I’ve been encountering a lot recently.

Bag check done and ticket presented, I headed into the main doors. More shining whiteness. White walls. Towering ceilings. A long bar. A black and white tiled floor. All offset by gold. It practically shimmered.

Unlike the garishness of the golden Garrick, the Playhouse gave off an air of a Regency ballroom. Which is quite a considerable feat of magic, as there’s no way Mr Darcy would have enough room to glower properly in this foyer-bar, let alone led a gavotte. Plus, it wasn’t built for a good sixty years after Beau Brummell tied his cravat for the final time.

But the feeling only intensified when I headed into the auditorium and I got the overwhelming feeling that I’d somehow wandered into the Vauxhall Gardens circa 1800.

A painted garland looped its way over the stage. Rococo flourishes decorated the walls. And the balustrades of the upper circle disappeared into a pair of paintings that were giving off serious Fragonard vibes.

There were even lampposts. Actual lampposts. In the theatre.

Having bought my ticket for a mere snip of £10 (it’s all about GILT right now), I was intrigued to find out what a tenner can buy you in these pleasure gardens. Would I be tucked away behind a pillar, or relegated to a slip seat where leaning forward would grant me a glimpse of less than half the stage and a life-long enemy in the form of my neighbour?

Neither of these things, as it turns out. Instead I found myself in the dress circle, back row, in the centre, with a near perfect view of the stage.

There must have been some mistake. Surely.

Had I been upgraded on the sly? No. The house was full. No closed off balcony here.

Perhaps I was hallucinating? I have been very tired since starting this marathon. I might of nodded off and imagined the entire night.

But while I would like to believe that I could dream up the entirety of musical - one that was convincingly written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright - I somehow don’t think that’s the case.

I had to face it. I was really there. In a great seat. For a great price. In a very handsome theatre. Watching an epic musical.

Man, sometimes good things really do happen to mediocre people.

I mean… probably. Sometimes. To someone.

I wasn’t convinced.

There had to be something wrong with this place.

In the interval, I went in search of it. The Playhouse must have some dreadful failing, and I was determined to hunt it out.

I went to the bar: tasteful wood flooring. Natty velvet chairs.

And this:

Eff you painting. Hope is dead.

Okay, except this offensively upbeat painting, the dress circle bar was nice. But what about the upper circle? I was willing to put money on the fact that they were being served out of broken jam jars in some prison-style bar. Right?

I wound my way through the convoluted corridors up to the upper circle and pushed open the door to the bar up there.

Same velvet seats. Tasteful. Comfortable. Stylish. And fucking irritating.

What was wrong with this place?

It had to be the loos.

There’s been a lot of stuff in the theatre press recently about loos. The Stage seems to be running a massive campaign on the issue. This is like the theatrical version of the Daily Mail in 1992. Suggested headline: The Stage doth Drained it! No? Fine.

But when I passed by on my way back to my seat, the ladies was near empty. No queues stretching out down the stairs. No fight for the hand-dryers. Nothing.

The Playhouse Theatre is annoyingly perfect.

Lovely building. Queues are all neat and orderly. No one tried to talk to me or make me dance, threw bread at me, or manipulated me into a standing ovation (that I gave willingly and with enthusiasm). Programmes are fairly priced (£5) and interesting. Even the signage was excellent. Which is a good thing as the corridors there are very confusing, splitting off in all sorts of directions as they feed you to the various different levels.

I wonder if the separate box office room was an artefact of an old, separate, balcony entrance that has been integrated into the main body of the theatre. It would explain all those stairs and strange internal layout.

Oh wait. Hang on. Did I just find something?

Thank god.

The Playhouse Theatre isn’t perfect.

It has confusing corridors.

Phew.

I thought I was going to have to start bringing people along, just to double check that I wasn’t imaging the entire thing.

I’m not sure I could have faced seeing Caroline, or Change that many times. My heart would smash within the week.

Don’t feel bad about missing out, they were apparently filming it last night. So you can get your heart smashed on your own time.

So. That’s it.

All this perfection may make for a boring blog-post (where’s the drama! The intrigue! The panic attacks!) but quite frankly, I needed this. I mean, I really needed this. I was feeling down down last yesterday following my trip to the Lyric. This has helped immensely.

I practically bounced all the way home. I may have even hummed. Quietly. To myself. When no one else was around.

… perhaps I should go back and buy that painting.