Another week, another new London theatre. It would almost be hilarious if it wasn’t literally killing me.
Oh well. Off I go. To the West End this time. Which makes a nice change.
Turn off Shaftesbury Avenue into Wardour Street, slip into Peter Street and, gosh. There it is. There’s no missing it. The place has been decked out in balloons.
It’s opening night and the Boulevard Theatre is here to party.
I stand on the opposite pavement to get a good look at it.
Two buildings, rising either side of a walkway, and linked by a glass bridge. Lots of glass. The whole thing seems to be mainly glass. The huge windows reveal the first audiences scurrying about, exploring the space, getting drinks, staring at the massive staircase the dominates the second building. Usually I hate those glassy walls. Too vulnerable-making. I like spaces I can hide in. But somehow, this place manages to exude warmth. Even on a chilly October evening.
Must be the balloons.
There are two security guards on the door. I slow down as I approach, just in case they want to check my bag. But they make no effort to stop me, and I walk on through uninterrupted, finding myself in a small lobby that makes me feel I’m about to check into a small, but very smart, hotel.
I give my surname to the box officer.
“And what’s the first name?” he asks.
I give it.
“Can you confirm the postcode?”
I hesitate. Two step authentications. That’s a first.
Well, I suppose there’s no telling how many Maxine Smileses there are in the house tonight.
Well… there is. Because I’m the only one. I mean that literally. There was another, but she got married and double barrelled up her surname. So now there’s just me. And I’m here. Having to remember my postcode.
I manage to dredge it up from the depths of my memory.
Satisfied, he hands over the ticket. “That’s up the stairs and across the bridge,” he says with the type of grin box officers are only able to summon up on their first day.
I follow his instructions. Up the curling stair that lurks just off to one side, and over the bridge.
I find myself in a restaurant. A very swanky restaurant. With pink walls covered in pictures. A very swanky restaurant that is also a very busy restaurant.
Too busy for me.
You know I’m not a fan of crowds.
I retreat back across the bridge and towards the stairs. There’s a little enclave here. With windows overlooking Peter Street. And a counter to lean on. And potted plants. It’s very soothing.
“Yeah, she worked as a stripper,” a very loud-voiced bloke says as he plods up the stairs.
“Who?” comes the equally loud-voiced reply.
I never get to find out who Vicky is because the pair of them disappear off across the bridge, and their loud voices are swallowed up by the even louder hubbub of the restaurant.
No matter, the vacuum of their presence is soon filled by a couple of front of housers.
“Everyone’s happy,” says one. “Everyone’s got a drink.”
“It’s going really well.”
“It’s really exciting.”
“People will be sat in their chairs, with their drinks…”
Something tells me that a key component of the Boulevard’s business plan is based on bar sales.
Another front of houser comes up the stairs.
He is immediately rounded on.
“Have you left your position?”
The newcomer admits that he has left his position.
“Stay in your position!”
He returns to his position.
More people are arriving. Audience members this time.
Despite the instructions to cross the bridge, each and every one of them turns the corner and walks into my enclave.
“Nothing here!” they say, before darting back the way they came, as if the joy of this enclave was not precisely that fact.
As yet another person rounds on me, tutting under their breath at the lack of facilities in this dead end, I realise I’m not going to get the hermit-cave I crave. It’s time to move on.
Now, the sign on the wall says that the stalls are upstairs. But my ticket says I’m sitting in the pit. There is no sign for the pit. I dither, debating with myself as to whether ‘pit’ is a synonym for ‘stalls’.
The front of housers have all moved all. Presumably back to their positions.
Fuck it, I’m going to the stalls. I’m sure someone will stop me if I’m not meant to be there.
Back into the restaurant, and I head to the massive staircase that I had seen from the street belong.
A front of houser stands sentinel at the base.
“Have you got your ticket?” he asks, eyeing me up with just the tiniest trace of suspicion. I must look like a right wrong’un.
I pull it out my pocket and show it to him.
“Great!” he says, suddenly all smiles and enthusiasm. “The house isn’t actually open yet, but there’s a bar.”
I head on up.
No pink walls up here. No pictures either.
There is a piano, and dark blue walls. But other than that, it is entirely plain. And I’ll admit, a little unfinished looking. Like they blew the budget on the massive staircase before they reached the upper levels.
No matter. At least it’s not too crowded up here.
There’s also a bridge.
I go and stand it in, marvelling at the neon lights advertising the tattoo parlour next door.
The floor is glass too, but frosted up like a lace doily to prevent under up-skirt surprises for the people passing underneath.
The space starts to fill up as we all wait for the house to open. As my empty bridge comes under attack, I look around for somewhere else to stand, and spot something.
A programme. Sitting on top of the bar.
I’d been wondering about those.
Front of housers running about all over the place and none of them holding programmes.
Somehow I’d managed to convince myself that there weren’t any. It’s surprising the amount of theatres that can’t get it together enough to have programmes delivered in time for first night. Not my theatre you understand. Three years on the job and I’ve never missed an opening night when it comes to programmes. But you know… other theatres. The ones without a publications officer in constant fear of her job.
But it looks like whoever is in charge of programmes at the Boulevard is totes on top of things too, because there they are. Or rather, there one is. Single and solitary, sitting on the bar, just waiting to be picked up by any fellow passing with a full wallet.
I head on over, ready to claim my papery darling.
“Can I get a programme?” I ask the guy behind the bar.
“Of course you can!” he says with a wide grin.
“And can I pay by card?” I ask. I have cash, but I never like using it if there’s a card machine going.
“You can only pay by card,” he tells me.
From behind the counter he brings out a fresh programme, and balances it on the bar so it’s standing up straight and proud.
That’s a really nice touch. Next he’ll be offering to gift wrap it for me.
He doesn’t though. Instead he grabs the card machine.
“Sadly not,” I sigh.
“Old fashioned,” he says sympathetically.
“No, just broken.”
As I busy myself with my pin number, he glances over and spots my elephant purse, resting on the bar.
“I love your pencil case,” he says.
Now, my elephant is not a pencil case. He’s really not. He’s leather. Lined with satin. And hand made. But I can see where the confusion comes from. What with his flappy ears and swinging tail. I would have loved to have him as a pencil case when I was six years old.
“Does he have a name?” asks the bar guy.
“He does have a name. He’s Fred! I’ve had him for over ten years so he’s a bit old and sad now.”
“He doesn’t look old or sad,” says the bar guy as he takes back the card machine. “Enjoy the performance!”
I know that was just great customer service bants, but still… I do love a bit of great customer service bants. Especially when they compliment my Fred.
“Hello everyone! The house is now open. Feel free to take your seats.”
As one, the occupants of the bar turn towards the auditorium doors.
I show my ticket to the ticket checker and she nods me through into a dark corridor.
Another ticket checker waits on the other side, poised to direct us around the space.
“Front row, just go around until you reach your seat.”
Looks like he means that literally, because the seats here are all in a circle.
I step down into the front row and pick my way through the slim space between the stage and the seating until I find my spot.
“I’m just here,” I say to my new neighbour as she makes to let me through.
She looks at me. “If you don’t mind me asking, how much did you pay for your ticket?” she asks.
I tell her. Twelve quid. I booked with the roulette option. The one where you don’t get to pick your seat in advance.
Turns out my neighbour did the same thing, and we are soon deep in discussion about the theatre.
“Is there a second row upstairs?” she asks.
I look up. “No, I don’t think so. It’s a spiral, they just have a little overlap over there,” I say, pointing to the spot in the balcony directly opposite us.
The seats around us begin to fill up.
“How much did he pay?” asks my neighbour, spotting a newcomer flapping around a large print-at-home ticket. “Can you see?”
I can see. He paid £28. And he’s only two seats away from us.
“Numpty,” I laugh. “Although, twenty-eight quid for front row in a central London venue isn’t bad. You’d pay more at the Donmar.”
“The Donmar also does ten-pound seats,” says my neighbour.
I shrug. I haven’t actually paid to go to the Donmar in years.
“Have you seen Dave Malloy’s work before?” she asks.
I admit that I haven’t.
“What sort of musicals do you like?”
I tell her that a current favourite is Come From Away. That seems like a safe bet right now. Mainstream enough that everyone has heard of it, but with just that level of quirkiness that I don’t get lumped in with the Lloyd Webber Phandom.
“Well, this is very different,” she says, knowingly. “Dave Malloy is very weird.”
“I’m okay with weird,” I tell her. “I’ve seen a lot of weird lately.”
“Not like this.”
I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s no time to think about it because the lights are going down and the cast is out.
Zubin Varla takes his spot behind the piano and introduces the show.
Ghost Quartet, here we go. Give me your weird.
Within a few numbers, I’m completely lost. I have no idea what’s going on. At first I thought the songs completely disjointed, but recurring characters suggest there is some sort of narrative happening even if I can’t work out what it is.
Still, I’m not not enjoying it.
The space is so small, it’s hard not to get swept away by the intimacy of the whole thing. As Varla picks up a shawl to place around his shoulders, it brushes against my leg. When he turns his head to give a look of exasperation, his gaze hits our eyes.
I smile along, feeling my chair shake as the person sitting behind taps his foot along with the music.
Carly Bawden comes over, holding a small, circular basket. She offers it to me.
I grab something at random.
It’s a small, pink egg.
I look at it, utterly baffled by what it is, or what I’m supposed to do with it. But as my fellow front rowers dive in and select their own items, I see they are all shaking them in time with the music.
I give my pink egg an experimental shake. It rattles pleasingly. It’s a maraca. Of sorts.
I do my best, I really do. But asking someone how can’t even clap in time with a beat to offer percussive support is too much. I can’t handle that level of stress.
When the time comes to return my pink egg to the pot, I do it gratefully.
A song about whiskey starts with a crescendo of breaking glass, which I don’t think was intentional.
The cast run around, pulling out drawers of tumblers, and splashing the amber liquid into the glasses before handing them around the front row.
A few people refuse, but most clutch onto it gratefully, passing around an ice bucket to their fellow drinkers.
“Is that real whiskey?” asks my neighbour.
“It looks like it,” I whisper back, watching someone across the way give their glass a tentative sniff before downing it in one.
And then, with the greatest reverence in the world, a very small bottle is brought out. Sixteen-year-old whiskey. Only one glass. For one very special audience member.
No ice. Because that would be sacrilege.
The lucky audience member takes a sip and gives a thumbs up, before passing it to his friend to share.
In the background, the tech team rush around, trying to get to the stage. But there’s no easy way through.
Someone fetches a pan and brush, and as the song ends, he hands it to Maimuna Memon.
“First time you’ve seen an actor clean up real broken glass on stage,” says Memon as she bends down to sweep it up. “That’s all of it. I think.”
Stage now glass-free, probably, we’re onto the next song.
Keyed up on alcohol, the cast start handing out instruments. Simple ones first. Cymbals and triangles. The type you’d have a bash at in kindergarten.
But then they start handing over their own. Bawden teaches a girl a riff on the autoharp. Varla demonstrates a motif on the piano. A heavily pregnant lady is taught to bang a large drum. And then slowly, slowly, the cast leaves them too it.
Our laughter ends the play, replaced by a standing ovation as the lights come back up.
“Did you enjoy that then?” asks my neighbour as the cast finish their bows and disappear off stage.
I hesitate. “It was pretty. And interesting. But I had no idea what was going on.”
She nods. That’s the reaction she expected.
It’s time to go.
“If I can figure out how to get out of here,” I say.
“I was just going to say…” says my neighbour, examining the slim space between the stage and the seats, now packed with people putting on their coats and generally dawdling. “It comes across as rude to go over the stage.”
“Fuck it,” I announce. “I’m going for it.”
“I’ll follow you then.”
So we strike out, weaving through all the instruments on stage, trying not to trip over the trunks.
One of the musicians brought out onstage, the heavily pregnant lady who took up the drum, bends down to pick up a fallen rose petal. A memento of the show and her part in it.
On the way out, a front of houser hands me something. A business card sized flyer. Something about having a chance to win tickets if we tweet about the show.
I wonder if a blog counts…