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.


"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.


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.


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.

Tripping the Ecto Fantastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We nodded.

She clapped. “Can you hear that?”

We nodded again. We could. Just about.


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

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

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

I wasn’t overly fussed about that.

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

Any spirit would do me.

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

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

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

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

Someone had forgotten to turn their phone off.

A second later it disappeared.

The blackness took over.

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

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

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

My heart was hammering.

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

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

My hands began to tremble.

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

If only it weren’t so dark…

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

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

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

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

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

The awful clanging stopped.

Something was moving around the room again.

Something… not human.  

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

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

The couple that disobeys together, stays together after all.

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

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

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

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

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


Pottering about

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

People who have anxiety shouldn’t do theatre marathons.

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

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

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

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

Every. Single. One.

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

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

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

The Archive of Educated Hearts it was.

Ticket booked!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bag checked, I headed inside.

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

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

But no Unit 9.

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

No The Archive of Educated Hearts.

Had I imagined the entire thing?

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

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

But I thought I better double check all the same.

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

“Are you seeing one of the immersive pieces?”

I cringed. “Yes.”

“Is it Séance?”

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

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

I did as she said, heading back out.

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

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

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

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

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

She pointed my across the road.

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

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

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

“Is this for Archive?”

“Are you queuing for Unit 9?”

“Do I need to give you my name now?”

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

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


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

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


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


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

Our group split into two.

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

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

A small garden-shed.


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

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

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

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

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

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

So did everyone else.

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

We didn’t need to worry about anything.

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

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

After half an hour, we were let out.

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

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