Proving once again that London theatre defies categorisation, and thumbs it’s nose at my attempts to spreadsheet it, I only found out about the Silk Street Theatre a few weeks ago. Over the past six months I’ve had literally tens of people emailing me with the names of venues that I’ve missed off my official list, but this one has defied even their keen eyes.
It was only when I started trawling the Barbican’s website, clicking on all their theatrical events to see what they had going on in the Pit, that I found it listed as the venue for the Guildhall’s run of Merrily We Roll Along.
After a bit of digging, I found that the Silk Street Theatre is, as the name suggests, on Silk Street. And is part of the Guildhall complex, neighbours to our good friends, the Barbie and Ken (literally no one calls the Barbican this apart from me, and while I recognise that continuing to use it is basically just me trying to make fetch happen, it makes me laugh, and I need that, so back off).
This discovery had me starring at the wall for a good ten minutes. Could I pretend that I’d never seen it? None of my spies had noticed it’s absence. I could totally just not go, and no one would be any the wiser.
But wall starring is very unforgiving. With nothing to look at, you are left gazing at your own conscious, so on the list it went, ticket was bought, and I’m now on my way into the city.
I don’t know where precisely I’m going. The address is Guildhall School of Music & Drama. On Silk Street. I’m hoping that’s enough information to find it.
The building up ahead looks likely. I get out my phone and bring up Google Maps. I’m on the corner of Silk Street and Milton Street.
And yup, there’s some sort of signage going on just inside the doors.
“Milton Court Front Doors will open 1 hour before the event start time.”
What time is it now? About 6.30. I’m super early. For some reason, I’m always convinced the City is miles and miles away from my work. But it’s really just down the road.
I look around. There’s a woman talking on her phone just there. Hopefully she won’t notice me taking a photo. My memory is so bad now that photos are the one thing stopping me from becoming an Oliver Sacks case study.
“Hello, can I help?”
I turn around. The woman who was chatting on the phone is looking at me, her phone pressed against her shoulder.
“Sorry,” I say, not sure why I’m even apologising but feeling like I’ve been caught red handed with my photo-taking. “I was just reading the signs.”
“Right?” she prompts. She must be a Guildhall person.
“I’m seeing the performance tonight,” I explain.
“Oh,” she says with a nod. “That’s in the Silk Street building.”
“Okay?” I mean, we’re pretty close to Silk Street here. Right on the corner.
“Do you see the sign with the green arrow?”
I look over to where she’s pointing. I do see the sign with the green arrow.
“We’re in the Silk Street Theatre tonight,” she continues. “Because it’s bigger.”
“Nice,” I say. “I love a big theatre.”
I mean, I like small theatres too. But I seem to remember Merrily We Roll Along being quite a big show. With a big cast. It seems only right that the Guildhall students get a big theatre to play with.
I head over towards the sign with the green arrow, but I am really, ridiculously, early, so I go for a bit of a walk, edit my Park Theatre post, and then come back, returning to the scene of the arrow.
It points into a dark and narrow courtyard, at the end of which I can see the Corporation of London coat of arms stuck to the ugly pebbledash walls, and the Guildhall School branding frosted onto glass doors.
Inside there’s one of those long reception desks, most of which seems to be empty, but the corner is in use. With three people sitting behind, tickets at the ready. Two for the guest list. One for the box office.
I join the box office queue.
There’s only one person in front of me. A very old man. Stooped, with a cane. He wants to buy a ticket. It’s all sold out though. The box officer picks up the phone and tries to organise something for him.
She doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
Meanwhile, the guest list side of the desk remains empty.
I wait. And wait. And wait.
The box officer is still on the phone, trying to find this man a ticket.
The queue is growing behind me.
A woman goes over to the guest list side. They jump to attention.
“Do you have programmes?” she asks.
“Yes, over there at the cloakroom desk,” they say. And she leaves.
Left alone again, one of the guest list greeters looks over at the box office queue. “You’re all collecting pre-paid tickets are you?” she asks.
I confirm that yes, we paid for tickets and yes, we’re rather keen on the idea of picking them up.
“What’s the surname?” she asks.
I jump out of the queue slide over to her. “Smiles?”
She pulls over the ticket box and has a look through it. “Maxine?”
She unfurls the ream and checks it. “Just the one ticket is it?”
“… yes,” I admit.
That done, I suppose I better get my programme. From the cloakroom.
That’s a funny place to be selling programmes, isn’t it? I mean, that’s not just me, is it? Do cloakrooms always sell programmes? I don’t usually check my things in, so perhaps they all are and I’m just not noticing, but it doesn’t feel all that intuitive. Hand over coat, get a programme. Is that how people are doing things?
“Can I get a programme?” I ask.
“Yes,” says the cloakroom dude, sitting up straighter. “Two pounds.”
Two pounds? Blimey. That’s the most expensive drama school programme I’ve bought. Double the price of the ones at RADA, and I was pissy enough about having to pay for that.
I dig out my purse. “I know I have another pound coin somewhere,” I say apologetically, digging around in the corners.
He laughs politely at that.
Second pound coin finally retrieved, I hand them over.
“You choose one,” he says, waving his hand over the fanned display.
I pick one out of the middle, because I’m an arse.
Programme in hand, I retreat to a wooden railing, overlooking the cafe below, and have a peruse.
There’s a page dedicated to former students. A kind of ‘where are they now,’ which is rather nice. I haven’t seen that before. Not even at RADA.
They even have programme notes.
I do like proper programme notes.
I prop myself against the railing and settle in for a good read.
I don’t get very far.
These must be the most opaque programme notes I’ve ever attempted to get through. And I’ve read some pretty dense stuff in my time. Hell, I’ve edited some pretty dense stuff in my time. Working in contemporary dance has set the barre pretty high for my tolerance of impenetrable text. But this… bloody hell. It’s all stuff about the nature of time and regret. It sounds like one of those wedding speeches you get in mediocre romcoms. You know the sort of thing: “Webster’s dictionary defines love as…”
I thought I was here to see a musical! I mean, sure, it’s Sondheim. Not exactly fluff. But still.
“The performance of Merrily We Roll Along starts at 7.30. The auditorium doors are now open. We invite you to take your seats.”
Saved by the tannoy announcement.
I put the programme away in my bag.
That’s quite enough of that.
I’m going in.
The lady on Milton Street was right. This is a big theatre. Not massive. We’re talking space for hundreds of people, rather than thousands. But definitely on the larger side of things for a drama school. I think it must have both RADA and LAMDA beat on scale.
There’s a wide stage. Raised. And an orchestra pit. Sunken. Which I suppose is to be expected, given where we are.
I make my way to my seat and sit down, but soon find myself jumping up again to let people through. With narrow rows and no central aisle, I think I’m going to be doing this a lot before the show actually starts.
The old lady sitting next to me sighs and twists her legs round for the newcomers to get past.
I think there’ll be a lot of that going on too.
She looks to me like one of those old ladies who are always pissed off. Made of pointy elbows and tutting tongues.
She’s the kind of old woman that I’m going to end up being. My elbows were tailormade to stick in people's ribs.
Up on stage one of the cast members comes out and sits down at the piano.
Above his head old photos are projected onto a screen. Except, they’re not totally old. The faces have been photoshopped into place, and by the sounds of laughter from the student contingent of the audience, those faces belong to their friends in the production.
Half way through the first act, as yesterday is done, and merrily we roll along, roll along, gathering dreams, and the date above the stage clicks back a few more years, my old lady neighbour starts to cough. A bad cough. Full of splutter. And I begin to worry.
Not that she might die. Thankfully that would be someone else’s job to clean up if she did.
But that she was not, as I had first assumed, the type of old lady I would become. But the actual old lady I would become. That she is me. Just fifty years ahead. Sharpened of elbow and tongue. And most annoyingly of all, still with this damn cough.
I try to convince myself that no, if I were an old lady who had harnessed the power of time travel and managed to journey back to 2019, going to watch a depressing Sondheim musical at the Guildhall School wouldn’t exactly be high up on my list of things to do. Even if it did involve the thrill of sitting next to me… Wait. Was she here to kill me? Was that what this was? She couldn’t do that! That’d be a paradox. And more importantly, like, really mean.
I’m saved from these terrifying thoughts by the end of the first act.
I get up to head back into the foyer but the old lady applies her elbows in all directions and barges past me with a barrage of tutting.
Oof. I’m going to be a bitch when I get old.
Once she’s cleared out the way, I follow on behind, taking up my old spot on the railing.
From here I can see all the students swarming beneath, buying drinks and necking them back as nothing but bottled water is allowed inside the auditorium.
Behind me are the boards. The ones drama schools set up with headshots of all the cast members, and their CVs for any casting directors and proud parents in the audience to take away. But next to them is a display of CVs for the backstage crew: sound mixers and prop supervisors and all the rest. Never seen that one before.
I’m beginning to suspect that the Guildhall likes to do things differently.
It must be that brutalist architecture they got going on. All the cruel walls and car park levelling leaking over from the Barbican Centre does things to the brain. Twists the thoughts in strange directions. Not bad directions necessarily, but… okay, the programmes on the cloakroom desk are weird. And the hard-line stance on drinks in the auditorium is a bit precious. It’s not like their upholstery is even new. And the programme notes… let’s not talk about the programme notes.
But, this dude. The one standing in front of the boards and inspecting all the headshots. He’s cool. So cool that I literally can’t tell whether the outfit he’s wearing is a natty suit, or a pair of pyjamas. Honestly, with that fabric, it could go either way.
“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along will commence in three minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in three minutes.”
Oh well. Can’t stand around staring at suity-pyjamas, much as I would like to. It’s time to go back in.
“This evenings performance of Merrily We Roll Along with commence in two minutes. Please take your seats. This evenings performance will commence in two minutes.”
Blimey, give us a chance, love! I’m going, I’m going.
The old lady is already there by the time I get in. She can shift herself, I’ll give her that.
She clears her throat and looks at me. I can feel it. Her looking.
A second later she clears her throat again, and mutters under her breath.
I ignore her. It’s very rude of me, I know. But I’m fairly confident that looking at a version of yourself from the future would have very bad outcomes. Like the end of time itself kinda bad. Like… what if she has terrible eyeliner? I’m not sure I could let the world continue to turn if I found out that I would lose my liner skills.
As the lights dim for the second act, she gives up and we both settle down to watch the rest of the show.
My god, Merrily is grim. Watching the cast get progressively younger, their hopes and happiness expanding with every new scene is chipping away at my own hope and happiness.
Even when they are at peak-optimism they are unbearable. With their bestselling novels. And their hit musicals. And their friendship. Gross.
Honestly, what a cruel musical to programme on students.
Treasure it now, kids. For tomorrow you’ll be old, bitter, and sitting next to an unpleasant old woman who is quite possibly your own destiny.