Wish: Granted

Thank the theatre gods for BIG The Musical. 

I was beginning to get a bit worried here. 

The Dominion Theatre has been dark for a very long time. Since the first week of January. I’d meant to get myself to Bat out of Hell before it closed, but as the final performances loomed the prices shot up and there was no way I was paying 80 quid to see… whatever that musical was.  

The months rolled on. 

I’d walk past the shuttered venue, peering into the glooming looking foyer every time I walked down Tottenham Court Road, until I began to regret my cheapness. 

Eighty pounds wasn’t that bad. Not when the fate of an entire marathon rested on it. 

Prince of Egypt announced it wood be moving in. But not until 2020. 

I don’t mind admitting that I was getting a bit panicky. 

But then, blessed relief. BIG The Musical was coming to London for a limited season. I held out. Not buying a ticket. Cheapness gnawing at my heart once again. 

I needn’t have worried. TodayTix had my back. A 24-hour ticket offer. Fifteen quid to sit in the stalls. Not bad at all. 

So, yes, thank the theatre gods for BIG The Musical. But all hail TodayTix and their ticket offers. 

This is my first visit to the Dominion. Not only did I miss Batty, I also missed every other previous show. And by missed, I mean: actively avoided.  

So, it’ll be nice to get a good look at the place. 

As I approach the entrance, a bag checker mimes opening a bag and I take the hint. He doesn’t find anything of interest inside, so I’m allowed through. 

The foyer of the Dominion is huge. Double height. With a staircase either side leading over to a balcony overlooking the massive space below. It’s all red and cream and brass and really looks like that hotel in American Horror Story. I look up, fully expecting to see Lady Gaga selecting her victims from the cattle below. 

processed_IMG_20190910_191155.jpg

No such luck. 

In the centre of the lobby there are two podiums staffed by programme sellers. Or perhaps the more accurate description would be lecterns, so tall there’s a built in box at the back of the for the programme sellers to stand on. 

I still need to get my tickets, so I pass them and follow the sign to the box office. 

“Collecting?” asks a man in a suit who seems to be in charge of the queue. 

I tell him I am. 

“There’s a window free just past those people there,” he says, pointing the way, past the main box office, and into a tiny dark corridor with box office windows all down one wall. I’m not sure on the capacity of this place, but it’s built for scale, that’s for sure. 

I find the next free window, and give the box officer behind it my surname. 

“Do you have a confirmation email?” he asks. 

I mean, I do. But it’s from TodayTix, so there ain’t no reference numbers or anything. I bring it up all the same and hold it up to the glass for him to see. 

He squints at it. 

I wonder if I’m showing him the right bit. I have a look and scroll down to see if there’s more pertinent information going at the bottom of the email. 

“No, that’s fine,” he says. “I’ve got it.” 

And off he disappears to recover my ticket. 

Ticket in hand, it’s time to get me a programme. 

I go back to the lecterns. 

And stop. 

Because I have just spotted the price. 

Ten pounds. 

Ten actual British pounds. 

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by now. I’ve been lobbed with higher bills before. But still. Ten pounds. That’s a lot of money for a programme. 

“Do you take cards?” I ask one of the programme sellers, because of course your girl has not got a tenner on her. 

“Yes, but over at the other desk,” she says, pointing over to the other lectern. 

Okay then. 

I go over to the other side and get myself a programme, paying ten (ten!) pounds for it. 

There isn’t much else of interest going on out here, so I head back, down the steps, towards the stalls. 

There’s a merch shop down here. An actual, proper, shop. Not a desk tucked away in some corner. It’s full of BIG-branded stuff. T-shirts and sweatshirts and teddy bears and lanyards and mugs that might rival Sports Direct in their proportions. But I don’t pay attention to any of that, because I’ve just spotted something far more interesting. Over there. On the far side. It’s a Zoltar machine. And by the looks of it, it’s not just there for decoration.  

processed_IMG_20190910_191714.jpg

I go over. The sign stuck on the front says it’s two pounds for a go. Well, I just spent a tenner on a programme, I’m not about to wimp out on two quid on this. 

I get out my purse, find the coins, and then stare at the machine. Not sure how I’m meant to do this. I put them on the little slot and try to shove it in, but the slot ain’t having it. 

“Oh my god, someone’s having a go!” a young man standing nearby exclaims. 

“Trying to!” I exclaim right back. 

A woman comes over to have a look. “Here, I think they go in those slots,” she says. 

She’s right. They do go in those slots. 

A second later, Zoltar starts waving his hand and chattering on about it being better not to reveal too much and other mystic sayings. The pair of us stand there, watching him, until a full minute or so later, a fortune pops out. 

I have a look. 

Apparently, my lucky month is August, which is just great now that it’s September. Got a long way to go before my luck comes in. Hopefully I can hold out until then. 

processed_MVIMG_20190910_191937.jpg

Shoving the fortune into my pocket, I make for the entrance to the auditorium. 

“XX?” says the ticket checker. “Down this aisle and you’re on the left.” 

Turns out, row XX is really far back. The Dominion is one hell of a big theatre. I almost consider using those binoculars stuck to the bottom of the seat in order to see the stage. 

The rake isn’t great, with nothing but the most gentle slope happening between the rows, but the seats are at least offset, and I find myself with a great little view in between the heads of the people in front. 

My neighbour isn’t quite so content. 

Leaving her partner behind, she chivvies me out of the way to go and sit in one of the empty seats further into the row. 

A plan soon thwarted by the row in front starting to fill up. 

She moves further in. 

But the people sitting in front have the same idea, and a game of musical chairs starts up between them, as they all try and get an unobstructed view. 

The house lights buzz and flicker dramatically, and then go out. 

The show begins. 

These people clearly spent a lot of money here. The set is huge, with screens and multi-storey buildings and set changes between every song. 

A big set for a big theatre. Pity there isn’t the audience to match. 

Even with the £15 offer, it’s looking a bit thin back here. And judging from the very localised applause patterns, I’d say a good chunk sitting over on the far side work for the show. 

This is my cue to say something like: no matter, I’m having a good time. But the truth is: I’m not. I do like the film. It’s a great story. What it doesn’t need though, is songs. And they aren’t even very good songs. Not a banger in the mix. And seemingly written with the premise that everyone on stage needs to have a go. 

When that scene comes around, the one with the piano, the one that has made it into the show artwork, it is done via projection. And the notes that emerge have no relation to the movements of the performers. The big whoop from the contingent on the far side is taken up by the rest of the audience, but the enthusiasm isn’t there. It’s hard to get excited about a faked-up set piece. Half the joy of live theatre is the potential to go wrong. Knowing that the keys would light up, and the notes play, even if both key-hoppers sat down and shared a sandwich half-way through, doesn’t do much to get the old heart racing. 

Interval time. 

I get out my programme to see what ten pounds has bought me. 

Not a lot. 

processed_IMG_20190910_192110.jpg

I mean, sure, it’s massive. But content wise, there’s nothing there. Biogs. Production shots. That's it. Not even an article to read. 

For that price, I’d at least expect some fan service, like what Only Fools and Horses managed to do in there’s. But the closest this one has is asking the cast what their Zoltar wish would be. Not particularly inciteful, and honestly, best suited to a blog post. 

As people return from the interval, there’s a lot of seat hopping as everyone tries to upgrade themselves. 

I spot the separated couple six or seven rows ahead of me, now reunited. 

And I find myself in the happy position of having no one sitting in front of me.  

Sadly, it doesn’t do much for the show. 

But plod on we do, and the end eventually rolls around. 

During the curtain call, I lone woman stands. She waves at the cast. I think she must know one of them. 

But as we are launched into a truly unnecessary finale, more people stagger to their feet. Some to leave, others to ovate. 

I hold out until the cast members wave us goodbye, disappearing behind the rotating set. But as the band strikes up once more, I cannot stick it any longer. And make my escape. 

S.O.S.

I seem to be spending a lot of time in the West End at the moment. Mostly because all the super-fringey theatres haven’t got anything happening over the summer months, but also because there just aren’t enough tourists around to fill up all those long-running shows and there are offers going all over the place. 

As I make my way down the Strand, I spot a large queue outside Waitress, aiming itself at a tiny podium with the TodayTix logo on it. Now, I love me a bargain on TodayTix, I really do. This blog is testament to that. But when a theatre needs a whole queue just to accommodate buyers coming through a single, solitary, app, you do have to wonder if they overshot on the pricing. 

Oh well. No time to worry about that. 

I’m back in the Aldwych tonight, which I’ve come to think of the road that houses all the shows that I would never, ever, visit outside of the marathon.  

We’ve already had the Tina: The Tina Turner Musical chat. 

Now it’s the turn of its neighbour, the Novello. 

Yup, I’m off to Mamma Mia. 

May the theatre gods preserve us all. 

“Yeah, sorry, there’s loads of people taking photos of some theatre,” says a young woman, striding past on her mobile. 

I lower my phone. 

Yeah, she got me. 

But I’m not the only one. 

I seem to have found myself within a small gathering of amateur photographers, all aiming our phone cameras upwards at the Novello façade. 

It’s a nice façade. Paned glass and lots of swaged foliage carved into the stonework. The window-frames are lit up with a pale-blue glow that would be more fit for Frozen when that opens next year. It all looks very glamorous, somewhat at odds with the show that lives inside. 

“Here, stand here,” orders a woman to her two daughters. “Let me get a picture of you to post on Facebook.” The pair of them make matching expressions of disgust. “Don’t worry,” she assures them, “I’ll edit it first.” 

This appeases them enough to stand and pose in the small island in the middle of Catherine Street, as lines of black cabs rattle by on either side. 

I dart in between them, past the sisters who are still in model-mode, and over to the opposite pavement. 

There’s a large queue stretching out of the curved doors and working it’s way back down the pavement, sealed off by a Mamma Mia branded barrier. 

I join the end of the line. 

It moves fast enough. There’s two bag checkers and they are peering at our stuff as if we were all on the conveyor belt of The Price is Right, and coming up behind us is the cuddly toy. 

Inside the foyer is a mass of movement as people try to figure out where they’re going. 

There’s the merch desk on one side. A concessions stand on the other. And something else a bit further back, which I can’t quite make out but has one hell of a queue. 

“Box office?” I ask the young woman on the door as I gaze in horror at this heaving crowd. 

“Are you buying or collecting?” 

“Collecting.” 

“Just here,” she says, pointing to the big queue at the back. I inch myself through. There seems to be two counters, set behind windows in the wall. My favourite kind of West End box office, but all these people are setting off my anxiety, and I can’t tell where the queue even ends. It try to follow it back but somewhere along the way it appears to have looped back on itself. 

processed_IMG_20190909_192024.jpg

“Who’s waiting?” comes a voice from the middle of the crowd. It’s a front of houser, and she’s doing her best to impose some form of crowd control, but there’s nowhere for them to go. 

No one answers her. They’re all too busy shoving in opposite directions. 

I squeeze myself towards her. 

“Just here,” she says, pointing to one of the windows. And just like that, I’m giving my name to the box officer, and skipping the entire line. 

“Maxine?” says the box officer, checking the ticket. “That’s one in the balcony.” 

It’s a nice ticket. Got the show artwork on it and everything, which is something I appreciate. Love a bespoke ticket. 

processed_IMG_20190910_081917.jpg

That done, I double back for the merch desk and ask for a programme. 

“Would you like a small one for 4.50?” she asks, indicating the display on the counter. “Or both for ten pounds.” 

Did I hear that right? A small one and a big one for ten pounds? I’ve always disapproved of this trend of selling souvenir brochures on top of the programmes. Yes, you can justify them as appealing to different audiences – those that want to read about the cast, and those that want big shiny production photos. But let’s be real here. Theatres want to empty your wallet, and will use any trick they’ve got to pour your coins into their till. But both for a tenner sounds like a fucking good deal. Those brochures can go for fifteen quid on their own. 

Not that I want a brochure. I’m an old school programme gurl. I like my cast list, and my creative biographies. I like articles. And words. And yes, the odd pretty picture. But not enough to spend an extra fiver and change. 

I settle for a small one. 

That done, it’s time to go upstairs. 

A not unfancy staircase, which makes a change from the usual route to the cheap seats. There’s carpet. And portraits. And even a bar. 

A nice bar! 

It’s large. With seating, and windows overlooking both the Aldwych and Catherine Street. The very windows I had admired from down on the pavement. 

processed_IMG_20190909_192247.jpg

I’m a bit early so I plonk myself down at a window seat, a not unpleasant place to sit after the crush downstairs. 

Two bar staffers serve the few audience members who have made it up here, taking care to explain everything with gentleness and patience to the touristy clientele. 

“The programme is this one,” says one, pulling a copy of the shelf to show woman at the bar. “We don’t have the brochure here, but if you’d like it I can give you a receipt and they have the brochures inside. So they can give you one. The small one has the cast. The brochure is the bigger one, and has the pictures in it.” 

“Yes, pictures…” 

“You’ll want the brochure then.” 

“Okay...” 

“Separately the big one is eight, but you can get them together for ten pounds.” 

“And I have to go inside?” 

“You can buy them both here. I’ll give you a receipt and you can just show it to them, and they’ll give you a brochure.” 

I use the opportunity to look at my own programme. 

There’s a cast change slip already placed inside. Looks like we’ve got a few people out tonight, not that it makes much difference to me. I couldn’t tell you who anyone was in this show. 

Apart from the biogs, and an interview with Judy Craymer (who apparently is the creator, but isn’t credited anywhere else in this thing), it’s pretty much the same programme I’ve bought at every Delfont Mackintosh theatre this year. I put it away in my bag and look around. 

There’s a rather handsome wallpaper lining the walls, with golden Ws resting amongst equally golden laurel leaves. 

That’s strange. I wonder if they had a couple of rolls left over from the Wyndham’s refurb… 

I should probably go to my seat. 

Up some more stairs, and there’s a ticket checker up here. 

“Lovely,” he says, far too enthusiastically when he notices that I’ve already torn away the receipt and address portions of the ream. Honestly, theatre-goers really need to start doing this. Save your ticket checker some papercuts. He folds over the stub and tears that off. “Straight up the stairs here,” he says, nodding towards the closed door behind his shoulder.  

And up I go. 

There’s another ticket checker on the door to the auditorium. This one looks rather flustered. She’s talking to an equally flustered-looking audience member. 

“You’ll need to go to the box office and speak to them,” says the ticket checker.  

“Downstairs?” 

“Yup, you’ll need to go all the way downstairs, and make your way up again before the start of the show…” 

“But should I go down...?” she asks, sounding a wee bit stressed. 

“Well, you’ll need to speak to them…” 

“Right.” And off the audience member goes. 

I offer the ticket checker my torn ticket and a sympathetic smile. 

“Front row,” she says, waving me in. 

As I make my way down the steep steps, I spot the stressed audience member. “Let’s go,” she says, touching her partner’s shoulder. 

“Are you sure?” he asks. 

“You need to be able to sit!” she insists. 

That’s true. You do need to be able to sit. 

Limited legroom has taken another victim tonight. 

That’s not so much of a problem for me. Yes, my knees are bashing against the boards in the front row, but they’ve suffered through worse over the past eight months. I’ll survive. 

I distract myself by looking around. 

It’s a shame I’ve never been in here before. It’s a nice auditorium. Very Edwardian in its excess. All marble and cherubs and even gargoyle faces, leering at us from their nests.

There’s even a chandelier that looks like a dropped trifle. It’s magnificently ugly.

processed_IMG_20190909_193423.jpg

And Ws. Again. Large ones. Set in golden wreaths. 

That’s strange. 

I get out my phone and search for the Novello’s Wikipedia page. 

Turns out this place used to be the Waldorf Theatre, which explains it, I guess. Thing is, it hasn’t been the Waldorf for over a century, and only had that name for four years anyway. You’d think they’d have updated the wallpaper already. 

The Novello name is because old Ivo had a flat here back in the day. A legacy that Cameron Mackintosh seems keen to continue as he’s having a penthouse set up somewhere in here. I do like the idea of living in a theatre. Not sure I’d pick this one though. While I appreciate a good ABBA singalong as much as the next person (as long as I’m not actually expected to singalong), I’m not sure I could cope with Supertrooper blasting out every night while I’m trying to eat my dinner.  

Over the tannoy, there’s a proper old Big Bong. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Please take your seats. This evening’s performance will begin in five minutes. 

“... three minutes. 

“... two minutes.” 

processed_IMG_20190909_193408.jpg

The house lights dim. There’s an announcement. Turn off your phones and whatnot. Plus a warning for those with a “nervous disposition,” that this show contains “platforms and white lyrca.” 

With that terrifying thought, we begin. 

Not that most of the audience seems to have noticed. 

Chats continue. 

Phones stay out. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience which gives less of a shit as to what is going on onstage. 

My neighbour jerks in her seat, getting out her phone, the need to check her messages too great to sit still. 

She leans over to her friend and whispers something. 

The friend grabs her bag and retrieves something. A tiny squeeze bottle. She hands it to my neighbour. 

My neighbour pours the contents into her hand. Finds her phone again. Switches it to selfie mode and then... proceeds to reinsert her contact, picking and proding at her eye, the phone on her lap.

I have never seen the like in a theatre, and in truth, I’m a little impressed. 

Exhausted by these antics, she spends the interval slumped down in her seat, curled up under her coat. 

Again, I’m impressed. 

These seats are narrow and highbacked, extending well above our heads. 

I now have a new appreciation for the Queen. Turns out thrones aren’t all that comfy. 

I stay where I am. I’m not all that convinced that on leaving this row, I’ll ever be able to get back in. 

The five-minute warning goes. Then three. Then two. Then one. 

We’re back. 

My neighbour hauls herself out of her slumber, but within a couple of songs her head is sinking gently down, nodding out of time with the music. By the wedding, we’re in real danger of her falling asleep on my shoulder. 

I will the cast to sing in double time and rap this story up. 

We make it. My shoulder free of sleep-induced slobber. Thank the theatre gods. 

The keyboard players in the pit wave at the cast, and the cast, in turn, reach down to shake the keyboard players' hands.

As we traipse down the stairs, I can hear Mamma Mia blaring, and I wonder if I’m missing an encore, but no. It’s coming from outside. A rickshaw, parked on the pavement, and with his soundsystem full blast.  

That’s one way to do marketing, I suppose. 

I really hope Mr Mackintosh likes listening to ABBA in bed... 

 

Close Every Door to Me

Oh good lord. What the fuck is going on here? What the actual fuck...?

There are people on the pavement. People in the road. People standing in the way of cars, and people who are going to get run over if they are not careful.

I've never seen any thing like this.

No, wait. That's not true. I have seen something like this.

Not outside of protests though.

It's like a friggin' anti-Trump rally out here.

What the hell is going on?

processed_IMG_20190904_140815.jpg

"This is the Royal Circle and boxes queue only," hollers a man walking down the line on the opposite pavement. "Stalls are one queue along, and Grand Circle is two along."

Oh. Okay. So apparently getting into the London Palladium now involves queueing down the street. Which is strange. Because I've been to the Palladium before, and I've never encountered scenes that look as if they've been lifted straight out of a textbook on hyperinflation.

I join the queue for the stalls. I have an e-ticket for some reason, and I'm not happy about it, but I'm not about to go trotting off to the box office when there's this going on. Ten minutes arguing for a paper ticket might see the queues stretching all the way down the street, across the road, and into the Liberty habadashery department.

I tell myself it's good practice for post-Brexit Britain.

We shuffle forward inch by inch, the woman behind me muttering with every step.

processed_IMG_20190904_141011.jpg

It hasn't escaped my notice, that my queue, the one for the stalls, is on the opposite side of the road to the theatre. It hasn't escaped the notice of the people standing in the queue, while also, at the same time, standing in the middle of the road. Nor the notice of the taxis, trying very hard to drive through said road.

"Stupid people thinking they can get through here," she says the woman behind me. I don't know whether she's referring to the taxi drivers or the queuers here. Or possibly: both.

As it's our turn to cross no-man's land, a pretty girl in a multicoloured shaggy jacket runs out to pose in front of the theatre signage. You got to respect a gal who not only dresses to theme, but also puts her life on the line for a photo. Instagram models are the heros we have, but don't necessarily want.

I make it across the road without getting run over, thank the theatre gods. The woman behind me also makes it across unscathed. I'm unclear about the gods' motivation on that one, but I suppose they have their reasons.

"Have your bags ready. There's checks both in and out the door," booms the queue-controller as I reach the doors.

"Can I just...?" asks the bag checker. She pokes around inside a little, prodding at the top layer with a single finger. "My colleague will check your ticket."

I get waved through the door and I pull my phone out. E-ticket it is then. I pinch my fingers and zoom in, instantly losing the barcode. Technology is not my friend. "Where is it...!?" I mutter as I search around the pdf for the damn thing. The ticket checker laughs, then beeps my in as the barcode sneaks into view.

I wind myself down the cream-coloured corridors, past the surprisingly subdued merch desk and into the bar. It's a very fancy bar. There's a twisting staircase, lots of old posters on the walls, and a display case with a model of the Palladium inside, topped by showgirls.

And a queue. Another massive queue. Stretching from the doors to the auditorium, round the corner and all the way back.

A front of houser comes round, via a shortcut. "Entrance to the stalls this way," she says, beckoning us forward. I'm immediately rammed in the back as the person behind me rushes up the steps.

I let him go ahead. He must be gagging to sit down.

Eventually, I get to the doors. There are two sets, with a tiny lobby in the middle. Like those porch areas people tack onto the front of their semis. Somewhere to keep the pram and the bikes and wellies and whatnot. Except here they're keeping a bottleneck of audience members, trying to squeeze through too many ushers.

I show the nearest one my phone. "Standing?" I ask.

"Head to the left," she says, pointing left. "And stand behind the gold bar."

Well, alrighty then.

I head left, walking down the back of the stalls, past the tech desk, past an endlessly long row of seats until, yes, there it is, a short gold bar right at the end.

There are a few people standing already. I dump my bag down next to them, as close to the middle as I can get.

It's very high. Too high for my five foot three inches to lean on. I could just about rest my chin on it if I had a mind to.

processed_MVIMG_20190904_141904.jpg

And then I realise something. I haven't seen anyone selling programmes.

I look around at the people sitting in the stalls. Prime programme-buying audience members. But none of them have one.

I scan the room for an usher, but there aren't any in here. They're all in the bottleneck.

Oh well. That's what intervals are for, I guess. Gives me an excuse to check out the merch desk.

Looks like the girl sitting in front of me has already hit it up. She's wearing a Joseph t-shirt with technicoloured text all over it.

I never know how I feel about wearing show merch to the actual show.

It demonstrates dedication though, and I respect that.

Unlike the man sitting in the row ahead of her. He's wearing a Thriller Live t-shirt. I turn away. I can't even look at him.

There's an usher standing behind me. He's not holding any programmes. "Are you with the five?" he asks, indicating the group next to me.

I shake my head. So does my neighbour. We don't know these people.

"Would you mind moving over to the other side? There's supposed to be ten on each side be we have eleven over here."

My neighbour picks up his bag and goes off to the other side.

Turns out, his sacrifice is not enough, because the usher is back. "Are you on your own too?" he asks me.

I almost laugh at the thought of me managing to convince someone to come stand with me at a weekday matinee performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I'm sure this musical has a hella lot of fans. I'm just not friends with any of them.

"Do you want me to go over?" I ask, maintaining my composure like the theatre-going pro I am.

"If you don't mind," says the usher, very apologetically. "You'll have more space."

Turns out, that was a lie. The standing area down at the other end is full. I walk all the way to the end, where the golden bar turns into a solid wood panel and ask the woman on the end to squidge up a bit.

She stares at me blankly.

"Sorry," I apologise. "I just got moved here from the other side. Can we all move down a bit?"

Her stare continues. I wonder if there is something wrong with her eyes. She's not blinking.

The usher comes over.

"Can we make room for the lady?" he says in the polite tones of a front of houser who ain't taking no shit today.

One bloke shifts over and a squeeze into the gap.

"Did you not pay the money?" says the guy on the other side, his hand buried in a pot of Pringles.

"Sorry?"

"I thought you didn't pay the fee."

"Sadly, I did buy my ticket," I tell him. "They just had too many people standing over the other side."

Satisfied, he goes back to eating his crisps.

As the lights dim, there's a big cheer from the audience. They're so excited the air is almost crackling. Oh, no. Wait. That's my neighbour finishing off his Pringles.

Nevermind.

Still, Sheridan Smith gets a round of applause all to herself when she comes out. I join in. I do like Sheridan Smith. She was everything in that Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic. And yes, I did need to pick out her one significant non-musical theatre role to mention here. Because I am a pretentious twat. We long ago established that.

And I have to respect that she's the one cast member all in black, standing proud amongst a cast dressed in colours so bright it's making my retinas bleed just to look at them.

I'll admit, Joseph isn't my favourite Lloyd Webber. It's too... just too. Too bright. Too twee. Too school-playish with all those kids wearing fake-beards. It doesn't work for me.

Plus all that thing about dreams... I only have sympathy for the brothers. I'd sell my little pipsqueak sibling too if he insisted on telling me his boring-arse dreams every morning.

I do like the song where he's in prison though. I can fully support Joseph having an abandonment crisis in a dark cell while wearing only a loincloth. That's my jam. Right there.

As soon as the interval hits, I race back through the bar, down the cream-coloured corridor, and towards the merch desk.

There isn't a queue, and the woman behind the counter gives me a big grin as I approach.

"Hello, love!" she say.

I ask if I can get a programme.

"Of course, you can, my love. Would you like a standard programme or a brochure?” She points at the two options on the counter. The brochure is very large. Twice the size of the standard programme, and no doubt, twice the price.

"Ooo," I say, pretending to be making a decision. “Standard please."

"That's five pounds."

I fish around in my bag for my purse, which no matter how I pack it, always manages to sink to the bottom. "Sorry," I say, as I realise I'm taking far too long. "So much stuff!"

"Here, shall I move this so you can out your bag down?" she says, shifting over the programmes so that there's a free space on the counter.

It helps. I find my purse, and pay the monies.

She laughs, suddenly noticing what i’m wearing now my bag isn't in the way. "I love your t-shirt!" she says.

It is a good t-shirt. And worthy of a giggle.

At first glance, you may think it's one of those ubiquitous Joy Division t-shirts. But, oh, you would be wrong. The unknown pleasures of the pulse waves are interrupted by... cats. Lots of cats. And it says "Meow Division" across the top, because of course it does.

I take my music very seriously.

I go back to the bar.

processed_IMG_20190904_151923.jpg

"Yes, she's a big star over here," says a woman, trying to explain who Smith is to her friend. "She's a big TV celebrity."

Sheridan Smith? A big TV celebrity? I mean... yeah, but like... didn't you see here at The Old Vic?

I get out my programme, just to check the facts. And huh... Smith's biog doesn't mention Hedda Gabler. I begin to wonder if I imagined her Ibsen-phase.

"Ladies and gentlemen will you please take your seats. The show will resume in five minutes."

I quell the desire to reply: "Thank you, five."

I go back to my standing place.

processed_IMG_20190904_153407.jpg

The unblinking woman hasn't returned. But crisp-man has. With a packet of popcorn.

An usher makes his way down the aisle carrying a big white plastic bag. He dips down so people can chuck their rubbish in, giving an half cursey at every row.

The band start up, playing a medley of the act one songs.

A huge chunk of the audience clap along.

The conductor turns around to grin at us. He's having fun.

Everyone is having fun.

Spontaneous applause breaks out at seemingly inconsequential parts of the plot. Laughter rolls over the stalls with every campy move of the cast. As Smith encourages us to clap along in one number, and everyone enthusiastically joins in, it occurs to me that this might now be a standard weekday matinee. The fan-presence is high, and the end of the run is nigh. I might have found myself at a muck-up matinee.

At the final notes, everyone gets to their feet to applaud.

I'm already on my feet, so I let them get on with it.

It's time for the megamix, and people sit down to enjoy this blast through all the bangers of the show.

The stander who came with me from the other side sticks his fingers in his mouth and let's out a blasting whistle. "Well done, kids!" he shouts as the smaller members of the cast come forward.

"Do you want some more?" shouts Smith over the roar of whoops and hollers.

The roar grows even louder. Turns out they do.

"Come on! Do. You. Want. Some. More?!" repeats Smith, pumping her arm to indicate that we should be louder.

Yes, Sheridan. I think these people want more.

"Your turn now," she says. "Come on. Do whatever you want."

A woman in the front row gets to her feet and starts dancing. "Yes!" shouts Smith, pointing at her. "Go girl!"

A few more people join in and Smith gives them approving comments too. Soon everyone is back up and dancing. Or at least clapping.

Lights flicker around the audience.

Streamers descend on the stalls.

Dancing. Clapping. Singing. Music.

And then it's over. The cast wave as they disappear off stage. The three leads, Smith and Jac Yarrow and Jason Donovan, hand back to fling there arms around each other. And then they're gone too.

I decide to take their lead and slip out when the band are still blasting our their finale.

My mad existence

I'm on my way to the next venue and I just saw a duck! Two of them! Waddling around next to the water, being all duck-like.

I didn't have any bread to give them, but they let me take a photo of them all the same and didn't seem to mind that I used went all baby-talk on them.

processed_IMG_20190902_184549.jpg

So, I'm happy now. For some reason, knowing intellectually that my theatre for the evening was in the middle of Regent's Park, didn't connect with the part of my brain that knows that ducks live in parks, and the whole duck thing totally surprised me.

In a good way.

I'm very happy.

I also just spotted a sign, stuck in a hedge, pointing the way to the Open Air Theatre, so on top of being duck-happy, I'm also not lost.

This trip literally cannot get any better.

I follow the signs, leading down paths and past flowerbeds and across roads, until I spot it. The theatre. Or at least, the entrance to the theatre. Kinda getting fairground vibes looking at it, if I'm being honest.

The box office is in a sort of wooden cabin-like structure on one side, with the entrance on the other, with the name lined up along the roof.

The grass is full of smug-looking people having smug-looking picnics and drinking smug-looking glasses of wine. Near me a woman throws her head back to laugh. Smugly.

Just need to take my photo of the outside then it's off to try and blag a paper ticket off the box office. There wasn't an option to get one from the website. I think I left it too late or something. I have a crumby e-ticket sitting in my inbox and I am not happy about it.

"Lot of people here?" says a bloke standing near me.

I glance up.

"Yeah? I guess. It's very popular."

I go back to my phone, bringing up the camera app.

"Are you Mediterranean?" he asks.

I'm so confused by this question, I look up again. "... no?"

"You look a bit Italian. Are you Italian?"

Now, I'm sure you will agree with me that I do not look Italian. I very much do not look Italian. Literally no one in the world has ever, up until this point, thought that I looked anything approaching Italian.

I've gone through my whole life being British-passing, and I'm not about to take this nonsense. "Not even slightly," I say, in my coldest, bitchiest, tones, that I only bring out on very special occasions.

Turns out, however, that this bloke is immune to my lack of charm. "No?"

"No. I'm Scottish."

I mean... I'm not Scottish. Okay, I'm slightly Scottish. My surname is Scottish. But there's a good hundred years between the last Scottish Smiles in my ancestry coming down to live in Liverpool or somewhere, and me being born. Usually, when people ask I'll say German, or Austrian, or something, but those answers are all way too Holocausty for a summer evening. And I don't like pulling out the Israeli-angle with weirdo-strangers who are way too intent on making conversation.

"The Scottish are very friendly people. Very friendly," he continues.

"Errr..."

Now, Scotland is fucking great. And Scottish people are even greaterer. I would totes vote for Nicola Sturgeon to be prime minister if that was ever an option. All hail the Scots. But like, I lived there for three years, and "friendly" would not be my go-to descriptor. Like... there were pubs I was actively told not to go to because my English-accent would be considered a "provocation."

"Very friendly."

"... sometimes?"

"Very friendly people."

Okay. Enough of this. Apologies to the Scottish people but I need to disabuse this man of your friendliness before he starts telling me his whole backsto-

"I'm from Iran."

Shit. Too late.

"Sorry," I say, putting away my phone. "I have to go in now."

And without another word, I scuttle over to the entrance and join the queue.

"Can I check your bag?" asks the bag checker.

Of course she can. I grab it and open it for her. Or at least, I try to open it for her. The damn zip is stick.

Shit. "Shit." Double shit. "Sorry."

She laughs. "Don't worry. As long as we can look inside."

I've made a tiny gap. I can see the soft black material of my scarf pocking through, caught in the metal. "It's my stupid scarf," I tell her, still trying to unjam the zip.

"Don't worry," she says again. "It happens all the time."

She peers through the inch-wide gap I've created and then feels her way down the outside, giving my bag a good massage.

With a wave of her hand, I'm sent over to the ticket checker.

With all the excitement, I'd forgotten to go to box office.

I look over my shoulder. I can't go back now. Not after making the bag checker go through all that. She'll think I'm a right old idiot.

I get my phone out, and allow my e-ticket to be beeped.

Dammit.

Still feeling mad at myself, I pass through the entrance, and stop.

Well. This sure is something, A bar sits beneath by an ivy covered canopy on one side. Lawns are littered with picnicing couples on the other.

processed_IMG_20190902_185425.jpg

And in the middle, a merch stand.

I join the queue.

It isn't much of a queue. There's only one lady in front of me. But she is making the most of it, asking questions about every single aspect of the theatre and the performance. Start times and entrances and intervals and... Ooof. I can't listen anymore.

I turn my attention to the stand.

I love theatre merch. But so much of it is crap.

I'll throw down a tenner on a programme if I have to, but see-through t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with some tedious quote from the show ain't getting my coin any time soon.

This stuff, well... someone at this theatre sat down and thought: What does a person watching a play out in the open air need? And then set about selling it to us.

Alongside the programmes, there are branded baseball caps and water bottles, and plastic ponchos. Standard. But then there's also recycled wool blankets for cold knees, and straw panamas to cover bald heads and cuddly hedgehogs to...

Wait, what?

"The Regent's Park Hedgehog," reads a sign, posted on the side of the cart as if to answer my exact question. Turns out the park has hedgehogs in it. Real ones. 40 of them. Which doesn't sound a lot.

I love hedgehogs. Everyone loves hedgehogs.

I really want a cuddly one.

Can I justify it?

IMG_20190902_185918~2.jpg

"Can I get a programme please?" I ask the merch desker as the old lady finishes her ream of questions and moves on.

My eyes slide over to the hedgehogs.

They are so frickin' cute.

"Of course!" says the merch desker. "Five pounds please."

I pull my bag forward and suddenly remember the zip. Shit. "Sorry," I apologise as I struggle with it.

"Don't worry," she says.

I give the zip a good tug. It slides a half-inch. Ha. We're getting somewhere.

"Stupid scarf," I mutter as I fight the zip.

"No rush," she says sweetly. "It happens all the time. Especially after the bag checks. Is that cash or card?"

"Err, cash?" I say.

"Okay."

"Or card? If that's easier?"

"No, don't worry. I just thought I could set up the card machine."

With one more violent yank, I hear the sound of my scarf ripping, and the zip gives way.

I pull out my purse and hand her a fiver. "There," I say, triumphantly. "Exact change. My punishment for being annoying."

She laughs politely. "Thanks. I can always do with more fivers."

With one final glance towards the hedgehogs, I scuttle off with my programme to see how bad a hit my scarf took tonight.

There's a huge banked flowerbed running along the path, with a low bench around it.

I find an empty spot and examine the damage.

The scarf is still caught in the zipper. I try to wriggle it out, but it's no good. It's stuck right in there.

Gritting my teeth, I wrap the fabric around my hand and yank it free, wincing as it tears away.

Gawd dammit. This is why I cannot have nice things. It was a present too. Fuck's sake.

processed_MVIMG_20190902_190210.jpg

I stuff it down to the bottom of my bag, where it can't get into any mischief, and look around in the hopes of distracting myself from what I've done.

This place looks like a faerie bower after an all night rave.

Long streamers hang limply off tree branches, looking more than a little like this place was bog-roll-bombed by trick-or-treaters.

Dirty confetti is trodden into the ground.

I don't envy the cleanup crew at the end of the summer.

The group sitting next to me on the bench suddenly leap to their feet and rush over to the now-open doors.

I watch them go, wondering vaguely if I should be rushing too.

I decide to take a more leisurely approach, double-checking my e-ticket to make sure I'm using the right entrance.

“Enter by: Gangway 1,” it says. There's a huge number 1 stuck on the wall next to the doors right on the end. That must be it.

I go in.

Down on one side is a small patch of grass, and the runners are all crowding together trying to find the best spots. As close to the stage as possible.

I turn the other way, heading for the huge bank of seating. I start climbing, and climbing, and climbing. Right to the top. Because I'm cheap.

Not that it's a bad view from up here. The stage is massive. With a fuck-off huge letters at the back spelling out: EVITA. Behind them, I can just about make out the band.

Two ladies sitting in the row in front are taking a selfie. Or at least, they're trying to take a selfie.

"I can't get the sign in," says one.

As if driven to prove that I am, on occasion, a nice person, I offer to help.

They hand me the phone and I try to line up the shot, with the sign behind them, politely neglecting to mention that I am a terrible photographer.

"How shall we do this?" asks one.

"Shall we go down this way?" I say, moving down the row to a more central location. "If you could stand here..." I point to where I want them, and yes. That works. Two landscape. Two portrait. Boom. Done.

"Ooo, a professional..." says one as she takes the phone back.

She's clearly never seen my blog.

That done, she gets on with the really important matter at hand. Coating herself with bug spray.

Not something the merch desk has thought to sell. They should really consider it.

"Apologies," she says, turning around to explain herself to our row. "I just sprayed bug repellent."

Her friend laughs at her and she gets flustered.

"In case I smell!" she says, making her friend laugh even more. "I swell! I have to be hospitalised."

"Don't worry," I assure her. "We're all on your side."

A bell rings outside. Well, I say outside. It's all outside here.

Let's try that again.

Beyond the walls, a bell tolls, calling in the followers of musical theatre.

processed_IMG_20190902_193918.jpg

They pour in, heavy from their picnics, heaving themselves up the steps to their seats.

High above us, black coated figures snuggle down in covered crow's nests with their spotlights.

I shudder as a drop of rain lands on my cheek. I look up. The sky looks dangerously cloudy. I send up a quick prayer to the theatre gods that we won't have a downpour. They seem to listen. The rain stops.

The show starts, and you know, it's Evita. So it's all big and dramatic and...

There are smoke guns going off and I have to hold my breathe as the white curls pour over me, and then there's confetti blasting all over the place. And holy shit this is epic. You know a show's going to be good when they start it with the confetti shower. That's a hell of a promise to live up to and: Bang! Fuck yeah. There are streamers. I repeat: there are streamers. Flying through the air like gentle doves bringing messages of destruction.

And miracle of miracles, one is floating towards me, sailing on a breeze, sent by the theatre gods.

It drifts down, drapping itself over my shoulder and then my lap, like I've just been awarded the sash for Miss Open Air Theatre 2019.

Then it moves.

Sliding across my body.

I look up.

A woman in the row in front has the end in her hand and she's winding it around her arm, pulling it off me.

I consider grabbing the other end and tugging it away from her (it's my streamer, dammit!), but I'm too shocked to move. I watch as she crunches the paper streamer into a ball, and hands it to the man she's with, who crushes it in his big, fat, hands.

And then it's the interval.

He turns around in his seat, reaching over to grab his bag, he stuffs the crumbled streamer inside.

I hope it gets stuck in the zip.

Bastards.

The audience stumbles off to finish their bottles of wine, but my row doesn't seem up for moving. So we stay in our seats.

Down at the bottom I spot an usher picking up streamers off the path, and I look at them longingly.

I don't know why I love this crap as much as I do. It just makes my little hoarder heart so happy.

Or it would have done, anyway.

As the bell rings once more, people come back clutching rolled up blankets and hot drinks.

It's chilly now. I roll down the sleeves of my jacket and retrieve my scarf from the bottom of my bag.

processed_IMG_20190902_210546.jpg

My neighbour is trying to explain the history of Evita to his friend.

"Didn't she get murdered?" asks the friend.

"No..." He tells her what really happened.

"Oh," she says, sounding disappointed. "That's anticlimactic."

But as the second act canters on, I hear a sniff coming from my right. It's the friend. She is full out crying. Big, choking sobs.

The wind picks up, and spent confetti swirls around above our heads.

The crying girl makes a grab for a piece, but it is whisked away from her hand.

The cast get a standing ovation at the end. I don't join in. They were excellent, but you know how mean I am with my ovations. Five a year. That's the limit.

It takes a long time to get out. I cross my arms and shiver in my jacket as the lower rows file out, painfully slow.

The park is black when we do manage to escape. Signs are set out giving instructions on how to get out of here. I just follow everyone else. A long march on the way to Baker Street.

Ahead of me, I spot the streamer-stealer.

She laughs at something her partner says.

I have never hated anyone so much in my entire life.

I can only hope that she at least gives the streamer a good home.

I trudge on, feeling a weight of sadness pressing down on my shoulders.

I knew I should have bought a hedgehog.

processed_IMG_20190902_221610.jpg

In Cadogan Hall, programmes buy you

Did you know that Cadogan Hall was right around the corner from The Royal Court? I didn't know that Cadogan Hall was right around the corner from The Royal Court.

But there it is. Right around the corner from The Royal Court. All gleaming and shiny. It's tall white walls glowing in the evening sun.

It looks quite impressive. Like a medieval French monastery or something. It even has a tower on one end.

Not sure your average medieval monastery has queues to get in though.

Looks like I've booked myself in for quite the event.

I'm here to see a concert performance of Doctor Zhivago. Which is apparently a musical now.

It has Ramin Karimloo in it, who I hear is quite the thing, and has a wee bit of a following.

Which may go some way to explaining all the women queueing to get in.

I side-step them, and head towards the door with a Box Office sign over it.

I'm technically not meant to be here. I got an email from the TodayTix people saying I could go straight in. All I had to do was show the confirmation email with my seat number and that will get me through the door.

But you know me. I never turn down the opportunity to get hold of a paper ticket.

"Collect?" asks the security guy on the door.

"Err, yes...?"

He opens the door for me.

As I go through I can here him talking to the next person: "Collect?"

Inside there's some steps leading down, and there, at the bottom, is the box office.

"Hi!" calls one of the box officers from behind the counter. "Are you collecting."

I am.

"The surname's Smiles," I say at the same time as he asks: "What's the surname?"

I spell it for him. "S. M. I. L. E. S."

He flicks through the ticket box put doesn't find anything.

I'm about to explain the whole TodayTix situation, but before I get the chance, he says: "Miles, was it?"

"No. Smiles. With an S."

He laughs. "Sorry. I thought you said Miles, and S was your initial."

Gawd forbid.

He goes back to the ticket box, and this times goes for the Ses.

"Maxine?"

"Yes! Thank you!" I say, acting way too happy for someone picking up a ticket.

Oh well, he probably thinks I'm a Ramin fan-girl. Better than being found out as a paper-ticket fan-girl.

The queue for the box office is now stretching back up the stairs towards the door. A front of houser comes out. "Can just one member of each party collect tickets, please!" he shouts above the hubbub. The hubbub ignores him. The queue continues.

I fight my way back out to the street, finding sanctuary against those white walls.

"We need step-free access!" says a woman to the security guy.

She paces back and forth with her cane, jabbing at the ground and muttering venomous words. "Nope. It isn't happening," she says, clacking her way back to the security guy,

"He's coming!" he insists. "He's just opening the door for you."

And sure enough, the door opens. And the woman with the cane is all smiles and simpering.

Time for me to go in too.

I head over to the main entrance. There's a queue. Not a large one. But it's very slow. Each bag check taking an absolute age.

processed_IMG_20190901_181559.jpg

When it's my turn I show the bag checker my ticket and he waves me in. I thought I had escaped, but no. He spots the backpack slung over my shoulder and he stops me. Turns out though, it was the Cadogan audiences that are to blame. And not our bag checker. Because he processes me within a few seconds, and I'm inside.

The monstary-vibes continue into the foyer, with stained glass windows overlapping in Celtic motifs.

Opposite the door, there's a rather less decorative desk with a sign on it.

"Programmes £15."

Fifteen British pounds.

Fifteen.

A standard five pound programme. Then another ten on top.

I pause. Staring at the sign.

I've paid a lot for programmes on this marathon of mine. I've even spent fifteen pounds. But what I haven't done, is pay more for the programme than my actual ticket. This is a frontier I'm not all that sure I want to cross.

I dither, trying to convince myself that I need to buy the programme so that I can review whether it is actually worth fifteen (fif-fucking-teen!) pounds, while the voice at the back of my head is screaming not to be such a fucking idiot.

I decide to compromise, and have a flick through of a copy. If it's a good programme, I'll buy one.

But there are none on display.

There's only a pile of what looks like flyers.

The programmes, it seems, are being kept under the counter. Like the dirty dirty magazines they are.

I pass and decide it's probably time to go find out where I'm sitting.

I follow the signs to the gallery, and show my ticket to the lady on the door. "Gallery," she says, looking at it. "Right to the top, madam."

I let the madam thing slide. I'm too busy looking at the stairs. They don't look all that scary. Until you see the sign informing you about the number of steps to each floor, as if TFL have stormed the building and taken over.

62 steps up to the Gallery. Is that a lot? I feel like that's a lot.

I know it's 75 steps up to the Pentonville Road exit in King's Cross when the escalator is broken, and that sure gets the heart pumping.

Oh well. Here we go.

I start climbing.

It's not so bad.

There's a lot of people making the ascent, so it's slow going. And there are pretty stained glass windows that make me pause on each level to take a photo of.

processed_IMG_20190901_182128.jpg

A few minutes later, I'm at the summit, showing my ticket to the usher, and only slightly out of breath.

"You're in Block N," she says, as if that's supposed to mean something to me. I stare at her blankly. She blinks back. May the theatre gods preserve us from nonsensical seating systems. "Round towards the double doors," she says, pointing towards the far end of the horseshoe-shaped gallery.

Right then. There we go. No need for all that block-bullshit.

I make my way around the back of the gallery.

I'll give Cadogan Hall this, it looks well impressive from up here.

Those tall white walls are doing the mostest. With thick padded curtains covering unseen windows.

One thing that had always confused me about this place is that, while it's mainly concerts and music things happening here, they do, on occasion, also programme dance. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how dance would fit on a stage built for music, but there it is. Not particularly wide, but with enough depth to allow the odd jete.

processed_IMG_20190901_182311.jpg

Overhanging the stage is a small balcony, that you just know even the most concert-like of concert performances, is going to want to use to dramatic effect at some point.

In the corner, there's another usher, and I show her my ticket.

"You're round by the double doors," she says, getting straight to the point. She pauses and makes an umming sound, looking over at the doors as if calculating the best route.

"So, round the back?" I ask,

"Yes," she says slowly. "Yes. Round the back."

"Lovely."

So round the back of all the benches I go. Right down to the final block, by the double doors. Block N as it turns out.

Each row as a sign stuck to it, with the block letter, row letter, and the range of seats. Making a pretty simple layout of rows vastly overcomplicated. This ain't the Royal Albert Hall here. We don't be needing blocks to find out which end of the horseshoe we're sitting in.

processed_IMG_20190901_183034.jpg

But anyway, the benches are like church pews. Long and wooden. Hardbacked. With a cushion that slips and slides as you try to sit down.

I'm a few rows back and it's a pretty restricted view from up here, but eh... the tickets were cheap and it's a concert. I'm not fussed about seeing anything.

The audience applauds as the orchestra come out and start tuning up. The percussionist takes a selfie of himself sitting at his drumkit and everyone looks super happy, grinning at each other.

The house lights dim. There's more applause as the cast come out.

There's an announcement. "Welcome to the UK concert premiere performance of Doctor Zhivago. Make sure to purchase your commemorative programme in the interval."

A commemorative programme? Wow. I've never had one of those before. I'm deffo going back to get me one of those in the interval. Price be damned.

I'm so weak.

They start. And it turns out that the programme hawker is actually the narrator for the evening, reading out the stage directions so the cast doesn't have to act them out.

I can't see Karimloo from where I'm seated, he's too close to the my side of the stage, but I can tell when he's about to sing because a woman in the front row grins every time he approaches his music stand, her entire face lighting up with joy until he finishes his song and returns to his seat.

It's beautiful.

My neighbour is sitting on the edge of her seat. Literally perching on the brink, so she can lean forward and get a good look at what's going on down there.

I don't bother. I figure whoever is sitting behind me has better reasons for being here that checking off a venue, so they deserve to see more than the back of my head.

No shame to my neighbour though.

A fan-girl's gotta do what a fan-girl's gotta do.

I can't tell you anything about the rest of the cast, but I am very much enjoying how much the guy playing Pasha looks like a certain famous Ukrainian (or is it Russian now?) ballet dancer.

As soon as the applause has died out and the house lights are up for the interval I am out of my seat, rushing around the back of the gallery, and diving down the stairs.

The queue for the loo slows things down, but I manage to squeeze my way through and back down into the bar.

There's a huge gathering around the programme table, everyone standing around, very much not buying programme s.

I creep my way in.

Someone picks up the final flyer and takes it away with them, leaving nothing but a plastic film behind.

"There are no programmes at all now," says the guy standing behind the desk.

"None?" someone asks, incredulous. "Are there any more...?" she points towards the plastic film.

"You'll have to find the information online," says the guy behind the desk. And that's it.

I want to tell him that most venues, when faced with a castshhet crisis, will go and photocopy some more, but something about his stance tells me the matter is closed and he has no interest in talking about it any further.

Which makes me wonder why on earth he is even bothering to stand behind the programme desk. Take the sign and go! Be free! Live your life, far away from the tyranny of paper-products!

He doesn't though. He stands stoic, amongst a flurry of disappointed programme buyers.

Well, there's nothing left for me down here.

Back up those 62 steps again fighting against the flow of people still coming the other way.

I make my way back to my seat and find my neighbour deep in conversation with the guy sitting next to her.

processed_IMG_20190901_182412.jpg

Turns out she flew in all the way from the states to see this. Or rather, to see Karimloo.

She saw him perform in New York, and he made quite the impression on her.

The guy asks if she's enjoying the performance, and she hesitates. "I wasn't expecting it to be quite so... experimental," she says.

Yeah, the reading of the stage directions doesn't really allow for losing yourself in the story.

But, you know, it's okay. I'm enjoying it. If one can actually enjoy Doctor Zhivago. I mean... it's fucking depressing. And everyone in it is dreadful. The only character I have any respect for is Pasha. At least he was loyal to his two great loves: Lara and communism.

As Karimloo appears on the balcony for the final tableau, there's a standing ovation. A full house standing ovation.

Well, almost full house.

I refuse to stand just because everyone else is. I try to limit my ovations to around five a year. And with four months to go... well, I don't want to be running through my stock too soon.

Karimloo gives a quick speech.

The audience gasps in amazement as he tells us the orchestra was only given the score yesterday.

The composer and lyricist and invited on stage and they speak too. There are hugs. Lots of them.

It's all very charming and appreciative.

It takes an absolute age to get out of here. The stairs so clogged it takes me a full three minutes just to leave the auditorium.

By the time I make it to Sloane Square tube, I'm exhausted. But the couple on the platform opposite are still living it. They play the cast recording on their phone, cuddling up on the cold bench.

Living in revolting times

It is incredibly hard to get a photo of the Cambridge Theatre.

I don't claim to be a great photographer. I'm very much a point-and-clicker when it comes to this kind of thing, so when I say it's difficult, I don't mean it's hard to get a good photo of the Cambridge Theatre, I mean it's hard to get any photo.

This is not an issue of light (although I wouldn't exactly call Seven Dials a sun-trap) or finding somewhere to get a good angle from. No, it's people.

Here I am, standing in the small cake-slice corner between Monmouth Street and Mercer Street, lining up a great shot, and people keep on getting in the bloody way. If it's not tourists attempting to squeeze themselves between me and the lampost, it's bikes riding up on the pavement. And when those people have cleared, it's the Instagram girls, posing in the middle of the street, while their friends risk their lives to crouch down with their DLRs to get the perfect shot of Insta-babe's outfit against the background of Matilda the Musical.

As I wait for the photo shoot to finish, someone rams their suitcase into the back of my legs.

I think we can make a good guess as to who chose looks and who chose books in this scenario. And looks are winning.

Time to go in.

The doors are flanked either side.

Experience has told me that one of them is a ticket checker and the other a bag checker. But which is which? I cannot tell. This is like that logical deduction riddle. If one man in a suit checks only tickets, and the other only bags, what one question do you ask to gain safe entry to the theatre?

"Box office?" I try with the one on the right.

"Yup," he replies. "Just through here, but I need to check your bag first."

Well, that worked, I guess.

I open up my backpack for him and he prods around at the top layer before waving me in.

The Cambridge is very thirties. All Poirot fonts and... well, that's it really.

The box office is on the left, hidden behind a glass window, with holes at face level. Put there, presumably, so the box officers can breathe. The counter is fronted by mirrors etched with a vaguely art decoish pattern.

There are three men standing behind the glass, but a big family has just come in and they are spreading themselves out.

The box officer on the end leans out to one side and beckons me over.

"The surname's Smiles?" I say as I approach the bench.

He grabs the box of tickets.

"Maxine?" he asks, picking one out. "Here you go," he says, sliding it under the glass without waiting for an answer. I must be the only Smiles in tonight. Makes a change.

My next stop is the merch desk. Which, very pleasingly, is actually a desk. Or rather, a row of desks. The old fashioned wooden ones where the lid lifts up, and there's a small hole to fit your ink well in. The type of desk that I had at my school, despite my education happening long after the advent of biros. I think they thought it added to the aesthetic. Theyust have left them there to impress the parents. All those foreign dignitaries who wanted a classic English prep school education for their little darlings. And yes, I went to a fancy school. Keep up. It was certainly an education. The headmaster had to step down in my final year because of rumours that he was a bit too friendly with the boys, if you get my meaning.

Hmm. Probably not the best place to be remembering these things.

processed_IMG_20190830_183626.jpg

I buy myself a programme. It's six pounds. Not really much more to say on the matter. There's some other merch stuff on offer, but nothing is really speaking to me. I like the look of the Trunch hoodie, because you know I'm always into the villains, but it has the Matilda title treatment on the front which kinda negates the entire point of the thing. If you're the Trunch, you're the Trunch, you don't be wanting the name of that little maggot on your chest. Honestly, who dreamt that one up?

I'm also handed a voucher for cut-price sweets, which is actually a pretty sweet (... sorry) deal and one I might steal for my work.

Anyway, enough of this. I've got a lot of stairs to climb because I'm in the grand circle tonight, which is the one right at the tippy top of the theatre here and, because this is the West End and we don't like poor people around here, there's no entrance from the foyer. I have to go back out into the sunshine, and get in via another entrance, leading to the povvo stairs.

processed_IMG_20190830_183706.jpg

I'll give it to the Cambridge though, they actually thought about this. From the foyer doors, there's a roped-off corridor leading to the grand circle entrance, meaning that I don't have to be subjected to a second bag check. Well done to whoever came up with that.

Up all the stairs, passing ads for shows currently cluttering up the other LW theatres in town ("What will you see next?" they ask. All of them, Andrew. All of them.)

As I reach the summit, the posters give way to tilted frames advertising platinum blonde hair dye and national green hair day. Looks like we've gone a bit immersive up here, and I am appreciating the effort.

processed_IMG_20190830_183830.jpg

A front of houser catches my eye and I show him my ticket. "Through this door, on the left and one row up," he says, pointing to the door right next to us.

I go in. Passing the little merch stand. They have programmes and CDs on display, as well as those sweets, and what looks like cups of toxic fluid. I've never seen anything so bright claiming to be edible before. Red and yellow and green. They look like they belong in the opening scene of The Secret World of Alex Mack (yes, I'm old. Leave me alone).

I'm tempted to buy one. Prove myself as the true investigative journalist that I'm definitely not. But people who remember Alex Mack are too old to drink that many e-numbers in public.

Instead, I go find my seat.

There's a break in the rows up here, forming two sections with a corridor parting the rows like the red sea down the middle.

I'm in the top half, because I'm poor. But right at the front of the top half, because I'm a master ticket buyer.

Families come in toting arm-fulls of shopping bags, which they struggle to fit under their seats. Small children perch precariously on top, like baby dragons guarding their golden hoard.

Ushers run around handing out booster seats. A must all the way up here, as even with the benefit of the corridor in front of me, and a somewhat grown-up height, the front of the stage is still hidden from view to my adult-eyes.

processed_IMG_20190830_184014.jpg

But, you know, I've seen it before. So it's fine. I'm guessing you have too. As have the simply astonishing number of latecomers who don't seem even slightly bothered that they've missed the first fifteen minutes. So I'm not going to go into detail about the show, but I still think the interval is in a really weird place. Bruce Bogtrotter eating a cake is not a natural finishing point, nor is it a cliff-hanger. It has to be the most awkwardly placed interval since The Royal Ballet shoved an extra one into the already existing Alice in Wonderland when they realised that getting a ballerina to dance flat out for 90 mins was a touch mean.

Anyway, I go off to explore.

Up in the third-class tier, there are two front of house spaces to hang out in. The bar. Which is packed. And a room with nothing it it but a merch desk and a mirror. Which is also packed.

processed_IMG_20190830_201958.jpg

I have to dive out the way as a mum lobs an empty Sprite bottle at me, presumably aiming for the bin a whole two feet away from my two feet.

"Sorry," she says, already walking away.

Honestly, I've long come to accept that I'm invisible. I don't draw the eye. And I'm fine with that. I walk alone. I am as one with the shadows. But I draw the line at someone seeing me after acting like I ain't there. Commit to my imperceptibility, you cowards.

I go back inside. My row has a railing in front. I prop my feet up on the bar. This is quality seating action. More rows should have footrests.

Mr Wormwood and the son, Michael come out. I mean, Rob Compton and Glen Facey, as Mr Wormwood and son Wormwood, come out. There's a bit of banter with the audience. Don't try this at home, and all that. "We don't want any kids is the audience tonight going home and trying these things out," says Compton, meaning the disgusting business of reading books. I can't agree more. I read hundreds of books as a kid. Thousands. And look where it got me. Visiting over 200 theatres in eight months and getting bottles chucked at me. I’m a tragedy of wasted potential. If things had been different, I would have made a great bottle-thrower.

"Veruccas of the mind," he goes on.

He's not wrong.

"Who here's read a book?" Hands pop up all over the place. "You should be ashamed," he sneers. "You, madam, what's your name?"

She gives it.

He jabs his finger in her direction, chanting that she's a nasty bookworm, a worm, and books are stupid.

"She won't stop reading," he says, calling down after his onslaught of insults. "But she won't put up her hand in a theatre again."

And that's something we can all be grateful for.

And then we're off again.

Swings descend from the ceiling, and I get all teary-eyed over the When I grow up song, like I always fucking do.

Francesca McKeown's Matilda fights the good fight, brings down the baddies, and gets her happy ending.

Confetti shower for the people in the stalls, and then it's time to go home.

I trudge my way back down the stairs, feeling exhausted.

Matilda always makes me feel really sad. Helpless. Defeated.

If even this bright and brave little girl needs magical powers to overcome her oppressors what hope is there for the rest of us?

That's probably not the takeaway I'm supposed to get from this show, and no doubt I'm projecting, but... man, I think we could all do with some laservision right now.

Wash Out

Eight months into the marathon, and I think you know me well enough to sense that I'm a bit of a daredevil. A thrill-seeker. A speed junky. Always chasing that next high.

So on a Friday night, as the clouds darken and the rain begins to pour, there's only one place I could be heading.

Yup. I'm off to catch for some free outdoor theatre.

Yeah, it's risky. I know. But don't worry. I've checked their Twitter feed and there's no mention of it being called off. And with a six o'clock start, there's still time to run over to a different theatre and catch another show if it does get rained out.

There is the tricky matter of what to wear, but as I'm currently living out of a suitcase, and don't own any waterproofs anyway, I just make sure I've got my scarf in my bag and head off to London Bridge.

On the short walk from the station, umbrellas pop open all around me, but I refuse to give in. I march on, striding between the raindrops and resolutely deciding not to put up my own umbrella.

It's just rain. It's fine. The only thing I have to lose is my eyeliner.

Still, it's not without trepidation that I approach The Scoop.

And not just because everyone seems to be scurrying away in the other direction.

A low stone wall is quarantined behind crowd-control railings. Their only purpose seemingly to stop people from peering down into the stage from above. All I can see is a lighting rig, peeking up from inside the well like a submarine's periscope.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_175649.jpg

As I walk around, following the path that leads to the bulbous glass shape of City Hall, I finally manage to catch a glimpse of what's happening.

Which is to say: nothing.

Rows and rows of empty seats. Wet and empty seats.

Wide stone steps, circling the floor-level stage, are filled with nothing but the slick sheen of rain.

I press on, walking round towards the entrance.

Two security guards stand around wearing hi-vis jackets. They don't pay me any mind as I walk past.

A woman in a waterproof does. She smiles as I approach, looking damp but resolute.

"Is the performance still going ahead?" I ask, a touch sceptically.

It's a couple of minutes to six. If it's happening, it's has to be soon.

"It is," she says, sounding very stoic about the whole thing.

I am filled with admiration. You have to applaud theatre people. They are the ancestors of those epic posties of old. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these stage managers from putting on a fucking play.

"Oh, you brave souls," I say, really meaning it.

"There's a marquee that you can sit under if you do decide to see it. It's not strictly for the audience, but there are only five people here so..." She lets the sentence trail away.

"I'm going to go for the marquee then," I say, and I do.

I walk around the back of the seating, past a small wooden shed, and find the promised marquee. Underneath there's a tech desk, being kept nice and dry, a small group of people huddling around it, and a dog.

I duck my head under the marquee and find an empty spot.

A gust of wind sneaks in, picking up my skirt just as I'm trying to sit down, and wafting it over the sleeping dog. They lift their head and look at me through half-closed eyes.

"Sorry," I apologise to the dog's owner. "I'll try and keep a hold of my skirt away from him... her? Him? ... her?"

The owner looks at me from under her umbrella. "It doesn't matter," she says before turning away.

Well, alright then.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_175917.jpg

The dog isn't bothered by either my skirt or my misgendering and they promptly go back to sleep.

A second later, someone arrives with a rolled-up blanket, and the owner carefully tucks the dog in.

The dog sighs contentedly.

They look super comfy.

The rest of us shiver as we wait for the show to start.

A young woman races down the steps towards the stage. We're off! The Sea Queen, a very appropriate title for the weather, as the pirates slop their way across the wet stage.

It's pretty cute. There are songs. And swords. And a girl pirate who don't take no nonsense from any boys.

They're all miced up, but even so, it's hard to hear over the patter of the rain on the roof of the marquee. I strain to make out the lyrics and then, as a cast member darts off to the left, I realise I don't have to. Because there's a captioning screen right there. It's got all the words, and I hadn't even noticed it. So, I can read along the bits I miss.

I'm very happy right now. Even if it's freezing.

As the pirates' shirts grow sodden I scramble about in my bag for a scarf.

More people arrive. A cool looking girl stands on the steps to watch from beneath the shadow of a huge umbrella. People walking past stop to look over the wall. A family appear and the two small girls squirrel themselves under the marquee, sitting close to the dog - but not too close.

But the rain doesn't stop. Puddles begin to form on the stage.

As the actors race about, swashbuckling about with swords, the stage manager comes out. She raises her hand and the battle stops, mid-swash.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she calls out. "Apologies to those that have just arrived, and those in the audience sheltering," she says, indicating our group under the marquee. "We’re just going to pause-"

"-the pivotal moment!" says the girl pirate, earning herself a giggle.

"Pause for health and safety reasons," continues the stage manager. "We're just going to check in with one another."

"We won't tell who wins!" says pirate girl.

"Shame!" calls back one of the marqueers.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_182637.jpg

The cast all creep their way damply off stage and go to hide behind the set.

The rain continues to pour down onto the marquee, weighing down the roof until a huge flood splashes off and makes us all jump.

Underneath, a gentle camaraderie forms between the marqueers.

A couple gets chatting with the lady at the tech desk. She's the captioner. She was supposed to be doing the show on Wednesday, but it got rescheduled. Because of the rain.

They ask if she's a student and are surprised to learn that no, it's her actual job. Then they ask about the actors, and are again shocked to find out that they've all graduated and are now bona fide working actors.

We wait. This rain really isn't letting up.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_182852.jpg

I blearily stare at all the office blocks rising above the edge of The Scoop. Odd view. Considering we have the river right behind us. You'd think they'd want Tower Bridge as a backdrop.

Perhaps I should go. Not because I'm damp and cold. I am damp and cold, but the actors must be damper and colder, and I do wonder whether they would feel more comfortable leaving if, well, we weren't here.

"Looks like they're stopping," says someone nodding towards the stage. A couple of actors scuttle out from behind it. They're in costume. But not the pirate costumes from before. They're in doublets. Fancy doublets. With frogging. Not really suitable wear for the high seas. These look altogether more Shakespearian fare.

The family decide to call it quits.

"Thank you for coming," says the captioner. "Sorry we couldn't do anything about the weather."

"Oh, are you in control?" asks the dad.

"Yeah," says the captioner with a sigh. "Sorry."

They say goodbye to everyone and make their way out into the rain.

The rest of us cross our arms and wait for news.

The stage manager reappears.

It isn't looking good.

"Ladies and gents," she starts. "Thank you so much for your patience. That took a little longer than expected. We're going to have to cancel this show, just because the floor is a bit slippy. But the forecast is looking good for later and we're still going ahead with Twelfth Night and we'd love for you to stay and see our beautiful production on the same set. It starts at eight, so don't go too far, go get a drink something warm to eat, and well see you later."

And she's off. Presumably to find a drink and something warm to eat for herself.

processed_MVIMG_20190816_183006.jpg

More cast members appear. One of them is wearing a massive dress. So massive she needs help keeping the skirts up away from the ground. It's pale cream. Can't be having that dragging only on the damp concrete.

They wave at us as they make their way around the seats, stopping to clap in our direction as they draw near.

We applaud right back.

Not all heroes wear capes. But they frequently wear big arse-dresses and ruffs.

Time to go.

I pull my jacket tight around me and emerge from the marquee.

It's not so bad now that I'm not sitting on a cold stone step.

As I clamber back up the steps, the rain stops. The sky clears.

People start to emerge from the cafes and pubs they'd been hiding in.

I decide to walk to Embankment. Take in the river.

I won't be coming back for the second show. I've already seen two Twelfth Nights this year. I'm sure the cast with cope with my absence. They're made of strong stuff.

Chateauneuf du Programme

Ah, the glamour of the West End. The bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. The hoards of French teenagers hanging out with Eros. The shops heaving with Union Jack merch. You can't beat it.

Honestly, I can't think of a better place to watch a musical, set in Peckham, and based on a TV show that aired its last episode before I was born.

If you hadn't guessed, I'm off to see Only Fools and Horses. Only Fools and Horses the Musical, I should add. Because, yup. It's a musical. Something that managed to escape me until I saw one of the banners outside the theatre, buffeting in the wind.

I'm not sure who thought that what Del Boy was lacking as a character was a heartfelt ballad, but someone did, because it's now a thing. And I'm here to see it.

At the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

What ever happened to the Haymarket?

No, I'm not dissing their programming choices. At least, not right now. I just mean, wasn't there a thing? It was for sale a few years ago, right? And, like, wasn't there a Kickstarter to raise money to buy it? On behalf of a collective that would use it to programme female writers. Or something like that.

Anyway, it's clear from where I'm standing on Suffolk Street that they were not successful. Which is a shame.

Not that there's anything wrong with the idea of Only Fools and Horses. The Musical.

Full disclosure, I actually really loved that show as a kid.

It was one of the few things we would watch as a family. That and Are You Afraid of the Dark.

Yeah, there was always quality TV playing in the Smiles household.

Back in the early nineties, it took a lot to convince my Mum to switch over from the newly launched QVC. But she was always down for a rerun of whatever classic Trotter-tale was on that afternoon. We'd sit together, giggling away, having great fun, until the end credits would roll and a second later Joan Rivers would be trying to sell us a necklace covered in glittery eggs. I sometimes used to wish that Derek Jason would join the Midnight Society to help stop the curse of home shopping.

I jostle my way through the Phans crowding the opposite pavement on their way to Her Maj's Theatre and head in.

The Haymarket has that classic West End layout which keeps all the different tiers separate, with different entrances for each of the circles to ensure that there is no disgusting mixing of the classes.

What it doesn't have, is any indication of where the box office is.

I examine each of the doors, and pick the one in the middle because it doesn't have a queue.

I find myself in the foyer, and here I find the queues. Two of them. One on the left. One on the right.

"Err, box office?" I ask the nearest front of houser.

He points to the one on the right.

Ah. Yeah. Of course. I should have guessed that. It's the classic hole-in-the-wall arragement. My favoruite kind.

MVIMG_20190815_221309~2.jpg

I give my surname and get a ticket in exchange. No fuss. No questions. Easy.

That done, I go back outside to see what door I need to go through.

Upper Circle and Gallery? Nope.

Private Boxes? Nope.

Royal Circle? That's the one.

I join the line, and find myself queueing to get back into the same exact foyer I just left.

Fuck's sake.

At least I'm getting the full Haymarket experience I suppose. Bag checks and all.

"I'm just going to need to check your bag," says the bag checker. "If it's full to the brim we might need to move some stuff."

It is full to the brim. I carry around a lot of stuff. Including the programme from my matinee today. I hope he doesn't notice that.

"Do you mind if I look under here?" he says, pointing to my scarf which is buddled up on top of the pile. I move it for him. "Lovely," he says, as he has a little poke around in what must be the most gentle and well-handled bag check I've had on this marathon. No squeexing of bottoms and touching things without permission here. A fully consensual bag check. Very 2019. I like it.

"Now," he says, as I zip up my bag. "You go through the door right in front of you."

And I'm in.

But I don't go through the door right in front of me though.

I have another stop to make first.

The merch desk.

This was the queue that confused me earlier, but there's no queue now.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask the lady behind the desk.

"Of course!" she beams. "That's ten pounds."

Blimey. "Blimey." I'll admit it's been a while since I did the West End. But still. Ten pounds. Fucking hell. "Okay," I say. What else can I do but agree? I mean... I'm eight months into the marathon. I can't baulk now. And it's not like I haven't paid more.

"I like your purse," she says as get out my debit card.

I thank her. It is a nice purse. It's in the shape of an elephant. I've had it since I was at uni. He's looking a bit sad and creased now, but he still makes me smile. So he stays.

"Are you looking forward to the show?" she asks brightly. I can see she's doing her bestest to help me recover from the price-shock.

"Yeah, kinda," I say, feeling guilty about not being more enthusiastic.

It's not her fault that I'm only here for marathon reasons.

"I know what you mean," she says, nodding sympathetically. I'm not sure she does, but I'm really appreciating the effort. This is customer service excellence. Whoever is doing the training at the Haymarket needs one hell of a payrise. And perhaps should consider tackling the staff at the Soho as their next project.

"I'm sure it is," I say, trying my best to be positive. "I just have like, a mental block or something."

"You'll come out smiling," she promises before offering me a receipt.

I hope she's right.

I go through the door, as directed, and start walking up the stairs. They're well fancy. Custom carpets with the letter H woven into them topped with little crowns.

At the top, a front of houser steps out to intercept me. I show him my ticket.

"Great," he says, all smiles and friendless. "Just through the door ahead and on the left. Bars and toilets are down there," he says, pointing off to the right.

A second later a programme seller stops me to ask if I know where I'm going.

This is starting to get a bit intense. I'm not used to all this niceness. It's like Pret love-bombed all over the theatre. Soon they'll be offering me free coffees and tweeting me heart emojis.

I find my seat without further assistance and settle down in the front row to find out exactly what ten pounds means in the world of programmes.

processed_MVIMG_20190815_192518.jpg

I'll give them this: it's hefty. Lovely paper stock. And some great artwork. They have Grandad's army discharge record, dating profiles for the characters, the menu of Sid's Cafe, and a whole double-page spread of classified ads from the Peckham Echo. They sure had a lot of fun making this. And perhaps all these cute bits are worth ten quid to a superfan. However, this musical is supposed to be set in the eighties. And yet the classified ads are full of mobile numbers, and even worse, 020 area codes, which I'm sure I don't need to remind you, weren't a thing until 2005.

I put the programme away and concentrate on the theatre. It's really lovely in here. All chandeliers and paintings of naked nymphs. When the choice came to go big or go home, they went big. And then bigger. It looks like the decorators were in a Rococo-off in who can add the most twiddly bits to their sections. And better yet, it's haunted. So, you know I'll be keeping an eye out for theatre ghosts.

processed_IMG_20190815_191454.jpg

My neighbour arrives and she is very dressed up. Matching bag and purse. One of those tweedy Chanel jackets. Hair is freshly blown and she's carrying a Selfridges shopping bag on one arm and a suited-up boyfriend on the other.

I hide my battered black rucksack under my chair.

As I take in the rest of the audience, I realise that I am properly underdressed, which is not a feeling I get all that often. I like my clothes. I like to dress up. In dresses. Sometimes skirts. I literally don't even own a pair of jeans. I only have one pair of trousers, which I dig out if I need to hike up a cliff or something, but otherwise, it's all skirts and belts and vintage trinkets. But my studded clompy boots are marking me out as a slob in the midst of all these kitten heels.

The lights dim. There's an announcement.

Switch off phones, pagers, and walkmans. Because noise isn't "pukka or cushty."

That gets a giggle. And with the audience still laughing, we're off. And... it's exactly what you'd think it would be. An extended episode of Only Fools. With songs.

And yes, that includes the theme music, which everyone in the audience joins in enthusiastically with.

I mean, everyone apart from me. Because I don’t do singing.

As the set rotates to take us inside the Trotter residence, there’s a coo as Grandad appears in his chair. But my neighbour's bloke isn't having it. "That's not Paul Whitehouse!" he mock-whispers to Chanel Jacket.

Oh dear. Someone left it a bit too late to book their tickets, and missed out on the original cast. Probably was too busy matching her shoes to her bag.

Despite being set in South London, they make full use of their position opposite Her Majesty's Theatre and take every opportunity to mock Phantom of the Opera, even sending Rodney and Cassandra off on a date there. Which is a nice, gentle, in-joke for those whose only knowledge of theatres are the ones they say on the way in from the tube station.

processed_IMG_20190815_191449.jpg

It's the interval now, and I'm not sure I really want to be the goth-girl lurking in the bar, so I stay where I am, drinking in the Roccoco joy. As the auditorium empties, I peer into all the dark corners for any sign of spirits, but the only ones I spy are in the hands of people making their way back from the bar.

I bet the real ghosts all being kept busy by the ushers. Having their ectoplasm mopped up and the being sent to sit on the naughty step when they try and scare an audience member.

"Sorry, can I be a nuisance?" asks Chanel Jacket's bloke. Without Chanel Jacket. But with Chanel jacket. He drapes it over the edge of the circle. Carefully folded.

An usher comes over. I get excited that she might be here to shoo off a ghost, but no, she wants the tweedy jacket removed. Chanel Jacket's bloke drapes Chanel jacket over her seat instead.

When Chanel Jacket returns, she rummages around in her bag and pulls out a folding fan. It's already half unfolded. She flaps it around it its half-cocked state and I begin to grow suspicious about the matching accessories and tweedy jacket. I'm not sure how a woman can rise to such levels of sartorial splendour without learning how to flick open a fan properly.

I'm just about to offer to teach her, but she twists round in her seat, digging her knees into my leg, and I decide that I'm not cut out for the world of fan education. So I let her flap it around ineffectually. An impressive outfit ruined by terrible fan skills.

We're back in Peckham now, with the cast doing their mostest to give us a good time and Tom Bennett's Del Boy always ready with a wink for the audience.

And after a rollicking sing-along as a send-off, and one final dig at the Phantom, we're sent back into the West End.

But Peckham with forever remain in our hearts.

Unfortunately.

Think of Punny Title Later

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.

"Please do..."

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.

processed_IMG_20190809_134257.jpg

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.

processed_IMG_20190809_134259.jpg

"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.

We're starting.

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.

processed_IMG_20190809_134522_1.jpg

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...

Dante's Theatre

Boris Johnston is prime minister, and temperatures are topping thirty degrees, but at least I don’t have to go south of the river tonight.

Such are my priorities right now.

Still, a nice journey on the Victoria line is not to be sniffed at. Especially when it’s almost completely empty and I get to sprawl about on the seats, lazily flapping my fan, feeling like I just stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play.

The fan stays very much out for the short walk to my destination for the evening: Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub. I really hope this place has air con. I’m not doing all that well right now.

It’s taken a while to get to this one. For a pub that makes claim to be of the pub-theatre variety, they don’t have all that much in the way of theatre. Music? Yes. There’s plenty of that going on. But no matter how many times I clicked on their website, theatre was never in the listings.

I even started following them on Twitter. Just in case they were the sort of venue that was a bit lazy about uploading their calendar. I thought they’d at the least retweet a visiting company. But all I got were weekly tweets about their Sunday roasts. Which only served to make me hungry. Not hungry enough to travel all the way to Walthamstow, you understand. But a gentle gnawing that acted as a weekly reminder that I was not having a roast for Sunday lunch, and that my stomach was not particularly pleased with my life choices.

But with summer, comes the Edinburgh previews. And the Ye Olde got in on the action with a one act musical. On for only two nights, I had to do some rearranging. But I’m here now, booked in, and ready get this pub marathoned.

Oh, and yes – they did tweet about the show. This morning. Super helpful, and more seriously, also a slightly worrisome indicator of ticket sales.

Anyway, I can see it now. Just over the road. Reached by a rainbow coloured crossing, which is rather nice. Let’s just not talk about the address. Hoe Street. They do love their farming equipment in Walthamstow…

It’s quiet inside. Going to the pub clearly isn’t high on the list of things to do on a boiling hot Wednesday evening hereabouts. I was about to ask at the bar where I need to go, but I’ve just spotted it. Over there. A table in the corner, with a BOX OFFICE sign propped up on the window behind and a laptop set up on top. There are two people sat there. Both with pints. Which surely is the best way to handle that job.

“Hi!” I say. “The surname’s Smiles?”

“Maxine?” says the female half of the pair, looking up from the screen.

That’s me.

“That’s perfect. We’ll be opening the doors at around twenty past,” she says. “Because of the weather.”

“Although you can sweat up there if you want!” says the bloke.

Well, I suppose that answers the air con question.

“You can get a drink from the bar,” says the woman, pointing to the bar behind me. “And it’s fine to bring glasses up to the theatre.”

“Where is the entrance?” I ask.

She points to the door right next to her. There’s a sign. “The show starts here.” Ah. I should have guessed that. I blame the heat. My brain is little more than pink goo right now. If it gets any hotter it'll start dripping out my ears.

Not sure alcohol is that good an idea for me right now, so I take a seat over by the window and try to cool myself down. It’s not going very well.

The minutes tick by.

People come in.

Someone buys a ticket.

Another is checking in.

Most are just here for a drink though. Perhaps they just found out who the prime minister is.

It’s past twenty past now.

I look over at the door. It is still very much closed.

It must be really hot up there.

I grab my fan and flap it about, more in nervousness at the impending heat than the current climate. Whoever’s idea it was to programme a heat wave right now clearly lacks an ability to read the room.

processed_MVIMG_20190724_190342.jpg

“If you’re here for the show, The Room,” comes the voice of the woman at box office, cutting across the pub. “The doors are now open.”

Right then. We’re doing this thing.

I make my way over to the door, which is not actually open in the strict sense of not being closed. It requires a good push. But soon I’m through and into a small foyer, with nothing in it about from some massive windows.

There is another door though. This one is actually open. It has a sign. “Only drinks bought here allowed upstairs.” Which I suppose means that I’m going up the steps. So I do.

There’s someone at the top.

“Right down to the end,” he says, pointing down the corridor.

I follow his directions, going right down to the end of the corridor, where there’s another man waiting.

“Here’s a programme,” he says, handing me one from the stack. “You can sit wherever you like,” he says, indicating the door on the right.

Just as I’m beginning to feel like a parced-parcel, I'm in the theatre.

It's big. Well, big for a pub theatre. And it's almost all stage.

processed_MVIMG_20190724_193159.jpg

There's a small platform at one end, with a couple of rows of seats on it. The rest of the room is given over to the set. Two chairs. A small table. And a few props. In the background, I spy a keyboard.

It feels all wrong and topsy turvy, as if the stage should have been on the platform, and the seating on the floor. But we're here for a musical, and I suppose this gives our cast lots of room to bounce around.

Our cast of one that is.

I don't think I've ever seen a musical one hander.

As our performer and accompanist come out, I fold up my fan, but all my good intentions about keeping said fan closed and out of action for the duration of the performance disappear half-way through the first number.

It's really hot in here. And not just hot, but close. The air is heavy and thick. The windows hidden behind huge wooden shutters, painted black.

A woman in the front row has the same idea, wafting herself with a neat wooden fan while I flap around with my great big fabric one.

The less well-prepared members of the audience do the best they can with their free programmes.

Our poor performer, standing not five feet away from us, has to watch as we play the roles of delicate southern belles while she struggles through this liquid heat, unable to stop for even a moment as the entire show is her. Just her. Carrying this emotionally heavy story all by herself, dragging her character's turmoil with her and all the while pretending they were weren't all trapped within an oven preheating for tonight's dinner.

I'm not a sweaty person, but my skin is as clammy as meat left on the kitchen counter overnight. My fringe is plastered to my forehead. I run my fingers through it and cringe in disgust at the feel of my damp hair.

But my shudders of horror are stilled when I feel something crawling down my neck. Visions of creeping spiders flood my mind, but when I go to brush it away I realise it's a droplet of perspiration.

Under the spotlights, the stage looks a good deal smaller than it did at the beginning. The black walls press in closer. Everything is more concentrated, pushed together, the music filling what little breathing room we have left.

And then, half-way through the third song, shit... should I even tell you this? Oh gawd. I hate this. It's an Edinburgh preview. I'm not here on a press ticket. On the one hand that means I'm under no obligation to the production or anyone involved in it. But on the other... they didn't ask for a blogger to be here, with her thoughts, and her words.

Fuck. Let's just give the facts... and not mention names. I don't want this turning up in search listings.

Half way through the third songs, as she whistfully reads a letter from her daddy, our performer falters. And stops.

Behind her, the music keeps on going.

She apologies. But can't start up again.

The man on the piano sings a line but it’s no good. She hasn’t forgotten the words.

It's too much.

She turns, running to a door at the back of the stage area, and collapsing through it. She cries out, unable to move any further.

The piano stops. The man behind iy gets up and goes backstage. The door closes behind them.

Silence fills the room.

There's a scrape as someone sitting behind me pushes back her chair. It's the woman from the box office. She disappears through the side-door to see what's happening.

We wait, fanning ourselves. We all know what happened.

I'm finding it hard enough to breath just sitting her. I can't imagine forcing my lungs to push air out into this heaving fug. Adding the extra challenge of making it sound good is an impossible demand to place on someone.

A few minutes later, the box office lady is back. "Just give us five minutes," she says. "It's very hot today."

We settle back. A few people start chatting.

The woman with the wooden fan shows it to a lady sitting in the row behind. "I got it from Spain," she explains.

Our performer reemerges. She walks back on stage and retakes her place. A second later, we're back in the room, with the letter from daddy, back into the emotionally twisted inner life of this character.

There's no stopping this time. We're drawn in deeper and deeper until there's no escape. The layers peeled back, one by one, each revealing a secret darker than the one before.

And then we're done.

We applaud. Of course. Just getting through that performance would have been hard enough, coming back on after a collapse... well, that's the act of bravery and endurance that I would never be capable of.

She disappears backstage. Our continued clapping does not call her back. Hopefully she’s chugging back a pint glass if ice cold water.

Afterwards, people hang back.

Someone opens the door, but there's no rush to the exit. They start turning around in their chairs to talk to one another.

Not me though. I can't take this anymore. My dress is sticking to me in all sorts of inconvenient places. I have to get out of here.

I stumble back down the corridor, retracing my steps down the stairs and back into the pub. The doors are open and I aim myself at them, filling my lungs with the roadside air, gulping it down as I make my way back to the tube station, feeling as if I have just walked through all nine circles of hell.

And it's not even over yet.

Thirty-nine degrees tomorrow.

May the theatre gods protect us all. Especially those that have to go on stage.

Shawly not

I’m on my way to the Shaw Theatre right now. And for once, I actually know where this theatre is. When the Northern Line crapped out last week, I had to get out at Euston and walk the rest of the way to work. A walk that took me down Euston Road as I headed into Islington. And as the red behemoth of the British Library loomed across my vision, I spotted something dangling in the way. It was a sign. For the Shaw Theatre.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_185951.jpg

Do you know about the Shaw Theatre? I didn’t know about the Shaw Theatre. It seems to be one of those theatres that is connected to a hotel. Like the Savoy but less… just less. Less glamourous. Less well known. And less programming. It’s taken me over six months to find a marathon-qualifying show for me to go to.

The Shaw seems to be the type of place that those regional music acts tour to. You know the kind of thing. Tribute acts and theme acts and cabaret acts and showcase acts. The type of acts that only seem to exist in these type of theatres.

They also have that Tape Face bloke, but I wasn’t altogether convinced that his stuff counted as theatre. So I took a pass.

But not tonight. Oh no. Tonight, I’m going to be seeing Rent.

Which I am rather excited about because I’ve never seen Rent before. I’m actually not all that familiar with it. I know that one song. You know, the one with all the numbers that every musical theatre fan seems to be able to reel off with only the slightest provocation.

Anyway, it looks nice enough. Modern. Glass. There’s some sort of massive sculpture action going on outside. A wire cage hanging above the carpark. Not sure what that’s meant to be but if it were being used as a prison to contain some supervillain or other, I would not be surprised.

processed_IMG_20190714_190043.jpg

I pick my way through the cars and head towards the main entrance.

As I approach, the door opens, held by a young woman in Shaw Theatre livery.

Gosh, I don’t think I’ve had the door held open for me at the theatre before. Not by a dedicated door person anyway. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this place really is as swanky as the Savoy.

“Hello!” says the young woman, all bright smile and welcoming.

I thank her, still slightly surprised by all these gentility.

She makes use of my disorientation to hold out a pile of stickers.

They have rainbows on them. And the name of the theatre.

That’s how to do Pride. With multi-coloured stickers. I approve.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_190110.jpg

I thank her again, already feeling very positive about this trip. Getting the door held open for me and a free sticker? The Shaw is gunning for a top ten position in my end of year rankings, I can tell you that right now.

From there, I join the queue for the box office. It’s a rather long queue. And is moving very slowly.

Another young woman, this one wearing a smart blue jacket, makes her way down the line asking if we booked ourselves e-tickets.

The bloke behind me shows her a print out.

“Yup, that’s fine,” she confirms.

“So I don’t have to queue?” he asks, amazed at this revelation.

“No, you can use that.”

He trots off with his print out, very pleased.

“Ooo! Stickers!” comes a cry from behind me.

Heads turn, and soon the young woman on the door is besieged by people who missed out on the sticker action on their way in.

“Can I have a sticker please?”

“Can you get me one too, mum?”

Such is the power of a rainbow sticker.

From my position in the queue, I have a great view of the bar. It’s exactly the sort of bar you would imagine there to be in a hotel’s theatre. All dramatic hanging lights and stacks of mini-bar sized snacks hanging out alongside the bottles of more serious stuff.

A girl goes up to the bar and holds up a paper bag full of some sort of takeaway.

She asks the barman something, and after a moment’s thought, he takes it from her.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she calls after him as he disappears through the back door. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she repeats when he remerges a few seconds later.

I think he was putting it in the fridge for her, which I have to say, is not something I’ve ever considered asking bar staff to help with, at the theatre or anywhere else, but my god, what a good idea. Especially in this weather.

“Have you got an e-ticket?” asks the woman in the blue jacket, doing another trawl of the queue.

“I think I’m picking up,” I tell her.

“What’s the surname?”

I tell her, and she goes off to the front to double check.

I do the same, but on my phone, and bringing up the confirmation email remember that I paid an extra two quid for this privilege. Fucking hell. No wonder she’s asking about e-tickets so much. What kind of idiot would pay two quid for the pleasure of a paper ticket? Apart from me, but we all know I have issues.

A few minutes later, I’m at the front of the queue.

“Is that Maxine?” asks the lady on box office when she checks her computer for my booking.

I tell her that it is and a second later the printer behind the desk buzzes into action. She checks the ticket, folds up the ream, and hands it to me.

Right then. Time to explore.

Apart from the bar and the box office, there’s a seating area over by the entrance to the theatre. All red walls and old theatre posters and low settees. There’s also the most extraordinary carpeting going on. I mean, if I didn’t know this place had a hotel connection before, this carpet would tell me everything I need to know. It’s all floral and swirly, with another pattern going on underneath that I can’t quite make out. It’s like one of those Magic Eye posters from the nineties. I couldn’t make them out either.

The entrance to the theatre itself is closed off by a red velvet curtain. That combined with the old posters gives this place a very strange vibe. The modern hotel combined with the old school theatre. I’m not sure even the Shaw knows what this place is.

“Good evening,” comes a voice over the sound system. “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre. The house is now open. The house is now open.”

Now, you may say that I’ve been marathoning far too long (and I won’t disagree with you on that), but that message surprises me. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard a house open announcement that doesn’t mention the name of the show. You know: “Welcome to the Shaw Theatre for tonight’s performance of Rent…”

I wonder if the message has been pre-recorded. It would certainly make it easier for everyone with all those one-night shows that they have going on.

No one else appears bothered by this. They all crowd themselves towards the doors, heaving in close to each other until them become unmanageable mass of people.

I hang back and let them get on with it.

Seating is allocated. There’s no rush.

Eventually the queue clears, and I make my way in.

The first ticket checker barely looks as me as I pass through the curtain. She has no interest whatsoever in whether I have a ticket, or what it says on it if I do.

So I continue on, making my way through a dark corridor, with George Bernard Shaw quotes hung up on the walls, in what must be an attempt to justify the name of the theatre.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself,” one states. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” says another. I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that old Shawie-boy was a bit repetitive in his choice of sentence structure.

That makes me suspicious. I can’t for the life of me think what play either of these are from. Neither strike me as something the writer of Man and Superman would come out with. But then, I’m not a massive GBS fan, so, who knows?

I get out my phone and Google the first one and immediately find a page asking “Wait, did George Bernard Shaw really say this?”

The answers seem to suggest that no, he didn’t. But I don’t have time to research any further, because I’ve reached the other end of the corridor and there’s a ticket checker waiting for me on the other side.

“D23?” I ask, showing her the ticket.

“D23. You will be…” her finger traces the horizon of seats, wavering between the middle and final block of seats. “Hang on, let me show you.”

And with that she leads me down to the second aisle.

“Twenty-three did you say?”

“Err, yes,” I say, double checking my ticket.

She hops up a few steps to the fourth row. “You’re just in here,” she says.

“Lovely! Thank you!”

Whatever their questionable use of George Bernard Shaw quotes, you can’t fault the service.

Nor the seating. It’s very plush. Wide, squashy seats, covered in fuzzy velvet. Pretty lush.

Someone in the row in front turns around. “Do you know how long this is?” he asks.

My neighbour shakes her head. “Sorry, I just know its two acts.”

Yeah, no freesheets tonight. And no programmes.

Still, we got rainbow stickers.

I settle back in my seat and get comfortable.

The people sitting behind me are having some great theatre chat. By the sounds of it they are both musical theatre professionals and the gossip is flying. Lots of talk of “Cameron,” the joys of auditioning on a proper West End stage, and the perils of being second cover.

processed_MVIMG_20190714_192525.jpg

As the lights dim, there’s a scurrying of movement as people move down to better seats.

A couple slowly make their way down from the back, clinging onto the rail as they go down the stairs, move across the front of the stage, and then sink into a pair of seats in the front row.

Thus settled, they start to enjoy the show. Really enjoy the show. The woman sways from side to side, waving her arms as she feels the music.

It’s rather beautiful.

As for me, I’ve just realised what Rent is. It’s La Boehme, isn’t it? That whole candle scene. I recognise that! That’s good. I feel on firmer ground now. Except I’m now worrying about what a potential wank I am that I’m more familiar with La Boehme then Rent.

As our Mimi (again, no freesheet, I have no idea who she is) gets down on her knees and Arghhh Oooos into the night, it’s simply too move for the lady in the front row. She just has to dance. She gets up from her seat and boogies her way into the corner, where she bows her head, puts up her arms, and moves to the beat, truly embodying the ‘dance like no-one’s watching’ mandate more fully than I’ve ever seen anyone do it before.

The man she’s with watches her for a moment, checks behind him to see how we’re talking it, beckons her back to her seat and then goes to speak to the usher.

They whisper to each other feverously, the usher and the man, with lots of pointing around the auditorium.

He doesn’t want his lady to stop dancing. Oh no. He wants to find her a place where she can get her groove on without disturbing anyone else.

The usher nods. She understands. And he returns to his seat.

A few songs later she sneaks into the front row, crouching down next to the pair.

She’s sorted something. She’s taking them somewhere.

So they go. Leaving their prime spots, our lady dances her way out of the theatre.

It feels strangely quiet now that we’ve lost our alternate cast member. But the performers up on stage don’t let us relax for long.

“Moo!” orders our Maureen. “Everyone this side: Moo!”

Everyone duly moos as ordered. Well, almost everyone.

I do not partake. I have audience participation intolerance.

But as our Mark jumps up onto a table, and the table tips, throwing him forward, oh, I gasp. I gasp along with everyone else. He recovers his balance just in time, throwing out his hand to show us he’s okay. And we applaud. How could we not after such a feat of daring do?

“Did you moo?” someone asks in the row in front once the interval hits.

“No!” comes the reply.

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one then.

The person from the row in front is outraged. “No? But you have to!”

“Can you believe they only had a week to do all that?” counters the non-mooer, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Aren’t they amazing!”

They are. But I still don’t know who they are.

Interval over and there’s a strangled squeal from the audience as the cast comes out. They know what’s coming. And I can guess. Yes, it’s the number song! 525,600 apparently. That’s a big number. How do people remember that? I never even managed pi to five decimals.

But it’s proper good.

And it’s sad.

And I might be sniffing a bit. A hint of watery eye. No, it’s okay. I’m not going to cry.

Oh poor Angel.

And poor Mimi.

Shit, I’ve gone. The first tear has fallen and there’s no stopping me now.

As the final notes ring out, we all burst from our seats into a standing ovation. I can’t believe it was only on Friday I was saying I rarely ovate. Only when a performance hits me in the gut, was my justification. Well, gut fucking hit. Full on bullseye right in the intestines.

I turn around, taking in the audience.

There, at the back, in the far corner, is our dancing lady. She’s still moving to the sound of the band as they play us out. Hands above her head, hips swinging. And the man she’s with watching her.

And I start crying again, because that’s love, isn’t it? Finding someone the space to be themselves and letting them go for it, to the fullest.

Fuck yeah.

 

processed_MVIMG_20190714_192237.jpg

Mmmama who bopped me

I have to admit, I don't know anything about my next theatre. Not for lack of trying though. I've been on the Stockwell Playhouse website a lot, but even with that research happening, the things I've learnt are limited to the following: it's in Stockwell, there is lift access to all floors, and they have very short runs of musicals, spaced very far apart. That's it. I don't know whether it's a receiving house or a producing one. I don't even know if the shows are amateur productions. I just know that they have Spring Awakening on tonight, and I am going.

I've never seen Spring Awakening before, but I hear it's rather good. Nicki from my work, who went to see Six with me all those months back, claims it's her favourite musical. She saw it on Broadway, because of course she did. I'm perfectly willing to believe it's great. Duncan Sheik did the music after all, and I'm a major fan of American Psycho: The Musical.

Anyway, here I go. Short walk from Stockwell tube station and... that is not what I was expecting. I don't know what I was expecting. But not that.

There, directly opposite the traffic lights, is a large, modern building. With a glass-fronted ground floor. It doesn't look anything like a theatre. If I had to guess, I would say... I don't know... a gym maybe? But that's it. And the reason I know that's it, is because there are twin screens over the doorway, flashing and displaying the name: Stockwell Playhouse, as if we were standing outside some regional cinema or something.

Lots of people are going in.

Looks like Spring Awakening is the hot ticket in Stockwell tonight.

Inside there's a small foyer, and then the box office, in its own little hut. The box officer sealed off behind glass windows.

I join the queue and half a minute later it's my turn.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193103.jpg

I give my name and to my surprise the box office starts flicking through a ticket box. For some reason, I hadn't expected there to be paper tickets. I thought we'd be fully in check-list country here but it seems not. There it is, in my hand. With no fuss whatsoever. I didn't even need to confirm my first name. It was just given to me.

Well, I better go see what's happening upstairs then.

First stop, the bar. It's very busy in here. Very, very busy. So busy, I'm not sure I could even squeeze myself in. There's a pink light glowingly hazily over the crowd. I try to get a photo, but there's just too many people for me and my inferior photography skills to capture any sense of the space, so I move on. Further down the corridor.

On the walls, rehearsal photos have been arranged in neat patterns. I've noticed that this seems to be rather a thing in amateur theatre. This sticking of photos on the wall. Kinda reminds me of when I was at school, and they'd blutack all the play photos to try and convince our parents to purchase copies.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193156.jpg

There's a group of young women getting their tickets checked at the door to the theatre and chatting about some mutual acquaintance

"Can I interest you in a programme?" asks the ticket checker, putting on her best sales assistant voice. "Only one pound fifty."

"Does it have a picture of him in it?" asks one of the girls.

"It does!" The ticket checker flicks through the pages and turns around the programme to prove the existence of this photo. "There," she says, pointing to one of the headshots.

"Well, alright then."

"You have to get it," says her friend. "So you can ask him to sign it."

"Exactly!" agrees the ticket checker.

The girl is convinced. She reaches for her purse.

The other ticket checker spots me, and she leans around the group to reach for my ticket.

"Can I get a programme?" I ask. I want in on this headshot action.

"That's one pound fifty," she says, pulling one from her pile in readiness as I try to find the coins.

"Bargain," I say as I hand over the funds. It really is. By the looks of it, there is quite a few pages in that thing.

"Enjoy the show!" she wishes me as I take the programme and move on.

Everyone is so cheerful tonight. I can feel it in the air. The energy is crackling.

Although, that could just be the air con.

I'm in the theatre now and it's like a fridge.

I shiver as I find my seat in the front row and take off my jacket.

It's big in here. Like, properly big. No circle on anything, but the stalls go back quite a ways. And it's, you know, a theatre. Fixed seating. None of that temporary nonsense, or a room filled with chairs. Even the front row is on a rake, with a little step up from the entrance. And there's a raised stage. A bit thrusty, but nothing major. And a good size for a musical. I like it.

"Oo. It's cold in here," says a man as he walks in.

It is. And it's wonderful.

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193327.jpg

I have a look at the programme, and yup. It’s an amateur production. There’s a note from the director. You only ever get those in am dram programmes. And yes, look - there’s that crediting line you always get at these things: “This amateur production is presented by arrangement…” blah blah blah.

Well, that’s one mystery solved at least.

A young woman comes in. She's carrying far too many drinks.

"There you are!" she cries out to the other, equally young, woman sitting two seats away from me.

"What's all this?"

"This one's yours," she says and through some shared shuffling they manage to get a bottle out from between her fingers. Then she turns to me. "Sorry," she says. "I don't know you but can you hold this?"

She's holding out a plastic cup of water. "Don't worry," I say, taking it from here. "I have a spare pair of hands."

Now down to only two drinks she can get on with the business of organising herself and sitting down.

"I like your t-shirt, by the way," she says to me, dumping her bag down. "I want to a Hanson Christmas concert a few years back..." She then tells me this story about how they didn't sing MmmBop, because, well, it was a Christmas concert, and her friend never forgave her because of it.

I nod along and make sympathetic noises.

I don't have the heart to tell her it's actually a joke Nirvana t-shirt.

Oh well. No time for that anyway. The show is starting.

And, oh great. I'm getting a serious case of costume envy again. Everyone is dressed in black and white. The girls in black dresses with white detailing and the boys in natty breeches and jackets. I really want some. The breeches I mean. They look so comfy. Like pyjamas. And yet with that whole 19th-century German schoolboy groove going on.

The music's good too. It's very Duncan Sheik. Can spot his stuff a mile off. If only because he has this habit of building up a serious tune, and then suddenly stopping it just as it gets going. Like an Oscar's speech cut off when it gets too political. Like, we all want to hear some A-lister ranting on about the president, but there's a time limit and we've got six major awards to get through before the commercial break.

Now, I’m all for short musicals. The shorter the better, quite frankly. A nice ninety-minuter fits in well with my whole in-bed-by-ten way of life. But come on Duncan, finish the damn songs.

Still, it's fun. Even as they warn us about the dangers of an abstinence-only sex ed policy. Who can resist the sight of these prim Calvinist kids rocking out to these serious bangers?

processed_MVIMG_20190712_193410.jpg

In the interval, there's a race to the bar. I don't know how they all fit in that room, but they must have done, because when the audience comes back, they've tipped over from pleasingly tipsy to properly pissed.

One young man starts pulling out Dairylea Dunkers and handing them out to his mates, which is a hell of a choice of something to be munching on in the theatre. Crunchy and dippy? That's intense. Is this the future of theatre snacking? What next? Houmous and crudites?

As the lights dim, the drunken shushing stretches well into the first song, and the audience is there, right in the action.

You can hear the wimpering when the gun comes out, and as it gets aimed under a chin a cry of "Jesus Christ!" echoes down from the back of the auditorium. Followed by cries of "oh no! Don't!" as one of the girls gets led off. We all know what's going to happen. And this lot are really feeling it.

At the end, there's a standing ovation.

I don't join them.

Not because it wasn't good, just, you know, I see a lot of shows and I can't go around ovating for everything. I like to save them. Hold them back for the productions and performances that kick me right in the belly and leave me utterly winded.

"Night folks!" says one of the front of housers as we make our way back down the stairs.

No one replies. They're all too busy humming the tunes.

Buy the rooftop and hang a plaque

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.

processed_IMG_20190702_184133.jpg

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?”

“Yes!”

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.

processed_MVIMG_20190702_191139.jpg

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.

processed_IMG_20190702_192119_1.jpg

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.

processed_MVIMG_20190702_190554.jpg

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.

processed_IMG_20190702_210213_1.jpg

The serpent beguiled me

hen the marathon is over and done, I swear, I am never getting on the Thameslink again. The stress of it all. I swear. There is literally nowhere in London that is worth getting on the Thameslink for. Waiting twenty minutes for a train and knowing that if you miss it, you've, well, missed it. Whatever it is. Nope. Not for me.

That's not happening tonight, though. I make it all the way to Peckham Rye without incident to anything significant beyond the state of my nerves. 

I hurry down the road, dodging away from a bike as it swerves in at me on the pavement.

"Nice dress!" shouts the cyclist before he returns to the road, making for what was quite possibly the scariest, and nicest, thing that has been shouted at me on the street.

Peckham is clearly a place of contradictions.

Like stepping off a high street, cluttered with crumbled cans, and into a bright square, with young people lounging around on the lush grass, and the gleaming tower of Mountview looking down on them.

Okay, it's not really a tower. Or all that gleaming. But sitting there stark against the blue sky, it does look mighty impressive.

There's a young woman walking just ahead of me, all bouncing blonde curls and pretty summer dress. I take her for a student, but her pause of confusion when she reaches the doors tells me that she is also a newcomer to the world of Mountview.

She steps back, and spotting the button which operates the door, gives it a quick tap.

The door heaves itself open, but so slowly I'm right behind her by the time it's wide enough for a person to fit through.

And there's another door. She makes a go of it, but it isn't shifting.

"Hang on," I say, hitting the button, but her shoulder has already done most of the hard work and we squeeze ourselves through before the door's gears properly kick in.

There's a big desk right taking up most of the entrance foyer, and there's no question that this is the box office. Chunky reams of ticket stock lie waiting on the counter, ready to be printed.

The blonde girl goes ahead, but queues at Mountview are not to be tolerated, and another box officer rushes forward and calls me to the counter.

"Picking up tickets?" she asks before I even have the chance to get out my usual line.

"Yes, the surname's Smiles."

With a nod, she reaches for the ticket box and pulls one out. "Maxine?"

"That's the one."

She hands me the ticket, and a freesheet to go with it. Ah, drama schools. You know where you are with them. Always get a free bit of paper to take away with you. Except RADA, who makes you pay for their programmes. Bastards. To be fair, they are really nice programmes. And only a pound. But still. Bastards.

"You can enter through either door," says the box officer, going into full flight attendant mode, with her hands outstretched to indicate the doors either side of the reception. "It's unallocated seating."

I look at the doors, and assess my options. "Mountview Theatre Auditorium Right," says the door on the right. I can't see what the one on the left says, because it's open and the outside of the door is hidden from view. But I presume it says the same, except left instead of right. Bit of a silly place to put signage but there we are.

I decide to live life dangerously for once, and go for the mystery door.

The front of houser standing guard beeps my ticket.

Paper tickets and a ticket beeper. We really are living the dream here at Mountview.

"The back row is reserved," he tells me. "But you can sit upstairs, downstairs, wherever you like."

Blimey, so many options. I don't know what to do with myself.

I go in.

It's nice in here. Modern. Kinda sleek looking.

The stalls are all set in front of a raised stage, and a balcony surrounds them on three sides. The seats are proper chairs, unfixed. But there's still a rake. With the floor set in steps. Seems a bit of an unusual combination, but the place looks good.

There aren't many people in yet. So I really can sit wherever I want.

I go for my usual third-row fix, but kinda in the middle, because I feel like switching things up a bit.

There's no one sitting in the first two rows. I've ventured the farthest forward of everyone in here. Which is not a situation I ever thought I'd find myself in.

If no one sits in the front row, can it be said to be the front row? Does the first occupied row become, by default, the front row? Am I now sitting in the front row? Am I a front rower all of a sudden?

These are not the sort of philosophical questions I want to be grappling with half-way through my marathon.

I turn around and will the next people to come through the door to sit ahead of me. Not in front of me. Fuck that. Just generally, you know, more forward.

"We should sit at the front, shouldn't we?" says a newcomer to her friend.

"Yeah, we should," is their reply.

Oh, thank the theatre gods for keen people.

But even these enthusiastic newcomers don't want to commit themselves to the pressures of the front row, and plump for the second. No matter. They've done what was required. I am no longer the first thing the young actors will see when they come on stage. Something that we can all be grateful for.

Still, prime position for photos, I must say.

That's a rather magnificent tree going on, which looks banging in pictures. All gleaming shadows against a galaxy-toned backdrop. Pieces of paper cling to the bark, and strings of faerie-lights emerge from the branches.

If the tree of knowledge really did look like that, you could have signed me up for a post-berry education, because I would have been sinking my teeth into those apples before the snake even hissed out his first sibilant.

Right, now that's sorted, I can relax and have a look at the freesheet. It's a folded piece of A3. Done on the photocopier. But there's no shame in that. That's how I do the freesheets at my work, so, you know, it's a Maxine-approved method and all that. They are actually doing a better job than me here, because this fine piece of work includes headshots, which I always refuse to include in mine. I have my reasons. Let's not get into it. You don't care.

Anyway, the benefit of headshots on this production is that I get to see all their lovely faces. Which is nice in itself, but extra special in this case because the entire cast of this musical is made up of women and non-binary students. Kinda excited about that, as I'm seeing Children of Eden, which is a musical about... well, you know, all that Old Testament stuff. God and Adam and Noah and all those other male names from My First Bible picture book. I mean, sure, there was also Eve and... Noah's wife? Whatshername? But considering Eve gets blamed for the entirety of human sin, and Noah's wife is credited as "Mama Noah" in the freesheet, I think some gender-switched casting is just what the good book needs.

I think I mentioned this when I went to the Embassy Theatre, that I don't name people at drama school shows, because they're students and like, they don't need a blogger turning up with her grouchy old opinions (even though I'm the opposite of grouchy at drama school shows, because I love them so much), so I think I'm going to have to meet you back here in the interval and regroup then. Ya?

Except, no. Hang on. I have something to say. Now, it' been a while since I sat GCSE RS but I don't remember the snake in the Garden of Eden being a cane-wielding cabaret star and I think the Rev Dr Wood would have been a lot more pleased with my essays if she'd mentioned that at some point. Because that is fucking great.

Kinda glad it is the interval though. It's freezing in here. I'd been sat there, wanting to put on my jacket for the past hour. And it's not like these chairs are even comfy. The freestanding ones never are. What you gain in manoeuvrability the audience loses in nerve endings.

I go out into the foyer to give my bum a break, finish by Embassy Theatre post, and that. It's weird editing something I wrote about one drama school while standing in another. Feels a bit wrong somehow. I quickly hit publish and try not to think about it.

Just in time, as it happens.

"Ladies and gentleman," comes a voice over the tannoy. "Act two of Children of Eden is about to begin. Please return to your seats."

I go back inside.

It's sweltering. They must have turned the air con off for the duration.

I keep my jacket resolutely on. That's how they got me last time. Tricking me into thinking I would expire of heat and then slamming on the fans. I won't be taken in again.

I get out my phone to take a few pictures of the set. They've done something to it during the interval. The tree now has a door in it.

"So sorry," says the ticket checker, coming to stand beside me, his hands clasped in embarrassment at the whole situation. "You can't take any pictures.

Oh. "Oh." Shit. "Sorry!" Double shit. "I won't. I'll... get rid of them," I promise.

I'm not sure he believes me. But doesn't stick around to check.

He bows away, and I don't know which of us is cringing more at this interaction, him or me.

I think we both know I’m not to blame. He should save his condemnations for the serpent and its tricksy ways with a bowler hat. They tempted me to take photos of the tree! I swear, I should never have done it if it were not for them…

I don't delete the photos. But yeah, in a small concession to the possibility that it was my fault, and not the actors playing the role of the snake, you won't be seeing them. Sorry about that. 

Although, that does make things difficult. Because I didn't take any pictures of the space that don't include the stage. And I won't be able to get any on the way out. Not now that he's pinned me as a stage-snapper. I think about this a lot during the second act. About the various ways I can surreptitiously take a photo. But I'm not much for subterfuge. I think you know well enough that I would make a terrible spy.

At the end, we all applaud the cast mightily. That was well good.

As the house lights rise, the band swing back into action.

Usually this is the audience's cue to escape, but people are hanging around. Chatting.

I make a dive for the exit, scooting past the usher who told me off.

So no photos.

Ah well.

I hit the button and squeeze myself out the automatic door and race for the station. But it's no good. There's a ten-minute wait just to get to London Bridge. Fucking hell, I am never living anywhere that doesn't have a tube station. I mean, seriously, fuck that noise.

I use the time to look through the photos. Hmm. I wonder if I can get away with showing you this one.

A bit of balcony, A few rows of seats. The side of the stage.

No tree though.

Let's risk it, shall we?

Read More

Sing a Song of Level Five

“I love that t-shirt.”

That’s my co-worker. We’re waiting for the lift, trying to get out of the office at the end of the day.

“I love this t-shirt too!”

I’m wearing my Greggs t-shirt. The one that is made up to look like those Gucci t-shirts that were super popular a couple of years ago, except instead of Gucci, it says, well, Greggs. It’s very cool. It always gets a lot of attention. Especially from men in white vans. And contemporary dance proponents, apparently. Must be the vegan sausage rolls.

It’s so cool, in fact, that I literally cannot go outside without getting at least three comments about it… hang on. That sounds like a challenge.

Okay. I’m heading to the Southbank again today. That’s a couple of miles away. About an hour’s walk if I don’t go above a gentle stroll. Which I have no intention of doing. I swear, I’m still recovering from that Midnight Matinee at the Globe (you’re killing me, Shakespeare). Let’s see what kind of attention we can get!

Jacket very firmly looped over arm (I don’t want anything to get in the way on my compliment hunting trip), I set off.

“Love your t-shirt,” a woman calls after me in Holborn.

“Thank you!” I call back.

The bloke she’s with turns to look. “What did it say?”

I straighten out the fabric so he can see. “Greggs!”

“It says Greggs!” says the woman.

“Greggs? Ha. I’ll have a sandwich.”

One down. And I’m not even out of the West End yet.

I nip through Embankment station and go over the bridge.

A woman, a different one, obviously, shakes her head as she passes me. “Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs. Greggs,” she mutters. She doesn’t sound entirely approving but I’m counting it all that same. Perhaps she just had a dodgy steak bake or something. You can’t blame that on the t-shirt.

I’m on the Southbank now. Right in front of the Royal Festival Hall.

I pause to take a photo.

A few people glance over, but no one stops to comment on the t-shirtage.

I consider taking a turn around the building, give the t-shirt some more exposure amongst all the milling crowds. But it’s starting to rain. And I’ve walked a long way. I kind of want to sit down.

I’m on the ground floor. Next to Foyles. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this way. Probably because it’s dark. And empty. And I’ve always been distracted by the books. But I follow the signs up the stairs, and immediately find the box office, all gleaming wood, made even gleamier by the bright yellow light pouring down on it from above.

I give my name and the box officer dives into that huge wooden chest of tickets that I’d admired at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These are clearly a thing at the Southbank Centre and I very much approve.

“What’s the first name please?” he asks, as if there could possibly be anyone else with my surname here tonight.

“Maxine.”

“Lovely,” he says, flipping over the ticket to see where I’ll be sitting. “You will be on the blue side,” he says, pointing behind him. “That’s the other side of the building. And level five.”

I have to quell the urge to sing “level five” back to him. For reasons. I’ll explain later. Or even right now, because I am heading straight for the Singing Lift.

Do I have to explain the Singing Lift? You know about that, right? I thought everyone knew about the Singing Lift at the Southbank Centre. It even has its own Twitter account.

No? Okay, well, it’s a lift. That sings.

Don’t worry, I’m on my way there now and I can tell you all about it once I get inside.

It’s just round here, on the left, past the sunken ballroom with the neon sign hanging over it. Conveniently on the blue side of the bu8lding. It’s almost like it’s mean to…

Oh. There seems to be a lot of people round here. All wearing Southbank Centre logoed tops. One of them is talking into a radio, and another is sticking something to the glass door of the lift.

I hang back to watch until they’re gone and then go over to have a look what the sign says.

“LIFT OUT OF SERVICE.”

Oh.

Oh.

Oh no.

Damn.

I was really looking forward to that. To hearing the dulcet tones of the lift grow progressively higher until I reach my floor. “Level Fivvveeeeeee.”

I’m really sad now.

Oh well.

No use crying over a broken lift.

There’s an empty table right by the massive windows overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Hall, so I go plonk my stuff on it and sit down. It’s a nice view. I can see the fountain from here. And the car park. It’s very soothing.

“Sorry, can we?” asks a young woman, touching the back of one of the free chairs on the other side of my table.

“Please do!” I say, waving my hand magnanimously at the seats.

She sits down, and is soon joined by the person she’s with. They turn their chairs to face each other and we all promptly stark looking at our phones. They to plan their diaries, me to edit my Turbine Hall blog post. I delete a good deal of it. Not sure I should really say that. Or that. Hmmm.

When I look up, they’re gone.

“Scuse me, is anyone joining you?”

Another person wanting my seats. That’s the price you pay for not having any friends, I suppose.

“No, please go for it!” I assure them.

Anyway, it’s probably time I got moving. I had no intentions of taking an inferior lift up to the fifth floor, so up the stairs it is. I need to give myself plenty of time to acclimatise to the low oxygen levels up there. Otherwise known as wheezing gently as I get puffed out after three flights or so.

There’s a programme seller at the top of the first flight. I stop. As much for a rest as the programme buying potential.

“Can I get one?” I ask.

“That’s five pounds please.”

I get out my purse. Or try to get out my purse. “Sorry,” I say, as I rummage around in my rucksack. “Perils of a large bag.”

“That’s alright,” he says, waiting patiently.

After a painfully long moment, I pull out my purse and see what cash I have on me. “Do you have change for a tenner?” I ask, pulling out a note, and sending my debit card flying to the ground. “Ah! Sorry. I’ll get that.”

But it’s too late. He’s already crouching down to retrieve my wayward plastic.

“Oh, I do have five pounds,” I mumble embarrassed, suddenly spotting the familiar green note poking out from behind a pile of receipts.

I manage to hand over the cash, retrieve my card, and claim a programme, apologise sixteen more times, and all without shaming myself any further. Result. I guess.

Right, there’s no putting it off any longer. Time to tackle those stairs.

I huff and puff my way up the stairs, and let myself be suffused by the smug feeling of satisfaction as I see the sign for level five looming.

“Where are you sitting?”

“Oh, umm. Door D?” I say, showing her my ticket.

“Just up those stairs there and on the left,” she says.

“Stairs?” I manage.

“Just the little ones over there.”

I look over. There’s only four or five of them. I can do this. It’s fine.

There’s a bar up here. I stagger the full length, my knees protesting with every step, until I reach the water jugs at the end. They are frosted with condensation. The water inside blissfully cold. I pour a cup and chug it down in one. Then pour myself another.

Oof. I feel better now.

I can actually look around and see where I am.

There are a few table and chairs dotted around, but the real action seems to be going on outside. On the terrace. I fucking love a terrace.

I go out, and allow the fifth-floor breeze to buffet me.

It's pretty nice out here. You can see Big Ben, resplendent in all its cladding. And... what's that? Written on the side of the bridge?

"DON'T VOTE TORY EVER."

Huh. Good advice, bridge. Well done.

Now that's sorted, I better go back inside.

I find door D, and show my ticket to one of the ticket checks on the door.

"Just on the left there," she says.

I head off to the left.

"Hi! Hello!"

I turn around. It's the other ticket checker. She's chased after me. My hand reflectively lowers to my bag. I really hope she doesn't tell me to take it to the cloakroom. Usually, if I wear my rucksack on my shoulder, it hands low enough to evade the ticket checkers and their whiling ways, but it looks like today I'm not so lucky.

"I love your t-shirt!" she says. "Where's it from?"

Well now! Third compliment. There we go. Yeah, it came a little late. I'm not technically outside anymore. But we are definitely counting this.

I thank her, and tell her where I got it. "Bristol Street Wear? It's this guy who mixes up logos with stuff. Like, he has one which is the Aldi logo, but underneath it says Acid."

"Where's it from again?"

"Bristol Street Wear?" She frowns. "Shall I write it down?"

"Yes please!"

I reach for my bag again. I know there's a pen in there somewhere. The problem will be finding it without lobbing my debit cards all over the place. "Do you have a pen?"

She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a pen. "I have a pen!"

"And paper?"

She pats her pockets. No paper. "Hang on," she says, disappearing back into the bar. A second later, she's back, holding a book. Inside there's a folded piece of paper that looks like it's probably important.

"Shall I write on this?" I ask, doubtfully.

"Yeah, yeah."

I scrawl BRISTOL STREET WEAR across the top in my best capital letters.

"Yeah, he's quite pissy about some of the designers. Doesn't want you to buy them if you live in London. He doesn't want to see hipsters wearing them."

She pulls a face, but gratefully takes the book and paperback and thanks me again.

That done, I skip off to find my seat.

You might have guessed by now, what with the level five action, I'm in the cheap seats tonight. Right at the back. Definitely in a different post code to the stage.

As the seats fill up around me, I realise two things. One - the slips and boxes on the sides are completely empty. And two, this place was really not designed with any appreciation of sightlines. Where previously I'd had a nice, if distant view of a statue's bottom, and half-formed falls of an Italian villa, or something like that, now I was looking straight at the back of someone's head.

I have to sit really straight in my seat in order to look over her. This is going to be a fun night.

I have to admit, I don't know anything about The Light in the Piazza. Other than it's a musical. I think. Possibly an opera. They definitely cast opera royalty in it. So maybe it is an opera.

And nope. It's started now and it's a musical. For sure.

A really quite silly musical.

What the fuck is this?

A girl and her mother go to Italy. The girl falls in love. Sweet, I guess. But the mother keeps on telling us that there's something wrong. But won't reveal what it is until is. To the point that by the time it is revealed, I've stopped caring.

I've even stopped trying to sit straight. I've settled back, slumped, allowing my eyes to rest on whichever performer happens drift into the small slither of stage that I can see.

My stupor is interrupted by the interval.

I decide to use the time to have a look at the programme.

Oh, hey. Turns out the girl is famous. 25 million followers on Instagram. That's quite something.

There's a theory than in order to live off your art, you need 1,000 true fans. Turns out you only need three to sell a t-shirt. I wonder how many you need to sell out the Royal Festival Hall. I look at all the empty seats. A lot more than 25 million, it seems.

"Oh, sorry," I say, as a woman stands next to me.

"Don't worry, I'm here, next to you. I'm just trying to balance these drinks."

She does seem to be rather laden down with them. I can't blame her.

"I'm trying to work out how to make myself taller," she says, as she eventually manages to sort out the drink situation and sit down.

"The rake here is terrible," I agree.

"And the sears are directly in front of each other," she says, fixing a straight line between her seat and the one in front.

"It's so stupid."

"It's not very well designed."

"It's clearly made just for concerts."

She nods. "Yes, it's a concert hall! You're not meant to see anything usually."

On cue, a tall man settles down in the seat directly in front of me, his head completely blocking the stage.

He bobs and weaves, reacting to the person in front of him. Who in turn is moving in tandem with the person in front of her. And, so it goes, all the way down to the front row.

There was a time, when for the nominal fee, you could buy listening seats at the Royal Opera House. So-called because their positioning meant you won't be able to see anything on stage. All you could do was sit back and listen.

I would say that the Royal Festival Hall should institute this policy for the back rows. Classify them all as listening seats. But really, if this is what they have to listen to, better to put a couple of quid towards your next t-shirt purchase. I know a great designer, if you're interested.

Read More

Hoxton Hall, Apparently

Huh. This place... does not look how I expected. That's a bit embarrassing. I worked just round the corner from this place for a good 18 months. I've probably even walked past without even noticing. And why would I notice? This is not the type of place the name insinuated.

I mean, Hoxton Hall. I was expecting something a bit, well, grander. Or at least, grandeur. Not like a country house or whatever. I wasn't picturing Longleat here. But wasn't this place a music hall back in the day? Perhaps Wilton's has set up unachievable standards in my head. But this narrow slip of a building, with its sliding glass doors and taupe painted fronted really wasn't what I had in mind. Somehow music hall and subtly don't strike me as two terms that should ever be placed within the same sentence. But Hoxton Hall, if this is indeed Hoxton Hall, which I'm still doubting despite the multiple signs stating that this is exacting what it is, looks like nothing more than a tasteful townhouse next to the rackety family butchers next door.

If this place really is a former music hall, it must be the smallest music hall in London. I can't imagine more than three people, a pair of contortionists, and their dog, ever fitting in here. You'd think they' made more of a thing of it.

Inside it's bright and clean and modern, all creams and blond wood. There's a wide box office desk. The sort you'd see gracing the reception of an up-market dentist, except here, tiny display cases are set into the surface, housing artefacts of the buildings former glory days. Back when sawdust coated the floor instead of all these gleaming floorboards.

There's someone in the queue ahead of me. "I'm collecting tickets?" she says. Something tells me that this is not a transaction she does all that often.

"Yes? What the name?"

She gives it. "Oh, wait. Do you mean first name?" She gives that too.

"Right that's..." she opens up the ream of tickets and counts them. "Five tickets. If you could just make your way down to the bar area," she says, indicating the way.

It's my turn now.

"The surname is Smiles?"

The lady on box office reopens the small ticket box and digs out mine. "First name?"

"Max," I say, before remembering I never use that version when buying tickets. "Maxine."

The box office lady opens up the ream. It's a lot shorter than my predecessors.

"Just the one ticket?" she asks.

"Yeah..." Alright, love. Do you know how many friends I would need to have a companion at every show I saw? There aren't enough theatre-fans in the world to keep up with the likes of me.

She offers me a sympathetic smile. "If you could make your way down to the bar area as well..."

I walk in the direction she's pointing, down a long corridor. Very long. This building may be narrow, but it goes on forever. Past a display covered in headshots and CVs, past the dark wood doors to the auditorium, guarded by sentinels at every door, past stairs, past a lift, and into the bar.

Finally, things are beginning to look more music hally. The walls are red, and covered with framed portraits and old letters and whatnot. The blue-tiled fireplace is stuffed with show flyers. There are jam jars lined up on the mantlepiece. A box of PG tips is waiting at the end of the bar.

When I come in, people look around, but only for a second. They're already beaming and beckoning at the people behind me.

Hands wave, empty spaces on the sofa are patted. This truly is a bar where everyone knows your name.

None mine though. I'm not part of the gang.

A group of people are all being introduced to each other as they queue at the bar.

"Are you here to see someone?"

"Yes, Charlotte!"

"Charlotteeee!"

"Oh, this is Erin's mum."

"Hello!"

The chatter grows in volume as everyone tries to work out their connections to one another. It's like a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation. Except no one here needs more than two rounds.

Young people reel off their resumes to the parents of their friends, while the grown-ups talk about their brilliant kids while staring into their drinks in order to hide their proud smiles.

If you haven't already guessed, this is one of those drama school gigs. I'm branching out from the RADA and LAMDA diptych. I'm in Rose Bruford country now.

And, it turns out, Rose Bruford family country.

You don't get that at RADA, I can tell you.

I find an empty bit of wall to lean against and try to avoid getting swapped by a reunion.

I've already written up my last theatre trip so I'm left starting at the signage in lieu of something to do. To be fair, it's impressive signage.

"Lost?" it asks, with what I can only imagine is the same sympathetic tones of the box office lady when she handed me my single loner ticket. That smug question is followed up by a floor by floor breakdown of everything in the building. Want to know where the reading room is? This sign will tell you. The kitchen? Yup, it's got that one covered too.

Music studio. Art studio. Design studio.

This place has a lot of studios.

And a courtyard.

A courtyard? Now that's exciting. I do like a courtyard.

Basement level.

I mean, I could go. I have time.

There are windows in the stairwell, overlooking a grim little patio with a corrugated metal roof.

But there's also a plant and a table and I'm still fairly upbeat about the while courtyard thing.

There's another sign at the bottom if the stairs, and yet another when I turn left.

Hoxton Hall doesn't stint on the signage.

Except, I'm not sure where I'm meant to go now. The sign says right, but all that's right is the art studio and the loos. After that, nothing but brick wall. Unless this is some Platform 9 3/4 situation, I think I've gone wrong somewhere.

Unless it's through the art studio? It should be somewhere to the left of me. I have a peek through the art studio door, only to come face to face with someone coming the other way.

Not wanting to explain what I'm doing attempting to break into an art studio, I noe out of the whole situation and go back upstairs, my courtyard dreams dashed.

The house still isn't open and the bar is rammed. But my wall spot is still going spare, so I reclaim it.

"Sorry!" calls the man behind the bar over the sound of a hundred parental hearts popping with pride. "Hello, hello! Can I have your attention?

"Anyone who's been given a brochure, or one of these, " he says, flapping about a free drinks voucher between his fingers. "Will be admitted first."

No one moves. We aren't the lucky few. No free drinks vouchers here.

Talk resumes.

"Do you come to these things often?"

"Oh, I see everything. Ever since my daughter joined."

Her smile is so broad I can see all her back teeth. She is absolutely busting with pride.

The man behind the bar tries again. "Anyone been given a brochure or one of these?" he asks, giving the pink voucher another wave. "Now's the time. Anyone else?"

Nope. No one else.

I get out my programme. Always a bonus of these drama school shows, the free programme.

I try to remember which show I booked for.

It's Life, Apparently. Apparently.

A new musical created by two of the cast members.

This is either going to be brilliant, or excruciating.

I'm putting money on the later. For no other reason than the presence of that comma: Life, Apparently.

I don't think I can trust a title with a comma in it.

Although, I'm trying hard to think of other titles with commas in it, and I'm coming up short. There's Girl, Interrupted of course. But that comma was integral to the flow of the title. An interruption, if one will.

I can't think of any others.

It could be worse, I suppose. It could be an exclamation mark: Life! Apparently. That really would spell the end of days.

From my spot on the wall, I seem to have found myself in the queue to get in. A queue that is now moving.

"The toilets are an even worse stare than yesterday, if you can believe it," tuts a woman as she joins the queue after me.

I think I must be the only one who hasn't seen this show before. Who hasn't even been to this theatre before? I hope there isn't a test. Unless, there was a test and I've already failed it. They're probably all giggling about the woman who couldn't even find the courtyard back in the bar.

"That's not a ticket, that's just your address, " an usher says gently to the person in front of me.

I breath a sigh of relief. I'm clearly not the only one failing at tonight.

They retreat back from the queue as they attempt to find their ticket, and now it's my turn.

"The seats are unreserved except for the two back rows," says the ticket checker, checking my ticket.

There must have been a lot of people with free drinks vouchers because there is not a lot of room left.

I scan the stalls, looking for spare seats.

"Don't go too far," said a bloke as his companion rising a few inches from her seat. "We don't want to lose these spots."

Another guy is hovering at the end of his row, also clearly concerned about seat pillaging. He sees me eyeing up the empty seats further in.

"Do you want the three seats in the middle?" he asks.

I'm not sure I'll need all three sears, but I accept the offer anyway, and he steps out into the aisle so that I can get through.

"Hang on," says the woman he's with. "Let me get out too." She too inches her way out into the aisle.

Route cleared, I squeeze myself in. It really us a squeeze. The seats knock my knees as I shuffle my way in, and there's no room to turn around when I do get in. I have to kneel on my chosen seat, just to find the wriggle room to get my jacket off.

The chairs, thin and delicate, belonging more in a dining room than a theatre, and pressed in right next to each other.

"There's someone very tall this side, can we go that way," says someone in the row behind as the seat negotiations begin.

"Yeah, I can't see a thing."

"Granny can't see a thing!"

It doesn't look like there's anything to see quite yet. The high stage is empty except for a smattering of instruments tucked up amongst the ladders that seem to be serving as our set.

"If you want to report back that the chairs at not comfortable," says a woman in the row in front.

The reporter nods sagely. He will be having words.

I have to agree with them the chairs are not comfortable.

It's a good thing I'm got these three seats to myself. If I turn my body just so, I might be able to stretch my legs out a bit.

"Excuse me, are you expecting anyone?" asks a young man, indicating the spare seats. I have to admit that I am not, and we are soon all crammed in close to one another. Close enough that I can smell the vile coffee breath of the man sitting on my left, and hear the wet chew as he applies his teeth to his nails. Close enough that I can feel every time the man on my right attempts to shift his muscles as the ache sets in.

I look longingly at the two empty balconies surrounding the hall. Oh, to be sitting up there, looking down on the poor creatures below.

The show starts. The cast come on, performing stange unnatural arm movements that should be left in the artier end of contemporary choreography scale.

I try to sink into my seat, but I'm stuck.

I should have known that a drama school musical was a bad idea.

But the echoed arm movements still, and the music takes over and we are flung into the New York of the eighties, into the AIDS crisis, and the activist group ACT UP. And, you know, it's good. Like, really good. Yes, it's really bizarre how these supposed Americans are talking about waistcoats and swearing with two fingers, but there is a character called Maxine and she's blonde and cool and wears the hell out of red lipstick and within minutes I'm positive that I will die for her.

Unfortunately, it might come to that.

All around there is a creaking of old wood as everyone attempts to relieve the agony of sitting still too long, but there is nowhere to go. Not an inch of free space to move into.

Pain shoots up the back of my legs, but I am cemented in place, my arms traped to my sides, my legs cooped in by the seat in front.

I can't even hear the music anymore. All I can think of is escape. Counting down the minutes of an unknown run time. How long have I been sat here? An hour? Two? I can't tell. Time is an illusion. All I know is pain.

As the last notes fade, the audience leaps to their feet, but I can't move. My knees have fused solid.

I curl my shoulders around and try to stretch out my back, but I have to wait until my row neighbours have vacated their seats before I am able to test out my legs.

They're still working. Just about. A bit wobbly, a bit stiff, but we'll survive.

The corridor is clogged with people all raving about how good everyone was, how excellent the show was.

I push my way through, unable to wait for the way to clear. I have to get outside.

I stumble out of the sliding doors and almost fall onto the pavement.

The sun is still shining. I'm surprised. I thought I might have been in there for an eternity. I thought the world would have burnt itself out by now.

Read More

Stag Party

It's June! It's Pride month! And I'm off to the self-styled "home of the UK’s LGBT+ Theatre."

Yup, I'm off to Above the Stag.

It's almost like I planned it,

Now, if I were a decent blogger (or even a decent liar), I'd tell you that's exactly what I did. But I'm not, and I didn't. I was actually intending to get this one checked off the list in May, but a last-minute diary reshuffle had me bumping the home of the UK's LGBT+ Theatre over a couple of weeks. And it's only while I'm walking through Vauxhall, and seeing all the rainbow-tinged goodness everywhere, that I connect the brightly-flashing dots, and apologise to the theatre gods for spending so long bitching them out for messing with my calendar. I should have known they had this shit covered. I mean, someone has to. And I certainly don't.

It's a warm evening, and it looks like there's more people hanging out, drinks in hand, on the small square of grass outside the entrance, then there are gathered within.

I lean against a tree and try and get a photo of the theatre, but it's completely impossible. I can barely even see the entrance through the absolute party that seems to be going on our here. All I'm getting is a hazy purple light, glowing from within the curved glass frontage. A halo hanging over the heads of my fellow theatre-goers. It's all rather magical.

Despite the image conjured by the name, the Above the Stag is not actually above the Stag. It's not above anything, let alone a pub. If anything, it lies underneath. Tucked within one of the railway arches that live near Vauxhall station.

I decide it's time to go in.

It's pretty busy in here too. There's a massive queue at the bar, and every day is filled. No wonder the people are spilling out onto the street.

One end of the bar has been assigned to box office duties. There's a big sign screaming TICKETS up on the wall behind. The queue is significantly shorter on this end. There's only one person in front of me.

Not that anyone's serving. There are two people behind the bar and they are rushing back and forth, measuring spirits, pouring glasses of wine, and taking payments, all at the same time, as they fight to get through this queue of thirsty theatre-goers before the doors open.

But with our queue now composed of two, we manage to attract the attention of one of the bar people and she comes over to deal with the business of ticketage.

When it's my turn, I give my surname and the bar person taps away at my name on the touchscreen behind the counter. A second later a small printer buzzes, and my ticket emerges, printed on thin receipt paper. All very fancy.

The doors still aren't open, so I suppose I should find somewhere to stand. At least, I think they're not open. I don't actually know where they are. None of the doors around the edge of the room looks likely. And there's no THEATRE sign to match the TICKETS one above the bar.

But the bar is full, and there's still a healthy queue of people intent on getting their drinks, and no one looks overly concerned about going anywhere quite yet, so I find myself just hanging around, waiting for instruction.

I find myself darting back and forth as I try and get out of people's way. It really is very busy in here. All my darting and side-stepping gradually moves me from one side of the bar to the other, and I find myself standing amongst a small group, all clutching receipt-paper printed tickets in their hands. There's a set of double doors down here. Unmarked. Unlike the loos right next door. Through the small windows set into the doors I can see show posters. This must be it. And these people must be all the keen-bean theatre crowd, just bursting to get into the space. Or possibly, given our location busting for the loo. I can't quite tell. Bursting for something or other, for sure, though.

A voice comes over the tannoy. "Ladies and gentleman, the house is now open for Fanny and Stella. Please take your seats."

We look at the doors, and then at each other.

"Are we...are we just supposed to open the doors ourselves?" someone asks.

We all look back at the doors.

They are still closed. And don't look likely to open of their own accord any time soon.

This is getting ridiculous. What we need is a hero. Someone to step forward and liberate us from this bar, guiding us through the parted doors towards the promised land of the theatre.

Just as I am debating with myself whether that person could, or indeed should, be me, I am saved from such brave actions by a woman who pushes her way through the group, places her hand on the door, and pulls it open.

We all follow on meekly behind, passing the weight of the door between us as we go through.

We turn right. The light of the theatre almost blinding with its brightness. It's probably not a good idea to follow a guide towards a bright light, not unless you're prepared to never come back, but it looks so inviting I can't stop myself.

The posters on the wall shift from colour-filled sweet-wrappers, with the saturation turned up to max, to the text filled advertisements of the old music halls.

"Know where you're sitting?" asks a man dressed in a dandified top hat and tails.

He chats away, making bants with everyone coming through the door.

I find my seat without assistance, but I can't stop looking over at the dandy by the door.

He looks really rather familiar. If only I had a freesheet...

Except, hang on. Someone sitting in the row in front of me is flicking through something. A booklet. The kind of booklet, that if I didn't know better, would say looks exactly like a programme.

He stops mid-flick, turns back a page, and starts reading.

There are pictures interspersed with the text. Photos. Headshots.

That's a fucking programme.

He has a programme.

Where on earth did he get that? I want to lean forward and ask, but he's just a couple of seats too far along the row for that to be reasonable.

I sit back, and prepare myself for the long wait until the interval.

It's alright, I tell myself. At least I know there are programmes. They exist. Out there. Somewhere. And I'll find them, buy one, and damn well look this actor's name up before I combust.

I distract myself by looking around. It's nice in here. Wide seats. Allocated. And a magnificent rake. I can see right over the heads of the two tall blokes sitting in front of me.

"Oo. Lots of room here," says my neighbour, kicking our their legs to demonstrate the amount of room there is.

This is fringe theatre to the lux.

Every now in, and the doors closed, our dandy friend, whoever he may be, steps onto the stage. He's going to be our compere for the evening, in this tale of Fanny and Stella, the OG drag-queens of Victorian London.

And they're signing? Like properly. Not just a music hall ditty to illustrate what they're all about. But like, an opening number about sodomy. On the Strand. The cast's voices and the single piano fight against echo of trains rumbling overhead.

How did I not realise this was a musical? Oh well. I'm sold, bought, and paid for. Three times over. This is hilarious.

Too soon it's the interval, and still giggling, I make my way back to the bar.

I'm on a mission after all. Gotta get that programme.

I walk over to the bar. If they're anywhere, they must be here. And yes, there's one. In a display on-top of a glass case of confectionary. That was easy.

Buying one however, now that's where it gets tricky.

I'm already surrounded on all sides as everyone tries to place their drinks order at once.

A woman elbows me out of the way to get to the bar, and flags down a passing staff member to serve her.

"Sorry, sorry," she says, just as her wine is being poured. "I ordered sauvingnon blanc."

The server looks from the bottle in her hand, to the two glasses of red wine she just poured. "Yes, yes you did," she says, covering each glass with a napkin and going to fetch the right bottle.

The other server behind the bar comes up. He sees me. And another woman. He dithers between the two of his, finger-gunning as he decides who's up next.

"Sorry," I say to the other lady. "I just want a programme. Can I get a programme?"

"For which show?" he asks.

I'm stumped.

"Umm," I say, pointing vaguely in the direction of the theatre.

"Fanny and Stella," steps in the other lady, demonstrating more grace than I could ever be capable of.

"Yes. Thank you," I say, nodding to her. "That one."

He goes off to fetch a programme. They're £2.50, which isn't bad. Not bad at all.

Programme now acquired, I decide that I should probably get out of the way.

I flick through the pages until I get to the biographies. Ah, there he is. Mark Pearce. I scan his credits. I don't have to go far. Fourth line down: Maggie May. That's where I've seen him. At the Finborough Theatre.

Isn't that something.

I flip forward to the credits. Bit of a habit of mine. I like seeing who works on shows. And for the first time in a good long while, I see someone credited for the programmes. That's lovely. I like that. I'm certainly not mentioned as the producer of my programmes anywhere. Perhaps I should start sneaking my name in there... anyway, good on you Jon Bradfield. You've done a great job. Love the interview with the writer, Glenn Chandler. Very nice.

The bar's getting crowded again. Really crowded. Without taking a single set I seem to have been swept along, away from my little corner, into the middle of the room. And people are still pouring in from the theatre doors. I didn't think that small space could even hold this many people.

"Please take your seats in the main house for Fanny and Stella," says the man over the tannoy.

The main house.

The. Main. House.

That's why there are so many people.

That's why I got asked which programme I wanted.

Above the Stag isn't one theatre. It's two.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck, with bells on top.

We're skirting dangerously close to 300 theatres now. Finding a new studio that add to my list is really not what I need right now.

No time to think on that now, I'm going back in, ready for the trial of William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, otherwise known as Fanny and Stella.

But, hang on. There's someone crossing the stage. Someone very much not wearing Victorian dress. She's holding a wine glass and shuffling along.

The cast stop to stare at her in wonder.

"She's going through a stage," says Mark Pearce.

The audience groans in response and the woman throws up her arms in a shrugging apology as she heads towards her seat.

"Oy!" he rejoins. "That's the best joke in the whole show."

The pianist pulls a face.

Pearce points a finger at him. "Don't you start!"

It doesn't look like anyone's starting. They've all forgotten their lines.

Tobias Charles' Fanny taps Pearce on the chest. "I know where we are," he says. And after a few false starts, we're back up and running.

And oh, this is bliss. Silly and sordid, with all the sad bits delivered with high kicks and jazz hands, and Kieran Parrott's impossible Stella-pout.

Heaven.

I'm not even mad that I have to come back for that studio space now.

Read More

What's art got to do, got to do with it

There’s just so many characters that I don’t give the tiniest shit about. So many scenes that don’t drive on the action. Infuriating, when there is clearly such a strong three act structure buried under all this nonsense (the rise of Ike and Tina Tina, the fall of Ike and Tina Turner, the rise of Tina Turner without Ike Turner).

Legs stretched, everyone settles back in for an uncomfortable second act.

At least this one is short.

There’s a shiver of anticipation through the audience as Nkeki Obi-Melekwe quotes Tuner's most famous lyric: what’s love got to do with it.

Is it coming? Are we getting the big number?

We are. Thank the theatre gods.

After that, things start to perk up. Big tunes! Big ambition! And even bigger hair! This is what we are all here for.

Over by the far wall, the ushers have all crept in to watch the finale. Either it’s an unmissable show, or something serious is about to kick off in the audience. Either way, I’m excited.

As Obi-Melekwe blazes out some bangers, a few people get to their feet to bop along. But they are spread out thin up here.

It’s a different matter in the stalls.

Front rowers stretch out their hands to Obi-Melekwe, and she obliges them by coming forward to grab them. You can feel the crackle of connection between them. Even from up here.

That’s where the real Tina Turner fans are sitting. They’re having great fun down there.

These are the people who wake up and pour their morning coffee into their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical mug. They'll walk the dog in their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, twenty-five pound glitter t-shirt. They'll stick the kids' drawings on the fridge with their Tina - The Tina Turner Musical magnet.

These are the people who genuinely want to hear more about Tina Turner’s grandmother.

Read More

Because we're Addamses

, if I say the Broadway in Catford, what kind of mental image do you conjure up in that wee head of yours? Some sort of grotty arts centre that hasn't been painted since 1972 perhaps. Or maybe a tower of glass and steel and fingerpaintings. Either way, I'm willing to put money on your not picturing this gothic extravaganza, complete with stone gargoyles and pointy windows, and a grimy slate roof, and a grass-fringed canopy, and, and, and... it's like a theatre built out b-movie off-cuts, and I love it.

Read More

The Curious Case of Currywurst and Cold Chips

A few days ago I was debating whether I would tell you if I ever got stood up. Turns out I absoluetly would, because it's happened. Your gurl has been stood up. Although I'm not sure it counts as a true standing up if you get advance notice. Okay, I got cancelled on. Surely that is bad enough?

Anyway, cue me contacting every single person I have ever met in my entire life to dangle the offer of a free ticket to a new musical in front of them and it is Allison who takes the bait. We haven't had a theatre outing together since Valentine's day, when she ditched her husband to come to the Donmar with me, and I think we can all agree three months is far too long to wait for a second date. But I can't complain. Not when Allison is stepping in the rescue me from embarrassing solitude once more. That's true friendship, that is.

We meet outside the theatre, pop in to pick up our tickets, and then head out for the really important part of the evening: dinner.

"Where do you wanna go?" asks Allison.

I'd suggested Borough Market and leftover cupcakes from my work's bake sale in my tempting messages that afternoon, but the situation has since developed and I have my eye on the Mercato Metropolitano marketplace on the other side of the road.

"Wow, that looks intense," says Allison as we look through the open doors at the long queue getting searched by multiple security guards.

"Let's try the next door," I suggest. In my earlier recognisance walk-by, I'd spotted that the last door seemed to be the most lax on the whole security-thing.

We try the next door, and get our bags checked.

It’s Friday night and the place is packed.

Every chair, table, and possible flat surface, is occupied. But curiously, each of the stalls is utterly devoid of queues.

The two of us walk around, trying to decide what we want to eat.

“Turkish German?” says Allison. “That’s a weird combination.”

“That is a weird combination… but oh, look! They have currywurst! I love currywurst!”

Allison has never had currywurst before, so it becomes my personal mission to educate her on the joys of sausage in curry sauce, and I order to.

“I’ll buy you a drink,” offers Allison as I shove my card in to pay.

“We have drinks vouchers,” I say, pulling them out of my pocket to show her.

“It’s just like a real date,” she laughs.

“I have cupcakes too, remember. I know how to show a girl a good time.”

We’re handed one of those buzzer things, which I immediately pass off to Allison. I can’t be dealing with those things. They make me anxious.

We find somewhere to sit down. Well, Allison finds somewhere to sit down. I balance precariously on a table. And we wait for the black box to beep.

Ten minutes later we’re still waiting.

“I thought this was place was supposed to be fast food,” says Allison.

“Do you think we should go and ask?”

We do. Or rather, Allison does.

“Two minutes,” says the guy in the stall. Behind him we see the cook running around, busily making our currywurst.

Five minutes later, it arrives. On two plates.

“Err, can we have it to go?” I ask, looking around at the complete lack of free tables to sit two large plates on.

After much huffing and puffing, we get the currywurst in a to-go container.

I immediately open mine and tuck in.

“The chips are cold,” I say.

Oh well. We head back to the Southwark Playhouse and set up camp on one of the small tables outside. Perfectly positioned to be able to see what is going on in the bar, and primed to launch ourselves inside when the doors open.

It’s also the best possible set up to show off to Allison my ability to put away vast quantities of food in a very short space of time.

“Oh my…” says Allison, as I use my last chip to mop up a dollop of mustard.

We both look at her dish. it’s still half full.

“Don’t worry, we still have…” I check my phone. “Five whole minutes. No rush.”

But the doors are open and the crowds in the bar are starting to go in.

Allison admits defeat and we head inside. Slowly. Currywurst doesn’t sit lightly on the stomach.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a queue. Or rather, everywhere seems to be part of the queue. Within seconds Allison and I are jostled apart. I reach out my hand to here, hoping to pull her through the crowds, but we’re too far away. I let myself be swept forward towards the doors of the theatre.

It’s press night tonight and the smaller of the Southwark’s Playhouse’s two venues, The Little, is packed.

“Where shall we sit?” I ask Allison as we finally manage to find one another.

There aren’t many options left.

“Shall we try the other side?”

Somehow, the good people of the Southwark Playhouse have managed to fit multiple rows of benches on three sides of a tiny stage in here. We pick out way around the tiny stage until we make it to the other side. There’s some free spots round here. In the front row.

Now, we all know how I feel about the front row, but I think we’ll be safe. We’re here for a musical. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, no less. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of show that will have interaction.

But then, one never knows with theatre. I mean… I’ve told you about the immersive Hamlet, right?

I put on my best “don’t talk to me face,” and settle in.

The cast come out. They’re carrying instruments. They strike up a tune. It’s folksy and earnest. Which, if that description sounds familiar to you, is because I used it to describe the music in The Hired Man. But where the storyline of that musical got lost in the vast space of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, there’s no chance of that in this tiny, intimate space.

Sitting in the front row, with nothing before me but these musicians bouncing around and strumming their tunes, I feel like I’m in some West Country pub, listening to the local band singing about the town’s resident folk hero - forever drowned in legend - the truth of his tale long forgotten.

And because it is a legend, we don’t have to worry about the silly matter of logic. Or even why the American writer’s tale, originally set in Baltimore (yeah, I did my research - I’ve read the Wikipedia page), has been moved to Cornwall.

A large puppet is carried onto the stage. It’s Benjamin. His father gawps and him, and so do we, as we all puzzle the impossibility of such a birth.

No matter. The story moves on and so do we.

“It’s really good!” says Allison as the house lights go up for the interval. She sounds surprised.

“Shall we get a drink?” I say, showing her the drinks vouchers that come as part of the press night experience.

The queue in the bar is intense, but we stick close to each other and soon make it to the front.

“What can we get for these?” Allison asks the lady behind the bar.

“Anything!” comes the joyful reply. “Beer. Wine. Spirits.”

Well! I plump for a Gin and tonic, cos I’m well sophisticated and shit. Allison goes for a beer with a very romantic sounding name that I immediately forget. “It feels right for the show,” she explains. I hadn’t been the only one picking up the pub-vibes then.

A few minutes later, there’s an announcement that it’s time to go back in.

“Can we take our drinks do you think?” I ask, looking with concern at the large quantity of G&T left in my glass. I may be a trougher when it comes to food, but downing a large alcoholic drink in one has never been part of my skill-set.

“Yeah, they just said,” says Allison. I clearly hadn’t been paying attention.

We go back in and settle in our seats, listening to the conversation flowing around us.

“It’s really gooood.”

“It’s amazzzzzing.”

“Well done, darling.”

I love press nights. So much audience enthusiasm as everyone congratulates their friends and themselves.

“Do you want a tissue?” someone in the row behind us asks her friend. “I saw it last night and the second act is a bit of a weeper.”

Oh dear.

I mean: yay. I have a hankering for a show that makes me cry those big snotty tears. But also, I’m wearing a lot of eyeliner today.

Thank god I’m here with Allison. She won’t judge me if I get my face covered with black tears.

The sniffs start quickly. Everywhere around me people are touching their fingers to the corners of their eyes. Soon there are nose wipes taking over as sniffs are no longer affective against this onslaught of emotions.

There’s something in my eye. I blink. That was a mistake. The tears I’d been so carefully holding back start to spill. I press the back of my hand against my cheek, hoping to get rid of them before my makeup melts.

The cast bows.

We stare at them. Clapping because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Our minds still not fully caught up with what’s just happened.

A few people stagger to their feet.

Gradually, more join them.

Allison gets up.

I follow her.

The cast start up again. A few people try to clap along with the beat, but the rest of us are too spent for such a thing. We fall back into our seats, crying happy tears as the performers play on.

The final note fades away. Grinning, the cast disappear. But we don’t stop clapping. Can’t stop clapping. This is it.

The cast aren’t coming back, but we still aren’t stopping.

Minutes later, they return for one final bow and are hands are allowed to still, the business of showing our appreciation now satisfied.

“I counted five people crying during the infirmary scene,” says the woman sitting behind us. “I love that,” as we all gather our belongings together.

Allison and I quietly make our way out. I can’t talk. Tears are still choking my throat.

It wasn’t the infirmary scene though. I mean, if you’re going to go, doing so in the arms of a handsome young man who adores you doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It was what came after that really got me. The diminishment of the self. The shrinking of Benjamin’s mind alongside his body. The memories fading. It comes to us all. Eventually.

As I trudge my way back home, I remember something. I hadn’t given Allison her cupcake. Shit. I had completely forgotten.

I’m a terrible date.

Read More