It's Friday afternoon and I'm on my way to the theatre, because, well, I am on annual leave and that's apparently what I'm doing with my time off.
I'm in Crouch End which is not a part of London I go to all that often, but... oh look! A second-hand clothing shop with a rack of summer dresses on sale... No. Nope. Don't go in. Focus. We're here to go to the theatre. In a bar. Because I'm still working my way through all those Camden Fringe venues.
I think it's this place just up ahead. It looks nice enough. Although they're not making it easy working out how to get in. Two doors. One either side of the windows. Both painted the same colour. Both lacking in the signage department.
I go for the one without the flat buzzers next to it. Which was the right decision, of course. But man, my brain is mush right now. And that took way too much effort to work out.
But there's a box office right inside the door, so I'm hoping this will be an easy one.
"Hi, the surname's Smiles," I say to the young woman behind the counter. This doesn't get quite the reaction I was after. "For... Camden Fringe?"
"I don't actually have a list of the people who booked," she says.
"Oh." Oh. I'm... not sure what I'm meant to do with that information.
"Do you have the email?" she asks hopefully.
"I do!" I pull my phone out of my pocket. "Oh, I actually have it open."
"You're ready to go!"
I laugh. I am. But mainly because my anxiety insists on me checking and rechecking start times and locations at least six or seven times between leaving the house and actually arriving at the venue.
I turn the screen around for her to see and I swear she actually backs away from it.
"Wow," she says. "You've booked a lot."
There are ten shows on that confirmation email. One of two Camden Fringe confirmation emails in my inbox.
"Yeah..." I raise my hand in a stopping motion. "Let's not talk about it."
"Oh, I see..." she says. But let's be real here. No one understands what I'm doing. Not even you.
Not even me, if we're really honest.
As she examines the email, wading through all those shows, I look around.
There are a pile of programmes on the desk.
"Can I take one of these?" I ask.
She doesn't sound quite sure about that though.
"Is it free?" I ask.
"It's free... or by donation."
Ah. "Okay, I get the hint," I say, pulling out my purse.
I drop a pound coin in the money box and take me and my programme off to explore the venue.
It doesn't take long.
The bar runs all down one side, and the rest is taken up by seating, facing a small wooden stage.
Beanbags at the front, then a few rows of chairs, then those raised bar chairs running all the way to the back.
I always try to go for the first row on the rake, so I suppose that means I'm going for the first row of bar chairs. Right on the end because I like to be able to lean against the wall. And... hide.
"I'm just going to tuck myself behind you," says a woman, slipping into the row behind. "Don't be alarmed."
I wasn't. Until she gave me that warning.
"It's always a challenge deciding whether you want the height to see, or if you want your feet to actually touch the ground," I say, heaving my short-arse up into the high chair.
"I wish there were more high seats, because you can't see anything from back there," she says, pointing to the rows of stools behind us. "They're all the same height."
"You need to practice ducking and weaving to see around people's heads," I say, with the surety of someone who's been doing a lot of ducking and weaving this year.
Turns out ducking and weaving aren't high on the list of things people want to do this afternoon, and our rows of high chairs soon fill up. No one wants the chairs. Or the beanbags.
That song about lighting a candle from Rent (you know, the one ripped from La Boheme) is playing over the sound system, and the man behind the bar is singing along. He has a great voice. I'm really enjoying the harmonies,
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," he says when the song finishes. Really, really great voice. Deep. "The show will start in about ten minutes so please turn off your mobile phones. If you need to leave, please use the door you came in. If you need to use the toilet, please go before the show. As you can see, they're onstage, so unless you want to be in the show..." he lets the sentence trail way. "Go now."
I look over at the stage. There is a door going off it. I hadn't noticed that before.
We've got a Jermyn Street Theatre situation going on here.
No one chances the loo. The thought of accidentally walking out into the middle of the first scene is way to much pressure to put on a person when they're peeing.
We also ignore the bit about the mobile phones. Ten minutes is loads of time. I can proofread an entire blog post before then. Which might explain a lot about the state of all of this...
There is one bloke prepared to severe the link to our technolocial crutches though.
"Can I put my phone behind the bar to charge?" he asks.
Before this marathon, I've never appreciated how willing bar people were to solve all your life problems. Charge phones. Hold bags. Refrigerate your dinner until you get out of the show. That, and, you know, serve the alcohol that will actually get us through the show.
He hands over his charger, and it's fucking massive.
The barman with the voice tests it out in a socket, but it ain't happening. "Let's try it over here..." he says, taking it off to find another plug point, because bar people are literally the best people in the world. Especially theatre bar people. Because theatre-goers are all terrible and even worse when they drink.
The lights start dimming. We all shuffle around getting show-ready.
Light pours in. Someone's come through the door.
They want to know what this place is and what happens here.
I'm on the same mission. It never occurred to me that I could just ask.
The box officer tells him we're here to watch a musical. It starts in five minutes. It's one act long.
Now these are key selling points a person with ten shows on their booking confirmation email. Not sure the shortness of the entertainment experience really does it for someone wandering in off the street.
He asks if it's on again, and then withdraws with the politeness of someone saying they left their wallet at home, but will definitely come back once they've been to the cash machine.
"This afternoon's performance is a relaxed performance, so if you need the toilet or to leave at any time... We also have some sensory toys available if you need them."
Oh! So that explains the bean bags. Kinda regretting not sitting in one now. High seats are not comfortable. I'm short. I like being close to the ground. And sinking into the gentle embrace of a beanbag sounds super comforting right now. Although from that position, right in front of the stage, a beanbagger would be able to see right up the actors' noses. Okay. No. Too disconcerting and weird. Abort mission. I'm not into it. I'm staying right here. On my high chair. At the end of the row. Next to the wall. Where it's safe.
Someone sitting behind me sneezes.
"Bless you," says the barman as he walks past on his way to turn the aircon down.
It's very quiet now.
This is it.
Oh, they're singing a song about singing a song. It's so meta I want to scream, or laugh, or cry. I don't know what I want or who I am, I just can't stop smiling. I'm so happy.
I mean, I should have guessed. You don't book to see a show called [title of show] without expecting a deep-dive into self-referential humour, but having an actor dressed up as a literal blank page is too much for me.
And I can't even concentrate on any of that because one of the guys, William Tippery, has the most fantastic eyebrows I have ever seen in my life, and the other is one that I totally recognise. I know that face. I've definitely seen it before. But it was different. Those cheekbones had blusher on them last time I saw them. And he was wearing a dress. And yes, I've got it. It's Kieran Parrott. He was Stella in Fanny & Stella. I'd recognise those jazz hands anywhere. I saw them at the Above the Stag in... June, I think. Aw... I really enjoyed that show.
As they set about the challenge of writing a musical in three weeks, the same musical that we're sat here watching right now, they are also busy smashing my heart into smithereens because they are all so adorable. With their eyebrows, and their jazz hands, and Charlotte Denton with her... really incredible height and cute nose and songbird voice. And when Alyssa LeClair's Susan breaks into a song called Die, Vampire, Die - well, that's it. I'm officially smitten. Because that's really what I want right now. Not a song about killing vampires. I mean, yes. It's a song about killing vampires. But not the toothy sort. Leave them be, they're just hanging out in graveyards looking pale and wanting a good stake. No, the vampires that eat away at our confidence and get in the way of us doing the things we want to do. The ones that dig their claws into our shoulders and whisper a constant stream of contempt into our ears until we're made immobile by our insecurities.
So what if they only have three weeks? So what if their set is four chairs and they're accompanied by nothing more thab a man on a keyboard.
They're making it work to the mostest. Those chairs are sliding their way between transition scenes. And the pianist, well, they're letting him talk! They let the pianist talk! And Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, looks so happy as he turns around in his seat so that he can all see that big smile on his face as he says his line.
And that makes me happy.
And I really really needed a happy show today.
And even though it's been hard (like, really, stupidly, hard) I have to be grateful to the theatre marathon. Because without it, I wouldn't be sitting here, watching a fringe musical, in a bar, in Crouch End, by myself, and feeling like I could just burst with the joy of it all.
And oh lord, they're all taking their shirts off, and I don't know where to look. I'm feeling like a right old perv right now.
With Larry, I mean, Robert Hazle, sitting at his keyboard, with his back to the audience, I can see his sheet music. And we're at the end. The last song. It's over.
It's time to go.
I wonder if that second-hand shop has vampire-killing outfits...