Second show of the day and I almost didn't make it.
I left plenty of time. There was a whole three hours between the end of show one and the start of show two. And I didn't stray far, only popping back to Finchley to pick up some stuff I needed. And, okay, maybe having quick raid of the cupboards for biscuits, in exchange for gossip over a cup of tea. That wasn't the problem. Getting back off the sofa was.
I'm not very good at this whole more-than-one-show-in-a-day thing. And the knowledge that not only did I actually have to go to a second theatre, but then I'd have to write about it afterwards… Well, my bum was firmly planted and had no intention of getting back up again.
At a quarter to seven, things were getting worrying.
Because I couldn’t miss this one. I really couldn’t. I’ve been waiting nine damn months for them to programme a show. For most of that time, their website had been so static with old events, I thought the place had closed permanently. But no, they were undergoing refurbishment.
And now, they’re back.
For one night only.
With no promise of a follow-up show.
I grabbed my phone, and without letting myself think too much about it, booked myself a ticket. There. No escaping it after that. I had to go. Or else lose out on a whole fifteen quid and change. Not an amount of cash I'm really in a position to throw away.
With a bit of help, I was able to lever myself into an upright position, waddle my way over to the tube station, and journey the three stops towards Highgate, where the next theatre on my marathon list lives: the peculiarly named Red Hedgehog.
I can’t see much from the outside. Stained glass windows hide whatever activities are lurking within. But the door is open, and it looks like it’s ready for business.
Through the door and there’s a table set up with money box and programmes. And a box officer. Wearing a sparkly top hat, which is doing it’s mostest to wake me up.
“Hi, the surname’s Smiles?” I say.
The box officer dithers and I notice there’s no list of names on this table.
“I booked on ticketsource?” I say, turning around my phone to show him the booking confirmation.
“You’ve already booked?” he says, clearly relieved. “That’s fine then.”
I point to one of the programmes. “Can I get one of these?”
“That’s the programme,” he says. “That’s one pound. But…!” He does a magician’s assistant-pose, holding up another, identical-looking, booklet. “If you get one of these, this is a booklet of poetry, that’s three pounds, and you get the programme for free.”
“That’s the bargain then?”
He nods. Yup. That’s the bargain.
Well, who am I to turn down such an offer? I hand him the three quid and get both booklets in exchange.
Right, time to figure out where to sit.
The place has been set up cabaret style.
Rows of chairs fight for space between the tables.
It’s all very cheerful looking. Mismatched vases do their best to contain brightly coloured blooms and ginghaam tablecloths clash wildly with each other.
A woman moves between the tables, depositing tealights.
On the far side, on the other side of a knocked through wall, is the stage. All leather sofas and what looks like a piano lurking over in the corner.
A lady catches my eye and grins.
“Where’s the best place to sit?” I ask.
She thinks about this, then beckons me to follow her, sliding our way in between the tables until we’re in the middle of a row.
“The cast are going to come through from this side,” she says pointing. “Most of the time they’ll be between those two sofas. Sometimes they’ll sit on them, but mostly they’ll be under that light. You see?”
I do see.
I pick a seat over on the far side, second row. You know how I hate sitting at the front. Plus, I fancy getting a proper look at that piano.
It's a bit squishy in here. The tables are packed tight and the chairs are packed even tighter.
I distract myself with a quick look at the poetry book. I have to admit, poetry isn’t my thing. I wish it was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind poetry. I just don’t understand poetry. I think it’s my lack of musicality that does it. I can’t clap out a recognisable beat, and I can’t hear the rhythm in poetry. I can just about cope with spoken word. But poetry? Nope. Sucks, but there you go.
I move onto the programme. That’s where my heart lives. Tucked up between the credits and the biogs. I don’t need to tell you how much I love a good programme.
From amongst the headshots, I spot one rather familiar looking photo. It’s the lady who advised me on seating choices. Judit Catan. The writer and poet and producer.
Oh, well that’s not embarrassing at all. But I suppose she knows the sightlines!
“How did you hear about the show?” she asks, leaning over the back of a chair to talk to me.
Oh dear. It’s that question again.
I run through a few possible answers. Telling her that I’ve been stalking the Red Hedgehog’s website for nine months is probably going to provoke more questions, if not a raised eyebrow. I’m a theatre nerd with nothing else to do on a Saturday night is going for the pity angle which I don’t really want to be exploiting right now. I decide to go for the truth. “It’s a weird one,” I tell her. “I’m doing this challenge where I’m trying to visit every theatre in London within a year.”
She looks taken aback. I’m not surprised. I’m well used to that expression by now.
“But why this show?” she insists.
Is there a way to tell her that Boris Johnson could be spending his prorogation sitting on stage, picking his nose for an hour, and I would have to book it if it he was doing it at a theatre I hadn’t been to before, without sounding rude? Probably not.
I shake my head. “I’ve been waiting for this venue to programme something, and here we are,” I say, throwing up my arms to demonstrate what a delightful coincidence it all is.
A man sneaks into the row behind me and shifts his chair.
“Am I in your way?” I ask.
“Oh, no. Don’t worry,” he says, even though I clearly am.
Then he asks it. “Do you know someone in the show?”
Oh dear. You’ve been doing this marathon with me long enough to know what that means.
“Well,” I start. “It’s a bit of a weird one…” And I tell him about the marathon.
On the other side of me, the writer is chatting with a newcomer. She points to me. “I was just telling him about your theatre challenge,” she says.
“You’re visiting every London theatre?” he asks.
“Yup,” I confirm. And tell him about the marathon. You’d think after giving the same speech three times in one night I’d be a bit better at it. But my shame keeps me from forming coherent sentences. Bless every single person who has had to struggle their way through my jumbled explanations this year.
The room is filling up.
“Anyone sitting here?” asks someone struggling into my row.
“No. You go for it,” I tell him.
He nods and plonks himself down. “Otherwise I can’t see the piano,” he explains.
No explanation needed my friend. I had the exact same thinking when I chose this little corner of ours.
On cue, the box officer comes over and sets himself up at the piano, ready to play.
We start. Insanity and Song in The News Room.
No dimming of lights. We’re going for the shared light experience here. Lamps on stage. Tealights on tables. The lighting rig above our heads is getting no use tonight.
Songs and poems alternate, with the framing device of being in a newsroom. Correspondents called out to step forward and give their thoughts, in the form of stanzas.
The front row is a glitter of screens as people get out their phones to take photos.
Behind me is the whirr and click of a proper camera.
“That was great,” says the person sitting behind me as the interval hits.
“Yes,” I nod. “But freezing.” After spending the entire day sweltering, I now have to pull my jacket over my shoulders and dig out my scarf from my bag.
“Is the bar open?” my neighbour asks as nobody moves from their seats.
The writer stands up. “The bar is still available to anyone,” she announces.
A few people do their best to escape from the tightly packed chairs and make their way over to the bar.
I slump down in my seat and shiver. It really is cold in here now.
Act two starts up and a woman in the front row is determined not to miss a bit of it. Holding up her phone, she starts recording the songs. Task complete, she brings up WhatsApp and starts sending her freshly minted audio to someone. A click and a tap later, it starts playing back.
She jabs at her phone, trying to get it to stop, but it plays on, drowning out the cast as they gamely try not to lose focus.
The writer leans over. “I’ll send you the show recording,” she says.
The woman nods.
But a second later her phone is back up and she’s pinching the screen to get the perfect photo.
I think we can safely say that this show will not be short of production images.
At the end there’s applause and the writer nips on stage to give her thanks to everyone.
The bar is back open. It’s time to start celebrating.
I pull my jacket tight close around me and make a sprint for the tube station.